Sunday, January 29, 2012

Cold Blood: Nesser’s Woman with Birthmark

I’ve never hidden that I’m a moody reader, so I’m more than happy to explain my choice of Håkan Nesser’s Woman with Birthmark, which I read in Laurie Thompson’s translation from the original Swedish: On the morning of January 16, I posted to both my blogs then found that a technical problem prevented comments from appearing on Lizok’s Bookshelf. By the time I solved the problem, two hours later, I was cranky and hungry but ready for a stroll on the treadmill. And starting a new book. It was also very cold, which drew my eye to the Swedish detective novel corner of my bookcase. The first line of Woman with Birthmark—“She felt cold.”—felt right.

Of course I didn’t identify with that “she” for very long—we learn early on that “she” is up to something rotten—but I was happy to commiserate, mentally, about nasty wintry weather along with police inspector Van Veeteren, for a few hundred pages. Here’s what Van Veeteren thinks upon waking up at 7.55 on a Saturday morning:

If there was a month he hated, it was January—it went on forever with rain or snow all day long, and a grand total of half an hour’s sunshine. 
There was only one sane way of occupying oneself at this lugubrious time of year: sleeping. Period.

A serial killer brings Van Veeteren and his colleagues out of hibernation in Woman with Birthmark: someone is killing men who went to school together, shooting them in a distinctive way. The whodunit aspect of the book is clear from nearly the start because we know the cold woman has revenge on her mind but Nesser links her motive with a social message tied to her past. I figured that out before the end of the book, too, but was still more than happy to see how the police would solve the murders.

That’s my favorite kind of detective novel, particularly when northern temperaments and bleak weather patterns are involved. (I love bleak northern weather as long as I don’t have to leave the house.) I also enjoyed Nesser’s quiet humor, which gives us moments like these: the first victim’s wife is out of the house when her husband is shot because she is at the theater seeing A Doll’s House (their marriage doesn’t sound especially happy), a detective named Jung, and the bath-taking habits of police inspectors. An example: “It could be a coincidence, of course, Van Veeteren thought as he settled down in the bath with a burning candle on the lavatory seat and a beer within easy reach.”

Woman with Birthmark was a nice distraction during a mid-winter cold snap, particularly because I enjoyed reading Laurie Thompson’s clean and clear translation.

Up next: Joseph Roth’s Job. I think.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The -Morphoses, Meta- and Meow-

What is it with me and Czech absurdity? I loved the nasty humor in Ludvík Vaculík’s The Guinea Pigs (previous post) and Patrick Ouředník’s Case Closed (previous post), and now here I am with Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung), which I first read, in Stanley Corngold’s translation, in high school. Warning: this post contains spoilers.

Rereading The Metamorphosis makes me wonder about my teenage fascination with the book. Namely: Did I fear waking up and thinking, like Gregor Samsa, the story’s protagonist, that I’m a giant beetle? And that I will dry up and drop dead, lonely, alienated, and shut away in my room? Or did I identify with Gregor’s younger sister, Grete, a not-so-skilled violin player who grows weary of the burden of having a coleopteran brother? Another option: I felt guilty about my enjoyment of collecting insects in sixth grade, feeling remorse after a June bug that revived itself in my hand when I attempted to take it out of the kill jar.

This time around, I did something responsible mental health professionals should discourage: I simultaneously read The Metamorphosis and two of Nikolai Gogol’s St. Petersburg stories, one of which is called “The Nose,” in honor of the breathing apparatus of a man who wakes up missing his nose, only to discover it walking the streets. In uniform. Though the stories made my delicate psyche a bit uncomfortable, the unintentional parallel reading was instructive: Gogol’s stories—like The Metamorphosis, in which poor Gregor awakes from “unsettling dreams”—involve fog and dreaminess, too. Alongside the clashes of reality and dream I also found clashes of ideas/artists/writers with plodding/philistines/bureaucrats. To quote Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature piece about The Metamorphosis, “The Samsa family around the fantastic insect is nothing else than mediocrity surrounding genius.”

I think this interpretation nicely complements a passage from Kafka’s diary, dated August 6, 1914, that Corngold quotes in the introduction to his translation:

“What will be my fate as a writer is very simple. My talent for portraying my dreamlike inner self has thrust all other matters into the background; my life has dwindled dreadfully, nor will it cease to dwindle.”

This state rather resembles Gregor’s and complements Nabokov’s discussion of The Metamorphosis as a fantasy, a version of the world unlike usual reality if reality is a composite picture of the world. Though Nabokov mentions that characters like Gregor try to escape dull everyday lives—and, for Gregor, his bedroom—he writes little of freedom, which rates a few mentions in The Metamorphosis. Gregor enjoys looking out his window, “evidently in some sort of remembrance of the feeling of freedom he used to have from looking out the window.” Later, the nasty Grete, reduced to “his sister,” discusses the identity of the bug in the other room—a bug that Nabokov has helpfully reminded us is “just over three feet long”—saying:

“But how can it be Gregor? If it were Gregor, he would have realized long ago that it isn’t possible for human beings to live with such a creature, and he would have gone away of his own free will.”

But how could a three-foot beetle like Gregor just walk or even fly away, particularly after being injured by his own father? The human—or coleopteran—condition is absurd indeed. The only solution Gregor sees is to disappear. Which he does, shortly after three in the morning, after a “state of empty and peaceful reflection” that doesn’t resemble his unsettling dreams in the beginning of the book. Thus ends Gregor’s life and Gregor’s metamorphosis. I don’t remember finding the ending of The Metamorphosis so sad in past readings but Gregor seemed, to borrow again from Nabokov, especially “tragically absurd” this time. I suspect this was partly due to the effect of the contrast with a more comical brand of absurdity… including the afore-mentioned Case Closed and Guinea Pigs.

I followed The Metamorphosis with something more comically absurd: The Meowmorphosis, a Quirk Classic authored by Franz Kafka and Coleridge Cook. In this version of Kafka’s tale, Gregor awakens to find that he “had been changed into an adorable kitten.” This Gregor wants to knead the coverlet… and wonders how he “should reorganize his life from scratch.” Much of The Meowmorphosis replicates The Metamorphosis, albeit with changes that transform Gregor yet again—from insect to feline and from ugly to cute—but Cook inserts a long passage in the middle of the book, in which Gregor leaves his room for the streets and meets some other cats who have undergone metamorphoses of their own. I won’t reveal too much but will say that Gregor is put on trial by a cat known as Josef K., which brought me back to reading Kafka’s The Trial (Der Process) in college.

Cook also includes mentions of “writer issues” that segue into a humorous but very topical discussion of cats and dogs that begins with this: “Psychiatry is a dog’s profession, not a cat’s—a cat thinks what he thinks and that is all.” A bit later the cat says, “What we desire, we perform, and that is what is meant by freedom.” He goes on to admit that “cats know they are monsters and have no particular qualms about it…” Of course poor Gregor, whom the other cats have vilified for obeying his family, has to return home to close the story properly. “They are family and must endure me,” he tells himself, thinking they will take care of him. If only!

The Meowmorphosis was a fun way to cool down a bit after Gogol and Kafka; though Gregor faces the same sad end in both books, I certainly appreciated the comical absurdity and irony of Gregor turning into a cute and fuzzy (albeit rather large) animal instead of an ugly bug. Though you could read The Meowmorphosis without having read Kafka, I think Meow- probably has maximum enjoyment potential for those who’ve read Meta-.

Up next: Undecided.

Disclosures: I received a review copy of The Meowmorphosis from Quirk Books, from Eric Smith, whom I enjoyed meeting at BookExpo America in 2011. Thank you! Eric (who’s a friend on Facebook) also sent me a Meowmorphosis poster that I hung in the bathroom, much to the surprise of at least one dinner guest. Also: I met and chatted with the writer known as Coleridge Cook at a literary event.

Image credit: Coleopteran collage from Bugboy52.40, via Wikipedia. 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

More Czech Absurdity: Ouředník’s Case Closed

It would be an overstatement to say that I didn’t understand Patrik Ouředník’s Case Closed (translated from the original Ad Acta by Alex Zucker)… but it would also be an overstatement to say that I know, for sure, for definite, what Ouředník wanted to say in this book about, ostensibly, some criminal acts and investigations. The book feels a little mixed up to me, with, perhaps, one too many subplots and thematic threads for its 143 short pages, but Case Closed is so funny—thanks to that Eastern European absurdity I love so much—that I was more than happy to just read along and laugh, writing ha ha in my margins. Which may, I think, be the point…
The most central character in Case Closed is one Viktor Dyk, a grumpy retiree who collects beetles, has written a forgotten novel, and generally dislikes people. He also loves inserting invented information into conversation:
“Dyk had a habit of pulling pronouncements out of his noggin and dressing them up with fraudulent, usually biblical, sources. Long ago he had come to realize that repeating what someone else had once said was considered the utmost expression of intelligence in his country.”
Viktor, who’s been something of a ladies’ man, also loves analyzing the personals. A piece:
“None of them were attractive, but plenty of them had been told they were attractive, or were of athletic build (great, a discus thrower…). COME INTO MY VOICE MAIL, as one ad was headed, struck Dyk as near pornographic.”
I also got some good laughs about Viktor’s love of taking public transportation at rush hour so he can knock people on the shins with his cane. And belch, releasing odors.
Ouředník doesn’t limit himself to describing Dyk’s misanthropy: he also discusses language. Throughout the novel, Ouředník slips in lines like “For Dyk, Jr., though, it was further proof that language was useless, being utterly unfit for interpersonal communication.” Ouředník obligingly offers up, as proof, conversations with miscommunication. From another angle, we learn that writing’s not all Papa Dyk might have wanted since, “Writing novels turned out to be much less fun than collecting beetles.” And we read that novels and life are similar. The narrator says, “We began this story with no clear aim or preconceived idea,” and the thought thread about novels culminates, later, with this:
“By now our readers have definitively understood that they definitively understood nothing: what could be a more sensible conclusion to our novel that than? Acceptance of fate, acceptance of one’s lot, acceptance of one’s imperfection. How simple, how biblical!”

That is, of course, my favorite kind of inconclusive conclusion about books and life. I just want to add two things… First, there once lived a man named Viktor Dyk who was a poet and conservative politician. (See photo.) Second, I loved reading Alex Zucker’s energetic translation, which contains lots of word play. The translation has a nice balance of risk and the feeling that Zucker is in control of his material.
Also, a quick note on The World We Found by Thrity Umrigar, which Harper released last week. The World We Found tells the story of friends, four women and two men, who went to college together in Bombay during the 1970s. They discuss a reunion of the four women when one of them, now living in the U.S., is diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Though the novel contains some touching passages about relationships and the end of life, over all it felt predictable, even clichéd, particularly in the main plot line, in which one woman’s Muslim husband doesn’t want her to travel to visit her friend. I thought the interactions between the two man were the most interesting aspect of the book. Despite those misgivings, I should add that The World We Found was ideal reading when I was sick with a holiday cold.
Up Next: The Metamorphosis and The Meowmorphosis. Side note: I have to wonder if Dyk’s beetle collecting has anything to do with Kafka...
Disclosures: Thank you very much to Harper for sending me a review copy of The World We Found.
Image credit: Dezidor, via Wikipedia.