Friday, December 29, 2017

The Fall by Albert Camus

The Fall by Albert Camus is a short novel told in the first person by a narrator who is perhaps unreliable and absolutely unlikable. The novel is short and a quick read.  I chose to read it because it takes place in Amsterdam.  The narrator, Jean-Baptiste Clamence, is a Parisian living in Amsterdam, describing himself and his life and how he became a Judge-Penitent.

The narrator is unintentionally amusing.  When he says he is not intelligent, he does so in a way that belies his words, clearly implying that he thinks himself intellectually superior to others.  He contradicts himself many times, even when he says he has told a “totally insignificant story” it took him “a long time to forget” (53).  Naturally the reader immediately recognizes that a forgotten story, insignificant or not, is not one that could be shared with another. 

Camus does a brilliant job of creating a complicated who is not merely manipulating the listener (reader) so much as he is manipulating himself and his story.  The novel is not driven by any real action.  The narrator describes an incident that occurred in Paris, one to which he returns more than a few times, eventually revealing the implication of this one moment on his own perspective on humanity, the culpability that we all share.  Written after World War II, this is especially harsh, an accusation that all of humanity has in the role of what happened.  After all, while we might want to believe that if we could do it all over again we would nonetheless act no differently because all of us do the best we can in the moment. 

It is this that the narrator drives home, that our best falls short of what we think we are and he reflects the worst of ourselves back onto us with each turn of the short novel’s page.

Amsterdam by Russell Shorto

Amsterdam:  A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto is a look at the history of the city of Amsterdam with an emphasis not on the movers and shakers that created history so much as the ideas that undergirded the many changes that formed the society.  The author, himself, writes from a place of love; he was born in the United States but relocated to Amsterdam.  His love for the city, for its societal and political ideals permeates the pages.  In some ways, this also colors the results.  Slavery is only mentioned twice in spite of the fact that the WIC (West India Company) was directly responsible for the enslavement of over 600,000 Africans.  

Shorto does not, however, shy away from the role that the Dutch had in the genocide of the Jews.  Obviously, Anne Frank and her family hid in Amsterdam during the German occupation during World War II he states “75 percent of the Jews in France lived . . . only 27 percent of the Dutch Jews did” (267).  There is a subtle implication in this rhetorical choice, inverting the numbers like this. 

Although I found this book interesting, I didn’t find it necessarily compelling.  By focusing on the abstract of ideas—how consumerism, democracy, and liberalism all informed the events of Amsterdam and the ripple effect this city had on other countries, including, of course, the United States itself—the author lost me.  Abstract ideas are harder to follow and without faces and names to attach to, I felt somewhat adrift.  However, the city was not so clearly defined by people because it wasn’t itself driven by a monarchy.  For whatever reason, I was less interested in the merchant leaders than I am in the “into the manor born” rulers.  Nonetheless, I finished reading this book feeling like I had learned a lot more about Amsterdam and became more curious about the Dutch influence on my own hometown, New York City.  I will read Shorto’s book The Island at the Center of the World someday soon. 

But first, I have a trip to Amsterdam which is, after all, the reason I wanted to read this book. 

A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehouse

After going to Amsterdam, and perhaps because of the recent political climate, I find myself revisiting World War II.  I read many books, everything from non-fiction to novels, and watched movies and even miniseries.  It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that takes place in this moment in history.  And so I reached for A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead, a book which had been on my shelf for a long time.  

This book focuses on a group of women in the French Resistance who were sent together to the death camps of Nazi Germany.  The back story of the women is particularly interesting.  They have different motivations, from Communists who are eager to rise against the fascism of the German invaders to the French citizens who are subverting the invasion, following the inspiration of de Gaulle and others. Some mothers leave their children with other family members, willing to sacrifice anything but not risk everything.  Over time, they become increasingly bold and even careless.  Eventually, the women are caught, interrogated, imprisoned, and shipped via train to a concentration camp.  

While imprisoned, they draw strength from one another, support one another, and this profound bond is what ultimately empowers them to survive.  The horrors they face are familiar, to anyone who has read about life in the concentration camps, but Moorehead manages to immerse the reader in the lives of these women, making the nightmare of the concentration camps palpable.  This is why the book is easy to set aside. History becomes overwhelming.  

Moorehead carries the stories beyond their concentration camp experiences.  Those very few who survive are determined to tell their stories and most are deeply affected by what happened, emotionally scarred. None comes home unchanged and it is heartbreaking to know that the repercussions reach so far.  We are moving closer to a day when the final survivor will no longer be here to share his/her story.  I am grateful for those who are devoting their time and talents to ensure these stories are never forgotten.   

Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart

I can’t remember the last time I was affected by a book as deeply as I was by Rosalie Lightning by Tom Hart.  I have read memoirs by parents who have survived the loss of a child.  Some have been more profoundly impressive than others, have left me emotionally exhausted, but this is the first one I had to close repeatedly because I had tears in my eyes and could not read further.  Or I simply wanted to breathe in silence for a few moments before reading some more.

Yes, this graphic memoir is simply that good.  The images are rough and deceptively simple, not unlike grief itself.  There are allusions to classic comics, lyrics, and more.  None of these are gratuitous.  But there are visual allusions also used and they are so powerfully effective.  Nothing on the page is there without reason.  And every image, every word, every part of this memoir is breathtaking, bringing tears to my eyes, making me feel so much.  There are emotional experiences Hart has that are similar to those other grieving parents have expressed but at no point does this seem trite or cliché.  There is so much honesty poured into this graphic memoir, I can’t recommend it strongly enough.  It is not an easy book to read.  But it is beautiful.  

Shylock is My Name by Howard Jacobson

A few years ago I said I wanted to read all of Shakespeare.  A few years later, I still haven’t done it.  But Hogarth Shakespeare gives me a reason to visit the plays I’ve never read or seen and to revisit the ones I have.  The publisher has invited some of our best writers (including a few of my favorites) to reinterpret Shakespeare’s dramas into contemporary novels.  This interests me because I’ve always been interested in productions of the play that move the drama from the traditional Elizabethan to other eras. 

Intrigued though I was, I confess I was surprised they invited anyone to tackle The Merchant of Venice, a play I have avoided because of the anti-Semitism.  I know that some contemporary interpreters have given a revisionist, and more sympathetic, understanding of Shylock and the truth is I don’t want to try to defend the character or Shakespeare’s intention whatsoever.  So let me just get on with my review.

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare is the story of vengeance, justice, love, and manipulation.  Truth is, I didn’t like any of the characters in this play at all.  Antonio lends money to Bassanio who wants to marry Portia for her money.  Antonio borrows money from Shylock whose daughter renounces her faith to marry Lorenzo.  When Shylock demands his “pound of flesh” payment, Portia saves the day and Shylock’s soul.  Yeah.  There’s a lot to dislike about this drama although it does have some lovely language, as is to be expected from Shakespeare.  In particular, Portia’s speech about mercy (IV.1).

My distaste for the play did not stop me from borrowing and watching a BBC production starring Maggie Smith.  Great performances all around, although I felt Charles Gray as Antonio left something to be desired.  Still, it is well staged with the camera cleverly moving from actor to actor by following other non-speaking actors walking behind the speakers effectively.  And because this is a BBC production, it has the feel of a staged drama rather than a cinematic one.  I like that but I know some might not.

By the time I Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name I was ready, even eager, for a sympathetic Shylock.   I also wasn’t sure how the author could possibly move this story into a contemporary context.   Had I read anything by Jacobson before, I would not have doubted.  After all, he won the Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question and was shortlisted for it a second time for his novel J.  He makes one very significant change in the story by adding a character, Strulovitch.  It is through the discussions between Shylock and Strulovich that the author’s themes sparkle.  What it means to be Jewish in a society that is anti-Semitic , whether overtly or covertly.  And they are surrounded with characters who are clearly anti-Semitic, if not to themselves at least to the reader.

I can’t dispute that the author did an excellent job of taking this Renaissance play and moving it into modern times.  Unsurprisingly, Shylock is given a more sympathetic position within the story while the Christian characters, most of whom are given new names similar to those they bear in the play, are completely without compassion and become uninteresting.  It’s unfortunate that they have to take up any space at all in this novel because, as I said before, the most interesting and provocative parts of this novel are those moments when Shylock is discussing things with his host Strulovich.  However, without the insidious bigotry of the distasteful Christian characters, the two men’s discussions would not have a context, losing some of the veritas.   I’m all the more eager to read other volumes from this collection as they are published.  Next is Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, a take on The Taming of the Shrew.
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