Posts Tagged ‘book reviews’

Out Damned Spot, William Shakespeare Crime-Scene Cleaner , by F J McQueen. Published by Urbane Publications, 2016

https://urbanepublications.com/our-books/
https://urbanepublications.com/authors/?s=F+J+McQueen&book-authors=&order=

This is the most extraordinary work of fiction that I have read in a long, long time.

1

We expect fiction to be set in our known world, where responses to environment are known, our own experience, and as ordinary. In a fantasy work the same applies: they are all recognisable people in recognisable situations, it is the details that are different.
But what if one’s responses to the environment became other than the known? What if the environment became other than our experienced world?

The shift, here, is in cognition: something is different, something is ‘other’, and nothing becomes accessible to the ‘predictive text’ of our inner narration.

The story centres around the nodes of Shakespeare’s main plays. We navigate a world that opens, like the Shakespearean world discovering its America.
Will Shakespeare is on the last day of his work as a hospital doctor. What had gone wrong? We presume that something had. And why was he woken once more at midnight with that terrible sound? One that no one else could hear?
The ordinary of that world, though, was not our ordinary.
He set up next day as a Crime-Scene cleaner. The crimes? The plays are littered with the wrongfully dead.
His cleaning fluid – and here we enter a world truly chilling – is mysteriously provided for him by nine seriously unsettling people. Or are they all emanations of one? And their price? A meal of oneself.

2

There is a short story by Leonora Carrington, Cast Down By Sorrow, where the narrator meets the elderly but coquettish Arabelle Pegase. She speaks of her clothes, and mentions a dress she has that is made from cat’s heads,
What was your reaction to that? Horrified, like mine? And yet I think that her intention with this image is something else – it is a changed aesthetic, even a changed system of ethics, that she is describing.
It is used as an artistic, painter’s, image, visual and tactile, rather than humanistic.
And similarly here, the images in this book have their own wholeness, inner logic, that is not literary in the narrow sense that it is being used more and more at the present time.

There is an incident where a soil boat appears – or is it a grave? It takes you places; it takes you to the river of time where golems struggle to hold back a certain day. Made of clay they crumble constantly as they strain and struggle to keep hold against the flow of time. As they crumble new ones take their place, a constant renewing. But you sense the struggle, the need.
These are not literary images, but visual images – they could work as graphic images in a graphic novel. The visual, this is where the where the book’s Venn-structure overlaps the most.
But, some might say, golems do not appear in The Plays. No, but they are part of the sensibility of the period, of the wider environment of the time. And also of our time.
This is one of the many aspects of the book I especially like, it’s willingness to not stay harnessed to ploughing the narrow furrow of what we now take to be The Plays.

Take MacBeth’s three witches, they make their appearance early on in the tale, transposed as oracles, in a hospital cupboard. And they prophesy… impossible things. But the impossibles become increasingly possible as the tale deepens into itself.

How does it work? One crack in the world-self narrative we spin for ourselves – one crack, and a different take on reality becomes possible.
It is a cognitive shift.

In another’s hand the story could become whimsy – but that does not happen. The images are impactful, the writing of a very high standard, and the overall imagining quite devastating in its range and implications.

 

 

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Image result for epileptic, michael b

Published by L’Association, Paris, France. 2005
Jonathon Cape, 2009

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Epileptic-David-B/dp/0224079204/ref=sr_1_fkmr1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1535718463&sr=1-1-fkmr1&keywords=Epilepsy%2C+by+Michael+B

Epileptic was originally published in six volumes by L’Ascension de Haut Mal, 1996-2004.
The first three volumes translated into English by Kim Thompson, and published as a single volume by L’Association, Paris, France, 2002.

Epileptic is a graphic novel, and an easy match for any quality purely-text work. Notice that ‘novel’ as opposed to ‘text’, above?
Epileptic is not a novel, but it is a graphic work. It is an account of an illness.
It is an account of the expanding universe that illness creates. It is the biography of Jean-Christophe’s epilepsy.
There is plenty of text, from quoting Gerard de Nerval, and Pessoa, to the fin de sicele books David gets into: Meyrinck et al.
So, who is Jean-Christophe?

There were three children: Jean-Christophe, the eldest, then Pierre-Francois, then a couple of year gap, and Florence was born. They lived in Orleans, France. Ordinary kids, children of teachers. From an early age Pierre-Francois, later David, became obsessed with Genghiz Khan. They all embroidered in the telling each other’s bed-time stories, to create wonderful adventures.
Great battle scenes dominated Pierre-Francois; he drew in great detail from an early age.
Then one day out of the blue, Jean-Christophe had a seizure.
.

And so it began, the great and endless round of doctors.
Medicine, in those days, early to mid 1960s, did not seem to have that much to offer to epilepsy patients. His seizures became more frequent, and severe.
One surgeon advocated expanding his brain with air in order to see structures and abnormalities better. Then surgery to remove part. He would not be whole again, of course, but….
Sounds barbaric to us, now. But was that any worse than, say, the splitting of the hemispheres of the brain in order to control and isolate the spread of a seizure?
See Spasm, by Lauren Slater.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lauren_Slater
https://www.irishtimes.com/news/spasm-a-memoir-with-lies-by-lauren-slater-methuen-6-99-in-uk-1.299480

Epilepsy is not just a matter of loss of physical and mental control, in public, anywhere, at any time. It also carries the burden of increasing deterioration of ability to rationalise, concentrate, remember. The medication plays its part, of course.
And here we begin to see how much epilepsy takes.
Michael B sees/draws it as a huge, multifaceted and shape-shifting monster.

Alternative regimes were becoming available at the time. His parents seized on these like drowning people. Macrobiotics – ok, they try a commune, run by an older Japanese man. David B sees/draws him as a great benign cat.
Satire makes a very welcome addition to the telling: Your child draws very violent images, they accuse.
Oh, they’re samurai, that’s alright.

And humour:
Later on, his cartooning tutor says, Your images are disturbing. And why do you not draw ears?
He fought against it, but in the end drew ears.
Hm, they’re even more disturbing with ears.

There is sadness in the background of other’s lives too. The man who took over the commune when the Japanese leader left later committed suicide with his son. He had failed at everything, even being a macrobiotic guru.

The round of spiritualists, quack doctors, quack healers, is saddening.
Both parents teach, and Jean-Christophe cannot be left at home. The only alternative is to keep packing him off to board at clinics, centers. The impact of this on him is an unknown quality and quality, that explodes later.

His once youthful and spritely father is exasperated: Jean-Christophe is reading Mein Kampf. Can you not find anything better? he asks. It’s a great book, he responds.
Michael B knows he’s doing it on purpose, challenging, as all children, especially eldest children, do. And just as David gloried in the battles of Gengiz Khan, so Jean-Christophe clung to the defeated but not gone, fascistic past. But surely it was to something that gave the impression of being strong, seemingly stable, that he was seeking out. And also something to get back at people with, the people he saw as having failed him.

Both were fighting with the monster in their lives, in their family, and what it had done to them, and was continuing to do. It transformed itself, constantly; most of the time they could see only aspects of it.

Nature and nurture. How much was inherent – the violent tendencies ( though they are no worse than any of kid), for instance. The author asks how much had Jean-Christophe used his epilepsy in order to avoid dealing with the world.
Many times Jean-Christophe suggests work he would like to do, only to be slapped down: You’re ill. How could you manage?
The (unrealistic?) suggestions, and the negative responses are all part of the world the illness has created, and how it alters the perceptions of the family which lives there.

The impact on them all was terrible. They stayed together; they had that strength. But that toll is what the book is all about.

This is a very hard-won book: it articulates a lifetime of hurt and confusion, of medical misuse, and deliberate sponging on their pain by quack healers.

David (That name is too Jewish, an older relative tellingly said) was wanting to start his own family, and so was urged to broach the subject of inherited epilepsy, with his mother. The mountain of self-hurt and self-recrimination this opened the door onto, was terrible. All over again.

*

I was holding a woman as she had an ‘episode’, on the local bus. Others embarrassedly tried to give her back her purse that had gone on the floor. They thought she was lucid enough to understand this gesture.
Or were they just shut-out, and unable to empathise?
It was our stop. I got up, but she was too confused, still. Should I have helped her? She got off a little later – the bus stopped for her. Should I have walked her home?
How much independence did she need? And how, when, and how much help, support?
Is there an etiquette?
No, but there is humanity.

Sometimes the medical profession, medical terminology, can seem to overrule human response.
We see illness, not someone in trouble.

See also:

Mark Beyer:
https://wordpress.com/post/michael9murray.wordpress.com/1372

Achewood:
https://wordpress.com/post/michael9murray.wordpress.com/1379

Lynda Barry:
https://wordpress.com/post/michael9murray.wordpress.com/2146

Initially published in 1925, the book gained dramatic chiaroscuro from the Wall Street Crash.
A book about the new meteoric metropolis of New York, teetering on the edge of success – and collapse.

A modernist classic. This and others of the period influenced writing throughout Europe.
It’s the style: the blurb calls them filmic jump-cuts, which means the narrative consists of episodes, rather than linear stories. We jump from character to character, situation to situation, but within a clearly demarked radius of people.

This works for me – the book is a blend of fact and fiction. But to write of the tragedies of factual lives within a fictional framework, I find steps over the line somewhat . The suspension of disbelief so necessary for a good story; the distancing of an imagined depiction, gain our willingness to trust the author, to take on the book, to go with it. But to present faction – where are we, then?
John dos Passos gets around that with this style, this technique: there is no dwelling on catastrophe, we see it, feel it, oh yes, but we are not mired in it. Because it is part of the whole fabric.

And so, when we read the tragic interludes of Bud, aged 25, coming in from some upcountry farm, to lose himself here, we allow his story.
Bud could not find a job, no matter what he did. He asked an old guy, Any Jobs? The man replied, I’m 65, and worked since I was 5. I’ve never had a job.

Here we begin to glimpse it: how to survive in a city, especially one like this. You have to hustle. Day on day. Hustle.
If you’re like me, and never learned this, or learned it and hated its face, you’d go back home. Except Bud couldn’t.

Then there’s Ed Slatcher, accountant, whose wife died young, and left just him and his young daughter. He had the chance, a big sure-thing laid at his feet: this was it, the chance everyone gets to break it big. But he didn’t chose it; he stayed on as an accountant, even though he could see how fraudulent his clients were.
And here we see it again: Wall Street, waiting to happen.
If he’d gone for it, got the break, could they have got out before the Crash? It wasn’t in his character to either take the chance, or to get out.

John dos Passos was of Portugese heritage; he was far enough outside to see all sides to the city.
Where books of the same period dealt with the top ranks: The Great Gatsby, say, John dos Passos gives us the others as well, the French sailors jumping ship because this was the new metropolis. And so they wait tables, and dream.
In Europe, they said, you live well, but the pay is bad; here, the pay is good, but the life bad.
And so, between the two, what do you do? Like Congo, do you try both, continually? No, Congo stays – becomes successful, through bootlegging: rich.

This brings us to the language: the author gives us the accents, tones, the macro-languages of immigrants and older natives.

I was wondering about this: one book influenced by this was Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz.
How would you translate the Germanised English of Mr Zucher, into German? ‘A man vat is ambeetious must take chances. Ambeetions is vat I came here from Frankfort mit at the age of twelf years….

The point is, John dos Passos does not ridicule their speech, their poverty, their weaknesses, he gives us people we can recognise to a great extent.

I was reading Willa Cartha shortly before this, written about ten years previously (maybe the same time as this one, then?) and based in the gothic South, the characters are like caricatures, comic creations by comparison.
If we read Joseph Mitchell’s writing from the 1930s onwards, they work together, open up the period. Joe Gould’s Secret references the old bohemians of Greenwich Village.
Manhattan Transfer was their period – and we see into the actor’s world from the footlights, the back stage. It’s sordid, amoral even, but it’s full of life and energy.

Where G R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is structured on character per chapter, Manhattan Transfer’s chapters illustrate an aspect of hustle/survival/life in N/Y. Each chapter continues several character stories, not necessarily sequentially on the same time frame. We move from character to character, setting to setting, almost seamlessly: the narrative voice carries and combines the movements, the currents, the flow.
The proliferation of characters, whose stars rise and fall, does bear close parallel at times.

Oh, and one of the earlier characters in the book is described as wearing a baseball cap, back to front.
1925.

PS

I would like to know what happened to Ed Slatcher – his daughter Ellen/Helena became a huge and popular stage actor, then editor. Her work was hugely successful; she was a New York beauty – but inside she never found what it was she needed.

There is no mention of organised crime – the Crime Wave that’s flagged up consists of isolated individuals.
Likewise, no mention of The Gangs of New York. Jimmy, as crime reporter, would know about those.

OAMENI ŞI MARIONETE/ MEN & PUPPETS by DANIEL DRAGOMIRESCU. Orizant Literar Contemporan, Bibliotheca Universalis, 2017

 This is a dual-language publication, produced by the excellent and indefatiguable Contemporary and Literary Horizon, of Romania. For their background, see:

https://revistamulticulturala.wordpress.com/

http://contemporaryhorizon.blogspot.co.uk/

Every so often a book comes along that makes you feel good to be alive. This is one of those.

The best books broaden and deepen our sense and understanding of the world. I was going to go on and write ‘and add destinations to our bucket list.’ But no, these best books have already taken us there; we feel we know the places, the people, with our hearts. The place? North-eastern and central Romania.

I feel privileged to have a copy of Men and Puppets, by Daniel Dragomirescu. The book is a collection of reminiscences, autobiographical snippets, and is well worth the time and effort in getting hold of. Elegantly presented, and on the whole, well translated, this is part of a series of books by Orizant Contemporan Literar. All are dual-language, and by writers from many countries.

Daniel Dragomirescu grew up in the north-eastern Vaslui region of Romania, in the 1950s and 60s. He writes of life from the inside; the autobiographical angle gives a necessarily limited view of the times, limited to one’s interests, activities, and to the villages and small towns of the time.

Big Politics, the State, the Eastern Bloc, are not words or concepts of everyday life. He does come up against them (A Meeting with Cerebrus); they are also, on another level, a basic part of that life. Yet they are everywhere, especially for the generations from before the War, his parents’ and grandparent’s generations. It is they who have to watch what they say.
We see the unquestioned fate of pre-War bourgeois families, in their disgrace (Sandals). All is accepted as a part of life. The State restrictions have their circumnavigations, but they can be suddenly enforced due to the arbitrariness and fickleness of officials (At the Nadovari Camp). But they are not ‘officials’, they are people one’s father might know from school, from ‘before’ – their fickleness is the fickleness of everybody, everywhere.
We read also a first-hand account of a devastating earthquake hitting Bucharest. People at their most vulnerable; we read also the hidden threats by people.

One of my favourite stories, Marilena, has its own ways of handling the hopes, passions and lost opportunities that are always with us. And this is one of the heartening aspects of the stories: how love, hope of love, arranged love that could grow into itself, are always a part of our lives, our world. These things are instantly recognisable, and they go to the core of who we are.

In the new Romania religion once again plays a major role.
This may surprise us, and yet, as Fish Borscht makes clear (to my mind the only story that doesn’t gel), religion never really went away. Even this story is full of the riches of the lived life, the times, the mind-set of the period.
The role of religion is a curious one; there are many expostulations to God, in the stories. These are post-Communist.
I wonder do they read as a little self-consciously apparent?
Are the stories part of the new movement to re-establish a continuous Romanian identity, that had just been interrupted for a time?

What becomes clear through the reading is the seamless identity we all wear and are part of: here we all are, with all our hopes, woes and lapses of understanding. The details may differ, but the responses are so very recognisable. And because we can identify, our hearts are also in these stories, as we respond to the same things they did.

The last chapter, Typewriter, brings the whole book into focus. I had begun to wonder at the book’s title, Men and Puppets. Well, here it was, spelled out.
I wrote, above, how the fickleness of officials is the fickleness of man; there is the fickleness of officials themselves, though. I also wrote of the State being just the background to people’s lives. So it was, but as they took on more responsibility, became adults, the State became a major interference in their lives. Take Ceausescu’s decree that all typewriters should be officially registered.
It smacks of a Nazi-era dictat, and it is little surprise we find a militia chief admiring Nazi-era tactics.
After the Fall of Ceausescu, the militia excuse themselves as puppets of the regime. Officials, militia, puppets, anything rather than just ordinary people.

Daniel Dragomirescu has a masterful technique. The use of the motif of his meeting with a stray dog in a cemetery, in A Meeting with Cerebrus, becomes the key for opening up the whole part of his life at that period. It is this mastery that is the secret, it works behind the scenes to bring the chapters to life.

A most enjoyable book, full of the fears, hopes, loves and doubts of lives.

The 2012 edition of Roadside Picnic, by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky, carries an Afterword by Boris.

See my earlier review:
https://michael9murray.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/roadside-picnic/

For the book:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Roadside-Picnic-Boris-Strugatsky/dp/0575093137/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1519149548&sr=1-1&keywords=roadside+picnic

In this Afterword he describes the chequered career of the book: it was by no means a straight-forward publication. Initially the story was published, unscathed, in the Leningrad Avrora literary journal, 1971, and was then put forward for inclusion in an anthology, Unintended Meanings, consisting of two of their earlier stories, and to be published in 1972. Here the problems began.
The anthology was to be published by a company called Young Guard. The YG belief was that science-fiction literature was intended only for children and teenagers. Adult themes, and especially language, what the editors listed as ‘Comments Concerning Immoral Behaviour of the Heroes’, ‘Comments Concerning Physical Violence’, etc,  had to be eradicated. And there were 18 pages of these.
There are times, places, to negotiate, and times to stick to one’s guns.

The brothers put together a dossier of all these problems and obstacles, thinking to put it out somehow – by samizdat, if nothing else. There were months between replies to their queries, years of wrangling. Then…
Arkadi died, the Wall fell, Communism… faded away.
And the dossier became redundant. The departments, the people causing the problems, also, faded away. Perspective came in. And they all seemed little more than a plague of gnats, biting flies, blown away by the first change in the weather.

Take note, ye bureaucrats: this you are also.

The book opens with a radio interview. The person being interviewed is a Dr Pillman. He introduced the Pillman Radiant. 13 years previously had been the Visitation: 6 spots in an arc across the surface of the earth had experienced the phenomena of the Visitation. One hit Dr Pillman’s home town. It left catastrophe in its wake.
Dr Pillman extrapolated back from impact points to an area in space in the Cygnus constellation: Deneb, the main star. Except, he is at pains to point out, he did not discover this, it was actually a schoolboy, and published by a college student.

What actually do you do? the interviewer later asked  His reply is interesting: for the last 2 years he has been a consultant in the UN  Commission on the Problems of the Visit.
Roughly speaking, we make sure that no one else outside the International Institute gets access to the alien marvels discovered inside the Zones.
Couldn’t you be rather more specific? the interviewer asks.
Wouldn’t you rather move on to the arts?
Dr Pillman hedges, and also distances himself from the Visitation. Even when it had hit his home town. This is interesting.

Why is this ‘interesting’? Because his comments  and evasions make him out to be something of a policing authority. I had taken him initially as a kind of KGB man, but he turns up later as a Nobel Laureate – not the exposure for a secret policeman.
For the Soviet publishers all books for young people had to be clearly moralistic and
didactic. The story admits the existence of such agents, and the part they play in society. Did the YG editors read this as giving him the thumbs up, by having him be at pains to point out the origin of the research that he had taken credit for? Dr Pillman as a Good Citizen?
Except you cannot find a shiftier character in the book, and that is saying a lot.

This, also, sets the scene for the roles of the ‘stalkers’, who enter the Zones to collect articles for sale on the Black Market. This is a highly dangerous activity. Guards are entitled to shoot to kill.
Not only that, but the dangers of the places are beyond imagining.
The Institute has highly detailed aerial photographs to guide patrols and official collection visits. They prove useless. as we see in the book: effects are not static, they wander. Some are invisible.

Which leads to:
I was also particularly interested in another aspect of the book, the attitude to language in dealing with the unknown. There is the language of the physicists, the ‘eggheads’, and of the stalkers.
– Incidentally, this was the first time the English word ‘stalker’ was introduced into Russian/Soviet language and literature  They pronounced it ‘stulker’.

On an official collection visit to the Zone, Red, the ex-stalker and now lab aide, and his laboratory boss Kirill Panov, come across a wandering phenomenon. It is invisible; but it affects gravity in its locality, creating an extra-strong temporary force.
‘Got it. You look for graviconcentrates?’
………………………………………………………………
………………………………………………………………
They are like that, the eggheads. The most important thing for them is to come up with a name.
The next move forward they make, and Red stops them, breaks into a sweat.
Instinct. Gut reaction.
Instinct versus knowledge. Knowledge is the aerial photographs; instinct tells them if they move forward from that spot they’re doomed.
Just before this:
Over the pile of ancient trash, over the colourful rags and broken glass, drifts a tremor……. Damn these eggheads, a great job they did; ran their road down there amid the junk!
What can be seen and measured, and what cannot be. The road was plotted by markers previous teams had positioned. It was a safe route.
For a stalker there were no safe routes: each venture was a life-and-death challenge, literally. They had no maps. They went always at night (they could be seen and shot during the day), and on hands and knees, mostly, feeling, sensing, their way onward.

This also introduces the theme of the limits of knowledge: here was an alien technology that made no sense to our sciences; it wiped our knowledge off the board. Which left you with… the instincts of the stalker. Science gets you killed.
You think, ah, that’s a graviconcentrate – and the book notes how blasé the scientists become once they name a phenomenon. But it remains deadly: that is its only definite, dependable, feature.
The stalkers call it a bug trap – to be caught in that invisible, wandering, anomaly is to be squashed flat by the gravitational field. How do they know? They have seen its effects on fellow stalkers.
The scientist’s phrase merely describes; the stalker’s phrase expresses its impact.

Arkadi’s background was that of editor and writer, and Boris that of scientist. Both, highly trained and experienced in their fields. And yet to them, language could not compete with reality.
Was it that the Soviet experience had devalued the meaningfulness of words to such an extent, that they could no longer be relied on to carry content? Be careful who one talks to: communication became a nuanced trade of possible meanings.

Politically, we can read here, that the Visitation introduces something way off the Marxist-Leninist map, far away from their neat dialectics of history. We read here of highly successful cultures, civilisations, that do not owe anything to Marxist-Leninism (or Capitalism). It is… the unthinkable – in both science, and (pseudo-)scientific political theories.

As unthinkable, it is also nameless.
And Arkadi and Boris bow neither to psychological, political, nor scientific certainties here. It not a Freudian Unthinkable, nor a scientific or sociological category-without-a-name.

The artefacts obviously have a purpose to their owners, but that is at present unknowable to us.
This is reality, and neither science nor theory can cope with it, because they exercise retrospective assessments.
This is reality-in-the-field, and the human person is naked before it. In the last resort, the approach to the golden ball, the stalker must shed everything. The result of the ‘wish’ is a judgement, of a kind, on his capability to embrace his humanity.

In time, we learn, even the scientist invent their own jargon for the artefacts they handle, try to investigate. Their jargon has a wry amusement, a bleak humour. It expresses, rather than describes. It expresses their frustration with the artefacts – they can use of them, oh yes, but have no idea what their proper and original uses were. The Visitors remain as unknown in purpose, intent and being as they always did.

But this is, after all, only a sci-fi novel.

Red looks lovingly into his daughter’s eyes, they are by then perfectly round, and the iris’ now completely dark; he lovingly strokes the long golden brown fur on her face.
The indications are that she is reverting to an earlier form of evolution, due to the effects of the Zone, and Red’s constant activities there.
The bodies that emerge from the cemetery, walled by the Zone, appear to be  formed from basic organic material. They have reverted to their earlier existence, as walking, breathing bodies.
This reversion theme also crops up in the ‘episode’ Red experiences crossing the road. He loses sight of the street, the ordinary world, instead he sees everything in terms of basic shapes: cones, cubes, spheres (Cezanne would have loved it).

The last part, 4, is Red’s quest – not quite for the Golden Fleece, but the fabled Golden Sphere, which grants human wishes – is mostly in the form of internal dialogue. And the Strugatskys convey with great expertise his troubled state of mind, his struggles with himself, and for some form of clarity.
His much-loved daughter, ‘the monkey’, now has been diagnosed as no longer human; his dead father ‘lives’ with them, responding occasionally to stimulus. Both daughter and father howl into the night at times. All the neighbours have gone – they are isolated, for all the money from black-market trading. We learn how Red tried all ways to keep them, get the children to play with ‘monkey’, how his friend even tried to bribe people to stay.

What would his wish be? What is certain, is that he had no intention of coming out alive.

Only a sci-fi novel.
I do feel, though, that the undifferentiating pessimism undermines the classic status of the book. The book references Kurt Vonngegut.
Was this the first time the classic certainties of the time had been openly questioned? Is that its originality?

 

Ebook: The Spider and the Spies: The Secret Files of Stasi & Co, by Karen Margolis
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Spider-Spies-secret-files-Stasi-ebook/dp/B0758145MD/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1515355645&sr=1-1&keywords=The+Spider+and+the+Spies%3A+The+Secret+Files+of+Stasi+%26+Co%2C+by+Karen+Margolis

Karen Margolis gives here first-hand testimony of her experience of the GDR, and the Stasi State.
Some years ago, after much deliberating, she decided to apply to read her Stasi files. Their filing system was hermetic, to say the least.

It was not an easy decision.

What do you hope to find, and what do you dread?
There are always surprises, unwelcome or not. The husband of a close friend, himself close, had a quiet word: You may well find my name there.
She could not say anything to her friend, his wife.
And so the game of confidences, secrets, continues, just as it did under the system.
The stomach-churning knowledge, that blights relationships, friendships, even marriages.

And what of the ‘outing’ that was endemic for a period? To whose advantage was that? Hardened agents, with years of training and experience in emotional blackmail and manipulation, could still come out of it relatively unstuck. Transferable skills. The old tricks. And they were useful in the new Germany.
Miriam, in Anna Funder’s book, Stasiland,
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stasiland-Stories-Behind-Berlin-Wall/dp/1847083358/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1515355920&sr=1-1&keywords=stasiland
found herself working under an ex-Stasi officer on a radio station, using the same tactics to manipulate people, this time the staff, as he had back then.
Also, see: The Disclosures of Respect: The Public Exposure of Stasi Informers after the German Reunification, by Juan Espindola
http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.896.3940&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Anna Funder’s book is based on her research for a radio programme. She advertised for interviews. She focussed particularly on the role of the Secret Police, the Stasi.
One of the names that came up, was a Herr Von Schnitzler. He was popularly known as Herr Von Schni, because that is how far the announcer got before being turned off. He ran a regular TV programme, The Black Channel. His programme followed airing of programmes from the West, and he sat there afterwards onscreen and pulled the programme to pieces. Many named him the most hated man on TV. You can imagine his hectoring, bigoted sneer.
How to deal with such a character in an interview. To Anna Funder’s credit she did it, she got in under his radar:
‘There was a serious attempt to build a socialist state, and we should examine why, at the end, that state no longer exists. It’s important.
He replied:
‘I noticed relatively early… that we would not be able to survive economically.’

This is important. She cites figures in the book, on East German production, and particularly on the biggest employers (‘There is no unemployment… you are seeking work’). The retreating Soviets had dismantled and shipped back what plant machinery they could, at the end of the War.
And it turns out the biggest employer in the whole of East Germany was… The Stasi.

I am not talking about the tens of thousands of informers: their remuneration was pitiful, but the managerial ranks: it was based on military lines, so the Colonels and upper and immediately lower ranks.
The biggest employer.
And their GDP?
0.
They ‘produced’, in turn, nothing.

In fact, a good case can be made for them undermining the survival and productivity of the Sate.
They demoralised, victimised, ruined lives, destroyed families, lied outright, falsified… murdered. But actually produced nothing. Unless you think an atmosphere of paranoia and continual fear a product.

The people separated the Stasi from the State: they supported the State, and hated the Stasi. They were in reality one.
When the end came it was the Stasi took the brunt, and the State officials in wealthy dachas and country houses were un-reproached. That was, after all, ‘normal.’
Peter Schneider, in The Wall Jumper,
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Wall-Jumper-Penguin-Modern-Classics/dp/0141187980/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1515355862&sr=1-1&keywords=the+wall+jumper
cites many examples of Easterners supporting the Eastern system, its social security, its low prices.

So when you come to the impact of this on people, it is The Stasi you think of first.
Their presence was everywhere.

Don’t let them through your door! Someone says.
– In the 1970s the response was a grim resentment, an entrenched attitude.
The 1970s were grim everywhere.
– The 1980 generation’s attitude was Ignore them. Have fun. Enjoy.
But if you didn’t let them in, they would summon you. If you didn’t go, they would pick you up at work, school, on the street.

Give them nothing.
They had meticulous details about your personal life, so much so that the notion of a private life would seem a mockery. And they had ways of manipulating you into quiescence, through shaming, robbing you of choice, free will, revealing that what you thought was basic humanity, was a construct, and so, manipulable.

Where did this information about you come from?
Ask yourself: could you bear to know? Would your life be easier, happier, not knowing? To not know is not necessarily to speculate What? and Who? but also perhaps to wonder What if not?
Peter Schneider’s character, Robert, would say that way of thinking was naive, Western. For him the State controlled every time you moved your hand to drink coffee, which coffee you drank, when you drank it, and why.

Where does the truth meet reality?
In testimony, like Karen Margolis gives here.
This is a valuable book. We still need to understand those difficult times.

THE EVENINGS, by Gerard Reve, 1947.
Published by the excellent Pushkin Press, in its first English translation, by Sam Garrett, 2016

Avonden_eerstedruk

I am currently reading The Evenings, by Gerard Reve (Gerard Kornelius van het Reve, 1923 to 2006).

This is an early, outsider-novel, and a classic:
– ‘a cornerstone… of modern European literature…’  (Tim Parks)
– ‘The funniest, most exhilarating book about boredom ever written….’ (Herman Koch)

And that last comment captures my problem.
The novel is set in 1946, presumably in Amsterdam. There is no TV, no record player or records; there is  a radio, yes, that plays classical, a bit of jazz, some Latin American.
Of course no internet, iphones….
And everyone is bored out their heads.

Note that, ye critics of today’s youth.

And so the chief character, 26 year old Frits van Egters, entertains himself by needling everybody. This ‘entertainment’ takes over, to increasing degrees.
At first I had the distinct impressions of Billy Liar, by Alan Sillitoe, but no.

And so I am struggling with it; struggling to keep up the interest.
Because…. ‘I have seen the best minds of my generation…’.
Exactly.
The date, see: 1946.
The best minds of the generation before were still numbed by years of Nazi occupation, the round-ups, the transports. The best engineers, mechanics, workers, had been trucked off for the German war effort. They returned home morally ruined, physically malnourished, spiritually dead.

And Frit’s generation were beginning to stir, wake, shake themselves, look around. And what did they see?
‘He looked at her’ (his mother), ‘:  the thin face, the grey hair, the slight growth of hair around the mouth and chin, the arms that never stopped moving. “Help us,” he thought.

 – Is it me, or is it always the woman is the easy target? That she must maintain a static, constant, role, appearance, demeanor, for the narrator/character.
Woman as a distant, uncomprehended being; woman as an inhabitant of the same world, also – but surely she cannot feel what we chaps feel, how we feel. She goes on doing that house stuff as though nothing else mattered, or had happened.
Only, Frits wakes one night, to sounds in his parent’s room. He entered, to find his mother shaking and sobbing. His father, isolated in his own wrecked existence, excuses it as one her nervous attacks.
There is an unwritten novel in that, certainly. In her side of the story.

Frits looked around his world, and saw people holding onto the known and trusted traditions, but they now seemed little more than threadbare habits:
‘”Who’d like a pickled herring?…”, “”No, please, no.” But he does.
‘“… there’s a real Middenweg wind blowing…” , “…Please don’t use terms unfamiliar to the uninitiated.”

The book starts off well, with a sly, dry, ironic humour as Frits woke early one Sunday morning. Early: good, despite the bad dreams, but time to make something of the day. Then we see him every few minutes clock-checking, and the opportunities flounder, die, as the day wears on.

The story is set in late December. Even the Winter was a disappointment: the ice on the canal melted early; there was no real snow; plenty of drizzle, yes, but nothing with any energy or excitement to it.
The intention was there, but it is as though the life had been drained out of people, the world, even; the spark to ignite a creative fire, dampened.

‘“Tom ta tom tom, tom ta tom,” Frits sang to himself, “nothing ‘s good, but everything’s fine.”
– There’s definitely a modernist technique at work here. There is certainly an echo of Doblin’s ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’, in the use of vernacular, in the internal monologues, thesinging.

*

The novel is structured on ten evenings, of increasing frustration with a fruitless life, and world. Each chapter charts the route taken by the tacking and manouvering of a clumsy, mostly empty, boat.

No, the novel is a not a ‘Ulysses’; it may share some of the self-absorption of Joyce’s classic, but the scale and scaffolding are pointedly small-scale.
After the previous period’s vacuous claims to new world orders, new worlds, great futures, this is a pointedly and purposely humdrum conception of humanity.
When you build, you must build from proper materials: people as they are – and not cloud cities, a reich, built from vacuous guff shored up with people’s real blood, guts, lives.

We see Frits attend the school re-union; his peers were trying to adopt the old role of getting on, making something of themselves. Frits, perversely, does not.  It is not as definite as that, or as a much a stance. His life has no heroic gestures, statements, no focussed disavowal of old values. No, he rumbles on in a diffuse scepticism.

And it is here where the book’s strength lies.
It does not succumb to cliche, or stereotype. Frits is disagreeable, but not hateful. The story charts  the hinterland that is his life: he does not veer far from the main path, and certainly not off into the dubious byways, side roads, the district beyond the tracks.

The immediately pre-War writers grouped under the banner of Forum, were preoccupied with the relationship of man to society. The War changed all that; the War brought the Nazi regime’s Kultuurkamer and its prescription of everything other than National Socialist writing.
Reve’s book was the first one of impact to be published in that aftermath.

Reinder P Meijer, in his’ Literature of the Low Countries’ (Stanley Thornes (Publishers) Ltd, 1978) writes, ‘The dreariness of the subject matter recalls the work of the nineteenth-century naturalists, of whom Van de Reve may be regarded as a descendant.’
The directness of Gerard Reve’s depiction, though, is the main factor: ‘Van het Reve offers no explanations, no comments, no psychological key.’ (: Reinder P Meijer).
Gerard Reve also employs ornate speech – the interactions between Frits and older brother Joop, and associates, reads – as his response to the use of vernacular, above, shows – as an arch, ornate, edging-towards-parody of earlier high-flown literary styles.

It is not Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ the book shares kinship with, but perhaps Sartre’s ‘La Nausee’. They both explore the ennui. Sartre’s book has the definite stance, raison, backstory even, in the opus of Being and Nothingness. Reve eschews those grand gestures, definitions, concepts, in favour of the individual vision.
Where Sartre argues for the individualistic response, Reve gives it.

*

Gerard Reve hit the headlines again with his 1970’s quartet of books ‘Dear Boys,’ ‘Sweet Life,’ ‘I Loved Him,’ and ‘A Circus Boy,’ where he explores gay sex, with a brutal edge. It is the style, also, that grabbed attention. The books are written with a blend of fact and fiction, in the form of written letters, and fantasy, but not the standard epistolary format.  Reinders P Meije again: the books stand out because of their ‘firm structure and … skillful way(s) of preserving a precarious balance between reality and the fairy-tale elements… introduced in his later novels…’.

But I’m still stuck.