31 December 2007

Round up of 2007

2007 was a good year for my reading, better than ever before.

I read 87 books, of which:

20 were non fiction
67 were fiction, of which

29 were originally English
20 were from French
8 were from German (6 of them by Zweig)
5 were from Russian
3 were from Spanish
1 was from Hungarian
1 was from Serbo-Croat

Classics newly read - Ulysses, Germinal
Classics reread - Crime and Punishment, Darkness at Noon

Best fiction read

Liquidation by Imre Kertesz
Germinal by Emile Zola
Fantastic Night and other stories by Stefan Zweig
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
The Unknown Masterpiece by Balzac
Homo Faber by Max Frisch
Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis
Headlong by Michael Frayn

Best non-fiction

Fiasco by Thomas E Ricks
Lawless World by Philippe Sands
Nine Suitcases by Bela Zsolt

Discoveries of the year: Stefan Zweig, Sinclair Lewis

Next year's plans:

Zola's Rougon-Macquart cycle
Balzac's major works
Life and Fate
The Man Without Qualities
Classic to reread - Anna Karenina

Anne Fadiman - At Large and At Small

A few years ago, Anne Fadiman produced a small book called Ex Libris, a collection of essays on books and bibliophilia. It was an unexpected success, finding a permanent home on the Waterstone's checkout desk, largely through word of mouth - I probably bought 6 or 7 copies myself. Ex Libris mixed the personal with the objective, with chapters on book collections, treatment of books, special obsessions, and specific topics such as the sonnet.

It's this mix of personal and general that Fadiman calls the 'familiar essay', perfected in the 19th century by William Hazlitt and, her personal obsession, Charles Lamb. Nowadays there are lots of critical essays, and plenty (too many) personal columns, but few that combine the two, where you can feel both educated and connected by the same piece.

In a plain bid, by her publishers no doubt, to repeat the success of Ex Libris Fadiman has collected several of her occasional essays from the last decade, on varied subjects, but all of them of close personal interest to her. Because of this, they're written with a passion and knowledge unlikely in subjects more distant from the writer, merely researched rather than lived. This is engaging, but the extent to which it is depends a lot on whether the reader shares the obsession.

So my indifference to ice cream and coffee meant that those chapters left me unmoved, but I was far more involved with the essays on Lamb and Coleridge. I know little about the former, apart from the psychosis of his sister, and found Fadiman's love for him appealing, but I didn't think Coleridge was my sort. I wasn't aware of his repeated flight, even as an adult, which is some indication of the insecurities that lay under his daunting intellect.

This collection isn't as good as Ex Libris, although it has its moments. The expression of a deep personal moment in the last chapter is a little nakedly manipulative, and doesn't fit with the other essays, and too many are a little overkeen to persuade the author of the validity of the obsession. But Fadiman is a good writer, and humorous, and the book works as a light gift.


23 December 2007

WG Sebald - Austerlitz

I read this a couple of years ago, and wrote elsewhere about it immediately afterwards, when I had the book still fresh in my mind. I thought I should save my thoughts on here.

I think this is probably the best book I've read in the last 10 years. It had an extraordinary effect on me, and was a total joy to read. The fact I read it in 2 sessions, after failing to finish a book in 3 months, is some indication of that.

Not surprisingly, I disagree with many of the comments above. There's so much in this book that many seem to have missed.

It's a book about time and memory. As such its obvious forebear is Proust, who is very consciously referenced more than once in the first ten pages - Austerlitz and the narrator meet in the Salle des pas perdus, an echo of 'temps perdu', and Austerlitz refers to the buffet barmaid as the 'goddess of time past.' But I feel that what Sebald does in this book is the opposite of Proust (the little I've read of the latter) Rather than, as Proust does, almost stopping time by focusing in on an individual moment and analysing it for pages, Sebald moves with pace through time, jumping backwards and forwards, making links that become more apparent as they accumulate.

The particular reason I like the structure of this, an apparent rambling narrative, is that it reflects the way I have conversations, jumping from one theme to another as inspired by a key word or thought. More relevantly, it's how memory works, leading you from one thought to another without apparent direction, the only theme being the path in retrospect through those thoughts, like an Alasdair Cooke letter or an episode of James Burke's "Connections". But, as with bopth those examples, the unifying theme is made apparent at the end.

I disagree that the narrative voice, of Austerlitz, consists of one emotion, or rather that that is a weakness. I was in tears several times while reading this, so powerful was it. It's a book not just about repressed memory, but repressed emotion. Austerlitz has been brought up by austere Calvinists, forgetting his infancy, and then become a dry academic. The narrative voice is appropriate to that, and his search for his history is also a search for feelings long lost - memories of his mother, even his native language that resurfaces in talking to Vera.

Why the double narrator device? I can think of several reasons. Principally because of the usual problem of how the story as told by the narrator came to be written down in the format the reader encounters it. The nature of the narrative is fluid, moving from one theme to another in a way that reflects intense conversation. If Austerlitz had decided to write his memoirs - which adds another problem of character intent - he would have structured them and created order. With the form of a 'narrator' simply retelling Austerlitz's conversation, there's an impression of a lack of structure - although of course it's intricately designed - exacerbated by the lack of any normal literary structural devices - paragraphs, chapters, headings.

Continuing the themes of memory brought up by the book, and linking in to the 'psychogeography' as mentioned by LFF, referencing Ackroyd although I think Sinclair is probably more relevant with the term, which I don't believe applies here. I don't think Sebald is interested in spurious mystical properties attributed to buildings because of the memories of past inhabitants. His concerns are more concrete. The buildings mentioned by Austerlitz all have direct relevance to his story, although when he first mentions them he's not aware of this. There are 4 railway stations discussed at length - Antwerp, Liverpool Street, Prague and Austerlitz. Liverpool Street and Prague are the end and starting points of his journey as a 5 year old. Antwerp is the centre of Austerlitz's obsession with stations and railways, although he isn't conscious of why; and of course Austerlitz represents him, not just in name but more symbolically. In addition, the forts discussed in the first pages are exactly the same design as Theresienstadt. I have a problem with the last, as, while Austerlitz's obsession with station architecture can be explained from repressed memories, he was unaware of his mother's incarceration until he got to Prague. Unless the suppression allowed him to link stories of the evacuation from Prague that he came across in his general reading to his interest in fort architecture, without understanding the significance of the link.

These stations are not just repositories of memories of passengers who have passed through them, as they might appear, which would be a tenuous and lazy metaphor. They contain Austerlitz's own memories. And the Gare d'Austerlitz, naturally, is the central repository, or should be. The metaphor of a library for memory is of course equally lazy, but more directly appropriate, and Sebald extends it in a way that's directly relevant, and provocative. The Bibliotheque Nationale, that's been built upon a site near the Gare d'Austerlitz, is railed against by Austerlitz, not just from an architectural perspective, but for its folly. But the underlying message is clear: The National Library is the representation of modern memory, it's where Austerlitz goes to find his own history. And it's been built upon the location of the warehouse that stored the loot of Parisian Jews, now lost. The symbolisation of that, that modern memory, efficient, shiny, erected to the glorification of a vain President, supersedes the memory of one of the great tragedies of the city, literally buried under its foundations. Similarly his efforts to find documentary evidence of his mother's imprisonment are restricted to an abbreviated Nazi propaganda film - memory is sanitised, edited, repackaged to serve the interests of those in control. Austerlitz's repression is symbolic of the suppression of the collective memory, his blackouts of the selective amnesia of society.

I think this book is hugely significant, and it will grow in stature with time. It's a tragedy that Sebald died only months after it was published, but I suppose that's preferable to him dying before. There's a vast amount in it that I haven't picked up on - the long Marienbad sequence for example, which plainly has significance beyond the river Auschowitz. Given the mention of Alain Resnais a few pages later, I presume it's a reference to his film L'Année dernière à Marienbad, which I'm just about to watch, and I understand is about the unreliability of memory. More significant of course is Resnais's film Nuit et Brouillard, a short documentary of Auschwitz, the unmentioned place that haunts the book, the final destination for the train that took his mother.

16 December 2007

Tom McCarthy - Remainder

I had few expectations of this novel, although it had been recommended. It's a curious novel of some originality, but is in the end unsatisfying.

The narrator has suffered a traumatic accident which, for legal reasons, he can't describe, but which the reader can infer involved something falling from a plane (I assumed human waste) The accident left him in a coma for some time, and when he awakes he's still psychologically affected. He's given £8.5m as a settlement and considers what do do with this new wealth.

After briefly considering and dismissing philanthropy, he decides to use the money to recreate remembered scenes, using actors, exactly replicating a resonant memory, and replaying it incessantly. His almost unlimited resources enables him to demand perfection in his recreations, to buy buildings and refit them to match his memories. He tries to create 'authentic' moments through artifice, and of course the contradiction in that doesn't occur to him.

As his mania increases, his awareness of reality decreases, and he begins to achieve blissful fadeouts akin to epileptic fits. That state appears to be the manifestation of the perfect moment, although of course it's a symptom of the neurological damage he's suffered.

The exercise is an ultimate expression of solipsism - making the world match one's own perceptions, elevating the personal experience above any one else's considerations. It's also a diversion upon the creative process, of the elusive nature of memory, and how hard it is to grasp again that perfect moment in our past. It's also about wanting to control our environment, to eliminate those aspects with which we cannot relate.

There's a precision to McCarthy's writing appropriate to the narrator - his obsessive repetitions are presented as entirely logical and consistent, while they are patently maniacal. Comparisons have been made to Auster, and he does have a similar cold attention to structure and self-aware intelligence.

The ending is a logical consequence of the narrative, but I found it forced, and the illusion that allows the reader to accept all the actors in the recreation doing so without demur for months doesn't accept the transfer of that to the real situation of the denouement. But McCarthy is witty and engaging, as well as undoubtedly smart. His second novel has just been published.


7 December 2007

Stefan Zweig - The Royal Game

This novella, also known as Chess in a new Penguin edition, is typical Zweig - concerned with self-destructive obsession, acutely observed with unmatched attention to emotional nuance - but it isn't, as many of his stories are, about love, but about intellectual obsession.

As usual, Zweig uses a framing narrative device. The tale is told to the narrator by a man on a cruise, a situation he previously employed in Amok. The encounter occurs because the narrator has lured the world chess champion, also on board, into a challenge chess game against a group of passengers, and Dr B, previously unannounced, interjects with an analysis of the position, forcing a draw, to the surprise of all.

there's a call for him to play a challenge against the champion, which he refuses on the basis that he hasn't played a game of chess in over 20 years. This a shock to the observers, and the narrator tries to get an explanation. Dr B tells his story.

He used to be a lawyer in the old Austrian regime, entrusted with the financial affairs of many senior figures, and when the Nazis invaded, he was arrested and expected to be taken to a concentration camp. Instead, because he was a valuable source of information, he was imprisoned in a cell and subjected to interrogation. One day he manages to steal a book from the pocket of a guard's jacket, left hanging near him. The book turns out to be 150 championship chess games. As he's been starved of intellectual activity for months, he devours the book, game by game, teaching himself how to project the games in his head, learning the games by repetition and playing them to himself.

After a while, this stales - he is just remembering past games, barely exercising his mind, so he tries to play against himself. At first he finds this impossible - after all, the skill in chess is to be able to predict the other person's moves, and if you're playing both sides, how can you both anticipate yet not know what your 'opponent' will play? So he learns how to divide his mind between the two parties. He does this so skilfully that he's able to play games at high speed, flipping from one player to the other in his mind, pacing his cell while he plays incessantly.

The internal game-playing becomes a mania, and in the end he collapses from the mental exhaustion, and is taken to a hospital. He recovers, but is warned against playing chess again, as it might bring on another attack. Nevertheless, he agrees to play against the champion, as a matter of curiosity - he has never tested his self-honed skills in a proper game, never mind against a world master. Almost effortlessly, he wins - the mental calculations come quickly to him, as opposed to the rigorously plodding champion.

He is challenged to a second game, and during this he starts to lose his focus. It turns out that, frustrated by the champion's slow play, he's playing other games simultaneously in his mind. This pushes him towards a crisis, just averted by the narrator.

This is a very late Zweig - published the year before his death - and is one of the best of his novellas. The intensity of intellectual obsession leading to madness reminded me of the Aronofsky film Pi, and the scenes in the cell of Darkness at Noon, which I've recently reread. As usual with Zweig, the emotional descriptions are precise, and most of the action internal, and the effect powerful.


5 December 2007

Stefan Zweig - Amok and other stories

Stefan Zweig was obsessed by suicide throughout his life, as these stories prove. Each of them, written from when he was 23 until 30 or so years later, deal with an obsession ended by the death of the protagonist.

All of the stories, as with most of his works, have a secondary narrator. The first is told by a man, discovered by the narrator hiding on a ship from Calcutta to England, who became obsessed with a woman in the Dutch East Indies (presumably Indonesia) who asks him, in his capacity as a doctor, to perform an abortion. He refuses, not out of any scruple, but because his price is to sleep with her. She has a back street operation, which kills her, eventually, while he attends her. After desperately telling his tale, he kills himself.

Amok is the most considered and successful of the stories, in which the near insanity of the protagonist is quite believable. The second story, The Star above the Forest, is the poorest of his that I've read. A waiter falls in love with a Baroness he serves, and kills himself by lying on the track in front of her train. It's a very naive story of a coup de foudre, and the progression of the waiter's passion is unexplained. In his more mature works, Zweig dealt closely with the intellectual rationale for emotional states, but this was written before he'd developed that skill.

The third story, Leporella, is Gothic in subject - an ugly, simple cook is retained by a Baron who has an unpleasant wife, who is perpetually frustrated as he refuses to consummate the marriage. The cook develops an attraction for the Baron, and encourages his affairs when his wife is away. She kills the wife, believing it to be his wish, then kills herself when he dismisses her in horror.

Leporella isn't quite as disturbing as it's intended to be, and the ending is rather pat and predictable. It wasn't published in his lifetime, perhaps Zweig wasn't happy with it.

The last story, Incident on Lake Geneva, is much tighter than the rest, almost Maupassant-like in its concision. A simple Russian soldier finds himself in Switzerland in 1918, stranded after troop movements in World War I, and is bewildered that he can't get home, can't understand the language, and is told that the Tsar has been deposed, which he doesn't understand. He can't comprehend the distance home - he's been forcibly transported by train and ship around the world to Europe - and is in despair that he can't see his family again. He, naturally, kills himself. This story has deeper resonances, though, about the dislocation and upheaval of ordinary people after the events of 1914-18, the inability of people to come to terms with the devastation and huge social changes.

Inevitably, given his obsession, Zweig killed himself, along with his wife, in 1942, presumably in despair at the future of the world at the height of the Axis powers' fortunes.


4 December 2007

Stefan Zweig - Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman

Most of Zweig's stories deal with obsession, and are told by a secondary narrator, that is one relating the tale to the primary narrator, assumed to be the author. This story, one of his finest novellas, is about two forms of obsession, one by a young man who is a compulsive gambler, and one by a middle-aged widow who becomes briefly infatuated with him.

Told with Zweig's usual attention to emotional nuance, it's a study in gambling mania to put alongside Dostoevsky, and includes some outstanding passages, including about 4 pages on the observation of hands to derive character. The precision of his writing is always a delight, but in this story it combines with the description of a brief but destructive passion. There's a contrast between the clarity of the prose and the turmoil of the scenes described, explained by the tale being a confession by an intelligent woman 25 years after the event of an exceptional passion.

Many of Zweig's stories are structured in this way, desperate confessions of past indiscretions by people wanting to unburden themselves to the unnamed narrator, presumed to be Zweig. While this is a simple narrative device, and not very convincing, it lends Zweig himself a personality of someone to be confided in, which adds some credibility to his narrator characters.

This is definitely one of Zweig's best stories, tightly conceived and told, and entirely convincing.