Dec 132014

My Life as a Russian Novel: A Memoir, Emmanuel Carrère, tr. Linda Coverdale, Picador, 2011.

Oh, my goodness. Where to start and what to write about this always intriguing and sometimes infuriating book. It was marketed as a ‘non-fiction novel’, which I guess means that what takes place in the book is factual, but the narrative has elements we expect to find in a novel. Anyway, I liked it a lot and think it is probably among the top five books I have read this year.

Emmanuel Carrère is a French writer, journalist, and film-maker, and one of the shiniest stars in the French Literary Galaxy, apparently. I can see why. He takes risks and pushes the boundaries, and he does a nice line in self-deprecation, if not self-flagellation at times. Reading this book felt a lot like peering into the dark recesses of someone’s mind and seeing stuff that probably should be kept private. It would be easy to dismiss him as a narcissist with an Oedipus complex, but I think that would be too simple. It is clear that the self he presents in the book has abandonment issues and struggles with existential anxiety, but as the book is ‘fiction’, I think that Carrère has chosen to highlight that ‘self’ at the expense of his other more rational selves because it facilitates the narrative process.

The book shows us how family trauma is passed down through the generations, and how less than optimal parenting can affect a child’s ability to form healthy adult relationships. Here he is writing to his mother:

You were young, beautiful, and smiling at me, and I loved you the way I have never been able to love any woman since. None of them have measured up…

The entire book was written for his mother, in an attempt to help her address some deep-seated issues she had with her own father’s circumstances and behaviour, or at least that is what we are led to believe. I am not sure how the pornographic letter Carrère wrote to his lover and had published in Le Monde (circulation: 600,000), disguised as a short story, would really ‘help’ his mother. No, I think that was intended to punish his mother for her emotional distance and her focus on her career. I found the letter cringe-making and awkward and creepy, and strangely enough, the woman it was intended for never did read it.

The narrative is complex and complicated, and emotionally brutal. The reader is not spared at all, whether it be in being made privy to Carrère’s fantasies, his emotional meltdowns, or his confusion and rage. He just puts it all out there and to hell with the consequences. Here he is addressing his lover:

I can’t bear being this cruel, suspicious person battered by storms of panic and hatred, who runs amok because you wander away for a moment. I can’t stand being this sulking child who longs to be consoled, who plays at hatred to win love, threatens to leave to avoid being abandoned. I can’t tolerate being like that, and I resent you for making me like that. Deeply sorry for myself, I sob as you stroke my hair. I feel awful. I detest myself, and it feels good.

Clearly, the self Carrère presents in his narrative has transference issues and it is the painful working through of these feelings and emotions that form the bedrock of the book. Initially, he went to Kotelnich as a journalist, intending to cover a news story there. Kotelnich is a down-at-heel Russian town that became increasingly significant to Carrère as he became entangled in the lives of some of the people living there. The book, which evolved from the notebooks he kept at the time, is an intricate web of mirroring, parallels, and similarities: a White Russian grandfather who was disappeared as a German collaborator after World War II, and a found elderly Hungarian man who had been captured during the war and incarcerated in a psychiatric institute at Kotelnich for fifty-three years; a child who had spoken Russian and struggled to re-learn the language as an adult, and a man who had ‘lost’ his language and was unable to communicate with the world; a woman who ‘lost’ her father when he disappeared, and a boy who ‘lost’ his mother due to her grief, and then witnessing a friend lose his sanity after his wife and child are murdered; a man who was afraid of replicating his grandfather’s madness and desperate to find a way past the doom-laden age his grandfather was when he disappeared, and a cousin who was unable, or unwilling, to find a way through this dilemma.

Carrère writes beautifully, or at least Linda Coverdale’s translation is beautiful. The prose is spare and to-the-point, and there are lovely word pictures. Here he is writing about his grandmother:

Since there was no love lost among the mother and two siblings, they went their separate ways, and Nathalie de Pelken – who although she could not be a happy young woman should at least have been wealthy – arrived in Paris in 1925, alone in the world and without a sou. Her main trump card for survival was the five languages she knew: Russian, Italian, English, German, and French. As for her other assets, she had mostly studied watercolour painting. One can just imagine this poor but noble Russian girl of delicate health, with her perfectly oval face and her hair parted down the middle, in a boarding house for Katherine Mansfield heroines…

I found so many things to like in the book, even though it was uncomfortable to read. Carrère struggles with his depression, rage, and sadness, and I found the book emotionally overwhelming, often cruel, and bone-achingly sad, but also deeply self-aware and thought-provoking. It seems to me that Carrère is a man who refuses to go under and, ultimately, despite all his self-sabotage, he just keeps on striking out towards the other side.

I want to watch the film Retour a Kotelnitch and REALLY wish I understood French a LOT better than I do! Oh, to be multi-lingual like people in Europe, who often have five or six languages and think nothing of it.

Dec 072014

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner, Scribner, 2013.

This may well be my stand-out read of the year. The writing is intelligent, insightful, funny, and sometimes very beautiful. I think that Kushner is really quite brilliant to have pulled together so many seemingly disparate strands and woven them into a narrative that is about the intersection of art and politics.

A young female art school graduate from Nevada heads to New York with the intention of finding her way into the happening art scene. It is 1975, a time of political anarchy and artistic revolution. We never learn her name, but one of the men she meets calls her Reno and the name sticks. She is beautiful, blonde, tall, naive, and has a wide-eyed innocence that appeals to a certain type of trophy-collecting male. She is also independent and smart and into motorcycles. Her aim is to make land art, which becomes a possibility after she falls in with a group of Minimalists, one of whom is the second son of a fabulously wealthy Italian industrialist.

The life story of this industrialist is interspersed with Reno’s story, and I was wowed by the way the author pulled it all together. One minute we are being told about the lives of rubber tappers in Brazil, and then we are zooming back to ’70s New York and attending an hilarious artists’ dinner party where windbag men drone on and on and on about themselves. Then we are in Italy, reading about the Year of Lead political shenanigans, or about a privileged family living in a gorgeous villa, or about the grimy surroundings of Italian anarchists and students who want to smash the system. Wait, here we go back to New York and watch some performance artists making their art, or are they just people living their lives, and what constitutes ‘art’ anyway? There is a land speed record, a romance, real and invented people, real and invented art movements, and an artist who was a hoax in real life, but who makes an appearance as a real person in the book. See? It is tricky, clever, wonderful writing, and I loved it.

They were smashing and crushing every outmoded and traditional idea, Lonzi said, every past thing. Everything old and of good taste, every kind of decadentism and aestheticism. They aimed to destroy czars, popes, kings, professors, ‘gouty homebodies’, as Lonzi put it, all official culture and its pimps, hawkers, and whores.

Lonzi said the only thing worth loving was what was to come, and since what was to come was unforeseeable – only a cretin or a liar would try to predict the future – the future had to be lived now, in the now, as intensity.

I like the way Reno is an observer. Some reviewers seem to think that she lacks agency, but I would disagree with that estimation. I think that Reno watches what is going on around her, partly because she is so young and is still feeling her way into her life, and partly because she is naturally introverted and quiet. She is smart enough to know that she does not know enough yet, so she sits back and watches and listens. Another reviewer controversially declared: ‘The Flamethrowers manages to be a macho novel by and about women, which may explain why it has been received so enthusiastically by the critics.’ Oh. Really? The art world has always been male-dominated and still is. It seems to me that Reno and the other women in the book behave in a manner authentic for women of their day. I have no idea why the book should be deemed ‘macho’ because it depicts a woman who rides a fast motorcycle and knows her way around a set of spanners. The way I see it, Kushner has just put what happened in the SoHo art scene in her book. I listened to her being interviewed for an Australian radio programme and she mentioned that her aunt was part of the 1970’s art scene in New York and that Kushner has herself written quite a lot about American art. Given her accumulated knowledge, I think she has produced a mostly realist novel, but there is a layer of studied cool and few dollops of wild imagination incorporated in the mix. The writing is also clever:

[Y]ou know what I think of language? That it’s a fake horizon and there’s something else, a real truthful thing, but language is keeping us from it. And I think we should torture language to stop fucking around and tell it to us. We should torture language to tell us the truth.

Making art was really about the problem of the soul, of losing it. It was a technique for inhabiting the world. For not dissolving into it.

The images the narrative conjure owe a lot to film; they have the same grainy and gritty quality as the best film noir, and the fact that Reno is a film-maker adds another clever twist to the writing.

The man pulled the nozzle from the gas tank and jerked it at the woman. Gasoline sloshed on her bare legs. He resumed filling his tank. When he was done, instead of putting the nozzle back on its resting place on the side of the pump, he dropped it on the ground like it was a garden hose that he was finished using. He retrieved a book of matches from his pocket and began lighting them and flicking them at the woman. Each lit match arced though the dim light and went out before reaching her. Gas was dribbling down her legs. He lit matches one after another and flicked them at her, little sparks – threats, or promises – that died out limply.
‘Would you quit it?’ she said, blotting her legs with the blue paper towels from a dispenser by the pumps.
The angled sodium lights above us clicked on, buzzing to life. A truck passed on the highway, throwing on its air brakes.
‘Hey’, he said. He grabbed a lock of her hair. She smiled at him like they were about to rob a bank together.

Anyway, I like the book a great deal and plan on reading Kushner’s first novel, Telex from Cuba, before too long. This is a picture of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, where Reno races the clock for the women’s land speed record.

Dec 032014

J, Howard Jacobson, Jonathan Cape, 2014.

I like Howard Jacobson’s writing. I like the way he uses words and I like his sense of humour. When I read The Finkler Question I fell about laughing at his audacity and his ability to hit the nail on the head in such a unique manner. Jacobson has written a lot about Jews without actually mentioning the word ‘Jew’, which I find intriguing. He must take his faith very seriously, I think, and have profound feelings about being a Jew in light of world history and the Holocaust. In J, Jacobson gives us another narrative about being Jewish, but this time his trademark humour is mostly absent. There are a few jokes here and there, but this is altogether a more serious book.

The story is set in some indeterminate time in the future, in a country which seems a lot like England. Some time in the past, maybe in the 2010s, an event took place that is referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. As a result of this event, the unnamed country has become a dystopian cultural wilderness, with increased levels of violence, especially sexual violence by men towards women, no social media, email, or mobile phones, no easily accessible books, and no information about what is going on in the rest of the world. All of this is supposed to keep the populace in a state of passive ignorance. Records have been destroyed and no one knows their ancestry. The capital city has fallen into decay and people in the regions have become suspicious of outsiders. After WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, a government edict forced everyone to adopt a Jewish name. Was this a cover-up to explain the sudden disappearance of the Jews? There may, or may not, have been a pogrom that wiped out most of the Jewish population of around 250,000 people. People may, or may not, know what happened, but no one talks about it.

I have seen reviews of this book ridiculing the idea of genocide in modern-day Europe, but lest we think that this notion is far-fetched and implausible, we only need to reflect on pre-Holocaust Germany, a highly intellectual and cultured society, and think about what transpired there. Why did it happen? How did it happen? Who knew it was happening? These are questions Jacobson prods us to think about when he presents us with the nightmare of it happening again.

Another question to think about, which leapt out of the text at me, is the assertion that people are genetically primed for anti-Semitism. I had a bit of a ‘whoa!, recoiling in disbelief’ moment when I read that. Seriously? I would argue vehemently against this suggestion. I strongly believe that when it comes to racism and anti-Semitism, children are born perfectly unaware. It is only when they are enculturated into a social value system that they learn to differentiate between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Nevertheless, Jacobson proposes that anti-Semitism is genetic, which is something I find truly disturbing: I want to think that racism and anti-Semitism are definitely inculcated rather than inborn. I hope they are. However, it is true that most humans do seem to need an ‘Other’ in order to foster a sense of themselves. As Jacobson explains in an interview with The Times of Israel:

‘You need another people to tell you who you are. And that’s what “J” is about: If we don’t know who we are different to, who are we? You need the Other, not just as a scapegoat but to measure yourself against. I am who I am because I am not you.’

We can see this truth played out every day in acts of casual racism, sexism and discrimination. It puzzles me that many Australians are quite happy for Muslim asylum seekers to be locked up indefinitely in pestilent tropical islands prison camps, simply because they are ‘not us’. They are not-white and not-secular, and therefore are not like the majority of ‘us’. If the asylum seekers were white refugees from war and poverty, no Australian would allow the government to implement such a cruel refugee policy. The way that some conservative commentators are whipping up public fear about Muslims in this country is despicable but predictable. If you are ‘not-us’ then you are dangerous and we are suspicious of you. What a sad attitude this is. Perhaps this is what Jacobson referred to when he wrote about us being ‘genetically primed’ for anti-Semitism – not the hatred of Jews, exactly, but a genetic predisposition towards fear and suspicion of people who are not like us. Australia certainly has a long history of discrimination and racism: the abominable treatment of the first owners of the country; the White Australia Policy, designed to keep out Chinese gold miners; the discrimination against migrants from Mediterranean countries and South East Asian ‘boat people’, and so on. Considering our history of treatment of people we deem ‘Other’, it is little wonder that we are somewhat complacent about the attempted annihilation of entire cultural groups that is happening in places such as the Middle East and Africa right now. Maybe Jacobson wants us to think about that state of affairs, too.

J is not all about big ideas, though. There is a love story, of sorts, between a forty-something wood turner with OCD and a nineteen-year-old artist with unusually big feet. I was not terribly convinced by those two characters, Kevern and Ailinn, and I think the narrative tended to be a bit too concentric and took too long to reach the denouement, which was a bit of a non-event, really. It felt as though Jacobson had said all he had to say, and the story just kind of petered out. Still, the book was an interesting read and I think it deserves its place on the 2014 Man Booker long list. Part mystery and part love story, the book asks readers not only to think about profound moral and philosophical questions, but also to think about current world events, especially the conflict between Israel and its neighbouring countries, in light of one of the most terrible events in our collective history.

Nov 302014

Ludwig’s Room, Alois Hotschnig, tr. Tess Lewis, Seagull Books, 2014.

What a dark, morbid, grim little book this is. I should have counted how many times the word ‘suicide’ appears in the text, because it crops up a LOT. Anyway, Kurt Weber inherits a house and some land from his great-uncle, but he has to wait a considerable time for his great-aunt to die before he can take possession. The family is rather odd and Kurt’s childhood visits to the house are not exactly happy memories for him. When his aunt finally dies, he gives up his current life and heads off to claim his inheritance. Not long after arriving at his new home a strange woman turns up on the doorstep and demands entrance. He lets her in and she shuts herself in a room of the house for a long while, and then starts coming and going as she pleases. Is she real or a ghost?

Kurt begins cutting down all the trees that crowd around the house: each tree was planted to represent a particular family member and he enjoys sawing and grinding them to pieces. He visits a neighbour and starts learning things about his family, and then makes a discovery that helps slot some of the pieces of the puzzle into place, but there were many loose ends remaining at the end of the book and I still had a lot of unanswered questions.

I think this is more an existential meditation than anything else. The story is about the complicity of a family and a village in war-time atrocities and how the actions of older generations impact on the lives of their offspring. Told in bite-size pieces, the story flips backward and forward in time, and I was not always sure who was telling a particular piece of the tale. There are beautiful phrases, but they tell a sad, sad family history that is very much intertwined with the landscape and with politics. It may be the most singularly joyless piece of writing I have read in a very long time.

In my family there’s along history of suicide. But for each one that passed, another arrived, at least one. We’ll never die out. The little that binds us – ineptitude, malice, unreliability – is, in fact, our strength.

At some point I became estranged from myself, detached somehow, years before, and since then I’ve been running alongside myself as if we’d had a falling out. Since then, I live with myself as with someone else, another person. In the morning, I want to get up but he stays in bed and so we both stay in bed, I next to him, inside him, because I am the weight that keeps his body from getting up. Often I think he’s the one who has given up, not I, but perhaps it’s the other way round. In any case, we’ll perish together and therefore alone.

Was I ever really a child? Was I ever anything but a child? Have I ever been anything but the child I was then, not as they wanted me to be, but the child I nonetheless was?

Each person you open yourself up to, every meeting with someone new is a birth, a new beginning, but the truth is that it’s just the beginning of something you’ll destroy. It’s nothing more than that, never was, never will be. You lure someone into your own abyss, wanting a future together, you know, and then you see them drowning in this void. So you leave because it is unbearable to watch.

On the other hand, there was always pleasure in it, too, a craving, actually. It meant you were alive and that was worth a transgression every time.

You’re filled with longing for another person but you spend your whole life trying to avoid meeting him or her, so you won’t be disappointed again. Your entire life, you wish you were dead and yet you resist death at the very end, an endless watching and waiting for death to finally come, only to flee at the final moment.

As I said, beautiful phrases, but grim, black, sadder than sad, but also maybe truer than true.

I read this book for German Literature Month 2014.