Sunday, April 19, 2009
Let's begin posting our reviews and discussing on Sunday, May 31. If you aren't currently a member of the group but would like to participate, please let us know in comments--we'll send you an invitation so that you'll be able to post on the blog.
Thanks for voting and looking forward to the discussion!
Friday, April 10, 2009
If On A Winter's Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino (259 pages). This is a novel about the urgency, desire, and frustration bound up in the practice of reading novels. The novel, which is nonlinear, begins with a man discovering that the copy of a novel he has recently purchased is defective, a Polish novel having been bound within its pages. He returns to the bookshop the following day and meets a young woman who is on an identical mission. They both profess a preference for the Polish novel. Interposed between the chapters in which the two strangers attempt to authenticate their texts are 10 excerpts that parody genres of contemporary world fiction, such as the Latin-American novel and the political novel of eastern Europe.
Life Like by Lorrie Moore (192 pages). In these eight exquisite stories characters stumble through their daily existence. These men and women, unsettled and adrift and often frightened, can’t quite understand how they arrived at their present situations. Harry has been reworking a play for years in his apartment near Times Square in New York. Jane is biding her time at a cheese shop in a Midwest mall. Dennis, unhappily divorced, buries himself in self-help books about healthful food and healthy relationships. One prefers to speak on the phone rather than face his friends, another lets the answering machine do all the talking. But whether rejected, afraid to commit, bored, disillusioned or just misunderstood, even the most hard-bitten are not without some abiding trust in love.
Manservant and Maidservant by Ivy Compton-Burnett (320 pages). At once the strangest and most marvelous of Ivy Compton-Burnett's fictions, Manservant and Maidservant has for its subject the domestic life of Horace Lamb, sadist, skinflint, and tyrant. But it is when Horace undergoes an altogether unforeseeable change of heart that the real difficulties begin. Is the repentant master a victim along with the former slave? And how can anyone endure the memory of the wrongs that have been done?"
Under the Net by Iris Murdoch (256 pages). Iris Murdoch’s first novel is a gem – set in a part of London where struggling writers rub shoulders with successful bookies, and film starlets with frantic philosophers. Its hero, Jake Donaghue, is a likable young man who makes a living out of translation work and sponging off his friends. A meeting with Anna, an old flame, leads him into a series of fantastic adventures. Beneath the surface of the narrative lies a wealth of philosophical questioning: Murdoch contests existential ideas of freedom; she asks what it means to be in love; and she rigorously questions what makes a good writer and what constitutes good art.
The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton (272 pages). England in the middle of World War II, a war that seems fated to go on forever, a war that has become a way of life. Heroic resistance is old hat. Everything is in short supply, and tempers are even shorter. Overwhelmed by the terrors and rigors of the Blitz, middle-aged Miss Roach has retreated to the relative safety and stupefying boredom of the suburban town of Thames Lockdon, where she rents a room in a boarding house run by Mrs. Payne. There the savvy, sensible, decent, but all-too-meek Miss Roach endures the dinner-table interrogations of Mr. Thwaites and seeks to relieve her solitude by going out drinking and necking with a wayward American lieutenant. Life is almost bearable until Vicki Kugelmann, a seeming friend, moves into the adjacent room. That's when Miss Roach's troubles really begin. Recounting an epic battle of wills in the claustrophobic confines of the boarding house, Patrick Hamilton's The Slaves of Solitude, with a delightfully improbable heroine, is one of the finest and funniest books ever written about the trials of a lonely heart.
Let's leave the voting open until Thursday (16th) and I'll let you know which book "won" on Friday, April 17. Our discussion will then start on May 31st.
Monday, April 06, 2009
The arrival of a book by Stefan Zweig is always a time for celebration chez dovegrey ever since I first discovered his writing the day I decided to explore some of the authors whose books had been banned in Nazi Germany. I think this in turn was a trail that had opened up after I had read Stones From the River by Ursula Hegi. It sounds like an odd reading trail to follow but I was intrigued, what had been so controversial about these books and their authors, I wanted to know.
I had unwittingly already read books by a few but I had never heard of Stefan Zweig and so began that little addiction and Pushkin Press to the rescue with The Royal Game, Twilight, Moonbeam Alley and Fantastic Night & other stories read in quick succession.
The Post Office Girl, translated by Joel Rotenberg, arrived from Sort Of Books, one chapter and I was instantly in it for the home run. The setting is perhaps classic Stefan Zweig, mittel Europe between the wars and Christina the Post Office girl of the title living a dull, miserable existence in rural Austria. Working in the Post Office by day and caring for her invalid mother the rest of the time Christina Hoflehner's life is a grey and joyless relentless grind until a letter from her mother's sister, who has fared altogether better in the marriage and wealth stakes, invites Christina to share a fortnight's holiday with them. Klara has suffered sudden onset pangs of guilt at her serial neglect of her sister over the years and this gesture towards her neice will surely make amends as she and gruff husband Anthony van Boolen travel from the US for a relaxing high society sojourn at a luxury hotel in the Swiss Alps.
Christina's is the generation in Europe that stood to lose the most from the Great War and the sense of resentment and dissatisfaction is profound in this book,
'Surrounded by this coarse and lustful postwar generation she feels ancient, tired, useless, and overwhelmed, unwilling and unable to compete...the war stole her decade of youth. She has no courage, no strength left even for happiness.'
By the age of twenty-six Christina has already prepared to hunker down and accept her lot, until of course she samples life at the glittering Palace Hotel. Exposed to the silken smooth world of money and luxury, where the furniture gleams and the carpet suspires Christina steps in to sample a way of life that she eventually realises will change her forever.
It was always going to be a moment of extreme cruelty when the clock struck midnight and this Cinderella is catapulted back into the harsh reality of life at home, the cramped, musty little box-like garret flat smelling of vinegar and a lifetime of the dull day job and caring for her dropsical mother with the bloated feet.
The happily ever after bit will surely rely on the entrance of a cheekily handsome prince on a white charger galloping in stage left, so when the only man on the horizon is Ferdinand, a thin, bitter and angry down-at-heel survivor of the Russian front, wearing not a gold encrusted doublet and a pair of natty hose but a worn-out inverness coat, you start to worry for poor Christina and wonder quite what the rescue plan might be.
Right that's it, no more plot, enough is plenty, not a word more.
Stefan Zweig was a great friend of Freud so expect plenty of 'who am I really' deliberations and some wonderful character development in Christina but I also came away with a very clear idea of the despair, blame, anger and hatred that fuelled and propelled a generation towards another war. The portents couldn't be outlined with more precision as Stefan Zweig focuses on the inequalities and injustices that pervaded people's lives. If you know anything about Stefan Zweig's personal life also be prepared to identify other more sinister portents about which I will say no more either.
This was the archetypal page-turner of a book, the best I have read by Stefan Zweig to date even, people I cared about and just had to know how they fared so highly recommended.
Cross posted from www.dovegreyreader.co.uk - Tuesday, January 20, 2009 | Permalink
Wednesday, April 01, 2009
What stands out most to me about Stefan Zweig's novel from the 1930s, The Post-Office Girl, is rage. The novel starts off calmly and meticulously, however -- extremely so, with careful and precise descriptions of the Austrian post office where the main character Christine has worked for many years. Every item has its proper place and every item, down to every pencil and every sheet of paper, has been accounted for. The governmental bureaucracy knows everything about this place and controls everything. Stuck in the post office for the foreseeable future, Christine feels like an old woman with nothing to look forward to in her life. The tragedy is that she is only 28.
Into this stultifying atmosphere comes a surprise telegram, and it is one that will transform Christine beyond all recognition. It is from her aunt who wants Christine to join her at a posh Swiss hotel for a two-week vacation. Christine is initially reluctant -- what's the point? she thinks -- but she goes and what she sees there is a revelation. She has known she is poor -- she has spent her life barely scraping by trying to support herself and her sick mother -- but she realizes it now in a visceral way. She sees so much money so carelessly spent, and she realizes that just the tiniest fraction of the money swirling around her would have set herself and her mother up comfortably for the rest of their lives. Quickly, she's caught up in the social whirl, enjoying the attention brought by her youth and beauty, augmented by the fashionable clothes her aunt buys her.
She has become a new being, and it now seems impossible to return to the old life. But, of course, she has to return, and it's here that the anger starts to seep in. Why should Christine slave her life away? Why should some people have so much money and others so little, for no discernable reason except for luck? What's the point of working so hard, day after day, for nothing but the chance to keep doing it until the day she dies?
It's largely the war, World War I, that has caused Christine so much suffering. By the time we meet her in the novel, she has achieved a small amount of stability, but the path that led to this point was very rough. She has had to watch family members die as a direct result of war and has had to push herself to the breaking point just to survive. And now she looks around her and wonders just what the point of it all is.
The second half of the book takes us in new directions that I don't need to describe here, but it follows the ideas the first half introduces to their logical -- and chilling -- conclusions. One of the things I admire about the book is the way Zweig takes Christine through some remarkable transformations, and yet they all feel plausible and right. I was willing to believe everything that happened, even the startling conclusion.The book asks some difficult questions -- about inequality, about struggle, and about whether the value we place on hard work and honesty really makes any sense in a world where those who deserve happiness often don't get it and those who enjoy wealth and comfort often haven't done anything to earn it. The book also describes the devastation war can bring to people who never wanted war in the first place and who had no say in the matter. There's a lot of anger here, but every bit of it seems justified.
Your review of the artist as an artist is excellent. I knew he had committed suicide, but your review provided me with another dimension to the man behind the artist. (I do not necessarily agree with you that a belief in the humanity of the human race is seldom in evidence. But, that's a discussion for another day.) As for the book, I was impressed that Zweig could write about despair as clearly and grippingly as he could about joy...euphoria even. He was obviously a master at painting emotion. However, Zweig describes only the zenith and the nadir of fortune - but nothing in between. Although I truly found it hard to put this book down, there was something disturbing, almost annoying, about both Christine and Ferdinand. In varying degrees, what began for me as feelings of sympathy and empathy for each, eventually turned rather sour. I began to believe that Christine's apparent self-consciousness was rather more a self-absorption, not unlike the young wealthy crowd she so much aspired to. Whether you believe yourself to be entitled to the heavy cream at the top, or whether you feel forever destined to get the fuzzy end of the lollipop - it's still all about you. Teaming up with Ferdinand could not have been a worse blend for her - he saw the world as bleakly as she did. The best solution these two hopeless people could devise was suicide or larceny. Either way suggests a lack of effort and responsibility. Certainly poverty and failed dreams are difficult to overcome, but not impossible. We don't have to look too far to find someone who has it worse than we do. In the end, I just wanted to tell them to grow up and stop complaining about how awful life was treating them...to "do something about it." Something more productive than shooting themselves. If I had not already heard that Zweig took his own life, I would not have been surprised to learn of it after reading this novel. There is much about despair here, with the only hope presented being death or a life of dishonesty and fear. I loved the work itself; I am not fond of the message I found in it.