Monday, October 9, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

This elegant 2016 novel crosses time (1922-1954) in a very constrained space. The fellow of the title, Count Alexander (Sasha) Rostov, is under house arrest in the Hotel Metropol in the center of Moscow. Holding fast to his gentlemanly principles, he makes the best of his restrictions, in the process offering lessons to those around him of what living well consists of, and how it is practiced.  His “descent” from nobility lands him among the free spirits of the hotel staff; though their tasks are menial, they perform them with enviable grace and pleasure.

The plot hangs on his relationships with a nine-year-old girl whose impulsive curiosity draws him into friendship, and later her six-year-old daughter whom he raises as his own child. If one were to voice complaints about so charming a tale, one might bring up the ease with which the Count adapts to his shrinking privileges - it seldom takes him more than a moment, an hour, or a day, to adjust. Why, one might wonder, does he not only remain alive while most of his aristocratic peers have been murdered or shipped off to Siberia, but drinks in the Metropol’s lovely bar with international journalists and the occasional diplomat? One might carp about the buffoonery of the apparatchiks who made the existence of so many Russians so unlivable, or quibble with the characters, so easily sorted into “good guys” who have deep, useful skills and joie de vivre, vs. “bad guys” who are petty, vindictive, and lack soul.  And above all, how, in such a finite space, is Rostov able to keep his secrets, the keys to his vitality?

I won’t spoil the story by answering those challenges. But I will say that it is such a delight to read this fluid prose, and to appreciate this kind well-mannered gentleman, that one forgives Mr. Towles for allowing the Count a better life than he could so easily have endured. The appeal of the novel rides in no small part on its philosophical asides, for example:
For however decisive the Bolsheviks’ victory had been over the privileged classes on behalf of the Proletariat, they would be having banquets soon enough... [H]aving gathered around a grand circle of tables, the new statesmen would nod their heads in order to indicate to a waiter... that yes, they would have a few more spears of asparagus.
For pomp is a tenacious force. And a wily one too.
How humbly it bows its head as the emperor is dragged down the steps and tossed in the street. But then, having quietly bided its time, while helping the newly appointed leader on with his jacket, it compliments his appearance and suggests the wearing of a medal or two.”

The hotel itself is as important a character as anyone who passes through its revolving doors, and in the Count’s company we explore it from boiler room to roof, back stairs and front suites, the finest restaurant in Russia, and a ballroom where the Soviet assembly argues details of policy. Its position overlooking Theater Square guarantees visits by performers and artists, international tourists, diplomats, and spies. Its legacy as a premiere hotel is grounded in its capable staff: doorman, seamstress, and barber; chef, maitre d’, and headwaiter; and concierge, bartender, and conductor of the late-evening ensemble, to name but a few.

Towles’s understanding of Russia is essential to the book, and through his characters paying homage to their culture, offers us a taste of Russian soul.
“ 'But with Chekhov and Tolstoy, we Russians have set the bronze bookends on the mantelpiece of narrative. Henceforth, writers of fictions from wheresoever they hail, will place themselves on the continuum that begins with the one and ends with the other. For who, I ask you, has exhibited better mastery of the shorter form than Chekhov in his flawless little stories? Precise and uncluttered, they invite us into some corner of a household at some discrete hour in which the entire human condition is suddenly within reach, if heartbreakingly so. While at the other extreme: Can you conceive of a work greater in scope than War and Peace? One that moves so deftly from the parlor to the battlefield and back again? That so fully investigates how the individual is shaped by history, and history by the individual?' ” [The Count, enumerating to a German challenger Russia's contributions to the West]
The author is too modest to place himself in that pantheon, but by honoring writers and poets throughout the book, he elevates his own chances.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

This multi-layered novel is, among other things, an homage to books. It opens in Barcelona in 1945 with a ten-year-old boy’s visit to The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a repository of what may be the only extant copies of books modern and ancient. Wandering this labyrinth, young Daniel Sempere (the Latin semper means “always”) chooses The Shadow of the Wind, a 1935 novel by Julian Carax.

"I couldn't help thinking that if I, by pure chance, had found a whole universe in a single unknown book, buried in that endless necropolis, tens of thousands more would remain unexplored, forgotten forever. I felt myself surrounded by millions of abandoned pages, by worlds and souls without an owner sinking in an ocean of darkness, while the world that throbbed outside the library seemed to be losing its memory, day after day, unknowingly, feeling all the wiser the more it forgot." 

We are reminded of the library of Borges, an analogue for infinity; of The Pile of Forgotten Works in Richard Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar; and of the warnings of Ray Bradbury whose stories so often turn on how diminishing readership dooms both books and writers to oblivion.

Daniel, swept up by the story he has chosen, seeks to learn more about novel and author, but soon encounters layers of secrecy - someone is destroying every copy of every book Carax published - his may be the only one left.  About Carax himself, little is known - he lived in Paris, having fled Franco’s Spain, but perhaps he returned to Barcelona to be with the woman he loved.

That story is also a mystery - she died young, perhaps at the hands of her father who forbade her to see Carax and may have locked her up to enforce his will. As Daniel reaches his late teens, his life begins to parallel the writer’s, with a love affair kept secret from the girl’s disapproving father. Daniel’s obsession with Carax grows, and his quest is interleaved with the rightists’ grip on Spain, and the danger to writers and artists arising from their intolerance. A deserted mansion offers clues and a trysting place, but this very place resonates eerily with the death of Carax’s amour. Dangers of all kinds, political and otherworldly, beset our young hero. Unlikely alliances - with a drunken bum who turns out to know a great deal and has survived the worst the regime could inflict; with his own father, a bookseller; with a woman whose husband published Carax’s books; with reprobates and colorful characters from society’s dregs - aid his search, but the more he learns, the more he puts himself and those he loves at risk.

Tight plotting and powerful adversaries keep the suspense at a boil - I read the book in two sittings, which enabled me to keep track of a cast of dozens and the turnings of fate that ensnare them. Zafon does a masterful job tying up every loose end, often in surprising ways. Equally evocative are his intimate descriptions of Barcelona, a city I now feel I have sojourned in, and would like to visit bodily. The impacts on society of the political struggles in Spain are vividly illuminated - without getting mired in timelines and elections, Zafon creates an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty leavened by the ascension of cruel men - we understand that writing is a perilous pursuit, and curiosity about the past possibly fatal. 

A good story offers a satisfying resolution, and The Shadow of the Wind delivers on this promise. If you want to curl up with an engrossing book, this one’s for you!

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Young Men and Fire, by Norman Maclean

Norman Maclean's carefully researched and even more carefully written book Young Men and Fire recounts the tragic death of thirteen young smoke jumpers in the August 5, 1949 Mann Gulch fire in Montana. Maclean is better known as the author of A River Runs Through It, but if the power of nature colliding head-on with strong young men heedless of mortality moves you, this is a book you must read.

A "perfect storm" of conditions engulfed the lives of sixteen young men, of whom only three survived. Two of the thirteen casualties were so badly burned that they died soon afterwards in a hospital; the rest perished in the conflagration that turned a dry windy steep grassy hillside into a pyre. Maclean walks us through information as reported by the survivors, as concluded by Forest Service investigators, as postulated by fire scientists, and as gleaned first-hand by Maclean and his Forest Service ally Laird Robinson, with whom he visited Mann Gulch numerous times over a period of years, experiencing on his final trip the scorching parched conditions that prevailed on that fateful August day, where the grass on the 78 degree slope was so slippery that his boots could find no purchase - and yet he calculated that the speed of the young men trying to outrace the fire reached "375 yards in about two minutes... 562 feet per minute, or six and a half miles per hour... a slow jogging pace [that] would have been almost beyond reality to maintain for 375 yards on a slope where I had to crawl with gloved hands on a hot August afternoon."

The principal controversy about the firefighters' actions was the decision of their foreman, when he realized they could not outrun the flames to safety, to light a fire near the top of the gulch. Through the roar of the flames his crew could not hear him, but thinking he was crazy, they ignored him, fleeing instead toward the top of the gulch. Only the two fastest among them reached the ridge-top and crawled through a rock crevice to the next gulch, and survived. But Wag Dodge was not crazy. He lit a fire then lay down in its ashes, a wet handkerchief against his face pressed to the earth, and the fire swept around the burned patch his small fire had created, and so he was not consumed in the horrific heat of the main fire.

The lessons imparted by vegetation, wind, and terrain provide a sense of inevitability to the rapid blow-up of the fire; the lessons of poor communication, a crew not acting as a team, and an unfamiliar leader show us the human failures compounding the tragedy. The fire conditions were unavoidable - the human conditions were not: "...the greatest loss was the loss that came in morale and organization in turning a crew around and retreating from the fire. The training schedule of Smokejumpers includes no class on how to run from a fire as fast as possible.  
    The fire was having no organizational problems. It was gaining speed all the time."

To study tragedy is to hope to learn from it, to prevent such loss when circumstances align again, and this is Maclean's mission. A longtime resident of the Montana mountains in the area near Mann Gulch, the author was well-suited to this investigation. The Publisher's Note prefacing the book states: "Young Men and Fire was where, near the end, all the lives [Maclean] had lived would merge: the lives of a woodsman, firefighter, scholar, teacher, and storyteller." When he died at 87 the book was still incomplete, but he had done the hard and thorough research, tracking down the survivors, learning how mathematical models of fire predicted its behavior based on fuel type, wind speed and direction, and fuel moisture content, and sharing his thoughts with those he expected to correct him. Above all, he was unwilling to have those thirteen smoke jumpers die uselessly; surrounded by their ghosts he pushed himself to his physical and mental limits to understand every factor in their deaths, and to share that knowledge.

He succeeds brilliantly, turning recitation of the crew's final moments into a heartbreaking convergence of human limits with a speeding conflagration. These hard-won facts do not support the story - they ARE the story, in as compelling a narrative as you will find. Read it and weep.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Big Green Tent, by Ludmila Ulitskaya

This sweeping novel opens with the death in March 1953 of Stalin, and through its three principal characters, schoolboys at the time, carries us up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, without giving the reader any sense that the empire could ever fail. They become friends as they rescue each other from bullying, and their underdog status - Jew, musician, child of yesterday's aristocracy - channels them toward empathy. Their literature teacher, a veteran who hates war, opens their eyes to the world of poetry and Russian history, and they grow up into the underground of artists and writers persecuted by the Soviet regime. Ulitskaya's choice of the death of Stalin to begin the book emphasizes that once the machinery of repression is in place, those who built it are no longer necessary to its function. Beria is gone, but the Lubyanka, the notorious prison in Moscow, is bustling.

"For so many years Mikha had studied Marxism, trying to work out how such wonderful ideas about justice could become so misshapen, so distorted, in their implementation; but now the truth was laid bare -- it was a grandiose lie, cynicism, inconceivable cruelty, shameless manipulations of people who had lost their humanity, their human dignity and self-worth, out of fear. This fear enveloped the whole country like a dark cloud. One could call this cloud Stalinism; but Mikha had already understood that Stalinism was only a singular instance of the evil of this enormous, universal, timeless political despotism."

The informants, spies, secret police, and their bureaucracy maintain deadly efficient means of suppressing free thought, whatever forms it might take. Owning a typewriter is cause for suspicion. You might think that studying Lenin would be encouraged - but those who look deeper than the official version of his thought and rise to power, as taught in schools, are informed on, interrogated, denied jobs then labeled parasites for not working. A middling painter becomes a savage political cartoonist because he cannot keep silent, cannot continue to crank out meaningless portraits. Inquiring minds resort to secret and innovative means to disseminate the novels and poems outlawed by the government. The samizdat (underground publishing) movement sweeps up many people and nourishes a society starved for reflections of truth through art. As one character tells another:
"[Samizdat] itself is remarkable and unprecedented. It's vital energy that is spread from source to source, establishing threads, forming a sort of spiderweb that links many people. It creates passageways that conduct information in the form of books, magazines, poems, both very old and very new..."

One character is imprisoned for publishing a magazine whose circulation at its height is 20 copies - this is how deeply threatening creative work is to those in power.

Ulitskaya brings to life the sense of urgency this artistic minority feels to hear Pasternak's poems, listen to records of performances by great musicians, to read Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky. They all know they are being followed, spied and eavesdropped on, and they have gestures and phrases to stand in for the things they cannot say aloud. Stints in prison camps undermine their health and spirits then render them unemployable.
"On the eve of his departure [for prison]...he was feeling... guilty, guilty for all that had happened... Guilty before [his pregnant wife] Alyona, since he had left her alone; before his friends, for not being able to do anything that would change the disposition of things for the better; before the whole world, to which he was indebted...
     It's a strange, inexplicable law that the most innocent people among us are the ones predisposed to the greatest sense of guilt."

But the essence of this novel is that along with the horrors, Ulitskaya's characters find unexpected moments of connection - the cartoonist, having fled Moscow, shelters for the winter in a tiny village with an old peasant woman. When she invites her two ancient friends over for their annual bath, he sees them naked, and discovers in their grotesque time-ravaged bodies more honest beauty than he has ever witnessed - the beauty of old women who have suffered all their lives, but who still cavort like children, delighted, mischievous, and without shame.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Beet Queen, by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich’s 1986 novel The Beet Queen tells a story of intersecting lives through different voices, from 1932 to 1972. Our primary narrator is Mary Adare, an eleven-year-old abandoned by her mother, her baby brother snatched from her arms in a crowd, her older brother Karl hopping back on the freight train that brought them to the tiny North Dakota town where their aunt Fritzie lives with her butcher husband and a daughter, Sita - who also contributes her point of view. Sita’s best friend, Celestine, whose affection Mary steals, is half Indian, tall and wild.

The jealousy that runs through these characters’ lives is less an undercurrent than an underground river, sweeping them into actions whose sole purpose is to hurt each other.  Mary is jealous of Sita’s long blond hair and good looks; Sita is jealous of her parents' welcoming Mary, and the interloper's friendship with Celestine. Later Celestine has a child with Mary’s mostly-absent brother Karl, and the way Mary interposes herself between mother and daughter makes Celestine wild with jealous anger. But as spiteful as they are to each other, they remain connected: Celestine and Mary work in the butcher shop Fritzie and her husband leave to Mary when they retire to a warmer climate. Mary hates Karl for abandoning her when they were desperate children, but Karl takes up with Celestine, driving Mary to fits of rage.

Celestine and Karl’s daughter, named Wallacette in honor of Karl’s onetime lover Wallace, who shelters Celestine on a frigid night and helps bring the baby into the world, is immediately called Dot by Mary. The name sticks, and Wallace can only stand on the sidelines, longing for recognition. Dot, meanwhile, is demanding, selfish, and vengeful, a terror at school. Celestine’s attempts to parent the girl are thwarted by Mary’s interference - no matter how outrageous Dot’s behavior, Mary takes her part, ignoring every version of events but the girl’s. And Dot, latching on like a starveling to Mary’s defense of her, pushes away her mother who would force a reckoning.

The story has fantastical elements - when Karl visits Sita at her lovely home, he sits in a painted wrought-iron chair on their manicured lawn conversing with her second husband. And while they eat tiny sandwiches, Karl’s chair sinks steadily into the grass till finally the earth swallows him altogether. For the Christmas pageant in which Dot plays Joseph, Celestine brings a jello salad full of old bolts and nuts, having labeled the pan “MARY” - this act of spite arises from Celestine’s dislike of the sliced radishes in Mary’s jello salads.

Who are these people? you may ask. But they make some penetrating observations. After leaving Celestine’s brother Russell, a scarred and decorated veteran who has suffered a stroke, Celestine asks,
“Everything that ever happened to him in his life,” she said, “all the things we said and did. Where did it go?”
            ...I [Mary] could not help drawing out Celestine’s strange idea in my mind. In my line of work I’ve seen thousands of brains that belonged to sheep, pork, steers. They were all gray lumps like ours. Where did everything go? What was really inside?... I felt the live thoughts hum inside of me, and I pictured tiny bees, insects made of blue electricity, in a colony so fragile that it would scatter at the slightest touch. I imagined a blow, like a mallet to the sheep, or a stroke, and I saw the whole swarm vibrating out.
            Who could stop them? Who could catch them in their hands?

Reading Erdrich’s books is a visceral experience - I find myself wanting to shout at characters, or their duplicity wrenches my guts, or the traumas they must endure spark tears in my eyes. Her feral imagination provides us with extreme examples of people we encounter, and helps us recognize the instincts that trap us.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Graduation, a film by Cristian Mungiu

Graduation, by Cristian Mungiu
reviewed by NC Weil

This 2016 Romanian film by the director of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, spans the time between a young woman's high school final exams and her graduation. Her father, a doctor, and mother, a librarian, though estranged (he sleeps on the couch and has a lover), both dote on their daughter, and their highest concern is her well-being. The girl is an excellent student, but the day before her exams she is attacked by a would-be rapist - in the scuffle her wrist is broken, but her violation goes far deeper than bones in a cast.

Her father, a precise, methodical, and - yes - kind man, is determined to see her go to university in the UK where she has been offered a scholarship (contingent on high exam scores). He will do anything to make that plan happen. The assault is one more reason - Romania, for him, is a dead end. He and his wife are stuck there, but for their daughter, it is not too late. She must leave.

The film opens with a rock shattering a window of their ground-floor apartment - the doctor certainly has a point about the benefits of living elsewhere - and he has labored to give her the chance to escape. But after the assault she gets cold feet.

Strip away the differences between Romania's culture and our own, and the film boils down to a father wanting what he is convinced is best for his near-adult daughter, with his intentions overriding her own desires and distractions. Graduation is about leaving one phase of life to move into the next. The impossibility of planting your own experience directly into the heart and mind of a grown child is on painful display here - you have learned the hard way what you should have done, but she, rationally or not, has to make her own choices.


For a parent, relinquishing control can mean one's life has truly been wasted - you didn't save yourself, and you can't save her either. But she's no longer yours to control - to insist on obedience is to keep her dependent, unable to be any kind of adult. In the end, that stunting is probably a worse trap than whatever limits her bad decisions impose. Mungiu's sympathy for all his characters forces us to recognize that everyone, no matter how corrupt or self-serving, is just trying to make the best of the life they're stuck in. Futility outranks evil in his compromised worldview.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Lost Time Accidents, by John Wray

This 2016 novel is a mashup of ideas from Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (Sirens of Titan and Slaughterhouse Five), Thomas Pynchon (Gravity's Rainbow), and P.D. Ouspensky (A New Model of the Universe). Wray probes Time, and the possibilities of time travel and what that might mean to the power-hungry, through the lives of a singular family.

The Lost Time Accidents are the grail pursued by the offspring of Ottokar Gottfried Toula, a Czech gherkin-maker with a hobbyist's interest in time. In 1903 he discovers something about its nature, writes a few cryptic sentences, and is hit by a car and dies before he can explain further. His sons, Kaspar and Waldemar, move to Vienna and study physics. Their work coincides with publication of the Theory of General Relativity; the family feels Einstein has trespassed on their understanding of time, and ever after, they refer to him only as the Patent Clerk. Contempt for him feeds Waldemar's anti-Semitism.

Kaspar and Waldemar part on chilly terms as students: Kaspar marries the daughter of his Jewish professor, and Waldemar decamps to Czechoslovakia where privation begins his transformation into the monster he will become, the Nazis' Black Timekeeper of Czas, performing unspeakable experiments on Jewish subjects in a camp where he has complete autonomy. Kaspar and Sonja and their twin daughters leave Vienna as Nazism descends. Sonja dies en route to America, and Kaspar takes the girls to Buffalo where he joins a watchmaking company. He marries again eventually, and his son Orson, raised primarily by the twins, becomes a prolific author of pornographic sci-fi, his output reminiscent of Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout. These twins, Enzian and Gentian, function as an isolated dyad, Enzian the theorist and Gentian the practical one; they decamp to a building in Harlem where they can pursue their experiments, Enzian thinking and studying and working on time travel devices while Gentian becomes a local character, enjoying city life on her shopping expeditions.

Orson finally writes a real novel, a thinly-disguised account of his eccentric family and their preoccupation with time, which because it is published in 1969, becomes a runaway bestseller. The Revelations-like final section spurs formation of a cult, the U.S. Church of Synchronology (UCS), derisively dubbed the Fuzzy Fruits by Orson. He marries a student boarding at his house, and they have a son, named Waldemar by Enzian and Gentian. This young man is the narrator of this tale, and it falls to him to find the solution to his great-grandfather's Lost Time Accidents, and to discover how his namesake disappeared when the prison camp he ran was liberated by the Soviets. The story is told, in alternating sections, as a family history and a series of letters - confessions might be a better word - to his clandestine lover, the wife of the founder of the UCS.

If all that sounds convoluted, it is. To Wray's credit, he dodges the main pitfall of time travel stories: altering the past which alters the present. And he's a witty and vivid writer:
"The Xanthia T. Lasdun Memorial Ocean-View Manor & Garden was a thirty-six-chambered assisted-living facility in Bensonhurst, with that bleary, nicotine-stained shabbiness every neo-Tudor building in the world seems to exude. Its garden, as far as I could determine, was the condom-festooned median of lower Bay Parkway, and its ocean was the droning, alluvial parkway itself."
But Wray does enough name-dropping (Sonja models for Gustav Klimt, and Kaspar sits in on a discussion between Wittgenstein and another luminary) to remind me of people who've done past-life regressions and concluded they were Cleopatra, Napoleon, Michelangelo - never anyone ordinary.

In a mystery, which this story is in essence, it's important that the resolution be worth the effort it takes to get there. Well, not for me. Maybe Mr. Wray should read some more Ouspensky, or study Vonnegut's storytelling art. Vonnegut, you see, doesn't do suspense. He'll tell you in the moment of introducing someone, how and when that character dies, or accomplishes something or fails to. This frees him from the burden of coming up with a blockbuster climax, and allows the reader to focus on other aspects of the story. Not a bad strategy, when you don't have a breakthrough vision.