Thursday, June 30, 2011

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

Timofey Pnin is a Russian immigrant to America, with less than a firm grasp on the English language, who teaches Russian at a small college. The seven chapters of this book could all be self-contained short stories, but taken together they make up a life story of the adventures and misadventures of the hero, who is so brilliantly and lovingly portrayed that I forgot he was a character in a novel and wished he had been one of my professors.

Pnin is an intellectual but not a snob (he invites the college janitor to his party); a loyal lover (he befriends the precocious son of his ex-wife's second husband); an innocent amidst the intrigues and pettiness of academia (he fails even to realize that colleagues are ridiculing him for his poor grasp of Americanism). Always well intentioned and kind, he does the best he can to bungle along in a new environment, always longing for the Russia that once was.

Along with this, Nabokov manages to be very funny about the pitfalls of an immigrant, college politics, and just life in general. His satire is pointed, but gentle, without the bitterness that some satirists carry. And the writing is very poetic and wistful.

I especially loved this bit because I can wholly relate: "His life was a constant war with insensate objects that fell apart, or attacked him, or refused to function, or viciously got themselves lost as soon as they entered the sphere of his existence." Pnin and I have something in common.

Lately I have been reading some of the less well-known novels by writers who are celebrated for one "special" book. Sometimes I find pleasant surprises: I like Steinbeck's 'East of Eden' better than his more well-known 'The Grapes of Wrath.'
Sometimes I find that the less-well-known deserve to be so: nothing else I have read by Joseph Heller ('Catch 22') or F. Scott Fitzgerald ('The Great Gatsby') even approaches the masterwork.

Nabokov's masterwork is 'Lolita,' very creepy but one of the best books I have ever read. 'Pale Fire,' which I recently read, seems deliberately an intellectual exercise, devoid of emotional connection to the reader. 'Pnin,' by contrast, is emotional and, dare I say it, sweet. These three almost seemed to be written by different people, but, I can only assume, represent different facets of Nabokov's talent. And he is talented, no doubt about it. Recommended.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Carson McCullers is proof positive that a writer can produce an important, enduring book without innovative use of language or narrative structure, without waxing especially eloquent in descriptive passages, without sparkling dialogue or an intricate plot. McCullers tells her story simply, with understanding and compassion for the loneliness in all of us.

The pivotal character, around whom all the others circle, is Singer, a deaf mute who can communicate in sign, but who also reads lips and writes notes to communicate with the hearing world. The novel tells the stories of four searchers for meaning and beauty who are drawn to him because he "listens" and seems to be the one person who really understands them. Blount is a wanderer and a hard drinker, passionate about the inequality in America between the rich and the poor, convinced that a revolution must occur but unable to convince anyone to act. Doctor Copeland is a black physician who has spent his life trying to educate his people and convince them to seek equality with the white world, only to find his message falling on "deaf" ears, even in his own family. Mick is a young girl on the cusp of womanhood, who is obsessed with classical music and the desire to achieve something with her life, far away from the struggle against poverty of her family. Biff Brannon is the owner of the cafe where Singer eats, who is searching for love and beauty in his life. As for Singer, he "listens" to his new friends, but he longs for his old friend, Antonapoulos, another deaf mute, who has been sent by his family to a mental hospital. Only to Antonapoulos can Singer communicate his hopes and longings, even though his friend may not even understand what he is signing.

McCullers' writing style is very calm and the action is slow, so that when terrible, violent events happen, they come as a complete surprise (as they do in real life). The reader is "struck speechless."

I suppose this could be viewed as a very depressing book, yet it ends with a hint of hope--not that the characters will achieve their dreams but that they will at least keep trying.

I re-read this book, first read many years ago, after seeing the old movie made from it on TCM last Sunday. I had not thought previous to re-reading about how much this resembles 'Winesburg, Ohio' by Sherwood Anderson, which I recently read for the first time. Surely Anderson must have been an inspiration for McCullers, since his was written many years before hers. But I believe McCullers did a better job.

'The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter' is #17 on the Modern Library Top 100 and is also included in the Time Top 100. Essential reading, for sure.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Blindness by Jose Saramago

What do you suppose would happen if people suddenly started going blind for no discernible reason, and the people with sight were scared to death that the blindness was catching, so they quarantined the stricken ones in an old derelict mental hospital, with guards stationed outside to keep them in? Would order and civility be maintained, or would the situation devolve until it became survival of the most ruthless?

Many other writers have put their characters in similar situations of isolation from society--Golding in 'Lord of the Flies' and McCarthy in 'The Road,' for example. What makes Saramago different is that he writes with great compassion for human beings, with all their faults and frailties. Maybe the difference lies in the fact that he was in his 70s when he wrote this, and by that time an intelligent person must develop compassion and empathy or go mad.

"Blindness' has the flavor of an allegory, with none of the characters named: we have "the doctor," "the doctor's wife," "the girl with dark glasses," "the boy with no mother," "the old man with the black eyepatch," "the dog of tears." But Saramago allows the reader to form his own conclusions as to the meaning, perhaps giving clues but leaving much to think about.

The writing is clear and matter-of-fact, making scenes of horror and degradation even more effective by contrast. The punctuation, however, was a bit disturbing (for me, anyway): Saramago uses commas only, with no semi-colons, no colons, no quotation marks, no paragraphing in conversations, and few periods even. He also shifts between first-person and third-person narration with no transition. But after only a few pages, this works for him, and it even seems to fit perfectly into his pace. (To all former students: only a master can get away with this kind of disregard for correct punctuation!)

Another book by this writer, 'The Cave,' was one of my favorites from last year's reading. I am certain this will be one of my favorites from this year. Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. I wholeheartedly concur with the selection. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

This is a collections of short stories unified by a common thread--they concern immigrants from India who come to America and immigrants and the children of immigrants who return to their homeland. But the stories are really about feeling like a foreigner, even in your own country; about yearning to find acceptance, dignity, and love in a world where you don't feel that you quite fit in. And haven't we all felt that way at one time or another.

Lahiri's writing is smooth and elegant, with some wonderful pieces of description: "...the only thing that appeared three-dimensional about Boori Ma was her voice: brittle with sorrows, as tart as curds, and shrill enough to grate meat from a coconut." She is able to convey the emotional impact of random happenings and brief relationships, as well as the leap of understanding necessary in marriage.

I enjoyed this book very much, and I will read it again, if only to observe and analyze her skill. Since it won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1999, I am obviously not the only one who thinks it is very good.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

Misha Vainberg, a "grossly overweight" and rich Russian Jew, is stranded in St. Petersburg, Russia, wanting nothing more than to return to New York to be with his multicultural true love. But he can't get a renewal of his visa, because his gangster father ("the 1,238th-richest man in Russia") has just murdered a business partner from Oklahoma. He journeys to the fictitious Absurdistan, a former part of the Soviet Union, to get a Belgium passport from a corrupt official, only to end up in the middle of a civil war. (SPOILER ALERT) Naive and generous, Misha is seduced into choosing a side, only to find out that the whole war has been engineered by American companies (Halliburton; Kellogg, Root, and Brown), along with the leaders of both sides of the conflict, in an effort to invite an American military presence with attendant Department of Defense money. Things just got out of hand!

I don't know why I didn't like this book more; Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story was one of my 10 Best from last year. The author is satiric and spot-on funny about everything mentioned in the novel, whether it be the sad state of the former Soviet Union, the pretensions of American ultra-liberal arts colleges, American consumerism and the hip-hop culture, or the exploitations by American companies of third-world countries. And he throws in a love story.

First, maybe I don't know enough about the former parts of the Soviet Union to fully appreciate its current situation, and thus truly understand some of the satire. But mainly, I think, the love story (which seems tacked-on) was, to me, totally unbelievable and emotionless. Even Misha did not seem real. One of the quotes on the back compared Shteyngart to Jonathan Swift, and that would seem to me to be accurate. Gulliver was just a literary device to introduce new subjects for Swift to satirize, and that seems to be Misha's role, as well.

My assessment-- this novel was almost all the back of the book promised it to be: "freakishly intelligent, verbally giddy"; "inventive, biting, and comically absurd"; "a Monster Truck Rally of a satire." And yet, to me, it came off flat. The whole thing seemed an intellectual exercise (done very well) without a soul.

Reviews on the back of the book also compared the author to Joseph Heller, and I have to say, I have read Catch 22, and this ain't it.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

You have probably heard a book described as one "you couldn't put down." Mostly that just means that the reader did not want to put it down because it was so good, not that he actually didn't put it down. Well, this is a book that I literally did not put down. I started while eating my breakfast and didn't stop until I had finished it. Of course, it is only 114 pages long. But still.

This is a noir story in the tradition of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but it is written from the viewpoint of the amoral murderer, rather than from the viewpoint of the detective. The narrator is a young drifter, who becomes romantically involved with a sullenly sexy young wife who is physically repulsed by her older Greek husband. The situation seems to the two lovers to have only one solution, but it takes them two tries to accomplish their bloody goal. And that is only the beginning of the story.

This is a really creepy book--the only thing I can think to compare it to is the Ripley books by Patricia Highsmith, also about an amoral murderer. And it is absolutely riveting. I can't figure how Cain did this, writing about such despicable characters. While I was reading, the characters seemed absolutely alive to me. I completely surrendered myself to this book.

I know that a respected movie was made from this book, but I have not seen it. I will see if Netflix has it.

Dashiell Hammett said about this book, "A good, swift, violent story." (This was on the back of the copy I bought.) This is #98 on the Modern Library Top 100.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

First, this is not the book I expected from reading the back of the cover--I expected a psychological study of Nostromo, a trusted character who steals a boat load of silver from a mine owner. I thought the novel would be like Conrad's Lord Jim, an explanation of one man's seemingly inexplicable behavior. Conrad included that, but as only a small part of this complex novel.

Second, I must admit that I know I have not fully understood all the many levels included here. As with all of Conrad, this book could be read many times with new discoveries in each reading.

The story take place in the fictitious South or Central American country of Costaguana, with a revolution spreading from the north of the country. Isolated from the rest of the country by mountains, the region is currently prosperous due to a silver mine. Faced with the prospect of a revolutionary take-over, the owner of the mine is prepared to blow up the entire enterprise, but entrusts the silver already in ingots with a trusted worker from the port.

On the psychological level, Conrad gives us an understanding of many characters:
Nostromo, a stranger to the country of Costaguana, who has become the most trusted of employees of the shipping company and subsequently of the ruling families, seemingly incorruptible and able to accomplish the most difficult of tasks;
Charles Gould, the owner of the silver mine, who begins his work with moral goals but who becomes consumed with materialistic goals;
Mrs. Gould, the altruistic wife, who wholeheartedly joins her husband in the mining endeavor, only to find that she has lost him to his new goals;
Doctor Monygham, the brilliant doctor, who has lost faith in himself but is redeemed by his silent love for Mrs. Gould;
Martin Decoud, the eternal skeptic and cynic, who joins a counter-revolution for the love of an idealistic girl;
and many more.

On another level, this is a very political novel, with Conrad explicating the conditions leading to civil unrest in Central and South America, and, indeed, applicable to today's North America. It's all about the money, folks.

On another level, each character is symbolic of a specific human characteristic, such as materialism, altruism, idealism, skepticism, pragmatism, and so forth.

And then there's the plot, which is extraordinarily interesting. And then you have the heartbreaking love stories.

I had only one complaint: the very last part of the novel grew rushed, as though Conrad had the plot all lined up but got tired of writing. The way he handled the exposition was very clever, though.

I would put this novel in the Top Ten Best of my reading career. It was #47 on the Modern Library's Top 100. I will read this one again, and again.

I may even have missed a level on which the novel can be read.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

I realize now that it's not a good idea to read two of Vonnegut's books close together--I read Jailbird a few weeks ago, and find that this one was consequently not nearly as amusing or thought provoking, mainly because he was satiric about mostly the same things. I first read this years ago and remembered it as a much better book.

The plot is almost nonexistent. Dwayne Hoover, owner of a Pontiac dealership, is going crazy. Kilgore Trout, a science fiction writer, is on his way to Dwayne's hometown to participate in an arts festival. Trout arrives. Dwayne goes crazy.

I did come upon something interesting: one explanation of why Vonnegut writes the way he does. After discussing a writer who "had joined hands with other old-fashioned storytellers to make people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end," he says, "Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done."

That explains a lot.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Dubliners by James Joyce

I have not read any James Joyce since I was in college, when I spent the WHOLE SUMMER reading Ulysses. Of course, I had a life back then, with classes and dates and so forth, but still. I was determined to finish it, just so that I could say that I had read it all, because I didn't know anyone who had READ IT ALL. So I read every word on every page, and about half the time I actually knew what was going on. Or maybe only a third of the time. I found that if I just let my mind kind of enter a dream state, it all went much better and sometimes the writing could become quite hypnotizing, even if I didn't know exactly who was talking or what was happening. So I didn't read any more James Joyce after that.

Over the years, I have read here and there that The Dubliners is Joyce's most "accessible" book, meaning that normal people can read and actually enjoy it. So I decided to try Joyce again.

I was pleasantly surprised. The 15 short stories that comprise the book are very readable and very good, each one just a slice from the life of a character, during which he or she reaches a moment of self-discovery or else the reader reaches a discovery about the character which the character himself fails to realize. They are written in a very naturalistic style, with short sentences and realistic conversation. "The Dead" is the longest story and the best.

Throughout the book, we meet men who are longing for the past of Ireland and failing to meet the present of that long-troubled country, men who drink to excess to mourn their failures and to celebrate their paltry victories, long-suffering women who put up with all kinds of verbal and physical abuse, a Church that often makes the situation of the common people even worse than it already is. It is sometimes humorous, but in a very mocking way. This book makes Ireland in the early 1900s sound like the most depressing place on earth. Maybe it was; Joyce evidently thought so, because he left.

About ten years ago I worked with a girl from Dublin, and I once asked her why she left to come to America. She said, "Everyone in Dublin would like to leave." But she missed it and talked about it all the time. This is the kind of hate-love relationship that I imagine Joyce had with his country.