Friday, November 24, 2017

The Street of Crocodiles

The Street of CrocodilesThe Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading Schulz's work is like discovering my newest, best literary friend. Bruno, I wish you had lived longer, though your tragic end might have been merciful, given the later alternatives. It was a strange end to an author of strange work.

The Street of Crocodiles is a fever dream. It is the exposure of the bizarre from behind the curtain of what is "proper". The setting here is every bit as much of a character as the humans, dogs, and birds we come to know:

After we passed a few more houses, the street ceased to maintain any pretense of urbanity, like a man returning to his little village who, piece by piece, strips off his Sunday best, slowly changing back into a peasant as he gets closer to his home.

This abandonment of pretense is a running theme throughout these vignettes. Civility is continually stripped away to reveal the ugly, beautiful, rotting, shining underneath. Is it any wonder that the Brothers Quay did a cinematic version of The Street of Crocodiles?

Take, for example, the account of madness setting into a narrator's father:

Then again came days of quiet, concentrated work, interrupted by lonely monologues. While he sat there in the light of the lamp among the pillows of the large bed, and the room grew enormous as the shadows above the lampshade merged with the deep city night beyond the windows, he felt, without looking, how the pullulating jungle of wallpaper, filled with whispers, lisping and hissing, closed in around him. He heard, without looking a conspiracy of knowingly winking hidden eyes, of alert ears opening up among the flowers on the wall, of dark, smiling mouths.

He then pretended to become even more engrossed in his work, adding and calculating, trying not to betray the anger which rose in him and overcoming the temptation to throw himself blindly forward with a sudden shout to grab fistfuls of those curly arabesques, or of those sheaves of eyes and ears which swarmed out from the night and grew and multiplied, sprouting, with ever-new ghostlike shoots and branches, from the womb of darkness.


But Schulz is not only able to paint a wonderful visual picture again and again; he also has a keen gift for evocation by allusion, as when he describes one of his characters, Charles, meditating:

One of his eyes would then slightly squint to the outside, as if leaving for another dimension.

Brilliant. If I knew nothing else about this character, this one line speaks volumes about Charles' motivations and inner life, while causing me to be instantly suspicious, as well as fascinated, by this one strange tic.

At one step of abstraction further, we must note that Schulz not only provides mood, he describes mood in a way that draws the reader in, or, rather, infects the reader in the mind's eye:

In an atmosphere of excessive facility, every whim flies high, a passing excitement swells into an empty parasitic growth; a light gray vegetation of fluffy weeds, of colorless poppies sprouts forth, made from a weightless fabric of nightmares and hashish.

In a word, his work is incredible. Schulz will take you to the extremes of exhilaration and debilitating depression. His work fascinates and enthralls, like a dream from which one cannot awaken. Even in its darkest moments, I would not want to awaken from such an awe-inspiring literary dream. The "weightless fabric of nightmares and hashish," indeed!



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Monday, November 20, 2017

World War Z

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie WarWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am not a big zombie person. In fact, I couldn’t care less about, for example, The Walking Dead. I just am not into zombies. Never have been. Okay, 28 Days Later was okay. Okay. And Shaun of the Dead was actually good, but that’s because it made fun of all the zombie tropes. But really – I do not understand the fascination with zombies.

So, of course, I’m going to read World War Z, hate it, and give it one star, maybe two, if I’m feeling generous, right?

Wrong.

Now, let’s not kid ourselves, this is not a great novel, definitely not a masterwork of literature. Its prose is utilitarian. Interesting, in places, but lacking eloquence – maybe intentionally so. Because this is a novel about people, many of them ordinary people, dealing with an infestation, a war against those who were once family, friends, fellow-countrymen, but are now undead.
But it’s not about the zombies. Not really much at all. And this made it, not a great novel, but a good novel. It’s really more about what it means to be human, and all that comes from that status, good and evil. It’s about dreams, family, bravery, cowardice, love, friendship, terror, technology, survival, profiteering, pride, and regret. The zombies are merely a foil against which the human stories are set. And that works to its advantage. Sure, you’ll find a few harrowing accounts of battles with the living dead, but the most terrifying aspects of the book lie in what humans, driven by fear, will do to other humans. It’s messy and complicated, tragically triumphant with a question mark after it, sort of like life. It will leave you asking questions about how you would react in the circumstances, as presented. The answers might be a little uncomfortable. Would you have what it takes to survive such an apocalypse and, more importantly, would you want to have what it takes? The novel cannot answer this for you. In fact, it poses many questions to which there is no one good answer or questions that are altogether unanswerable.

One of the greatest questions implicit in the novel is not “What is a zombie,” but, much more poignantly, “What is a human”? World War Z will present that question to you again and again, and that question will haunt you long after you’ve finished the book, rearing its ugly head from time to time, like a slow-moving army of the undead.


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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn As Told By A Friend

Doctor Faustus: The Life Of The German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn As Told By A FriendDoctor Faustus: The Life Of The German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn As Told By A Friend by Thomas Mann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It took me nine months to read this book, and now I'm supposed to summarize it in a review limited to 20,000 characters? Pah! I don't dare even attempt it! Many others have outlined the plot (such as it is) and explored in greater detail than that of which I am capable, the parallels between the story and Mann's bout of cultural guilt over the Third Reich. Anything I say about this would only serve to expose how much I did not understand about this novel. And because I didn't understand the entirety of this novel, I will present my thoughts scattershot, with little or no context, as I don't have the capacity to provide it. My reading of this book, like my reading of Beckett's Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, has left a great gaping void where my brain used to reside, but a void more capable of being filled now, because of the beautiful trauma that has been inflicted therein.

Since I am ill-equipped to address the slow-burning, then fast-burning plot, the emotionally deep and most-often tragic characters, or even the many clever uses of metafictional technique throughout, I will concentrate, quite simply, on one of the central conceits of the novel: the music of the composer, Adrian Leverkuhn.

Mann has caught my innermost feelings regarding what I will call "avant-classical" music. The sort composed by Ligeti, Penderecki, Part, Crumb, Xenakis, Schnittke, and Stockhausen. I have a perverse love of this seemingly-nihilistic music, a certain spiteful soft-spot for the naughtiness of it all. The brooding goth that lives behind my heart delights in the sheer transgressiveness of the music, while I take great intellectual interest at the same time, a real fascination that I can't explain, but is a core part of my deep life. It's a mixture of fear and delight, a rarefied emotional state that makes me feel connected with the rest of the cold, dark universe. Mann's prose, while not directly explaining the feelings I feel when I'm listening to such music, hints at them in a sidelong way:

Contagious diseases, plague, black death, were probably not of this planet; as, almost certainly indeed, life itself has not its origin on our glove, but came hither from outside. He, Adrian, had it on the best authority that it came from neighbouring stars which are enveloped in an atmosphere more favourable to it, containing much methane and ammonia, like Jupiter, Mars, and Venus. From them, or from one of them - he left me the choice - life had once, borne by cosmic projectiles or simply by radiation pressure, arrived upon our formerly sterile and innocent planet. My humanistic homo Dei, that crowning achievement of life, was together with his obligations to the spiritual in all probability the product of the marsh-gas fertility of a neighbouring star.

"The flower of evil," I repeated, nodding.

"And blooming mostly in mischief," he added.

Thus he taunted me, not only with my kindly view of the world, but also by persisting in the whimsical pretence of a personal, direct, and special knowledge about the affairs of heaven and earth. I did not know, but I might have been able to tell myself, that all this meant something, meant a new work: namely, the cosmic music which he had in his mind, after the episode of the new songs. It was the amazing symphony in one movement, the orchestral fantasy that he was working out during the last months of 1913 and the first of 1914, and which very much against my expressed wish bore the title
Marvels of the Universe. I was mistrustful of the flippancy of that name and suggested the title Symphonia cosmologica. But Adrian insisted, laughing, on the other, mock-pathetic, ironic name, which certainly better prepared the knowing for the out-and-out bizarre and unpleasant character of the work, even though often these images of the monstrous and uncanny were grotesque in a solemn, formal, mathematical way.

-And again:

. . . a barbaric rudiment from pre-musical days, is the gliding voice, the glissando, a device to be used with the greatest restraint on profoundly cultural grounds; I have always been inclined to sense in it an anti-cultural, anti-human appeal. What I have in mind is Leverkuhn's preference for the glissando. Of course "preference" is not the right word; I only mean that at least in this work, the Apocalypse, he makes exceptionally frequent use of it, and certainly these images of terror offer a most tempting and at the same time most legitimate occasion for the employment of that savage device. In the place where the four voices of the altar order the letting loose of the four avenging angels, who mow down rider and steed, Emperor and Pope, and a third of mankind, how terrifying is the effect of the trombone glissandos which here represent the theme! This destructive sliding through the seven positions of the instrument! The theme represented by howling - what horror! And what acoustic panic results from the repeated drum-glissandos, and effect made possible on the chromatic or machine drum by changing the tuning to various pitches during the drum-roll. The effect is extremely uncanny. But most shattering of all is the application of the glissando to the human voice, which after all was the first target in organizing the tonic material and ridding song of its primitive howling over several notes: the rerun, in short, to this primitive stage, as the chorus of the Apocalypse does it in the form of frightfully shrieking human voices at the opening of the seventh seal, when the sun became black and the moon became as blood and the ships are overturned.

My dark fascination was inflamed as I read and recognized that Mann could convey that which I could not, my love of that dark, mysterious music. His ability to put into words, albeit indirectly, the feelings I feel when listening to this color of music, is, frankly, astounding. And while there were some sections on music theory that baffled me, there were long stretches of prose that enveloped me. The existentialist in me is in love with a good portion of this book. I can see myself hiding in its shadows frequently. Or maybe I can't see myself at all. And maybe that's the point.


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