Friday, July 08, 2011

The possession of a book becomes a substitute for reading it.

Home (to the left and upstairs) from mid-1996 until early-2002. Sandy Bay Road, Sandy Bay. July 2011.

Two very different books this week.

First up, Aharon Appelfeld's Badenheim 1939 is an odd, dreamlike novel set in an imagined Austrian resort town at the beginning of the Second World War as groups of middle-class Jews arrive to spend another idyllic summer vacation at an annual arts festival.

There is a fair whiff of Kafka in Appelfeld's restrained prose, and the incongruity of the characters’ struggle to maintain (simulate?) normality against the intimations of the approaching catastrophe. Although the reader has no choice but factor in the impending Holocaust as both the historical backdrop as well as its imaginative focus, the author deftly does so from surreptitiously and achieves a subtlety that you would think impossible.

The awkward ignorance of what is to come for the vacationers dominates this book. Spring is in the air and summer is about to blossom as the vast range of characters spend their days strolling among gardens, lounging in caf├ęs, courting, swimming, gossiping and bickering as much as any other vacationer. The mounting tension (indeed horror), that any reader of this sensitive and elegant book will realise, is magnified by the fact that it is a reality that the characters simply cannot, or simply refuse to, see.

Despite the subject matter, this is a picturesque and ‘calm’ tale, and one told with delicate imagery and understatement. The narrative alters in much the same way the seasons do, in minimal and moving increments. Similarly, subtly and with seeming resigned acceptance, the townsfolk’s rights and choices are reduced and constrained: shops are closed, town gates are sealed, the postal service ceases operation. The fact that WE know where this is going to end up really does make you want to stamp your feet and shout out aloud, quite an achievement for such a quiet novel.

This really is a fantastic piece of work, and something that I can heartily recommend to anyone.

Second up is Aiding and Abetting. Murial Spark was 80 (!) when this book was released, so she could be forgiven if her formidable prowess as an author were dawdling. Thankfully, no forgiveness is required as her ‘imagined reconstruction’ of the circumstances of Lord Lucan’s disappearance are explored and – ultimately – reconciled.

There is no requirement to be familiar with the Lucan tale, as the template is a familiar one: issues of class, debt, avarice, murder, disappearance etc. Spark utilises her keen eye for moral ambiguities to explore a complex web of chancers, cads and con artists very neatly. It is not the perfect book by any means – for example, the hasty ending is a little too contrived for my tastes – but there is enough substance (and black comedy) to keep the tale rollicking along and her simple, sharp writing style is a fantastic respite from the many overly ornamental and convoluted literary darlings that you find these days. Recommended.


Roddy said...

Do you reckon she's hit the million dollar mark yet? She is certainly central to everything.

Kris said...

Probably. Definitely if they package up the two flats.