Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Littell’

On long novels

July 7, 2019

81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_.jpg  I’ve finally made the plunge and picked up this doorstop of a Russian novel, the prequel to Life and Fate, which I’ve often raved about, and I’ve found myself thinking about long novels.

Russian literature immediately springs to mind: Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Kerenina. And most of Dostoyevsky’s novels, too. In the twentieth century there is Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy, each book of which is a weighty tome, the already mentioned Vassily Grossman, and some of Solzhenitsyn’s works are pretty hefty too. What is it about Russians and their novels: is it something as simple as the long, cold and dark winters meaning there was plenty of time for reading, or is it the inward-looking Russian soul? The vastness of the country being reflected in the length of its fiction? All of these seem incredibly trite and simplistic notions.

Dickens wrote by the yard in nineteenth century England, but I can’t be doing with him, so will refrain from any comment. But there are lengthy novels which I have read and enjoyed, such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch, and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. The latter is a hearty picaresque romp, not exactly structured or realistic, but Eliot’s novel does succeed in portraying a vast cross-section of English society in the 1820s and 1830s in a fairly realistic and representative manner, combining fascinating characters with a breadth of social detail and comment; it wouldn’t have worked as a shorter book.

Anthony Powell attempts a sweeping canvas of a certain slice of British society in the early and mid-twentieth century in his twelve-volume series A Dance to the Music of Time, and I have promised myself I will return to this, although I suspect it may be a rerun of the TV adaptation instead…

And then there is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I would like to go back to again. It’s hard work, and worthwhile, taking so much space to cover only a single day in the life of his characters, and presenting a kaleidoscope of different settings in a wide variety of different literary styles and forms.

When I turn my gaze to Europe, I’m aware of fewer long novels. There was Ernst Wiechert’s The Jeromin Children, a family epic covering several decades of life in former East Prussia. I have a copy of Manzoni’s The Betrothed awaiting eyeball time. And Jonathan Littell’s astonishing The Kindly Ones (English title of Les Bienveillantes, a novel that the American writer originally wrote in French, which is a remarkable achievement in itself, also awaits a re-visit.

In American literature, I suppose there’s obviously Moby Dick, which I had to read at university but which I’ve never been able to convince myself to open again, and more recently many of the novels of Thomas Pynchon, which again I have resisted re-reading, although I have enjoyed some of them immensely.

Long novels have the intention of portraying a wide panorama of a society, often over a lengthy period of time, in an attempt to capture the deeper essence of a country or an era; a writer needs all those pages to do justice to her/his subject matter, to draw in the reader and immerse them in a different world. Almost invariably the effort is rewarding, but at the same time it is quite daunting: you need to feel that you have the time to commit to get to the end, otherwise what will be the point? You have to wrestle with a huge number of characters: editors of Russian novels are often helpful in providing the reader with an index of the characters and their relationships with each other, along with all the possible variants on their names. Plot can fade into the background a little, and if story is what grabs you, well you may be disappointed. But I’ll mention here a revelation: The Cairo Trilogy, by Nobel prizewinner Naguib Mahfouz: yes, technically it’s three (500 page) novels rather than a single one, but after I’d got to the end, having been blown away by the world he depicted, I came away with a much clearer picture of Arab and Muslim society, how the people lived and what they believed, their hopes and fears, than I had ever imagined I would gain. That doorstop was worth every page, and I do hope to have time for another re-read…

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Philip K Dick: The Man in the High Castle

December 22, 2018

512pFI-ABRL._AC_US218_I’ve had the TV series sitting unwatched on my hard drive for a couple of years now: obviously I’m a bit suspicious of elephantine television series expanded from a single good novel (so I haven’t been watching The Handmaid’s Tale either). This novel is probably Dick’s masterpiece, I think after this re-read (number five, apparently)…

It’s a serious step up from what he produced before. In this world where the Axis powers won the Second World War and divided up a defeated United States between them, Dick succeeds from the start in a Brechtian alienation effect as, through the way characters use the language he creates a completely different world, portraying the deference the Americans show to their new Japanese overlords in many ways, as well as the omni-present use of the I Ching to make decisions.

The alternative history genre is now well-established: in 1962 it was quite new, and Dick certainly hadn’t played with it before. The historical details he invents to create his world are sketchy yet convincing in more than just broad-brush strokes: the Germans have a space programme, and the Japanese are bogged down militarily in South America, and there is evident tension between the two superpowers at many levels. Cold War is still cold war.

New, too, is Dick’s creation and development of much more complex characters, far beyond the SF of his time, and of his own earlier work. There is a new racial pecking-order evident, and expected behaviours still exist, just different from those we knew about in the 1960s; slavery has returned to the US. Dick makes a real effort to understand the world view of both the Nazis and the Japanese and how it might operate if they had been militarily successful: I was reminded of the powerful insights into Nazi character explored by Jonathan Littell in his astonishing novel The Kindly Ones. The victors always write history, so of course it’s the Allies who were guilty of numerous atrocities in their attempts to win the war.

With Dick, one should always expect something extra, and he doesn’t disappoint: within his alternative universe, there is a novel – The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – which imagines another counterfactual, a world in which the Axis powers lost the war, banned by the Germans, but circulating semi-legally. Here is a novel operating on so many different and sophisticated levels, that I cannot see why it hasn’t achieved higher status, other than the damning SF label, of course. And this nested alternative history where the Allies win the war is not the history we are all familiar with, but another version still… There is serious social and psychological analysis of fascism and nazism, and of the old British and American empires embedded in the text of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in a way which reminded me of Goldstein’s book within Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four.

Dick is at his most interesting in his presentation of the gracefulness and the courtesy of the Japanese, as well as their inscrutability, compared with the gaucheness of their American inferiors who struggle to interpret the nature of communication with their conquerors, and in the detailed use of the I Ching as predictive and interpretive of human actions and choices. Complex moral choices are developed sensitively and fully explored as the novel moves towards a strangely open conclusion, enigmatic in true Dickian fashion in one track, and reminiscent of Kurtz’ ‘The horror! The horror!’ moment in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in the other.

This book is magnificent, and deserves much greater recognition.

On vicarious experience

April 11, 2017

When my father used to get infuriated by my referring to books I’d read when I was arguing with him, he would point out that you can’t learn everything from books, and nor can you believe everything you read in books. What he was referring to was the importance and the value of lived experience, and the lessons that you learned from it, and I belatedly have to admit that he was right. His outlook on life was irrevocably shaped by very harsh experiences in his younger years, and yet, at the same time, he sowed the seeds in me at a very early age of the desire to study and learn, and to go off to university eventually: he very much wanted me to have the education he’d never been allowed to have.

And recently I came across a quotation which I know I’d have thrown back at my father in those younger days, had I known it then – the idea that if you don’t read, you only live one life, but if you are a reader, then you live thousands of lives. Yes, I know that’s vicariously, but it’s still a very powerful notion. Of course, I’ve forgotten where I came across the quotation and who said it…

This got me thinking. Of course, there are history and geography books, and films, television and documentaries that can teach us about other times and other places, but they are not the same as living through a character in a novel set in another country or century, where you can get inside the mind, thoughts and feelings of a person – admittedly fictional, but carefully and consciously created to be convincing – and the point is that, until time travel is invented, that’s the closest any of us is going to get to living in another age. Yes, we could move to another country rather more easily, but would we want to, and could we experience and understand life as, for instance, a Russian, having been born and brought up as English? A skilful writer can take us as close as it’s possible to get to that experience; perhaps we might enhance it with a visit to that country.

Then, of course, we might think about emotional experiences: how many different kinds of love, relationships and affairs, happy and tragic, have we encountered? And do we, can we learn anything from reading about such things, does our reading make us any the wiser in terms of managing our own lives? Can I, as a man, really learn and understand anything about the life and experience of being a woman, from reading? I’d argue that I can and have, even though it is inevitably rather limited, and obviously cannot be the real thing. Does reading about madness help us know or understand anything about different mental states?

A few years ago I calculated that I’d probably read upwards of three thousand books so far; that seemed both rather a lot and not very many. Where have I lived, and when? Some books that I feel have given me some profound insights: what day-to-day life in Nazi Germany was like: Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin; living in the time of Stalin’s purges: Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy; a utopia I think I’d quite like to live in: Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed; some understanding of life in a totally different culture: Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy; an insight into the mind of a committed Nazi intellectual: Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones; what if the Soviet Union had succeeded: Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda; an insight into the meaning and power of patriotism and loyalty: Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb and The Radetzky March; a vivid impression of the Deep South: Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman…

I could find more examples with a bit more searching, I’m sure, and there will surely be people who can tell me, “But it was nothing like that!” But I maintain that literature – reading – has broadened my horizons immensely, and given me insights into people, places and times I would otherwise never have begun to understand.

Crazy literature for crazy times…

January 17, 2017

The craziness, rank insanity even, that seems to have gripped Britain and the US over the past months has shocked me deeply; it’s also recently set me scanning my bookshelves looking for the literature of strangeness, madness and insanity: and there’s plenty of it.

Let’s start with two novels whose narrators are both involuntarily interned in some kind of mental hospital, from which they tell their stories and communicate their opinions: Gunter GrassThe Tin Drum, obviously, and Siegfried LenzThe German Lesson. Grass particularly, in all his work, was keen for Germany to come to terms with its horrendous history; the European project, flawed though it is, has been part of ensuring peaceful co-existence in our continent for several generations.

Two novels that present us with a world where insanity has taken over: the second volume of Anatoly Rybakov’s stunning Arbat trilogy, Fear, shows us the lives of a group of Muscovite students during the time of Stalin’s purges and show-trials, a world in which nothing makes sense and there is no way to save yourself if you have been randomly marked out for doom. Similarly, Jonathan Littell’s award-winning The Kindly Ones takes us inside the mind of a German intellectual who is one of those engaged in planning and carrying out the extermination of the Jews: we see how his work ‘makes sense’ to him inside his own Nazi bubble, and it’s the stuff of nightmares. Because these are both based on actual events, somehow Kafka’s The Trial pales a little alongside them, even though the inescapability of K’s situation is what really terrifies. But again, the Albanian Ismail Kadare’s novel The Palace of Dreams with its similar trope, is again rooted in reality, and gains more power from this.

It’s not only twentieth century writers who confront us with madness: Lear’s Fool has the licence to say anything, and tells the truth to power, and in the end dies for it; in Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, there is business to be done and profit to be made from the selling of dead souls – non-existent serfs – in tsarist times. In Alamut, by Vladimir Bartol, a twentieth century writer who sets his tale back in mediaeval times, we are with the sect of the assassins, apparently so in the thrall of hashish that they are prepared to sacrifice their lives committing deeds ordered by their master, because the mythical heaven with its freely available virgins awaits them.51agnyropzl-_ac_us174_

Ben Marcus, an American writer, approaches strangeness from another angle, removing the usual and commonly accepted sense and meaning from words and imbuing them with different ones, torturing our minds and creating a semi-hallucinatory effect in his narratives: The Age of Wire and String is a truly weird read, which you cannot take too much of at once… when even the language does not behave in the ways you expect, then we really are lost.

Perhaps the most horrific novel I can mention is by the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago: Blindness. I believe it has been filmed and I’m not about to watch it. Gradually all the inhabitants of a city inexplicably go blind, and a world of chaos, violence, cruelty and insanity descends as people’s basest instincts are freed: it’s a kind of Lord of the Flies with grownups, on a grander scale. I persevered with it; it’s a very powerful read and one I’m not sure I will have the guts to go back to. In a final twist in the tale, it transpire the collective loss of sight is not permanent… 51a30yp20gl-_ac_us174_

Somehow, though, the most relevant text seems to me to be Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. Here is a novel in which truth has no meaning: it’s not Pontius Pilate’s bland question ‘What is truth?’ but the malleability of any fact, idea or notion to serve the needs of those in power: now where have we met that recently? Winston Smith sits in his cubicle at his speakwrite making the news say whatever he is ordered to make it say, and removing all evidence of changes. How do we, can we, check the veracity of what we are told? Winston’s personal madness is that he sees the contradictions, remembers what was and it does him no good, just as it did no good telling voters that a certain candidate was a serial abuser of women, a narcissist and an inveterate liar… in such a world, O’Brien is right, Winston is the insane one. I find myself hoping that truth is not stranger than fiction… 51og8uqrofl-_ac_us174_

Laurent Binet: HHhH

May 8, 2013

41E5-NIvklL._AA160_I’m really not sure what to make of this novel – or indeed if I even class it as a novel, in spite of what it says on the cover. I’m not sure whether it deserves the award it was given, or just the ramblings of someone who is very up himself. And it was a good read…

Where to start?

It’s about the assassination of Heydrich, by the Czech resistance, in 1942, the background and the consequences. So, at some level it’s historical. And the author repeatedly underlines his research for factual accuracy. It’s very detailed: you would say the couleur locale is very well executed. But it’s also about the author’s fascination with the personality of Heydrich, the events and the personalities, and his own life and decisions keep intruding. This slows down the pace, introduces some reflectiveness, and also develops some suspense and tension. But I kept on thinking, do I want to know about his love life and relationships with Czech women – why is he inserting all this extraneous matter? At that level it becomes as much a book about him, his quest and his fascination. Fair enough, but it was also frequently irritating.

How to deal in a new way with old material that has been used and re-used many times already? Well, I suppose this is one of them, and he did keep me reading. But there was constantly this ‘look at me, I’m doing something so new and wonderful’, along with the putting down of others who’d tackled the same or similar material. To dismiss a novel like Littell’s Les Bienveillantes in a line was witty but gratuitous.

Then I thought, well, okay, I’m of a generation that knows quite a lot about the Second World War and Nazism, and there are other people who don’t, younger generations who need to be informed, and this is a way of communicating the insanity and horrors of the time with them. It’s a history book without being a history textbook, as it were.

In the end, I’m glad I read it, and it kept me engaged. But I’m not sure whether it would bear a second reading, without seeming unbearably precious. Ask me in ten years.

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