Reconsidering Roth (Joseph, Not Phil)

on Saturday, April 30, 2011
German Literature was the great bludge subject of my undergraduate degree. Firstly, it wasn't taught in German, which is fortunate given that I speak barely a word of it (aside from schizer, but that's more from allusions in South Park to types of Teutonic porn). Secondly, it had the coolest, funniest lecturer, whose translation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is still the unrivalled standard in his homeland and who once entertained us with an hilariously mocking rendition of the Bavarian thigh-slap dance. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, I had already read half the books, including my all-time favourite novel, Franz Kafka's The Trial. The subject was, as I saw it, a chance for me to boast to a German native of my personal connection to my hero, even if years later it would prove to have been a load of hokum. But beyond the brilliance of Brecht, Borchert and Boll, despite the discovery of another all-time favourite, Heinrich Mann's The Man of Straw, German Lit was not a complete winner. There were a few dreary moments, not the least of which was Joseph Roth's unbearably drab supposed masterpiece The Radetzky March. Yeah, it was grand. It was sweeping. But most of all it was dull. I swore that I would never waste my time with Roth's treacly nostalgia for the Austro-Hungarian Empire again.

Then, recently, a strange thing started happening. People whose opinions I respected, and whose tastes have always been quite similar to my own, began extolling the virtues of the tragic imp. I had lumped him in with the verbose vomiters of the German old-school but, according to his ever-growing cheer squad, he was much more closely linked to the Walsers and Kafkas of this world. I was shocked. Nowhere in The Radetzky March did I see signs of malevolent, hidden forces crushing the average man. At no point was my mind, to use the vernacular, fucked. I did a quick search and was pleased to find that the majority of Roth's novels - and there were a lot of them (is there something about the name that makes an author so prolific?) - are short and so I figured it couldn't hurt to give him another try. Scanning a few blurbs, the one that seemed to have the instant appeal was Rebellion.

The novel starts off with a crippled organ grinder... A crippled organ grinder? Yes!!! This is already my sort of book. And it just keeps getting better. Returned from the first World War, where his leg was blown off, Andreas Pum is a hopeless beggar until he marries a fat, wealthy aristocrat (yeah, in German lit they are always fat) and gets a taste of the high life. All is going swimmingly for about ten pages until he is mistaken for a fake, wrongly considered the aggressor in the resultant altercation, decks a cop, and is thrown into jail. Through no fault of his own, the life of this simpleton-come-good turns to crap. And then he dies. Perfect!

Roth is cold and brutal about the societal winds of indifference that might just as well blow us over as lift us up. Rebellion is a cynical little gem, spiteful and pithy but kept in check by a true master. It has single-handedly changed my opinion of Roth and caused me to order almost his entire catalogue. Which makes me wonder whether I have to revisit some of the other German Lit disappointments - Fontane, Christa Wolff, some others I have chosen to forget. Perhaps it is wrong to base one's opinion of an author on a single work, even if it is held out to be their masterpiece. And now there is a deeper, burning question simmering in the backgound... Must I read another Dan Brown?

Frischin' For Luckies

on Thursday, April 28, 2011
Only a month or so after stumbling across Krakatit, a previously unknown (to me at least) book by one of my favourite authors, Karel Capek, it seems I've done it again. And this time it was even weirder. Every now and then I do an Amazon search to see if any 'new' books by my favourite obscure European authors have popped up in translation. Capek, Bernhard, Bjorneboe, Frisch, Hrabal, Lem. I know they all have works that have either never been translated or the English editions of which have long been out of print and so I hold out continual hope that spiffy new copies will magically appear in the field of search results. It is a generally fruitless endeavour. Once I found Capek's The Absolute At Large. Another time it was Bjorneboe's play Amputation. But for the most part I come up with bubkes.

Two days ago, for no particular reason, I did a search for Max Frisch and was glad to see a collection of his plays that I have not yet read. Naturally, I ordered them but, truth be told, it was a hollow victory. I don't really like reading plays. Stoppard aside, unless I'm watching them or acting in them I just don't see the point. My sudden inexplicable bout of Frischination had not been sated. Imagine my surprise, then, when I stumbled across a newly published, hardcover edition of a novella of which I had never even heard sitting on the shelf of the bookstore around the corner from my office. The very next day! Wrapped in plastic, no less!!

An Answer From The Silence, newly translated by Mike Mitchell (he of Kafka, Bernhard and Goethe fame), tells of young Balz Leuthold's quest to live at the very edge of existence. Leaving behind a fiancee and a lover, he sets off on a hike into uncharted mountain wilderness and disappears. Like always with Frisch, the narrative floats around in time and space, utilising flashbacks, shifting perspectives and sudden schisms between frivolous naturist ponderings and outbursts of intense despair. While Balz takes in the beauty of all that surrounds him, his fiancee and lover, forced to come together in the hope he might be found, must fashion an unnatural accord. In the great swirl of the narrative, Balz becomes something akin to Schrodinger's Cat, with Frisch seeming to posit that we might all be thought of as alive and dead until we rise above the challenge of merely existing. Balz's eventual reappearance is a hard-fought redemption. He has frostbite, will probably need his arm and foot amputated, and will have to sort out his love life. But, he is finally happy.

This short work, Frisch's second, has all the hallmarks of what made him such a great figure in modern philosophical literature. Resting on the twin Frischian pillars of existentialism and nature, it serves as an accessible, if discomforting, introduction to his longer novels or, for those of us who are already fans, a welcome alternative to having to read plays and pretend we like them. I'm now going to play in traffic.

David Foster Wallace's The Pale King: Tupac's Back Bee-yatch!

on Wednesday, April 27, 2011
David Foster Wallace has been a constant lingering presence in my adult reading life. That isn't to say that I'm obsessed with him like so many other people I know, but he always seems to be there, particularly at the major junctures. I started reading Infinite Jest at the commencement of my honours year at university and, though I read many other books while dipping in and out of it, that behemoth kept me company until the day I handed in my thesis. Indeed, I ended up dedicating the bloody thing to Wallace's masterpiece, much to the chagrin of many more deserving loved ones and acquaintances. Now, quite a few years later, The Pale King pops up just as I get my marching orders from my apartment. I am forced to move in with my parents until the new house is ready, an unintended consequence of which is the luxury of a few days straight reading. Three days, to be precise. No need to dedicate a thesis to this one.

I don't intend to bang on too much about The Pale King. Enough has been written in the blogosphere to make Wallace's own prolific body of scribblings seem like mere pamphlets. Nor do I intend to harp on about how his suicide in 2009 robbed the world of one the greatest literary talents of his generation. Frankly, it angered me, though not as much as the subsequent idiotic rush to print anything he might have jotted down. His Amherst undergrad thesis, Fate, Time and Language is now a must-have for Arts students everywhere. Except it is rubbish and should have been left in his adviser's filing cabinet. There Is Some Water, his 2005 lecture at Kenyon College, is slight and hardly important. And don't even get me started on Everything and More. It's starting to look like Wallace is the Tupac of modern literature.

The Pale King is, and demands to be read as, an epitaph of sorts on his writing career. It is the novel he had been working on for years before depression got the better of him. A relatively slight 560 pages - well, slight for Wallace, probably less so for Camus - it is about the IRS. Yes, that's right. 560 pages about tax. Now, I've read the Australian Tax Act. It is of a similar length. And it is the most boring collection of consecutive verbiage that I have ever encountered. Which means I approached The Pale King with considerable trepidation. Thankfully, Wallace's lyrical gusto had me overlooking the subject matter for the most part. Sure, there are bits that drag and bits that needed a rewrite or a good edit. But there are also large sections that just sing. Like the first Author's Note, about four chapters in, in which Wallace 'the author' intrudes to comment upon Wallace the character and the nature of autobiography. Brilliant. And like the Chris Fogel novella, probably the longest riff in the book. Infuriatingly boring and engaging at the same time. Then there is the chapter that, in my opinion, far outshines anything else in the book. Or anything else Wallace ever wrote. It is a protracted conversation between Shane Drinion, the most boring man in the office, and Meredith Baxter, the most (only) beautiful woman and it is simply breathtaking. Nothing I can say here can possibly do it justice.

The Pale King is unfinished, though I suspect it is far closer to completion than we have been led to believe. You may therefore choose to read it as a work-in-progress or, like Infinite Jest, a complete novel that ends abruptly without resolution. Choose the former and you have an enlightening glimpse into the working brain of a genius and will be left to wonder what the finished product might have been. Choose the latter and you have a spirited, sometimes spectacular act of literary ventriloquism on one of the most boring topics imaginable. When all is said and done, The Pale King isn't quite as great as some will have you believe but it is still worth reading even if only for Wallace's stunning wordsmithery (which, ironically, I don't think is a word). In that regard The Pale King towers above all the pretenders. And at least you won't be a total poser lugging it around. You listening to me Arts students?

A Feeble Excuse

on Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Apologies that this month is turning out to be something of a write off on B4BW. I'm trying to move house while ploughing through David Foster Wallace... A truly surreal experience. Full report next week! Also looking forward to reading through all 50 Penguin Mini Modern Classics in less than a month as well as finally sinking my teeth into some graphic fiction (having never progressed beyond GI Joe comics).

Fear And Self-Loathing In Paris: The Tenant by Roland Topor

on Sunday, April 3, 2011
Back in January I had a bit of a whinge about how my reading year had already been spoiled by the sheer brilliance of I. J. Singer's The Brothers Ashkenazi. Nothing, reasoned January me, could possibly hope to come close. Not to say I wasn't trying. I followed it up with The Border Trilogy for godsakes! But, as I fumbled my way through that and other supposed classics, hoping to find some spark of significance in their pages, I began to resign myself to eleven months of trashy magazines, vampire novels and pretty much anything written by Jodi Picoult. In other words, I was getting ready to give up on reading literary fiction altogether. Well, thank Franz I didn't because, in what can only be described as a random act of obscure reading, I stumbled across a work that has joined The Brothers Askenazi in my all-time top ten list. Take that, Women's Day Recommended Reading List!

Unlike with Singer's book, I have struggled to figure out how best to write about The Tenant, Roland Topor's nightmarish vision of big city alienation and paranoia. A month after the fact, I am still thoroughly disturbed by it. You may already be familiar with the story thanks to Roman Polanski's excellent adaptation, but chances are, like me, you will not have known it was based on a novel. As one friend put it, he had always assumed The Tenant was Polanski trying to out-Kafka Kafka. It is an interesting comment on the public's perception of the great auteur that the film is seen to have sprung from his mind, but it is precisely that perception which has relegated Topor to the shadows and denied him the critical attention he so greatly deserves.

The Tenant is a deceptively simple affair, depicting the mental collapse of Trelkovsky, a young man who moves into a new apartment following the suicide of its former tenant. From the outset, Trelkovsky senses something isn't right. His neighbours chastise him for the slightest of indiscretions. He feels he is being constantly watched. The neighbours try to involve him in a petition, possibly against himself. Worst of all, he feels the needs to change his ways in order to conform to their expectations of how a fellow tenant ought to behave. His descent into absolute despair, needless to say, is fast and spectacular.

Like the greatest works of Poe or Hitchcock, this is horror in its purest form, without the need for anything supernatural to scare the hell out of the reader. As Trelkovsky alienates everyone around him, as his paranoid conviction that his friends and neighbours are engaged in a dastardly conspiracy to actually turn him into the former tenant reaches an horrific crescendo, the book becomes as difficult to read as it is to put down. Indeed, the image of this haggard young man, fully dressed and made up as the young woman who had jumped to her death from his apartment's ledge, is even more harrowing than the denouement at the end of Psycho. And yet, I finished the book with a sense of euphoria, dazzled by the author's ability to toy so effortlessly with my mental wellbeing. Topor's trump card lies in the ending, where we are forced to reassess all that has come before and question it was real or simply a figment of Trelkovsky's shattered imagination.

I suspect The Tenant is the sort of book that lends itself to multiple readings and, as such, I'll definitely be back. I just may need a bit of time to recover before I do. Someone pass me the Picoult...