Back To Basics: Jezebel by Irene Nemirovsky

on Saturday, September 25, 2010
It's been almost five years since the literary supernova that was Irene Nemirovsky's unfinished masterpiece Suite Francaise, and the steady flow of novels by this once forgotten Frenchwoman shows no signs of abating. Every six months it seems we are hit with a new translation, each one a literary gem in its own right. How Nemirovsky could have disappeared into the ether for so long is quite beyond me but at least she is now back in her rightful place in the literary pantheon.

Personally, I have always been a bigger fan of her miniatures than the bombastic epic that heralded her return. Nemirovsky had an incredible ability to draw out the pettiness of everyday life in less than two-hundred pages. To wit, David Golder, which copped a good deal of flack for being borderline anti-Semitic. Suspect politics aside (I, for one feel the anti-Semitic reading is probably an erroneous one), I can't think of a better portrait of the detestably weak nouveau riche. Now, in a similarly devastating vein, comes Jezebel, probably the most disturbing portrait of vanity gone awry you are ever likely to read. I realise this is a massive call. Oscar Wilde would spin in his grave. Or shut me down with a pithy aside. But Jezebel towers over The Picture of Dorian Gray. Yep, I said it.

Never before have I been so moved to despise a lead character as much as Gladys Eysenach. As the novel opens, this faux-sophisticate is on trial for the murder of a young man, presumed to be her lover. An initial surreal swirl of courtroom drama gives way to the story of Eysenach's decline, marked by selfishness and a vanity so consuming that it literally destroys all around her. Eysenach is petrified of ageing, but even more so of people knowing that she is ageing. At sixty she is said to look thirty. She takes lovers half her age. She gives away a son at birth, and forces a daughter to become party to her lies. It is a damning portrait Nemirovsky paints, one inspired, or so it was said at the time of publication, by her own mother.

There is an element of mystery about the identity of the murdered lover, but Nemirovsky is less concerned about writing some sort of whydunnit than she is in exploring the psyche of this awful woman. Indeed, it becomes increasingly apparent that the tears Eysenach sheds in the courtroom at the start of the book aren't born of remorse or guilt for murdering her own son, but a realisation that her age will finally be unveiled. I suspect Jezebel may draw criticism for misogyny just as David Golder did for anti-Semitism, ruminating as it does on what Nemirovsky sees as a stereotypical feminine trait, but to so accuse would be missing the point of the book. Jezebel is a character study beyond par and, in my humble opinion, Nemirovsky's best book.

On Second Thought: Avoiding the Booker Bookie

on Wednesday, September 15, 2010
David Mitchell must be swimming laps in a pool of tears right now. Yes, much to the dismay of his legions of fans (and, I dare say a fair few punters), he was omitted from the Booker Prize shortlist and so will have to line up again next time for his little slice of literary immortality. Turns out the safe money was not on him. When the list was announced a couple of weeks ago, the litosphere went nuts. Meanwhile, I was chilling out in my secret cave, trying to be zen with bookish news, resisting the compulsion to add my two cents. I'm usually the king of knee-jerk reactions but I'm glad I held back this time. It's given me a chance to think about the shortlist - to not sound like the sort of idiot who would rush to his local bookie and place $200 on Mister Pip to win in 2007. Or, practically hand the award to David Mitchell the second his new book is published. Ahem... Anyway, blog confessional therapy aside, I have to say it's a pretty good list. The books this year are, well, readable. It has been a strong year for literature and even though I might not agree with all the inclusions, I'm happy to see compelling literary fiction in such healthy form. Thus far I have only read Damon Galgut's In a Strange Room, and am three quarters of the way through Emma Donoghue's Room. The other four are on my nightstand, giving the rest of my September a bit of purpose. Seeing as I read the entire shortlist every year, I feel I ought to thank the judges. There are no overly long dirges. Galgut aside, they are novels in the traditional sense (yep, even Tom McCarthy). Slice my thumb with a pice of paper, there's even some comedy to be found here (and I'm back to harbouring a not-so-secret wish that Howard Jacobson wins). Peter Carey can go juggle his two previous Booker Prizes as far as I'm concerned because, good a writer as he may be, he does not deserve a third before the likes of Rushdie or Coetzee. C'mon folks - hand it over to Jacobson or Andrea Levy already and stop my kvetching!

The Books That Made Me (...and a Driving Lesson)

on Saturday, September 11, 2010
Is there no end to my nerdy bookishness? As if spending every spare minute reading wasn't enough, I've taken to listening to literary podcasts while I drive. Ok, so to be honest I first tried reading while I drive, which worked for a while until I cruised through a red red light late one night and got taken out by a drunk driver. Not my finest moment. Thankfully everyone was ok. It did, however, force me to rethink my driving habits, and so I discovered the magic of the book podcast (I have yet to make the leap to Audiobooks. I'll save that for when my diabetes sends me blind).

Now, I'm not going to harp on here about the various podcasts I listen to - I'll save that for another day - but I do want to make special mention of The Guardian's new pod-series "Books That Made Me". In each episode, an author of note nominates the five or six books that have most influenced them, not just as writers, but as people. There have only been three episodes thus far, but the series has already proven a little treasure trove of literary trivia, whimsy and, at times, deep artistic reflection. The authors profiled, China Mieville, Michael Rosen and Penelope Lively, have all picked an interesting array of works, some well-known, others painfully obscure; some of which I've wanted to hunt down and others that have just brought a befuddled smirk to my face.

Somehow I doubt that The Guardian is ever likely to approach me for my list, so I've decided to give it a go here on Bait For Bookworms. It's a difficult task. It doesn't mean picking my favourite books. I spent a whole month recounting those when I started off writing this blog. No, these are books that, at various stages of my life, have really shaped my greater worldview, or set me on a particular path. So dear readers, Kindle addicts and editors of The Guardian newspaper, here are the books that made this bookworm:

1. The Encyclopaedia Brown Series. Damn that Brown kid was smart. I guess with a name like Encyclopaedia he was never going to be a muscly, steroid-munching jock. For primary school me he was the perfect companion, helping me pass the friendless playtimes while teaching me that the search for truth and justice could be an intellectual joyride; the perfect fodder for the a kid destined for a career in public criminal defence.

2. I Am The Cheese by Robert Cormier. The only one of my 'favourite' books to make the list, I Am The Cheese still blows me away every time I read it. It shattered my cosy, private school view of how the world worked and taught me to question authority. It also kick started my love of 'mindfuck' novels. It was a small step from Cormier to Kafka, Perec and Beckett.

3. Cahoots Macbeth by Tom Stoppard. Back in high school, I played the part of the Inspector in a production of this brilliant play and managed to win the Best Actor award in the House Play Competition. Go me! Stoppard's tale of an underground Czech theatre group secretly putting on plays in defiance of the oppressive Communist rule not only gave my love of theatre a serious jab of adrenalin, but also got me thinking about the transcendent power of creative art, the importance of artistic freedom and the peculiar (and funny) nature of language.

4. The Telltale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe/In The Penal Settlement by Franz Kafka/Bontshe The Silent by I.L. Peretz. Ok, I'm cheating. Rather than nominating a single book, I want to put in three amazing short stories. As examples of the form they stand above anything else I've read. As introductions to three great writers, they are quite simply perfect. Each is an emotional uppercut in its own right - distilled lessons about justice, consequences and humility. They say more in a few pages than the vast majority of books I've suffered through in the past thirty-odd years.

5. Baddenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld. Appelfeld doesn't catalogue the horrors of the Nazi machine, preferring his stories to inhabit the margins and silences. Baddenheim 1939, set in a snooty health spa just as the transports to the East were beginning, is all the more powerful for its evocation of denial and the ominous atmosphere of dread that pervades even the most frivolous activities. It is Holocaust literature of the most refined, devastating variety.

6. Small Gods by Terry Pratchett. Throughout my twenties I searched high and low for a rational explanation of organised religion. Turns out there isn't one but hey, if you want a good religious satire, you have to check out Small Gods. It is a brilliant spin on the whole 'higher being' schitck and remains the most logical religious text I've ever encountered.

Comment or E me the books that made you...

Back to Basics: Nemesis by Philip Roth

on Wednesday, September 8, 2010
The plague as literary device has a long and distinguished history. Albert Camus used it to devastating effect as a critical metaphor for France's cowardice in the face of the Nazi threat. Fellow Nobel laureate Jose Saramago's tale of a contagion that blinded an entire country was an equally powerful examination of the fragility of 'community', unmasking humanity's propensity to resort to base instincts when faced with challenges to its survival. Now the last great man of American letters, Philip Roth, has entered the fray with his new novel Nemesis, the story of an unlikely Jewish adonis struck down both physically and emotionally by New Jersey's polio epidemic of 1944.

Eugene “Bucky” Canter is about as far from the typically hapless Jewish Roth caricature as you could get. Sporty, popular, self-sufficient and successful, he only escaped being drafted because of his poor eyesight. Now the playground director at Chancellor Avenue School's summer program, he has become a hero to the small pack of Jewish kids in his charge. Yet under his chipper exterior Bucky is battling with the guilt of staying behind while his friends are off fighting in Europe. His personal woes are soon to take a back seat, however, as reports of local children succumbing to polio begin to filter out. As if the sweltering summer was not already a breeding ground for frustration and claustrophobia, the disease quickly reaches epidemic proportions and Bucky can do nothing but stand by and watch in despair as his beloved community disintegrates.

As with any epidemiologically mysterious threat, blame is thrown about like a weathered ball. The Italian kids, a slimy hot dog, the humble blow-fly, Horace the filthy local 'unfortunate', God and, from the outside, the Jews all become the subject of paranoid bile. When one of the playground children, Alan Michaels, dies, what is left of the community dies with him. Bucky eventually escapes to the Poconos to join his fiancee at the Indian Hill Summer Camp but is relentlessly down on himself for abandoning the Chancellor children in their time of greatest need. There is a brief lull and the novel drifts to frivolity, but soon enough polio strikes in the mountains too and Bucky suspects that he is the camp's Typhoid Mary, something for which he never forgives himself. Perhaps it is put best by the narrator Arnie Mesnikoff, one of the Chancellor playground kids and himself a polio victim, who observes towards the end of the novel that his former hero is "the very antithesis of the country's greatest prototype of the polio victim, FDR... disease not having led Bucky to triumph but to defeat."

It is difficult not to read Nemesis as a conversation of sorts with Camus's great masterwork, albeit through the more modern prisms of terrorism and economic collapse. Indeed, the two novels could sit comfortably as companion pieces, although Roth's is by far the more accessible treatment. It is also the more expansive, ruminating on the existential angst of an individual's potential extinguished as well as the wider panic that overcomes a community besieged by an inexplicable threat. The polio epidemic is the perfect vehicle for Roth to continue with the theme of mortality and all that flows therefrom that he has been exploring in his twilight years. But whereas Everyman was too caught up in a fear borne of the sudden realisation that the author might soon die, and The Humbling mired by cringeworthy sexual explorations, Nemesis finds Roth on the other side of his dark, intensely personal tunnel looking back at the demons he has overcome. Few authors could possibly hope to be writing novels of this quality and profundity so late in their careers.

The September Non-Challenge: Back To Basics

on Thursday, September 2, 2010
Last month I lost sight of why I read. Sure, I blog to provide you, the computer nerd and Kindle addict, with a bit of light entertainment at my expense. And the whole 'reading a few major religious texts and reviewing them in limerick form' schitck was kinda funny... except for the reading part. But those thirty one days provided me with no epiphanies, no moments of pure joy. If anything, I came out of August with a small degree of enlightenment and the ability to loosely define my religious outlook. Turns out I am an atheist with Buddhist philosophical leanings and Jewish traditional practices. What can I say? I love latkes, so long as no animal was harmed in their making.

This month I want to get Back to Basics, to the essence of why I read. And there could be no reason more simple - I read because I love it. It is the thing that relaxes me most. A great book engages and expands my mind more than anything I do on a professional day-to-day basis (Apologies to any criminals that I have defended who might be reading this... Yes, yes I know... Big assumption there.)

So I am not going to set myself a reading challenge for September. Instead, I intend to read purely for pleasure. There is a stack of new books by authors I love sitting on my bedside table (I mean the books are on the table, not the authors... That'd just be weird). Philip Roth, Jose Saramago, Gary Shteygart, Ismail Kadare, Hans Keilson, Hans Fallada, Karel Capek... and they just keep coming.

Right now, as I stare at the stack of spines, I figure I had best start working my way through them before the pile grows too large and collapses on me Homer and Langley style (though dying under a massive stack of books is a pretty cool way to go). No Gods will be angered, no dignity will be sacrificed. I'll just be my good ol' self, waxing lyrical and pontificating on a bunch of good books, not to mention all manner of topics that have been on my mind of late. You'll probably still get the odd laugh. With me, at me... Whatever. Happy Spring y'all...