Sunday, August 28, 2016

Solidarity/ Poland In The Season Of Its PassionSolidarity/ Poland In The Season Of Its Passion by Lawrence Weschler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"What you have to remember about this country [...] is that the whole society hates the authorities, the society wants to overthrow the authorities, the society has the power to overthrow the authorities - and the society cannot overthrow the authorities. "

I reached for this book prompted by the recent events in Poland, my native country. The KOR/Solidarity revolutionary social and labor movement of the 1970s and 1980s, one of the most important mass movements of the 20th century, contributed decisively to the collapse of the Soviet ideology. The demolition of Berlin Wall in 1989 and freeing the Eastern European nations from the Soviet domination would not have been possible without Solidarity. Politicians who are now in power in Poland, scoundrels like Jarosław Kaczyński, are attempting to rewrite history and appropriate for themselves the achievements of Solidarity. Like the Stalinists who in 1930s - 1950s used to erase people from photographs, Mr. Kaczyński and his pack of thugs are now trying to erase from the official history the very people who led the KOR/Solidarity movement, Wałęsa, Kuroń, Bujak, Michnik, and scores of others. Indeed, "revolution devours its own," but it is supremely ironic that in this case the devouring is being conducted by people who had nothing or very little to do with the Solidarity revolution.

Lawrence Weschler, a celebrated journalist and popular non-fiction author, wrote Solidarity: Poland in the Season of Its Passion (1982) based on his reflections from two visits to Poland in the politically hot times of 1981. He explains the factors that contributed to the emergence of the massively popular Solidarity movement that was joined by over 10 million people: the pervasive absurdity of socialist economy and bureaucracy, the extreme shortages of food and products of all types, the influence of the Catholic Church which - despite Poland being at that time completely subject to Soviet ideology - was the institution most trusted by the Polish people. The author also mentions the role of the Polish Pope's visit in 1979, the visit that might have provided the final impulse to the birth of Solidarity.

The best aspect of the book is the author's skill in showing the marked contrast between the mood prevalent in Poland during the author's first visit in May of 1981, and the atmosphere in October. Despite the March events in Bydgoszcz, when the police violently broke the Rural Solidarity sit-in hurting dozens of people, in May there was still some optimism, albeit muted and cautious, among the Polish people. Nothing like the euphoria of the fall of 1980, when most everything seemed possible, but many people still hoped for the best. However in October things looked much gloomier. "[T]he vitality has gone out of life in Poland this sorry autumn," notices Mr. Weschler and adds "[s]poradic shortages have given way to pervasive insufficiencies in almost every sector of the economy." I was living in Warsaw through all those events, and I am able to confirm that the author's observations are to the point.

Mr. Weschler offers quite a depressing portrait of the country at the time of the two-phase Solidarity congress, September 5 - October 3, 1981. The congress wasted the participants' effort on the internal struggles, recriminations, and bickering over political phraseology rather than proposing concrete steps to save the country. Contrasting Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive, the most popular song in Poland that autumn, with the people's mood the author worries:
"How the hell is this country going to make it at all through the coming winter?
We know what happened. On December 13, 1981 a group of generals, led by Wojciech Jaruzelski, imposed martial law in Poland (the so-called "state of war"), arresting civil leaders and intellectuals, cutting all forms of communication between people, suspending basic civil rights, imposing strict curfew, etc. With a surprising power of prediction Mr. Weschler foretells the future:
"In the long run, Poland may only be sprung from its ongoing stalemate once things begin to move inside the Soviet Union."
Indeed, it took Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms to allow the dormant Solidarity movement, active only in the so-called "underground", to eventually triumph and provide the decisive contribution to the fall of the Communist ideology in Eastern Europe.

Good book, alas incomplete, which is not really the author's fault as he was not present in Poland during the crucial last two months of the 1981 freedom.

Three and a half stars.

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Goodbye LookThe Goodbye Look by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"'I have a secret passion for mercy,' I said. 'But justice is what keeps happening to people.'"

I often wish that Ross Macdonald's novels ended before the denouement. With very few exceptions his endings are big disappointments and seem to mar the wonderful novels. The Goodbye Look (1969), the 15th entry in the celebrated Lew Archer series, is unfortunately one of the most obvious cases of an ending going awry.

Lew Archer is hired by John Truttwell, a lawyer for Mr. and Mrs. Chalmers, a well-to-do couple from Pacific Point (Macdonald's fictional Southern California town modeled probably on Newport Beach). Only one thing has been stolen from the Chalmerses during a strange burglary - an expensive jewelry box that contained some letters from the past. To make matters more complicated Nicholas, their son who is just about to graduate from college, has disappeared. Archer soon learns from Nick's fiancée that the young man's whole life seems to have changed in the last few days, and that he has been contemplating suicide. The change has been precipitated by his meeting a middle-aged woman, named Jean, accompanied by a man whom Archer soon finds killed. The woman's father, Eldon, long considered dead, emerges as the key figure in the background of the story.

The plot of The Goodbye Look is like a clump of tangled thread in a basket. You try to find a loose end but there is none. Instead several threads lead to another clump, even more hopelessly tangled. The group of people from the present time frame, late 1960s - the Chalmerses, Nick, Truttwell, Jean, some others - are connected to another group of people from the past, the mid-1940s and mid-1950s, the times when crucial, dramatic events - bank embezzlement and deaths - occurred. As usual in Macdonald's works, virtually all that is happening now is a direct consequence of the past events.

There is a touching thread that shows the relationship between Archer and one of the female characters. This late-middle-age affair (the combined age of the couple is over 100) is brief yet meaningful for both people, as beautifully described by the author:
"We merged our lonelinesses once again, in something less than love but sweeter than self."
Some of the best writing in the novel involves these two lonely people linked by their honesty and the long trail of disappointments with their past. Archer's wisdom and compassion, his "passion for mercy" are juxtaposed with the practice of justice, which provides an extraordinarily apt characterization of how Macdonald wants to see his hero. None of the hard-boiled nonsense often quoted by reviewers. It is thus a great pity that the extreme convolutions of the plot weaken the novel.

A substantial part of the plot takes place in San Diego (in the novel the city is often referred to as Dago), which became my hometown thirty-four years ago. Point Loma, La Jolla, the Cove, Imperial Beach - all these places are real; even many street names in The Goodbye Look are real. I just wish the author spent some time painting the San Diego landscapes with his masterful prose rather than tying the plot into knots.

Three stars.

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Monday, August 22, 2016

Laughter in the DarkLaughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"In a passing mirror he saw a pale grave gentleman walking beside a schoolgirl in her Sunday dress. Cautiously, he stroked her smooth arm and the glass grew dim."

Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark has quite an interesting history. Nabokov wrote the novel titled Камера Обскура (Camera Obscura) in Russian and it was serialized in the literary journal Современные записки (Contemporary Writings) in 1932. In 1936 it was translated to English, but Nabokov was not happy with the results, so he retranslated the novel himself and changed the title: in its current form Laughter in the Dark was published in 1938.

The first sentence of the novel
"Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster."
neatly summarizes the plot. Of course - the author hopes few sentences later - that "detail is always welcome." Indeed it is precisely the detail that makes the novel somewhat readable.

Albert Albinus is a stolid middle-aged man, an art critic and historian, dedicated to his work as well as to his wife and young daughter. He meets his future mistress, Margot, in a movie theater where she works as an usher. The attraction is instantaneous and powerful. It is not quite clear whether Margot is sixteen or seventeen years old - suffice it to say that she certainly is not an adult woman - still, she is keenly aware of the sexual attraction powers she oozes. Albert is by no means her first man, and she has quite a lot of experience in getting men to do what she wants from them, while giving them the one thing they want. This tawdry little story (thanks to my Goodreads friend, Judith, for reminding me the word 'tawdry'!) is completely cliché, and has been told thousands of times.

The last fourth of the book stands out: while the events continue to unfold in a "paint-by-numbers" way, the mood changes to almost burlesque and the narrator's cynicism and black humor make the last part of the plot a little different than the conventional tale of a middle-aged man captivated by sexual appeal of an adolescent girl. The story becomes refreshingly brutal and painful to read, especially when it involves the character of Rex. I find him the most full-bodied character in the novel even if his portrayal borders on caricature:
His culture was patchy, but his mind shrewd and penetrating, and his itch to make fools of his fellow men amounted almost to genius.
Margot's character is realistic but does not transcend the cliché stereotype of a moderately cunning teenage schemer and manipulator and I find the character of Albert bland and hard to relate to as a real person.

Of course, the novel is very well written: there are quite a few dazzling passages that indicate Mr. Nabokov will eventually become one of the greatest master stylists of the English prose. But I would like to take exception to a specific literary device used by the author many times. He tells the reader what the characters think, in full sentences:
"'Shall I hit him?' thought Paul, and then: 'What does it matter now?'"
Irritatingly, it makes the prose read like a cartoon with the dialogue bubbles over the characters' heads. On the other hand, the novel contains one passage that I absolutely love but it seems to have come from an altogether different book; it is quoted after the rating.

To sum up, I do not like Laughter too much. I wonder whether the novel served as a sort of trial run for Lolita and hope to have more insights after I re-read Mr. Nabokov's "official" masterpiece.

Two stars.
"'A certain man,' said Rex [...], 'once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish -- but there was no diamond inside. That's what I like about coincidence.'"

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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Cop Killer (Martin Beck, #9)Cop Killer by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"Sergeant Gustav Borglund, thirty-seven, died this morning of injuries received in connection with an exchange of fire between policemen and two armed men in Ljunghusen. Two other policemen were seriously wounded in the same gun battle."

Cop Killer (1974) is the ninth novel in the legendary series of Swedish police procedurals with strong social issues component - the so-called Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I have been re-reading the series in chronological order and this is not one of the better entries. While the plot is mostly captivating and the deeply ironic twist - which, by the way, is connected to the title of the book - is superb, the reliance on the reader's knowledge of characters and motifs from the previous novels in the series is a failed device. Several lame and naively didactic passages are annoying, and, what's worse, the humor often does not work. I think the authors' exhaustion with the series shows.

A woman is waiting for the bus in a small town near Sweden's southernmost point. A car stops and a man offers her a ride. He drives into a forest, strangles the woman, and hides the body in a mudhole. Martin Beck and Lennart Kollberg from the Swedish National Homicide Squad are called to find the killer, but the upper echelons of police bureaucracy do not really want to waste time on an investigation. They want Beck to immediately arrest the "obvious" suspect, the man who had spent several years in prison for a sexually-motivated murder and who happens to live next to the victim. Still, Beck and Kollberg try to make sure that the evidence links the obvious suspect to the crime.

In the other main thread, police patrol stops two suspected thieves. Because of gross incompetence of the officers a gunfight erupts - the account of the total chaos resulting from both sides' stupidity is one of the best passages in the book - and one of the criminals and a police officer die. Sweden's top police authorities call for a nationwide manhunt for the "cop killer" thus causing additional difficulties for the investigating detectives.

I read Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's novels more for their examination of social issues than for the police procedural content and it is clear that this aspect has been expressed much better in the previous novels in the series. Cop Killer offers superficial, naive, and oversimplified insights on socioeconomic issues. Of course it is normal in societies that extremely stupid people rise to top positions in bureaucracies but the characters of Beck's supervisor, Malm, and the national police commissioner, are paper-thin caricatures of morons, cartoon bad guys, rather than real people. The stupidity of managers in real life is usually not outright visible and thus more dangerous. All this cheapens the well-intentioned critique of the Swedish welfare state and lessens the impact of the authors' environmental concerns. The portrayal of the Swedish police force, with total idiots at the very top and at the very bottom of the hierarchy, is quite depressing.

I have not been amused by references to several previous novels in the series (I have spotted five out of eight, but not being a careful reader I have likely missed the remaining three). Artificial and forced they do not bring anything worthwhile to the plot or to the message of the novel. Maybe the authors intend the references as a sort of closing of the series? It might have been better if the authors stopped at the great The Abominable Man But then people prefer the number ten over eight and also we would not have the fabulous, scathing plot twist, one of the best twists I have ever seen.

Two and a half stars.

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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

CosmosCosmos by Witold Gombrowicz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"A sparrow hanged on a piece of wire, a woman's deformed lip, and the whole cosmos of connections between them, produced by human mind."
(Lukasz Pruski's entry in the contest "Summarize Gombrowicz's 'Cosmos' In Fewer Than 140 Characters.")

The vagaries of memory: I do not remember much from my first trip back to the Old Country a scant twenty-five years ago yet I clearly remember surreptitiously reading Witold Gombrowicz's Bacacay under the desk during my high-school history class exactly fifty years ago. I had cherished that collection of short stories, probably because of some sexual content and absurdist aura. Years later I was a little disappointed by universally celebrated Ferdydurke and Trans-Atlantyk was a major turnoff for me. After a 35-year hiatus it is time to return to my compatriot's prose. I have chosen Cosmos (1965), a novel which I have never read before. And Gombrowicz delivers a near masterpiece!

Witold, the narrator, and his acquaintance, Fuks, two young men from Warsaw, are on vacations in Zakopane, the popular Polish resort in the Tatra Mountains. When walking around looking for a room to rent they find a sparrow hanged in a tree on a piece of wire. They stay at a pension run by a corpulent lady ("Roly-Poly" in the English translation), where the other residents are her husband, Leon, who uses a sort of private language characterized by preponderance of diminutives, their daughter, Lena, with her husband, and the housekeeper Katasia, whose lip is deformed after an accident.

In the main thread of the novel Witold and his companion are trying to explain the mystery of the hanged sparrow. They notice an indistinct mark on the ceiling which resembles an arrow. The arrow seems to point outside the house, where - guided by an unusual configuration of stones - they find a piece of stick hanging on a thread. Hanged sparrow, the position of stones, arrow-shaped marks, and hanged piece of stick all seem to indicate intentionality; there must be a purpose of all that, perhaps even a conspiracy. By whom, though? And the gallery of strange goings-on keeps growing.

Another main theme is the narrator's interest in Lena. Stimulated by the brief glimpse of Lena's leg on a bed frame - this momentary yet powerful sighting stays with him for weeks - Witold creates an erotic image of the young woman, a mind construct that tends to conflict with Lena's actual physical being and her married status. What's more, Lena's mouth and Katasia's deformed lips seem to merge into one fascinating yet menacing image in the narrator's hyperactive mind.

The last part of the novel is an unforgettable account of a mountain excursion. Leon suggests taking the trip to show the company a secret point in the Kościeliska Valley, from where the view of the mountains is incomparably magnificent. All characters - the party also includes two newly married couples - embark on the trip in horse-driven carriages. The excursion culminates in Leon's amazing confession, and then only one major event remains in the plot.

Some loose and amateurish thoughts on the main motifs in the novella: Mr. Gombrowicz convincingly shows the enormously rich texture of everything that contributes to a single moment of human life: the totality, the cosmos of sensations experienced at each instance of time:
"Everything is equally important, everything that constitutes the current moment, a kind of consonance, the humming of a swarm." (My own translation)
Each thing, each feeling, each moment has its own universe of meanings and possible connections to all other things, feelings, and moments. The author offers an intricate psychological analysis of micro-behaviors, snippets of thoughts, sensations, and moods.

Another theme is quite awkward to describe (especially when the reviewer lacks literary talent). Consider the following quote:
"When she smells herself, it does not bother her" (my own translation)
Witold is acutely aware of the grossness of a person's physicality if that person is not him. The "physical I", the personal details of one's physical self, such as feeling one's teeth with the tongue, become alien and unpleasant when they are someone else's. On the other hand, the often repeated phrase "one's own to one's own for one's own" (again, my own translation) likely has some masturbatory connotations, but enough of amateur psychology.

Cosmos is open to a wide range of interpretations the reader may want to ascribe to it: the most obvious and simplistic one is that the author wants to highlight the human tendency to look for patterns and causation in completely random events. The novel may also be considered a classy suspense story. Or a sophisticated joke. In my view the most significant is the psychological analysis and what pushes this "borderline literary masterpiece" to the five-star territory is that the author examines the most private, secret, embarrassing layers of human psyche – the layers whose existence we are not often eager to acknowledge. Mr. Gombrowicz is at the top of his craft as an investigator of human psychology.

I do not particularly like the ending; not because I care whether it "explains" things or not; a literary work of art is obviously not required to explain anything; it is just required to dazzle the reader. Although the rather shocking ending cleverly ties the two main motifs, mouth and hanging, it also seems to trivialize the whole extraordinary setup.

I have read the novel twice, first the Polish original and then the English translation by Danuta Borchardt. I am impressed by the translator's skill: Gombrowicz's prose, especially Leon's private language, is virtually impossible to translate. Yet it is still obvious to me that the original reads much better and seems to exhibit way more depth while the English version feels somehow incomplete and superficial. (I tried a similar experiment two months ago when I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez' Chronicle of a Death Foretold in two different translations, English and Polish. In that case the English version of the Spanish original seemed better than the Polish one.)

Finally, the last sentence of the novel is certainly one of the best last sentences I have ever read. Fantastic!

Four and a half stars, rounded up.

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Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Instant EnemyThe Instant Enemy by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Our hands touched as he gave the picture back to me. I felt a kind of short-circuit, a buzzing and burning, as if I had grounded the present in the actual flesh of the past.
Time blurred like tears for an instant.

My current re-read of The Instant Enemy (1968), the fourteenth entry in the extraordinary series featuring the private eye Lew Archer, has been a pleasant surprise. The excellent writing, Ross Macdonald's trademark, is thoroughly satisfying and while the plot is extremely complicated it holds attention almost to the very end. I think the novel is a bit underrated in that it is not universally considered one of the best in the series.

Archer arrives in a mansion in Woodland Hills where he meets Mr. and Mrs. Sebastian who blame each other for their 17-year-old daughter, Sandy, running away from home. What's worse, she seems to have taken the shotgun and a box of shells with her. The Sebastians suspect that Sandy is with Davy, a young man with criminal past. They hire Archer to bring their daughter back home since Mr. Sebastian is deadly afraid of offending his boss, Mr. Hackett, and does not want to contact the police. With the help of a friend of Sandy Archer quickly finds the missing girl but Davy assaults Archer and the young couple manage to escape. The case quickly grows to vast proportions: it involves kidnapping, murders, and - of course - connections emerge to events from a long time ago. The main characters involved in both the present and the past time frames are Mr. Hackett, his family, and a retired cop still working on an unsolved case. Everything seems to center on Davy and people close to him: his probation officer as well as his high-school counselor have important roles in the plot. While Davy may be driven by the need to understand his roots, almost everything that everybody else does goes back to money and sex.

The web of interconnections between so many people involved in the case is supremely complicated, yet the author manages the tangle of threads with a steady hand almost to the very end. The classical Macdonald's present and past setup is multidimensional yet clear. The stunning phrase from the epigraph, "as if I had grounded the present in the actual flesh of the past," distills the essence of the author's method of constructing the plot. Unlike some other Macdonald's works The Instant Enemy does it not rely on artificial devices to move the plot or on convenient coincidences. Archer even notices:
"Coincidences seldom happen in my work. If you dig deep enough, you can nearly always find their single bifurcating roots."
The classic Macdonald prose wonderfully captures Southern California vistas:
"Late afternoon sunlight spilled over the mountains to the west. The light had a tarnished elegiac quality, as if the sinking sun might never rise again. On the fairway behind the house the golfers seemed to be hurrying, pursued by their lengthening shadows."
The story is captivating almost to the very end, but then it suddenly breaks and disappoints in a major plot twist. The convoluted plot is like a clock spring that has been wound too tight. One turn too many and… Snap! Everything breaks apart to leave the clockwork gaping.

The references to repressed memories of one of the characters sound silly, yet, after all, this was written in 1967 and the New Age shtick is understandable. By the way, Archer notices graffiti saying MAKE SENSE NOT WAR, a nice Sixties twist.

And one more lovely Macdonald quote:
”Cases break in different ways. This case was opening, not like a door or even a grave, certainly not like a rose or any flower, but opening like an old sad blonde with darkness at her core.”
Three and three quarter stars.

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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Jakob von GuntenJakob von Gunten by Robert Walser
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"I have the somewhat unpleasant feeling that I shall always have something to eat in the world."

This reviewer faces quite a difficult task: the short novel Jakob von Gunten (1909) by Martin Walser is considered a classic of the European literature. Some critics even list it among 100 greatest novels of the 20th century ( Hundert grosse Romane des 20. Jahrhunderts ), and J.M. Coetzee himself praises Walser's book in his collection of literary essays Inner Workings that I review on Goodreads. Thus - and I am not trying to be coy - it must be my fault that I have serious trouble relating to the novel.

Jakob von Gunten, a young man from a well-off family, flees home and enrolls in the Benjamenta Institute, a school for servants. The school's owner, Herr Benjamenta, is also the Principal and the only teacher is the Principal's sister, Fräulein Lisa. The pupils at the Institute study only one subject: "How Should a Boy Behave" and they use only one textbook, What Is the Aim of the Boys' School? Jakob, the narrator, writes a lot about the strange education provided by the Benjamentas, focused on memorizing and practicing suitable behaviors: "What we pupils do, we do because we have to, but why we have to, nobody quite knows." He seems to disdain critical thinking:
"[...] at root I despise my capacity for thinking. I value only experiences, and these, as a rule, are quite independent of all thinking and comparing. [...] If one thinks, one resists, and that is always so ugly and ruinous to things."
Jakob also writes about his fellow pupils, particularly about certain Kraus, whom he characterizes as utterly meek and obsequious ("Kraus is a genuine work of God, a nothing, a servant.") Veneration of Fräulein Lisa and the evolution of Herr Benjamenta's feelings towards Jakob – the Principal eventually begins "to feel a strange, a quite peculiar and now no longer repressible preference for [Jakob]" - are some of the other threads in the plot. We also learn about a rather sweet encounter in a "restaurant, one with hostesses", where Jakob engages a Polish hostess:
"And so I did what they call Saying Hello in such places, that is, she explained it to me, laughing and joking and kissing me, and then I did it."
The novel exudes a distinctly off-center feeling and has an aura of vague yet pervasive madness about it. While everything that Jakob reports in his narration is completely realistic and no events that he describes are implausible, there is a disturbing lack of a unifying focus, a sort of non sequitur in the large. Some passages in the text remind me of one of the funniest texts circulating on the Internet in the good old days about 20 years ago before it became the BusinessNet. The text, composed by some bored grad students and entitled "The Brain Damage Quiz", lists about 50 statements each of which sounds not quite right, for instance:
Likes and dislikes are among my favorites.

Walls impede my progress.
Jakob van Gunten's extraordinary statement about "somewhat unpleasant feeling that I shall always have something to eat in the world," would fit very well in the list.

The feeling of off-centeredness is magnified by the narrator's use of contradictory statements. For instance, he writes:
"To be sure, we pupils don't make fun of each other. We don't? Oh, yes, we do."
and a little below, on the same page:
"To repress nature completely can't be done. And yet it can."
One passage struck me with particular force. Remember that the novel was written 108 years ago, about the time when the great-great-grandparents of today's young adults were entering their adult life, yet the statement is completely relevant today and could have been written in 2016:
"Of course there's progress on earth, so called, but that's only one of the many lies which the business people put out, so that they can squeeze money out of the crowd more blatantly and mercilessly. The masses are the slaves of today, and the individual is the slave of the vast mass-ideas. [...] Try to earn lots and lots of money. Everything else has gone wrong, but not money. Everything, everything is spoiled, halved, robbed of grace and splendor."
I am recommending the book; it is just that I am not smart enough to fully appreciate it. One needs to read it for its sheer strangeness if nothing else.

Three stars.

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Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Locked Room (Martin Beck, #8)The Locked Room by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"She wanted her child to grow up in a warm, secure, humane environment - one where the rat race after power, money, and social status did not make everyone into an enemy, and where the word 'buy' and 'own' weren't regarded as synonyms with happiness."

While The Locked Room (1973), the eighth installment of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's extraordinary Martin Beck series of police procedurals based in Sweden in the 1960s and 1970s, is again heavy on social issues, this particular novel distinguishes itself even stronger in another way. Despite the grim beginning passages it is a hilarious comedy of errors, where everybody - the criminals, the police, and the courts - make mistakes that range from idiotic to grave, but the justice sort of triumphs in the end. A laugh-out-loud funny yet socially aware police procedural turns out to be quite a cool sub-genre.

The novel interleaves two threads: the first story begins with a bank robbery that results in a customer getting accidentally killed. In the other thread, an elderly man is found dead in his apartment when the odor of putrefaction alerts the neighbors. The apartment has been tightly locked from inside, the man has apparently shot himself to death, but the suicide weapon is not in there. Lennart Kollberg, Gunvald Larsson, and other members of the homicide squad are handling the bank robbery while Martin Beck - who has just made complete recovery after getting shot - is trying to untangle the mystery of the locked room. Obviously, the authors seamlessly connect the two threads in the denouement.

Social and political themes abound in the story. The plot takes place in Stockholm during the summer of 1972 - the time of massive anti-American demonstrations in the capital of Sweden. The authors make fun of the highest levels government officials for whom
"the only crime that could be considered more serious [than a bank robbery] was throwing eggs at the United States ambassador."
On a more serious note the novel raises the issue of the increase in brutality of conflicts between the police and the criminals that followed issuing weapons to police officers; most of the police force had been unarmed before that. The growing underclass in Sweden is another motif in the novel - the lack of jobs and perspectives for hundreds of thousands of people is a highly criminogenic situation.

Despite the serious themes humor dominates the novel. The humor ranges from over-the-top farce involving career criminals Malmström, Mohrén, and Mauritzon to subtle and hilarious: for example, Martin Beck is afraid that due to his incompetence and because "he had acted as an idiot", he might get promoted to the rank of Police Commissioner. Indeed, in bureaucracies it rarely matters who is at the top as long as the subordinates are only moderately incompetent.

If one enjoys reading about the details of the detectives' lives, The Locked Room offers a treat. Lonely and sad after his divorce, Martin Beck seems to have recovered: he is so happy now that he whistles as he walks, something that would be inconceivable in the previous novels. The long scene where Beck meets Rhea, the woman of his destiny, is wonderfully off-beat and infuriating at the same time: the subtle psychological observations and the clever, cliché-free banter intermingle with atrocious, naively didactic dialogue.

Interesting plot strongly grounded in socioeconomic realities, clever locked-room mystery, and plenty of humor! If not for some weaknesses of the prose, this would be a four-star book.

Three and a half stars.

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Thursday, August 4, 2016

The EmigrantsThe Emigrants by W.G. Sebald
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"time [...] is nothing but a disquiet of the soul."

Another book for grown-ups, and I am not disrespectful to younger readers: simply, at a certain age, people lose interest in the whole silly idea of the future - which is just a mirage inexorably dwindling to nothingness - while the past becomes more and more interesting and important. Although I have heard praise about W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants (1998) is my first book of his and I am extremely grateful to my wife for giving me a set of his novels for my birthday whose number indicates that the late middle age is in my distant past. It is quite likely that W.G. Sebald will soon join J.M. Coetzee and Cees Nooteboom among the greatest writers I have been fortunate to discover in the prime of my geezerhood.

The Emigrants is a collection of four stories about Jewish Germans who emigrated from their homeland at various times between 1899 and 1939. Although it reads as non-fiction, a sort of documentary, this fascinating mix of memoir and travel diary is indeed a novel. W.G. Sebald creates the narrator - whose name is also W.G. Sebald - to write about the émigrés with whom he - the narrator - has personal connections: for instance, his great-uncle and his grade school teacher. In the three longer stories the narrator, seeking to retrace the protagonists' personal stories, travels to visit the places where they had lived. Although not real people, the characters are obviously based on real people, and the W.G. Sebald, the narrator, is modeled on W.G. Sebald, the author, also an émigré who left Germany in the mid-1960s. Clearly, the author deliberately blurs the distinction between "fact" and "fiction". The whole metafictional exercise is similar to J.M. Coetzee's approach in his Diary of a Bad Year where he writes about a South-African writer, "C", or Summertime , where J.M. Coetzee writes about deceased writer J. Coetzee. But W.G. Sebald uses an additional device in telling the stories: they are accompanied by black-and-white, grainy, old photographs that enhance the feeling of authenticity and the documentary mood.

Any attempt of mine to summarize the stories would trivialize their intricate structure so I will just mention a few fragments that I find most captivating. The narrator's great-uncle Ambros Adelwarth leaves Germany at the beginning of 20th century, becomes a room service apprentice in a hotel in Montreux and ends up working as a butler for the Solomons, one of the wealthiest banking families in New York. He also serves as a valet and traveling companion for the Solomons' son, with whom he travels to Italy, Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and the city of Jerusalem. Uncle Ambros' 1913 agenda book, preserved by the narrator's family, is the source of fascinating passages about the journey. We also learn about Uncle Ambros' sad later years: the narrator retraces his uncle's life in the sanatorium in Ithaca, N.Y. The doctor who is currently overseeing the decaying site talks about the old times of the electro-shock therapy and helps the narrator construct haunting images of Ambros' last years.

The fourth story is about Max Ferber, a painter, who emigrated from Munich to Manchester. The description of the dusty Ferber's studio in the Manchester port area is so vivid that I have it in front of my eyes:
[...] the debris generated by painting and the dust that continuously fell [...] which, as he was coming to realize, he loved more than anything in the world. He felt closer to dust [...] than to light, air or water."
One of the most fascinating fragments of the book is Luisa's - Max Ferber's mother - account of her family life and people's daily habits and events in Bad Kissingen in the early years of the 20th century. The extremely rich portrait of the times is captivating not only to the reader but also to the narrator who decides, almost a hundred years later, to retrace Luisa's steps in Bavaria. My grandmother's year of birth happens to be the same as Luisa's and I would give a lot to be able to read a similar account of her daily life...

While emigration, restlessness, loss, and decay are the main themes of the novel, to me its most important aspect is how clearly it shows that nothing is more realistic than well-written fiction. The rich texture of stories told by Sebald, Coetzee, Garcia Marquez or any other great writer, and the power of their fiction convey the truth about the human condition. Since the stories they create transcend the particulars of actual people they offer a higher degree of realism than could ever be provided by documentaries, which are skewed by the normal biases of the documentary writers and their subjects. Of course it takes a great writer to create realistic fiction as the efforts of lesser ones are often lamentable.

I have not yet read enough of and about G.W. Sebald the author to determine with certainty what his reasons for emigrating from Germany were. He was not Jewish - in fact his father had been a Wehrmacht soldier during the Second World War and had fought on the Eastern front - yet almost all characters in The Emigrants are Jewish or have Jewish roots. I suppose the painful history of German-Jewish issues had a lot to do with the author's emigration.

A great book and thanks to my wife I have several more Sebald's works to look forward to.

Four and a quarter stars.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Black MoneyBlack Money by Ross Macdonald
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Lew Archer – the hardest of the hard-boiled dicks
(a blurb on the cover of 1967 Bantam paperback printing of Black Money)

The luminous city. It's a phrase I use for the world of spirit and intellect, the distillation of the great minds of past and present. [...] It takes in everything from Plato's Forms and Augustine's Civitas Dei to Joyce's epiphanies.” (Ross Macdonald, Black Money)

It must be difficult to combine pulp-style literature with subtle literary references in a mystery novel and it would take a tremendous effort to successfully blend action-packed plot with the subtlety of Joyce's epiphanies and the depth of Plato's and Augustine of Hippo's ideas. In my "Re-read Macdonald" project Black Money (1965), the thirteenth novel in Ross Macdonald’s (pseudonym of Kenneth Millar) famous series featuring Lew Archer, follows The Chill and pales in comparison with the predecessor. By the way, the first of the epigraph quotes, the vile blurb on the cover, is outright false: Lew Archer is one of the most humane and least hard of all PIs in the genre. Well, in this country “hardest dick” is likely to sell more books than a humane character.

The events of the plot take place mainly in Montevista, a fictional Southern California town, a place where one can meet “maharajas, Nobel prize winners, and billionaires.” Lew Archer's client is Peter Jamieson, a rich family's young heir, who looks “like money about three generations removed from its source.” He has known Ginny Fablon since childhood, has always been infatuated with her and wanted her for his wife. He hires Archer to prevent Ginny from marrying a certain Francis Martel, who claims to be a French aristocrat, an opponent of President de Gaulle on the run from the agents of the French government. Peter is convinced that Martel is a fraud and wants Archer to expose him. In a rather preposterous development Archer gets a professor of French from the local liberal arts college to prepare a test in French history and literature that would settle the issue. Test results notwithstanding, the questions surrounding Martel’s identity remain and the test appears again in the plot in an even sillier context. The story involves two murders, and – obviously for Ross Macdonald – a traumatic event from the past: the suicide of Ginny's father plays a crucial role in shaping the present events. Connections emerge to shady characters who control illegal activities in Las Vegas casinos. A "little" cerebrovascular accident and an abortion add texture to the story.

The novel is an irritating mix of occasionally superb Macdonald prose and ridiculous plot components that seem to have come straight from pulp magazines. The middle part of the novel is the weakest: a dying person crawls over the threshold and utters enigmatic last words, a doctor freely shares details about his patients, a waitress overhears Archer's conversation and points out a familiar woman in the picture that Archer happens to be showing to his interlocutor at the very moment - an assortment of lame devices whose only purpose is to move the plot. The trajectories of various characters constantly intersect, but the whole tapestry of threads does not make as much sense as in The Chill.

Still, a novel written by Ross Macdonald can't all be bad. A cute quote to sweeten the review:
"His head looked like a minor accident on top of his huge neck and shoulders."
Two and a half stars.

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