Friday, January 06, 2012
It's no good running a pig farm badly for 30 years while saying, 'Really, I was meant to be a ballet dancer.' By then, pigs will be your style.
The view of Goat bluff from down low on Calverts Beach. Calverts Beach, South Arm Peninsula. January 2012.
A fine start to the year with three books already done and dusted.
First up The Eye, which is Vladimir Nabokov’s shortest novel. Set amongst the Russian émigré comunity in 1920s Berlin, it focuses on the enigmatic Russian Smurov. The action commences after the attempted (perhaps successful) suicide of the narrator. After this (potentially imaginary) death, his "eye" observes a group of Russian émigrés as he tries to ascertain their opinions of the mysterious character Smurov.
Largely about ‘identity’ – our own perceptions of self and the social construction of our identity both for and by others – Smurov exists as a hero, fraud, nobleman, crook, "sexual adventurer" and spy in the eyes of himself and others. The central narrator gathers these observations in the attempt to construct a coherent portrait of Smurov.
While the ‘twist’ alluded to in the author’s preface is not particularly surprising, this does not stop the novel from being enjoyable. The young Nabokov keeps the literary affectation to a minimum, and as such we’re left with essentially a metaphysical Russian detective novel.
The central point? We like to think of ourselves as a knowable collection of things, experiences and traits; but, really, we’re limitless, there is no single snapshot that will wholly capture anyone. Indeed, we are all fragmentary refractions of others’ glimpses of us, inherently unknowable, whose memory is reduced to the stories and opinions of our observers.
It’s a good ‘un, and you’ll zip through it in no time. Highly recommended!
The second this week is The Tenth Man by Graham Greene. The story behind this one is almost as interesting as the book itself. Greene worked in Hollywood for a few years in the 1940s, and during this time wrote a number of ‘treatments’’ and screenplays. Evidently, he wrote so many that he lost track of them. In 1983, he received a letter from someone who had purchased one such ‘treatment’ and intended to publish it as a novel. Greene was surprised, because he recalled the product – The Tenth Man – as merely a two- or three-page treatment for possible cinematic production. In fact, the purchaser had stumbled upon a 30,000-word completed book that the author had no recollection of writing.
Set in a prison in Occupied France during World War II, the plot advances as the German occupiers decree ‘decimation’ as a form of collective reprisal for an attack. Thirty prisoners decide to draw lots to decide which three will be executed. [Spoiler here] one of the men chosen is a wealthy lawyer. In desperation, he offers all his wealth to anyone who will take his place. One man agrees, to secure a fortune for his sister and mother. The following three sections of the novel concern the lawyer’s subsequent release from prison the lawyer to face the consequences of his actions.
The book isn’t the ‘lost classic’ that it has been purported to be by some, but as with most of Greene’s work, it is a cracking read. Recommended.
Last up is a bona fide classic, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Even if you have not read it, the central characters will be familiar to you; such has been their impact on popular culture. The novel is the tragic tale of two transient ranch workers during the Great Depression in California takes its title from Robert Burns' poem To a Mouse, which read: “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley” (i.e. “The best laid schemes of mice and men / Go oft awry.”)
That pretty much sums it up. The smarter of the two drifters, the small and wiry George, aspires to independence. His companion of the road, the enormous but simple Lennie heavily depends on George – his guardian of sorts – shares the dream of living on a small homestead keeping rabbits.
Dreams, loneliness, dependency and friendship are strong themes throughout, and inevitable denouement is crushing. It is hard to believe that such a bleak book – essentially an indictment of the ‘American Dream’ – seems to have become a staple of the teaching of American literature. Every character is seemingly (extraordinarily) unhappy. People are disconnected from each other, yet loneliness is sustained though the barriers established from acting inhuman to one another.
In different ways, all of Steinbeck's characters are powerless, due to intellectual, economic, and social circumstances. Lennie has immense physical strength of any character, but his intellectual handicap renders him powerless. Pretty much all of the range hands are economically powerless. While a nuanced gender analysis not particularly a strong suite of the book, the only female character’s power is concentrated in her sexuality, it has proven a trap for her and she is powerless to employ it due to circumstances beyond her control.
This is a fantastic book, with an incredibly powerful conclusion. It’s easy to see why it has been elevated to the level it has since its release in 1937. Highly recommended.