Monday, June 1, 2015

Almost Summer: Knausgaard, Farrell, Bellow, Murakami, Wright, and Shlaim

Summer comes early to the high desert--it was 86 degrees today, clear until late afternoon, then a brief shower--not the monsoon season, but a foretaste. We had an oddball May: lots of rain, winds of the sort that usually peter out by the end of April, and too many (for my taste) overcast days--more than I can remember. June is a double relief: it finally gets scorchingly hot and my day job is temporarily suspended, which means I can lounge about the house and read the books I've been accumulating through the interminable winter. I have read a few these past ten days that I wanted to recommend to any reader who is casting about for something to take on holiday.

I haven't written here about volume four of Knausgaard's My Struggle, the story of his teaching job and (mostly fruitless) search for sex at age nineteen.  If you've been reading this series then you've already read volume four and I have nothing to add to the multitude of reviews already published (Dwight Gardner's in the Times was quite good). I have noticed that though Knausgaard is as puerile and mawkish as ever, the critics have taken a shine to his life story. Indeed, in the mainstream press, where the early volumes were mostly ignored, the artlessness of KOK's monumental memoir has become part of its charm. My friend Peter Nash dislikes the books; I find them, well, charming. A great idea for a literary salon in your own home would be a discussion of Knausgaard as a literary litmus test. No one I know is neutral on these four books (with two more in the offing)--it's interesting to think about why this chronicle of the life of an insecure, priapistic, vain, and gloriously loquacious Norwegian should have taken hold of so many readers, myself included. If I were to say I "identify" with Knausgaard I'd be lying; nor do I like him "as a person." No, what I find irresistible is the ambition, the dogged recording of every cigarette, every lustful thought, every car ride, every piece of bread and cheese consumed. That KOK writes "Hi Mom!" just like that, on every fifth page, seems to me as beautiful as literature gets. Hi Mom! What else is there to say? The plums are cold and delicious--here, taste it, life.

I have written in these pages about my Murakami problem: I start every one of his books the minute it appears and have about a 50% rate of completion (I only batted .333 with IQ84: it sits on my desk, taunting me). Murakami is someone I like immensely--his energy, his devotion to his craft, his being at one and the same time utterly hip and completely serious. But his books...As with Knausgaard, the problem I have with Murakami grows out of my suspicion that the novel is dying. Not just because there are so few readers, but because the culture that spawned the form is disappearing. The novel grew out of a particular aspect of 18th century bourgeois experience--its earliest practitioners took ordinary life, mythologized it, and invested it with both philosophical and ironic meaning (it was a lie, and we all knew it: see Sterne, Fielding, Samuel Richardson). Auerbach wrote a monumental study of mimesis, beginning with Homer and ending with Mrs. Dalloway. His thesis was that "the representation of reality" in western fiction was not only a representation of the world but a central mode through which reality was created--fiction of the highest ambitions was not only a form of entertainment--Mr. Bennett sequestered in his study, chuckling over a jape of Fielding's--but the real thing, life itself offered up to a literate and critical public. The greatest of these novels, a book like Madame Bovary, wasn't only a character study, it was also a merciless dissection of the hypocrisy of provincial France--it wasn't only a mirror held up to nature but the lamp of genius illuminating and preserving for us a part of the world in all of its complexity. But with writers like Knausgaard or Murakami I feel as if I am in a different realm. The world of these books feels diminished, neither representative nor exemplary--Knausgaard isn't Everyman, and Murakami's mythologized Tokyo, full of aimless young people leading the kinds of mysterious lives that make contemporary urban experience both interesting and unknowable, are fables that veer between profundity and banality--too often, for me, the latter. I read the latest--Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki--in a day, almost against my will, waiting for a revelation that never came. It's a clever book, readable and engaging, but like many of Murakami's fables it feels a little like a trick, a dazzling magic trip--forgettable.

On the other hand, I won't soon forget the two books I've read on the Middle East. I've just finished Lawrence Wright's Thirteen Days in September, an account of Jimmy Carter, Menachem Begin, and Anwar Sadat attempting to make peace at Camp David in 1978. The outcome of nearly two weeks of grueling and acrimonious talks among this trio and their closest advisers is called an"accord" in the history books, but as Wright makes clear, the two-weeks that the American, Israeli, and Egyptian delegations spent sequestered atop Mt. Catocin (there was a single day trip, to the Gettysburg battle ground, chosen as a destination by President Carter for tactical reasons) were anything but concordant. Begin had no intention of following through on the promises he made to Carter on day twelve; both sides were intransigent, though Sadat had resolved to solidify Egypt's relationship with the US and to preserve his own friendship with Mr. Carter. Wright, deftly, tells not only the story of Camp David, but sketches the entire tragic tale of the Middle East since 1948. Reading about the negotiations concerning the governance of Jerusalem made me despair of a solution, under any regime, to the most profound and intractable human tragedy of the age. It's an utterly compelling story, told with Wright's typical attention to detail and in sparkling prose. Will every reader agree with his analysis and conclusions? Not likely.

Reading Wright led me directly to Avi Shlaim's revisionist history of Israel and the Arabs, The Iron Wall (after a theory developed by Ze'ev Jabotinsky regarding the impossibility of Jewish-Arab coexistence). This comprehensive history--from the Balfour Declaration to the "Road Map to Nowhere," explores in great detail the terrible history of Zionist-Arab (especially Palestinian) relations, focusing in particular on the Ben-Gurion/Golda Meir regime and Israel's early relationship to Jordan. This is an impossible book to review, at least for a non-specialist like myself, but I've read a bit in this area, including other revisionist histories by Benny Morris and Simha Flapan, and so feel confident at the very least in recommending this detailed (850 pages) history to any serious student of the Middle East.

Since I will be spending a month in Chicago this summer I'm reading the two great Chicago novels--James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy and Saul Bellow's Adventures of Augie March: the Irish and the Jews and their gritty neighborhoods not unlike the one in which I grew up, though ours was also Italian. Marx was right: the working classes have no country, and the distinctness of their culture pales beside the similarities of their lives. Studs and Augie are hardly soul brothers--Studs is a pugilistic punk doomed from the moment he has his first street corner brawl; Augie is an up and comer, a poor boy who uses his brains and mettle to live the American Dream, not unlike Bellow himself. Both books are epic in scope, vernacular in language, and as densely plotted as classic Russian fiction (Farrell and Bellow had read their Gogol).  I have been going back and forth between them, conflating the stories in my imagination, dreaming about Chicago in the 30's and 40's, a city I often visited in the 60's, the most American of American cities, far more "authentic" than New York, whatever that means. Manhattan has pushed out the working class, gentrified and Disneyfied every neighborhood from the Lower East Side to Times Square to Harlem, ruined the rest of us with its greed and self-regard, demolished and commodified literature, baseball, and food, and pushed the price of viewing the great masterpieces of European art outside the reach of ordinary people. All the more reason to read about Chicago, which is hardly a workingman's paradise either. In any case, Farrell's compassion for his pathetic Irish poor is touching; Bellow's nostalgia for Jewish life in burly and corrupt Chicago pays homage in memorable fashion to a lost world. What city better represents us? Large and diverse and obsessed with money--rotting factories, clogged streets, gun shots in the night: it's us in a nutshell. US. Read about Studs and Augie--and weep.                                                                



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