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[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]

[674] The Magic Mountain – Thomas Mann

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” What was life? No one knew. It was aware of itself the moment it became life, that much was certain—and yet did not know what it was. Consciousness, as sensitivity to stmuli, was undoubtedly aroused to some extent at even the lowest, most undeveloped stages of its occurrence . . . (Ch.5, p.270)

Set in a tuberculosis sanatorium during the years immediately prior to the Great War, The Magic Mountain is many things: a modernist classic, a comedy of manners, an allegory of pre-war burgeois Europe. The plot is incidental: it revolves around Hans Castorp, a young engineer who just completed a training course preparing him for a job in ship building. Before beginning work, in 1904, he plans a short three-week visit to his cousin, Joachim Ziemssem who is in a TB sanatorium up in the Swiss Alps.

A human being lives out not only his personal life as an individual but also, consciously or subconsciously, the lives of his epoch and contemporaries; and although he may regard the general and impersonal foundations of his existence as unequivocal givens and take them for granted, having as little intention of ever subjecting them to critique as our good Hans Castorp himself had . . . (Ch.2, p.31)

The novel spans about ten years, building up very slowly by important details of hans Castorp’s past. Before his three weeks are up it is discovered that he himself has TB and becomes a patient, living there for the next seven years, until his departure just before the Great War, and becomes a soldier. Obviously, illness is decidedly center-stage in The Magic Mountain, but there is also a disturbing ambiguity as to just how much of Hans’s illness is genuine. Ensconced in his lounge chair, miles away from the cut and thrust of life on the “flat lands,” Hans finds himself questioning long-held notions of honor and mortality. Up in the “high, remote, narrow world under a spell of icy purity,” the passage of time becomes unnoticeable—in a way slippery and can no longer be trusted to behave as one would expect. He and other consumptives that represent the European nationalities, are trapped in such rigid regime of sumptuous meals, rest cure, and fetished thermometer readings. There are giddy flirtations and intellectual debate on disease, humanity, suffering, and love.

Man had an inalienable right to make knowledgeable judgments about good and evil, about truth and the sham of lies, and woe to anyone who dared confound his fellowman’s belief in that creative right. (Ch.7, p.657)

The book is long, challenging, and provocative. Reptition of routine doesn’t lead to a homogeneity of time. Instead it annihilates the regular sense of time. The eternal monotony of time’s rhythm in the sanatorium creates a sensation not even of mere repetition but of a regular standstill of time. Over time Hans takes up reading in subject matter that would help understand life—medicine, religion, and botany. Over time there is a heightening of his personality as a result of a quest that is a universal one: to pass through illness to rediscover the ethics of normal life. It’s the same journey we embark upon everyday. The magic mountain is no longer a retreat or social height; it is our everyday. As months turn in years, his stay in the sanatorium is not limited to a brief and terminable episode of illness, but a sentence without limits and without walls in which his existence, out of his free will and with the best intention of all sides, is bound to the ministrations and adjudications of medical expertise.

The Magic Mountain is a monumental work of erudition that requires patience and a slow reading pace. Mann contrives to create a sense of timelessness with tedious descriptions of the obsessive states of mind, intense antagonisms and imaginary love affairs. In the closed environment of the mountaintop, Hans Castorp achieves an individualism that is neither social nor religious, transcending even all politically determined morality. The story is simple but the way it’s told is complex, like hiking a treacherous, steep slope.

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

[201] Brooklyn – Colm Tóibín

brooklyn“She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything. The rooms in the house on Friary Street belonged to her, she thought; when she moved in them she was really there.” [69]

The premise of the novel is not new: a young woman who is torn between her family and her past in Ireland and the American who wins her heart in her new life in Brooklyn; however, in Colm Tóibín’s hands, it’s very engaging and hauntingly beautiful. Although the story of Eilis Lacey is told with straightforwardness, the simplicity and unillusioned lucidity of the language can be deceptive. When I finish the book, I come to appreciate the calm and plainness (which at first seems to be insipidity) that actually offers a rich perspective to a young emigre who struggles to find a place for herself in the ethnically diverse world of post-World War II Brooklyn.

In early 1950s, in Enniscorthy, in southeast Ireland, Eilis Lacey and her widowed mother depend on the earnings of her sister Rose, a bookkeeper at a local mill.Though skilled at bookkeeping, but owing to the miserable economy at the time, Eilis cannot find employment. Despite her intelligence, she settles for a pittance from working as a part-time shop assistant at an unwelcoming grocery store owned by a grumpy spinster. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor her in America, and little does she know that Rose has arranged for her relocation to better her life, she decides she must go for a brighter future.

Eilis’s character flaw becomes more salient as she embraces the opportunities of America. Even though she is far from being stripped of her heritage, taking residence at a lodging house that is like a patch of Ireland set down in a New York borough, bouts of homesickness overwhelms her. Now it dawns on her how much she has depended on her mother and Rose all her life.

Georgina, she thought, would know what to do, as would Rose or her mother, or indeed Miss Kelly. [43]

Between work in a department store and night bookkeeping classes, she has found love when she least expects it. Tony, an blond Italian, slowly wins her with patient charm. But being reserved and repressed as she is, Eilis sometimes is in doubt about the relationship, which proceeds on too fast a pace.

He was considerate and interesting and good looking. She knew that he liked her too, not only because he said that he loved her but by the way he responded to her and listened to her when she spoke . . . A few times in the dance hall, or even on the street, she had seen a man who had appealed to her in some way, but each time it was just a fleeting thought lasting not more than a few seconds. [148]

Her hesitation and fear are justifiable that she lives like an exile, in a country where she has no root. Even a promise of love, an invitation to bliss from Tony, rattles her nerves because she would have to accept that this is the only life she is going to have, a life spent away from home. Her decision (to stay in America and to get married) teeters precariously until a turn of event at home comes to her resolution, but not without a twist.

While some parts of the book are slow, but the subtlety and tedious insight are necessary to align readers with the perspective of Eilis, who is struggling to find a place for herself in the strange domain. Tóibín explores different aspects of her emotional complexities with a quiet skill, as Eilis hesitates between challenges of the new and the temptations of the familiar, until her predicament is resolved by a sudden change of climate. That said, symbols and motifs abound in the prose that depicts this struggle between living as an outsider and living as herself.

The novel also affords a myopic vision to the social psyche that was the “pre-melting pot” America. The setting throughout the book is racially strained and charged. Even though many different ethnic groups exist in America, they are rather isolated. Eilis lives in a boarding house in which the ledgers are all Irish American women. Tony and his friends have to disguise as Irish to attend the dances at the Irish parish. Most shocking at all to me is Bartocci’s opening its doors to colored women who shop for nylon stockings in special shades.

266 pp. ARC. May 2009
[Read/Skim/Toss]

Reading Notes: Change of Pace

After Gone with the Wind and Virginia Woolf, I decided to read some books that have sit on the shelf for a long time. These are relatively slim volumes, which are perfect to fill in the one week before I go on vacation on Easter’s Sunday.

nightingalesFormat of The Nightingales of Troy by Alice Fulton is novice to me. The 10 linked short stories in this collection, which follows the life of a quirky and resilient family over a century, track the lives of four generations of women from Troy, N.Y., where love comes to die. The individual episodes stitch together a novel. The first story begins in 1908, and subsequent stories are spaced approximately a decade apart, creating a colorful patchwork of the 20th century. Want to see how quirky this is? In 1908, Mamie Garrahan faces childbirth aided by her arsenic-eating sister-in-law Kitty, a nun who grows opium poppies, and a doctor who prescribes Bayer Heorin.

‘[I pray] that the nuns won’t stay more than three nights.,’ I told her. They had requested courtesy at St. Cieran’s Home since their Rule required them to sleep in a convent. But yours truly would have to feed and entertain them. How to do that was the puzzle. I only knew they liked looking at the Sears catalogue to see how many things there were in the world they didn’t want. [14]

chessThe Chess Story by Stefan Zweig is a novella that was completed and sent to the American published just days before his suicide in 1942. Travelers by ship from New York to Buenos Aires find that on board with them is the world champion of chess, an arrogant and unfriendly man. They come together to try their skills against him and are soundly defeated. Then a mysterious passenger steps forward to advise them and their fortunes change. How he came to possess his extraordinary grasp of the game of chess and at what cost lie at the heart of Zweig’s story.

What are you reading this weekend?

[193] The Spy Game – Georgina Harding

spy“There are different kinds of memory, conscious and unconscious. There are memories that the conscious mind goes over repeatedly, that are recalled, observed, caught like a snapshot of the time, and oneself in it, one of the figures in the picture. Memories like these become like history, fact-filed for recall, detached from emotion. But there are others that come back without conscious thought and that are experienced again, more or less vividly, like dream versions of themselves.’ [254]

Rumor had it that the Russians were placing spies in the West from the moment the division of Germany occurred after May 1945. Even at the end of the Second World War they were planning for the next one, training agents and placing them through the Allies’ countries. These spies live in their covers, awaiting a message from Moscow (or the spy ringmaster) to activate them.


On a freezing January morning in 1961, in London, Anna and Peter’s mother dies in a car accident. Since the adult world shrouds the loss in silence, and that their father, who is an English lieutenant colonel, tidies the issue of death away along with the things that their mother left behind, neither the eight-year-old girl nor her older brother believe that is the truth especially with the news of the Krogers’ espionage case. Knowing their mother was German though born in Russia, they investigate a family friend who was incarcerated in a Japanese POW prison and the suicide of a German piano teacher in order to validate their theory that their mother was a Russian spy. Their father’s clandestine work during the war also supports the theory.

There. That’s where she was buried. . . . I always meant to bring you two here sometime. Perhaps it should have been before, I don’t know. At the time it seemed best to keep it simple. We didn’t want a fuss. A fuss wouldn’t have been a good thing, would it, at the time? [230]

The novel is written in a way that promotes a sense of confusion that is natural of unreliable memory, which changes and slips over the year. The narrative rotates between the past and present and sets against the realities of history and race. Juxtaposition of perspectives, although renders reading more difficult and mandates re-reading passages, duly contemplates that one can never be sure whether a belief comes from memory or from imagination. Thirty years later, Anna heads to Berlin and Konigsberg (Kaliningrad), Russia to seek the truth, as she struggles to sort between fact and fantasy, instead of admitting the reality. Georgina Harding weaves together loss, history, love, memory and imagination to illuminate the significance of letting go.

We never did. There was no sequential reality to add to this interlude, which came to memory later in disconnected images like snapshots or a dream.” [34]

ARC. Scheduled to release April 2009
310 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]