Friday, December 31, 2021

Books and other things read, 2021

Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera
The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton
Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol 2 by Edward Gibbon
Marling Hall by Angela Thirkell
The Misalliance by Anita Brookner 
The Age of Chivalry by Thomas Bulfinch 
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol 3 by Edward Gibbon
Val/Orson by Marly Youmans 
Latecomers by Anita Brookner
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
The Sea by John Banville
Metamorphoses by Ovid
Tales of Chekhov, Volume 5 by Anton Chekhov
"The Sin of Jesus" by Isaac Babel 
Das Mädchen by Angelika Klüssendorf 
The Death of Methuselah and other stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer 
The Legends of Charlemagne by Thomas Bulfinch  
The Baroque Violin & Viola, Volume I by Walter Reiter 
The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky 
Notebooks for The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky 
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett 
Fifth Business by Robertson Davies 
The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt
Melville: A Novel by Jean Giono 
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson  
Nocilla Dream by Agustin Fernandez Mallo  
Nocilla Experience by Agustin Fernandez Mallo 
Nocilla Lab by Agustin Fernandez Mallo  
The Amateur by Andy Merrifield
EEG by Daša Drndić 
Black Snow by Mikhail Bulgakov 
Violin and Keyboard: the Duo Repertoire, Volume I by Abram Loft
That looks like a pretty short list, but I suppose the Gibbon and Bulfinch were pretty fat texts that I spent a long time with. Some of these books left hardly any trace upon my memory. I won't name any names, because how can it matter, even to me. I'm glad I read all of it, even what I forgot while I was reading it. There is no down-side to reading a lot. Daša Drndić's EEG is an amazing book, I will say. Dostoyevsky and Chekhov never let me down, either.
In 2022 I plan to read more books I've never heard of, by authors I've never heard of. I also plan to re-read a lot of Chekhov and Shakespeare. Why wouldn't I? Possibly I'll start in on the second half of Gibbon's Decline and Fall, the three volumes about the Eastern Empire. I might could, as Flannery O'Connor once said. I note with some chagrin that the above list includes only authors from either North America or Europe.
In 2022 I might also do some more work revising my Antarctica novel, but as I said recently to Mighty Reader, there is something I still haven't figured out about that book, but I don't know what that something is, so I'm still waiting until I do. But who knows. Many things are possible. I will probably be writing fiction, but I don't have any clear direction in terms of a new book. I am not bothered by this lack of clear direction, since the artistic compass is a liar anyway. Probably I'll continue to expand the novella I wrote this spring, about life on the Colorado prairie in 1976. Ideas somehow keep coming, I'm pleased to say. I will try to get some professional interest, as the saying goes, in my Chekhov novel-in-stories. My prediction is that I'll be typing that identical sentence in my 2022 year-end post.
In non-reading and non-writing news, I have moved on to Mozart's sonatas for piano and violin. They are all extraordinary, all different, all startling and original. Great stuff. I will need to find a pianist willing to do some heavy lifting if I plan to perform these works. I'm starting with K. 304, which is the one in E minor, the famous one everyone plays because it's easy enough to sight read through. It has an exquisitely beautiful second movement that aches and sobs gently. Alongside that piece I'm working on K. 379, with its lovely adagio opening and then that bouncing semi-ferocious minor-key allegro that seems to prefigure the Rondo alla Turca from three years later. Et cetera and you are not interested so I stop there.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

a new development

 There is nothing more unjust than the vulgar opinion, by which physicians are misrepresented, as friends to Death. On the contrary, I believe, if the number of those who recover by physic could be opposed to that of the martyrs to it, the former would rather exceed the latter. Nay, some are so cautious on this head, that, to avoid a possibility of killing the patient, they abstain from all methods of curing, and prescribe nothing but what can neither do good nor harm. I have heard some of these, with great gravity, deliver it as a maxim, “That Nature should be left to do her own work, while the physician stands by as it were to clap her on the back, and encourage her when she doth well.”

--Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

I have discovered over the last couple of days that Blogger will not let me comment on Blogger posts. Not on your posts, nor on my own posts. So huh. I confess myself a little surprised that Blogger is letting me write this post, so capricious has it been. Possibly the universe is attempting to force me into silence, and who could blame it? I've noticed a tendency in myself of late to be a little disruptive in meetings at work, a disruption that wavers somewhere between belligerence and bafflement. Maybe I'm just exhausted by Zoom, as so many of us now are. I don't know, but even I wish I'd be quiet, and that, I assure you, is a new development.

Monday, December 6, 2021

I understood that in this book the narrator is investigating other people's lives, those close to him and not so close, to reach his own, and that in every search facts are not enough, facts are dead without compassion, without feeling and a bit of personal suffering.

Now I have time at a time when I don't have any time.

EEG was written by Daša Drndić in 2015, when she knew she was dying of lung cancer, and she was in a hurry to get it all down on paper. Claire Messud, in her Guardian review of the novel, sees this awareness of the ticking clock as the root of a flaw in the work, which she calls "incontinent, ill shaped (or unshaped) and shoddily written." Happily that's not Messud's final word on the book, as she also says, "[The] rambling intensity is alternately exhilarating and intolerable: there is great wisdom, along with dark history, in these pages, for those ready to take on the challenge."

If I were to mention the majority of the subjects we thrashed out, I would do even more damage to the form, the form of this text of mine, wouldn't I? Which would further upset its blinded readers (and critics) who look for a cemented form of regular shapes, harmonious outlines, a form filled with a cascade of connected words, of which it would be possible to say that its characters are nuanced, the relationships, emotions and reflections distinctive, and the style polished; that the ease of narration comes to full expression (whatever that means), that the characters are alive and convincing and remind us of people we know, we feel close to their doubts, their fears, their expectations and disappointments. What vacuity.

EEG is, loosely, the story of retired Croation psychologist Andreas Ban, who is visiting his sister Ada in Zagreb. Ada lives in a large house the Ban family used to own. The house has been divided up, sold off to newcomers with money, and Ada is left with the dark basement and a small garden, where she has shrunk into herself, waiting to die. There, over games of chess, Ada and Andreas remember the past. Andreas also remembers the present. What they remember is war, worldwide and civil, always leading to genocide, massive thefts and sweeping pogroms. They remember the Nazis, and the European governments that assisted them; they remember the Soviets and Stalin's gulags; they remember the civil wars that tore Yugoslavia into pieces and the mass executions and mass graves; they remember the Italian fascists murdering 700,000 Abyssinians in the runup to World War II, a genocide nobody but  Ethiopians think about. Andreas Ban (and therefore Daša Drndić) remembers all of this,and says the names of the victims because "history remembers the names of the perpetrators, not the victims," and so evil is immortalized while the world pretends their evil never happened.

I was suddenly overcome by a wave of my politely suppressed irritation, my intolerance burst through, I was overwhelmed by the anger that grows in me when I listen to stubborn details of what is obvious, unconvincing tales and anecdotes relativizing wars and the horrors war brought (and still bring) and it all came back to me and swirled up and at least for a moment I breathed...

The book is divided into sections, each pursuing a different but related theme. There is a list of chess players who went mad and jumped from windows, with speculation as to which of these players could've gotten the idea from Nabokov's Luzhin Defense. This is followed by a list of chess players who were arrested by Stalin's minions and either executed or sent to forced labor camps. Many of them were "rehabilitated," or formally aquitted of their crimes, in the 1950s, most of them long dead by then. A good number of them were guilty of nothing more than creating hypothetical chess problems. The bulk of the narrative, though, is Andreas Ban's trip down the memory lanes of genocide, the KGB operations against chess players a springboard into Soviet murder of counter-revolutionaries of all stripes, which leads to Latvian Nazi collaborators, which leads to Serbian and Croatian Nazi collaborators, to Mussolini, to the Yugoslavian breakup and the subsequent wars featuring "ethnic cleansing" and so on and so forth. Daša Drndić is angry, as she should be. As should we all be. "There are no small fascisms," she reminds us.

All of this is grim, but as presented in the weary voice of Andreas Ban, it is also gripping, human, and immediate in a way that (to point to a sort-of similar book) Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago is not. It is strange to call such a book entertaining, but EEG is entertaining, or at least it has its amusements. Ban is, despite Messud's claims to the contrary, a living presence in the narrative. He has cataracts and lousy health insurance, his step mother has swindled Ada and him after the death of their father, his friends are all dying, his ex-lover (whose father was a Nazi collaborator) is trying to contact him, and Ban is cranky with an identifiably Thomas Bernhard crankiness that grates as it amuses as it grates on the reader. Which is good stuff, if you're me. Bernhard is even mentioned by name, as are any number of Balkan novelists, poets, painters, and other artists, past and present. It's as if Drndić, on the threshold of death, is writing an obituary for the whole of the Balkans.

Today Latvia is crisscrossed with memorials and ardently developing tourism, which is officially called dark tourism. This is when people from the West visit killing fields en masse, clutch their hearts and exclaim Oh my God, unbelievable! Incroyable! Nicht zu fassen! then they go to dinner in some traditional restaurant to sample national specialties. To feel the pulse of the country they are visiting. Latvia has a lot of forests.

I was surprised by a reference to Vsevolod Garshin's story "Four Days" late in EEG. I read "Four Days" last year, I think it was. A memorable story, the internal monologue of a soldier who lies wounded in a field for four days, facing the corpse of an enemy soldier. I'm always happy to spot literary references in novels by writers I don't already know. Like we were in the same class back in the day or something. But Garshin's story is a good touchstone for Drndic's novel: we bleed to death on scattered battlefields, looking at all the surrounding death, knowing the pointlessness of the violence.

I brought my father's ashes from Zagreb to Rijeka. I let him spend the night in the living room, where there were books, a Turkmen carpet and souvenirs which he had given me. The next day I took the bus that goes around Istria, I put my father on the seat beside me, and took him for a drive, his last sightseeing tour of the towns, villages and hamlets he had visited on foot who knows how many times during the war, whose people he loved, to bid them farewell.