Tuesday, 12 October 2021

"Königsallee" by Hans Pleschinski - review

 “Königsallee“ by Hans Pleschinski:

It is the summer of 1954 and Thomas Mann, Nobel laureate, 80 years old, out from his exile in Switzerland, Zürich, pays Düsseldorf a visit, together with his wife Katia and his daughter Erika. He intends a reading of his new novel “Felix Krull“  which is developing into a bestseller. 

It is sheer chance that at the same time Klaus Heuser stays in the same hotel, together with his lover Anwar. Heuser is shortly back from his own exile in Indonesia to visit his aging parents. 

Thomas Mann met Klaus Heuser back in 1927 at a beach on Sylt in Germany where he stayed for a holiday with his family and fell in love with the young man. He invited him to stay at his house in Munich and Heuser, who then was a handsome young man and beguiled many with his sweet looks and charms, became one of the great loves of Thomas Mann and served as model for the character in Mann’s Joseph novels. 

Although they stayed in loose contact and wrote letters to each other, neither Mann nor Heuser know the other is staying at the same hotel. And the escort of Thomas Mann, namely Erika and Katia Mann, want to prevent a meeting of them at all costs for fear of unforeseen complications. Mann’s politically difficult visit in Düsseldorf and post-war Germany is already stress enough and the great magician's equilibrium shall not be disturbed further.

Out of this scenario, based on real events and research of manuscripts and journals, Pleschinski spins an atmospheric lively tale full of remarkable figures and encounters. We meet cameos of Erika Mann, the daughter, of Katia Mann, the wife, of Golo Mann, the son, of Ernst Bertram, former writer, poet, professor in the service of Nazi Germany. They all have their own agenda to follow and so do the dignitaries of the city of Düsseldorf. 

The prose mirrors the times but also the depth and profundity the German language is capable of, a language which seems to be the only one possible to really be able to transport that which is so delightfully good in the German soul and at the same time so frighteningly bad. 

It is not only a novel about an unlikely encounter between two former lovers, it is also a novel about life, about literature, about fame and abdication. It is about the responsibility of the artist and the prize one has to pay for life, for success or fame. 

It is also a novel about the 50s in Germany. A very remarkable area, not necessarily a proud and acceptable one, saturated, soaked with falsehood, prudery, and a maybe, typical German righteousness and unwillingness to admit guilt and wrongdoing.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, for its surprising plot, for its lively, often humorous rendering of famous figures and its playfully great mastery of the German language.

Saturday, 9 October 2021

"Filthy Animals" by Brandon Taylor - review

 “Filthy Animals” by Brandon Taylor:

This collection of loosely linked short stories highlights momentary dramas of loosely connected young people. 

As in Normal People by Sally Rooney, these members of the younger/youngest generation act and live, connect and disconnect with a frightening speed under rules both bafflling and eluding immediate understanding. Maybe there are no rules at all. The lives of these people unfold for a short moment in sometimes banal, sometimes harsh and unforgiving, unsentimental or frightening ways and show them at their most vulnerable.

Underlying all these stories and glimpses of lives is a melancholy that stretches far beyond the normal lost feeling of coming-of-age. It is a melancholy that comes from being lonely. All these people are lonely, even in closest contact to each other or being in company. There is sadness and much suffering in this book, more mental than physical. Sometimes it seems that your worst enemy is the one that you love the most. Everyone seems under attack or is forced to be prepared to defend himself against attacks that will undoubtedly come. Throughout the book there is loneliness, alienation or hurtful, unsparing introspection. Many of the people we meet are queer or caught in a moment where they have to decide if the line between straight and gay should be crossed. 

These emotionally rich stories often concern the body, predominantly male but not always, and many pair vulnerability with brutality. What we learn from them is that vulnerability is part of life and only through it we might come to learn to connect and accept. 

Saturday, 18 September 2021

“The Magician" by Colm Tóibín - review

 “The Magician“ by Colm Tóibín:

Soon into the very first pages of this book I knew I had successfully hit on another, so very rare, book that right from the start to its end will be a joy to read. Not such a big surprise, since I have been admiring Colm Tóibín for a long time and had never once been disappointed.

This is an enormously ambitious book and it is the second time Tóibín has used fiction to imagine his way into the mind of a great novelist of the past. In 2004 he ventured inside the mind of Henry James in The Master. Now it is Thomas Mann, writer, essayist and Nobel laureate, in The Magician. Both men had elder brothers who were also respected authors (William James, Heinrich Mann) and with whom they secretly competed in complex relationships. Both spent long periods of their lives away from their homelands, voluntarily or involuntarily. Both expressed and wrote about homosexual desires in their work but did not acknowledge this trait in themselves, at least not publicly. Both men were cosmopolitans with social connections all across Europe and broad intellectual interests. 

Tóibín’s novel is mainly a portrait of the artist as a person and family man, there is some but not too much about Mann’s development as a writer or about his status in the literary world, which makes the book even more endearing to me. Events, ideas, and relationships are highlighted, rather than long excursions and reflections into the development and history of Mann’s writing process. In The Magician Tóibín beautifully evokes, resurrects even, the person behind the famous name, shows him to be human, lets us see his struggles, trials and tribulations, his anxieties and demons. He lets us understand how out of the interchanging dynamics of art, desire, decline and decay, great art can arise.

Young Thomas Mann hides his artistic aspirations from his father and his homosexual desires from everyone. At the age of only 25 he published, with instantaneous enormous success the Buddenbrooks, a semi-autobiographical novel. He marries the daughter of one of the richest, most cultured Jewish families in Munich, Katia Pringsheim, a complex and extraordinary person, has six children with her, although his infatuation really lies more with her twin brother, Klaus Pringsheim, a talented musician and composer. Tóibín’s depiction of Katia as a strong-willed woman who defies conventionality shows how instrumental in the developing of Mann’s voice and perfecting his art she was. She was a loving and understanding supporter of her husband’s and children’s diverse sexualities.

Many a time there are young men at whom the Thomas Mann of Tóibín looks as longingly as Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach looks at Tadzio in Death in Venice. He never touches them but turns desire into art. He becomes the most successful novelist of his time, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature. Mann opens windows into which we can look and see the lives of others unfold. His ability to detach himself from social and class categories and imagine and inhabit the lives of others is that of a magician. 

And so is Tóibín. He follows a life which spans almost half a century. And what difficult, tormented, demanding, tragic times those were (World War I, the rise of Hitler, World War II, and the Cold War). Mann has to flee Germany, goes to Switzerland, France and then, his last stop, to America, living first in Princeton and then in Los Angeles. 1952 he moved back to Switzerland where he died in 1955. This is as much a story of changing times as a man changing with and against his times. 

Along the way we meet cameos of Berthold Brecht, W. H. Auden, Gustav Mahler, Gustaf Gründgens and other contemporaries.

Queerness ran in the family. His sons Klaus and Golo and his daughter Erika were queer. Erika and Klaus were active in the anti-Nazi-movement. Both, too were writers of plays, stories and novels and acted on stage, both sometimes shared lovers. Erika was married to Gustaf Gründgens and later married the poet W. H. Auden, also gay, quite pragmatical for British passport access. 

Suicide was another family theme. Both of Thomas Mann’s sisters and his sons Klaus and Michael committed suicide. 

I liked The Master, Tóibín’s excursion into the life and mind of Henry James very much and thought it a great achievement. Here in The Magician Tóibín has outperformed himself, again. His prose is, as always strong, warm, vibrant and beautiful, perfect and worthy for such a grand writer as Mann. Tóibín is a true magician himself.

Friday, 17 September 2021

The observer creates reality

 Reality is created by observers in the universe. 

Thus first and prominently speculated John Archibald Wheeler (July 9, 1911 – April 13, 2008), famous theoretical physicist, in his theory of the Participatory Anthropic Principle.

A thought that I've always found very attractive: It was not the cosmos that created us but life instead, who created the cosmos. According to biocentrism, time does not exist independently of the life that notices it. Even if intuitively this does not make sense to us, since we are used to perceive time only running in one direction. 

According to the Biocentric Universe Theory everything was in a state of uncertainty before life appeared. Only when an observer appeared for the first time on stage did he force the cosmos to decide on a specific state, just like in the well-known double slit experiment, in which a particle only then decides to adopt a specific state and to pass through a specific gap when it is being observed.

When a property of a particle suddenly switches from possibility to reality, some physicists say its wave function has collapsed. What accomplishes this collapse? Just messing with it does the job. Measure it with a bit of light for example, in order to take its picture. Or just looking at it. Experiments suggest that mere knowledge in the experimenter’s mind is sufficient to collapse a wave function and convert possibility to reality. 

Only when I observe something and perceive it in my mind does it become real. I create my own reality. And as I do it on my own subjective, personal level so life and consciousness do it on a universal level. 

Thursday, 16 September 2021

“Educated" by Tara Westhoff - review (sort of)

 “Educated“ by Tara Westover:

This is the autobiographical story of the author who grew up in a restrictive, dysfunctional survivalists mormon family in the mountains of Idaho, isolated from mainstream society and finally succeeded to break with her family on her quest for knowledge.

Although I admire the author for successfully “making it" in the end and do understand the need and will to share her story, I did not like the book and stopped reading it after one third through the book. 

Although the writing is good, her emotionally detached, objectified perception and descriptions also, I just could not see why I should follow a life through hardship and suffering (and empathize with it) when the message of the book is clear right from the start: Education is the key to the world. 

Since I already know that, the book was not for me. I have read too many “misery lit“ and don’t need more of that at the moment. It made for an interesting, lively discussion, though at my bookclub and I am sure for a lot of people the book will provide entertainment and, not least, encouragement.

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

“A Year of Marvellous Ways" by Sarah Winman - review

 “A Year of Marvellous Ways” by Sarah Winman:

It is 1947, Marvellous Ways, an 89-year-old woman, who lives alone on the bank of a Cornish creek by the sea, waits for something to arrive because “the image is still incomplete“. And arrive it does, in from of a young man, Francis Drake, recently returned from the war trenches of France. He was on a mission to deliver a last letter to the father of a dying soldier who made him promise to deliver it personally. Somewhere on this mission he got lost and washed up by Marvellous’ caravan. Drake is very much in need of healing and Marvellous, in her age-old wisdom, is the person who can just do that. She takes him in and coaxes him back to life, rejuvenates him with her stories, teaching him how to see the extraordinary in the ordinary, teaches him to be able to marvel again at life. 

Slowly she reveals glimpses of her life, told in beautiful, poetic, magical prose and we also get to know some of Drake’s history. And as the stories unfold they begin a strange, marvellous life of their own which is part reality, part magical realism, part fairy tale, part enchanted past. It is a gentle twist, though of the knob of reality, a gentle kind of magic and I enjoyed the beautiful prose and its slowly weaving and wafting together a remarkable warm, human story of loss, of hardship, of love, life, nature. and hope. The mingling, the mix, of the literal and the metaphorical is quite rewarding if one is willing (as one should when reading literature) to suspend disbelief. It makes a rich textured, atmospheric read, a beautiful poetic tale.

Sunday, 12 September 2021

“A Month in the Country" by J. L. Carr - review


“A Month in the County“ by J. L. Carr:

This book caught my eye and attention with its cover. I had just finished “The Offing” by Benjamin Myers (published 2019) with a very similar cover, depicting a rural picturesque countryside and I was hooked. Later I learned that it was published in 1980, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, won the Guardian fiction prize,  was made into a film and is considered a small masterpiece. 

The cover proved to be not the only parallel. 

In both books a war has just ended (World War One in “A Month in the Country“,  World War Two in “The Offing“).

In both books the main character sets out on a journey to the countryside of England. 

In both books the country life, the landscape, the resplendent golden summer, nature, the local people, all set in motion a turn of states, a revelatory or healing process after which life for the narrator will not be the same again.  

Both books touch on great themes of literature: life, death, love, art and loss. 

Both books at times read like an elegy to an England now gone, an ode to nature. 

Both books are quiet, undramatic, contemplative, often lyrical. 

Tom Birkin, a World War I veteran, arrives in the village of Oxgodby in Yorkshire where he had been offered the job of restoring a medieval mural, recently discovered in the local church. Tom suffers not only from the physical and mental wounds the war dealt him, he must also come to terms with his recently broken marriage. Tom is very much in need of healing. 

In the village he meets another war veteran, Moon, an archaeologist in search of a lost grave. Tom resides in the bell tower of the church while Moon lives in a tented pit in the field. Both men are marked by war and bitter experiences of sex, but where Tom is right from the start welcomed by the villagers, Moon does not get the same treatment. 

The days move on, summer proceeds and finally comes to an end, both men finish the task they were asked to do, Moon finding the lost grave and its surprising content and Tom successfully restoring the lost mural.

But Tom realizes that his soul, too has been given a restorative touch, a healing has set in and he leaves this place, always later thinking gratefully of it as the point from where his life began to leave the atrocities of war behind and took on a hopeful, optimistic view on life.

Friday, 10 September 2021

“The Offing" by Benjamin Myers - review

 “The Offing“ by Benjamin Myers:

In this quiet touching lyrical tale, set in rural England just after Second World War has ended, a man looks back at a single summer and remembers the life-changing unusual friendship he found then. 

16-year-old Robert Appleyard, in an act of “escapology and rebellion”, leaves his Durham village in the north in search for any work that isn’t coal mining and sets out on a journey that takes him to the east coast where, in an old cottage living alone with her dog Butler, he encounters Dulcie Piper, a woman three times his age. Soon an unlikely symbiotic relationship evolves between the two. He tends to the house and garden, she provides food, shelter and intellectual nourishment.  

Dulcie is an imposing, many-faceted character, foul-mouthed and eloquent, aesthetically inclined, a worldly and sophisticated woman with a past, a woman who embodies fearless independence and strong will, all of which she freely shares with the boy and encourages him on his way to find his calling and his true self. 

The cottage is situated at the coast, at a place called The Offing, which is “the distant stretch of sea where sky and water merge”, a perfect place for the transition of a boy into a young man and Myers enticingly portraits in lyrical, almost baroque and old-fashioned prose, the lucid coastal landscape, the lights, the sounds, the fauna and the flora. Almost on every page we find endearing little gems of descriptive words, such as “The fish were still held close to my face. I looked into the ruined mirrors of their pupils and saw the deep green and magnesium striped pattern of their lean but muscular flanks, their bellies the colour of molten lead.”

The total of the book emanates a slight melancholic warmth which is really a sensual pleasure compared to so many books out lately who eschew emotionally tinted language (i. e. Rachel Cusk) and strive to be “cool”.  

Dulcie plays mentor to Robert’s poetic talent, tells of her lost companion who was also a poet and played a very important part in her life. She coaxes him gently to recognise his dormant talents and to choose a life for and believe in himself, regardless of family tradition.

This is a warm, positive, optimistic book for dreamers or those who once had a dream, for swimmers against the current, for worshippers of nature, of life, for distrusters of authority, for believers in the Good and lastly for all those who still believe in the transcendent power of art and love. It is a reminder that “permanence is an impossibility and that everything is in flux”. 

“After all, there are only a few things worth fighting for: freedom and all that it brings with it. Poetry, perhaps, and a good glass of wine. A nice meal. Nature. Love, if you’re lucky.“

Thursday, 2 September 2021

“Dictation" and “Antiquities“ by Cynthia Ozick - review

 “Dictation“ by Cynthia Ozick:

In this “delightful“ little short story, one of four which make up this book that seems to concern itself with the lost worlds evoked by languages, we follow the female secretaries of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, Theodora Bosanquet and Lilian Hallowes, as they engineer a cunning little literary conspiracy to save themselves their own little mark of immortality in their masters' work.

When the two authors, who where indeed friends for a while and exchanged ideas, meet on a fine day in 1910 in Henry James’ club in London, the two secretaries by chance meet, too and set in motion their plan.

In convincingly evoking the epoch of Henry James, in mannerism, dictation and language, Ozick paints an amusing little sketch of a bygone world.

“Antiquities“ by Cynthia Ozick:

This is the latest book by Cynthia Ozick and maybe I should have read some of her earlier work first. As it is, here I wonder, after reading this short novel and enjoying the style, what have I really gained from it. 

A grumpy old widower, formerly working in the law trade, well respected member of society and heir of a distinguished wealthy family, now lives retired, in a senior’s residence, the same building which, in his youth, he lived in as a young boarding school member.  He spends his days in writing his memoirs and so the book takes us on a journey between the present and the past. 

It’s all very well written, the prose is immaculate, the characters are finely sketched, it is even humorous and amusing to follow the story up until the end and the tale sometimes takes on a fable quality. Yet, it left me quite unfazed at the end.

The fault lies not in the novel then but in me, who read all too many novels before this one which all  deal with the specific hothouse atmosphere a boarding school quite naturally provides and provokes. There is a certain, indistinct law of how things might, should and are evolving in such a setting. There is friendship, comradeship, there are the one or two outsiders who have to endure the scorn and cruel injustices of the rest, there is one intimate and emotionally confusing encounter with a fellow pupil and then everything turns into adulthood, is quickly forgotten and only later, at the end of life, resurfaces as dear innocent memories. 

Well, very well done, but alas, to me, of no great surprise and consequence.

Saturday, 28 August 2021

Short story “Signs and Symbols" by Vladimir Nabokov - review

 “Signs and Symbols" by Vladimir Nabokov:

Whatever one thinks of Nabokov, the man can write. He is a master of his art and a good example of it is the short story “Signs and Symbols”, first published in the New Yorker in May 15, 1948. It is a truly remarkable short story and I strongly recommend to read it. It is a short story, indeed and will only take 10 to 15 minutes of your time, but they are worth it.

This haunting little tale, more a sketch than a story, is being propelled by the feeling of threat in an otherwise normal-seeming situation and follows an elderly immigrant couple in New York who plan to visit their son on his birthday. This son has been hospitalized for years now in a sanitorium, as he suffers from a mental disorder in which he reads everything about the world around him referring to him in code, a code he must decipher. And as we follow his mind we also begin to suspect that everything in this story, every fine little detail might be imbued with hidden meaning, everything in life might be just “signs and symbols”.

The couple returns home after the visit, resolving, albeit with mixed feelings to bring back home their son the next day. The story nears its end, there is a mysterious phone call, repeatedly, with dreadful news to the couple and we are left to guess and fill out the masterly left out blanks. Within a few pages Nabokov was able to compose a huge drama and hold us in its grip. 

As it was originally published in The New Yorker: 


“Alice Knott" by Blake Butler - review

 “Alice Knott” by Blake Butler:

In a shockingly blasphemous scene, at least blasphemous so to connoisseurs of art, the novel sets the tone for what is to come. What is to come is not clear, yet but it is ominously unfriendly and seems to threaten the very foundations of what we came to understand as art - and thus life and moral. 

Alice Knott, a woman, very rich, very old, very peculiar, finds herself the victim of a theft and in the focus of suspicion of being behind this deed that culminated in the destruction of works of art she possessed, works of singularity and irreplaceability. 

More disconcerting to Alice than being a suspect or being robbed, though was the thing, an object, that the intruders left behind in the space which once was occupied by a Robert Rauschenberg painting, a piece titled White Painting, a blank white canvas that followed concept over form, reminding of the “continuous non-presence of the possibility of nothingness“. 

The object left behind was a mirror. Unforgettable the moment when Alice approaches the object, at first finding it hard to distinguish it as a different object, it being of the same size as the stolen canvas and the surrounding walls being of the same white as the former painting. Then she stood directly in front of it and saw her own reflection as her portrait in a white field. These strong images got me hooked and I kept reading on, intrigued by art’s semantics. 

The big one question which arises is of course: WHY?

From now on we slowly get to see glimpses of who Alice is and was and it is a disturbing sight we see. Alice is haunted by childhood demons, by a father who mysteriously and inexplicably vanished one day, only to be replaced by a person who claims to be her father, a look-alike twin brother who, as an inmate in death row escaped his fate for unknown reasons, a mother who resists all questions and references to her vanished husband. In short: she is haunted by a family she deeply distrusts. 

The mind into which we are forced to plunge is a strange, distorted, traumatized and tortured one. A phantasmagoric nightmare, a kaleidoscopical dream state, not easy to confront. More and more one is reminded of another famous Alice, the one who went down the rabbit hole. 

Soon we learn of the downfall of the family, how Alice was left, after the death of her parents, with a heritage of immense wealth.  Her ominous twin vanished soon after. 

Things begin to change over night, rooms appear, corridors open up. We are yet not certain if this is real or imagination. 

The prose, when it describes the mental state of Alice, is a mostly cool descriptive voice in a differentiated, sophisticated language which sometimes, quite surreptitiously, brings to mind the dictation of Henry James.

Then more art all over the world is vandalised and destroyed. Reality, memory and  imagination begin to shift and mingle until we are no longer certain of what Alice sees is the blackness of her mind, the TV screen on the wall or reality. 

The novel slowly begins to feel like a dystopian science fiction story or a metaphor for doomsday. 

And then, after reading exactly half of the book, all of a sudden I lost interest. I no longer wanted to wander around in such a strange mind without at least a glimpse or an idea of where this tale could be leading. I admit, my patience was exhausted and although I found the prose a good one, it couldn’t catch my attention any longer. Not for the length of yet another book half.  I grew tired of having to guess what was really going on, what is really happening. 

And by now I don’t even care anymore. 

This is one of the very rare occurrences where a book started out wonderfully promising and sadly ended up in indifference. Although it was in many parts an intelligent construct and an intriguing read, in the end (or rather: In the middle) it failed to be the book for me. Strangely, too I remember the description of the Rauschenberg canvas, somehow its possible reading now extending to this book: “a continuous non-presence of the possibility of nothingness“. 

Monday, 23 August 2021

“The Italian Teacher" by Tom Rachman - review

 “The Italian Teacher“ by Tom Rachman:

What follows if one allows ethics to undermine aesthetics? 

Does great art justifies monstrous selfishness?

Are artists people who deserve to have a different set of rules than the rest of us?

Is the suffering of family, lovers, children to be accepted as inevitable and excused by the, supposedly far greater value of art and do they not have the right to their own life?

Do other people’s opinions have anything to do with the value of our art? 

Do they have anything to do with the value of our selves?

The hypocrisies of the art world, questions about ambition, value and the nature of art, the age-old question of how monetary value correlates with artistic worth and above all the love of a son for his genius artist father, his struggle for love and affection, the heavy weight of obligation, duty, responsibility and loyalty: All these themes are masterfully spread out and examined in this rich, emotionally touching, sad, warm and surprisingly inventive novel. 


The narrative tracks the lifelong relationship between Pinch and his father, the great 20th-century artist Bear Bavinsky, a tremendous narcissist with tremendous charm, as he tries to unburden himself from his father’s overwhelming crushing ego and to reframe his own life. 

Great artists often come with big egos, they suck up the air and all energy in a room and from all those who surround them if given the chance. Living in the shadow of greatness is not an easy task. It can have dramatic and irreversible effects on a person’s growth. Which is exactly what happens to Pinch Bavinsky, the son.

Always eager to gain his father’s admiration and support the son tries to become an artist himself, starts learning the trade, follows the sparse hints and offered lessons his father gave him only to learn later that Father does not consider him artist material. Crushed he resolves to become an art historian to be of later service to his father’s fame. 

Meanwhile Pinch grows up, makes friends, has mostly discouraging affairs and finally falls seriously in love with a girl and just when it seems he has found fulfillment and happiness Bear, the father sabotages this relationship and subsequently the life of Pinch declines and he winds up as a teacher of Italian at a language school in London. 

Here Pinch as well as the narrative have reached a point where it is almost too sad to want to follow any longer. And exactly then the story picks up on a different momentum and leads to a finale that is both wonderfully ironic and profoundly touching. 

Over the years the balance of power between Pinch and his father begins to shift and in a rebellious act of defiance Pinch hatches a surprising scenario, ironic and touching, which will both secure his father’s legacy and at the same time save Pinch his own mark in the art world. This brilliant finale I found very uplifting and it left me smiling.

Sunday, 15 August 2021

“Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel - review

 “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel:

The collapse of civilization, a dystopian world, a possible future. It has been thought of in many variations before. I nevertheless liked this one because it focuses, over the course of 20 years, on the fate of a few handful of people, bound inextricably together by their relation to a dying actor and a futuristic graphic novel. Arthur’s death at 51, taking place on stage in a production of King Lear, sets in motion a fast-paced narrative. From this moment on we follow the lives of everyone closely related to him or only marginally involved in the production. Now the virus hits. 

The novel tells of a pandemic which erases almost all of mankind from the surface of this world and forces the few survivors to come to terms with the loss of civilization as we know it, with all its wondrous, marvelous achievements like the internet, electricity, air planes or mobile phones. Now survivalism is asked for and adaption to a perilous life to make it to the next day. The greatest, most dangerous enemy is, one is not surprised, man himself, the neighbour, a wanderer, a stranger.

The prose is good, the story full of suspense, the pace is quick and many surprises pop up. 

The end, although dystopian, offers a shimmer of hope that, although all has been lost mankind might still have a future. 

A good tale, entertaining and thoughtfully worked out, that never gets boring and always has a focus on life, relations, existence and the importance of art. I liked it. 

Tuesday, 10 August 2021

“Klara and the Sun" by Kazuo Ishiguro - review

 “Klara and the Sun” by Kazuo Ishiguro:

Right from the beginning: I did not like the book.

How does it feel to be not-quite human and to see and experience the world all around you? 

Is science able to transcend death?

Is it morally justifiable to substitute one consciousness, one life, by harvesting and using another consciousness?

All these are very good thoughts and concepts worthy to explore, ideas to engage in. Alas, Ishiguro doesn’t seem to be able to generate out of this fascinating material a good, enjoyable while rewarding book. 

Klara is a robot, an AF, an artificial friend which wealthy parents buy for their kids as a companion. These kids are, one learns over the course of the book, genetically enhanced children and this genetical engineering sometimes comes with disastrous side effects which can result in the death of these kids. In the family into which Klara is being bought there is a mother and her daughter for whom Klara is supposed to be the companion. The daughter is weak and ill and is believed to be dying soon. The family already lost another daughter in the past and the mother, thinking that she will not be able to endure and survive another loss, contrives a plan to substitute her daughter, once the daughter has died, with a look-alike robot body and the mind of Klara who is endowed with extraordinary empathetic and mimic abilities. There is a similarity with Ishiguro’s earlier novel “Never Let It Go“ where children are raised in an institution for the sole purpose of being harvested for their organs.

Klara, the robot tells, in a voice mix of intelligence and naivety, of how she experiences her surroundings and so forces us to interpret her impressions and deduct from them what is going on. A nice proper technique and it works -  for a while. At first entertaining, engaging and suspensive it soon outlives its momentum and becomes utterly boring and frustrating. It becomes clear that behind the clever technique there is just: Very Little. And this is not enough. This is a small, pretty tale which would have been much better at home within a short story than a novel. Because that is what it feels like, a nice little idea, blown up to a novel’s dimension. 

There should be emotions involved. There are indeed emotions involved. But one does not feel them. One is being told of them, one is being made to think one should have them, but one does not feel them. This might be due to Klara having no real interiority, of being still a machine in the end, one cannot relate to her and this shuts the door to feeling. Questions of moral, parental love, empathy, loyalty, the value of a mind, of all these one reads, but does not really feel them. All is lost in a fog of childish tale that pretends to be profounder then it really is. And it doesn’t help but confuses and raises a feeling of disbelieve that Klara, being a solar-powered machine without real feeling, just being able to register and analyse emotions, all of a sudden is supposed to have a sort of innate religious feeling which results in worshipping the Sun, her source of life. 

The ideas for this book were definitively good ones. The physical manifestation turned out moderately meager. I was disappointed.

Saturday, 7 August 2021

“Cat's Eye" by Margaret Atwood - review

 “Cat’s Eye” by Margaret Atwood:

This is Atwood’s refreshingly honest while slightly accusing, slightly misogynistic version of a “Künstlerroman”, the Life of the Artist as a Young Woman who, right from the start, is constantly observed, questioned, criticized and judged.  

Elaine, a woman painter, returns to her hometown Toronto for a retrospective of her art and starts reminiscing in vivid detail and extraordinary observance, her life, her childhood and her friendship with “best friend” and cruel torturer Cordelia. 

Everything and everyone in this narrative is rendered in great detail of sight, sound, taste and smell: a symphony of sensual evocation. Emotion is made comprehensible through the physical world. And a lot of the physical world is associated with pain. Fear and horror are inextricably intertwined in everyday experience. The timeline is set mostly in the past and occasionally interspersed by the present. 

The girl Elaine has to endure betrayal and cruel childhood games of power, subservience and dominance. In a surreal, almost magical event she frees herself from her tormentors and starts to live an emancipated life, has an affair, gets married and divorced, becomes a painter, becomes a mother, struggles with her identity, struggles with the constant judgement women in society have to endure and emerges out of this process all the stronger. In the final pages she rises above the ties that bound her, not necessarily happier, but more in accord with and more accepting of herself, all the while Cordelia never ceases to pop up in her mind.

This is an emotional book, half of the story is told from the child Elaine’s perspective. All the relevant persons we meet through the eyes of Elaine: her parents, her brother who met a tragical death, her school-friends, her teachers. 

Cat’s Eye ends on a peaceful, forgiving note. While Elaine walks through her exhibition, she assembles structure and meaning out of the shards and shreds of her life and ties loose ends. Cat’s Eye is not only a reminiscent look on youth but also a meditation on ageing and the way relations with people, places and the past are changing.

Atwood unrelentingly tugs at (not quite lifts) the false, lying veil of feminist benevolence and womanly support which is really claw-and-tooth disguised as friendship. “Forgiving men is so much easier than forgiving women“ is one astounding lesson Elaine learns, another is that “men don’t have intentions, they are like the weather, they have no mind“.

"Königsallee" by Hans Pleschinski - review

  “Königsallee“ by Hans Pleschinski: It is the summer of 1954 and Thomas Mann, Nobel laureate, 80 years old, out from his exile in Switzer...