Books I Read October 3rd, 2016

This last week the city turned the color of smoke, the sky and the cement a fabulous monochrome. Despite years of evidence there is some part of me which remains skeptical as to the changing of the seasons, thrills anew at each discovery of the passage of time; the changing leaves, the black-haired sons of Abraham surveying my heritage outside the public library (Shana Tova to the chosen people, as a side note). Did you know I have a book coming out tomorrow, or Thursday, depending upon where in the world you live? It is called A City Dreaming, and I am forced by the peculiarities of my trade to become an absolute boor about it for at least the next couple of weeks, my apologies. Perhaps consider purchasing it. On now to books I did not write...

The Engagement by Georges Simenon – Obviously, Simenon has an enormous reputation both in his native France and throughout the world (I read something somewhere that he was the best selling author of the 20th century. This cannot possibly be true, can it?) Prior to this I'd only read a few of his Maigret stories, about a taciturn giant who investigates crimes, and thought they were acceptable though not exceptional entries in the detective sub genre. The Engagement is very much not in that vein, being more comparable, I suppose, to that brand of noir which is, basically, about bad things happening to unsavory people, sort of a James M Cain or Jim Thompson (though stylistically they have nothing in common, Thompson is all fire and Simenon all ice.) The plot is simple: a weak, lonely loser is set up for murder by a woman with whom he is obsessed. The anti-hero himself is masterly drawn; a mincing, obese pervert who we none the less find preferable to the society who finds him so loathsome. As to the rest – the plot, the motivations of the other characters – these are opaque and less skillfully rendered. But Simenon's genius lies in offering a brutally unflinching portrait of humanity without falling into sanctimony or glibness, and this gives that to us in spades. The final scene, which I won't describe for fear of spoiling, well pays for the rest.

An Ermine in Czernopol by Gregor Von Rezzori – Interesting. About childhood in a a provincial capital in a post WWI Romanian, and also about the end of the patchwork, multi-ethnic fabric of the Hapsburg Empire which would be torn asunder during WWII. This is a sly, subtle, sidelong sort of work, digressions and side stories dominating the hint of plot. As a writer Rezzori is a pressure boxer, like Proust or Stephen King, relying for narrative effect on a cavalcade of observations and analogies, and I often felt that many of his lines examined individually did not hold closely together. But there is a way he has of using negative space, of slipping essential details sidelong, which I very much enjoyed, and his earthy, ironic humanism is a treat. I mean I liked it enough to pick up another one of his while I was out this week.

Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Cocteau – A phantasmic nightmare of a novella, about a brother and sister so obsessed with their imaginative games and theatrical poses that they destroy each other rather than reach adulthood. Haunting, disturbing, very strange. Give it a shot.

Butcher's Crossing By John Williams– This is about the myth of the unspoiled west, and of our desperate, all-consuming need to spoil it, of an innate fear of death which drives us to unsparingly destroy the environment around us. It is...haunting and disturbing. Between this and Stoner (I enjoyed but did not love Augustus, despite its acclaim) the critical re-evaluation of Williams seems well-deserved. His prose is excellent but unassuming, and the complexity of his thought reveals itself slowly. Recommended.


Seven Churches by Milos Urban – Cool! Weird! About a bloodless, socially uncomfortable loser and failed police officer who gets embroiled in a series of murders which have something to do with the Gothic churches of the Prague New Town. Excellently combining the usual bloody horrors to be found in this sort of horror novel with a grander, existential loathing of the modern age, a compelling repudiation of contemporary western civilization which will leave you empathizing with...well, I won't spoil it. But it's real solid, and the writing is quite strong, especially for this sort of thing. Definitely pick it up if you get the chance.