Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Writer's Story

In the WakeIn the Wake 
by Per Petterson

I have never complained about anything except badly written books and the world situation, and you don't get your money back when little Nepalese girls are sold by their families to brothels in Bangkok, or because the World Bank refuses to waive cruel loans to Uganda. On the contrary. And lousy books; they just look at you and say: "Why don't you write one yourself, then?  ― Per Petterson, In the Wake

In the Wake is the third of Per Petterson's novels that I have read, yet it is the first of his novels translated into English. I previously read Out Stealing Horses and I Curse the River of Time. Each of these books has increased my esteem for this award-winning Norwegian author.

In the Wake tells the story of Arvid, a writer in his early forties. It is a Proustian tale in the sense that the bulk of the story is built on Arvid's memories of events that have shaped his life. The actual timespan of the novel is relatively short. In it Arvid's loneliness is intense, his grief has settled in to the point where his sanity is not guaranteed. He has lost his father, mother and two younger brothers in a ferry accident. (Petterson lost his parents and a brother in a ferry accident, too, but prefers to leave this out of his publicity material.)

Arvid's life as a writer has slowed to a standstill and yet he keeps moving, driving his beaten-up Mazda through wintry Norwegian landscapes and we keep him company, waiting for a thaw. The novel is startling, especially its opening. It takes a while to adjust to it, like a plunge into icy water, after which the body temperature must revert to normal. It is in prose passages like this describing a moment with his brother that the book comes alive: "We got out of the van, not slamming the doors but pushing them shut, because of the silence around us, not a sound but the sea sighing as it always does behind the trees but the shore when I realize that is what I can hear and stop thinking it is silence itself." His brother is sometimes a mirror for Arvid as is the memories of his father.  The action of the book is muted but Arvid's willingness to keep moving and his interaction with real living people provides hope for the reader that he will survive his grief and loneliness.

It seems appropriate that many of the scenes in the book occur in doorways or on actual thresholds, for it seems that this is where Arvid is in a psychological sense. One night, locked out, he stands outside his neighbor's house - and wakes her up. Thus begins a chapter about admission in many senses - Arvid tells his neighbor things about his dead father he has never told anyone. And it is clear that it is the confession that leads him to her bed.

Arvid is a reader as he explains, "On Sundays I sit at home reading whether it's sunny or raining or snowing."  And like Per Petterson himself, Arvid used to work in a bookshop and refers to favorite books, as if reading might accomplish what life could not. He describes one author's work like this: "Full of landscape and air and you can smell the pine needles and the heather a long way off."  Petterson's own novel is like this, too. It is prose you can almost inhale - the atmosphere is clear and overwhelming.

Hemingway is one persistent influence on Petterson, and so is Knut Hamsun—the protagonists of two early Hamsun novels, “Mysteries” and “Pan,” could be models for Petterson’s unmoored people, especially in the way that Hamsun, like Petterson, at once reveals and obscures rational motivation. Trying to separate fact from fiction with his memories flowing through his mind Arvid shares this thought: "It must have been a dream, of course, because I do not remember what that house looked like from outside or what he saw from the windows or why we were actually there. I remember a lot of dreams. Sometimes they are hard to distinguish from what has really happened. That is not so terrible. It is the same with books."

In the end Arvid's story and he himself are memorable because of his ability to become someone like the reader of his book. He rereads books, and he makes lists of favorite books. They help him deal with the the pain of the world and find a way to go on living and writing. In the end he shares a real life Hemingway moment with his brother. The reality of living in the present overcomes all the memories of the painful past.

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Monday, November 14, 2016

Small Town Life

A Place in Time: Twenty Stories of the Port William MembershipA Place in Time: 
Twenty Stories of the Port William Membership 
by Wendell Berry

“But love, sooner or later, forces us out of time...of all that we feel and do, all the virtues and all the sins, love alone crowds us at last over the edge of the world. For love is always more than a little strange here...It is in the world, but is not altogether of it. It is of eternity. It takes us there when it most holds us here.”   ― Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow

Wendell Berry has been writing poetry and essays on farming life for more than half a century. But he has also written fiction set in Port William, Ky., which rivals William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County in terms of its breadth of imagined historical detail. A Place in Time includes 20 stories that feature familiar characters from earlier novels and stories, but it is not necessary to have read those to get pleasure out of these.

This is a good introduction to many of the families that inhabit Port William. The Catletts and Feltners are prominent in several stories. While individual characters like Burley Coulter, Elton Penn, and Andy Catlett stand out. The stories span more than a century and a half of history from the opening story, set in the Civil War era to the titular tale that ends the book during the first decade of the new millennium.

The stories are not plot driven but focus on character, including the character of Port William itself. The relationships of characters are as important as their actions in these beautiful vignettes of small town life. As someone who was raised in a small town I found moments that resonated with my own experience. "Andy Catlett: Early Education" reminded me of my own schooldays while also bringing my reading of books like Tom Sawyer to mind. One of the most potent stories, for instance, is markedly subtle: “A Desirable Woman” tracks the intersection of a pastor’s wife and a young farmhand shortly before the start of World War II, and the story turns on the young man’s unrequited crush on the woman shortly before he’s sent off to war. “Sold” has a similarly soft-focus, nostalgic cast, narrated by an elderly woman recalling the accumulations that are about to be sold at auction before she enters a nursing home. Some of the stories are suggestive of homespun tales or Twain (again), as in “A New Day,” which climaxes in a competition between two horse teams dragging bricks, or “A Burden,” about the antics of a drunk relation.

Throughout the collection Berry's writing style is poetic as he shares episodes of loss and love, achievement and angst; all set against the backdrop of the evolution of Port William through time. The historic context was omnipresent but not overwhelming. It intruded with tales of soldiers returning or not returning from war and notes of other events, although the focus was continually on the families -- their follies, their foibles, and their faith. Berry is a writer whose beautiful sentences are imbued with an agrarian spirit. That and a concern for both time past and time future make this a fine collection.

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Saturday, November 12, 2016

Libraries and Ray Bradbury

While I am not self-educated in the same way as Ray Bradbury I do have a love for libraries based on my experiences that resonate with his.  From an early age I had a special relationship with libraries.  First it was spending summers visiting my hometown library for reading program books and others (I loved the history of British kings and retain an interest in history).  Later it was the High School library and memories of driving to other towns and the Whitewater College library for research papers.  When I entered the University of Wisconsin at Madison, from my Freshman year thru Graduate School, I often was ensconced in the Memorial Library stacks reading, even if not always for a class.  Since then my personal library which I began with my parents help at an early age has expanded every year.  With this in mind you may better understand why I was moved by the following excerpt from The Paris Review's interview with Ray Bradbury.

"I’m completely library educated. I’ve never been to college. I went down to the library when I was in grade school in Waukegan, and in high school in Los Angeles, and spent long days every summer in the library. 

I used to steal magazines from a store on Genesee Street, in Waukegan, and read them and then steal them back on the racks again. That way I took the print off with my eyeballs and stayed honest. I didn’t want to be a permanent thief, and I was very careful to wash my hands before I read them. But with the library, it’s like catnip, I suppose: you begin to run in circles because there’s so much to look at and read. And it’s far more fun than going to school, simply because you make up your own list and you don’t have to listen to anyone. When I would see some of the books my kids were forced to bring home and read by some of their teachers, and were graded on—well, what if you don’t like those books?

I am a librarian. I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library. Before I fell in love with libraries, I was just a six-year-old boy. The library fueled all of my curiosities, from dinosaurs to ancient Egypt. When I graduated from high school in 1938, I began going to the library three nights a week. I did this every week for almost ten years and finally, in 1947, around the time I got married, I figured I was done. So I graduated from the library when I was twenty-seven. I discovered that the library is the real school." 

The Paris Review, Spring 2010

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

Postmodern Shadows

The Lazarus ProjectThe Lazarus Project 
by Aleksandar Hemon

The morning sun was coddling the window, the mists were crawling up the slopes of Trebevic.  I could see Marin-dvor spreading toward the invisible river, and in an absurd flash I fully perceived it as the neighborhood I had been born and had grown up in." (p 280) 

The Lazarus Project is the second book by Aleksandar Hemon that I have read.  The previous one, his first novel Nowhere Man, I considered a flawed attempt at novel-writing.  This was due both to Hemon's inexperience and his attempt to relate an immigrant's experience in a postmodern way that did not appeal to me; neither his characterizations nor his style helped.

The Lazarus Project is narrated by a young Chicagoan named Vladimir Brik.  Like Hemon himself, he grew up in Sarajevo, came to Chicago on a visit and was forced to stay in the United States when war broke out in what was then Yugoslavia. While the new novel is in some ways a continuation of Hemon’s vision of an immigrant’s slanted, postmodern world, its narrator, Vladimir Brik, is also a departure from the ironic yet naïve young man of his earlier book. This is a mature novel about a grown man who is animated by and indeed savors the nuances of disappointment. In one scene, Brik tiptoes into his Chicago kitchen to make coffee before his wife wakes up. “I spotted a can in the corner whose red label read SADNESS. Was there so much of it they could can it and sell it? A bolt of pain went through my intestines before I realized that it was not SADNESS but SARDINES.”(p 73)

Brik is married to a successful American neurosurgeon who saves lives from “her high position of surgically American decency.” He, on the other hand, struggles “through permanent confusion.” Living with an acute sense of the loss of his homeland and, so, the loss of his identity, Brik has become intrigued with another immigrant: Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jew who escaped the 1903 Kishinev pogrom in what is now Moldova and came to Chicago. This Averbuch is a historical figure whose story is still something of a mystery; but it is known that he arrived at the house of the Chicago chief of police on March 2, 1908; there was some kind of scuffle, and the young man was shot and killed. Still haunted by the anarchist Haymarket riots, in which seven police officers died, and fearing a violent reaction to the mayor’s cancellation of a speech by Emma Goldman, Chicago moved into a state of turmoil.

When Brik gets a research grant and takes off for Eastern Europe, following in Lazarus’s footsteps, he brings an old friend along, a photographer and fellow Sarajevan named Rora. Rora and Brik’s road trip is an Eastern European nightmare. They are driven to Bucharest by a somnolent pimp with a terrified young girl held captive in the back seat. In one chapter, set at a bordello hotel called Business Center Bukovina, Hemon constructs a delicate, beautifully rendered fable of ugliness, desolation and heartlessness. They pass a mangy dog as they enter. The window looks out on a huge garbage bin “brimming with glass bottles,” their sparkle providing a brief moment of pleasure: “I always like to see a full garbage container, because I relish the thought of emptying it, the complete unburdening implicit in it.” At the end of the chapter, Brik hears a drunken couple shouting, then laughter, a dog howling and the shattering of glass. “The man and woman had thrown the dog in the garbage container full of bottles and then must have watched it writhing, shredding and slicing itself, trying to escape.”

There is to be no escape, no “complete unburdening” for Brik, no emptying of the life he has known and tried both to remember and forget. “Your nightmares follow you like a shadow, forever,” he notes. He also made this remark:
"There are moments in life when it is all turned inside out--what is real becomes unreal, what is unreal becomes tangible;  and all your level-headed efforts to keep a tight ontological control are rendered silly and indulgent."(pp 47-8)  These sound like a Kafkaesque sort of life as does much of the novel.

 I note that this is yet another novel that attempts two different stories, connected at several different levels, but not always successfully. I am reminded of Louis de Berniere's Birds Without Wings which was a similar attempt to interlink two related stories, also unsuccessfully in my estimation. Hemon's attempt is more concise and retains its ability to capture the reader's attention with mystery and intrigue, along with some humor, that propel both stories. The novel's short chapters interspersed with introductory historical photographs (does he think that the readers' imaginations need help?) also keep the narrative from flagging. The result is a satisfying read but one that for me was not quite as "stunning" as opined by some critics.

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