Books I Read December 15th 2016

Do you know how much God damn trouble I had to go through this week because of an errant arm gesture and an unfortunately placed cup of coffee? Merry Christmas!

Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese By Patrick Leigh Fermor – Basically just a long series of digressions centering around Greece, and particularly the wild, little visited Mani region. While framed around the trip, relatively little of the text is devoted to his actual misadventures. Mostly what you’re in for is a brilliant, widely traveled, hyper-literate man dumping all his theories about the history, culture and mythology of Greece onto a page. When Fermor is on, his prose is scintillating in its over abundance. When is off, it can be quite a slog. To my money he was on more often in this than in any of the Time of Gifts trilogy, where his tendency to spend two pages describing the features of Gothic churches occasionally threatened to drive me insane.

A Man Lies Dreaming By Lavie Tidhar – Look, I didn’t want to read anything else by Lavie Tidhar, OK? I felt like I’d sort of done my duty as a very casual friend of by reading A Violent Century a month or two back, but he just kept on and on and fucking on. Read my book about Hitler, he said. I already read it, Lavie. No, he said, a different book about Hitler. And then he called me a bunch of unrepeatable names and then he sent me a review copy of A Man Lies Dreaming.

A Man Lies Dreaming is the story of a writer of Yiddish pulp fiction, who, while dying in Auschwitz, envisions a vengeful alternative reality in which the Fuhrer is forced to make ends meet as an exile in London. A low rent private detective, Wulf, as Hitler is called, is forced into tracking down a Jewish woman who, it is suspected, has been kidnapped by the rest of his Nazi cabinet, who have set themselves up as basically a criminal underworld in this alternate world version of England. Part of the joke is that Hitler, as written by Tidhar, maintains the essential features of the classic noir hero—he is incorruptible (if utterly evil), as resistant to the temptations of money and society as was the Marlowe himself. Part of the joke is that our eponymous dreamer is using this fantasy to torture this version of Hitler according to the vulgar traditions of his sub-genre – Hitler is beaten, drugged, tortured, raped several times, urinated upon, and forcibly circumcised, broken down by the cruelties of society until he comes to resemble the broken creatures he created in such numbers.

My first instinct upon reading this book was to wonder, quite simply, how in the name of God Lavie got it published. It as resolutely uncommercial a novel as I have ever read. Far too peculiar for the vast majority of genre readers it is also pulpy and deliberately vulgar in a fashion which seems calculated to likewise annoy more literary types. I also can't possibly imagine the Goy getting anything out of it – it is so distinctly a product of a certain very distinctly Jewish sense of humor, at once lyrical, ironic, and puerile. Readers who persevere through its peculiarities will discover a book which, astonishingly in this day and age, manages to grapple with the moral ramifications of the Holocaust in an original way. It also has a really, really good Eichman joke.

It is an imperfect novel – the footnotes which accompanied my addition are unnecessary, adding a meta layer to an already complex book. They seem to exist only to offer a sort of intellectual cover for the book, to disassociate the author from the material. There are also, anyway you slice it, too many scenes of Hitler erotica. But in a book so idiosyncratic, such excesses must be forgiven. I don’t really know who reads these reviews, and thus I can’t, in good conscience, actually recommend this book to you. The vast majority of people will probably not enjoy it in the slightest. But it doesn't take away from it being a work of authentic merit.

Congratulations, Lavie – you’ve written the last word in alternative reality Nazi fiction. Could we maybe move on to something else now?

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne -- Yeah, this was a cheery one. Our eponymous heroine is one of life’s unfortunates, ugly, callow, not particularly intelligent, a woman of limited capacity whose ambitions are foiled by cruel circumstance. Well-written, keenly insightful, really, really sad. Judith is the sort of person one has met all too often, who we usually don’t see and whom we look away from when she makes herself known. A very strong novel that I confess I was in a hurry to get away from.

Scandalmonger By William Safire – Anther stoop book, and in retrospect I’d have been better of leaving it there. A novelization about the muckrakers who came to prominence in the first few years of America’s history, and their effects on and interaction with the great men of the age. It’s a fascinating episode badly treated. Safire’s fictionalization of the events, to my mind, offers the worst of both possible worlds. Most of the text consists of fake dialogue cribbed from the letters of the major characters, and so it sounds overly formal and jarring. But here and there Safire feels comfortable departing abruptly from history, inserting (to my count) two ahistoric love affairs and a murder. Essentially, any time anything interesting happened in the book I would flip to the end to inevitably discover that it was something Safire had whole-cloth invented. There are interesting things that have been done blurring the boundaries between fiction and fact (Simon Schama attempted something similar with Dead Certainties etc. but Safire doesn’t do them. Better off grabbing one of the many readable histories of the era if you're interested.

We Think the World of You J.R. Ackerly – Oooh. Ooo! Really excellent. Frank is an upper class Englishman in love with Joe, a married, working class laborer sent away for housebreaking in London in the 1960s. Through a peculiar series of events Frank becomes obsessed with Joe’s dog, which he tries to look after while Joe is in prison. The novel tilts initially in a sloppy, melodramatic direction (my hackles get up in any book in which a dog is a major character), but this is a feint, and the book soon pivots in distinctly darker directions. It's not that there is a mystery to it exactly, but watching the way in which the small cast of characters develop is too much of a joy to spoil it by giving away much more. It’s beautifully if simply written, and Acklery’s understanding of the human psyche, of our strange jealousies, of the foul underside of love, is really masterful. Strong recommendation.