Monday, 28 November 2022

“The Singularities" by John Banville - review

 “The Singularities” by John Banville:

Reading Booker winner John Banville is like watching a magician at work. Banville is such a talented master in his craft, such a highly intelligent, sophisticated, artful, poetic, philosophical narrator and perceiver of the world which he seemingly effortless describes in such luscious elegance of prose and style that reading him is pure joy and bliss, sentence for captivating sentence, paragraph for aesthetic paragraph. Not often do I come upon a writer or a novel which gives me such pleasure. 

The book is difficult to summarize. Banville revisits characters and themes from his past works like The Book of Evidence or The Infinities and crafts an artful, witty and mesmerizingly atmospheric philosophical narrative. 

If you know John Banville then you know not to expect much in the way of a plot, story as such plays mostly only second part. What is very prominent, though is style. And what style that is!


Banville is more interested in the time and space between events, in insight rather than action. His idea of representation is a portrait of the world as is, of the things and their essence. He achieves this by rumination on or around these things, these ideas, the world, with a descriptive power rarely encountered, Henry James comes to mind and Thomas Mann. He is as much in search of the truth about things as he is concerned in the multiple ways we deliberately bend the truth to our wish and will. 

Banville’s shapely sentences give enormous, almost painterly pleasure when, for example a full paragraph gets devoted to the description of a fly, the surface of a table or a chair, he excels in atmospheric depictions of plays of light, shadows and reflections. Here is a man in sophisticated command of the language, a true artist of his craft who breathes life into inanimate objects, thus making their thingness transcendentally meaningful. Even chairs, tables or mountains have a heart that beats and a soul that remembers, so illustrating Adam Godley the elder’s Brahma Theory, that a great world spirit moves through all things. 

His metaphors are exquisite and surprising. When for example, he compares an old woman’s memory, Ursula, Adam’s dottering widow in this case, as a crate of Meissen figurines someone clumsily dropped and they are all now smashed to pieces and the pieces in a hopeless jumble on the floor. 

The pace of the book is leisurely at times, but it’s always pleasurable to follow the winding path of this sophisticated narration which sometimes meanders off into fields of science, physics, metaphysics, art, literature, philosophy, history and mythology. As in The Infinities the main narrator is the godlet Hermes, the messenger god of the ancient Greeks, and with a wink, could be just a representation of Banville himself. 

Much of the action occurs at an Irish country home known as Arden House where we meet Freddie Montgomery again who, under the newly adopted name of Felix Mordaunt, returns to this house he believes is the place where he grew up. Freddie is a convicted murderer who has been paroled after serving 25 years of a life sentence and was first introduced in Banville’s 1989 novel, The Book Of  Evidence

The inhabitants of Arden House include Adam, head of household and his wife, Helen, who is still haunted by the death of an infant son, there is the senior Godley’s second wife, Ursula, who passes her days slowly dying alone in an attic room, and then there is William Jaybey who, on the request and invitation of Adam Godley, has agreed to take on the project of producing a biography of Godley’s father.

The Singularities delves into exploring the complex relationships among these characters, along with a strange woman, Anna Behrens, who once was a lover of both Godley the elder and Mordaunt and now reunites with the latter for the purpose of presenting him with a request.

Godley the elder once formulated the “Brahma theory”, which has overturned physics both classical and quantum and left us in a world where the very fabric of reality has been rent apart. The Brahma theory “showed that every increase in our knowledge of the nature of reality acts directly upon that reality, and that each glowing new discovery we make brings about an equal and opposite darkening.” Mankind became too smart for its own good. 

The mind creates the universe and when the mind is altered so is the universe. In this it is much like writing, the act that creates the already-created world, making the writer a god, of sorts. Banville no doubt, is such a god.

#robertfaeth, #painterinBerlin, #painting, #art, #bookblog, #bookreviews, #literaturelover, #poem, #poetry

Thursday, 27 October 2022

”Harlem Shuffle” by Colson Whitehead - short review

 “Harlem Shuffle” by Colson Whitehead:

Apart from being a social novel and a morality play about race and power Harlem Shuffle is also a crime novel, at least it follows the laws of crime novels. While the book failed to win me over I understand that for some the pleasure of the plot lies in discovering what kind of trouble an ordinary man can get into, and how or whether he’ll get out. 

Harlem Shuffle is set in the 1960s where we follow ordinary furniture salesman Ray Carney, basically a good guy who gets sucked into schemes and heists through his cousin, boyhood companion and best friend, Freddie.

The novel is structured in three sections. 

The first Act shows how easily a man can step downward into crime. 

In Act 2 we follow Carney’s climb up the echelons of criminal activity. For Carney it might feel like an advancement but it is just an illusion.

In Act 3 Carney is faced with questions of family ties and social responsibility and whether a man should step up to help others. Will Carney get his cousin Freddie out of trouble this time and will he do it regardless of what the costs will be for him. 

The prose is good, entertaining, the painting of New York accurate and atmospheric and a love-letter to a Harlem long gone-bye. The novel gains force through accumulation and acceleration all heavy with criminal activity. And yet it failed to convince me and that is not Whitehead’s fault but boils down to a matter of taste. 

#robertfaeth, #painterinBerlin, #painting, #art, #bookblog, #bookreviews, #literaturelover, #poem, #poetry

Sunday, 9 October 2022

”Guapa” by Saleem Haddad - review

 “Guapa” by Saleem Haddad:

This is a is fluent, passionate and emotionally honest coming-of-age tale of a young gay Arab man named Rasa in the Middle East and his struggle for self-definition, mirroring the complex battles for self-determination being fought out in Arab societies. The political landscape is just post Arab-spring revolution with an overall feeling of despair and resignation.

it is set over the course of one day and we follow Rasa on his way through an unnamed Arab city in search of his identity, his lost love of his life, his family, his mother who has left when he was a young boy, his father who died some years ago of cancer. Rasa lives alone with his only remaining relative, his grandmother. Their flat is a shrine to Rasa’s dead father and a way of dismissing his vanished mother. The grandmother, Teta is an oppressing strong force, ruling the household, dominating the family life even when the father of Rasa was still living and the mother was still present. With her stubborn mind, rooted in the old ways, her head full of misgivings, prejudices, rules, restrictions, all founded on shame and the fear of what people will say. Even if to her she acts only in the interest of the family, she thereby drives the family apart. She is a personification of the old mind-set that rules the Arab world with its tight rules regarding family and conduct.

Rasa has lost his true love because his lover, Taymour who, even though he truly loves Rasa back, is also too weak to not bend to society’s rules and marries a woman for appearance sake, so betraying their love. Everyone is performing, in one way or other, everyone is putting on a mask and not showing their face. 

Rasa is torn between many conflics. He is queer in more than one way. He is gay in a male dominated society who disapproves of homosexuality. He is Arab, but a young Arab who fights the old ways because there is no future to be seen for the younger generation. He studies in the USA and there meets a girl who accuses him of being so Arab and and an American-Arab who accuses him of being too westernized. 

Family, identity, and politics collide in this honest, insightful novel. This is in many parts a very political novel and in some parts it feels like a young-adult coming-of-age novel. The main characters are approaching thirty, yet often acting like thirteen-year-old teenagers. Maybe this is a hint that until self-acceptance occurs and sexually based discrimination ends, development is arrested.

#robertfaeth, #painterinBerlin, #painting, #art, #bookblog, #bookreviews, #literaturelover, #poem, #poetry

Saturday, 1 October 2022

“Babysitter “ by Joyce Carol Oates

 “Babysitter“ by Joyce Carol Oates:

This novel is a tale of violence and abuse of the most vulnerable, children and women, committed by cruel, dominating men. 

It is 1977, Detroit and the city is still recovering from the race riots a decade earlier but experiencing the first signs of urban gentrification. A series of brutal child murders by a perpetrator known as Babysitter hits, shocks and terrorizes the citizens. Babysitter leaves his victims lying naked, washed and groomed, on the ground, their clothes neatly folded beside them. 

In stark contrast and in a parallel story-line but serving as the main engine of the plot is the story of Hannah, a Dior-clad 39-year-old housewife, rich, with two little kids and a husband who is not aware of her anymore, living a secluded, boring life in which every day is a white blank that needs to be filled with activity, any activity. She is profoundly doubting herself, is deeply uncertain, despite her arresting beauty, about the reality of her social being. She embarks on a dangerous, devastating affair with a mysterious man known only by the initials YK. Even after YK rapes her in the most cruel and demeaning fashion, almost killing her in the event, Hannah, starved for love as she is, keeps thinking of him as her lover with tenderness. Hannah is victimized but, quite bafflingly also cooperates in her own victimization. “Only the weak fall in love, they see no way of living otherwise”. This is a fair summarization of the desires that drive Hannah in this disturbing novel. 

The narrative timeline twists back and forth and for much of the novel Hannah’s daydreams keep returning again and again to the sensation of YK touching her wrist at their initial meeting or her first ascent in the glass capsule of a hotel elevator which took her towards their first meeting. 

Interwoven throughout the narrative are simmering racial and class tensions. The wealthy white class citizens feeling threatened by the black populace of poorer Detroit, the Filipina household help who is constantly there, caring for the family, but never registered as part of it. 

This is a compelling, unsettling study of the most ugly aspects of human desire. It is dark, violent and a tense examination of gender and power. 

In the end, even though Oates is, as she is so often, brilliant in her writing, it proved to be unsatisfactory for me, I just couldn’t go the way Oates wanted me to go and believe that a woman like Hannah would be so foolish to not see the risk that lies in such a reckless, dangerous affair, with all the signs of “turn back” on glaringly red, and still go on, risk her and her family’s existence just because she was restless and sexually unfulfilled. 

#robertfaeth, #painterinBerlin, #painting, #art, #bookblog, #bookreviews, #literaturelover, #poem, #poetry

Wednesday, 31 August 2022

“The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” by Taylor Jenkins Reid - review

 “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” by Taylor Jenkins Reid:

Despite the hype and rave this book got in the past (2017) I was surprised how much I enjoyed it. 

Renowned Hollywood actress Evelyn Hugo, aged 79, enlists little-known, young but ambitious journalist Monique Grant for an exclusive interview. Monique doesn’t understand why she's been chosen to write and sell Evelyn’s memoir but jumps of course at the opportunity and one-time chance to advance her career. 

In a truly and undeniably visceral and addictive style, soapy, juicy, glamorous and complex, in a mix of historical and psychological fiction, Evelyn’s life unfolds from the 1950’s all the way to present time, documenting the entirety of her acting career, including the stories behind the titular seven husbands, Hollywood, the film industry, fame, glamour, scandal, sordid secrets and lies. The characters, complicated and realistically flawed, are well laid out in all their machinations, relationship dynamics and complexities. 

Especially Evelyn’s character is immaculately developed, with very human feelings and thoughts. Issues like sexual exploitation women face both generally and within the context of Hollywood stardom, are discussed in depth, lending an emotional perspective to the story.

An asset of the book is, that it is also a touching queer romance. It is a story of scandal and ambition, as well as identity, love, and the difficulty of wanting to be true to yourself in a difficult world. 

This was a fast and highly enjoyable read.

#robertfaeth, #painterinBerlin, #painting, #art, #bookblog, #bookreviews, #literaturelover, #poem, #poetry

Wednesday, 24 August 2022

“Appliance” by J. O. Morgan - review

 “Appliance“ by J. O. Morgan:

J. O. Morgan has earned himself recognition as a poet, this is his first novel. 

In this very compelling, highly entertaining, often tender and philosophical fable we are, in eleven chapters, confronted with the impact, the disturbances, the repercussions and ramifications of the dramatic changes a new clever invention, the Machine, brings onto mankind. 

In eleven snapshots or vignettes different protagonists, different voices, highlight another aspect of the machine’s impact on society. In this regard the novel is similar to, say, the famous poem by Steven Wallace 13 Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird. Eleven different perspectives on one central theme and they all form a chorus that tells of how this new technology is changing, morphing and growing and on its way changing, morphing and relentlessly and inevitably distorting everything on our planet and us with it.

Teleportation, the instant breaking apart, sending and reassembling of matter across immense distances in almost no-time is fairly well known in the genre of science fiction. But this is not a Science Fiction novel. It uses the idea of teleportation to show how a society, always on the move for more, always progressively expanding and advancing, might be made dependent and irretrievably transformed by it. It raises the question of the necessity of dubious progress. 

The novel does not focus on the techology but focuses on the dangers, frustrations and bewilderment it causes to those who live with it. The System, as it is called, advances the infrastructure around everyone, creeps into every aspect of human life, transforms houses, decors, fashion and work, attitudes and values and changes society to the point of utter dependency. 

In one chapter an old woman is forced to transport an old oil painting via the new technology and ponders on the concept of the Original. Not a new thought, one which Walter Benjamin explored in his The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in 1935. Seen in this new context it offers surprising new aspects, though. What is an original, what is a mere copy. Must an original  be linked to a bodily manifestation? Is the body sent the same as the body received or a mere copy?

And what about personality, consciousness and individuality? In another chapter a woman’s husband returns after a transportation slightly altered, a much nicer, more pleasing individual as the one she had to endure and live with before the event. So, might there be something that is not attached to matter, like a soul or spirit?

Innovative, full of questions, philosophical and infused with humanity, this fable forces us to re-examine our faith in technology, take new measure of our greed for new things and urges us to reflect on the future we really want and on what really matters. 

#robertfaeth, #painterinBerlin, #painting, #art, #bookblog, #bookreviews, #literaturelover, #poem, #poetry

Sunday, 14 August 2022

“The Melody“ by Jim Crace - review

 “The Melody” by Jim Crace:

This is Jim Crace’s latest novel after his Booker Prize finalist Harvest. It is a a meditation on grief and poverty, an ecological fable, a lyrical and tender rumination on marital love and loss. 

The aging concert singer Alfred Busi, much cherished in his hometown for his music and songs, in the early hours hears foragers rattling the bins in the backyard of his seaside villa which has been his and his wife’s home for decades and, while investigating, is attacked, scratched and bitten by a mysterious nocturnal scavenger, he thinks it was a feral boy, neither man nor animal. Busi recently lost his beloved wife Alicia, and now feels the weight, the maladies and ailments of old age setting in and his lifelong career as a celebrated singer seems to draw to a close. He is a man taking stock of his life and looking into an uncertain future. 

His only living close relatives are the sister of his wife, Terina whom he, despite her haughty, cool aloofness, still desires and her son Joseph, a repugnant timber tycoon and housing developer. A few days after the attack, Busi discovers that his nephew has arranged for the villa to be demolished and replaced with modern apartments for enormous profit. These machinations set into motion a troubling transformation of the town. 

We don’t really get a precise sense of where and when all this is happening, this seems to be intentional. Events unfold in a coastal town that feels vaguely Mediterranean. The town itself is surrounded by an impenetrable tangle of trees, scrubs, shrubs and underwood, called the Bosk, inhabited by an assortment of wild animals. 

One of the novel’s themes is the conflict between profit and justice. Busi’s attachment to his home is set against the poverty of the town’s homeless population, whom the wealthy class call “neanderthals” and in the name of order, civilization, and decency, not to forget the monetary gain, wish to drive from their dwellings.  Busi‘s fate is personal as well as political.

In the end the house developers succeed, razing the Bosk, driving out all the animals and erecting the seaside apartments as planned, thus changing the atmosphere and spirit of the town considerably. 

Busi, as we are told by the narrator, some six years after the events, gave up his villa and moved into one of the newly erected apartments. 

In a final scene he visits the forests once more with two newfound younger friends, one being the narrator, and his now infirm sister-in-law Terina, to scatter his wife‘s ashes and say a last good-bye. Then they go back to their homes in a changed town, devoid of wildlife. As they contemplate the wilderness a last time the narrator muses: 

“I have the sense… that something other than ourselves persists.  Something wilder and more animated but still resembling us.  Something that must scavenge on its naked haunches for roots and berries, nuts and leaves, roaches, maggots, frogs and carrion, stolen eggs and honey.”

He might have Alfred’s wild boy in mind, but might also reach out to our planet that man wants to bring under control, destructively if necessary.

Sometimes it is better to not look for explanations, sometimes it is even embarrassing to want to convert all what one has read into meaning. Sometimes it might just be enough to appreciate the mood a book induced. In this case I appreciated the sense and mood very much, it stayed with me for quite a while.

 #robertfaeth, #painterinBerlin, #painting, #art, #bookblog, #bookreviews, #literaturelover, #poem, #poetry

Friday, 12 August 2022

“You Made A Fool Of Death With Your Beauty“ by Akwaeke Emezi - review

 “You Made a Fool of Death with Your Beauty“ by Akwaeke Emezi:

I did not like this book. 

I liked Emezi’s last novel The Death of Vivek Oji very much and thought it a beautiful and tenderly rendered story of a young person coming to terms with themselves, an investigation into ideas of selfhood and the meaning respectively meaninglessness of the body and so I was very keen to read their latest book. What a disappointment!

It is not that Emezi lost their way with words, they are as good or even better, their prose and style are not the problem. The problem is the story. It is SOAP. It hurts to say it, but that’s what it is, a soap in all its bubbling, shimmering, glimmering, iridescent, awfully shallow, superficial manifestation. The worst is that it is not even meant as a satirization of a soap, Emezi seems deadly serious. 

Everything is just too hyped-up, too much. Too much love, too much pain, too much emotion in general or rather, too much talk about emotions which I never felt, too much vulgarity. Too beautifully striking people, homes and careers and so very unbelievable settings and too much beauty in general.

To cut it short: Beautiful woman artist Feyi, widowed and still grieving with the loss of her husband five years ago, meets attractive rich guy who invites her to spend a vacation on a tropical island in the outrageously beautiful millionaires bungalow of his dad. She likes him but is afraid to let herself get involved in a love affair and pleads time, she doesn’t feel strong enough, yet. 

There in the estate she meets his dad, a celebrity chef, and instantly falls in love with him and he with her. The son is hurt, the family threatens to fall apart. Meanwhile she gets invited to exhibit at a very important art show and with instant success, is discovered as the new rising star and is offered a substantial commission. 

It’s all so awfully tacky. There is unexpected, earth-shaking love, there is seemingly insufferable grief of which we are told but don’t feel, there are nasty inevitable but astoundingly easy overcome hurt feelings and family trouble and there is easy artistic success and recognition. It made me want to put a finger in my throat. What a waste of time and energy. 

The prose itself, as said, is very Emezi, masterful as ever, with an eye for colour, texture and taste, very sensual. They dive into the minds of their protagonists, try to analyze and decipher their motivation and render the overall set quite beautifully and sometimes even touching. They even try to get into different perspectives on a same situation/opinion like they did in The Death of Vivek Oji. There is enormous talent there and it is a shame they had to waste it on such soapy trash. I didn’t care for any of the protagonists, they all were shallow, superficial beings. I did’t care for the often foul-mouthed, annoyingly vulgar “nigga-bitches“ dialogues Feyi had with her woman friend. I didn’t care for the soft porn, the swooning over nipples, golden flesh or generously endowed male genitalia. I didn’t care one bit for the showy tropical paradise her newfound lover inhabited, beautiful golden sunsets included. And, most annoying for me personally, I didn’t buy her being such a good artist, driven, boo-hooh, by her pain. It all stayed floating on the surface of a water body which could have been a profoundly pond but in the end turned out to be just a shallow puddle. 

 #robertfaeth, #painterinBerlin, #painting, #art, #bookblog, #bookreviews, #literaturelover, #poem, #poetry

Saturday, 6 August 2022

“The Death of Vivek Oji” by Akwaeke Emezi - review

 “The Death Of Vivek Oji“ by Akwaeke Emezi:

“They burned down the market the day Vivek Oji died”, that’s how the book starts. It is very clear from the beginning that the titular Vivek Oji will meet death in this story and this knowledge, much in the same way as the imminent death of Giovanni in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, casts a dark, moody shadow of anxiety and apprehension that up until the end never leaves. 

The novel tries to solve the mystery of Oji’s death. His mother desperately wants to find out about the last hours of her son but is deflected by his friends who want to spare her but also have their own reasons not to tell. 

The narrative moves around in time and from viewpoint to viewpoint and paints, with recollections of Oji’s life from his friends and family and his own thoughts from beyond the grave, a richly layered picture of a middle-class community in Nigeria. Slowly it becomes evident that Oji is a person torn between the desire to be what he feels to be and the realization and fear how dangerous it would be to live out such a life in an antiquated, often barbarically relentless and cruel Nigerian society. Oji in the book is dead as well as alive, sometimes on the same page. One instant we see him as a boy playing with his mother’s jewelry, the next he lies dead in the garden of his parents or comments actions of his friends and family from his grave. 

Oji is a beautiful child and, as his cousin and best friend Osita remembers: “… so beautiful he made the air around him dull”. Much to the chagrin of his parents and the disappovement of his relatives, he never cuts his hair and lets it grow into a beautiful mane way below his shoulder blades. Oji was born on the same day his grandmother died and, like her, he is born with a scar like a “soft starfish” on his foot. This spiritual sign later becomes significant when Oji tells his friends that they can “refer to him as either she or he, that he is both”. 

But Oji has to hide, from society as well as from his parents. He knows he cannot open up to them, they would never understand. Some of their relatives even think him “sick” or being possessed by a demon. Even his own overprotective, loving mother, has no conception of what her child really is, both male and female. Her failure to do so is emblematic of the blindness of so many others who claim to love and adore him. Oji is someone who is painfully misunderstood.

In a beautifully corporeal, often heartachingly tender prose, the novel investigates ideas of selfhood that transcend the boundaries of the body and interrogates its meaning respectively meaninglessness. It draws a connection between existence and invisibility when Oji asks: “If nobody sees you, are you still there?”. Invisibility is, following his death, just Oji’s latest existential rendering, before that he experienced erasure while “walking around and knowing that people saw me one way, knowing that they were wrong … the real me was invisible to them”. 

Against all the pain the world inflicts on him Oji shields himself with a strong self-acceptance and when finally Oji decides to live and break free the mood shifts from melancholy to triumph. He opens up to his friends and insists on living openly as both he, Oji, and she, Nnemdi, and becomes “bright and brilliant and alive”. Throughout most of the novel, Oji is referred to as “he” but towards the end she is given what is rightfully hers.

A deeply affecting novel, beautifully written. 

 #robertfaeth, #painterinBerlin, #painting, #art, #bookblog, #bookreviews, #literaturelover, #poem, #poetry

Thursday, 4 August 2022

“In The Distance“ by Hernan Diaz - review

 “In the Distance” by Hernan Diaz:

Hernan Diaz’ masterful debut novel, a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction finalist, plays somewhere around the middle of the nineteenth century. We follow Håkan Söderströms life on a long and arduous journey from Sweden to America, always in search for his brother, whom he lost at the beginning of their trip in the harbor of Portsmouth, England. They were both mere boys, almost still children and left Sweden, like so many other Europeans, for the promises the new continent of America held.

Håkan, the “Hawk“ as he will be called by others, is the hero of the book. On his quest for his brother he grows into a remarkable giant of a man. To most he looks “like an old, strong Christ“.

The novel is a Western, reminiscent of the atypical Westerns of Cormack McCarthy or Jim Jarmusch. With them it shares the American mistrust of authorities, the strife for autarchy and the use of glorified violence. It lets us take part in one of the great myths of America, the colonization of the West. This extraordinary epic tale of a lone man’s journey into the heart of the American frontier, has many memorable scenes. Håkan, after loosing his brother in England, with dogged determination gets on a boat bound for San Francisco, rather than New York, and then spends countless, circular, unmapped years wandering the deserts and plains of the western and southwestern territories around the time of the California Gold Rush. He aims to cross the continent to New York in search of his brother Linus and starts travelling east against the endless tide of immigrants voyaging west.

We see the world close to Håkan’s consciousness, childlike, impressible and confused. Due to his lack of English comprehension Håkan has to guess most of the times what is going on. This makes him, especially in his younger years, a vulnerable character of a simple clarity who is at the mercy of his fellow travellers who are, more often than not, greedy, exploitive, mean spirited, dangerous and violent adventurers, prospectors and colonists.

After several gravely life-threatening, dangerous, disappointing and bitter encounters with humans and after his bewilderment at the rising “civilization” he increasingly finds unbearable, Håkan chooses the life of a recluse, takes on an animal existence and relies totally on what nature has to offer.

Diaz’ shows the history of America and its western conquest in all its bloody, horrifying, stupid detail, thus only showing the bitter truth of human existence. Håkan, always driven on by his quest forward to an unreachable goal and future, emerges from the depths of each terrifying experience again and again with resilience and animal intuition. 

With a precise, masterfully controlled, often rustic, poetic prose which is grounded in the young  Håkan’s perspective and a simple narrative structure Diaz’ paints an existentialist Western, a mystic parable, that leaves the reader often utterly devastated but then, as often, hopeful, too. An extraordinary achievement.

 #robertfaeth, #painterinBerlin, #painting, #art, #bookblog, #bookreviews, #literaturelover, #poem, #poetry

Friday, 29 July 2022

“Trust” by Hernan Diaz - review

 “Trust” by Hernan Diaz:

This book had me engaged and fascinated from start to end. It is Hernan Diaz’ second novel after his much acclaimed, In the Distance from 2017, which was a Pulitzer finalist. 

It is a story, a very intriguing, ingeniously crafted, multi-layered, highly intelligent, complex story about immense wealth, money, love and tragedy told in four distinct but connected narratives. It is a novel about empires, crashes, husbands and wives, immense fortunes and great misery. 

Retelling the same story from different angles it opens with a novel inside a novel called Bonds which transports us back to the Roaring Twenties and subsequent Depression. The author of this buttercream fiction, too rich in every way, but pleasantly so, is one Harold Vanner. There are hushed mansions, gilded cages and eery sanatorium scenes which could come straight out of The Magic Mountain. In heavily descriptive, omniscient, sometimes melodramatic early 20th-century style, reminiscent of Edith Wharton or Virginia Woolf, we learn of the life of an reclusive who, in the years leading up to the Great Depression, through his cunning and seemingly preternatural understanding of the stock market, rose to one of the most obscenely rich men in the U. S. His good luck is only counteracted by the mental and physical decline of his wife. The titular Bonds could refer to either monetary instruments or familial attachments. 

Bonds is followed by My Life, the draft of the memoir of Andrew Bevel, an autobiography in progress. Bevel is a very successful and famous New York financier, clearly the model for the tycoon in Bonds and we find many parallels to incidents and characters in Vanner’s novel. It is a rather pompously self-righteous account written in the first person and follows every convention of the bloated autobiographies of tycoons. 

This text is followed by A Memoir, Remembered by a striving first-generation Italian American woman named Ida Partenza, now a successful and established writer, then just over 20 years old, a woman at the beginning of a life of her own. The memoir, set in 1938 and written in 1981, promises the clarity of a female third party, a voice refreshingly free of an overblown ego. She tells the story of how Andrew Bevel hired her as a ghostwriter to give shape to his memoir manuscript and to set the record straight because he feels Vanner wrongly painted him as the direct cause of the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression and misrepresented his sweet, simple wife as a gilded-caged creature. Decades after Andrew’s death, Ida returns to his mansion, now a museum, to figure out who Mildred really was. Ida slowly discovers Andrew Bevel’s hidden motives in concealing Mildred’s superior intelligence and her crucial role in expanding his business. Ida’s narrative seems to be so far the most plausible. Through it we begin to see the real Andrew Bevel. Or, rather we think we do. 

The last text we get to read is titled Futures. Ida Partenza discovered it in her research and it consists of diary entries from the deceased brilliant wife of Andrew, Mildred Bevel, as she writes about her final days in a Swiss sanatorium. After the novel form, the autobiography and the memoir we finally get to read a primary source. And again everything we thought and assumed after reading the first three narratives begins to shift again. Because of its unfiltered, straight, unpretentious, honest voice this is maybe the most emotionally demanding and touching of the four narratives. As Mildred’s body decays, so do her sentences, which start to fracture from paragraphs down to mere fragments of sentences.

We slowly begin to understand why the novel is called Trust. It is not only about the financial construct, about money, but also about the trust we place into people. And it is about the trust the reader places into the author. Four different voices, four different literary styles, four different disparate perspectives on the same story. As soon as one story ends the truth of everything that came with it is upended by the next story and so forth. Which narrator do we trust? One, all, none? No individual perspective can be trusted. This ingenious quartet of narratives creates layer upon layer of an irresistible puzzle of emotions, believes, sympathies and twists. 

The women in the story seem more concerned with getting the details right whereas the men pompously attribute their success to their own grandiosly assumed cunning and superior knowledge or simply to the “roaring optimism of the times” or the claim that “the future belongs to America”. They are no more than priggish narcissists. 

This is a novel which incorporates the source of its inspiration as well as the reflection on and the reverberations resulting of it. In short, this is as much a literary treat as an intelligent reflection on literature and writing itself. This is a work of fiction which openly declares to be a work of fiction and describes how the ficticiousness is achieved and how slippery the concept of truth or trust is. It is also a play with narrative conventions. 

In her memoir Ida reminisces that she learned the trade from other female authors such as Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers : “These women showed me I did not have to conform to the stereotypical notions of the feminine world.… They showed me that there was no reward in being reliable or obedient: The reader’s expectations and demands were there to be intentionally confounded and subverted.” This working method Diaz seems to have incorporated, too. 

In its masterful immaculate writing Trust is all about the great American myth of money and how intrinsically close life and money have become entwined. And it makes us aware of how little we perceive or what we can see at all. There is no one truth. In this it is a perfect reflection of our confoundingly complex time. 

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Tuesday, 12 July 2022

“Loitering with Intent“ by Muriel Spark - review

 “Loitering with Intent” by Muriel Spark:

The novel was first published in 1981 and is Muriel Spark’s 16th novel. It centers around Fleur Talbot, who lives on ''the grubby edge of the literary world'' in postwar London and tries to write and publish her first book, musing upon ''how wonderful it feels to be an artist and a woman in the twentieth century.’’

Fleur has no job and no prospects and little money. She rents a dreary bed-sitting room from a swinish landlord and has an affair with handsome Leslie, the self-centered husband of her friend Dottie. Leslie also has an affair with a male young poet.

Fleur acquires a job as secretary to the Autobiographical Association, the members of which are an eclectic bunch of upper-class twits who meet under the roof and the supervision of Baronet Sir Quentin Oliver to compose their dreary memoirs. 

Then strange and obscure things begin to happen. Fleur starts to notice that the plot of her novel-in-progress seems to presage the activities of Sir Quentin and his pathetic gang. Fiction and reality seem to merge, Fleur's closest friends accuse her of libel and plagiarism, Dottie even steals the only typescript of the novel from her flat. The members of the Association begin to act like the characters in her book and then, as predicted by Fleur's book, they begin to meet untimely deaths.

This is a wise, economic and brilliantly mischievous book, a fine metafictional meditation on the work of writers and the fine line between fiction and reality. Where does art start or reality end?

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Monday, 11 July 2022

“The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie“ by Muriel Spark - review

 “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie“ by Muriel Spark:

The novel, published first in 1960, centers on the downfall of the fascinating schoolmistress Jean Brodie who ultimately and tragically will suffer for her hubris. 

Miss Brodie is a passionate, free-thinking and unconventional teacher who exerts a powerful influence over her group of “special girls“ at Marcia Blaine School in Edinburgh in the 1930s. They are the Brodie set and she wants them to be the crème de la crème. The novel’s theme is the education of six distinctive girls and the drama that leads to Miss Brodie’s “betrayal” which results in the dismissal from Marcia Blaine by her great enemy, the headmistress, Miss Mackay. 

Miss Brodie is a complex person, she is narcissistic, excessively self-confident, kind, selfish, considerate, moody and happy all at the same time. With her gift of mysterious glamour and charm she dazzles and seduces her girls, but these qualities lead also to her downfall. “Give me a girl at an impressionable age,” she boasts, “and she is mine for life.” She needs her girls as an extension of herself to live out missed dreams of her own. 

Like many of her contemporaries in the aftermath of World War I, she found that eligible men were rare. Having lost her first love to the war, Miss Brodie transforms her sexual affection into an affection for her students. In her unconventionality she spins out ever and ever more elaborate tales to them of her dead lover, she insists that Giotto was the greatest Italian artist and Mussolini a subject for adoration. She introduces them to the secrets of cosmetics, visits concerts, ballet and theater performances with them and tries, in short to make them Europeans instead of dowdy little provincial Edinburgh dwellers. Her undisciplined and unstructured pedagogical approach includes unreflected fascism as well as Tennyson. She is a product of her time.

She preaches that art, beauty and goodness should come before philosophy and science. What Miss Brody is looking for is the absolute, an endeavour bound to fail. Although Brodie claims education is “a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul”, she is actually a rigid dogmatist centered in calvinistic thinking.

Miss Brodie has triumphantly entered her "prime." Of this she speaks with such great conviction that to her girls it becomes a great vitality, a visible presence. 

The novel moves back and forth in time. We follow the six girls (Monica, Sandy, Rose, Mary, Jenny, and Eunice) of Miss Brodie's "set", all famous for excellency in something, be it mathematics, sex, insight or sport. We follow them from year ten to their eighteenth, but we also get glimpses of their middle age and look back at Miss Brodie from beyond her prime, after her betrayal and finally learn of her death. Gradually we piece together the lastly fateful connection between the domineering teacher and her favourite pupil Sandy who, before she becomes Sister Helena of the Transfiguration, initiates the betrayal that will doom her teacher to an embittered and solitary spinsterly retirement, brooding on who could have betrayed her. She never finds out and dies soon after

As much we find fault in Brodies character and convictions, we cannot help but like her. There is lightness as well as dark to Jean Brodie. The point of the novel is not to give solid answers on what is right  and what is wrong. The reader is left with the task to work out a way for himself to deal with moral ambiguity. In this the book, like any great classic, is ageless and pleases and perplexes with every new reading.

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Sunday, 10 July 2022

“Await Your Reply“ by Dan Chaon - review

 “Await Your Reply” by Dan Chaon:

“We are always telling a story to ourselves, about ourselves.” And what if that story is a lie? 

Why do we become the people that we become? How do we end up stuck in lives that we never wanted? And can we change the course of what seems inevitable?

This entertaining page-turner, focusing on fate, circumstance and family dynamics, is a gripping journey on the quest for identity and a meditation on what is what defines us and what happens when we loose it.

It all begins with a fast-paced gruesome, maybe a little too calculated cliff-hanger chapter that makes you realize right away you’re in for a rough ride. This feeling of unease and lurking threat never leaves. 

The book is composed of three strands of seemingly separate narratives. Their main protagonists are each driven by the desire to become someone else and each have a central need for someone’s unconditioned and complete love.

The first narrative is about Ray, a college dropout who feigns his own death and learns that the man he thought was his uncle and who recruited him for criminal activities involving identity theft, is really his biological father. 

The second narrative is about Lucy, an orphan who runs away from her dreary hometown and life in Ohio with George, her high-school history teacher. 

The third narrative is about Miles who, for almost a decade now, is in search of his twin brother Hayden, a paranoid schizophrenic, charismatic drifter who spent most of his life switching from one identity to the next and occasionally sends messages to his brother but refuses to be found.

For a long time, even though there seem to be similarities and parallels, these narratives don’t intersect until they do and then the novel gains enormous momentum and leads to a finale, stunning in its result and inevitability, as devastating as the opening cliff-hanger chapter of the novel. 

The book is written with an eloquence and grace of style not frequently encountered in the field of page-turners and a joy to read. 

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“The Singularities" by John Banville - review

  “The Singularities” by John Banville: Reading Booker winner John Banville is like watching a magician at work. Banville is such a talent...