Wednesday, July 27, 2011

*Voss, by Patrick White

Vintage, 1994
448 pp.
originally published, 1957

Voss is, on the surface, a novel of historical fiction set in colonial Australia. It is also, paraphrasing the blurb on the back of my copy, a novel that deals with the inner (and in some cases exterior) battles faced by the people of this novel, but above all those of the main character, Voss.   It is the author's fourth novel, following The Living and the Dead, The Aunt's Story, and The Tree of Man, none of which I have read. Voss is an example of modernist literature, and although the novel garnered a great deal of criticism when it first came out, it seems that readers today seem to be more appreciative of this book.   The main character is, according to several sources, modeled after a Prussian naturalist named Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Leichhard,  who made two overland expeditions exploring Australia. The first was successful; the second less so, as Leichhard vanished into the arid inland desert, at that time inhabited only by indigenous tribes. The novel is extremely complex, filled with symbolism and I believe a literature professor could offer a year-long course on this book.  It's also one of the most character-driven novels I've ever read.

At the heart of this story are the two main characters, Johann Ulrich Voss,and Laura Trevelyan, the niece of Voss' expedition sponsor, Mr. Bonner.  Laura is relatively new to New South Wales and has come to live her aunt, uncle and cousin.   They meet when Voss, who has already been in Australia for just over two years, shows up at the Bonner home to meet his patron.  Voss is planning to cross the continent on foot; Bonner has made all of the expedition's arrangements.  But prior to Voss heading out for parts unknown, he and Laura meet a few times; each time they come to learn a little more about each other, and Laura's life, although she doesn't quite know it yet,  is forever changed.  Eventually, the first party departs, being carried by ship to meet up with the rest of the crew as well as two Aboriginals.  The expedition is off -- Voss is now a pilgrim, heading for the interior, and from the outset, things begin to fall apart, only getting worse as time goes on: the challenge of the deadly, arid deserts; loss of a great many of their animals;  a slog through an impossibly sodden landscape, and a rainfall that seemingly will not end. And things only get worse. While things are happening on the expedition, the action periodically shifts back to Laura, who has not forgotten Voss and  who eventually becomes caught up in a strange relationship with the man that in time becomes more of a mystical union, an obsessive co-mingling of souls and minds that transcends the ordinary.

The character of Voss is definitely complex.  While he chides Laura for her recent decision to give up on her belief in God,  Voss, as it happens, worships only himself -- he lives to know everything, because he believes that "Knowing so much, I shall know everything."  Laura, on the other hand, had "read a great deal out of books as had come her way....until her mind seemed to be complete." Voss is "compelled into this country," deciding that rather than study a map of where he's about to go,  he will "first make it." Arrogant, self centered and somewhat deceitful, Voss was once told by a Moravian monk that he has a "contempt for God, because He is not in your own image."  He longs for those who will follow him, but will not listen to others, eschewing advice that in some cases turns out to be badly needed, preferring to do things his way.  Voss seems to have has ulterior motives for being the first to explore and to cross the continent, none of which have to do with the scientific, economic or any other kind of data his benefactors are looking for. His journey is less concerned with the physical and more concerned with the mind. He is a tortured man, and often seems to be at war within himself. Part of him wants to be God and he acts upon this desire all through the expedition; yet ultimately he comes to realize that he has "always been most abominably frightened, even at the height of his divine power, a frail god upon a rickety throne, afraid of opening letters, of making decisions, afraid of the instinctive knowledge in the eyes of mules, of the innocent eyes of good men, of the elastic nature of the passions, even of the devotion he had received from some men, and one woman, and dogs."  But ultimately, his quest for knowledge and the wild interior of Australia do him in; consume him, so to speak.

And all the while, Voss' spiritual quest finds a mirror in Laura, back at home. When all is said and done, Laura, now 26 and resigned to her fate as headmistress of a local girls' school and old maid, has championed Voss and his expedition, noting that "His legend will be written down, eventually, by those who are troubled by it." She will hear nothing that detracts -- above all, because of what ultimately becomes of Voss, he's become a mythological figure, providing a piece of the colonists' newly emerging cultural identity as Australians.   As one person remarks to Laura, "We are in every way provided for, by God and nature, and consequently, must survive"  to which Laura states "Oh, yes, a country with a future. But when does the future become present? That is what always puzzles me."

I liked this book immensely. I won't even pretend to get all of the  symbolism, religious and otherwise, and I see some gnostic elements throughout the book that I could spend hours thinking about.  But there's so much more in this story.  The writing is beautiful, but often tough, sometimes reading like a 19th-century narrative, and took quite a long while to read. It's also very complicated, with many mystical components. One of the best parts of this book and in the author's writing is in how he deals with the aboriginal people.  His portrayal of their world view and their relationship to the environment is amazing,  as is how he treated them dealing with their fears and resentment of strange white people invading their territory. But it is above all the characters that drive this novel, especially those of Voss and Laura, but each character has a symbolic role of some sort to play.   Voss is definitely a challenge, and I recommend it to the bravest of readers! I think I'll be going back to it some day for a reread.

Friday, July 22, 2011

my first post in the Europa Challenge

I've just posted my first review on the Europa Challenge Blog.  My inaugural entry is Total Chaos, by Jean-Claude Izzo, a novel of neo-noir crime fiction.  If you're interested, you can click the link and go on over. My focus throughout the challenge will be crime fiction since it's my favorite genre, although there are multiple participants who are reading every genre represented via Europa Editions -- in short, something for everyone. 

My review is also cross-posted at the crime portion of this reading journal.  If you like crime fiction and haven't been there, please go take a look. It's mostly my thoughts on various translated novels, especially from Scandinavia, but there are other countries represented as well.

Anyway, the first hurdle has been crossed, and my next entry will be Izzo's second novel in the series, Chourmo.

Monday, July 18, 2011

*On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

Penguin Books
307 pp.

" saith Ecclesiastes, "It is your portion under the sun."

And that "portion" is to be seized (as in "carpe diem") ; the how and why of it all drives this story.  Narrated by Kerouac's alter ego -- writer Sal Paradise, who comes to realize that: "life is holy and every moment is precious,"   On the Road is a novel that chronicles Sal's journeys across America in the last years of the 1940s, beginning in 1947 when "bop was somewhere between its Charlie Parker Ornithology period and another period that began with Miles Davis."   It's sort of like a travel diary on steroids, a narrative of a what back then would have amounted to a limited sort of anarchy that takes place in a time that is well in the past, and in an America that no longer exists.  It's the story of two friends, Sal and Dean (who is in real life Neal Cassady, friend to such beat-generation icons as Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, etc. etc.)  who live for the now, always looking for "It" ... who wait for some prophet to come along and deliver the Word -- which ultimately turns out to be  "Wow!"

  To "know time " was the main goal of these journeys -- and to do this, they had to cram so much of life into each possible second of living. They travelled through the backroads of the country either in cars going between 90 and 110 mph, hitchhiking, or traveling from bus station to bus station; they often found themselves or otherwise down at heel, having to take on crap jobs to make enough to eat, but none of that mattered as long as they stayed open to every possibility life had to offer.  If that included women, beer, parties, pot and sex, it also implied freedom and independence, the stuff that sometimes youthful dreams are made of -- the ever-present dream of the beckoning open road with no restraint, no purpose -- just the journey and the people they meet along the way.  Whether it be a jazz musician blowing the almighty Bop in LA or New York or over the high-powered radio waves that carried their frenetic sounds through the dark desert nights or in all-night, hyped-up jazz jam sessions; or a lonely old man known as the "Ghost of the Susquehanna, continually wandering through the wilderness of Eastern America; individuals hitching across the country; cowboys from Montana; Mexicans in California's Central Valley who picked grapes and lived in camps, toiling in the hot sun during the day and  playing music into the lateness of the night;  the black-sooted hoboes who rode the rails or wandered nomadically across the country; or even the prostitutes in a certain Mexican whorehouse --  to Sal and Dean, these were the people who seemed to really live life to its fullest -- the people they respected most. As Sal notes: "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awwww!"

For some readers, On the Road is the ultimate non-conformist manifesto that signified the heart of the beat generation, gave rise to the hippie movement, or caused people to hit the road in search of freedom.  For me it's a great slice of Americana that relates the dreams, life, and the rebellious spirit  of  a group of people just after World War II -- a period piece about living the American dream on one's own terms -- not those defined by the generation before -- and about friendship that should definitely be read and understood in the context of its times.

Don't read the book with the expectation of finding a "great revelation" at the end of it all -- there is none. I think this is one of those  novels where you either get something out of it or you don't.  People who are looking to get some kind of message from this novel may be disappointed, as will people who are looking for writing with a specific plot behind it all, or for redeemable characters who act in accordance to our 21st-century sensibilities.  The prose is lively, at times going off into a form of stream-of-consciousness writing and then changing into a more manic pace and traveling back again to a normal tone. Somewhere I read that Kerouac borrowed some of the crazy energy and rhythm from bop jazz and inserted it directly into his work; as a maniac for bop and for Charlie Parker, I almost believe it. The original version of this novel had real-life names in it -- so I may go back someday and read it.

I personally think it's a good  book, not great (and I must confess to liking Kerouac's Dharma Bums a lot more) and it is a very intelligent read, one that does take a bit of consideration and reader involvement.  I wasn't around during the beat or later hippie generation, but do have an affinity with the idea not being trendy or living based on others' expectations, doing my own thing and finding my own personal sense of freedom in life, so there's something about this book that appeals to me. It's also quite entertaining, and I'm a huge fan of backroad  car trips and the unusual and quirky people and things in life, so it speaks to me on several levels.  Comments about this novel range from "shallow" to "a work of genius," so it's basically like any other novel out there where each reader takes away something uniquely his or her own.  But it's definitely not for everyone.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

*Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge, by John Gimlette

358 pp

Wild Coast: Travels on South America's Untamed Edge is a contemporary travel account mixed with history.  Don't write it off based on that statement -- it is a phenomenal book, some of which reads like good, old-fashioned travel narratives of earlier eras.  Told over the space of nine chapters, the story alternates with the author's travels through Guyana, Surinam (or Suriname), and French Guiana. He's in good company: these regions were visited separately at one time by literary greats V.S. Naipaul (along with his brother Shiva) and Evelyn Waugh, whose sojourn through Guyana played a part in the creation of his most excellent novel Handful of Dust, as well as his own narrative of travel in Guyana and Brazil called 92 Days.

The author's first stop is in Georgetown, Guyana (once known as British Guiana) but his first side trip is to Jonestown, the site of the famous (or infamous) People's Temple led by Jim Jones.  In the town of Port Kaituma he talks to some of the locals about the events of 1978, especially the shooting of Congressman Leo Ryan, three newsmen and a People's Temple defector.  Driven to the airstrip where all of that went down, he finds that people are still somewhat reluctant to discuss what happened because, as his guide at the time told him

People here are still frightened...They don't know what happened, or who anyone is. They hardly ever seen any white men before. The only ones they saw were people from the Temple, who then starts killing them. Are you surprised they're still afraid?

Leaving Jonestown, Gimlette makes his way to the Savannah of Rupununi, which he calls one of the "most magnificent, untrampled corners of our planet." After observing and discussing the landscape, he explains that the area once was thought to be the site of the mythical El Dorado, the city of the Gilded Man, also known as Manoa. The legend was started after an expedition down the Orinoco by Martinez, a Spanish Captain and munitions master whose cargo ignited. As a punishment, he was bound and set adrift in a canoe, where supposedly he was rescued by Indians and taken to this city, where all he did for seven months was to collect gold pebbles. The story was picked up again in the 1580s by another Spaniard who hears of a city of gold -- confirming the tale told by Martinez. As he's planning to make his own expedition to the area, he's captured off of Trinidad by Sir Walter Raleigh, who is also planning to undertake the same search. It is, of course,  fruitless, but undeterred by his lack of discovery, Raleigh sees that there's money to be made here and publishes a book that he hopes will catch the fancy of investors back home.  Laughed at, ridiculed, he sends one more explorer to find the city, and this time, taking a new route, Manoa is found. It's not the city of the Gilded Man, but it does exist. Voltaire will later capture the search for El Dorado and the "general foolishness of mankind" in his work Candide. Gimlette explores the forests of the Essequibo river, as well as the ruins of the old Dutch plantations that existed there.  In an area known as the Berbice, where one man told the author to  "expect giant frogs, marijuana plantations and strange, old people jabbering in Dutch," the author takes a "journey through 1763," the year of a particularly bloody slave revolt -- and tries to imagine the lives of the Dutch plantation owners and families along the way.

Then he's off to Surinam (or Suriname), where he finds in Paramaribo a city that he loves and people who speak a rather odd form of pigeon English called Talkie-talkie -- in which, for example, Olie Bollen, Pom, Bami Kip and Pinda Soep with Tom Tom  become oily bread, yam, chicken noodles and peanut soup with plantain. He follows a trail made by two soldiers sent there by the government to help quell the slave revolts of the 1700s.  The first is  Colonel Fourgeoud, who at sixty was already a veteran of the earlier Berbice revolts, and who the author describes as being a psychopath, "like Robert Duvall's Colonel Kilgore: a thundering, bare-chested killer who will eat nothing, feel nothing and fear nothing."  Second is Scotsman John Gabriel Stedman, wrote and published an account of his adventures in jungle warfare, which the author notes, "reads like a Georgian rendering of Apocalypse Now."  But war isn't only a thing of the 18th century, as the author reveals -- Surinam's hinterlands became the site of some of the most bloodiest and ruthless wars not so long ago.

Leaving Surinam, it's on to French Guiana, the old penal colony captured in readers minds forever with Henri Charrière's book Papillon, which was made into a film in 1973.  Gimlette notes that "as an autobiography, Papillon is highly improbable," but that he describes things that happened to several people -- it seems that he was never in trouble, and spent his time taking care of the latrines.  But the brutality of the penal colony and the various institutions throughout the country is all too real, as are the dangers of French Guiana's interior, as evidenced in an account published in 1953 by the father of Raymond Maufrais, who at 23 decided to make the trip down the Maroni river, into 35,000 square miles of jungle.  Maufrais never made it out; only his diaries were found.  After spending a few days on the Salut Islands, site of Devil's Island, the author took a tour of the Centre Spatial Guyanais, a space station whose proximity to the equator makes for shorter orbit of the satellites launched by various European countries. And finally, the last journey is to the lake area of Oyapok, where in 1629, one of the author's forebears had set foot and "finished up." Gimlette knew very little about that expedition, only having very brief clues left behind in bits of documentation. 

The author's travels are interesting on their own, but his extensive knowledge of the history of the three countries adds another dimension to this novel.  One of his working ideas throughout the novel is that although "slavery seemed to have disappeared completely," it is "everywhere, even in the food and the way people lived".  He notes that "every strand of Guianese life somehow led back to this point". To understand this concept, he takes his readers back in time, place to place, discussing not only slavery, but events leading up to the revolts of 1763 in the Barbice and again in Surinam of 1769, and what happened with the slaves who managed to escape afterwards.  Truly fascinating stuff, but the book also incorporates the effects of colonization, racism, and immigration, as well as the geography, all of which have had a hand in making these areas what they are today.  The history is quite necessary to the book, and there is the added bonus of all of the quirky people he happens to meet along his many journeys. 

I very highly recommend this book -- one of the joys of reading it is that there is no sense that the author is trying to show us how interconnected our cultures are -- quite the opposite. Those types of travel narratives I can live without.  In Wild Coast he shows that there are, inevitably, places in which the modern world has encroached, whether for good or for bad,  but for the most part, there are still some mysteries left in these countries, vast areas of which are still dark and inaccessible.  A truly fascinating read.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The Europa Challenge -- Like I need to add another one!

I received an email a few days ago that this challenge was going on, and realized that "hey! I have tons of books from Europa Editions!" and decided to give it a go.

There is a special blog just for the challenge, and there you will see that the blog (and the challenge) were started by "two friends and fans of the publisher Europa Editions, Marie and Liberty. Marie is a librarian and book blogger at Boston; Liberty is a bookseller and book-lover. Neither Liberty nor Marie is employed by Europa and the blog is a fan project and not formally affiliated with Europa Editions, which has nonetheless graciously provided us with a list of their books and the use of their logo."

As if I need to involve myself in another challenge, but what the heck. I'll be posting my reviews here or at the Crime Segments (because many of my Europa books are crime fiction) and providing a cross-link over at the challenge blog site.  If you aren't familiar with Europa Editions, you can click here for their main website.  They offer quality literature from all over the world and I've long been a huge fan (and studious collector) of their books.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

July -- traveling around

I was trying to think of something appropriate for the month of July and it hit me that I'm traveling, so maybe it would be interesting to do some reading about other people's travels and journeys.  Actually, I'd picked this category before leaving for Seattle in an effort to get through more of my tbr pile (and some of the new books I'd bought in June).  

Although I prefer to travel in person, there's something to be said about reading about other people's sojourns as well.  A few of the books I have slated (although as always, these are subject to change, depending on my mood) are as follows:

On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering the Appalachian Trail, by Bill Bryson
Going After Cacciato, by Tim O'Brien
Voss, by Patrick White (finally!)
Journey to the West, ascribed to Wu Cheng'en

 and whatever else I have that I've forgotten for the moment.  I'm also planning on finally breaking down and reading The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, which everyone on the planet except me has probably read already. I passed on strawberry picking over the weekend so as not to kill my back and picked up a copy to pass the time while waiting for everyone else.

And speaking of traveling,

I spent the 4th of July weekend camping here in Washington State among the tall trees, a beautiful lake and the smell of campfire everywhere.   There's just something about being being bundled up  outside in the crisp, cool air with the sound of the wind and the birds in the background that is very conducive to laying around with a book in my hand and a cup of hot coffee in the cup holder of my chair.

 A great hike down the lake trail and food cooked outside was also part of the bargain, but the best was a rainstorm at night while I was all snug and cozy inside my tent with my book and a booklight, listening to the rain hitting the outside. 

 I took this picture with my iphone, having forgot my camera battery charger at home, so you can't make out the snow-covered mountains in the background, but they're there all the same. Another major bonus of being here.

So that's it...I'm hoping my reading month is a good one.