Thursday, July 25, 2013

Weights and Measures - Joseph Roth (German)
This novel is lightweight – it’s only 150 pages long – and the edition I have is midway between the size of a mass market and a trade paperback. Oh, you want to know about content? Well, there’s hardly anything to it. In a review of Roth’s The Radetzky March, which I liked very much, I described the characters as “muted” and wrote that they proceeded to their fates like “dumb animals.” The same can be said for W&M, yet it lacks the panoramic social aspect of March. We get Inspector Eibenschutz and little else. He’s supposed to be extremely unhappy, but he comes across as emotionally inanimate. The book is sloppily constructed; only near the end do we find out that the Inspector is thirty-six (all along I thought he was in his fifties). It’s also silly. Eibenschutz is obsessed by a gypsy woman (those gypsy women!); when she first appears “her dark blue-black hair led him to think of southern nights, which he had never seen but had possibly once read or heard about.” The prose is simple and precise, but in a self-consciously studied way; you know this when you’re constantly thinking, “How precise and simple!”

Immortality - Milan Kundera (Czech)
Kundera isn’t a novelist. He’s a thinker whose writing serves as a forum for his ideas. He has attained such eminence in the literary world that he can do whatever he wants; this shapeless grab bag of a book is what I’ll call philoso-fiction. In it the author plays a role, as does Goethe and other real-life figures from the past. The fictional modern-day characters are subordinate to Kundera’s larger aims, so they aren’t fully-developed. Free rein can liberate or lead to self-indulgence, or it can do both. Immortality may offer up a unique potpourri for the intellect, but it lost its luster for me (and it did have luster for a while). The overall perspective on human nature is a cynical one. An example: a woman is given the choice (it’s one or the other) of spending the next life with her husband of many years or of never meeting him again; her answer is “We prefer never to meet again.” (She phrases it as “we” because her husband is sitting next to her.) The point being made (with Kundera everything has a point) is that her love is an illusion, and with her answer she’s made to face that fact. Despite invigorating moments, I grew weary. The fictional side wasn’t holding up, and ideas that were intriguing and insightful were examined so rigorously that the freshness was leeched out of them. Plus I had my fill of Goethe; when he reappeared at the beginning of Part Four I called it quits. I did so with absolutely no curiosity, no regrets. I just wanted class to be over.

The Test - Pierre Boulle (French)
In France there’s a test youths must take to get their General Certificate. Or maybe the government has curtailed it due to this 1957 novel, in which it’s depicted as a scourge worthy of use by the Inquisition. Marie-Helen is uniquely unprepared to digest the work of the intellectual giants of the western world. She had lived in a Malaysian fishing village from age nine to seventeen; at that point she was kidnapped and returned to “her people” (white people). But she considered the villagers to be her people. Not only was she assimilated into their culture, but she was happily married. Boulle clearly believed that his heroine should have been allowed to carry on her life in Malaysia. Certainly she should! – all that happens after the kidnapping borders on the ridiculous. Her failure to pass the test leads to her breakdown, a number of murders and a suicide. The agony and despair the various characters feel is rendered in prose that would make a writer of Harlequin romances cringe. At first I thought the translator might be responsible, then I thought he might be partially responsible, but finally I put the blame on Boulle. How could a novelist whose work I’ve admired (The Bridge over the River Kwai, Planet of the Apes) come out with something as clumsy as this? I read those other books long ago. Was I lacking in discrimination? I find it reassuring that the edition of Kwai I have is from the Time Reading Program, and they made excellent choices. 

Life and Times of Michael K - J. M. Coetzee
Michael K is like Robinson Crusoe, yet his isolation takes place in the midst of war-torn South Africa. The opening sentence presents us with one factor that will separate him from others: “The first thing the midwife noticed about Michael K when she helped him out of his mother into the world was that he had a hare lip.” His life passes in solitariness, which he finds easier than dealing with people. At age thirty-one Michael is thrust into the turbulent world when he tries to return his dying mother to the place where she was born. After her death we follow his wanderings. I was involved with the problems he faced and his attempts to solve them, and the unadorned prose was effective in conveying facts. But Coetzee wasn’t satisfied with facts, nor with the character he had created. He wanted to impart a higher meaning to Michael’s existence. As a result, things go badly off course. First he has Michael reject life by rejecting food. Not only didn’t this ring true, but following a person’s loss of bodily substance wasn’t interesting. In a brief Part Two, Coetzee changes the point-of-view to that of a doctor treating the emaciated Michael in a camp; through this deep-thinking character the author tries very hard to inject significance into the situation. In the even briefer last section we return to Michael, but everything – particularly a sexual encounter – seems fabricated. Ultimately we wind up someplace murky and inconclusive. The path Coetzee chose to take – one in which he aimed for profundity – led to a dead end, both for the novel and for Michael K.