Saturday, April 18, 2009

Invitation to a Beheading - Vladimir Nabokov (Russian)
I believe this novel – a masterpiece that ranks up there with Lolita – is about Life, and it presents a disturbing picture. Cincinnatus is in a cell, awaiting execution for an undisclosed crime (that of being alive). He wants to know, in the beginning, the date of his execution; the answers he receives confuse or mislead him. Later a definite date is set (“You have inoperable cancer, Mr. Jones.”). If we think of the scenario Nabokov presents us with in these stark terms (mostly we avoid thinking of it) Cincinnatus is man stripped of all but the essentials of existence. In this state he yearns for three things: compassion, love and understanding. The last is the most important. For how can another person be compassionate toward you, how can they love you, if they don’t understand who and what you are? The terrible (and terribly grotesque) cruelty of the book (Cincinnatus is not harmed physically at any point) is the utter lack of understanding everyone exhibits toward him; instead he’s treated with a callousness that can take the form of ridicule or indifference. He tries to express his true self in writing, but that’s futile. No one will read his words; besides, he can’t put into words what he wants to say. So he’s emotionally alone (and is that not the human condition?). The surreal ending is intelligible if we consider that the world exists for each of us through our senses; the world ceases when we do. When Cincinnatus’s head is severed a vestige of his consciousness continues on for a moment as everything around him crumbles to nothingness. *

The Stepdaughter - Caroline Blackwood
A psychological study that’s pared down to the bare bones. A woman (identified only as J) is writing letters to “Nobody”; in them she describes her situation and her emotional state. She’s very depressed and angry; the person consuming her thoughts is her ugly stepdaughter, a girl that J loathes. I found all this interesting, in a warped way, but fault lines began to form in a structure that was already flimsy. When the stepdaughter mysteriously disappears J becomes deeply concerned about her fate. Why this sudden switch in attitude? Also, J has a daughter of her own living in the apartment, but she’s given only one scene, on one page; her absence as a functioning character is inexplicable. As for the whereabouts of the missing stepdaughter – that’s never disclosed. Even when writing an off-kilter novel the author has to connect the dots.

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich - Danilo Kis (Yugoslavian)
An original work, but, for me, impenetrable and boring. I was so lost that I thought I was reading separate stories before I realized that they were chapters in a novel. Nothing held my attention – no character is developed in depth, there’s no coherent and consistent narrative. There’s a lot of Slavic history (with names that meant nothing to me), a lot of political goings-on (which confused me), a lot of brutality, a lot of diversions. The book has a dark, oppressive atmosphere, which I suppose accurately reflects the world that Kis was writing about. But it’s a world I know nothing about, and the author never enlightened me.

Homage to Catalonia - George Orwell
I don’t read much non-fiction. I prefer to inhabit somebody’s imaginative world. But Orwell is Orwell; his personality infuses this book, and communion with that person was what I was seeking. In the introduction Lionel Trilling makes two statements that I agree with: Orwell was a virtuous man, and he told the truth. This book doesn’t untangle the labyrinth intricacies of the Spanish Civil War; Orwell limits himself to what he observed, and even that can be confusing (at one point he warns the reader that a chapter will be rough sledding, and it was). The most interesting aspects are the human ones. Orwell tells of the boredom of war, of the rats, the excrement, the lice. He tells of the comradery that builds up between men. He sees a cause worth fighting for and exposes the ways in which that cause was violated. At the end he returns to find England in a deep, deep sleep, and he fears that it will be jerked awake only by the roar of bombs. As is usually the case with Orwell, he was prophetic.

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