Friday, March 02, 2012
Of all fatiguing, futile, empty trades, the worst, I suppose, is writing about writing.
Snake in the grass #1. Fern Tree. February 2012.
The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati tells the story of a young officer and his life spent guarding an old, increasingly neglected border fortress on a dull frontier. It's a slow book. Very little happens: our protagonist misses his chances to escape the drudgery of this post, and slowly drifts into the monotony of barracks life. His career, and (more importantly) his life slides by quickly. Then, almost suddenly, he is old and ready to die.
This is a tricky book to categorise. Slow moving almost to the point of catatonic, it's about the need to seize chances when they emerge. The risks of being locked into dull routine and letting life slip away are more than displayed here. Not for the faint hearted!
Second up is The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys. The conceit of this short, but complex novel is that prior to his purported death in exile, Napoleon Bonaparte manages to switch identities with a noncommissioned officer by those plotting Napoleon's return to power. Then, as ever, things turn array.
This is a sparse little novel that zips along at a cracking pace. It raises all sorts of questions in natural ways: how much are we defined by those around us; is there such a quality as 'greatness', what is genius etc etc. There is a sly wit throughout and although some might mistake its brevity for slightness, there is an awful lot going on. This book very much humanises Napoleon, and the way in which it explores the terror that the loss of identity brings upon him is very successful.
If you've ever fancied the idea of one of history's most remarkable characters selling watermelons, this might well be your book. A really thoughtful book. Highly recommended.
Snake in the grass #2. Fern Tree. February 2012.