Wednesday 23 January 2013

Tales of drifting around after college...

Moon Palace

Paul Auster

I really enjoyed this book, but I can’t put my finger on why. It’s very depressing and the first section concerns itself with a young man determined to abandon himself to fate and not search for a job. He ends up starving, living in Central Park. So why was I hooked?

It must be the storytelling. Auster takes us through so many wild stories. The young man, Fogg/Philias/MS, moves in with an old man as a live-in companion/assistant, and the old man’s stories take us out West to the Grand Canyon. These tall tales of lead us into a hard tale of survival in the face of extreme circumstances. Later we hear a similar story written by a teenage boy involving aliens…

I couldn’t help but enjoy myself – it’s just ridiculous, funny and incredibly engaging despite the bizarre coincidences. (Include in all of those the far too gorgeous girlfriend of the young man who apparently falls for him after one meeting.) The picture of an apartment furnished with boxes of books, gradually being depleted by the man’s need for money for food. We’ve all done that, made furniture out of random objects in the face of necessity, but I’m pretty sure my furniture didn’t then disperse as I ate my way through an inheritance!

The plot gets crazier and more twisted up in itself as Fogg heads out West to follow those original footsteps. It almost felt like something out of that great gem of black humour, Six Feet Under. And yes he does also walk off into the sunset in a depressing ending. I was left feeling surprisingly upbeat though…Auster just doesn’t take it seriously at all – it’s like one big joke!

Friday 18 January 2013

Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum / The lost honour of Katharina Blum

Heinrich Böll

Okay so I realise that German literature month was November, but I completely failed to review anything at that point, and so I’m going to belatedly catch up. (I don’t think I’m completely alone in this! #germanevenlatermonth)

When I read this book in November I was struck in much of a similar way to Christoph Hein’s Der fremde Freund that it was probably something every German schoolchild reads in school, and so is deemed too simplistic for German literature university syllabuses in England. It’s obviously a difficult balance to maintain, and I’m now able to remedy it for myself, but I definitely felt I had missed a treat by not stumbling across it sooner!

Sadly I know as yet very little about Heinrich Böll, and this was the first book/or work (or even poem I think) I have read by him. But I will endeavour to read more! What a masterly way he plays with the reader and the text. Building a beautiful story whilst commenting on the craze of the mass media to drive stories to their tragic conclusion. The language is playful and also critical. The ridiculously short chapters driving us ever onward in the search of “the truth” behind the story. And so we the readers also become Paparazzi, urging Katharina to reveal all, even when we know the end because that is the very place that Böll begins.

I loved this. And I think I will be re-reading it for a long time. It struck me how it seemed to speak well to a modern audience as well as evoking a specific West German 1960s/70s feel. Any recommendations of other Heinrich Böll I might like?

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Dunker

On the trail of obsession...

Any novel which features the UL tearoom has definitely got my vote. There’s something so wonderful about that place. The UL, full of academics and, in termtimes, students in various degrees of stress, offers really only one place to drink a cup of tea and eat the packed lunch before rushing back to a reading room. The atmosphere is somewhere between a strangely Communist canteen and a National Trust café. Don’t ask me why that mixture, but it feels distinctly communal and worthy at the same time.

Ah, I’ve been sidetracked.

To get to the point, Patricia Dunker’s first novel Hallucinating Foucault begins in the UL tearoom. The initial encounter between the PhD student and future girlfriend takes place there, or rather outside it smoking. This is a meeting full of clichés: PhD student has only just noticed “The Germanist”, as she is called throughout, but she has been watching the PhD student for weeks.

I don’t know why, but I’m going to have to admit something at this point which was completely my fault and which sullied my reading of the first sections of the novel. About 10 pages in my brain decided that the main character was a woman.

There was only something like one pronoun in the first few pages and I missed it. However the PhD student is a man and yes the relationship with the Germanist is a clichéd as first predicted from the chat-up line he uses. I don’t understand my disappointment at the main character being a man. Possibly it was due to my anticipation of the novel linked with the one-dimensional characters and plot at this point in the story. At any rate, I found the central relationship from the start quite implausible.

However, given the force of homosexuality in the novel, it is pretty key that the male PhD student protagonist prove attractive to the fictional writer Paul Michel. So I was wrong in my interpretation at the start, and it clearly couldn’t have been any other way. I did wonder though upon reaching the end, no spoilers I promise, whether the author had intended to make it ambiguous for a little while at the beginning…

To return to a review in a sense: I found this a strange novel that reads like a thriller and not the Bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel) that it is. Madness also features heavily, and the text is littered with Dunker’s clearly excellent knowledge of Foucault. My knowledge of French 20th-century culture is so bad that I actually had to Google Paul Michel to assure myself that he was fictional. I think that proves how brilliantly he is portrayed.

The novel tackles questions of relations between texts (intertextuality being such a clumsy way of saying this!) and the writer-reader dynamic head on, taking these questions to their ultimate, extreme conclusion.

Given the progress down to the south of France later on, I was distinctly reminded of another coming-of-age story full of questions of mental health I read recently set on the Mediterranean - Tender is the Night. I’m sure Dunker is aware of the clichee of that part of the world being somewhere people retreat to and heal themselves.

So some advice on reading this: do not expect anything verging on realism, even though the text itself seems generally realistic. Do not expect all plot twists to be believable. Enjoy the clever philosophical questions and the questioning of sanity and obsession.

Tuesday 15 January 2013

My AaronSorkin/JeffWinger moment

Nothing happens unless we make it happen. Luck is a god gamblers believe in, but I’m an atheist. If we achieve something, we have ourselves to thank for it. It might be hard and tiring and stressful, yet when we succeed, it will make that success all the sweeter.

 And yes, I’m a coward: I’m afraid to fail. But I’m afraid of many things. But of none the more so than of not living. Of not grabbing my steed, my life, firmly and not letting go. 

 Because nothing happens if you do nothing. 

 All the achievements of this world belong to those who dare, who try. Those who have no choice but to pull out a finger. Every piece of music that moves us, every book that tugs deep inside of us, every speech that makes us sit up straighter; they were all produced by minds like ours. And that is the biggest secret of them all: with some training and application the human mind has the capability for infinite creation. 

Power stems from our imaginations.

So this is a motivational speech I wrote for myself back in December. Surprisingly effective on myself given that I know all the tricks I'm using – motivates me almost as much as “that speech” in The Network which Maybeshewill sampled in Not For Want Of Trying. Putting it out there for friends in case it motivates 1 single person.

What better in snowy January than to stay in and read...

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Haruki Murakami


Fast becoming one of my favourites, Haruki Murakami writes a beguiling blend of realism and fantasy that always leaves me gasping for more. Whatever weird oddities he throws at his protagonists, they just shrug and get on with it – suspending all judgment, never fazed.

Hard-boiled Wonderland… with its curious paperclips and mysterious lifts takes us in the direction of science fiction and, in alternate chapters, fantastical creatures roam what seems a fairy-tale town. But the skill of Murakami is to give us some empathy with the rootless male protagonist so that whilst the plot twists precariously around I found myself caring that his best jacket had been slashed and all his whiskey bottles broken.

Maybe not so hard-hitting as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, but then this is a less epic novel – much more in the tradition of excellent sci-fi (the likes of We/1984/Fahrenheit 451). It seemed self-contained. Maybe a good way to describe it would be “perfectly round”, as if somehow the story does not keep going outside of the world of the book. Unlike other books, I did not leave it envisaging the future or the past of the characters, devising my own plots, or writing further chapters in my head. And also in the mode of sci-fi it challenges us with notions of humanity in an age of new technologies. The mysterious forces behind events, guiding the action from afar, reminded me somehow of Asimov. Although I guess they could equally remind one of conspiracy thrillers, or Cold War novels. At any rate, I devoured Hard-boiled Wonderland…, racing to the end, reaching the final page almost breathless. And I was left with that now familiar Murakami-sense of having been denied the happy ending, but given the closing the story demanded.