Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Cold IronCold Iron by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Imagine a climactic gun battle scene in a movie - think "High Noon", "Reservoir Dogs" or "The Matrix" (electromagnetic pulse weapons are ok). Several people with guns in their hands. Life or death - the tension mounts. The spectators hold their breath. And suddenly someone orders: "Take off your pants! Undress!" Imagine the intrepid gunmen and gunwomen standing there bare-bottomed: Marshal Kane, or Mr. White, or Neo with their naked behinds. The one and only Nicolas Freeling wrote such a scene in "Cold Iron", the ninth novel in the Castang series.

Henri Castang is promoted to a Principal Commissaire in a smallish town in northeastern France. Monsieur Lecat, the owner of a nationally-known wine company, calls Castang to report discovering the dead body of his wife. As soon as Castang begins the investigation, he quickly finds himself between quite a few rocks and a hard place: M. Lecat has powerful, highly-placed friends, the deceased's sister is married to a retired Army General with connections at the top levels of the military, and the combative judge of instruction, Castang's legal superior, is known to have ruffled some VIPs' feathers in the past. Castang is supposed to tread lightly and exercise "prudence and discretion".

For a Freeling novel the plot is quite interesting and involved, but again this is not why one loves the author. The incomparable writing and razor sharp social observations are what is most valuable. Here's a funny and typical 'Freeling passage': "He didn't even get home for lunch and sat staring into vacancy biting on a hamburger revoltingly warm and squdgy and bland, not even noticing it, this assemblage of American molecules so carefully designed to be the very perfection of tastelessness. How could you possibly use the word design? Di-seg-no; three Italian syllables like rifle shots, something as tough and alive as the town of Florence, meaning a drawing by Giotto and strictly inapplicable to plastic bottles." Alas, in the 30 years since the book has been published, the European reverence of quality has suffered further setbacks.

And consider this pearl of cynical wisdom: "The rich are after power and they rot quicker. They rot on the way up, and being rich they spread rot quicker around them." An acute diagnosis. This is not to say that I like everything in this book. For once I am unable to relate to Mr. Freeling's choice of title. "Cold iron is the master of us all", which comes from Rudyard Kipling's "Rewards and Fairies". Maybe I just do not understand the connection? Or maybe I do not like how the author over-explains the title in the middle of the book?

Three and a quarter stars.

View all my reviews

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000-2005 by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Inner Workings" is J.M. Coetzee's second collection of literary essays (my review of the outstanding first set, "Stranger Shores", can be found here ), written between 2000 and 2005. Coetzee again covers a wide spectrum of authors, ranging from some very well known to me, like Gabriel Garcia Márquez, William Faulkner, or Günter Grass, to ones whose names - due to my ignorance about world literature - I can barely recognize, for example Walter Benjamin or Hugo Claus. Like in my review of the previous collection, I am just scribbling some random thoughts about selected essays, ones that resonated with me stronger. Let me say it up front, though: all 21 essays are superb and greatly recommended.

In the essay "Günter Grass and the Wilhelm Gustloff" Coetzee points out that Grass was among the first "to attack the consensus of silence about the complicity of ordinary Germans in Nazi rule". This is a very important point: one who reads about European history may be tempted to think that in 1930-1940s there was a strange nation living between the borders of France and Poland, the nation of Nazis. The sad truth is that this purported Naziland was called Germany, and its inhabitants were ordinary Germans. Not for the first time Coetzee suggests that ordinary people, people like you and me, can be led to commit unspeakable atrocities.

Günter Grass's "Tin Drum" was the first European work of magic realism, which provides a neat segue to the absolutely fascinating essay entitled "Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Memories of My Melancholy Whores", where Coetzee quotes Márquez' definition of magic realism: it is "a matter of telling hard-to-believe stories with a straight face, a trick he learned from his grandmother in Cartagena." To me, the highest point of this essay, and of the entire collection, is the juxtaposition of Cervantes' Dom Quixote and Garcia Marquez' Florentino Ariza: a nameless young factory girl is transformed into the virgin Delgadina by "the same process of idealisation by which the peasant girl of Toboso is transformed into the [Quixote's] Lady Dulcinea." While there are several other startling insights in this incomparable essay, not only am I unqualified to discuss them here, but first and foremost I lack the courage.

The essay on Walt Whitman shows a rare side of Coetzee - his sense of humor, constrained and acerbic yet very funny. Having defined the phrenological terms of "amativeness" (basically meaning "sexual ardor") and "adhesiveness" (meaning "attachment, friendship, comradeship"), notions that were very important for Whitman in his life, erotic or otherwise, Coetzee writes "'the nature of [Whitman's] physical relationship' with young men can refer to only one thing: what Whitman and the young men in question did with their organs of amativeness when they were alone together." In a fascinating aside Coetzee mentions the major change of paradigm of heterosexual versus homosexual that occurred some time after 1880: while in mid 1800s men could kiss in public and could hold hands in purely asexual way, the same actions signified altogether different relationship in the 20th century.

My review is, as usual, getting way too long, so here's an itemization of some other tasty morsels from "Inner Workings":

-> Walter Benjamin's Arcade Project", in Coetzee's words "a great ruin of twentieth-century literature", with its principle of "montage", which may be thought of as a very early version of the hypertext concept.

-> William Faulkner catching a glimpse of but not approaching James Joyce in a Parisian café.

-> Disturbing passages about capturing wild horses in Nevada, during filming a movie, in the essay "Arthur Miller, The Misfits".

-> The mathematical metaphor of rational vs. irrational numbers as applied to human behavior in the essay "Robert Musil, The Confusions of Young Törless"; only Coetzee, who has a degree in mathematics could pull this one off.

-> Bruno Schulz (the author of Cinnamon Shops) being too late with his planned escape from Drohobycz to Warsaw in 1942.

-> In-depth examinations of the art and craft of translation (Coetzee is an accomplished professional translator himself): about conveying the meaning, the rhythm, the tone, the mood, and the beauty of the original in a translation.

Four and a quarter stars.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

No Part in Your DeathNo Part in Your Death by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"No Part in Your Death" (1984) is the eighth mystery in the Nicolas Freeling's Henri Castang series. (I had read the seventh one, "The Back of the North Wind" about two years ago, before I started my current project of reading the entire Freeling's opus.) Well, I like "No Part" the least of all Castang novels so far, and it probably is quite close the bottom of all Freeling's books for me. A two-star rating - gasp! - may be in the making. Nah, maybe not.

The current entry in the Castang series is really a trio of novellas, somewhat tenuously connected. In the first one Castang is sent to Munich for a police conference. His wife, Vera, accompanies him, and it is during her leisurely walk in the city that she meets a young woman, who is followed by some sinister characters, and helps her escape the pursuers. This seemingly coincidental event sets up the entire plot. The key scene - for this novella and for the entire three-story set - takes place in a Munich Brauhaus. A "motherly waitress", while serving beer to Castang, jokes: "Hab' kein Schuld an Ihr' Tod..." ("I've no part in your death"). The author continues "In years to come he [Castang] would remember the scene in every minute detail". The motif of being involved, however tangentially, in someone's death is the unifying theme of the volume. Elegant and clever, but not quite convincing.

The first novella, with its dramatic ending, is the best, although some scenes taking place in Germany stretch credulity. I have been unable to connect much with the two latter novellas: in the second one Castang attempts to solve the mystery of disappearance of his friend's wife during a severe storm. The ending is somewhat redeeming here: the reader has really to focus to "get it". The last novella has Castang travel to England to solve an apparent suicide of two young French people. There is even a gun battle in this one. Yuck!

To me, the most disappointing aspect of "No Part" is the paucity of brilliant prose, which is so abundant in other works by Freeling. I have found only a few quotable spots here and there, with the best probably being "[...] no cop wants to start planing fine shavings off shades of meaning."

Two and a half stars (rounded up, because of the "motherly waitress" bit...)

View all my reviews

Monday, June 22, 2015

Stranger Shores: Literary EssaysStranger Shores: Literary Essays by J.M. Coetzee

A collection of literary criticism essays? Must be my first; well, maybe about half a century ago, in high school, I had to read a few essays when preparing for the rigorous graduation exam. Yet if the essays have been written by one of my favorite authors, J.M. Coetzee, I just had to try. "Stranger Shores. Literary Essays 1986 - 1999" totally captivates: another great work of the master. The twenty six essays deal with a wide spectrum of writers, for instance, Borges, Defoe, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Mulisch, Oz, Rilke, Rushdie, Turgenev, and a number of South African authors and writers with roots in Africa, including Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing, both - like Coetzee - Nobel Prize winners.

"Stranger Shores" is a rather loose collection of essays whose common denominator is their extremely high quality: incisive depth and superb writing. Thus, in this review (characterized by lack of depth and lame writing) I will just offer somewhat random comments on a few essays with which I have stronger thematic connections because of my heritage and background. No organizing theme can be discerned in this review

The novel "In the Dutch Mountains" (from the essay "Cees Nooteboom, Novelist and Traveler") instantaneously made my To Read list. Let's quote Coetzee: "This version of the Snow Queen story constitutes the pre-text of Nooteboom's novel. But the pre-text is surrounded by a substantial frame, namely the story of how the Snow Queen story gets to be told [...]" A must read.

In the essay about R.M. Rilke ("William Gass's Rilke") Coetzee quotes the German poet's vibrant passage "We are the bees of the invisible, [...] Tremulously we gather in the honey of the visible to store up in the great golden hive of the Invisible". And that refers to the American-style mass production of items that were flooding European market in the early 1900s, items that no longer were like the originals, the ones "into which the hopes and pensiveness of our forefathers have been transfused..."

In the piece entitled "The Essays of Joseph Brodsky" Coetzee writes, among many other issues, about how Brodsky suggests to Vaclav Havel, the first president of the free Czechoslovakia, to "drop the pretense that Communism in Central Europe was imposed from abroad and acknowledge that it was the result of 'an extraordinary anthropological backslide'". Regardless of whether we agree with Brodsky or not, it quite strikes me that a South African writer, a citizen of Australia, writes with great insight about the subtle differences of opinions between Brodsky, Havel, and Solzhenitsyn.

"The Autobiography of Doris Lessing" is a fascinating essay, with strong contemporary relevance. Coetzee explores Lessing's Communist phase and emphasizes the unfashionable yet deeply moral questions she raised: Why did many Western intellectuals who supported Stalin and Stalinism believed Soviet lies against the evidence of their own eyes? And even more important "Why does no one any longer care?" Further, Coetzee praises Lessing's unwillingness to bend to the political correctness climate of the 1990s and points out that she herself rightly traces the correctness to the Party and the Party line.

To me, the first essay, "What Is A Classic?: A Lecture" stands out. Its starting point is a lecture that Thomas Stearns Eliot gave in 1944, in which he argued that the civilization of Western Europe is a single civilization that is descended from Rome, thus making Aeneid, Virgil's epic of Rome, the originary classic. Coetzee uses the example of Bach's music as "some kind of touchstone because [Bach] has passed the scrutiny of hundreds of thousands of intelligences before me, by hundreds of thousands of fellow human beings." Yet for the "most serious" answer to the question "What is a classic?" Coetzee follows the lead of Zbigniew Herbert, who - drawing from Polish history - provides a dramatic definition of a classic. Coetzee summarizes it saying that a classic is "what survives the worst of barbarism, surviving because generations of people cannot afford to let go of it and therefore hold on to it at all costs."

I can't wait to read Coetzee's other collections of essays.

Four and a half stars.

View all my reviews

Friday, June 19, 2015

WolfnightWolfnight by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With "Wolfnight" (1982) my quest to read Nicolas Freeling's entire opus reaches about 40% mark. It is the sixth novel in the French series featuring Inspector Henri Castang, now promoted to Commissaire-Adjunct. Having read the six novels in order, I can appreciate how Mr. Freeling's prose gets better and better - meaning quirkier and quirkier - with each new installment. This idiosyncratic and intellectual prose is absolutely unique among the crime novel writers, and even most of the so-called serious writers should envy Mr. Freeling his unparalleled mastery of the literary craft. While reading the novel is a pleasure because of sharp characterizations and sparkling prose, plot-oriented readers might be severely disappointed: the plot is not that interesting, and - to me - the goings-on are not plausible enough.

A nationally-known politician appears in the Police Judiciaire office and tells Castang that he had an auto accident about sixteen hours ago and that a woman might be dead. He claims he is in a state of shock and does not know exactly what happened. When the police get to the scene of accident there is no body there and, what's more, the woman in question cannot be found at all.

It soon becomes obvious that the case is a part of a heavily political affair and perhaps even conspiracy. The local countess, Madame de Rubempré, seems to be somehow connected to the affair and soon she becomes one of the central characters in the novel. Right-wing and left-wing groups seem to be involved; even some ties exist with groups supporting Polish freedom (the plot takes place just after the imposition of martial law in Poland). Through his superior, Castang obtains clear instruction "to be unaggressive" in pursuit of the solution. The author's repulsion for politics and politicians comes across loud and clear, which is one of the major strengths of the novel. I love the passage where an idiot politician is extremely excited when giving orders to the commanding officer of a special forces squad. The politician undoubtedly has an erection while talking about "surgical strike" and "rapid assault".

As a sample of the superb prose, below the rating I am enclosing half of a phenomenally well-written paragraph that contrasts nuances of English, American, and French. The penultimate sentence of that fragment is one of the most delightful sentences I have ever read.

Three and a quarter stars.

"English is a language where intonation counts above almost anything. Such a phrase as 'I, um, don't feel quite convinced' is meaningless on paper, is viva voce worth a page of prose, and a prosy page at that. The American language is quite dissimilar. It will produce a single word like 'candyass' worth in itself a paragraph, embedded within volumes of such polysyllabic hermeticism, such thick, black, deathly-boring opacity as to make Henry James kneel and beat his pure marble brow howling against the dirty deck whence all but he had fled. The French, than whom - it's a very than-whom people all round - none can be more vacuously orotund, are (the same ones) obligingly terse. On occasion."

View all my reviews

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Map and the TerritoryThe Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Through a rather stunning coincidence, within one week I read two books by serious authors, in which they write about themselves in third person and refer to their own death and events that follow it: J.M. Coetzee's extraordinary "Summertime" and now Michel Houellebecq's "The Map and the Territory". The latter is the author's sixth novel and one awarded with the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2010. Alas, despite widespread critical acclaim, I am unable to find this novel a masterpiece, although it definitely is a great read: I was so enthralled by it one night that I could not turn the light off until after 3 a.m. While the book is supremely captivating, it is to me rather empty and devoid of deeper value. Reading "The Map" feels a little like perusing a high-class magazine: good stuff, but a lack of unifying theme.

The novel follows the life and artistic trajectory of a (fictitious) successful French visual artist, Jed Martin, a photographer and painter. He hires a famous author, Michel Houellebecq, to write the catalogue for an exhibition of his works. The painter and the author become friends and they keep in touch until Mr. Houellebecq's death. Of course, this brief synopsis of the plot has very little to do with what the book is about. The evolution of Mr. Martin's style and his changes of media of artistic expression are shown with particular emphasis on the concept of art as commodity and the mechanisms through which the free-market influences the production and reception of art. We also learn about Jed Martin's intimate life (two rather sweet love stories) and about the relationship with his father. "The Map" is also about aging and dying. What's more, a little over a third of the novel is a rather straightforward police procedural.

Early into the novel I thought I was onto something in my search for the main theme. Jed Martin's first excursion into the world of visual arts was his series of photographs that showed various hardware items. The pictures were images of real-world objects. Mr. Martin's next big project was an extremely well-received series of photographs of Michelin maps showing various regions in France. Since a map is itself a sort of an image of the real terrain, then a photograph of a map is an image of an image. After a hiatus, Mr. Martin embarked on yet another artistic journey: he produced a series of paintings that with maximum realism presented people doing their work, the so-called Series of Simple Professions. In creating his paintings he worked off photographs, so in a sense he was again producing images of images. I almost hoped that the last painting of the series will be entitled "Jed Martin Painting Himself Painting a Picture", but no such luck, and my hypothesis of gradual increase of the level of indirection in Mr. Martin's art is not valid.

"The Map" is extremely funny in places: the titles of paintings like "Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology", the concept of "primary professions", several prose fragments like, for instance, "Disarming smile is an expression you still encounter in certain novels, and therefore must correspond to some kind of reality" are just plain hilarious! Yet what bothers me a little is the author's propensity for using heavy technical jargon, especially the brand names and model numbers. For example, he uses phrases and passages like "600-HS digital back which enabled the capture of 48-bit RGB files in a 6000-by-8000 pixel format", "Lexus RX 350 SUV", "Nikon D3X, Samsung ZRT-AV2", "Bugatti Veyron 16.4 [...] Fitted with a 16-cylinder W engine with 1,001 horsepower, complete with four turbochargers, it could go from 0 to 110 km per hour in 2.5 seconds and had a top speed of 407 km per hour." Since I do not believe Mr. Houellebecq would stoop to getting paid by the manufacturer's, I am unable to explain the purpose of the jargon.

Seriously, although I finished this addictively readable book almost a week ago, I still am at loss what it is about. I will definitely read more of Mr. Houellebecq's work, hoping it will help me understand. For the time being, my rating is rounded down.

Three and a half stars.

View all my reviews

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Castang's CityCastang's City by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Continuing the Nicolas Freeling's Complete Opus Undertaking I have just finished "Castang's City" (1980), the fifth book in the French detective series. Alas, it is not a very good crime novel, despite some flashes of brilliance shown by the author. Thus the less I write here the better.

An adjunct mayor in a largish French city (the "Castang's city" - in the Foreword the author warns that it is a fictitious city, not Toulouse or Strasbourg as some readers claim) is gunned down in his Porsche. The connections with terrorism are quickly dismissed and Castang and his colleagues focus on the politician's family.

As usual in Freeling's novels, we have vivid portrayals of the characters, and dialogues are masterfully captured. Yet, the events in the plot are not that interesting; what's more, the rather lightweight story does not justify the volume of the novel, over 300 pages; it is much more than the typical size of Mr. Freeling's work, and it has taxed my patience.

There are some fascinating passages in the book that remind us that the author is one of the very best crime novel writers ever, but they are scarce. I would love to quote one incomparably bravura paragraph but not only does it hint at the denouement but also its language might be perceived as risqué. Read and enjoy for yourself (page 282 of the paperback edition by Vintage Books). On a somber note, the novel contains a moving tribute to one of the greatest poets-singers of the Twentieth century: Castang and his wife, Vera, are stunned by the news of his death on October 9, 1978.

Two and a half stars.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

SummertimeSummertime by J.M. Coetzee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Summertime" (2009) is the final part of J.M. Coetzee's fictionalized autobiography: it completes the trilogy that began with "Boyhood" and "Youth" . In the first two books Coetzee refers to himself in the third person, as a "he". Here he goes even further - "Summertime" is narrated by an English academic, a Mr. Vincent, who is working on Coetzee's biography, after the author has died. There is no doubt that the deceased John Coetzee, the subject of Mr. Vincent's biography, is the very same J.M. Coetzee, who created Mr. Vincent's character, and who - fortunately for us - is still very much alive and active as a writer. Henceforth, I will refer to fictionalized Coetzee as JC, to distinguish him from the "real" J.M. Coetzee.

The book is composed of five interviews with people, mostly women, who knew JC well in the early and middle 1970s in South Africa, and it is bracketed with undated fragments from JC's notebooks. I find the first three interviews totally spellbinding. Dr. Julia Frankl, born Kiš Julia of Szombathely, Hungary, used to be JC's lover. Margot is JC's cousin, who shared childhood with him. Finally, Adriana Nascimento, a Brazilian dancer, is the mother of a teenage girl whom JC taught poetry. We learn a lot about JC from these interviews but we learn even more about the three women - the stories are masterpieces of characterization and they make me feel I have known these women for a long time. Some critics opined that J.M. Coetzee cannot create strong female characters. Nonsense!

Julia talks vividly about her affair with JC and portrays him as a man who has no ability to connect with other people. He is like "the man who mistook his mistress for a violin." Margot, the cousin, tells many wonderful stories from their common childhood, and the account of them going to Merweville in a car that needs fixing is beautifully told. Adriana, a mother who knows very little about raising her daughters yet thinks she knows a lot, claims she was the target of JC's affection. Each of the three stories would make a fabulous novella.

In contrast, the two latter interviews, with JC's colleagues from the university in Cape Town, where he taught, are exclusively about him: both Martin and Sophie are virtually transparent - they serve solely to convey JC's views, beliefs, and motivation. Let me point out two main themes that may help us better understand JC (and by extension J.M. Coetzee). The first is summarized by Mr. Vincent: "What Coetzee writes [...] cannot be trusted, not as a factual record - not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioneer. In his letters he is making up a fiction of himself for his correspondents; in his diaries he is doing much the same for his own eyes, or perhaps for posterity." Can recursion in literary arts go any further? J.L. Borges often played with recursion, but his are rather formal games. In "Summertime" we have J.M. Coetzee writing about how JC's writings about himself cannot be quite trusted, we have the "real" author's fiction about how the author's literary double fictionalizes the events of his life. Magnificent!

The other theme will undoubtedly be considered more important by J.M. Coetzee readers (not by me, though.) Why hasn't he been more active in condemnation of apartheid? Why has he tried to right the wrongs only through literary means? Sophie explains to Mr. Vincent that JC was not apolitical but rather "anti-political". And there comes one of the most astute fragments of the book "In Coetzee's eyes, we human beings will never abandon politics because politics is too convenient and too attractive as a theatre in which to give play to our baser emotions. Baser emotions meaning hatred and rancour and spite and jealousy and bloodlust and so forth. In other words, politics is a symptom of our fallen state and expresses that fallen state."

At the end of her interview, Sophie gives a sharp summary of who JC really was. I will not quote the powerful fragment but I strongly recommend the last two paragraphs of that interview to anybody interested in understanding J.M. Coetzee's work.

The second set of "Undated notes" contains a profoundly sad passage about an incident from JC's youth which illustrates the complicated relationship he had with his father. It brought tears to my eyes, and I would like it to become mandatory reading for everybody, especially for parents and their grown-up children.

I was quite reluctant to read "Summertime": I figured that writing about oneself via stories told by other people is a form of narcissistic self-gratification, yes, extremely refined, but still a masturbation of sorts. I was wrong - this is yet another great book from one of the greatest contemporary writers. I am heaping all this praise despite one two-sentence fragment, which sounds like it was written by a bestseller writer rather than a real one: "His father opens his eyes. Generally he is sceptical about the capacity of the ocular orbs to express complex feelings, but this time he is shaken." A case of truly horrible, jarring periphrasis. I almost believe J.M. Coetzee is teasing the reader "Look, I can write crap as well as all other crap authors."

Finally, deep thanks to the author for "liquefaction". If not for "Summertime" I would not have had a chance to read an absolutely outstanding poem by Robert Herrick, written almost 400 years ago, whose first stanza is:

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Four and three quarter stars.

View all my reviews

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Night LordsThe Night Lords by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My next Nicolas Freeling's novel, "The Night Lords" (1978), the fourth book in the Henri Castang' series, has again surprised me (that's the third surprise in four books - great!) The novel is as close to a police procedural as I remember Mr. Freeling ever to get. So - if one likes their crime novels for the plot - this one is highly recommended. The story is complex, interesting, and even comes with a twist. Being authored by Freeling the book is, obviously, well written, but uncharacteristically for the author (and unluckily for me) there is not much more there than just the clever plot.

The setup of the plot is hilarious, if grim. A local businessman, trying to escape high burial costs in his small town, moves the body of his just deceased grandmother to another community. Alas, his station wagon with its precious cargo gets stolen. At the same time a British family, on vacations in France, find a body of a dead woman in their Rolls-Royce. Problem solved, right? Alas, instead of the missing grandmother, they find a young and attractive woman's body. All of this happens in the parking lot that belongs to a famous three-star restaurant, whose owner is an acquaintance of Commissaire Richard, and the Commissaire has Castang investigate.

In addition to the two dead bodies, Castang gets two other suspicious deaths to probe into, one of them in the very building, where he lives with his Czech wife, Vera (Vera is pregnant now!). There are additional complications caused by the fact that the owner of the Rolls, in which the dead young lady was found, is a High Court Judge from England, Sir James Armitage. British consular authorities get involved and everybody has to be vigilant to avoid any possibility of a political scandal.

The plot is decidedly un-Freeling-like: too much is going on! My main quibble about the novel is how the author artificially injects Vera into the plot. It makes me worry that Mr. Freeling is falling into the trap - as most bestselling crime fiction writers do - of trying to "humanize" their detectives to the extent that stretches the boundaries of plausibility. My relatively high rating is mainly for the superb plot.

Three stars.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Portnoy's ComplaintPortnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Into his hat, for Christ's sake. Ven der putz shteht! Ven der putz shteht! Into the hat that he wears on his head!" Who can forget these words? I have just re-read Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" (1969), which I first read in the mid-1970s, and the words still ring loud and hilarious. But what a difference 40 years make! When I was in my early twenties, the novel seemed a pinnacle of avant-garde prose, and the variety of sex acts whose candid and graphic descriptions constitute a substantial part of the book seemed to portend the dawn of a new era of frankness in literary arts. Now, in my mid-sixties, I find the profusion of sex stuff pretentious. Funny? Oh yes! In fact, extremely funny! Significant? Not in the least!

This story of Alex Portnoy's coming of age in terms of his sexuality, his Jewish identity, and gaining independence from his parents, is considered by many one of the best English-language novels of the 20th century. It may well be, provided that one peels away the whole sexual shtick - let's not forget that the novel was written at the peak of the sexual revolution of the Sixties - and reaches to the deeper layers of meaning.

Most of the novel is framed as Alex' monologue to his analyst who is helping him break out from the role he plays "of the smothered son in the Jewish joke." And although the grown-up Alex pretends he is ashamed of his controlling mother and uneducated father, in fact he fiercely loves them and is proud of them, which - to me - forms the central theme of the novel, which otherwise could be viewed just as a considerably extended comedy stand-up routine. The humor is abundant in every layer of the text - just think about the trajectory of a young man who from making love to an ingredient of his family's dinner grows into an Assistant Commissioner for the City of New York Commission on Human Opportunity whose role is "to encourage equality of treatment, to prevent discrimination, to foster mutual understanding and respect"!

"Portnoy's Complaint" offers some penetrating truths in its deeper layers, yet it does not match the profundity of James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man", written 53 years earlier, and another candidate to the title of the best English-language novel of the 20th century. While the development of Stephen Dedalus' consciousness and identity, shown by Joyce, is a universally valid portrait of human childhood and youth, Roth's Alex Portnoy is more of a portrait of the times than of the boy/man himself. 40+ years after my first read, I find there is much less in the novel than I had thought there was, but I still thinks it deserves a very high rating because of the humor and the oblique depiction of filial love that shines through.

Four stars.

View all my reviews