Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar BThe Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B by J.P. Donleavy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"'Yes sir, I know that my redeemer liveth. I know it.'"

One of the most unforgettable books I have read in my life! J.P. Donleavy's The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B (1968) combines breathtaking prose, lyricism, and biting humor with sobering reflections on the human condition. It also has the potential to offend many readers on many levels. Descriptions of pre-adolescent sexuality, numerous risqué scenes, and taboo topics make the novel perfect fuel for barbecues in fundamentalist communities. There have been documented cases of Slaughterhouse-Five burnings in this Land of Freedom of ours; Mr. Donleavy's work is a way more deserving book-burning material but - fortunately - not many people have heard about this wonderful novel.

In the grim days of Internet-generated uniformity of opinions, intimidation by political correctness, "safe zones" on campuses and the like, I found this novel a refreshing deviation from the safe-to-read-for-everybody, lukewarm, agreeable pap that dominates the so-called culture these days. We need more rather than less of controversial art to prevent the inbreeding of popular ideas - ideas that most everybody likes.

The novel recounts the first twenty-something years of Balthazar B's life beginning with his early childhood in Paris when he was raised by nannies in a very rich family. His father had died in the boy's early years and the mother was mainly focused on preserving the vestiges of youth. The boy attends exclusive public schools in England and the famous Trinity College in Dublin, and faces the tribulations of the early adulthood. Ostensibly the author focuses on the romantic and sexual aspects of Balthazar B's life: a boy's coming-of-age usual stuff - masturbation, school pranks, pubic lice, first love - but a discerning reader will notice that underneath the titillating facade of the novel the author tackles more important life issues.

The novel is exceptionally rich in humor in its entire range: subtle and understated funny phrases, sentences, and passages are intermixed with laugh-out-loud fragments. From the childhood memory of the Enema Anglaise, through the utterly hilarious scenes of public school housemaster excoriating smuttiness ("concerning things between the legs") and combating boys' masturbation, the live demonstration of dangers of pubic lice for medical students at the Sorbonne, to one of the funniest scenes I have ever read - the neighborhood vigilantes interrupting a carnal coupling:
"'Sir, gurgling and groaning and some cries have been heard out in the garden.'"
Yet underneath all this ribald humor there is so much understanding of human foibles, so much compassion that there is no doubt whatsoever about the author's intentions.

The portrayal of Balthazar B is subtle, nuanced, and realistic. A child, a boy, and a young man in search of love. "While others are cunning and deceitful," Balthazar "remains always [...] kind." B's best friend is Beefy, also an unforgettable, vivid character, always in search of "pleasurings." For reasons of public decency I can quote only one of the many beatitudes coined by Beefy:
"Remember, blessed are they who are willing victims of the whip for they will scream to high heaven."
It may seem that the novel is light-hearted and fun all around. Absolutely not! It is full of lyricism, melancholy, and even sadness. Miss Fitzdare thread is bittersweet and makes an old man want to cry. And I have left the best thing for last: the extraordinarily accomplished prose. When I read books I mostly care about the beauty of the prose and the author's mastery of the literary craft. This is what makes me round my rating up to the rare maximum, reserved only for masterpieces.

Four and a half stars.

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Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Killer Inside MeThe Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Krafft-Ebing, Jung, Freud, Bleuler, Adolf Meyer, Kretschmer, Kraepelin [...] I took down a bound volume of one of the German periodicals and read a while. I put it back and took down one in French. I skimmed through an article in Spanish and another in Italian."

The Killer Inside Me (1952) is my third classic early noir novel by Jim Thompson, after Pop. 1280 and The Getaway . It has been fun to read a novel almost exactly as old as I am and not finding it awfully dated. Alas, that's one of the very few good things I can say about the novel. Yet, according to the blurb on the cover, Stanley Kubrick wrote
"Probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered."
I completely disagree but then who would you tend to believe more, Mr. Kubrick or me?

Lou Ford is a sheriff's deputy in an oil-boom town in West Texas. Already before the tenth page of the story the reader encounters sinister tones: Deputy Ford is afraid that his sickness might come back, and it is clear that he is not talking about flu. The sickness seems to run in his family: for instance, his brother had been convicted of having sex with a little girl. The deputy is asked to deal with a town woman who sells her bodily charms to men. Well, he beats her up and, obviously, they began an affair: we all know that nothing attracts a woman to a man better than getting solidly beaten by him.

Other than dealing with women - he is also a target of another lady's romantic interest - Deputy Ford has another mission. He wants to punish the powerful owner of a construction company on whose building site Ford's brother died in an accident after release from prison. Note that I am nor giving any spoilers as all those threads are mentioned at the beginning of the novel.

About one-fifth into the book the reader will encounter the first of brutal and graphic scenes of murder and the plot embarks on its twisty and very gruesome path. The problem is that I have been unable to find the portrayal of Deputy Ford believable. For instance, we are told that he reads medical journals in German, French, Italian, and Spanish and that he solves calculus problems for fun. Maybe solving calculus problems for entertainment signifies criminally warped mind? Particularly when compounded with reading medical papers in five languages.

Seriously, there are some memorable passages in the novel, like the rant about how horribly messed up our world is (messed up by us, of course) and there are chilling undertones showing how corruption is the most natural way the world has always worked and will always work. But in my view one thing that novel is certainly not - a believable portrait of a sociopath. Unless Mr. Kubrick is right.

Two stars.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Three Men in a Boat (Three Men, #1)Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Then Night, like some great loving mother, gently lays her hand upon our fevered head, and turns our little tear-stained face up to hers, and smiles, and, though she does not speak, we know what she would say, and lay our hot flushed cheek against her bosom, and the pain is gone."

I had first read Jerome K. Jerome's classic Three Men in a Boat (1889) in the mid-1960s when, as I seem to remember, it was a recommended book in my Advanced English class in my Warsaw high school. During the intervening 50-plus years I have managed to forget what a fun and delightful read it is. I have just been re-reading the novel on the San Diego trolley during my daily commute and again my fellow passengers tended to move away from me as I was giggling and LOL'ing.

Since most everybody knows what the book is about detailed synopsis is not needed. The narrator, known only as J., and his two friends, George and Harris, accompanied by Montmorency, a fierce fox-terrier, set out on a two-week boating trip up the Thames, from Kingston to Oxford and back. The account of this trip is interspersed with interesting asides about the history of the Thames region.

Many passages from the novel now belong to the canon of world literary humor. The story about Uncle Podger attempting to hang a picture on the wall, the tale of Harris guiding a group of people through the maze at Hampton Court, or the piece about weather forecasts are unconditionally hilarious: I do not believe anyone can read them with straight face. The humor is subtle, tactful yet it targets some of deepest human foibles and weaknesses. The readers who are acquainted with the unforgettable British TV show Fawlty Towers will recognize the type of humor.

Yet there is no shortage of delightfully silly humor either as in the passage about a dog floating down the Thames:
"It was one of the quietest and peacefullest dogs I have ever seen. [...] It was floating dreamily on its back, with its four legs stuck up straight into the air. It was what I should call a full-bodied dog, with a well-developed chest.
As I was falling asleep last night I suddenly remembered the dog's "well-developed chest" and could not stop laughing and I had to turn the light on and re-read the passage a few times to tame the severe case of giggles. In a stroke of literary genius the author juxtaposes the extremely funny bits with exaggeratedly lyrical passages about the river, moon, and nature in general. The poetry of prose produces a hilarious effect as well.

And finally the most spectacular feature of the book: its timelessness. I am a somewhat ancient person and the book was published a few years before my grandmother was born, almost 130 years ago. Yet it does not feel dated at all. With cosmetic changes in text here and there the novel would be indistinguishable from something written and published in 2018. I find this truly amazing and am so happy that I decided for a re-read over half a century later.

Four stars.

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Friday, June 8, 2018

From Russia With Love (James Bond, #5)From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

""'You are very handsome,' she said. She searched for a comparison that would give him pleasure. 'You are like an American film star.'
She was startled by his reaction. 'For God's sake! That's the worst insult you can pay a man!'

Indeed. Bond, who quite cares about his image, certainly wouldn't be thrilled when compared to, say, Leonardo DiCaprio. From Russia, with Love (1957) is the fifth installment in Ian Fleming's Bond series. In Author's Note Mr. Fleming ensures the reader about the accuracy of the background to the novel, and in particular about the authenticity of the SMERSH ("Death to Spies") organization in Russia. Well, we now know better. Nevertheless, the author offers quite an interesting story that happens in mid-1950s, a tense period during the Cold War.

The reader first meets the chief executioner for SMERSH, a man who is on a fast career path because of severe shortage of executioners when there are so many millions of people in the Soviet Union that urgently need killing. We also meet the formidable and monstrous Rosa Klebb, the head of Department II, whose favorite pastime is partaking in torture of prisoners and closely watching their faces:
"[...] she would watch the eyes in the face a few inches away from hers and breathe in the screams as if they were perfume."
Colonel Klebb authorizes an elaborate plan to kill Bond ("Shems Bond") with the use of Tatiana Romanova, an extremely beautiful clerical employee of SMERSH. And then, of course, we have Bond himself, much more human than in the movies, regardless of who played him on film.

I have also enjoyed the vividly painted character of Darko Kerim, perhaps the most interesting person in the novel, a man who wants to have "This Man Died from Living Too Much" on his tombstone. But then, the introduction of Kerim to the plot leads to two completely gratuitous scenes - fight to death between two Gypsy women and then the attack of the Bulgars - that markedly cheapen the overall stylish tone of the novel.

The reader may enjoy the extended plot sequence that happens on the Orient Express and a delightful and cinematic passage of one of the bad guys coming to his well-deserved death through Marilyn Monroe's lips (yes, through her lips). I quite like the ending, a little ambiguous and somewhat surprising. Readers with some knowledge of Russian will appreciate cool puns on names: Rosa Klebb and Mr. Nash. I also had to smile when I was reading Mr. Fleming's footnote in which he refers to his correct prediction of twists the Burgess and Maclean cases.

Overall, From Russia is quite a nice read. Yes, it is very dated (almost as old as this reviewer), but if one were to delete the idiotic Gypsy and Bulgar scenes, it would be a solid three-star old-style thriller. I will read some more Fleming.


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Monday, June 4, 2018

Enduring LoveEnduring Love by Ian McEwan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"We were running toward a catastrophe, which itself was a kind of furnace in whose heat identities and fates would buckle into new shapes."

Another outstanding novel from Ian McEwan. I have recently reviewed here The Child in Time and the near-masterpiece On Chesil Beach. I like Enduring Love (1997) more than the former but less than the latter. Anyway, I had a great time with the novel - it is a truly compulsive read. In addition to all the wisdom it packs it is also a great suspense story, one of the best suspense novels I have ever read.

Joe Rose, a Ph.D. in quantum physics working as a successful science writer and journalist, is having a picnic in the Chilterns with his common-law wife, Clarissa. Also a Ph.D., she is a literary scholar specializing in the poetry of Keats. Joe and Clarissa have been "seven years into a childless marriage of love," a very strong, enduring relationship. During the picnic they witness a dramatic ballooning accident and Joe rushes to help. The accident changes his and many other people's lives forever.

The totally riveting chapter One is a true masterpiece of prose. I read these 16 virtuoso pages three times to savor all the delicious literary details and the sharp observations of psychology. The first moments of the accident are portrayed in a sort of slow motion, from differing perspectives, and in a post-modern fashion: the narrator writes
"I'm holding back, delaying the information. I'm lingering in the prior moment because it was a time when other outcomes were still possible; [...]"
The narration slows down even more in Two when the first rescuers reach the scene of the accident. It is here that the main thread of the plot is set up: the thread that focuses on the other enduring love. It is also here that the author begins to masterfully tease the readers and play with their emotions. If one needs a literary work of art to convey a message Mr. McEwan offers a clear one: no one ever knows what exactly has happened and what exactly is going on.

We have clever allusions to juxtaposition of rationalist approach to life with life's utter randomness. We have an implicit discussion about the relationship between science (evolution theory) and literature (Keats). We even have an Appendix where the author quotes a fictitious research paper from The British Review of Psychiatry about the de Clerambault's syndrome that manifests itself in "erotic delusions." And we have another extraordinary passage of prose describing Joe's behavior when he - self-deludingly - retrieves the stapler from Clarissa's office. All this is totally wonderful and a five-star rating for the novel was clearly on the horizon.

Alas, we also have the restaurant scene, which - although it indeed it provides a sort of dramaturgical climax to the plot - cheapens the story, in my jaded view, and is just 'too much of a good thing.' Neither am I particularly impressed by the somewhat crude attempt by the author to tease the reader with the words 'curtain' and 'signal' later in the novel. The gun buying scene is absolutely hilarious, particularly the bit about Steve's giggle-inducing moustache, but it really feels spurious in the novel. But, to me, the author's greatest sin is the fourth-from-the-end sentence in the Appendix; I am not a fan of obsequiously reader-friendly gestures.

Despite all my - quite likely exaggerated - criticisms Enduring Love is a fantastic read, a well-written jewel, and I enthusiastically recommend this suspenseful yet deep and mature novel. And as the icing on the tasty cake here is another wonderful quote (incomplete for obvious reasons, insert a smiley here):
"[...] for seconds on end I had wholesomely and simultaneously indulged two of life's central, antithetical pleasures, reading and [...]"
Four-and-a-quarter stars.

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Murder of QualityA Murder of Quality by John le Carré

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"Nobody seems to understand you can't build society overnight. It takes centuries to make a gentleman."

A Murder of Quality (1962), the second novel by John le Carré, was written before his Cold-War spy books that brought him wide international acclaim. And although George Smiley is a protagonist in Murder, it is not a spy story but rather a traditional British murder mystery, a quality murder mystery, to use a lame pun on the title.

The plot revolves around Carne School, a well-known public school (note that in UK "public school" means "exclusive private school"), founded almost 500 years ago by monks and endowed by king Edward VI. One of the school housemasters is celebrating his 30 years at the institution and we are introduced to the dramatis personae - masters and tutors at Carne and their wives. Meanwhile, in London, a Miss Brimley, the editor of a Christian newsletter, receives a letter from Mrs. Rode, wife of one of the Carne masters. Mrs. Rode comes from the family of long-time newsletter subscribers. She asks Miss Brimley to come immediately to Carne as she is convinced her husband is trying to kill her. Miss Brimley, in turn, asks George Smiley, with whom she worked during the war, to go to Carne and help Mrs. Rode. Well, Mr. Smiley arrives too late for help, but not too late to solve the murder with the assistance of the local police inspector Rigby.

There are many clever twists and turns in the plot, a boon for readers who like these devices. The phrase "long nights" appears quite a few times, suggesting a clue. A local transient woman claims she had seen a devil "flying on the wind, his silver wings stretched out behind him." Charity clothing collection for Hungarian refugees is cleverly woven into the plot. I cannot reveal the nature of another strong undercurrent and motif as it would provide a spoiler, but it is masterfully handled by the author.

I have to admit it would be hard to get entranced by the dynamics of plot, which is not a major problem because - in my view - the novel is really about the British class society and its peculiarities as reflected in the education system. Mr. le Carré's writing is first class, on par with the best classical British mysteries. It's hard not to like erudite sentences like
"'The moment of truth in a good meal! Übergangsperiode between entremets and dessert,'[...]"
Characterization of George Smiley is also top-notch and I recognize in him exactly the same personality as in the later books. Yet to me, the novel does not rise to the excellence of The Spy Who Came from the Cold, Smiley's People, or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. However one nice effect of reading A Murder of Quality is that now more than ever I want to re-read those later novels.

Three stars.

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Monday, May 28, 2018

And So it Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A LifeAnd So it Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

""Humanists [...] try to behave decently and honorably without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife."
(From Kurt Vonnegut's address to the American Humanist Association on the occasion of being awarded Humanist of the Year, Portland, Oregon, 1992.)

Over a half a year ago I reviewed here John Tomedi's book Kurt Vonnegut , which did not exactly read like a biography but rather like a collection of serious, almost research-depth essays about the Vonnegut opus. Charles Shields' And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life (2011) is a biography proper, and an extremely detailed one. Reading the biography one feels that virtually every month of Kurt Vonnegut's adult life has been documented. Well-written and balanced this is a captivating read and my main complaint is the large volume: 424 pages plus 68 pages of notes and references.

Thanks to Mr. Shields' monumental work I now understand Kurt Vonnegut as a writer a little better and like him as a person perhaps a little less. Since Mr. Shields' research, so richly referenced, seems extremely meticulous and detailed, I have high degree of confidence in his observations. He had the opportunity to work with Mr. Vonnegut on the biography over correspondence for several months and had several in-person conversations with him shortly before the writer's death in 2007.

One does not usually summarize a biography in a review. I am skipping over all the well-known events from Vonnegut's life, such as his service in the US Army in Germany in the waning years of the World War II and the POW period spent in Dresden, housed in a slaughterhouse, during the February 1945 massive bombing by the Allied forces. Of the period 1947 - 1967, when Vonnegut worked as a journalist and a writer for general Electric while publishing several early novels, I found his participation in a creative writing program at the University of Iowa the most interesting.

Vonnegut's breakthrough began in 1967 and fully materialized in 1969 with the publication of his masterpiece - to me one of the best books ever written - Slaughterhouse-Five . The novel arrived in bookstores at the time of the growing anti-Vietnam-war sentiment and perfectly matched the zeitgeist. Mr. Vonnegut became a hippie icon, "and his novels became part of the printed currency of the youth movement." Yet the biographer also points out a growing dissonance between the young readers' image of Vonnegut and the actual persona of a clean-shaven and business-attired writer. The reader may also be interested in Mr. Shields' descriptions of the difficult business of selling a book, even if the book is a masterpiece.

I am unable to refrain from mentioning the famous incident of book burning in the U.S., this Great Land of Freedom of ours.
"[...] in 1973 in Drake, North Dakota [...] a sophomore complained that her English class was reading Slaughterhouse-Five and that it was profane. The school board went into special session and ordered the superintendent to burn all copies of the novel. On a freezing November day, three dozen were shoveled into the school furnace [...]"
The biographer goes into much detail about Kurt Vonnegut's personal life, in my view way too much. The long-lasting yet gradually more and more difficult marriage to Jane Cox is juxtaposed with Vonnegut's turbulent later-life union with Jill Krementz. The biographer does not hide his moral judgments.

I feel a little hurt by Mr. Shields' ridiculing Bluebeard as "an overlong, bumptious treatise on the value of Vonnegut's oeuvre as a writer," as I love the novel and consider it the second best in the oeuvre. But then, what do I know about literature.

Three and three quarter stars.

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