I returned to my native East coast for the first time since fleeing to California. I found the weather muggy, the Atlantic quite cold, Toronto pleasant but unremarkable, Baltimore its beautiful self, my family well or feigning so for my benefit, my friends surviving their traumas or celebrating their accomplishments, in short, that the world continues to rumble along despite my not always keeping an eye on it. I hope you are well, and kind to the people around you, and true to your word despite the difficulties that entails, and able to take some joy in whatever currently surrounds you.
The Wine Dark Sea by Robert Aickman – My feeling is that genre is only a useful concept in terms of longer fiction, where an author can variate on recognizable narrative beats, and doesn’t really have any meaning in terms of short stories. All short stories are jokes, basically, mean little one liners, and I don’t really see a distinction between your classic Borges reveal that the narrator was a minotaur and last week’s New Yorker where the hook is that the daughter and father will remain forever estranged, or whatever (I didn’t actually read week’s New Yorker but they’re all kind of the same). A lot of impossible stuff happens in this nightmarish, erotic and fantastical collection but the underlying themes – of environmental and technological estrangement, madness and love that is like madness – are grand enough in scope and executed with sufficient artistry that it doesn’t really seem fair to me that Aickman seems to have been shunted off into some horror-filled ghetto. Anyway it’s excellent, give it a pull.
Monsieur Proust by Celeste Albaret – I have really fond memories of carrying Proust around strange corners of Europe some ten years back but actually didn’t know that much about his life, and so this lengthy series of reminiscences by the author’s maid were a lot of fun. Reading of his deathbed creativity I couldn’t help but be reminded of the great James Dewitt Yancey, more popularly known as J Dilla, who’s final torturous months were given over to the creation of Donuts, in its own way as seminal a work as À la recherche du temps perdu.
Ivory Pearl by Jean-Patrick Manchette – Manchette’s final, unfinished novel, is an attempt to move beyond the classic hardboiled noir which he mocked/epitomized in his earlier work, in favor of a more overtly political thriller, John Le Carre rather than Jim Thompson. Honestly, it’s hard to say exactly how well he did, since this is really only about half a book, but then, 30 thousand words from Manchette is better than a door stopper from most other writers.
Transit by Anna Seghers – Anna Seghers was a German communist who escaped the Nazi regime on the same boat that took Victor Serge to Mexico, fictionalizing her nightmarish escape from Europe in this beautiful, searing, tragic novel. Her protagonist, Seidel is a strangely upbeat German everyman, who escapes from a concentration camp and makes his way to Marseilles, joining a vast crowd of refugees desperate to escape the tangled bureaucracy and the coming certainty of death. Amid this chaos. Seidel finds a curious balance, stemming from his peculiar indifference towards his fate, until a romantic obsession unspools him. Beautiful, brilliant, tragically of the moment, given our own horrific, inhumane immigration policy. Lovely to see echoes of your nation in Vichy France! Anyway, strong rec.
Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud – I don’t know why exactly I was driven to work my way through Freud but I’m glad I started. I remain skeptical of his therapeutic value, and he has a bad habit of being unable to recognize his good ideas from his very bad ones (in the fashion of Germanic geniuses generally (yeah, I’m looking at you, Kant, the Categorical Imperative is nonsense)) but all the same this is a work of penetrating insight into the human condition. I am pretty much on board with his idea that our conceptions of morality developed from our upright gate, and the ensuing transition from scent to sight-based organisms, and his brief explanation of why happiness is an impossibility is at once profound and, to my peculiar way of thinking, quite uplifting. There’s a moral vision articulated here which I don’t think Freud gets credit for conventionally, an appreciation for the implausible decency of the species, even an admiration for its bravery in the face of the pitiless existence to which its subject. Weird that he’s not better known!
Crash by J.G. Ballard – Speaking of Eros and Thanatos! A bunch of pervs getting off on car crashes, more or less. Ballard is a brilliantly precise writer, and there is some fabulously peculiar stuff in his eroticization of technological violence, as well as some interesting stuff about lust works to dehumanize us—but, like most horror, and most erotica, for that matter, it goes from being shocking to dull very quickly. I get it, man, you kind of want to fuck a car-- you sure this couldn’t have been a novella?
One Day of Life by Manlio Argueta – 12 hours in the lives of a brutalized peasant family during the civil war in El Salvador. It’s always a dangerous thing for an educated person to write from an uneducated person’s perspective, it’s a very fine line to hit, and I’m not 100% certain I felt Argueta did it here. There’s a bit of a whip lash in the heroine’s internal monologue from earthy, personal concerns to too-precise summations of the political circumstances afflicting her and her family. I appreciated this more frankly for the moral weight than its actual aesthetic. Which isn’t to say it’s bad, really, it’s just not spectacular. This is why it makes no sense to write reviews about books, because at the end mostly you’re just like, yeah, this was fine, there are better books and worse books.
Scoundrel Time by Lillian Hellman – All my books were done and I stole this from the beach house I been staying at for a bus ride to a plane (I already had a book for the plane, but heaven forbid I spend an hour not looking at printed text.) Anyway it’s fine, I’m not sure why I read it really or why anyone else would either. Hellman is interesting and upright in her refusal to cowtow to McCarthy etc but this isn’t particularly riveting or, really, that detailed.
The New Testament (King James Version) – Look, I don’t want to start a religious war here, and I’m not a believer so it’s not like I really have a dog in the fight, but there’s just nothing in this to match the sheer aesthetic genius of Genesis, let alone the brutal profundity of Job or Ecclesiastes. On the other hand, Matthew 6:17 is kinda my jam.
Shoot the Piano Player by Dave Goodis – A tragedy struck piano player, allowing his personality and genius to rot beneath a friendly, superficial exterior, finds himself pulled into a violent underworld by cruel fate and his terribly family. The basis for Truffaut’s film, though I found the novel much stronger, far and away the best I’ve read of Goodis. This is classic American noir, sparingly written and savage, a grim gut punch of a novel from a man well-familiar with the human capacity for self-destruction. Lots of fun.
Fear and Trembling by Soren Kierkegaard – Once upon a time I was a bad philosophy student, as I have been a bad waiter, TESL teacher, content developer, shelf stocker, etc. Most of the reason for my incompetence stemmed from an inability to sit still for any brief length of time and an absolute loathing of group work, but part of it also was because I didn’t really care about anything but ‘practical philosophy’ as it was at one point called, that is to say, ethics and whatnot. Pretty much I just wanted to understand how to act, or at least why I act in the fashion I was. Anyway, long tangent, who cares about that or what I think about Kierkegaard, but what I think is this didn’t really resonate with me. A discussion of the necessary absurdity of faith as a moral act with Abraham’s proposed sacrifice of Isaac as its particular, it was a bit too much soaring Teutonic tautologies to my taste, and honestly as a non-believer I couldn’t quite grasp the relevance of most of it. Am I supposed to kill a kid? Not kill a kid? SOMEONE LET ME KNOW.
The Invisibility Cloak by Ge Fei – Lost beneath a lot of the sanctimonious leftist polemics about reading writers outside of the old canon is that it’s actually really fun on its own merits to get a glimpse of a foreign life, or really just to be wading through a different set of cultural signifiers and thoughts. This short, strange, comic novel of an aging stereo salesman, a loser in the new China, is not on its own merits particularly spectacular. There’s a lot of that thing you often see in books translated from Chinese where metaphors and fragments of speech which are (one assumes?) nuanced in the original come off as cliché in English, and the earthy everyman protagonist is pleasant enough to spend a few hundred pages with but not much more than that. Honestly if it was set in Chicago or New York or whatever I probably would have enjoyed it a lot less, but the little details of a foreign city and culture were interesting enough to propel the story from basically mediocre to modestly enjoyable.
Wine Dark Sea by Leonard Sciascia – Sciascia is famous for his crime novels which double as sharp critiques of mafia influence on his native Sicily, and the strongest of the stories in this collection refer to that subject. The rest focus around the lives of small town peasant Sicilians, and are rather a mixed bag. Nothing objectionable here but I generally didn’t find it as strong as his novels and it was, to my mind, not as good as the other book I read this month with the same name.