Friday, June 26, 2015

Contemporary Interlude #2: The Festival of Insignificance, by Milan Kundera

Harper, 2015
128 pp
translated by Linda Asher
arc copy -- thank you!

" the essence of existence. It is all around us, and everywhere and always. It is present even when no one wants to see it: in atrocities, in bloody battles, in the worst is the key to wisdom, it is the key to a good mood."


I'm probably among the few people reading this book who have never read another book by Milan Kundera.  I have some of them on my shelves -- The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Slowness, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting -- but just haven't quite got to them. So I'm in no condition to judge whether or not this book is, as the cover blurb states, "a summation of his whole work."

The book is structured in seven short parts consisting of small little chapters, rather loosely connected to each other, all light in tone.  All of the main characters in this book are friends living in Paris, all are getting older, and we watch them not only in each other's company but among others in various situations as they contemplate how to achieve a "good mood."   Why?  Because, as Ramon notes, following Hegel's essay on the comical,
"True humor is inconceivable without an infinite good mood...Not teasing, not satire, not sarcasm. Only from the heights of an infinite good mood can you observe below you the eternal stupidity of men, and laugh over it."
So right up my alley.

Ramon also understands futility:
"We've known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush."
The way out ("one possible resistance"): "to not take it seriously," a very liberating concept.

 To me it seems  that even while focusing on and contemplating the value of insignificance, the author is actually making significant points about human beings and human nature in our modern world.   For example, even as the novel opens, the focus is on how our era finds beauty in sameness rather than in individuality, as seen through Alain's contemplation of the navel.  It's not his own -- he watches young women as he waxes about   "how to define the eroticism of a man (or an era) that sees female seductive power as centered in the middle of the body, in the navel." After all, in different eras, it's been the uniqueness of  "thighs, buttocks and breasts" among women that's been sexy; now men seem to be much more focused on the navel that is generally the same among all women.  Then we meet Ramon, who really wants to go and see a Chagall exhibit at a museum in the Luxembourg Gardens, but has passed it by several times just knowing he couldn't stand the "people in line, their faces paralyzed by boredom," who once inside would ruin his experience with "their chatter." He'd much prefer to visit the statues of queens, "poets, painters, scientists," in the park, "the garden of geniuses," where "no one stopped to examine their faces or read the inscriptions on the pedestals."  There he can inhale the "indifference, like a soothing calm." Charles and Caliban, once actors and now  catering cocktail parties,  round out the group.  Caliban speaks French, but dons wigs, colors his skin and  pretends to speak only Pakistani.   One thing they all share is a "joke" about Stalin and twenty-four partridges that runs throughout the book, which is looked at, analyzed and in the end, recreated in a sort of artistic fashion.  But they're all friends, and friendship is "sacred," according to what I call a meta pop-in by the author; it's clearly the one thing that he sees as rising above and beyond all of the trivial, insignificant things in life.

This is a book that definitely needs a reread, which sadly, I did not do; I imagine if I went through it a second time I'd probably get way more out of it. I loved the writing in this book, although some readers may find Kundera's few meta pop-ins a little distracting.  Here, his characters are aware that they are governed by a "master" (the author), who "invented us" and made his characters study Hegel. What I enjoyed about this book are all of the philosophical ruminations, for example, about how people come to be divided into apologizers and their opposites, or about how conversational brilliance can be offputting and actually harmful, and the difference between generations and its relationship to communication:
"People meet in the course of life, they talk together, they discuss, they quarrel, without realizing that they're talking to one another across a distance, each from an observatory standing in a different place in time." 
To offer two varying literary critiques: first, from Michael Dirda at the Washington Post who thought it was "very French," and an opposing view from The Guardian, whose author calls it a "stinker."  What most readers will probably miss is the lack of a cohesive story holding this book together, but for me, I was so taken with the philosophical observations and the writing that it worked, and worked well.

I read this book for TLC book tours (thanks!), and you can find the rest of the readers and their thoughts here

Sunday, June 7, 2015

*The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Oxford World's Classics, 1998
originally published 1850
302 pp


If you look at a random reader review of this novel, one of the first things you're apt to see is that The Scarlet Letter was assigned in someone's literature class in high school.  I wasn't that lucky (I took a more classical route -- Shakespeare, the Greeks, etc.)  but then again, I may not have appreciated it as much as I do now, having just read it. I can see why a lot of readers might be turned off of this book -- the language is on the archaic side (lots of thees, thys and thous) -- but once you get past that hurdle, there is an excellent story here.  It is a dark tale that kept me mesmerized for four days, once completely through the night until the sun came up.  If you've ever had an empty feeling (meaning you wanted more) upon turning the final page, well, that's exactly how I felt when I'd finished. I LOVED this book.  I LOVED Hester Prynne.

Since this plot is so well known, I won't rehash it here.  Once again I happened to choose a novel that has been very well covered in academia, and one which can be examined from several perspectives, including  themes, characters, and symbolism. Go look it up -- there are a huge number of scholarly works on this novel (as well as some pretty awful high school essays to be avoided at all cost).  If you haven't yet figured out my reading raison d'etre,  I move right into the psychology of the individual, especially the darker side of human nature, and this book is a goldmine.

Hester Prynne on the scaffold facing the townsfolk before going back to prison.
The Scarlet Letter is an example of an American romance.  That does not at all mean the Harlequin variety,  but rather it is a way of writing  that deals more with internal truths rather than recreating external ones.  Here's a very brief description:

The term ‘Romance’ is frequently used to talk about a particular type of prose which has been considered as the distinctive voice of American fiction. As opposed to the realistic English novel of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Trollope, Elliot or Thackeray (or Tolstoi, or Balzac, or Galdós for all that matter) the American Romance is more emotional and symbolic, less realistic and less structured than the novel. The protagonists of the Romance are heroic, mythical figures, typically lonely individuals facing dark forces which in some mysterious ways grow out of their deep unconscious selves. Frequently the hero dies in the end. Setting is not used realistically, but as a space that recreates the psychological world of the characters. Hawthorne defined it as “a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with nature of the other”. Through Romance, a fiction is created to expose the inner truth of a real situation.
In writing this book the way he did, Hawthorne was able to come up with a story set some two centuries in his past, allowing him the freedom to examine how human nature may have functioned under the repressive hand of the Puritans. Here he employs different perspectives to relate his tale; he also, as with other romance writers of his time, uses symbolism in nature to great effect.  His darker thematic concerns include alienation, isolation, and hypocrisy among others, and he does such an excellent job of revealing just how these forces worked on the main characters to make them who they are.

It is truly a shame that so many people dislike this book, because it is seriously one of the best I've had the pleasure to read this year.  If you read it slowly, you will discover that rather than it being "boring" or "a yawn" (as some readers have described it), it  is actually a beautiful and human story that I will never forget as long as I live.  If you read it in high school, you might want to go back and read it again, this time slowly. It is worth every second of time you give to it.  Now I'm hoping I'll find something equally as good from around this time...this book has set the bar.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Oh my gosh! It's here! Flood of Fire, by Amitav Ghosh

My mail person today handed me a package from Book Depository -- and it turned out to be the third installment of Amitav Ghosh's Ibis Trilogy, Flood of Fire.  Shrieks of delight!!!!!  I have been waiting impatiently for this book a) to be published and b) to get to my house.  I preordered it from Amazon, but then decided I couldn't wait until August to read it, so I bought it from the UK.  Clearing book decks now, getting ready to open it up and read it.  It feels like Christmas today!