Monday, August 1, 2011

The Scapegoat - August Strindberg (Swedish)
I had trouble figuring out what Strindberg was up to. His main character, Libotz, is an innocent who’s victimized at every turn. This victimization is so baseless and unrelenting that I wondered if Libotz was paranoid. But for an author to depict paranoia, he must show that a character is misinterpreting the world. No such angle emerges. The people of the village Libotz settles in are exceptionally malicious, and his father is an outright monster. Among these evildoers plods good Libotz, their scapegoat. This scenario lacked credibility, and I began to suspect the author of presenting a distorted view of life. My assessment was supported in Richard Vowles’s introduction (which I read after I had finished the book); he comments on Strindberg’s persecution complex and sense of martyrdom. When the focus shifts from Libotz to the other two main characters things liven up, simply because evil people are fascinating. The writing is spare and strong and sometimes striking (going to visit his father, Libotz passes a boulder that “resembled an intestine from the bowels of the earth”). Vowles notes that Strindberg’s first two novels were realistic observations of life; in his later work he turned inward, to look at himself. I’d like to read one of his earlier books, but I’ll avoid the introspection.

Jacob the Liar - Jurek Becker (German)
Though the events in this novel take place in a Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust, Becker concentrates not on atrocities committed but on people who have a complete dimension outside that of victims. Their experiences and feelings, which are made real and immediate, cover a wide spectrum; there’s even joy in this book. The story is told in an innovative way: an unnamed occupant of the ghetto (one who survives) takes the role of omniscient narrator. From what he observed, or what he learned secondhand, he uses his imagination to go into the minds of the characters, to recreate events and conversations. He also interjects his own feelings in his own voice. This was a complex undertaking, yet it flows smoothly (for which the translator, Leila Vennewitz, must be acknowledged). I was moved by these people: Jacob, who lies in order to give hope; Sasha and Rosa, the young lovers clinging to each other; Lina, carrying on as a child despite the brutish world she lives in. At the book’s close the narrator feels he must provide an invented ending; he does this because “the true and unimaginative ending makes one inclined to ask the foolish question: What was the point of it all?” For, despite what we might wish, in the true ending all the lives are extinguished. Of course, there is a point to this novel. It’s meaningful to show people holding on to their humanity in the face of inhumanity, and this Becker does superbly. *

Wall to Wall - Douglas Woolf
The author seems to get vicarious enjoyment out of his protagonist’s road trip through a wonderland in which he has adventures aplenty and everybody he meets is a colorful eccentric. The journey begins on the west coast, where Claude works as a helper at a mental hospital, and ends on the east coast, where he visits his mother in a mental hospital. These bookends, in which troubled people play a role, suggest a serious work of fiction, but Claude is persistently footloose and fancy-free. His adventures come without his suffering any significant inconveniences; even the women he has sex with, though needy, ask nothing of him. But Woolf can’t have it both ways. He can either portray life realistically or send Claude on a far-fetched lark (which I might have enjoyed). I was a conflicted reader and was tempted to abandon the book on the grounds of frivolity. Then, at the halfway point, a character with depth finally appears. Vivien is strange, but she’s not just another oddball; I appreciated Claude for seeing value in her. Their sex scenes, combining carnality and emotion, are quite effective. Unfortunately, Vivien is around for only fifty pages before Claude drives off. The next people he meets are Saint Jones and his nympho daughters, and here things degenerate into silliness. Woolf is a talented but self-indulgent writer. Both qualities are present in his twisty prose: “The corrugated house, one large haphazard cavity, was savagely alight with several moon-size bulbs that hung from cords far too long for this low room, so that one faced everywhere a choice between slink and scorch.” Is this interesting or intrusive? Or just show-offy? All three, I’d say.

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