The Ruined Map - Kobo Abe (Japanese)
This has the trappings of a mystery (private detective, missing husband, unforthcoming wife, perplexing clues). But abstract thoughts, obscure descriptions and inconclusive encounters eventually led me to conclude that murkiness was Abe’s goal and that the clues (notably, a matchbox with matches which have different colored tips) wouldn’t reveal the how and why of the husband’s disappearance; they were aiming at something deeper, maybe about the friability of identity. This is a mood-driven work, and the mood is markedly unpleasant. Tokyo is depicted as unrelentingly ugly, almost alien in its desolation. People are often vulgar and brutish; hidden agendas abound, and no one is to be trusted. As a straight mystery this might have been good, because some scenes (particularly the ones reliant on dialogue) are successful. Abe, however, was in pursuit of that which resides in the waters of an existential sea. I didn’t care to go fishing there, because who knows what you might reel in.
Around the World in Eighty Days – Jules Verne (French)
This famous novel is no more than light entertainment. Very light. Though I found it to be mildly enjoyable, its superficiality is a bit staggering. Phileas Fogg is so cold and reserved that he seems like an automaton. His French servant, Passepartout, displays an abundance of emotions, but they’re on the simple-minded side. And then there’s Aouda. How this beautiful (as “fair as a European”) and cultured (she was given a “thoroughly English education”) young lady winds up as the designated victim of a suttee is not adequately accounted for. There’s a preposterous rescue by Passepartout (using his gymnast skills), at which point the book dips to the level of a boy’s adventure yarn. Aouda joins the others in their trek around the world, so you’d think that she would gain a little depth along the way. But she’s kind and gentle and grateful, and nothing more. Phileas shows not a snippet of romantic feeling toward her during all the time they spend together, yet he fervently proposes marriage when they arrive in London (“Yes, by all that is holiest, I love you, and am entirely yours!”). This sudden about-face left me feeling disgruntled, as did the trick ending. After losing the bet by failing to arrive at his club at the designated time, Phileas wins the bet by arriving at the fifty-seventh second before his time runs out. How can you have it both ways? I probably shouldn’t be subjecting this novel to close scrutiny. Verne didn’t attempt to write a literary work; he was one of those canny authors who knew how to deliver a product that would make him a lot of money.
Against the Grain - J. K. Huysmans (French)
This book also goes by the title Against Nature. Which is more fitting, for it’s pervaded by disgust for that which is natural. An elderly aristocrat who has led a life of dissipation retires to a secluded cottage where he indulges in solitary preoccupations (such as glazing the shell of a huge live turtle with gold, then incrusting it with precious gems). He’s a connoisseur of sensory and intellectual stimuli. Whole chapters are devoted to perfumes and flowers, or to writers who, for the most part, I had never heard of. Des Esseintes’ erudition and the detail in which he describes arcane matters make much of the book unintelligible; I let pages flow by. Why, then, did I continue reading? I didn’t consider this to be a novel; instead Huysmans presents the workings of a very strange man’s mind. Des Esseintes’ austere and perverse refinement has drawn him to that which is hideous and brutal. He doesn’t select flowers for their beauty; his “cup of joy was brimming over” at the sight of a fresh batch of “monstrosities”: flowers that “mimick the membranes of animals’ insides, borrow the vivid tints of their rotting flesh, the superb horrors of their gangrened skin.” The paintings he hangs up also depict horrors, and a modern writer he appreciates – Barbey d’Aurevilly – offers “those gamey flavors, those stains of disease and decay, that cankered surface, that taste of rotten-ripeness which he so loved to savor.” The cottage is a house of horrors, and Des Esseintes sits spider-like at the center of the web. He has contempt for society’s codes and standards, and at no point does he express a feeling of love for another human being (or even for any living creature). As the morbid negativity accumulated, this began to take shape as a cautionary tale; such an acidic attitude will consume one from inside. And, indeed, Des Esseintes mentally and physically breaks down under the strain of being confined in the narrow cell of himself. His doctor orders him to return to Paris; at the end he complies, filled with despair at the prospect before him. In this book of impressions, one episode stands in solid contrast. In Chapter Eleven Des Esseintes, driven by a need to see another human face, embarks on a trip to London; actually, he gets no farther than Paris, where he goes to a bar and a restaurant frequented by Britishers. In this chapter we get the bustle of ordinary life, viewed without censure, and it’s brilliant. It shows Huysmans’ ability to do exactly what he chose not to do – to write a naturalistic novel. As for what he did choose to do, one must judge the man whose state of mind he examines. Only at one point, late in the book, did I feel an emotional connection with Des Esseintes. Schubert’s lieder stirs him to his depths; he sees “lines of poor folks, harassed by life’s wretchedness”; and he, “full of bitterness, overflowing with disgust, felt himself standing alone, all alone in the midst of weeping Nature, overborne by an unspeakable melancholy, by an obstinate distress . . .” Contempt slips away; compassion for others makes its lone appearance; Des Esseintes recognizes his isolation and feels his bitterness and disgust as a burden. He’s a man who has reached the end of the road and sees an abyss before him. As Barbey d’Aurevilly wrote, “After such a book, it only remains for the author to chose between the muzzle of a pistol or the foot of the cross.” In his Preface, written twenty years after the novel appeared, Huysmans makes clear that he is Des Esseintes. And the choice he made – the path that opened before him – was Catholicism. He has not given up his negative attitudes about life, but he writes that “Never has Pessimism consoled either the sick of the body or the afflicted of the soul!” The Church offered a remedy in the effortless act of belief, and “If any man can have the certainty of the worthless thing he would be without God’s help, it is I.” These words are a far cry from the austere disapproval of Des Esseintes in his cottage. Yet, in this preface, disturbing glints of the old hatred appear, and I found his comments on the Church’s urgent need to fight against the Devil to be ominous. Des Esseintes/Huysmans is no loving Christian; it’s Catholicism’s cloistered seclusion and medieval trappings which appeal to him. I could see him, clothed in the robes of an Inquisitor, carrying on a brutal campaign against the Evil One. It would be in his nature to do so. Yes, the man frightens me.
Prater Violet - Christopher Isherwood
In the opening pages young Isherwood (he gives the main character his name, though the book is structured as fiction) gets a job as a scriptwriter for a movie called “Prater Violet” (an insipid musical taking place in old Vienna). This could be the premise for a comedy, but the author injects philosophical issues throughout. The director, a larger-than-life Austrian named Bergmann, is capable of doing excellent work; to be saddled with a piece of fluff is distressing to him. For Chatsworth, the imposingly self-assured producer, the only goal is to get the picture shot; his blight practicality stands in contrast to the doubts and compunctions that beset the artist. Another complicating factor is that events take place before and during Hitler’s takeover of Austria; because Bergmann’s wife and daughter reside in Vienna, he’s facing a matter of life and death importance as he tries to turn out commercial pap. His situation generates some pathos, and his fatherly attitude toward the fatherless Isherwood is touching. But this book is slight; it needs padding (such as a long and dull stretch about the mechanics of movie making) to move it out of the short story range. Even the efforts to add depth to the story may be a form of padding (at the end we get an extended meditation on love and loneliness and the meaning of life). Isherwood simply didn’t have sufficient material to work with, and the results feel flimsy and patched together. Kind of like the movie.