The Big Sleep – Book Review

 

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I have been having a lot of fun lately reading the annotated version of the Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. The text of the novel appears on the left side of the book while the notes are on the right. This book was annotated and edited by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto. Much of the material in this review is gleaned from their notes.

Raymond Chandler wrote, as Ross Macdonald said, like a slumming angel. His private eye, Philip Marlowe, was portrayed as a knight errant, searching for adventures and rescuing damsels in distress. He embodied the chivalric code.

In The Simple Art of Murder, Chandler wrote: “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything.” He also said, “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”

The Big Sleep, like all of Chandler’s novels and short stories, is of the hard boiled, pulp fiction, detective story genre. But Chandler was a cut above the rest. Heavily influenced by Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway, he improved upon a category of fiction that was mostly known for its lurid and salacious subject matter.

Another reason I like this book is that it gives the history of Los Angeles during and around the time period (1930s) of the novel. It also goes to great lengths to explain Americanisms, colloquialisms, slang, and genre jargon.

The Big Sleep, while a great read and a ripping good story, has a complicated plot. In this version the editors give us some guidance into Raymond Chandler’s intricate and labyrinthine novel.

I quote liberally from the novel as Chandler’s writing style is the best part of his work and the most entertaining. His use of hyperbole and exaggeration is a real gas. Also, I will be dropping some interesting asides about LA.

Los Angeles in the 1910s was the fastest growing city on earth. The population exploded 400% between 1910 and 1930. It went from 310,000 to about 1,250,000, with the greater LA County area housing 2.5 million. The Los Angeles Aqueduct was built to steal water from the Owens Valley 250 miles away. Corruption was rife. Politicians and the police often worked together with organized crime. Los Angeles was also known as a “Sin City” much like Las Vegas, with booming prostitution and gambling. According to journalist Carey McWilliams, “Los Angeles was the kind of place where perversion was perverted and prostitution was prostituted.”

“I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it.”

Marlowe cracks wise throughout the novel. The term wisecrack dates from the 1920s and is associated with tough guy or hard-boiled fiction. The queen of the wise crack was the dame of the Algonquin Round Table, Dorothy Parker, who was known to have said, “The first thing I do in the morning brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.”

Carmen: Tall, aren’t you?

Marlowe: I didn’t mean to be.

Carmen: What’s your name?

Marlowe: Reilly. Doghouse Reilly.

Carmen: That’s a funny name. Are you a prize fighter?

Marlowe: Not exactly. I’m a sleuth.

Chandler considered it his duty as a writer to affirm life and liveliness against the deadly and the dull. A sentiment I have always lived by myself.

She put a thumb up and bit it. It was a curiously shaped thumb, thin and narrow, like an extra finger, with no curve in the first joint. She bit it and sucked it slowly turning it around I her mouth like a baby with a comforter.

Chandler used blackmail in fourteen of his short stories and five of his novels. Blackmail was very common in LA in the 20s and 30s. As headlines show: “GIRL TRIES BLACKMAIL! CAUGHT IN POLICE TRAP!” “FUGITIVE SEIZED IN EXTORTION CASE.” “FANTASTIC PLOT AGAINST POLA NEGRI BARED” “EXTORTION PLOT SUSPECT TAKEN: STANDARD OIL MILLIONAIRE’S EX-CHAUFFEUR ACCUSED.” W. Sherman Burns, head of the Burns Detective Agency, said in 1922, “Blackmail is the big crime in America today.

The 1939 WPA (Works Progress Administration) Guide calls Los Angeles the fifth largest Mexican City in the world.

In 1904 Lincoln Stephens wrote an expose called, The Shame of American Cities. In it he states politics is business. In America, politics is an arm of business and the aim of business it to make money without care for the law, because politics, controlled by business, can change or buy the law. Politics is interested in profit, not municipalities, prosperity, or civic pride. The spirit of graft and lawlessness is the American spirit. Raymond Chandler wrote in 1934, “The typical racketeer is only slightly different from the business man.”

Ernest Hopkins wrote in Our Lawless Police, 1913, “Nothing so clearly marks our policing traditions in American cities as the use of extreme and unlawful force. In LA there exists a theory of law enforcement more openly opposed to the constitution than any I have yet encountered.”

“A life is a life.”

“Right. Tell that to your coppers next time they shoot down some scared petty larceny crook running away up an alley with a stolen spare.”

There seems to be a connection between French Existentialist writers and hard-boiled fiction writers like James Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond chandler. Albert Camus may have been influenced by the private investigators appearing in American detective novels like Philip Marlowe, as his portrayal of the quintessential alienated outsider Meursault in his own novel, The Stranger, clearly shows.

“I was fired for insubordination. I test very high on insubordination.” Marlowe

Marlowe is not an outlaw, but he does live by his own code, and he sometimes breaks the law by so doing. Jean-Paul Sartre says in Being and Nothingness: “Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on none but himself; that he alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than to the one he forges for himself on this earth.” Marlowe understands this and accepts the challenge.

Some of my favorite lines and quotes from the novel:

  • “What does Carmen say?”

“I haven’t asked her. I don’t intend to. If I did, she would suck her thumb and look coy.”

“I met her in the hall. She did that to me. Then she tied to sit on my lap. I was standing up at the time.”

  • “I don’t mind if you don’t like my manners. They’re pretty bad. I grieve over them during the long winter evenings.”
  • The general spoke again, slowly, using his strength carefully as an out of work showgirl uses her last pair of good stockings.
  • The next morning was bright, clear, and sunny. I woke up with a motorman’s glove in my mouth, drank two cups of coffee and went through the morning papers.
  • “Well, how’s the boy?” He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money.
  • Vivian: “Speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first. See if they’re front runners, or come from behind…I’d say you don’t like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the back stretch, and then come home free.”
  • “She approached me with enough sex appeal to stampede a business man’s lunch and tilted her head to finger a stray, but not very stray, tendril of soft glowing hair. Her smile was tentative but could be persuaded to be nice.”
  • Marlowe: You’ve got a touch of class, but I don’t know how far you can go.

Vivian: A lot depends on who is in the saddle.

  • The giggle got louder and ran around the corners of the room like rats behind the wainscoting. She started to get hysterical. I slid off the desk and stepped up close to her and gave her a smack on the side of the face. The giggles stopped dead, but she didn’t mind the slap any more than last night. Probably all her boyfriends got around to slapping her sooner or later.
  • The muzzle of the Luger looked like the mouth of the Second Street Tunnel, but I didn’t move. Not being bullet proof is an idea I had to get used to.
  • “Get up Angel. You look like a Pekingese.”
  • “You’re broke?”

“I’ve been shaking two nickels together for a month, trying to get them to mate.”

  • “Go fuck yourself”

“That’s how people get false teeth.”

  • I made myself a drink and was drinking it when the phone rang.
  • Listen hard and you will hear my teeth chattering.
  • I was thinking of going out to lunch and that life was pretty flat and that it would probably be just as flat if I took a drink and that taking a drink all alone at that time of day wouldn’t be any fun anyway. I was thinking this when Norris called up.
  • I was catching up on my foot dangling.
  • I got out of my office bottle and let my self-respect ride its own race.
  • …even if they didn’t strap him in a chair over a bucket of acid.
  • “Two coffees. Black, strong, and made this year.”
  • “That makes you just a killer at heart, like all cops.” Vivian to Marlowe
  • “Let’s get out of this rotten little town.” Vivian
  • A smell of kelp came in off the water and lay on the fog.
  • I braked the car against the curb and switched the headlights off and sat with my hands on the wheel. Under the thinning fog, the surf curled and creamed, almost without a sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness.
  • “Hold me close you beast.” Vivian to Marlowe
  • Her eyelids were flickering rapidly. Like a moth’s wings.
  • “Killer,” she said softly her breath going into my mouth.
  • She took her right hand from behind her head and started sucking her thumb.
  • I didn’t have anything really exciting to drink, like nitroglycerin or distilled tiger’s breath.
  • She’s a grifter, shamus. I’m a grifter. We’re all grifters. So, we sell each other out for a nickel. Okay. See you can make me.
  • “Let’s dip the bill. Got a glass?”
  • Canino driving fast through the rain to another appointment with death.
  • …bare as hell’s back yard.
  • Fate stage managed the whole thing.
  • “A man has the right to live his own life.” General Sternwood
  • He looked a lot more like a dead man than most dead men looked.
  • You were sleeping the big sleep.

And the last line of the novel:

  • On the way downtown I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double scotches. They didn’t do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver-Wig, and I never saw her again.

Never Come Morning

BOOK REVIEW

While visiting the city of brotherly love I finished reading a novel about the city with the big shoulders. Of course I’m referring to Philadelphia and Chicago.

The novel was Never Come Morning and the writer was Nelson Algren.

Algren specialized in writing gritty tales of the denizens of Chigago’s underclass. For Algren, these individuals struggling to survive are all too human.

He wrote about the dregs of society, the convicts and the prostitutes as referred to in the Walt Whitman poem, Leaves of Grass: “I feel that I am all of them – I belong to those convicts and prostitutes myself, and henceforth, I will not deny them, for how can I deny myself.”

Never Come Morning is the story about a street gang of Polish American immigrant kids always scheming always getting into trouble with the law, fighting, robbing, raping, killing, whoring, pimping, and dealing with crooked cops.

There is a whole section where one of the characters is picked up on suspicion of shooting a drunk in an alley off Chicago Avenue. He ends up doing time in the workhouse or “workie” as it is referred to in the novel.

This would be “Lefty” Bruno Bicek, who has ambitions of becoming heavy weight champion not of Illinois but from Illinois. When he gets out of the workhouse he takes up pimping at a whorehouse accross the street from the Broken Knuckle Bar run by a Polish barber, another small time crook always looking for a fast buck. Leftie did nothing to help his girl friend, Steffi, when she was gangraped by the boys and this weighed heavily on his conscience throughout the rest of the novel. She ended up working for the barber as one of the girls in the whorehouse while he was in the workie.

Lefty’s big ambition is to win a title fight and get enough money to take Steffi away from all this misery. He gets his big chance in the last chapter of the book, “Toward Evening Lands.” Here, Algren describes a fight scene between Lefty and a black fighter called Honeyboy Tucker, the sons of a Polish baker and a mulatto pig sticker. Lefty is referred to as a white hope. This chapter contains one of the best descriptions of a boxing match I have ever read. The fight goes on for eight rounds. Two minutes and 48 seconds into the eighth, Lefty is declared the winner by a knockout.

“The bleachers howled like wind through an empty shack.”

But, the victory was short-lived however, as police captain Tenczara enters the dressing room and whispers into Lefty’s ear, “Got you for the Greek, Left Hander, two witnesses.”

Lefty was led out through the middle aisles in manacles.

“Knew I’d never get to be twenty-one anyhow,” he said.

He had won the fight but lost the battle.

Bell.

THE FALL: BOOK REVIEW

A Novel by Albert Camus

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Every once in a while, I get inspired to reread one of my favorite books from the past. I have just read Camus’ The Fall for the third time. I read The Fall for the first time 34 years ago when I was age 36. It made a huge impression on me then and quickly became my favorite of Camus’ books. It somehow resonated with me in a way I didn’t quite understand. A second time in 2003….15 years ago when I was 55, a little grayer and a perhaps a little wiser.

Now, many years later, with a little more living under my belt, I am at it again. This time I have discovered a whole new territory. There on every page was an earthquake. In each sentence an incendiary device. What could I have been thinking all those years ago when I was reading this extraordinary book? How could I have missed so much? Was I sleeping? Well, the sleeper has awakened.

The novel opens with Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the main character, sitting in a dive bar named Mexico City located in the red light district of Amsterdam. He is talking to another patron. They discover they are compatriots, both hailing from Paris. Clamence tells his interlocutor about his past life in Paris as successful lawyer. The person he is talking to he refers to as “you.” This is a clever literary device by Camus. The “you” is actually you, the reader. Clamence regales you with stories of helping others. As a lawyer he takes most usually “widow and orphan” cases. He looks at himself as a person who lives solely for the purpose of benefiting others and living a life where virtue is its own reward.

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Mexico City Bar, Amsterdam

He asks if you have you noticed that Amsterdam’s concentric canals resemble the circles of hell? The middle-class hell, of course, peopled with bad dreams. When one comes from the outside, as one gradually goes through those circles, life – and hence its crimes – becomes denser, darker. Here (in Mexico City), we are in the last circle.

Amsterdam

Then he tells you about an incident that happened late one night in Paris while crossing the Seine on the Pont Royal on his way home from seeing his mistress. He comes across a woman dressed in black leaning over the edge of the bridge. He hesitates a moment but continues on his way. He had walked only a short distance when he heard the distinct sound of a body hitting the water. Clamence stops walking, knowing exactly what happened, but does nothing. The sound of screaming was repeated several times as it went downstream, then it ended. He continued on his way home doing nothing.

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The Seine River, Paris, France. Photo: Benn Bell

This incident haunted Clamence throughout the rest of the novel and weighed heavily on his mind. There were a couple of other incidents that occurred that brought Clamence to the realization that he had actually lived a life seeking honor, recognition, and power over people. He was, in short, a hypocrite. Having come to this realization he knows he can no longer live the way he once lived. These factors precipitated his fall from grace and led to how he landed in Mexico City in the red light district of Amsterdam in the last circle of hell.

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Bridge over the Seine River, Paris. Photo: Benn Bell

Clamence responds to his intellectual crisis by withdrawing from the world. He closes his law practice, avoids his former colleagues and people in general and throws himself into debauchery, which he describes in the absence of love is a suitable substitute. “True love is exceptional – two or three times a century, more or less. The rest of the time there is vanity or boredom.”

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St Michael’s Fountain located in the neighborhood where Clamence lived in Paris.  Photo:  Benn Bell

“There is a certain degree of lucid intoxication, lying late at night between two prostitutes and drained of all desire, hope ceases to be a torture, you see the mind dominates the whole past and the pain of living is over forever. I went to bed with harlots and drank nights on end.  Sensuality dominated my love life. I looked merely for objects of pleasure or conquests.  For a ten-minute adventure I’d have disowned father and mother…I can’t endure being bored and appreciate only diversions in life… I have never been bored with women. I’d have given ten conversations with Einstein for an initial rendezvous with a pretty chorus girl.”

He thought for a while about joining the French Resistance, for this during the time of war, but decided against it as it was not suitable to his temperament. He preferred the “heights” and could not see himself part of a movement situated somewhere in a “cellar for days and nights on end with some brutes coming to haul me away from hiding, undo my weaving, and then drag me to another cellar and beat me to death.” He joins the army instead, gets captured by the Germans in Tunis, and is interred in a concentration camp in near Tripoli. Here he is elected to the position of “pope” by the other inmates and holds this position of power for a while. He drinks the water of a dying comrade, oh well, he was going to die anyway, and I needed to stay strong to survive to carry on continue to do more good, or at least that is how he rationalized it. He was eventually released and made his way to Amsterdam.

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Foggy Amsterdam

On the way home, walking through the streets of Amsterdam, Jean-Baptiste Clamence tells you stories. He says he lives at the site of one of the greatest crimes of history, “the Jewish Quarter or what was called so until our Hitlerian brethren made room. What a clean-up! Seventy-five thousand Jews deported or assassinated: that’s real vacuum-cleaning. I admire the diligence, that’s methodical patience. When one has to apply a method. Here it did wonders incontrovertibly.”

Jewsish Quarter, Amstedam

Jewish Quarter, Amsterdam

He relates this story: “In my little village, during a punitive operation, a German officer courteously asked an old woman to please choose which of her two sons would be shot as hostage? Choose! – Can you imagine that? That one? No, this one. And see him go. Let’s not dwell on it.”

Another story: “I knew a pure heart who rejected distrust. He was a pacifist and libertarian and loved all humanity and all the animals with an equal love. An exceptional soul, that’s certain. Well, during the last wars of religion in Europe he had retired to the country. He had written on his threshold: ‘Wherever you come from, come in and be welcome.’ Who do you think answered that noble invitation? The militia, who made themselves at home and disemboweled him.”

Jean-Baptiste Clamence’s final monologue takes place in his apartment. There he relates the story of how a famous 15th century painting came into his possession. One night a regular patron of Mexico City came into the bar with the priceless painting under his arm and offered to sell it to the bartender for a bottle of booze. It was hung on the back wall of the bar for some time until Clamence told the bartender the painting was in fact stolen and that police from several countries were searching for it. He offers to keep it for him and the bartender readily agrees.

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The Just Judges

The painting is a panel from the Ghent Altarpiece known as The Just Judges. Clamence takes from this image the idea to identify himself as a “judge-penitent.” As a judge-penitent freedom is relinquished as a method of enduring the suffering imposed on us by virtue of living in a world without objective truth, and one that is therefore, ultimately meaningless. A judge-penitent confesses his sins so that he has the right to judge others.

The following snippets from the novel are spliced together and presented to you to give you a further flavor of the horror of the piece and are better told in the author’s own voice:

“I need your understanding. I have no friends, only accomplices.

The question is to slip through and, above all – yes above all, the question is to elude judgement. But one cannot dodge it so easily. Today we are always ready to judge as we are to fornicate.

People hasten to judge in order to not to be judged themselves.

The idea that comes naturally to man is his innocence. We all like that little Frenchman, Buchenwald, who was interested in registering a complaint with the clerk, himself a prisoner, who was recording his arrival. A complaint? The clerk and his comrades laughed: “Useless old man, you don’t lodge a complaint here!” “But you see sir,” said the little Frenchman, I am innocent!” We are all exceptional cases.

Let me tell you of the little-ease. I had to submit and admit my guilt. I had to live in the little-ease. To be sure you are not familiar with that dungeon cell that was called the little-ease in the middle ages. In general, one was forgotten there for life. That cell was distinguished from others by ingenious dimensions. It was not high enough to stand up nor yet wide enough to lie down in. One had to take an awkward manner and live on the diagonal. Sleep was a collapse, and waking a squatting. Every day, through the unchanging restriction that stiffened his body, the condemned man learned that he was guilty and that innocence consists in stretching joyously…we cannot assert the innocence of anyone, whereas we can state with certainty the guilt of all. I’ll tell you a big secret. Don’t wait for the Last Judgement. It takes place every day.”

“Do you know why he (Christ) was crucified? He knew that he was not altogether innocent. If he did not bear the weight of the crime he was accused of he had committed others – the slaughter of the innocents, the children of Judea massacred while his parents were taking him to a safe place. Why did they die if not for him? Those blood splattered soldiers, those infants cut in two filled him with horror…it was better to die, in order not to be the only one to live…he cried aloud his agony and that’s why I love him.

Since we are all judges, we are all guilty before one another.

A person I know used to divide human beings into three categories: those who prefer having nothing to hide, rather than being obliged to lie, those who prefer lying to having nothing to hide, and finally those who like both lying and the hidden. I’ll let you choose the pigeon hole that suits me.

But, let’s not worry! It’s too late now. It will always be too late. Fortunately!”

 Conclusion

What is Camus telling us in this extraordinary novel? First of all, it is a novel of confession. The stories he tells his interlocutor are a confession. Jean-Baptiste Clamence says that one cannot die without confessing all one’s lies. It is also a novel about guilt: “I always hope my interlocutor will be a policeman and that he will arrest me for the theft of the Just Judges. Perhaps the rest will be taken care of subsequently; I would be decapitated for instance. I would have no more fear of death. I’d be saved. Above the gathered crowd. You would hold my still warm head so they could recognize themselves in it, and I could again dominate- an exemplar. I should have brought to a close, unseen, and unknown, my career as a false prophet crying in the wilderness.”

Clamence discovers he can’t condemn others without judging himself first. I am a judge-penitent, he says. The more I judge myself the more I can judge you. So, the idea is to heap judgments on himself in order to justify judging others. That’s why he is a judge. Someone who condemns others, but also a penitent, someone who recognizes and judges his own crimes. All men are guilty of something. We are guilty not only by our actions but by our inaction or our failure to act.

On the absurdity of existence Clamence tell us, “a single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the newspapers.  Each day hundreds of millions of men, my subjects, painfully slip out of bed, a bitter taste in their mouths, to go to a joyless work.”

As for Truth: There is no objective truth.

And the fall from grace: The fall always occurs at dawn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

KAFKA

The Metamorphosis

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My step daughter Kim visited me recently. As is our wont to do we had a literary discussion about books and what books influenced us and why. Of course we talked about Hemingway and Camus. But then we landed on Kafka. What, she wanted to know, made me like Kafka so much?

Well, that gave me pause. I allude to Kafka a lot in my writing and in my conversations with people but is has been awhile since I last read his works. The best I could come up with was that I identified with his sense of alienation and absurdity and the bureaucratic nightmare that modern man seems to live under as depicted in his works. I got to thinking. Why else? Well, it had been about 40 years since I last read Metamorphosis, so I decided I would reread it.

I had it in my library. It was the original copy that I had read in the 1970’s. But the book wasn’t in very good condition. The pages had yellowed, there was mold or something growing on the frontispiece, and the spine was cracked and coming apart in the middle. I decided I needed another copy. So, I did what any respectable book buyer might do, I went on line. I found a book and ordered it. Not wanting to wait the two days for its arrival I decide to download a copy to my Kindle so that I could start reading right away.

Now, I remember the first time I read The Metamorphosis, as I say, some 40 odd years ago. I had taken the book along with me on a visit to the emergency room. I had just crashed my motorcycle and broken my leg. The attending physician looked at the book I was reading as I was waiting to be examined. He looked at the book, then looked at me, and then looked at the book again. “Pretty heavy reading isn’t it?” He asked.

Well that may give you an example of the absurdity of my existence up to that point right there.

As I remembered in the book, Gregor Samsa woke up one morning to discover he had been transformed into a gigantic bug. As I remembered it was a cockroach. I had already been disabused of that notion long ago and realized it was a beetle. Now when I stated reading my kindle edition it said “vermin.” Well that wasn’t good enough for me. I needed to see “beetle.” So, I decided I’d wait for the actual book to arrive. It came and I started in to reading it. I came to the fateful passage and it read “verminous bug.” Still not good enough! But I read on. This could go on forever, I thought. I guess there was something lost in translation or in my memory. Speak memory!  Later on in the book there was a passage that referred to Gregor as a “dung beetle.” Now, feeling gloriously vindicated, I read the rest of the story in a condition of sublime justification.

Now that I have reread the story I feel that I can speak definitively as to what the book says to me. The story reflects thematically on feelings of alienation, anxiety, and guilt, which pretty well sums up man’s absurd relationship to the world in which he lives and one I have very much identified with ever since I can remember. The story operates in a random, chaotic, and absurd universe, as do we all. Do things happen for a reason or do they befall us purely by chance? That is the question Kafka seems to be exploring in this surrealistic story of transformation.

Another thing I like about Kafka is his take on the kinds of books to read and by extension the kinds of books to write. I also believe this can be applied to other types of art as well.

In a letter to a friend he says: “I think you should only read books that bite and sting you. If the book we read does not wake us with a blow to the skull, why do we read the book? To make us happy as you write? My God, we would be happy if we had no books, and such books that make us happy, we could write to the emergency. But we need the books that affect us like a misfortune that hurts us a lot, like the death of one we loved rather than us, as if we were going into forests, away from all people, like a suicide, a book must be the ax for the frozen sea in us.”

The God of Small Things

A Book Review

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The God of Small Things is a novel written by Indian activist and writer Arundhati Roy. She has been on my radar for many years now, ever since I started watching her on panel shows on TV. I was impressed by her brilliance as a speaker and thinker on issues that I care deeply about such as inequality, social justice, and the environment. And I have always been fascinated by the Indian subcontinent.

When I learned she had written a novel I went out and purchased it right away. Sad to say it sat on my bookshelves for a few years before I got around to reading it. I am one of those “too many books, too little time” people.

What prompted me to go ahead and read the novel was the fact that 17 yeas after the publication of The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy wrote and published another novel, her second, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.  I was very excited abut this and went out and purchased it also. I am now in the middle of that wonderful book. But, I get ahead of myself.

In the intervening 17 years between novels Miss Roy has written several other books. Works of nonfiction that reflect her other intellectual pursuits and human rights activism. These books include: Capitalism, A Ghost Story; Walking With the Comrades; Kashmir, The Case for Freedom; and Listening to the Grass Hoppers: Field Notes on Democracy.  She was awarded the Man Booker Prize in 1997 for Literature.

The God of Small Things is by far the best book I have read all year and I have only praise for it. Miss Roy is a master stylist and her prose reads like poetry. Her book is full of vivid imagery, symbolism, and metaphors. It is constructed like a sublime piece of architecture with each piece fitting into place like a jig saw puzzle.

The book is a bit of a challenge to read as it does not flow in a straight linear progression. Rather, it jumps around in time in flash backs and flash forwards. But stick with it, it is well worth the ride.

The novel is a story of an Indian family writ large on a grand scale. Some have compared Roy to Faulkner, but I think she comes closer to Gabriel Garcia Marqeuz. There is forbidden love, family drama, political unrest, and magical realism.

Estha and Rahel are seven year old fraternal twins, boy and girl, growing up in a small southern Indian town. They live with their mother Ammu and the rest of their extended family. Their uncle Chacko runs the family pickle factory. One fateful day their cousin Sophie Mol from England is invited to spend the Christmas holidays with them. Tragedy ensues and Sophie Mol is drowned in a boating accident.

In telling the story, Roy incorporates other larger issues taking place in India at the time, such as issues of cast, class, and political unrest.

There are many memorable passages in the novel, but this one in particular stands out:

“D’you know what happens when you hurt people?’ Ammu said. ‘When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.”

This was said to seven year old Rahel when she apparently said something carelessly which hurt her mother, which is something seven-year olds sometimes do. When Ammu said this to Rahel, “…a cold moth with unusually dense dorsal tufts landed lightly on Rahel’s heart. Where its icy legs touched her, she got goose bumps on her careless heart. A little less her Ammu loved her.” This passage haunted me for the rest of the novel and it haunts me still.

This is a novel of life, love, fear, death, pain, and loss. It is wonderfully written and I highly recommend.

 

 

 

 

 

The Girl Who Played Go

 Book Review

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The game of Go has long intrigued me. I learned how to play years ago from a wizard who lived down the stairs. We wiled away the hours playing the game of Go. I moved away and never played again until recently. I took it up once again and discovered it had never really left me. I became reacquainted with Go because of a novel written by a young Chinese girl that sparked my interest all over again.

When The Girl Who Played Go first came out in 2003, I read a review about the book that was intriguing. I vowed to keep an eye out for it. In those days one didn’t just automatically add a book to one’s Amazon Wish list. One liked to find books the old fashioned way, serendipity. One liked to stumble across them by accident in some far flung and obscure bookstore in the Midwest, or northeast, or wherever. Years went by and I never saw the object of my desire. By then it was locked away in the recesses of my memory and I was no longer consciously looking for it at all.
Then one day in, 2007, in a crowded book store in Philadelphia, I ran across a book entitled, The Master of Go. To my imperfect memory I thought this must be the book I had long sought. I picked it up, took it home and put in a shelf where it languished a few more years. When I finally got around to reading it, I thought, this is strange. This doesn’t seem like the book I had read about all those years ago. This book, written by Yasunari Kawabata, was about a modern day Go player, in Japan. While I enjoyed the book very much, it was a realistic depiction of an elderly gentleman who was a Go master and the rigors of tournament play in Japan. I read the book and put it away and started a new book and didn’t give the Master of Go another thought; until the year 2012. I ran across another book on Go in Louisville, Kentucky at the Half Price Book store where I am wont to go. It was entitled, The Girl Who Played Go. Eureka! Sweet mystery of life, finally I found you! The Girl Who Played Go, written by Shan Sa, was my long sought after book. I immediately purchased the book and took it home and began reading. Friends it was worth the wait.
Go is a territorial contest. In Chinese the game is called, Wei Qi, which means, “surrounding game.” Go has roots in both China and Japan. Most Westerners are unfamiliar with the game of Go. It has simpler rules than chess but is far more subtle and takes longer to master. It is a game that is not structured around the theme of a small battle, like chess. Rather, it is more like a large scale war. In Go, every piece is identical: an ivory or ebony stone is played on a square grid by the contestants. Each piece has the power to turn the tide of a war. Go is powerful metaphor for the story told by Shan Sa in her novel, The Girl Who Played Go.
The Girl who Played Go is a wonderfully written novel set within the framework of the game of Go. It takes place in a small city in Japanese-occupied Manchuria in 1936. An unnamed Japanese soldier has been sent with his battalion to seek out the Chinese resistance movement within the region. Simultaneously, a bored Chinese schoolgirl finds solace obsessively playing Go in the local square eponymously name The Square of a Thousand Winds. In an attempt to infiltrate the enemy, the Japanese soldier joins the city’s Go players, and falls into a game and into love with the girl who played Go. The story of the soldier and the girl are told in alternating, short, chapters. Dramatic events in the lives of the protagonists are repeatedly brought together and interwoven.
The game of Go is a metaphor for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and the resistance one young girl is able to mount by remaining undefeated at the game. Manchuria has been occupied by the Japanese for several years as the story opens, but there is an active insurgency movement. The girl, however, lives a relatively sheltered life. She is quickly maturing, and becomes sexually active during the unfolding events. The game of go symbolizes the play between man and woman, as well as the conflict between China and Japan.
The story is well presented with some scenes that are picture-perfect observations of life as illustrated by the following examples. “A carp pirouettes in a large jar that serves as an aquarium.” “The appeal of a prostitute has the transient, furtive freshness as the morning dew.” ” Prostitutes have no illusions and this makes them the soldier’s natural soulmates. Already damned, they dare not dream of eternity, and they cling to us like shipwrecked mariners clinging to flotsam. There is a religious purity to our embraces.” “The boys with white silk scarves around their necks, posture like tragic poets.” “In the game of Go, only aesthetic perfection leads to victory.’’ “He has the nobility of a man who prefers the turnings of the mind to the barbarities of life.” “It has taken many years for the game of go to initiate me into the freedom of slipping between yesterday, today, and tomorrow. From one stone to the next, from black to white, the thousands of stones have ended up building a bridge far into the infinite expanse of China.”
Shan Sa has an extraordinary background. She was born in Beijing, started writing at seven and enjoyed success as a teenage poet. At 18 she moved to Paris to study philosophy. She worked for a time with the artist Balthus. Writing in French, she won a Goncourt with her first novel. Her novel, The Four Lives of the Willow won the Prix Caze. In 2001, she was again awarded the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens for her novel, The Girl Who Played Go. Her works have been published in 30 languages worldwide. Since 2001, Shan Sa has continued to write literature and paint. Her works have been shown in Paris and New York, and Japan. In 2009, Shan Sa was awarded by the French Cultural Ministry, Knight of Order of Arts and Letters. In 2011, she was awarded by the French President, The Knight of National Order of Merit.

Demons

Demons

Upon my life, the tracks have vanished,

We’ve lost our way, what shall we do?

It must be a demon’s leading us

This way and that around the fields.

-Alexander Pushkin

Demons, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, is 700 page pamphlet detailing the rise of the Russian proletariat and presaging the revolution of 1917. It’s about nihilism, anarchy, and atheism. It is a complicated novel detailing Russian society as it descends into chaos, anarchy, and madness. The demons referred to are actually ideas, emanating from the west, that infect the characters minds and causes them to take extreme actions such as suicide, murder and arson. The action takes place in a fictitious small town in provincial Russia but is based on a true story that Dostoevsky took from the newspapers.

Pesky Dostoevsky. Every time I say I am not going to read another 700 page book I get pulled back in! I say pamphlet because that is how it is described in the critical literature.  Only thing is, last time I checked, there are not that many 700 page pamphlets lying around. A few manifestos, no pamphlets.

I had to read 500 pages before I got to the part that inspired me to read this behemoth in the first place. The part that Camus refers to in his Myth of Sisyphus. “If there is no God life is meaningless. And without meaning, men and women will go stark, raving mad.” Camus described the novel’s importance this way: “The Possessed is one of the four or five works that I rank above all others. In more ways than one, I can say that it has enriched and shaped me.”

According to Camus all of Dostoevsky’s characters ask themselves about the meaning of life. Kirlov feels that God is necessary and that He must exist, but he knows that He cannot exist. “Why do you not realize that this is sufficient reason for killing oneself?” he asks. “If God does not exist, I am God.”

The book title was originally translated as, The Possessed. This is not the title Dostoevsky originally had in mind. The Russian title, Besy, does not refer to the possessed but rather to the possessors. Therefore the new title, Demons, refers to some of the characters in the book (from the foreword by Richard Pevar) and is more in line with Dostoevsky’s thinking.

All the characters have three names and each name has three syllables and each time a character is mentioned or introduced all three names are used except when they aren’t and then they are referred to by their nick names or their shortened names which we the reader have not been given fair warning and have absolutely no idea who the author is referring to. I had to take to underlining each character’s name each time they made an appearance and by page 500 or so I finally figured out who was who. I must say, the last 200 pages were page turners and my eyes were so glued to each page I couldn’t look away. The novel had to be good or I would not have stuck with it to the end.  I did and I am glad I did.

There is a missing chapter in the book which was censored by the Russian authorities when it was first published due to it’s salacious nature. I almost didn’t read it as it was included in the appendix and I didn’t realize how important it was. It is absolutely key to understanding the central character Stavrogin. It is called at At Tikhon’s and in it Stavrogin confesses to a horrible crime.

One of the most important takeaways from the novel for me were the revolutionary ideas of the intellectual of the revolutionary group, Shigalyev: “My conclusion stands in direct contradiction to the idea from which I started. Proceeding from unlimited freedom, I end with unlimited despotism. Ninety percent of society is to be enslaved to the remaining ten percent. Equality of the herd is to be enforced by police state tactics, state terrorism, and destruction of intellectual, artistic, and cultural life. It is estimated that about a hundred million people will be needed to be killed on the way to the goal.” This is oddly prophetic of what actually occurred in Russia under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin.

I see strains of some of these ideas in modern day writers such as George Orwell who admonished us that if we want you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever. These currents have resurfaced again today in American politics and it is pretty frightening.

Like Camus, I can say that this novel has enriched and shaped me.
 

 

 

 

 

 

Islands in the Stream

Islands in the stream

 

Ernest Hemingways’s novel, Islands in the Stream, published posthumously, is the perfect counterpoint to his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, which was of course published during his lifetime. Hemingway takes his title, For Whom the Bell Tolls, from the poem of the same name by John Donne. The first line reads, “No man is an island entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent a part of the main.”In both novels the protagonists die fighting for a cause larger than themselves that each believed in and that each felt he had a duty to fulfill. This is the Hemingway code of action that has lived with me so many years, ever since the first short story I read by him many years ago, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. Hemingway comes full circle with this novel. From no man is a island to every many is an island. An island in a stream.

In the first case Robert Jordan is fighting fascism in Spain during the Spanish Civil War . In the other, Thomas Hudson is fighting fascism in Cuba during WWII. A German submarine has been damaged and the crew has come ashore and massacred a village of Indians and commandeered their turtle boat. The German crew are hiding out in the mangroves on the Cuban island. It is the duty of Thomas Hudson and his crew to hunt them down. This brilliantly written action sequence takes place in act three of the novel.

The novel is divided into three sections but the reads like three acts in a play. The first section is entitled Bimini. Here we are introduced to the isolated main character Thomas Hudson  who is a painter and lives in a house on the island of Bimini which is part of the Bahamas. It is summer and his three children, two by one wife and one by his first wife, come to visit him for the summer.  This is the happiest section of the book as the happy family interact and reminiscence with one another and go deep sea fishing together.

After the children leave, Hudson learns of a tragic car accident that has taken the lives of his two youngest children and their mother. This section ends with Hudson on a boat trip to Europe to attend their funeral. The tragic accident had a profound impact on Hudson driving him deeper and deeper into himself.

The next section of the book is entitled, Cuba. Most of the action in this section takes place in a bar in Havana called the Floridita. Hudson is knocking back frozen Margaritas (without sugar) and talking to a variety of motley characters who inhabit this world including an aging prostitute called Honest Lil. The conversations are often hilarious and the characters are well drawn and fascinating. Lil asks Hudson when was his happiest day? Hudson replies: “The happiest day I ever had was any when I woke in the morning when I was a boy and I did not have to go to school or work.” In this section Hudson learns of the death of his eldest son who was killed in action while flying over Germany. This was just about the last straw that does him in and he retreats further into himself. He soon receives his orders and goes once more back out to sea. He traded in his remorse for another horse that he was riding now.

The only thing Tom now has left is his duty. “Get it straight. Your boy you lose. Love you lose. Honor has been gone a long time. Duty you do. Sure and what’s your duty? What I said I’d do. And all the things you said you’d do.”

In this last section called, At Sea, Thomas Hudson does is duty. He is in pursuit of a German submarine crew whose submarine has been destroyed. They are hiding out in the mangroves of a Cuban island. The writing in this section is some of the best action writing I have ever read. At the climax there is a showdown between Hudson’s crew and the German crew. Hudson’s crew wins but Hudson gets shot it the process. As his ship cruises back to home port he realizes he is going to die. He thinks about sorrow. If it is cured by anything other than death, chances are that it was not true sorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She Came to Stay

She Came to Stay

I usually read 6-8 books at a time. I have been doing this for years and it is my modus operandi. But, every once in a while I will run across a book that is so extraordinary, so compelling, that I will stick with that one book to the exclusion of all the others.

I have found the to be the case with, She Came to Stay, by Simone de Beauvoir. This is the book I chose to take to Paris with me and I am so glad I did. I have found some delightful and delicious parallels with my own life and I am sure that is part of the allure.

It is a novel set in Paris near the beginning of WWII and is based on some true life events in the lives of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre and the affair with a young girl that came between them. It is by turns philosophical and hilarious. It is Simone’s first novel and I love it!

Suspended Sentences

Suspended Sentences

Suspended Sentences is a book of three novellas, written by Paul Modiano and translated into English by Mark Polizzotti.
Modiano is a French writer who in 2014 was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. This book was my first exposure to this gifted writer with the exception of watching the film Lacombe Lucien in 1974 directed by Louis Malle. Modiano co-wrote the screenplay. At the time, frankly, I had no idea who Paul Modiano was.

The stories are set in Paris in a time gone by. Many of the buildings referred and streets referred to have been razed to make room for something else. This contributes to the dreaminess of the vision we are given of the mis-en-scene.
Modiano writes in an off handed style that is vague in its presentation. These stories are imperfect memories seen through a soft focused lens with a backward glance through time that seems to have a faded to a yellowish color not unlike sepia. It is an attempt to see into the past and is therefore an afterimage of the past and just as imprecise. In fact the first story is entitled, Afterimage. These stories or novels, were published separately over a period of five years. But they have the feeling of part of a whole. They fit well together. The other two books are, Suspended Sentences, and Flowers of Ruin.
The original title of the second story was Remise de peine. The literal translation of this phrase is a stay of sentence, but also it means a deferral of pain. The translator chose well the title Suspended Sentences as it seems to evoke both these attributes. A further resonance for me is the idea of written sentences literally hanging in midair, suspended so to say, which very much captures the style in which Modiano writes.
Here is an example of a suspended sentence that I particularly liked:
“Certain objects disappear from your life at the first lapse of attention, but the cigarette case has remained. I knew it would always be in reach in a night stand drawer, on a shelf in a clothes closet at the back of a desk, in the inner pocket of a jacket. I was so sure of its presence that I usually forgot about it. Except when I was feeling down. Then I would ponder it from every angle. It was the only object that bore witness to a period in my life that I couldn’t talk to anyone about, and whose very reality I sometimes doubted.”
I know exactly where he is coming from here as I have several objects I feel the same way about, almost talisman like in their quality in that they ground me to the earth and hold me fast to reality when in fact most of my life has been a blur.
My favorite story of the three is in fact Suspended Sentences. Who could not fall in love and become enchanted by the first sentences of the novel? “It was in the days when theater companies toured not just France, Switzerland, and Belgium, but also North Africa. I was ten years old. My mother had gone on the road for a play, and my brother and I were living with friends of hers, just outside of Paris.”
Hooked yet? I was.