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: 

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1948/05/15/symbols-and-signs


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“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“. 


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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.



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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. 


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

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.


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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“.


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“Bewilderment" by Richard Powers - review

 “ Bewilderment“ by Richard Powers: “Dad! Everything is going backwards.“  This frustrated outcry of a nine-year-old to his father is the ...