Saturday, October 26, 2013

Artifice keeping the performance of our selves at a tolerable distance (Books - The Two Hotel Francforts - by David Leavitt)

I have been a fan of David Leavitt's work since his debut collection of stories, Family Dancing, in 1984.  Literate, deeply felt, somewhat otherworldly, they usually feature cerebral, quirky characters who feel they are outsiders.  My thoughts on his last novel, The Indian Clerk are here.  His latest is set in Lisbon in 1940. Two Hotel Francforts (Bloomsbury, 2013) also deals with persons in exile, in this case they are mostly refugees fleeing the Nazis.  This is where Edward and Iris Freleng, a wealthy couple who write detective fiction, meet Peter and Julia Winters, ex-pat Americans who had been living in Paris. Julia has been running from a troubled past, or perhaps seeking a new, more sophisticated identity, by living in Europe, but now, as a Jew, is compelled to return home.  Peter is a car salesman.  Iris and Edward are guiltily fleeing the abandonment of their disabled child.  Amidst this maelstrom of personal drama and the desperate flight of thousands of refugees, Peter and Edward have an affair.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

What we lose by keeping quiet (Books - Days in the History of Silence by Merethe Lindstrom)

Norwegian novelist Merethe Lindstrom's Days in the History of Silence (Other Press, 2011 trans. Anne Bruce) is an intimate unearthing of the most private spaces in an aging woman's mind.  Lindstrom's to-the-point prose makes Eva's lonely struggle come alive.  The voice is fresh, even as the moment-to-moment events are mundane - aimless drives, tidying the kitchen, struggles between parents and children, the indignities of aging.

Oddly enough, the great work this novel most brings to mind is Shakespeare's Hamlet.  Although the protagonist is not young and male here, but elderly and female, the inciting incident is loss.  In this case, it is loss of Eva's husband, Simon.  Simon isn't dead, but he has stopped speaking.  This may have arisen from a psychological cause.  During his childhood, Simon and his family were hidden from the Nazis by a non Jewish family.  This meant he was obliged to make as little sound as possible, and almost never exposed to air and sunlight.  He acquires from this experience a habit of silence.  He is a wounded man - having experienced many losses, and he also develops a shame around being Jewish - an aspect of himself he hid from his daughters.  Simon and Eva are both advanced in years, and one or two ambiguous sentences suggested that Simon's silence could also have been the result of a stroke.  But the exact cause is a wound, whether to brain or psyche is not precisely important.  The dismissal of their housekeeper, Marija, a key event in this novel, results in Eva's isolation.  Her chief conflict is whether she will sign a paper, urged upon her by her concerned daughters, committing Simon to an old age home.  Here is the similarity to Hamlet, because Eva is stuck, and the action of this novel might be seen as the unfolding of her hesitation, a paradox, since it demands movement from stasis.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

An Intellectual Tourist's Guide to Multiple Universes (Books - The Secret Knowledge by Andrew Crumey)

The Secret Knowledge (Dedalus, 2013) by Andrew Crumey was recommended by John Self, and I can't say that I liked the novel quite as much as as I liked the thinkers and thoughts kicking around in it - Theodore Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Walter Benjamin.  The year is 1913.  The composer Pierre Klauer is filled with excitement about the symphony he is writing entitled The Secret Knowledge.  He proposes marriage to Yvette, but only minutes later his body is found - a gunshot wound to the head.  Was it murder or suicide?  Or is he dead at all, since he appears in subsequent scenes in the 1920s and 30s.  In the present day, the pianist David Conroy receives the score of The Secret Knowledge.  As he prepares to perform it, he begins receiving strange visits and feels he may be caught up in a conspiracy of some kind.  Or is he just losing his mind?