Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

Every now and again, after finishing a piece of Japanese fiction or leaving the cinema after a Japanese film,  I marvel that the same culture which produced such war-time cruelty (of which Malaya was on the receiving end) can produce art of such subtle yet very deep beauty.  Of course, every society has its killers and its artists, but somehow the gaps between Goebbels and Beethoven or between Hemingway and Sherman don't seem as puzzling.  Never mind. This is one astonishingly gorgeous little novel.

The housekeeper is a single mother, hired from the Akebono Housekeeping Agency. Her new assignment is at the garden cottage of the Professor -- just to tidy up and make a couple of meals for him every day. After a 1975 car crash, the professor has lived within an 80-minute memory window.  His head injury left his love and understanding of numbers intact, but his memory is like a videotape -- after 80 minutes it starts to overwrite at the beginning again.  He has developed, however, a coping mechanism:
...his suit was covered with innumerable scraps of notepaper, each one attached to him by a tiny binder clip. Every conceivable surface -- the collar, cuffs, pockets, hems, belt loops, and buttonholes -- was covered with notes, and the binder clips gathered the fabric of his clothing in awkward bunches. The notes were simply scraps of torn paper, some yellowing or crumbling.

The most permanent and poignant one is to remind the Professor of his own condition: "My memory lasts only eighty minutes."

It is the housekeeper (we never know her name) who tells the story of the relationship that develops between herself, the Professor (his only cognomen), and her ten year-old son, Root.  Root is not the son's real name, either, but the name that the Professor gives him, saying that the flat top of the boy's head reminds him of the square root symbol.

The Professor still spends many hours each day working on proofs and thinking.  Crowds and chaos distress him; numbers bring him peace. To his delight and her surprise, the housekeeper takes an interest in the numbers. She's had little education, but she is not without native intelligence, curiosity, nor humility:
There was something profound in his love for math. And it helped that he forgot what he'd taught me before, so I was free to repeat the same question until I understood. Things that most people would get the first time around might take me five, or even ten times, but I could go on asking the Professor to explain until I finally got it.  

One day, a refrigerator's serial number catches her attention, and she takes a notepad and pencil from her pocket and begins to scribble.
Once I'd proved that 2,311 was prime, I put the notepad back in my pocket and went back to my cleaning, though now with a new affection for this refrigerator, which had a prime serial number. It suddenly seemed so noble, divisible by only one and itself.  

The Professor loves children, and he insists that the housekeeper instruct Root to come to the cottage after school every day.  They discover a shared love of baseball -- Root for the same reason that most 10 year-olds love the sport, and the Professor because the game provides him with statistics as entertainment.  Root treats the Professor with great care, tip-toeing around the limits of his memory with a sensitivity rare in children.  And the Professor brings Root's math homework to life.

The Professor does all of his work with a pencil on paper. No calculator or computer ever makes an appearance in this story. The housekeeper admires the way in which he draws certain numerals, some stolid and round, others slanting as if into the wind.  He explains to her that although one may use a ruler to draw a straight line, it's a crude thing:  fragmentary in length, since she cannot draw it out to infinity, and a real line has no width, unlike the mark of the pencil, which varies depending upon its sharpness.
"So you might wonder where you would ever find a real line -- and the answer would be, only in here." Again, he pointed at his chest, just as he had when he had taught us about imaginary numbers. "Eternal truths are ultimately invisible, and you won't find them in material things or natural phenomena, or even in human emotions. Mathematics, however, can illuminate them, can give them expression -- in fact nothing can prevent it from doing so."  As I mopped the office floor, I realized how much I needed this eternal truth that the Professor had described. I needed the sense that this invisible world was somehow propping up the visible one, that this one, true line extended infinitely, without width or area, confidently piercing through the shadows. Somehow, this line would help me find peace. 

If I had picked up a copy of The Housekeeper and the Professor and read the back cover, my mind would have zoomed in on the themes of mathematics and baseball, and my hand would have instinctively returned the book to the shelf.  I am innumerate, and baseball bores me silly.  I feel blessed that the e-book version crossed my path and that I didn't turn away from it.  A beautiful, beautiful book.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Mosquito Coast, by Paul Theroux

I've admired much of Paul Theroux's travel writing over the years, with the odd exception here and there.  I quickly lost patience with Kingdom by the Sea, his account of walking around the coastline of Great Britain, which felt to me like one interminable gripe.  It was witty and well-crafted, as all his writing is, but for heaven's sake -- if you're having such a wretched trip, call it quits and go home, or shut up about it.  Of course no travel is without its sour moments, but this read like three months of drear.

After reading The Mosquito Coast, I realise that Theroux might better have turned his failed English walkabout into fiction.  When it comes to a novel of travel gone bad, he is a genius.  Theroux's details of local flora and fauna, languages and cultures, diseases and landscapes -- all the things that make his travel writing shine -- create a vivid picture of what may be the least attractive holiday destination in the Americas.  Decades of globe-trotting have also allowed Theroux plenty of insight into his fellow travelers, which is often as interesting as watching the locals in remote places.  We all have our own reasons for leaving home, after all, and some of them are less sound than others.

Here we have Allie Fox:  brilliant but megalomaniac inventor and contrarian who decides that the United States in the early 1980s is on its last legs.  He concludes that he will save his wife and four children only by fleeing  to the jungles of Honduras, where the American rot has not set in.  By the time Allie makes this decision, however, Theroux has let on that he's not the average Joe who daydreams about life as a Thai beach-bum, or, say, the burnt-out professional who decides to emigrate to Turkey to see what life is like on the other side of the world.  Allie Fox has very definite opinions about everything, and his manic pontificating stops only during the 4 hours or so that he sleeps each night. Allie is confident that he can build the perfect life, ex nihilo.  The book's narrator is Charlie, Allie's thirteen year-old son, which was a great choice on Theroux's part.  Readers can trust Charlie, despite his youth, more than they trust Allie.  Charlie proves to be a keen observer of his father, and of the dynamics between Allie, the other family members, and the local Hondurans.  Charlie is also willing to admit to his fear and confusion as Allie establishes their first settlement deep in the Honduran jungle:
So there was always something to do, which was perhaps just as well because it took our minds off the heat and the insects. And the uncertainty, too, for though Father said confidently, "This is why I'm here," we did not know why we were, and were too scared to ask.  
Allie declares that he is there to build a fire-powered ice-making machine in the jungle.  The huge structure terrifies the locals, who mumble about his "spearmints" (their understanding of "experiments").  One of the key ingredients in his ice-maker is ammonia.  He attempts to explain the technology to them, adding that the local launch operator, Francis, already grasps the concept.  The truth of the matter -- that he's the only one who knows or cares -- eludes him:
"You can do anything with ammonia," Father said. "The ammonia clock is the most accurate timekeeping device in the world. You don't believe me? ... Listen, the tick-tock in it is the oscillation of the nitrogen atom in the ammonia molecule. Francis knows all about it, don't you?"
Francis said, "For true, Fadder."
The character of Allie's wife, whom he calls "Mother", is shadowy.  (Does Theroux even tell us her name? I don't think so.) She doesn't seem unintelligent but rather inexplicably loyal and docile as her husband drags her and the children into ever more dire straits. Allie perceives himself as the saviour of his family and the Hondurans lucky enough to meet him, and his wife and children bolster this bit of delusional bravado.

He tries to bring a chunk of ice to Indians living far in the interior, only to find that they've seen ice before -- the missionaries had brought it.  When they see Allie bearing more of the stuff, they fall down on their knees and pray.  He is enraged.  (Allie has no use for God, whom he perceives as "a hasty inventor of the sort you find in any patent office", and thus missionaries are a pestilence in his opinion.)  He sulks on the long canoe trip back, and Mother consoles him as if he were a schoolboy whose science experiment had fizzled:
It was all brilliant, she said. She was proud of him, and nothing else mattered. Father did not object. He said, "It wasn't what I expected. I didn't want that. They prayed at me, Mother... what can you do with people who've already been corrupted? It makes me mad."  
Allie is mad, all right, in both senses of the word.  His middle son, Jerry, begins to see it, and Charlie eventually notices that the locals are not looking at their father with rapt attention and admiration but with fear.  When one of Allie's schemes goes awry, he makes a radical course adjustment and steers his family into ever more desperate circumstances, convincing them that America is gone, engulfed by some apocalyptic disaster.  Yet in Honduras, he rails against the missionaries and fruit planters for their intrusions, he rails against the indigenous people for their backwardness, and he rails against the vultures, pelicans and all other forms of wildlife that he deems "scavengers".  The Indians and the vultures have no such hubris. They are more patient.  They just watch and wait.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Heat of the Day, by Elizabeth Bowen

This was another of the titles in the collection of Anthony Burgess' 99 Best Novels.  I reached for it because I was completely unfamiliar with Elizabeth Bowen, an Anglo-Irish writer who mixed with the Bloomsbury clique. I was in the mood to try a new author and a book about which I knew nothing in advance.

The word that comes to mind when I think about this novel is 'atmospheric'.  The story opens at an outdoor theatre where a musical concert is taking place.  Although we don't know the year or the city, the author tells us that it's in a time of war and draws an almost cinematographic image of the scene.  She observes some of the concert-goers in minute detail, others en masse. It is clear that the war has affected them all, even as they take part in a somewhat commonplace entertainment. Only after several pages does Bowen disclose that we are in Regent's Park on the first Sunday in 1942.

Although the war infuses the story, Bowen writes with enormous subtlety and restraint.  It's a marvelous portrait of the English stiff upper lip. Drama? No thanks, we're British.  War is high drama, of course, and where Ernest Hemingway presented it in terse monosyllables, Elizabeth Bowen shows it in gorgeous descriptions of clipped and formal conversations, black-out curtains, teas at which guests are expected to bring their own rations of butter, and quirks of body language.

She describes Louie, a young wife, alone and displaced in London after her husband's posting overseas:
About her way of sitting... there was a sort of clumsy not quite graceless pre-adolescent strength. The effect of her was, at the first glance, that of a predominating number of London girls of this summer when the idealisation of Russia was at its height -- that of a flying try at the Soviet comrade type. Or, at least, this seemed the effect she hoped to convey. But with her this had not been successful, or gone far enough...
Louie is floundering.  Her parents have been killed in a bombing raid, her husband is away (Bowen points out Louie's vagueness on his particular whereabouts), and she is about as self-sufficient as a spaniel.
Left to herself, thrown back on herself in London, she looked about her in vain for someone to imitate; she was ready, nay, eager to attach herself to anyone who could seem to be following any one course with certainty. Tom by this time, had been drafted abroad; more or less she understood him to be in India. In his letters home he expressed the hope that she was getting on well and being a good girl; to this she never had any notion how to reply, so did not.  
Louie's story, however, is not the central one.  That belongs to Stella Rodney, an elegant and self-possessed middle-aged widow, and Robert Kelway, her lover.  Early in the book, a mysterious character approaches Stella and intimates that Robert may well be a spy. Stella ponders this information in silence for two months.  Much like her creator, Stella is a woman of great restraint.

In what feels like a moment of comic relief, Robert leaves London and returns to Holme Dene, his family's house, which someone has just offered to buy.  The house has been listed with the sales agent for decades, yet the prospect of a buyer has completely discombobulated Robert's adult sister, Ernestine, and their dour battle-axe of a mother, whom both of them address -- with ridiculous incongruity -- as "Muttikins".  They meet at Holme Dene to discuss this startling event:

"Muttikins," went on Ernestine, "cannot help feeling that there must be something behind this offer." She glanced across again: Mrs. Kelway indicated that yes, this was what she could not help feeling.
"What's behind the offer is someone's wanting to buy the house."
"Oh, I daresay, Robert; but it is so sudden. It is not even as if this was a safe area."
"Nothing has happened," said Mrs. Kelway in an offended tone.
"Oh, indeed no, Muttikins, and why ever should it!" Having sacrificed some seconds to laughing the idea off, Ernestine resumed: "Of course it's nice being a neutral area, not evaculated into, not evacuated out of, therefore quite quiet; but even so... who can be after a house no one has seen?"
"Certain no one has seen it?"
"No one we do not know has been to the door."
"Well, it can be seen from the road, at this time of year, or at any rate from a little way down the drive."
"We do not care for people coming down the drive," said Mrs. Kelway.
"That," agreed Ernestine, "is exactly what we do not like the idea of. If they want the house, why cannot they come to the door and openly ring the bell? Creeping and spying about when we did not know, calculating the value of everything, planning how soon they could get us out...  This is England, Robert; one expects to have privacy."

London, however, is far from neutral territory, and the falling bombs have quite the opposite effect on the Londoners' ideas of privacy:
So, among the crowds still eating, drinking, working, travelling, halting, there began to be an instinctive movement to break down indifference while there was still time.. The wall between the living and the living became less solid as the wall between the living and the dead thinned. In that September transparency people became transparent, only to be located by the just darker flicker of their hearts. Strangers saying "Goodnight, good luck," to each other at street corners, as the sky first blanched then faded with evening, each hoped not to die that night, still more not to die unknown.  

Stella, too, journeys out of London briefly, making a visit to her uncle's Irish farm.  Whilst waiting at the Irish train station, she muses about the seasons, and about her short respite from the Blitz:
The two stations also, in Stella's mind, become epitomes of the two most poignant seasons -- in spring, in autumn everything telegraphs its mystery to your senses; nothing is trite. And more: in these years the idea of war made you see any peaceful scene as it were through glass.

Louie contemplates Tom's official military portrait in its frame.  Even her simple mind can see the truth through that glass -- nothing will ever be the same after the war, and no one will come through untouched.
The frame with the regimental crest held a picture of what was at the best abeyance -- at the worst, there came out of it a warning to the bottom of her heart, that no return can ever make restitution for the going away. You may imitate but cannot renew safety.   

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Earth: An Intimate History, by Richard Fortey

One of the MAB Audio Library's most avid borrowers is Godfrey Ooi, who is MAB's Deputy Executive Director and who has been blind since birth.  Lately Godfrey has been requesting a lot of popular science titles -- mostly astrophysics -- so I've been recording Stephen Hawking and Paul Davies.

I spotted this book on a sale table and thought perhaps Godfrey might like to explore underground for a while, having spent so much time lately in outer space.  The book is nearly 500 pages, which amounted to 23 hours of recording. "Wah! So long!" Nicholas exclaimed when I told him the final time count.  That's probably the greatest thing Professor Fortey gave me:  a sense of geological time, in which a century is barely a hiccup.

Richard Fortey studied geology at Cambridge; his research specialty is trilobites.  He's a member of the Royal Society and has written a number of popular books on geology and paleontology, as well as participating in BBC TV productions.  I truly admire scientists who can write about their subjects in a way that's accessible to the non-scientist without being patronising or simplistic.  The late physicist Richard Feynman was often touted for his skill in this area, and Richard Fortey well deserves the several prizes he's won for his popular science writing.  The Earth: An Intimate History is not exactly a pot-boiler (I'll refrain here from making the obvious quips about the volcano sections, torrid though they were), it is a very humanistic view of our planet's inconceivably long history.  Yet while stressing the point that human culture has always been married to the geology on which it's developed, Fortey consistently reminds us that human life is but a fleeting blip on the face of our planet.  It's a very humbling perspective.

In a meditation on the history of geological research, Fortey discusses how some 18th- and 19th-century geologists misinterpreted the rock formations they were examining.  They had, he pointed out, formulated their theory before looking at the rocks.  Thus, they found "evidence" to support their errors.  In one sentence he sums up what is probably the greatest pitfall for scientists and observant humans in general:
Seeing is not believing; rather, it is belief that governs seeing.
In other words, we are overly inclined to see what we expect to see, not what is.  Plate tectonic theory explained many of the phenomena that puzzled the early geologists.  When I took an introductory geology course in college in the early 1980s, the professor discussed plate tectonics with great excitement, and in fact, it was still very new, having been derived in the 1960s.  Fortey reminds us, however, that it never pays for scientists to feel smug about their advances beyond the benighted state of their predecessors -- the next generation of geologists may well overturn today's theories.

As for the feckless folks who think geology is altogether irrelevant, they should pay attention to Fortey's observations about Californians:
The art of being Californian, it seems, is to cultivate a loose-limbed insouciance while secretly working away like a frantic ant.  This curious combination of devil-may-care and industry may be a response to living in the shadow of doom. California is one of the least stable parts of the earth. This is the state with the shakes. All that beavering away in the pursuit of fame and the dollar could be regarded as diverting attention from the tectonic truth... There is only a kind of collective amnesia, produced by keeping your eyes down and your pockets full. Suddenly the ground might start to heave, and the porticoes of the most extravagant villas will come tumbling down, the sprinklers on the lawns will dry up, and the automobiles on the freeway will be tossed about like dry beans on a sieve.
We are truly a self-absorbed species, and we are content to think that the world has always been as it is today, or with only nominal changes.  When discussing continental drift, Fortey describes the meandering path that Scotland has followed to its present location:  It started near the antarctic, and the fossil record tells us that it was loitering near the equator during the Cambrian period.  In fact, today's land masses have most probably joined into supercontinents and broken apart multiple times during the history of the planet.  Most land has been ocean floor at one time or another.  When you dig down through the eons of rock record, who knows where you'll end up?

This is another lesson in how we must unmake the world as we go back in time -- lose all familiar geographical outlines, rearrange everything. The deeper we go, the stranger everything is, the less recognizable.
For the true rock-hound, this book has plenty of detail on everything from shale to gems.  For the disaster buff, it's hard to top the big earthquakes and volcanos.  Fortey burrows down to the atomic level of certain minerals and then zooms up for the satellite views.  

For the sighted reader, there are two sections of wonderful photographs, including a shot of the very dramatic Mount Kinabalu.  I was overjoyed to spot this photo, thinking "Yes! I climbed that!" The Malaysian Government may be less overjoyed to read the illustration's caption, which places the mountain in Indonesia.  Oops.  Well, I suppose, depending upon plate movements, it might be in Indonesia in a few thousands of millions of years, but as Professor Fortey would assure us, there will be no humans around to witness it.  

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Tainted Blood, by Arnaldur Indriðason

After reading Mr. Peanut, I wanted a book with a more straightforward narrative.  If the author said someone was dead, I wanted to take his word for it.  The Scandinavian crime writers seem to be a down-to-earth lot, so I trundled off to Iceland.

Tainted Blood was originally published with the title of Jar City in 2000.  It is Indriðason's second novel but the first to be translated into English, and it won the 2002 Nordic Crime Fiction Award (the Glass Key Prize).

I traveled around Iceland in 1988, and it is a remarkable place. Admittedly, it was easier to feel that you'd fallen off the edge of the earth then, before mobile phones and internet had become ubiquitous, but Iceland fosters the senses of remoteness and isolation better than most other places.  The population of the whole island is well under half a million, and it's largely static.  Very little miscegenation and change is a treasure to geneticists, linguists, and others who are ever harder pressed to find stable populations to study.

Detective Erlendur finds an elderly Reykjavik resident dead on the floor of his basement apartment, bludgeoned with a heavy ashtray.  His colleagues point out that this is slightly different from the typical Icelandic murder in that the killer took the time to write a note before leaving the scene.  They imply that most Icelandic killers are sloppy and scattered, not well-organised, pre-meditated types.  Iceland consistently tops the charts as having the world's lowest murder rate, so any murder is noteworthy, and Erlendur can dedicate time and resources to this case that would only make an American homicide detective weep with envy.

Erlendur fits what seems to be the mold for Nordic detectives:  middle-aged, in poor shape, trying (unsuccessfully) to quit smoking, single (divorced, in his case) and methodical.  Erlendur is unassuming: He freely admits to being a technophobe, and he has no qualms about asking questions that betray his ignorance. More than once, when given some information that he can't readily assimilate, Erlendur asks, "Why are you telling me this?"

This case leads Erlendur into the realm of the genetic research that is taking place in Iceland as researchers of all types are availing themselves of the country's relatively isolated gene pool.   Erlendur, while no expert himself, can quickly grasp that a genetic database of Icelanders could well be a Pandora's box, revealing demons as well as insight.  The data in this case reveals secrets from the past that, for better or worse, Icelanders had chosen to keep to themselves.

The case also brings Erlendur (very reluctantly) into the world of organ collecting.  Where do you think medical schools get the organs with which to teach? one pathologist asks him.  The Icelandic laws and customs regarding organ harvesting seem vague and largely unobserved, and some of the doctors whom Erlendur interviews express their view that a corpse is nothing but a carcass to be plundered as benefits medical research.  One asks if Erlendur is aware of Jar City.  Erlendur, appalled, shakes his head and asks where that might be.  Jar City had been a section of a Reykjavik university hospital lined with formalin-filled jars containing sample organs of all types.  I expect this idea would horrify many readers far less than it does Erlendur, but it does provoke some thought about medical ethics and sensitivity to people's views about the handling of the dead.

So, in answer to my initial wish, yes -- when  Indriðason told me that one of his characters was no longer living, that person was in fact dead.  But not necessarily buried, or at least not in entirety or in perpetuity.

And now, just a moment of unrepentant nostalgia...

I just listened to a BBC podcast of "Open Book", and this week's episode featured novels about journalism, celebrating the re-issue of Evelyn Waugh's parody of a foreign correspondent, Scoop.

Sir Max Hastings, writer and former editor of The Daily Telegraph, commented on the changes that technology has brought to our culture and to journalism.
Technology has probably made journalism a bit more boring, because nowadays I don't think you can actually accomplish as much drunk at a keyboard as you used to be able to do at a typewriter.  When I became editor of The Daily Telegraph, I got rid of all the veteran drunks  on the staff as quickly as I could. Everybody has to behave a bit better -- at least in the office. That maybe has made us a slightly more boring trade.  It may even perhaps have made us slightly less good journalists, because so often one did find, it was the disreputable men and women who did the most wonderful work.  

Monday, April 18, 2011

Mr. Peanut, by Adam Ross

I reached for this novel after reading two reviews of it in the New York Times.  Both reviewers acknowledged that it is flawed, but they agreed that it's a highly creative and audacious first novel, and they praised Ross' portrayals of marriage in the middle years.  One of the reviewers -- a novelist himself -- attended a writing programme with Ross, and he recalled their august teacher shuddering at the thought of writing about the institution of marriage -- often done, rarely done well, he claimed.  

It's a difficult plot to summarize, since it has three threads, and it shifts back and forth between decades. The primary character, David Pepin, is the founder and president of a virtual reality game software company, who is also in the process of writing a novel about his own marriage.  The reader quickly loses her footing: Is the narrative really happening, or is it a chapter of David Pepin's novel within Adam Ross' novel? David's wife is Alice, who has been battling her weight and depression for years. In the early pages, Alice falls over dead after eating a plate full of peanuts, to which she is allergic. The police wonder, was this a suicide, or was it murder?  Was David trying to fish the peanuts out of her mouth to save her, or was he forcing them in?  They find a draft of his novel, in which he wonders what his life would be like if Alice were dead.  

Each of the three threads of the story focuses upon a marriage:  David and Alice Pepin, and those of the two detectives investigating the case of Alice's death.  This is the aspect that the reviewers lauded, and I agree, Ross captures the mid-life marriage ennui without falling into a pit of cliches.  In avoiding those cliches, though, has he also steered too wide of realism?  I think a lot of wives in their 40s will empathize with Alice as she battles her obesity, and her self-image takes a further battering after five miscarriages due to a clotting disorder.  The story, however, is told from David's point of view, so we only see Alice's tantrums and frustration through his eyes.  He loves her. He wants her and needs her and is genuinely mystified as to what is going on in her head.  Simultaneously, he fantasizes about her death.  Not killing her per se, but what his life might be like if she just... died.  Likewise, one of the detectives cannot fathom why his wife came home from work one day, went to bed, and hasn't gotten up in the intervening five months.  He fantasizes momentarily about smashing her head with a brick -- maybe her exposed brain would give him some idea of what she was thinking.  These husbands desperately want to know what's going on with their wives, and the wives are either unable or unwilling to tell them.  

I would very much like to discuss this book with people who have soldiered through the middle years of marriage.  What about the novel rang especially true or false to them?  Which of Ross' characterizations were most astute?  And which just seemed wrong?   As someone who can't assess this from my own experience (being perennially single), I don't think I fully appreciated what the critics hailed as the most effective aspect of the book.  I was content to finish it and put it down.  And to remain single.  

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cousin Bette, by Honore de Balzac

This book provoked another Battle of the Reading Media.  It was a short but decisive contest.  I'd bought an excellent recording of Cousin Bette as part of the spree that ended my Audible membership (when they announced that they could no longer provide audio books to someone with a Malaysian billing address.)  During the first half hour or so, I found myself fussing with the MP3 player. I wished that I could slow it down in certain parts.  I wanted to review passages without missing the mark and going back too far.  I wanted to pause and reflect without having to find the right button (instead of hitting the wrong one and jumping to the next book).  I very much wanted to underline and scribble margin notes. In short, I wanted my MP3 player to be a book.

I downloaded a Kindle version of the novel from Gutenberg and began again.  And it was good.

This does not mean that I will stop listening to audio books.  Nor does it mean that I'll never listen to my recording of Cousin Bette.  I still maintain that some books are better suited for audio than others, and the experience of re-reading a novel is quite different than reading it the first time.  Although I chose to read the book the first time in print, I can imagine myself quite contentedly listening to it the second time around.

Best, of course, would be to read it in the original French.  This was one of Balzac's later novels, and I think the translator of my version, James Waring, did a great job at conveying the acerbic wit, particularly at the high-society soirees, but even he felt compelled to insert a note in one place to indicate that there was simply no English equivalent to the double entendres in the previous passage.

Cousin Bette is the first of Balzac's novels that I've read, and reading this so closely on the heels of Flaubert's Sentimental Education feels like a minor immersion in mid-19th century Paris.  People then were different than we are today, and the French are different from the rest of us.

Then again, some things are universal, like the advantages of wealth, and the fact that those who have plenty of it nearly always sail through life more easily:
The concierges of Paris have sharp eyes; they do not stop visitors who wear an order, have a blue uniform, and walk ponderously; in short, they know a rich man when they see him.  
The title character, properly known as Mademoiselle Lisbeth Fischer, is a spinster.  As Balzac first introduced her, I thought he was giving us an early pioneer, a single woman supporting herself honorably and moving independently about Paris.  Mais non.  Bette is the embittered, resentful and venomously plotting species of spinster:
Jealousy was the fundamental passion of this character, marked by eccentricities -- a word invented by the English to describe the craziness not of the asylum, but of respectable households... Gifted with a cunning which had become unfathomable, as it always does in those whose celibacy is genuine, with the originality and sharpness with which she clothed her ideas, in any other position she would have been formidable. Full of spite, she was capable of bringing discord into the most united family.
This is a novel of manners.  Mostly bad ones, mind you, although the sinners are as elegant as they are depraved.  I thought often of Les Liaisons Dangereuses as I read this book, but while Balzac's courtesans are schemers extraordinaire, the men who take them as mistresses are little more than purse-holding puppets.  He makes it clear that Parisian women take their beauty seriously, as they must if they are to survive in anything more than poverty and obscurity:
Now a woman devoid of all the graces, in Paris simply does not exist... in the immense stir of Paris street-life, only pretty women are ever looked at.  
Balzac makes some very keen observations on love  vs. dalliance.  You can always go home after a spat with the mistress, for example, still feeling quite pompous:
The deceptions of a venal passion are more delightful than the real thing. True love is mixed up with bird-like squabbles, in which the disputants wound each other to the quick; but a quarrel without animus is, on the contrary, a piece of flattery to the dupe's conceit.  
And dupes they are, these men.  Madame Valerie Marneffe, a world-class schemer, strings five of them -- including her husband -- along at one time, vowing her undiluted love to each.  The Brazilian baron, out of his mind with passion, begs her to escape to his enormous estate with him.
"Where?" said Valerie, with one of the pretty sneers by which a woman makes fun of a man she is sure of. "Paris is the only place where we can live happy. I care too much for your love to risk seeing it die out in a tete-a-tete in the wilderness. Listen, you are the only man I care for in the whole world. Write that down clearly in your tiger's brain."  
For women, when they have made a sheep of a man, always tell him that he is a lion with a will of iron.  
Valerie and other courtesans of her ilk reduce besotted men to penury, and one of them, the Baron Hulot d'Ervy, comes to total ruin when he embezzles funds from his government bureau.  I felt a pang of nostalgia as his peers in the government express their horror and shame at his misdeeds.  Nowadays, most of us assume that our politicians are petit (or grand) criminals.  The Prince who heads the War Ministry, however, chides the embezzler soundly, suggesting that an act of contrition like that taken by a disgraced soldier recently might be a fine idea:
"Do you know what this lancer did, Baron d'Ervy? He swallowed some window-glass after pounding it down, and died in eleven hours, of an illness, in hospital.  Try, if you please, to die of apoplexy, that we may not see you dishonored."
There are a few honorable characters in the novel, but just enough to show off the dishonor of the others to full effect.  Early in the book, I pegged Balzac as a misogynist, but then I saw that he holds equally dim views of men, married or single, French or Polish, commoners or titled, politicians or ex-perfumers. He is an equal opportunity misanthropic grump.  But who would want to read pleasant books about virtuous people by nice authors?  

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Rebel Angels, by Robertson Davies

I love Robertson Davies' books; The Rebel Angels was the fourth of his novels that I've read.  If I had no access to Google and simply tried to imagine what the author looked like, I'd have conjured up this very portrait.  His appearance and prose style suggest the late 19th century, but Davies died in 1995.  I don't mean to suggest that his writing is stuffy or stodgy -- it's stylish in a timeless, classic sense, the literary equivalent of a classic Jaguar sports car.  It's not modern, but it has plenty of zip and panache.

The Rebel Angels (published in 1981) came down in a collection of e-books titled "Anthony Burgess' 99 Best Novels".  Burgess wrote The Clockwork Orange and The Malaya Trilogy, both of which I've been meaning to read.  In fact, I've been meaning to read a lot of the 99 titles on his list, but grabbed at the Davies novel first.

It's a story set in a Toronto university, and the story is a university of itself: religion, philosophy, art, literature, science -- the full curriculum.  It's got the dynamics of academia vs. the rest of the world, including politicians with narrow-ish ideas on how education funding should be spent.  It's got the dynamics within the university: humanities vs. science faculties bickering over sherry, pilfered manuscripts, sex scandals cloaked in philosophical debates and clerical garb.  It's even got gypsies, yes, authentic Romany, who study a couple of the professors who are professing to study them.

One of the narrators is a brilliant graduate student, Maria, the daughter of a Polish engineer father and a gypsy mother.  Maria strives for balance between life with her unorthodox mother and life in academia.  She immerses herself in Rabelais.  I like this observation very much:
Rabelais was gloriously learned because learning amused him, and so far as I am concerned that is learning's best justification. Not the only one, but the best.  
Maria's gypsy mother has her own deep, ancient philosophy, which is not always as divergent from that of the academics as they might like to believe.  She observes one professor expressing a deep hatred for another and remarks upon the damage his hatred will wreak, mostly upon himself, whether or not he acts upon it:
Evil isn't what one does, it's something one is is that infects everything one does.    
(This reminded me of the question Patrick Bateman asked himself at the end of American Psycho:  "Is evil something that you are? Or something that you do?")

The hated man is Professor Urquhart McVarish, unaffectionately referred to as Urky.  Urky irks nearly everyone on campus:
In a university you cannot get rid of a tenured professor without an unholy row, and though academics  love bickering, they hate rows. It was widely agreed that the only way to get rid of Urky would be to murder him, and though the Dean may have toyed with that idea, he did not want to be caught. Anyhow, Urky was not a bad scholar. It was simply that he was intolerable, and for some reason that is never accepted as an excuse for getting rid of anybody.  
While the professors (one of whom is an Anglican priest and another a defrocked monk) indulge in learned bickering about Christianity, Yerko, Maria's gypsy uncle, goes to New York City in December and falls in love with "the Bebby Jesus".  Upon his return to Toronto, he builds a creche with all the human figures decked out in gypsy finery.  The two professors who come to the house for a holiday dinner listen to Yerko's enthusiastic piety, relating (as best he can in his halting English) the whole Nativity story, including the arrival of the Magi:
"No, it is in the story. I saw it in New York. The kings say, 'We bring you Gold, Frank Innocence, and Mirth.'" 
"Sancta simplictas," said Darcourt, raising his eyes...