The OF Blog

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days

The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave.  But that wasn't right, because the Lord had taken away much more than had been there to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up.  Three handfuls of dirt, and the little girl running off to school with her satchel on her back now lay there in the ground, her satchel bouncing up and down as she runs ever farther; three handfuls of dirt, and the ten-year-old playing the piano with pale fingers lay there; three handfuls, and the adolescent girl whose bright coppery hair men turn to stare at as she passes was interred; three handfuls tossed down into the grave, and now even the grown woman who would have come to her aid when she herself had begun to move slowly, taking some task out of her hands with the words:  oh, Mother – she too was being slowly suffocated by the dirt falling into her mouth.  Beneath three handfuls of dirt, an old woman lay there in the grave:  a woman who herself had begun to move slowly, one to whom another young woman, or a son, at times might have said:  oh, Mother – now she, too, was waiting to have dirt thrown on top of her until eventually the grave would be full again, in fact even a bit fuller than full, since after all the mound of earth on a grave is always round on top because of the body underneath, even if the body lies far below the surface where no one can see.  The body of an infant that has died unexpectedly produces hardly any roundness at all.  But really the mound ought to be as huge as the Alps, she thinks, even though she's never seen the Alps with her own eyes. (pp. 5-6)

The story of a life is a life unto its own.  It can be a tale of adventure, or of missed opportunities.  There are joys and tragedies in each of life's permutations and in a real sense, good fiction allows us to (re)imagine each of those possibilities as we live and endure the lives that we possess.  Who hasn't ever asked herself upon learning of an untimely death "what if...?"  Who hasn't wondered, perhaps aloud, what if things could be changed, what would happen next?

In her 2012 novel, The End of Days, translated this year into English by Susan Bernofsky, German writer Jenny Erpenbeck explores five different permutations of a woman's life and death.  Ranging from death as an infant at the dawn of the 20th century to a woman in dotage as the Berlin Wall, The End of Days is divided into five novella-length stories that explore these questions of "what if":  an  infant's death affects her parents; the young woman who survives only to die in a senseless fashion; the revolutionary who makes an unfortunate choice just before the German-Soviet War; a retiree who is five minutes too early for her appearance downstairs; a woman whose fading memories overshadow a life seemingly well-lived.  These capsule summaries, however, do not so much "spoil" the story as they circumscribe its outlines, allowing Erpenbeck to do so some interesting things within these short mini-narratives.

The concept of a repeating life is not a new one; last year, Kate Atkinson's Life After Life also dealt with a young woman, Ursula Todd, who would die and be reborn, (re)living the epochal 20th century.  Yet Erpenbeck's book is different in certain key ways from Atkinson's intriguing novel.  One important difference is in the import that the anonymous narrator's life has on events.  She does not affect the course of history; she is continually shaped by events, but she herself is but that Shakespearean actress who frets her hour upon the stage and then is seen no more.  Any changes that occur are minor; what we see unfold are variations on a theme, of how lives shift and shape themselves around the greater events that transpire around and through them.  In each of her five lives, from the nascent to the elderly, the protagonist is a product of a troubled mixed Jewish-Christian marriage who struggles to make her way as a woman through a world in which women are often oppressed by men.  While this is not a central element to any of the five substories, it is a common thread that runs through each and which provides a narrative unity that binds these five sections together cohesively. 

Erpenbeck's attention to the smaller details allows her to form symbolic connections that the reader will grasp as she reads further into the novel.  For example, I was struck by the way humble soil, dirt even, is utilized not just as a metaphor for death and the burial of hopes, but also with how it ties into the renewal of life.  This is readily apparent not just in the passage quoted above from the beginning of the book, but also in a key scene in the third section, set in the Russian steppe during World War II.  Soil is bound in frost, a necessary cold in which the seeds of too-brief lives are contained. 

Erpenbeck's narrative also has a curious "distance" to it that paradoxically makes these life permutations somehow more intimate.  By talking of life and hope and failures as though they too were tales to be recounted for an audience, something that might be instructive but which also has value in being an entertaining yarn in its own right, the reader's focus is concentrated more readily on the choices that the protagonist makes, which in turn allows the reader to ponder more closely questions of passivity in the face of great events and the amount of agency we might actually possess in our lives.  It should also be noted that this protagonist is not a monolithic character; her views and personality shift from life to life, as she is not static, but instead is dynamically transformed by the events that she does/does not manage to avoid happening to her in the next cycle of her interrupted lives.  This, too, ties back in to Erpenbeck's exploration of the limitations of human agency and it is done very well within the context of this story.

After all, as the woman's grandmother reflects in the first section after the infant version is buried:

For many years now she has known something that her daughter will soon be forced to learn:  A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days. (p. 15)

Through these five permutations, each presented with a clarity of prose and with great insight into personal power dynamics, Erpenbeck (aided by Bernofsky's superb translation) has composed a compact yet powerful novel that might be one of the year's best, whether in translation or originally written in English.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

An interesting quote on power and "freedom of speech"

Going to be writing a review of Robert Darnton's Censors at Work:  How States Shaped Literature in the next few days, but I thought this quote from his introduction might provide some food for thought when it comes to discussing the concept of freedom of speech:

In arguing for fundamental rights, philosophers use abstractions, but they generally understand that ideas take root in systems of power and communication.  John Locke, the philosopher most identified with theories of natural rights, did not invoke freedom of speech when pre-publication censorship ceased to be a rule of law in England.  Instead, he welcomed Parliament's refusal to renew the Licensing Act, which provided for censorship, as a victory over the booksellers in the Stationers' Company, whom he despised for their monopolistic practices and shoddy products.  Milton also railed against the Stationers' Company in Areopagitica, the greatest manifesto in English for freedom of press – great, but limited (no "popery" or "open superstition" to be permitted).  These examples, and others one could cite (Diderot, for instance) do not prove that philosophers failed to advocate the freedom of press as a matter of principle but rather that they understood it as an ideal to be defended in a real world of economic interests and political lobbies.  For them, liberty was not an unworldly norm but a vital principle of political discourse, which they worked into the social reconstruction of reality that took place in seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century Europe.  Many of us live in the world that they created, a world of civil rights and shared values.  The Internet did not condemn that moral order to obsolescence.  Nothing would be more self-defeating than to argue against censorship while dismissing the tradition that leads from the ancients through Milton and Locke to the First Amendment and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This argument may sound suspiciously high-minded.  It has more than a whiff of Whiggishness, and it may smell like rank liberalism.  I must confess to liberal sympathies myself and to finding Areopagitica one of the most moving polemical works that I have ever read.  But I also should amit that I sympathize with a second approach to the subject, which undercuts the first.  Whether spoken or written, words exert power.  In fact, the power of speech operates in ways that are not fundamentally different from ordinary actions in the everyday world.  Speech acts, as understood by linguistic philosophers, are intended to produce effects in the surrounding environment; and when they take written form, there is no reason to associate them exclusively with literature.  Some literary theorists go so far as to argue that it is meaningless to separate out a category, hallowed and hedged by constitutional restrictions, called freedom of speech.  As Stanley Fish proclaimed in a provocative essay, "There is no such thing as freedom of speech – and it's a good thing, too." (pp. 18-19)

Yes, I sense a very detailed review in the near future.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Looks like the next five weeks or so are going to be a bit busier than usual here

Although it is still another four days away, I thought now would be a good time to announce my quasi-annual November review month goal.  Since I'm not an aspiring piss-poor novelist, I don't do the write a novel in a month thing many others do.  Instead, I'm going to try to write 50 reviews over 30 days (or maybe 33, counting what I write starting tomorrow).

Luckily, I have a backlog of nearly two dozen books to review, so it shouldn't involve any more reading than usual.  Unfortunately, this means I can't make excuses for not reviewing.  Time will tell if this is insane or just challenging.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A few 2015 releases I already have as e-ARCs or have requested

Although I won't do a formal 2015 Upcoming Releases/Reviews Link post until January, I thought perhaps a few people might be interested in a few titles that I've seen on Netgalley (yes, I joined back in September, although I've been fairly low-key about it) that aren't scheduled to be released in the US until sometime in the Winter/Spring 2015.  I'll separate this into ones I've been approved for and ones that I may or may not get (I will be surprised to achieve 100% approval for these titles).

Already on my iPad:

Sait Faik Abasiyanik (translated by Maureen Freeley and Alexander Dawe from the original Turkish), Selected Stories (January 6, 2015 US release date)

Kelly Link, Get in Trouble (February 10, 2015)

Erwin Mortier (translated by Paul Vincent from the original Dutch), While the Gods were Sleeping (February 20, 2015 US release date; already available in the UK)

Jonathan Lethem, Lucky Alan and Other Stories (February 24, 2015)

Marian Palaia, The Given World (April 15, 2015)

Requests Pending:

Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (translated by Lola M. Rogers from the original Finnish), The Rabbit Back Literature Society (January 20, 2015 US release date; already available in the UK)

Jim Harrison, The Big Seven (February 3, 2015)

There likely will be more requests in the future and I may update this post in order to have a record here (and to make it easier to transfer this to my future 2015 Upcoming Releases post).  Also note that this list does not include titles that I know will be out in 2015 but I haven't (yet) requested e-review copies.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Antoine Volodine, Terminus radieux (Radiant Terminus)

– Suite à une tentative de rekoulakisation, dit Hannko Vogoulian, il y a longtemps.  Nous, on était pas nées.  C'était avant que le kolkhoze soit rebaptise «Terminus radieux».  Si les Organes étaient pas intervenus, c'était à coup sûr le retour du capitalisme et de toutes les saloperies qui vont avec.  Ça a fonctionné deux ou trois ans comme centre de rééducation.  Ensuite, Solovieï est devenu président et ça a fermé.

Myriam Oumarik enchaîna.

– Pendant l'accident, on l'a rouvert, dit-elle.  On avait besoin d'un local pour entasser les irradiés en attendant que l'entrepôt de la Mémé Oudgoul soit opérationnel.

– On en trouvait dans tous les coins, des irradiés, compléta Hannko Vogoulian.  Fallait bien qu'on les emmagasine quelque part.

Le jacassage des deux filles r´´sonnait dans la salle d'eau.  Il donnait le tournis à Kronauer qui n'avait pas besoin de cette avalanche de paroles pour se sentir mal. (p. 80 Bluefire Reader PDF e-format)

I have read five of the eight 2014 Prix Médicis finalists for Best Novel.  Of the five, Antoine Volodine's Terminus radieux (Radiant Terminus is a possible English translation) is perhaps simultaneously the most fascinating and most frustrating to read and think about.  Although my French reading comprehension has grown considerably since taking an online French course this summer, this novel served to remind me that no matter how much of the grammar and vocabulary that I understand (well over 75% without adding another 10-15% for words understood in context), that there are some novels written in other languages that will tax the abilities of non-native readers much more than what might be presumed by the writing style or vocabulary employed.

Mind you, this is not a criticism of Volodine's work; if anything, it is a testimony to how this novel requires extra effort from all readers, regardless of fluency level, in order to wring the utmost amount of understanding from it.  While there were times where my not-yet-fully-fluent reading comprehension failed me, I could sense that there was something strange, magical even, transpiring in this story set some years after a nuclear apocalypse following the end of the Second Soviet Union.  Terminus radieux is the story of people after a fall, of dreamers and escapees, all doomed, who wander in a toxic Siberian landscape in which the living and the dead commingle, where there is a sort of communion with the supernatural, where the irreal and real collide and a strange brew of elements emerges from these interactions.

Volodine's tale contains a plethora of references to recent political and cultural developments, all tweaked in order to fit into what the author (who, I should add, seems to have as many authorial pseudonyms as the late Fernando Pessoa, some of which write stories that are referenced in the writings of other pseudonyms of his) has elsewhere called a "post-exoticism" style of literature that seeks to make even the mundane into something weird and unsettling.  Being unfamiliar (for the moment, that is) with his other writings, I felt at times out at sea, out of my depth as a reader, as I could sense there were some textual interplays occurring in the murky depths of certain passages that due to a combination of unfamiliarity with both writer and the language left me clueless as to certain things that were taking place.

Yet perversely, this actually made me think higher of this tale.  Certainly from what I did understand, Volodine has an excellently twisted sense of black humor and his fantastical elements, many of which seem to be connected to economic and political concerns, make for a rich, provocative tale of adaptation in a dearth of life-sustaining environs.  It is, as I noted above, not an "easy" tale to parse, but from what I did grasp, it is the sort of fiction that if it were translated into English, for example, could find a small yet very appreciative audience, particularly among those who enjoy both post-apocalyptic literature and savagely funny satires of current socio-political issues.  While I may have been partially defeated from understanding Terminus radieux this time due to my relative limitations in reading French, it certainly will be a book that I will revisit as I continue to work on strengthening my understanding of this lovely language.  Volodine too shall be an author whose works I'll also explore again in the future, as it seems he may be just the sort of writer that I'd enjoy reading in both translation and in the original French.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was traveling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled wherever they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels.  The Traveling Symphony moved between the settlements of the changed world and had been doing so since five years after the collapse, when the conductor had gathered a few of her friends from their military orchestra, left the air base where they'd been living, and set out into the unknown landscape.


Twenty years after the collapse they were still in motion, traveling back and forth along the shores of Lakes Huron and Michigan, west as far as Traverse City, east and north over the 49th parallel to Kincardine.  They followed the St. Clair River south to the fishing towns of Marine City and Algonac and back again.  This territory was for the most part tranquil now.  They encountered other travelers only rarely, peddlers mostly, carting miscellanea between towns.  The Symphony performed music – classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs – and Shakespeare.  They'd performed more modern plays sometimes in the first few years, but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings. (pp. 37-38)

Literature often conforms to and reflects contemporary societal concerns.  A case can be made that with uncertainty about the long-term sustainability of environmental and socio-political structures, stories of sudden, catastrophic collapse and struggles for survival in a changed climate have become more popular than ever before.  Several 2014 releases that I've already reviewed have touched upon some of these concerns, yet this does not mean that there is not room for yet another take on collapse, another exploration of how humanity might reorder and reinterpret itself after its civilizations fold under the weight of a sudden calamity. 

Emily St. John Mandel's 2014 National Book Award-nominated novel Station Eleven is one of those works that manages to maintain key features that are endemic to post-apocalyptic literature while introducing elements that allow for a greater consideration of those cultural artifacts that we reject or cherish according to the pressures of the times.  At first glance, it is a bog standard tale of a group of survivors twenty years after a deadly super flu, the Georgia Flu, has wiped out over 90% of the human population in a matter of months.  With its peripatetic, motley crew of actors and musicians, the Traveling Symphony seems to be just one more wandering band of folk, maybe kin to McCarthy's Father and Son in The Road or even the family groups found in Mandel's The Millions colleague Eden Lepucki's California.  But there is something different about Mandel's tale, something that took me nearly two-thirds of the novel to realize just what it might be, that makes it better than the latter and close at times to the quality of the former.

The narrative structure certainly doesn't make for an easy introduction into the tale.  Seen primarily through the eyes of a former child actress, Kirsten Raymonde, the tale moves back and forth from the pivotal night just before the Georgia Flu's explosion into pandemic status, when a renowned actor, Arthur Leander, dies on-stage of a heart attack while performing King Lear.  As the young Kirsten watches horrified, a former paparazzi turned EMT, Jeevan, futilely tries to revive Arthur.  From here, these unlikely personal connections spawn a set of interactions that span two decades and the destruction of most global civilization.  Mandel switches frequently back and forth from the near-future "past" of Arthur's final days to the mid-21st century "present" of airport towns and the rise of a mysterious prophet who bounds all who enter his demesne to stay at pain of execution.

At first, the connections Mandel establishes between the flashbacks and "current" events are tenuous, as there is a real sense that there is little narrative "glue" that binds these seemingly disparate events together.  If it weren't for the skill that she has in developing character and voice (several chapters or interludes utilize interview transcripts and quasi-historical clippings to summarize past events, while other passages have a more intimate feel about them, particularly the ones dealing with young Kirsten and with Arthur's family), there wouldn't be enough narrative tension to sustain the reader's attention for long.

Yet a little beyond the halfway point of the novel, these seemingly separate events begin to converge in some interesting ways.  Not only does the main plot, that of the Traveling Symphony dealing with this mad prophet, come into clearer focus, but several themes that Mandel introduced in these flashback sequences, particularly that of how certain cultural artifacts are more enduring than others, comes into play.  Of particular interest is how Shakespeare's plays, especially King Lear, come into play near the end.  It is not a trite, shallow exploration of the playwright's themes, but also of certain connections between the times in which he composed those plays and the times in which Kirsten and her companions live and operate. 

There is another layer to this as well.  From the Star Trek:  Voyager quote of "Because survival is insufficient" to the eponymous fictitious Station Eleven, there are certain pop cultural memes or touchstones that also survive the chasm of the Collapse.  How Kirsten and another important character deal with these shared preserved cultural elements is vital to understanding not just the mysteries of the flashbacks Kirsten has, but also in grasping just how the final scenes of the novel unfold.  Granted, these connections are not always integrated fluidly into the narrative, but for the most part Mandel manages to present them without an excess sense of treacly "deeper understanding" that often plague novels of discovery in the midst of calamity.

On the whole, Station Eleven is a fairly well-constructed post-apocalyptic novel that manages to be just original enough to surprise the reader on occasion.  While the situations and some of the outcomes are going to be familiar to readers of post-apocalyptic literature, the characters and their motivations are sufficiently developed enough that there is little sense of this novel being a derivative work.  The prose for the most part is excellent and outside of the initial difficulty in following the numerous flashback sequences during the first half of the story, the narrative on the whole flows well toward a fitting conclusion.  Station Eleven is not my favorite of the National Book Award finalists for Fiction, but it certainly is a story that is worth most readers' times.

Friday, October 24, 2014

So I was prepared to write a column defending the notion of reading being more than just entertainment when...

I saw some chatter on Facebook yesterday about an article in The New Yorker by Rebecca Mead entitled "The Percy Jackson Problem."  I didn't have time to read it then (I was at work and just checking messages during my break time), but I remember seeing a plethora of comments about how valuable it was to "read anything of interest" and that "stuffy" literature would stunt a child's love of reading.  I found myself making a counterargument in my head, laying out reasons why people should and do read for more than just information gathering or for this nebulous thing called "pure pleasure," when I finally got around to reading Mead's actual essay earlier today.  It seems the discussions I read differ from the article.

Mead was close to writing a good article about the changes in speech, reading selection, and how literature reflects contemporary material cultures.  She could have made a case for how cultural diffusion is a vital component of our own lives and that what we read at any given age will directly affect what is transmitted to the following generations.  She could have done much more with this than to bemoan a contemporary adaptation of Greco-Roman mythology without acknowledging that it too is but one more link in the millennia of retellings and adaptations of certain story cycles to suit the needs of the considered literary/cultural generation.  But yet she didn't and it is hard to parse "The Percy Jackson Problem" as being much more than a lament that doesn't hold up under much scrutiny.

I think Mead perhaps was thinking of cultural distortion, of how things are lost in the transmission of years and societies, but this wasn't the thrust of her argument.  It just isn't a terribly profound piece (if it was ever meant to be construed as one).  It would have been interesting to see a case being made for how the literature that children and young adults read today has been shaping their socio-cultural values.  After all, what you read does matter.  Look what The Jungle did a century ago.  Then look how it is presented today and see the disconnect.  Reading for "pleasure" can also mean reading what is socially acceptable, or at least the social interpretations of said literature.  Reading for "pleasure" can also reinforce certain notions that help constrain generations.  After all, when is "working class" literature ever presented as such during a reader's formative years?  Yet there are many such titles that are read but not understood as such.  Things have been distorted in the transmission and reading that incites, that provokes, that leads to personal rebellion is often neutered or shunted aside in favor of this notion of reading primarily for "pleasure."

This, of course, is a very different argument than the one Mead presents.  It, too, is one that would anger many to even consider at all.  But I think it would make for a more interesting and sustained argument about the vital importance of reading and how what one reads (and the whens and whys of that initial reading) can shape their world-views (and by extension, their very same worlds) than what was presented in Mead's article.  Might write more on this topic at a later date.
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