Friday, November 05, 2010

Education has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading.


November moon, as seen in a backyard in Geilston Bay. November 2010.

Friday Book Club and a productive week of reading has just gone by. Three for three in terms of quality, although when you have the ninth all-time bestselling book ever published and a Nobel Prize winner’s most fondly remembered novel in the mix, you would hope so!

The first one to mention is Imre Kertész’s wonderful self-autobiographical novel Fatelessness. When he won the Nobel Prize in 2002, the committee noted that his writing “upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history". This is very much a theme in Fatelessness. Ostensibly the tale of a young Hungarian boy swept away from his life in Budapest through the changing fortunes of the Second World War.

Ethnically, the boy is a Jew; yet his family (bar an uncle) do not actually practise that religion. In this way, the notion of being persecuted – to the extent of Auschwitz – for something you are unsure of yourself underwrites an incredibly detached narrative tone that is at once disturbing as it is revealing. He writes in a bleakly matter-of-fact tone, and the vehicle of naïve teen convincingly establishes no sense of collective identity here.

In this way, the novel really does transcend the specific tragedy of the Hungarian Jews. Kertész recalls the iniquity of imposed difference through the eyes of a teenager caught up in a process he does not understand (if it could ever be understood). The boy drifts through the camps with simple curiosity: no matter what terrible things that he sees, everything seems reasonable because it is all he knows. In this way, the expected physical and mental degradation is established with cool detachment and the child simply accommodates to the new normality.

It recalls Kafka in the way the novel documents the madness of a system that draws people in, with no expectation of ‘explanation’ or ‘understanding’. This isn’t a book that Hollywood will snatch up and recreate, there’s no ‘moral’ (that’s the moral). What makes the story so genuinely poignant, as well as so utterly, radically unsentimental, is the contrast between the boy’s unqualified idealism – to the point of bemused detachment – and the reader's logical expectation of the opposite.

This is a book to read. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Beware though, it will stay with you.

The second one finished this week is (I read) ninth on the all-time best seller list.The Little Prince was first published in 1943, and written by French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It has been translated into more than 190 languages and has sold more than 80 million copies.

Ostensibly a children's book – with illustrations drawn by Exupéry – The Little Prince offers a little bit more than your usual edition of Grug. It’s an intensely philosophical book, and one peppered with observations about life and human nature. I won’t go into any more detail, other than to recommend you read it (and take note of what the fox has to say for himself).

It is a quick read, but beware, you’ll be thinking about it afterward!

Finally, I finished up with a collection of short stories by German author Bernhard Schlink. Schlink is most famous for The Reader (a book that both Oprah Winfrey and I enjoyed), and Flights of Love recalls Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, in that each story explores the notion of ‘love’.

As much as ‘love’ is the central theme, masculine identity, modern Germany and how one copes with change are all recurring ideas through the separate narratives. A step down from the other two books, I would still recommend this to readers. The worst that I can say about it is that some of the stories seem as much set pieces to explore separate philosophical treatise with unifying themes, but Schlink is good enough to ensure that the discussion is still worth reading.

So all in all, a good week’s reading. I’m a good way through the lovely little Mercedes-Benz by Pawel Huelle at the moment, so it looks like I’m on a streak!

3 comments:

Roddy said...

Who's backyard were you in? You know, you should have taken it from your own backyard.

Carola said...

The little prince is one of my favorite books in my shelf. I only keep the good ones. Here in Germany many people know it. And they like to use sentences from it. For example: "You only see good with your heart". Hmm? I don't know how to translate: "Man sieht nur mit dem Herzen gut."

Kris said...

Roddy, how very droll.

Carola, I like the words of the little fox myself. A lovely little book, I think that it’s one I’ll end up buying for the boys.