John Fante: An Appreciation

•1 November, 2007 • 5 Comments

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John Fante grew up the son of poor Italian immigrant parents in 1920’s and 30’s America, an upbringing that was to feature greatly in his writing. Despite the objection of his rather overbearing father, Fante left home and headed to Los Angeles as soon as he could to begin a career as a writer, and, like others with similar dreams, the quality of his work didn’t make getting published and building a readership any easier. Eventually Fante drifted into writing screenplays for Hollywood, work he considered ‘hack’; but the money was good and the work far easier than the backbreaking toil of the world he’d come from.

Fante kept writing novels, novellas and short stories outside of his nine to five occupation in ‘the dream factory’ but it seemed that his was to be an overlooked talent, remembered by only a few. Fortunately, someone who hadn’t forgotten his work, and the effect it had on him, was the cult American poet Charles Bukowski, who never failed to mention him as an influence. Through Bukowski, people found Fante, and slowly, late in his life, recognition came his way, until now, where he is considered an important figure in 20th Century American literature.

But for all this, Fante is not for everyone. His work is rooted deep in the world he came from, and a harsh dog eat dog world it can sometimes seem. His protagonists often appear to be closely drawn on himself, and he never shies away from painting a less than flattering picture. For example, his alter-ego Arturo Bandini, the protagonist in a number of his novels, is an arrogant self-centred man, yet one you can’t walk away from as you’re having far too much fun observing him.

The flawed hero is a familiar figure in literature, but one that in the hands of many writers comes across as an elaborate conceit, an extension of the author’s ego. Look at me, it seems to cry out, I can create a character, make him cross ethical and moral boundaries that would stop you in your tracks and yet I can still make you empathise with him. It’s a trick that can sometimes leave a sour taste in the mouth. With Fante it is different, he is not giving you characters with flaws, he is giving you flawed human beings. People taken from Fante’s own experiences as a poor second-generation Italian immigrant, a ‘dago’ that society looked down on. It would be easy to play this for sympathy, but Fante prefers the route of a more painful truth; that those who are having mud kicked in their face by people higher up the ladder sometimes turn round and do the same to those they consider below themselves.

The reality of the world portrayed in his work is not their only draw, as Fante was a master storyteller and one with a beautiful, clean, writing style. I’m sure if you go though many of the classics you’ll find writers who are masters of prose; capable of curling language round every object in a room, every action taken, every emotion felt, until the whole scene seems to be laid out in front of you like a photograph. They are rightly lauded for their greatness. But there is another kind of greatness, writers who can describe a scene in 3 pages rather than 15 with no loss in clarity for the reader. Fante does this with a seemingly effortless skill. You can read a scene and be left with a crystal clear image of what happened and yet you can’t understand how, as there seemed to be no prose, no description. So you go back, and re-read, and you see how beautifully economic scraps of information are dropped into the narrative; just enough to allow you to create the scene for yourself. Fante doesn’t need reams of prose to create an image in your mind, he does something far more clever, he creates truthful situations that the readers own experiences can fill in; he has the genius of simplicity.

I should probably recommend the best of his work to you, and if someone’s really interested I will. Far better though if you try and find one of his books in the library or a shop. If you can find one, and it may be a struggle, just open it up and read a few pages; his work is pretty consistent, so any few pages of any of his works will give you a flavour of his writing. If you don’t like it, no problem, there are plenty of other books for you, but if you do, then I’ve just cost you a fair bit of money, as you’ll end up buying everything of his you can find.

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Lars Saabye Christensen: Herman

•1 November, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Herman - Cover ImageAuthor: Lars Saabye Christensen

Title: Herman

ISBN: 0099498278

Pages: 192

Do you need to empathise with a books central character to fully enjoy the story? An eternal question, and one with a personal, highly subjective response. For me the answer is no – something confirmed by reading Bleak House a few weeks ago. Bleak House is an incredible book – a complex, multi-layered, socially aware masterpiece, written in beautiful prose. But to be honest, if one of the main characters had been put through a mincing machine for the sake of plot development, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. Herman by the Norwegian writer Lars Saabye Christensen is a different book entirely.

The story revolves around Herman Fulkt, an eleven-year old Norwegian boy. Herman seems to daydream his way through life, using his vivid imagination and quick wits to navigate past any trouble caused by his lackadaisical attitude to the world in general and school in particular. Reality only begins to encroach after a trip to the barber, followed by an appointment with his doctor, reveal he is starting to lose his hair. Herman’s response to his gradually changing physical appearance, as well as the reaction it causes in others, is to retreat further into fantasy. It is only when reality hits hard again that Herman learns to cope with committing the schoolchild’s greatest crime: being different.

You could be forgiven for thinking that sounds like the plot of some terrible made-for-tv ‘disease of the week’ movie, but it’s far more substantial fare than that. As despite being only 180 pages long, the sparse nature of both plot and prose allow Herman the time and space to work through his situation, and find his own solution to how best to cope. But even better, we are given opportunity to genuinely care for Herman himself. For what sets this book apart is the brilliant characterisation of its protagonist. Christensen manages to paint a funny, quirky and deeply sympathetic character, without ever resorting to cliché or cheap emotional manipulation. In fact, it’s a long time since I can remember caring this much about a character from a novel. To the point where, about a third of the way through, I found myself cheating, and flicking to the back page to make sure Herman is ok. If he wasn’t I’d of closed the book, and set about tracking down the author’s email address so I could give him a piece of my mind.

Herman is a simple story, with a simple message: embrace who you are. It’s not trying to dazzle you with somersaulting prose or reach out for literary awards in a self-conscious ‘look at how clever I am’ way. It does something far more difficult; it makes you genuinely care about someone who doesn’t really exist. In its own way, it’s a minor classic – and that’s final.*

*You’ll need to read the book to understand why I added those last few words.

Harry Mulisch: The Assault

•1 November, 2007 • 3 Comments

The Assault - Cover ImageAuthor: Harry Mulisch

Title: The Assault

ISBN: 0394744209

Pages: 192
Some novels announce their genius from the opening page – Bleak House and First Circle being good examples. Some take longer to build momentum and grab your attention. Others, like The Assault by Harry Mulisch, provide an enjoyable read throughout, but it’s only when a highly satisfying denouement puts the final pieces of the puzzle in place that the book comes together, leaving you with the thought: ‘That was a damn good read’.

The Assault opens in German occupied Holland during the first few days of 1945. Liberation is close at hand, and the Dutch resistance takes their chance to exact revenge on a local policeman for collaboration. An assassination takes place outside a group of four remote houses as the man makes his way home. Knowing the Germans will burn down the house closest to the shooting, the occupiers drag the body through the January snow to the front of one of the neighbours. Twelve year old Anton Steenwijk watches as the body is dumped in front of his home and as his elder brother Peter attempts to move it on again just as the authorities arrive. Arrests are quickly made, and Anton finds himself in a police cell overnight, before being released into the custody of his Aunt and Uncle. It is from them that he learns his family has been killed in retaliation and his home destroyed.

The rest of the book follows Anton as he grows into adulthood, and tries to put the past behind him. But a series of encounters with people involved in the shooting keep dragging him back to that day, as he learns more about what actually happened, until, many years later, he finally discovers the full truth.

The Assault takes the one overwhelming question of war – why? – and mixes it inventively with a more personal reflection on fate and the repercussions of our actions. Anton is reluctantly forced to face up to his past and ask some difficult questions. Why did the assassination take place where it did? Why was the body moved in front of his house rather than one of the others? Are we fated in life? Are events ultimately meaningless? Do we have our backs to the past whilst facing the future, or backs to the future whilst facing the past?

The result is a kind of human equivalent of a nuclear reaction. Circumstances – some of which have meaning, some of which are meaningless – come together to cause an event to happen, which itself leads to repercussions – some of which have meaning, some of which are meaningless.

When you finally put the book down, you are left with almost as many questions as Anton. Did the characters involved with the shooting act correctly? If they had acted differently would the resulting situation have been any better? Is it impossible to escape our past?

The Assault is a fine, thought provoking read and at 180 odd pages, a quick one too. It’s the first book I’ve read by Harry Mulisch – one of Holland’s leading writers and a nominee for the Man Booker International award this year – it probably won’t be the last.

Josef Skvorecky: The Engineer of Human Souls

•1 November, 2007 • 5 Comments

The Engineer of Human Souls - Cover ImageAuthor: Josef Skvorecky

Title: The Engineer of Human Souls

ISBN: 0099386410

Pages: 592

I love Czech literature. Writers from that region have a wonderful ability to talk about nothing and everything at the same time, all wrapped up in a warm dark humour that reveals a great love of life. Perhaps it’s a twentieth century tradition that stems from the writing of the humorist Jaraslav Hasek and his greatest gift to Czech literature, The Good Soldier Svejk? Perhaps the origin is earlier and beyond my knowledge? But the influence can be seen in the work of Ivan Klima, Karel Capek, Bohumal Hrabal, and probably countless more I’ve never even heard of. I’ve always got half an eye out looking for writers in a similar vein, a search that somehow led me to miss what was already under my nose.

The Engineer of Human Souls by Josef Skvorecky has been sitting in my to-be-read pile for some time, probably a couple of years. I’d bought it on recommendation, but the ominous sounding title (a reference to Stalin’s opinion of a writers function) plus a hefty 571 page count, well above my normal comfort zone, had seen me passing it by for newer purchases on a fairly regular basis. And what a glorious book I was ignoring.

The story revolves around Danny, a jazz loving writer from Czechoslovakia, living in exile in Canada and working as a university lecturer in literature. The parallels with Skvorecky’s own life are very strong, to the point where the book comes close to a Japanese I-novel in style. The narrative shifts between Danny’s current life amongst the Czech émigré in Canada and significant periods in his past, all neatly tied together with letters from those he knew from his homeland who have taken refuge in other parts of the world. As the story progresses we learn the different paths chosen by Danny and his friends during wartime, and how their lives pan out. Much is revealed as the characters live through ever changing times: democracy, Nazi rule, communism and for the lucky ones who escape, exile.

The subtitle to The Engineer of Human Souls is: An entertainment on the old themes of life, women, fate, dreams, the working class, secret agents, love and death. But that reveals only the tip of this book’s iceberg. How a seemingly meandering tale, with a fairly basic plot can say so much is a testament to the skill of Skvorecky.

Familiar Czech literary obsessions of food, wine, women and song make regular appearances, and at times Danny’s laid back attitude to life is reminiscent of the ‘good soldier’ himself. But there is much more under the surface. Bravery, cowardice, motivation and duty are put under the microscope as we learn of Danny’s wartime experiences working in a Messerchmitt factory, and his flirtations with the resistance movement. Flirtations that are fed more by desires towards impressionable young girls than the desire to do the right thing. This proves to be an enduring attraction to Danny, as his older self becomes ever closer to a young student in his class.

Life under Nazi rule, the communist regime, and abroad as an exile are subtly compared. Contrast skilfully made between the younger man living under oppression and fighting against it in his own way and the older wiser man amused by the attraction of totalitarian states to those who have no experience, or real understanding, of them.

This is a bibliophile’s book as well. The discussions Danny has with his students’ flow throughout the story, and literary references abound. The book is even divided into seven chapters named after famous authors. The result is a book that moves to the love of literature, as well as the love of life.

I’m still undecided if this book has crossed the line to becoming a masterpiece or not, I need a little longer to mull that over. But it is a fantastic read: warm but cynical, naïve but knowing, straightforward but complex, a book full of contradictions, but one that never stops being a joy.

Leonid Tsypkin: Summer in Baden-Baden

•1 November, 2007 • 2 Comments

Summer in Baden-Baden - Cover ImageAuthor: Leonid Tsypkin

Title: Summer in Baden-Baden

ISBN: 0141020199

Pages: 320

Of all literary techniques, stream of consciousness is the one I have the most problem with. Unless the subject matter and author combine and try damn hard to catch my imagination, it’s all just going to wash over me, however critically acclaimed the work may be. Leaving writers like Joyce, Woolf and Sebald all firmly labelled in my mind as worthy but dull.

Thankfully, experimentation in some of his books by one of my favourite authors, Bohumil Hrabal, persuaded me that my aversion might be down to content rather than style, and lead me to take a risk on Summer in Baden-Baden by Leonid Tsypkin. This is a joy of a book and one where the technique is used not as a means to an end, or a flamboyant literary example of the Emperor’s new clothes, but as an integral part of the story.

Summer in Baden-Baden is a bibliophiles book, and one in particular that should be read by every fan of Dostoyevski. Tsypkin was himself a dedicated admirer of the Russian master and the narrative of the story encompasses and links them both.

The book is framed by a train journey Tsypkin took in the late 1970’s to St Petersburg. A trip to visit and photograph various locations from Dostoyevski’s life and books, in particular Crime and Punishment, and one that he hoped would bring him closer to understanding the author. As Tsypkin travels, he reads from a gift his Aunt has given him: the diary of Dostoyevski’s second wife Anna, covering the period in 1867 when they lived in Baden-Baden.

It’s here that the book takes off, as the text flows from first to third person narratives and from the point of view of Tsypkin, Dostoyevski and Anna. The switching of POV and narrative style allows the characters of the married couple to be explored from inside and out in a way that Dostoyevski himself would have been proud of. The changes are made seamlessly, often mid sentence, but you quickly get into stride with the tempo of the writing, to the point where the style of prose seems the most natural way of telling the story. It’s effortless and breathtaking at the same time, and full credit needs to be given to Roger and Angela Keys for their wonderful translation.

Dostoyevski’s battle with his addiction to gambling takes centre stage for much of the time. It reveals many of his flaws: his weakness, obsessive-compulsive behaviour, and the mood swings that lead him to push away those closest to him. So whilst at times you can hear echoes of a number of Dostoyevski’s works in the text, it is ‘The Gambler’ you are most reminded of, to the point where Summer in Baden-Baden seems like a shadowy double of that book.

The relationship between the ever-faithful Anna and her husband is used as a mirror for one of the major themes of the book. How can Tsypkin, a Jew, reconcile his admiration for Dostoyevski with Dostoyevski’s attitude towards his faith? It’s a question that is touched upon throughout the book, often obliquely referenced, until Tsypkin finally reaches St Petersburg where he directly and honestly addresses it.

As I mentioned before, this is a book for fans of Dostoyevski, and some knowledge of his work, life and times are needed to get the most from it. Indeed, some of the nuance of meaning from his meetings with various other Russian writers and the historical accuracy of the events described were a bit beyond my knowledge. But that didn’t affect my enjoyment.

Special mention also to the 2001 edition which included an excellent introduction by Susan Sontag and reproduction of Tsypkin’s photographs from his trip to St Petersburg. Want to see the building where the moneylender in Crime and Punishment lived? It’s in here. Although to be honest it looks like it could be from any of the modern day Eastern European cities I’ve visited.

But whether you regard this book as a fantasy, a fictionalised documentary or an extended piece of fan mail is ultimately unimportant. Summer in Baden-Baden stands alone as an exquisite masterpiece, and Tsypkin an author worthy of sitting on the shelf next to Dostoyevsky without fear of being out of place.

Erich Maria Remarque: The Night in Lisbon

•1 November, 2007 • 8 Comments

The Night in Lisbon - Cover ImageAuthor: Erich Maria Remarque

Title: The Night in Lisbon

ISBN: 0449912434

Pages: 244

There are any number of writers whose entire cannon is overlooked save for a single ‘classic’ work. Burgess with A Clockwork Orange and Heller with Catch-22 being notable examples. Even more unfortunate are those writers whose most famous novel eclipses their other output, yet fails to lodge their name in our collective cultural conscience. Erich Maria Remarque is one such writer. Who wrote All Quiet on the Western Front is a far more difficult quiz question than it deserves to be.

So, having seen a number of his other books on amazon with glowing reviews I decided to take the plunge with The Night in Lisbon, one of his later novels.

The story starts, as you might expect, in Lisbon, Portugal. It is 1942 and a desperate refugee is trying to get the right papers to leave war-torn Europe, escape the Gestapo who are on his trail, and make it by boat to America, and safety. It is on the docks that he meets Schwarz, another refugee, one with all the paperwork needed, but one who is willing to give them all up in exchange for the chance to tell his story. As they move from one café to another during the night, Schwarz unburdens himself, and it is his story that forms the bulk of the book.

Schwarz reveals that he has been on the run for many years, ever since he was denounced for his politic ideas by his brother in law Georg, a fanatical Nazi. As the war approaches, Schwarz risks going back to Germany to get his wife Helen. We follow them as they make their way through Switzerland, into France, then Spain, and finally to Portugal. The frustrations of a refugee are played out, as they are imprisoned on the way and seem to spend every waking moment trying to get the right paperwork to enable them to move on. All the time stalked by Georg and an uncomfortable feeling as a reader that it’s all going to end in tears.

The Night in Lisbon has an excellent plot, and you could be forgiven from my description from thinking that it’s just a generic thriller with one eye on Casablanca. But it’s oh so much more than that.

The wind had risen again, and the swaying branches cast their restless shadows on the faces, on the howling machine, and the silent stone sculptures on the church wall behind them: Christ on the cross between the two thieves. The faces of the listeners were concentrated and transfigured. They believed what the automaton was screaming at them; in a strange state of hypnosis, they applauded this disembodied voice as if it was a human being. The scene struck me as typical of the sinister, demonic mob spirit of our times, of all the frightened, hysterical crowds who follow slogans. It makes no difference whether the slogans come from the right or the left, as long as they relieve the masses of the hard work of thinking and of the need to take responsibility.

After I’d read fifty or so pages, I knew I liked the story and enjoyed the style of writing, but was unsure if it had that something extra that you look for that makes a book special. But the further I went, the more the story pulled me in and the greater my respect for Remarque’s skill. He eschews literary pyrotechnics of elaborate, dense prose, instead relying on quality characterisation and good old-fashioned storytelling. The result is a fast, easy read, as you almost feel propelled through the novel.
Only when you’ve finished and take time to go over the book in your mind do the real subtleties of Remarque’s writing start to come out. How the speed of the story line matches the journey Schwarz and Helen are taking. Relationships that at first seem disparate end up revealing striking similarities. The way the conversation between Schwarz and the refugee is repeatedly interrupted and they are forced to move on somewhere else, just as Schwarz and Helen are in their escape across Europe. The realisation that the conversation is more than just the frame for Schwarz’s story that you first believed it to be. How love and hate both have the ability to make us do what we think is beyond us, and how the passing of a passport from one refugee to another and then another feels like wartime is speeding up the passing of one generation to the next.

It’s much cleverer stuff then you first imagine, and I’d need a re-read to feel I was really starting to understand it all. But before that, I’m going to get hold of some of Remarque’s other books. If they are of this quality, he’s a writer who deserves full investigation.

Ryszard Kapuscinski: Emperor – Downfall of an Autocrat

•1 November, 2007 • Leave a Comment

The Emperor - Cover Image

Author: Ryszard Kapuscinski

Title: Emperor – Downfall of an Autocrat

ISBN: 0141188030

Pages: 192

The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat is the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski’s account of the last days of the court of Haile Selassie, told through the eyes of the courtiers who survived his reign. Whilst I’m sure Kapuscinski would have preferred to have had direct access to Selassie himself, he never the less brilliantly pieces together the strange world of the Ethiopian court from the accounts of those who did.

All the elements of corruption, incompetence, grandiloquence and social climbing you would expect from the inner circle of a third world monarchy are in place. The life lived inside a privileged world, whilst outside the country is left to rot. All outlined in a cultivated and laconic manner by courtiers for whom this kind of ridiculous insanity is the most natural thing in the world. Oh, how the other half live.

One question that hung over my head as I read was how did this man come to be regarded as a deity by Rastafarians? A possible explanation begins to emerge as you get further into the book, as it turns out that Selassie was just about the most laid back person to have ever walked the earth. The rampant corruption and regular famines of his country are regarded as ‘just the way things are’. The jostling for position and in-fighting amongst courtiers observed with nothing more than mild amusement. Even his eventual overthrow is greeted with the observation that ‘if the revolution is good for the people, then I too, support the revolution and would not oppose my dethronement’. How more Rastafarian can you get?

It was a small dog, a Japanese breed. His name was Lulu. He was allowed to sleep in the Emperor’s great bed. During various ceremonies, he would run away from the Emperor’s lap and pee on dignitaries’ shoes. The august gentlemen were not allowed to flinch or make the slightest gesture when they felt their feet getting wet. I had to walk among the dignitaries and wipe the urine from their shoes with a satin cloth. This was my job for ten years.

If you find a paragraph like this, three pages into a book, you know it’s going to be a cracker. And yet, and yet. The something that held me back from finding Emperor an even more fulfilling read was a feeling that this was territory I had seen covered before. I suspect this is not the fault of Kapuscinski whose work was probably ground breaking in its day, but high quality reportage is much more easily found on the shelves of our bookstores than when Emperor was first published. Perhaps it’s better to read Emperor for what it is, a great story, told well, by someone who was an original.

Postscript: A year after completing this review I became aware of criticism made of the factual accuracy of Kapuściński’s writings. Follow this link to make up your own mind:

http://www.richardwebster.net/johnryle.html