A Smorgasbord of Odd Pleasures – Book Diary January 2018

I have occasionally attempted to immerse myself in the world of classical music more attentively, often after reading a Murakami novel. He has a way of interweaving the plot with melodic themes, not unlike a composer building up a symphony, which makes you feel that you must listen to the piece itself lest you miss out on something fundamental for the message of the story. It’s an attention to minute detail which comes across in his interviews with Seiji Ozawa as well, where he often muses on slight differences between different concerts, which he seems to pick up even from recordings. These are all superpowers I fragrantly lack, therefore, in my case, Absolutely on Music is basically a diamond given to a pig, albeit a curious pig, and should be appreciated at its true value by those more versed in the world of classical music than myself. The one definite outcome though is that I do plan to be a pig in a fancy dress and check out a live performance of Mahler, provided I ever succeed to buy a ticket, as it turns out the man sells out faster than King Krule on A38. (I am indeed aware he is dead, mind you, but formulating the phrase along the lines of a performance of the Berlin/Vienna/Budapest Philharmonic of a symphony by Gustav Mahler would have needlessly complicated communication.)

The next measure of my ineptitude was Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, as my gaming days were limited to a very basic affair of some trolls wandering around corridors and occasionally leveling up, the name of which I completely forgot, hence succeeding at gaming trivia is as beyond me as actually defeating an opponent at anything. Nevertheless, I was totally gripped by the novel from the very beginning, it is after all the classical tale of a child growing up in a difficult world (insert high school literature teacher’s booming rendering of Bildungsroman!! here), spiced with an eventful treasure quest, a carefully constructed future universe, tales of love and friendship and people knowing all sorts of geeky stuff about obscure things. They are not necessarily the obscure things I like or know anything about, but I can appreciate the effort, and I also expanded my universe by listening to progressive rock from Ontario.

Geekdom (and incompetence) continued with Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, expanding my universe even further, to include unfortunate knowledge of the Dominican Republic’s villain extraordinaire, Rafael Trujillo, who had thus far eluded my attention. We are somehow battered into indifference by the widely accepted view that most Central and South American countries had an egotistical dictator at some point, generally of the very bloody variety (though probably all dictators fit somewhere on that palette), and don’t stop to think of the actual implications this had on the life of everyday people, people like us, only born at an unfortunate time into an unfortunate place. But there’s much more to the book than just Trujillo, including comics trivia I again fail at- though I surprisingly figured one important clue out, and am unreasonably smug about it but will keep mysteriously mum so as not to spoil the fun for others.

Next up, shockingly, is an achievement: this year I read my first full book in Serbian, a translation from the Macedonian original, Rumena Bužarovska’s collection of short stories, My Husband (which should soon be translated into English as well, for those of weaker dispositions) is probably the perfect read for when you’re not yet fully confident of tackling literature in a foreign language. Her style is clean and sparse, very simple, for lack of a better world, but of course she doesn’t do that only to spare me the dictionary effort: there’s a lot of literary skill involved in making the intricacies of life look straightforward, of distilling fates, lives, complex feelings into an essential moment spread over a couple of pages.

I had half expected Ali Smith’s Autumn to have the same qualities, as it’s fairly short for a novel, also much praised. Too much. Irrationally much. The first major Brexit novel was one of the catchphrases, and it’s definitely a marketable one, though of course soon many novels will be Brexit novels, if written in England about current times, and one of them will also be major, only not this one. There’s much gratuitous exercising with wordplay, almost like a child preparing for a spelling bee competition testing the limits of her thesaurus, some mildly successful humour (the bureaucratic scene at the post office made me smile mainly because as an Eastern European I know it’s not even that absurd) and a couple of flashes of grace which do not save it from being at best a half-hearted attempt. She’s following it up with Winter which I’m somehow itching to read only to find out whether I’m being unnecessarily mean with regards to the project.

A project which comes, strangely, at the same time that Karl Ove Knausgård’s quartet on the seasons is being published in English, in rather striking hardcover editions, with silky paper and illustrations matching the tone of the season at hand. We also begin with Autumn, maybe because beginning with spring is too mainstream, and Knausgård’s effort has been met with criticism very similar to the one I leveled above at Smith: that it’s scarce, uneven, gratuitous. Yet, sure enough, I love it, perhaps exactly because they’re not trying to be anything else than the musings of a middle aged Norwegian man holed up in a family house in Southern Sweden. Even if the premise is that he’s trying to explain the world to his soon to be born daughter (we ‘meet’ her at the end of Winter), there’s no grand project here, no attempt to encompass entireties of being: these are just vignettes, small illuminations, temporary glimpses into the complexity of a universe far too vast to be explainable, or understood, or even care about our fates. But then again, I am the person who also liked the similar musings of a Norwegian man on a balcony, so perhaps Nordic angst is my smorgasbord of odd pleasures.

To the Shakespearean question what’s in a name I may answer I don’t know, but people named Smith seem not to work out for me. I’d long planned to read something from Zadie Smith, but Swing Time left me unimpressed. It’s not that it’s a bad book, it simply isn’t a particularly good one either. I felt constantly disconnected from all the characters, and cared very little about what would happen to them- actually, nothing does, nothing particularly relevant, it’s just like a big bland soup with many exciting ingredients that turn out not to work together. I did however learn a bit about the history of swing (one of the exciting ingredients) and now know that The Gambia is a tiny enclave within Senegal.

Burhan Sönmez’s Istanbul Istanbul was also a letdown in spite of the praises heaped on it: as House MD used to say, everybody lies, but it seems that book and film critics are particularly good at it. There’s two Istanbuls in the title, and I said fine, maybe it’s like a song, one of those plaintive Eastern things about loves long lost and lives wasted, but I really feel one Istanbul is perfectly enough, like in Orhan Pamuk’s stunning subjective guide to this city of cities. There are indeed very intensive echoes of Pamuk, which is not a bad thing per se, but the delivery is uneven, and Sönmez tends to write overly sophisticated discourse for all characters, irrespective of their class and cultural background, which occasionally turns almost procedural in tone. Then I discovered that he trained as a lawyer and understood much more.

Elena Ferrante’s Troubled Love can be regarded as slightly disappointing too, though mostly because you will unavoidably compare it to The Neapolitan Novels. However, it has to be remembered that this is Ferrante’s very first novel, published roughly a decade before the bulk of her subsequent literary output, and is as such almost an exercise, a sketch of themes, places, (female) experiences and atmosphere which will return later in fully shaped magnificence.  The motives of the characters are somewhat obscure, as opposed to the precision and clarity with which people shine through in the Neapolitan Novels, but the tension between what is seen of women’s lives (mostly by men) and their actual experience is already clearly outlined.

Shena McKay’s Orchard on Fire was a chance find on one of my usual book exchange shelves, probably Jack Doyle’s (it’s hard to exactly remember Irish pubs through fumes of whiskey and Guinness). Quite fittingly, I didn’t really know what to make of it for long periods: it happens in rural England in the 50s, which seemed intriguing enough, and while it starts with evocative descriptions of rolling meadows and hills filled with the entire content of a botanical catalogue it rather suddenly veers towards some decidedly uncomfortable topics. The handling of which topics is very matter of fact, almost deadpan, the adult story teller never passes judgement on them- since she does delve a lot on a childhood friendship evolving in parallel, this makes the story seem a little uneven overall.

Keeping the firy theme, I’d meant to read Mariana Enriquez’s Things We Lost in the Fire in the Spanish original, but finally succumbed to instagram book pressure (i.e. a book being obsessively posted by several people you follow and think well of) and went for the Romanian version, which might have been a slight mistake, as I have several notes on the translation, which sounds frankly dodgy every now and then. A further reminder that, as highlighted by Paul Dano in the crazy-wonderful Okja, translation is sacred. Nevertheless, Enriquez’s talent still shines through, bringing us stories of that Argentina which, being at the antipodes, I always felt to be some sort of a ’through the looking glass’ version of Europe (or the end of the rabbit hole): a world which at first feels similar to ours, only to reveal its irreversible otherness and oddness, not rarely menace, if you look closer. As an Argentinian acquaintance, profusely imbued in Malbec once said: you do need to pay somehow for the sins of the conquistadors.

Saying that I leave the best for last is not the most fortunate turn at this point, but Svetlana Alexievitch’s Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future (at least two English versions exist, the US edition came out as Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster) is definitely a major accomplishment. It is a book that, in an ideal world, does not exist, because in an ideal world Chernobyl never happened, but in our imperfect version of the world, it is a book that had to be written and no one could have done it better than Alexievitch. She lets very different people tell their version of what happened, sometimes adding her own thoughts, but never passing judgement. The first account, by the widow of one of the firefighters who went on site immediately after the accident is like a knock out in the first round of a boxing match: the fact that the person you love is not a person anymore, but a radioactive object is not something that can be accepted, understood or fit in the framework of our normal existences. It’s not even something that can be survived in the traditional sense: as the book progresses, you have the impression that these people fell into a fault of time, and live in a real Strugatskian Zone, beyond the limits of our still borderline rational universe.

The rest of the 2017 book diary can be found here, here and here

2 Comments Add yours

  1. So many great book selections!


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