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[831] The Days of Abandonment – Elena Ferrante

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“What a mistake, above all, it had been to believe that I couldn’t live without him, when for a long time I had not been at all certain that I was alive in him.” (Ch.31, 140)

The Days of Abandonment (Il Divorcio) is the raw, ferocious depiction of one woman, Olga, and her descent into disarray after her husband of fifteen years suddenly announces that he is leaving her because he is confused and unhappy. He manipulates Olga to call the shot of their separation. After he leaves, Olga has to care for the two children in addition to housework. She would sit in her increasingly disorderly home, writing letters to Mario and trying to identify the moment when her marriage ceased to be the mature partnership that she’d always thought it to be.

… and I don’t know what physiognomy he had attributed to me, what montage of me had made him fall in love, what, on the other hand, had turned out to be repugnant to him, making him fall out of love. (Ch.26, 124)

What makes the book so powerful is the voice, first-person, caught in space between telling a story and explaining, justifying to herself what had happened to her marriage. Reader gets inside Olga’s head, witnesses her erratic thoughts, her dangerous motives, her hallucinations, her rage, her pain and her desperation. This is when the book sometimes get too difficult and muddy. She plunges into this vertigo where she cannot help lash at society and turn cynical and sarcastic, and withdraw her trust in people. She’s in a purgatory of rage and bereavement.

Without herself knowing, she has taken absence of her sense and lapsed into a momentary loss of sanity. But it’s almost as if this trip to hell and back is necessary and conducive to the healing. She’s making decisions that have sure consequences. She’s in self-scrutiny but also self-denial. Between reason, insanity and survival, she continues to live. It reads like a monologue of someone thrives to fight, who might have taken absence of sense but never an absence of morality.

187 pp. Europa Editions. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

From Bulgakov to Goethe and Faust

“… who are you, then?
I am part of that power
which eternally wills evil
and eternally works good.”

Bulgakov begins The Master and Margarita with a quote from Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). Goethe was actually inspired by one Doctor Faust, a scholar in astrology and chemistry, a medical practitioner, who allegedly practiced blacks magic. Rumor had it that around Faust’s death in late 16th century, he had a pact with devil—which is more or less the very idea of Bulgakov’s novel.Needless to say Faust was repulsed by clergymen. This aversion explains who Faust is seen in European cultures (even today) as the archtype of the magician who sells his soul to the Devil in exchange of material and immaterial pleasures.

Goethe based himself on this historical character to create Faust. It starts in Heaven, the Devil is visiting God to talk to Him about one of his creations: the man Adam. To the Devil this is a contemptuous creation and he has objections both against man himself, as against God’s reasons to create him. God is convinced that man is basically good and he thinks man is able to stay on the straight and narrow path, but the Devil doubts it and he is convinced that he can lead mean, in the person of Faust, astray.

What good is the good if there is no evil?

The Master and Margarita Revisited

Stalinist Russia. Two men, a poet and an editor, walk through Moscow’s Patriarch’s Pond in the heat of the day. As the editor lectures his friend on Jesus Christ’s non-existence, a foreigner, impeccably dressed, appears, introducing himself as Professor Wolan, and tells them what he insists is the true story of the meeting of Christ and Pontius Pilate. Shortly after the encounter, within minutes, the editor is dead, by morning, the poet is mad and locked in an asylum.

Professor Woland is the Evil, in gentlemanly disguise. Within the framework of the book he is “a stranger”, “a visitor”, somebody whose origin is unknown. Then, after he mysterious acquires a gig at the Variety Theater, he is “a visiting celebrity”,”a famous foreign artiste”, “a magician.” He is more a social devil who lives the lifestyle of a wealthy gentleman than Evil. While he provides pensive commentary, his entourage of underlings cut out most of the mischief that wreaks havoc in Moscow.

The book is obviously a satire of the time it was written—and indeed it was duly banned by Stalin. In a city full of hypocritical bureaucratic mortals, Woland, ironically, is the honest one who sees self-righteous citizens and officials punished for their hypocrisy. Margarita, who is in love with the literary Master, is Woland’s only friend who benefits from this relationship–to be granted life (listen to this, Evil grants life).

The entity of Woland really tests our idea of what evil is, until one comes to see his place in a hierarchy that contains good. “What would your good do if evil didn’t exist?” he asks, “and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared?” Woland may be the catalyst for the chaos and death that open the novel, but he is also the enforcer for the final act of justice.

[808] The Door – Magda Szabó

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“The bond between us—produced by forces almost impossible to define—was in every way like love, though it required endless concessions for us to accept each other.” (Politics, 104)

In modern postwar Hungary (1960s-80s) an old woman who is now a famous author (who is named Magda) recalls the times when she hires an old peasant woman as her housekeeper. The novel begins after the young writer passed through a “political frozen” time, a period rife with censorship, and starts to be able to write again, paving her way to renown. Magda and her husband, a college professor, moving up on the social ladder, are desperately in need for a charlady in their new flat. Inquiry around the neighborhood leads them to Emerence—gruff, stubborn, proud, secretive, bluntly honest and highly critical lady who is a hard worker. More accurately, it’s Emerence who selects them.

All her life [Emerence’d] been like royalty, adjusting her memory to suit political reality. (Amnesia, 221)

The Door follows the intracacies of the young writer’s intimate filial relationship with Emerence. The book is a story less about events than about relationships, the gradual discovering, and awakening of who another person is and who one is oneself. The stark contrast in background—Emerence an illiterate peasant who is anti-intellectual and contemptuous of culture; and Magda an up-and-coming author who is unduly self-conscious—creates an irresistible dynamics between the two women, who make concessions along the way and strive to see and make sense of each other’s life.

They eventually become close in spite of their differences. Despite remaining stern and aloof, Emerence sustains Magda through her husband’s grave illness and bestows upon them a number of gifts that they resist at their peril. The greatest intimacy Emerence shares with the “Lady Writer” (as she becomes to call her) is to permit her entry to her house, to witness her secrets, to know her history. It is a unique privilege denied even of her family. It is also on account of this privilege, this knowledge to Emerence’s past, mottled with much tragic losses and disappointment, that an unintended, heartbreaking betrayal inevitably ensues.

The book is stately, full-blooded, and contemplative. It exposes the rich inadequacies of human communication even as it evokes agonies of Hungary’s recent history. Emerence is as practical, anti-intellectual and hostile to the church as Magda is abstracted, literary and religious. Emerence sustains on her values and morality, which transcend any religious teaching and political dictate. If she embodies dignity, she really embodies humanity. She ministers to the needs of many in the neighborhood on her own term and schedule. As this unlikely friendship evolves, there’s something profound and provocative about the meaning of love. To love is not to impose one’s own standard and values on another being, but to accept and to respect one’s choice in life.

261 pp. NYRB Classics. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[778] The Paradise – Émile Zola

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“She had been obliged to assist to the bitter end at this invincible work of life which requires death as its continual seed. She no longer struggled, she accepted this law of combat . . . she herself had been caught in the wheel-work of the machine.” (Ch. XIII, 393)

Zola’s 1883 novel that chronicles the life and extravagant growth of a fictional department store feels very modern, bearing a striking relevance to our consumerism today. Although it’s a love story, the book is quite a treasure trove for feminists and cultural critics, as it captures the social psyche of French people, women in particular, in their reception to the ambitious capitalistic endeavor of a department store, which drag the women out of their home into the public space.

Doesn’t Paris belong to the women, and don’t the women belong to us. (Ch. XI, 318)

The novel starts out conventionally enough, with a country girl’s arrival in Paris at the age of 20, with two younger brothers in tow. Denise Baudu’s parents are dead; she hopes her uncle, a draper, would provide work for her. But his business, as well as other small shops, have suffered tremendously from the opening of a large store across the street, the Ladies’ Paradise, which continues to expand and drive others out of business by cutting down prices. Denise accepts a probational, commission-only position as a saleswoman in the dress department, where for months other girls gang up to deprive her of sales, and ridicule her for her mild, submissive manner, and her lack of sophistication.

As one might have imagined, Denise’s career in Ladies’ Paradise is one from hell. It’s your Cinderella story set in retails. Life and trade, economic disaster and triumph teem about her. As small shops’ attempt to compete with the ever-expanding department store proves a dismal failure, Octave Mouret’s emporium has so captured the imagination of Parisian women that that take up the place by a storm, camping there as if they are in a conquered country. They even believe Mouret’s goods are more superior. To shop at Ladies’ Paradise has become the quo status. Amid all the commercial competition, the treachery and rivalry of saleswomen, the schemes of salesmen to oust their boss, Denise remains true to her values.

The Paradise is a rich tapestry of Parisian life in a period when the idea of a department store is a far-fetched idea that the banks are not willing to invest. There’s also the mandatory upstairs-downstairs struggle through the newcomer Denise, who against all odds manages to conquer the entire staff with her tenderness and modesty. In lavish detail and myopic vision Zola captures the greedy customers, the gossiping staff, and the vain obsession with image, fashion, and gratification.

438 pp. Penguin. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[767] Palace Walk – Naguib Mahfouz

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“Please grant me these things. I want to play as much as I like, inside the house and out. I want Aisha and Khadija to stay in our house always. Please change my father’s temper and prolong my mother’s life forever. I wold like to have as much spending money as I can use and for us all to enter paradise without having to be judged.” (Ch.27, p.169)

Palace Walk is the first book of The Cairo Trilogy. It follows the Abd al-Jawad family living on Bayn al-Qasrayn, or Palace Walk, in Cairo during a time of political instability. Egyptian nationalists have frustrated the British occupying forces with continual demonstrations. But there is a silent revolution going on inside the Abd al-Jawad household, where the threat of paternal terror establishes an ingrained custom and a moral imperative. Women are secluded from the outside world to lead a pure life. Their only access to the world is looking through the peephole in the wooden latticework that forms a closed cage on the balcony. Married to Ahmed Abd al-Jawad at age 14, Amina obeys her husband without reservation or condition. She buries her thoughts and feelings, trying instead to derive a sense of security by blind obedience.

The children are suppressed, all leading an oppressively prim life. They are all deferential to Ahmed as befit in the military. The oldest son embarks on a disastrous marriage. The middle son, an attorney-to-be, falls in love with a neighbor’s daughter and becomes a political activist. The youngest son, inseparable from his mother and sisters, sees through the family’s unhappiness. The daughters must conform to Ahmed’s decree that the younger can never marry before the elder, and marriage is pre-arranged.

The revolution and everything it accomplished were no doubt beneficial, so long as they remained far removed from his household. Once the revolution knocked on his door, threatened his peace and security and the lives of his children, its flavor, complexion, and import were transformed into folly, madness, unruliness, and vulgarity. (Ch.62, p.422)

But Ahmed himself is far from the pious man he appears. At home he is a tyrant; yet the family reveres him as much as they fear him. He assures them of stability and security. Mahfouz spares us none of Ahmed’s insensitivity, both his amorous adventures and tyranny in domestic affairs, but shows us his fears and anxieties as well, and even makes reader sympathize with someone whose life is composed of a diversity of contradictory elements, wavering between piety and depravity. He epitomizes hypocrisy. He practices false patriotism.

Mahcouz’s characters and his insights into the religion in their lives are great appeal of the book. For all the family intrigues, Palace Walk is more than a domestic saga. It’s the novel of the awakening of an entire generation, men and women, rich and poor, educated and uncouth, to the social and political realities in early 20th century. Mahfouz enlivens the tumultuous time in which people have to preserve their Islamic faith and cultural identity as they are overwhelmed by foreign, secular ideologies.

498 pp. Anchor Books/Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[766] Candide – Voltaire

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” If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others like?” (Ch. VI, p.29)

Ever since 1759, when Voltaire wrote Candide in ridicule of the notion that this is the best of all possible worlds, this has been a gayer place for readers. The book has enjoyed a great success and scandal. The ridicule of the Catholic Church has rendered it banned in France and Spain. Yet Candide has not aged. Despite the change in circumstances, Candide is timeless, even more relevant today in its lambasting the vices of men. It is a fiercely relentless attack of men’s vices, unleashing against the evils of religions fanaticism, war, colonialism, slavery, avarice, and mass atrocities.

The villainy of mankind presented itself to his mind in all its deformity, and in his mind dwelt only on gloomy thoughts. (Ch. XIX, p.79)

Candide is a philosophical tale; a fast-moving and entertaining story combining adventures and voyages with an underlying moral theme. It’s the story of Candide, illegitimate nephew of a German baron, who catches Candide kissing his daughter, Cunégonde, and expels Candide from the castle. He is then forced to conscript into the Bulgarian army from which he later escapes and travels to Holland. Mistaken that Cunégonde had perished with her family when the Bulgars ravished the castle, he sails off to Portugal, where, upon, his arrival, is hit by an earthquake. To prevent future earthquake, the local church conducts a ceremony in which humans are burned as sacrifices. From there Candide travels across the Atlantic to Argentina, Paraguay, and back to Europe by way of France, and finally in Italy and Turkey. His voyage is a chain of shocking events that open the eyes of the gullible young man, who has been instructed in “optimism” by his master, Dr. Pangloss, whose credo that this is “the best of all possible worlds” has been humorously but effectively shredded by the story’s end.

In short, this world is nothing but one continuous scene of civil war. (Ch. XXII, p.93)

The moral lesson is life is made bearable by useful activity rather than by idle theorizing. Voltaire condemns this rife complacency. The very folly of optimism is that the existence of any evil in the world would have been a sign that God is either not entirely good or all-powerful. The variety of horrors that Candide witnesses (and experiences) only points to the cruelty and folly of humanity. What makes the book a scandal is Voltaire’s satirizing of organized religion by means of a series of corrupt, hypocritical religious leaders who appear throughout the novel. They steal, violate celibacy, perpetrate the vow to poverty, and carry out inhumane campaigns of religious oppression. Though Voltaire elaborates on these sins, he does not condemn the everyday religious believer. As terrible as the oppression and poverty that plague the poor and powerless may be, it’s clear that money, and the power that goes with it, is the root of evil. This book is an intelligent satire that remains as fresh and pertinent today as when it was written in the 18th century.

146 pp. Barnes & Noble Classic. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Georges Perec

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The booksellers at Shakespeare & Company in Paris recommends Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec and introduces me to this amazing author. Georges Perec died in 1982 at the age of 46, leaving behind a dozen books and a brilliant reputation. In the words of Italo Calvino, he was “one of the most singular literary personalities in the world, a writer who resembled absolutely no one else.”

Life: A User’s Manual is constructed in the manner of a vast jigsaw puzzle. In it, Perec takes a single apartment building in Paris and uses 99 short chapters (along with a preamble and an epilogue) to give a meticulous description of each and every room as well as the life stories of all the inhabitants, both past and present. What emerges is a series of self-contained but interconnecting stories. They are all briskly told, and they run the gamut from the bizarre to the realistic. There are tales of murder and revenge, tales of intellectual obsessions, humorous tales of social satire and (almost unexpectedly) a number of stories of great psychological penetration. For the most part, Perec’s microcosm is peopled with a motley assortment of oddballs, impassioned collectors, antiquarians, miniaturists and half-baked scholars.

[739] Beauty and Sadness – Yasunari Kawabata

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” Even now Oki’s words had not faded from her memory. The dialogue in his novel echoed them and seemed to have taken on a life apart from either Oki or herself. Perhaps the lovers of old were no more, but she had the nostalgic consolation, in the midst of her sadess, that their love was forever enshrined in a work of art. ” (126)

This eloquent and lyrical novel allures to a motif, the strange and nihilistic self-love pf the character Otoko. Ueno Otoko has established to be a successful painter in Kyoto. At age 16 she gave birth to a stillborn child from a forbidden love affair with a married man, Oki Toshio, who is almost twice her age. She managed to escape from mental hospital after her suicide attempt because of her unrequited love for Oki.

I suppose even a woman’s hatred is a kind of love. (94)

The novel begins as Oki, now in his mid fifties, is on a train to Kyoto for the New Year’s Eve belling tolling, which gives him an occasion to visit Otoko, whom he has not seen for 24 years. Otoko, too, has remained single and unmarried since the traumatic affair. During the visit, Oki meets Keiko, Otoko’s young portege and lover, in whom he sees the full bloom of Otoko’s lost beauty and passion. His affair with her has been an instrument to his success in literary career—he used the affair with Otoko to write his first novel, which brought hurt and humiliation to Otoko but wealth and fame to himself. Keiko sets out single-mindedly to revenge for Otoko by seducing Oki and his son Taichiro, using her beauty as a weapon.

Kawabata’s story takes place in that ethereal realm that lies between abstraction and reality. In the novel her writes Oki has immortalized his passion for Otaoko. Otoko wants to express her sense of loss, her grief and affection for the child she had never raised in her painting. Keiko wants to prove her love for Otoko by seeking a revenge for her. They are all entwined in this destiny but that neither one of them is comfortable with this destiny. They are all connected in a morbid way, and so their reflections abound, multiply, and reinforce the same locales and images. In a sense, they are lost in the confusion between image and reality.

Kawabata’s style is simple and light, but the novel is carefully constructed such that past events are often called and accumulated in the narrative to render a timeless quality. Since there is a poetic flow to it, the book is better relished slowly, to allow that bewildering array of reflections on the part of the characters to soak in. The recurring imagery—those flowers, temples, stone garden—all ingrained in characters’ memories, continue to reinforce and distort their reflections, and this is what makes the book very literary.

208 pp. Vintage International. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Polite and Honoific Form in Japanese Language

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A passage from Kawabata’s elegiac Beauty and Sadness reminds me of the ordeal of learning honorific form in Japanese language class:

She was taunting him again. Oki came from the western part of Japan, and had never really mastered Tokyo polite speech; Fumiko, however, had been brought up in Tokyo, so he often asked her help with it. Yet he did not always accept what she told him. A tenacious argument would turn into an endless squabble, and he would declare that Tokyo speech was only a vulgar dialect with a shallow tradition. In Kyoto or Osaka, he would insist, even ordinary gossip was usually very polite, quite unlike Tokyo gossip. All sorts of things—mountains and rivers, houses, streets, heavenly bodies, even fish and vegetables—were referred to with polite expressions. (Strands of Black Hair)

Unlike most western languages, Japanese has an extensive grammatical system to express politeness and formality.

Since most relationships are not (considered) equal in Japanese society, one person typically has a higher position. This position is determined by a variety of factors including position within the family, position within an organization, job, age, experience, or even psychological state (for example, a person asking a favor tends to do so politely). The person in the lower position is expected to use a polite form of speech, whereas the other might use a more plain form. Strangers will also speak to each other politely. Japanese children rarely use polite speech until they are teens, at which point they are expected to begin speaking in a more adult manner.

Most Japanese people employ politeness to indicate a lack of familiarity. Polite forms are used for new acquaintances, then discontinued as a relationship becomes more intimate, regardless of age, social class, or gender. Polite forms are also used to make a distinction between in-groups and out-groups. When speaking with someone from an out-group, the out-group must be honored, and the in-group humbled. One of the complexities of the inside-outside relationship is that groups are not static; they overlap and change over time and according to situation. This distinction between groups is a fundamental part of Japanese social custom.