Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Book of Disquiet

The Book of DisquietThe Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As I clicked the "I'm finished" button on Goodreads, I must admit that I felt a sense of relief. No, I didn't read all 544 pages of The Book of Disquiet, but I am, indeed, finished. This is not something I do lightly. Lemming a book is not my standard mode at all. In fact, I went through a sort of grieving process the last time I lemmed a book, which was also the first time I had lemmed a book since I came to Goodreads. I'm glad to see that it has been over a year now, with a lot of reads (some good, some great, some "meh,") in between. I consider myself a fairly resilient reader, with wide-ranging and exploratory tastes. I kind of pride myself on my reading stamina. But, in this case, I'm just sick of being beat up.

Granted, my expectations were high going into this read, but not unrealistic. I had read some positive reviews and had the book recommended to me by other readers who know my tastes and whose opinions I hold in high esteem. So, what happened? How did Pessoa break me?

It's not like the book is horrible. Not at all. Pessoa definitely has his own rhythm, his own voice. And though it took me a while to start to fall into step with it, I can still appreciate his ability to craft words and sentences. You don't get the kind of praise many of my Goodreads friends heaped upon his work by being a bad writer. Chapter 31, I felt, was brilliant. And if that was the whole of the book, I would have been totally satisfied. Unfortunately, that little slice of the ethereal was by far the exception here.

For me The Book of Disquiet's author was too presumptuous by an order of magnitude. And this presumptuousness takes a strange form: The self-deprecating mirror of the narcissist.

Believe me, I am all about self-deprecation. It's a viable defense mechanism for a lot of people, and I find that, usually, those who can be self-deprecating in a humorous way are some of the most "centered," emotionally healthy people I know.

But Pessoa takes self-deprecation to a new level. I knew this was coming, simply from the reviews of the book I had read. I was looking forward to some self-deprecating humor on the part of the author. But what I found was not very funny at all. Or if it was, I totally missed the humor. Rather than finding myself chuckling at the author's skewed view of self, I found myself more or less bored to the point of anger by the tedium of it all. Too often, the book slipped from healthy self-deprecation to self-loathing. I can take that in doses, but Pessoa rubs your face in it. I just got sick of reading about the author's view of himself as being, essentially, the coolest person in the world because he took an interest in nothing (excepting art - though I found his definition of art so poorly-constructed as to subvert his own arguments, if they can be called that, about aesthetics).

Aloofness is not necessarily the hallmark of a formidable intellect. Especially when one's own supposed intellect is the focus of one's entire attention.

Pessoa's love of himself, his love of his own sadness and banality, wore thin. Glorying in how pathetic one is really does nothing for this reader. I might have seen some of myself in him, perhaps wallowed with him in gothic misery (I've been known to do that from time to time), but my reaction to these boring, self-centered ramblings was to simply walk away and move on to better things.

Because there are a lot of better things, namely, a lot of better books, waiting on my To Be Read shelf. So, if you'll excuse me, I'll be going to pick out something better to read.

Oh, and ignore the whining man curled up under the desk there. Give him a mirror and please, please, show him out the door!

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Monday, September 12, 2016

Station 16

Station 16Station 16 by Yves Huppen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As you might have guessed, I am not a big DC comics fan. I've always been partial to Marvel and, even much more so, independent comics. But my favorite DC title is, really, one of my favorite titles ever: Weird War Tales. Death is the host, and he presents bizarre tales of warfare redolent of the Twilight Zone which, I am fairly certain, inspired it. In fact, the iconic television show ended in 1964, while Weird War Tales started in 1971. 1983 saw the last issue of Weird War Tales - the same year that Twilight Zone: The Movie came out. Twilight Zone Magazine had also been available since 1981, and one wonders if the audience for Weird War Tales had not moved on from the comic form to the (excellent) fiction contained in the magazine.

All this is to say that Station 16 would have been right at home among the Weird War Tales series, except that it's a touch longer than those tales and much better!

The mostly gray tones in the book, as well as the bleak setting, create an ethereal tone that extends well beyond the abandon soviet military base in which most of the action takes place. A sort of temporal fugue state has settled on the area with results that are startling, if a bit predictable, and 100% in the zone - you know which one!

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Saturday, September 3, 2016

Invitation to a Beheading

Invitation to a BeheadingInvitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Don't fall into the lazy-readers' trap of thinking that Invitation to a Beheading is just some pastiche of Kafka. This was my misconception for the first 70 pages or so. Nabokov claims not to have read The Trial before writing this work, and I am inclined to believe him, given the limited availability of Kafka's text outside of the German language at that time (Nabokov did not read German). But the close kinship these texts have is very apparent . . .

. . . at first.

It is not too long, however, before Nabokov's softer "touch" becomes apparent. The protagonist, Cincinnatus, is held captive under what may or may not be a trumped-up charge that really is not a charge at all, or at least not one that has a slippery definition, if any definition at all. Some readers excoriate his lack of emotion, his stupidity, but I felt some deep pity for the man. Again, things are not quite as they appear on the surface. A more careful reading reveals a man who is paralyzed by his fear of execution, but who buffers himself from that fear by probing for the answer to the question "when?". This dissociation of emotion is Cincinnatus' central conceit. But what appears on the surface as a lack of emotion is really a manifestation of his subconscious attempts to stifle the fear of death within him. By asking the question "when?" and receiving no answer, his attempts to know when "his time" will come serve to heighten his fears, rather than ameliorate them . . .

. . . at first.

The style throughout is varied. If pinned down to use one word to describe the oeuvre of the work, I would use "dreamlike". In fact, Cincinnatus, who sometimes acts as the directly stream-of-conscious narrator (but only sometimes), himself admits his penchant for dream:

But then I have long since grown accustomed to the thought that what we call dreams is semi-reality, the promise of reality, a foreglimpse and a whiff of it; that is, they contain, in a very vague, diluted state, more genuine reality than our vaunted waking life which, in its turn, is semi-sleep, an evil drowsiness into which penetrate in grotesque disguise the sounds and sights of the real world, flowing beyond the periphery of the mind.

This preference for the dream-state is another defense mechanism used by Cincinnatus to push away the angst brought on by his very real situation. Through this intentional dulling of the waking world's reality, Cincinattus shields himself from the lingering background horror of his sentence . . .

. . . at first.

But one of the more poignant scenes, for me, a heartbreaking scene, wherein Cecilia C., a woman who may or may not be his actual mother, enters the cell to speak with him, heralds the implosion of his shields, not by crushing his hopes. Not initially. But by giving him hope. Hope here, is the enemy, and ultimately, it opens the abyss of disappointment beneath him. As part of their awkward conversation, he asks "What's the point of all this? Don't you know that one of these days, perhaps tomorrow . . ."

He suddenly noticed the expression in Cecilia C.'s eyes - just for an instant, an instant - but it was as if something real, unquestionable (in this world, where everything was subject to question), had passed through, as if a corner of this horrible life had curled up, and there was a glimpse of the lining. In his mother's gaze, Cincinnatus suddenly saw that ultimate, secure, all-explaining and from-all-protecting spark that he knew how to discern in himself also. What was this spark so piercingly expressing now? It does not mater what - call it horror, or pity . . . but rather let us say this: the spark proclaimed such a tumult of truth that Cincinnatus's soul could not help leaping for joy. The instant flashed and was gone. Cecilia C. got up, making an incredible little gesture, namely, holding her hands apart with index fingers extended, as if indicating size - the length, say, of a babe . . . Then she immediately began fussing, picking up from the floor her plump black bag, adjusting the lining of her pocket.

"There now," she said, in her former prattling tone, "I've stayed a while and now I'll be going. Eat my candy. I've overstayed. I'll be going, it's time."


The solemnity of this scene contrasts sharply with the tone of bureaucratic silliness that pervades the actions of the government officials throughout. There are too many such instances to mention here. Suffice it to say that the utter ridiculousness of these antagonists are somewhat reminiscent of Toole's Confederacy of Dunces . This is yet more evidence of Nabokov's ability to write in several "voices," startlingly different, yet of a piece. At one point, my reading notes comment on Chapter 8: "Beautiful angst, like Beckett and Calvino conspiring on a stream of consciousness riff of awe with baroque frills" - a contrast to the whiffs of Ubu Roi that I occasionally smelled while reading. Which just goes to show Nabokov's skill in switching from tone to tone in the same novel while maintaining a feeling of wholeness. The man can WRITE! Often, though, I found myself wishing that David Lynch might do the world a favor and offer up a cinematic version of Invitation to a Beheading. He would be one of the few directors who could actually pull it off. Lynch's ability to portray what I will call "timeslips" on the big screen would be needed and tested. For example, imagine who you would film the following, a scene wherein Cincinnatus is escorted to a "farewell visit" with the city officials:

This nocturnal promenade which had promised to be so rich with sad, carefree, singing, murmuring impressions - for what is a recollection, if not the soul of an impression? - proved in reality to be vague and insignificant and flashed by so quickly as happens only amid very familiar surroundings, in the dark, when the varicolored fractions of day are replaced by the integers of night.

Many have called this novel a work of existentialism. And this is not incorrect. However, it is not a nihilistic work. What starts out floundering in captivity and darkness, with an increasing fear of inevitable doom billowing up into storm clouds in the background, resolves (a word you will rarely hear being used to describe a work of existentialist literature) into a manifesto of self-sufficiency ("By myself," becomes Cincinnatus's refrain) and a profound statement on grasping one's own destiny, embracing it, and stepping off into the unknown, with confidence and surety of purpose, with full freedom of being one's self . . .

. . . at last.

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