Sunday, June 16, 2013

Summer Reading 2013

Me and Kaminski
a novel by Daniel Kehlmann

A short, crisp narrative along the lines of Patrick Suskind’s The PigeonMe and Kaminski tells the story of a crass young art critic named Sollner who hopes to make his mark by writing a biography of a famous but reclusive painter named Kaminski. The Master is living in the mountains under the care of his exceedingly protective daughter, and Sollner has arranged to conduct an interview. He alienates everyone he meets along the way from the porter to the bar maid, and he doesn’t fare much better with Kaminski’s daughter.

Sollner’s arrogant exuberance soon grows tiresome, though the author makes it obvious there’s an abject loser simpering just beneath the man’s self-confident facade. (Sollner’s career is going nowhere and his girlfriend informs him over the phone that she’s kicking him out.) But Kehlmann’s depiction of the heartlessness and vanity of the fine art world is spot on, and some clever twists in the plot also keep our interest up.

In the course of his researches Sollner has discovered the original inspiration for Kaminski’s art—a former girlfriend long thought to be dead—is alive and well and living on the Baltic Coast. He deviously arranges to be in the chalet alone with the Master, and when he tells the decrepit painter, who can hardly walk or talk, the news, Kaminski replies enthusiastically, “Let’s go visit her!”

Thus begins a long series of highway adventures involving hitchhikers, cheap hotels, prostitutes, and art openings, culminating in a bitter-sweet rendezvous with the great painter’s former muse, who is now a contented grandmother. As Sollner’s expense account vanishes, we begin to realize that it’s Kaminski who’s been taking him on a ride, rather than the other way around, and not merely to escape the clutches of his own possessive daughter, but to teach the young critic a lesson or two about art and life.  

Of Me and Kaminski the Frankfurter Rundschau wrote,“I haven’t laughed so hard reading a new German novel for a long time….” I didn’t laugh much at all. But although the tone of Me and Kaminski is brittle, it’s not entirely heartless, and the story ends so well (I’m not saying happily) that we might look forward to Kehlmann’s next book with something resembling anticipation.

[Editor’s note. Kaminski and Me appeared in 2003. The author’s next book, Measuring the World, became the best-selling novel in Germany since Patrick Suskind’s Perfume in 1985.] 

Under the Glacier
a novel by Halldór Laxness

Under the Glacier is a strange and beautiful book that captures the Nordic spirit as well as anything I’ve read recently. Better than Pen Pettersen? It’s too early to delve into comparisons, but this charming and bizarre piece of fiction, which came out in 1968, binds together New Age cosmology, Boreal nature-writing, and Celtic myth within a narrative style that’s utterly droll and more than a touch mysterious.

Here’s the premise: the Bishop of Iceland has sent out a young assistant to investigate the health of a parish at Snæfell Glacier, where it’s been rumored that the priest has boarded up the church, given up religion altogether, and hauling the dead out onto the glacier rather than burying them in the traditional manner. The body of the book consists of the report this young emissary sends back. He appears in the manuscript as “the undersigned” though in recording dialog he also refers to himself as Embi (Emissary of the Bishop).

Upon his arrival at the remote glacier outpost Embi finds a priest, Pastor Jon, who makes his living fixing Primus stoves and shoeing horses, and a cast of oddball subsidiary characters that includes a parish clerk, three mystics from Ojai, California, some construction workers, and an Australian millionaire. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the nearby Snaefellsjökull volcano has appeared in literature before—it’s the place where the explorer Dr. Otto Lidenbrock descended into the underworld in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.   

The bishop has instructed his emissary not to judge or evaluate, but mere record what he finds. “Don’t be personal,” he instructs, “be dry!”

 Embi conducts a series of interviews with the locals, during which their laissez faire attitude toward conventional religion immediately becomes evident. Each evening he’s served a vast assortment of cakes and coffee, though what he’d really like to eat is a little fish. Eventually a coffin is brought down from the glacier. It contains a frozen salmon, which, when thawed, is transformed into Pastor Jon’s long lost wife Úa, who seems to be an immortal Celtic-Spanish pagan-Catholic sex goddess.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that Under the Glacier is a minor masterpiece sui generis. And I’m not sure what’s so “minor” about it. The minute I’d finished reading it I said to myself, “I wonder if I should read that again? I think I may have missed something.”

Esther’s Inheritance
a novel by Sándor Márai

Although it was first published in Budapest in 1939, the atmosphere of Ester’s Inheritance takes us even further into the past, into a world of rural estates and shabby aristocrats on the order of a Chekov play or Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. Ester herself, who tells the tale, isn’t shabby herself—just poor. Due to family debts and deaths, and her shaky social status as an aging spinster, she has found it nearly impossible to keep up appearances with the passage of time, though her quiet personal charm continues to inspire the devotion of several local men who were once active suitors. It’s well-known that Ester never married because she was in love with Lajos, who also loved her…though he married her sister.

On the very first page we learn what the book is all about: after many years away, Lajos is returning “home” the rob Ester of her inheritance, accompanied by an odd caravan of characters including Ester’s nephew and niece. And she will allow him to do so—we don’t know why or how. Though she describes the man as a fantasist and a pathological liar, one aspect of his character makes up for all the rest: he makes Ester feel alive.

The action of the novel takes up a single day, though there are plenty of local characters to become acquainted with before the great Lajos and his entourage show up in their shiny automobile. There are nostalgic reminiscences and overheard conversations, and one revelation that throws the period when Ester and Lajos were both young and unattached into an entirely new perspective.

Márai weaves these layers of time and shifting perspective well, but one thing never quite becomes clear, and it’s an important one. The reader never comes to feel the dazzling attractiveness of such a repellent character as Lajos with anywhere near the strength that Ester does herself. It’s lost in the folds of this otherwise subtle narrative, so that when Ester observes, as she does several times, that Lajos will win because he is “the stronger,” we have a hard time believing it, and wish she would just stand up for herself and give her conniving brother-in-law a swift kick in the rear end.

a novel by Charles Frazier

Looking for a little North Carolina flavor, I picked up a used copy of Charles Frazier’s novel Nightwoods, set in the Appalachian mountains thereabouts during the Sputnik era. It’s a potboiler of sorts, in which a young woman named Luce, the caretaker of a deserted lodge, tries to raise her sister’s two mean-spirited children. It’s rough sledding; they’ve hardly said a word since witnessing their father, Bud, murder their mother. Early on in the tale, Bud is released on bail, and he’s eager to reconnect with these two little witnesses to his crime. It’s likely they also know what happened to a wad of money that’s disappeared from the family shack.

Under such circumstances we might imagine that Luce would benefit from the protection of her father Lit, who’s also the county sheriff, but when Bud arrives in town and immediately takes over the local moonshine business, he and Lit strike up an unusual friendship, based on the fact that Lit is addicted to some aerosol product that Bud can easily supply. (The two have never met and Lit has no idea he’s getting chummy with the man who murdered his daughter.)

Yet another strand enters the weave of the narrative, more romantic and genteel, when the owner of the lodge Luce is tending dies and his jaded grandson arrives to check out the property he’s inherited.
The critics have been hard on Frazier ever since Cold Mountain won the National Book Award in 1997, lampooning his purple prose and imputing commercial motives to his romantic, film-friendly plotlines. One even suggested, absurdly, that he ought to introduce the Civil Rights Movement into the backwoods mountain plot of Nightwoods if he really wanted to evoke the era properly.

It’s true, Frazier’s prose less challenging than Faulkner’s and far more full-blown than your average New Yorker short story. This is what we call a “style,” and there are quite a few that work just fine. For myself, I enjoyed Frazier’s rhapsodic descriptions of sunset up at the lodge; I was impressed by his depiction of how a young, childless woman would deal with two ornery toddlers who never say a word. The scene during which Bud and Lit first meet and shoot off some handguns was expertly realized, in my view, as was the night scene of deer hunters drinking booze around a bonfire way up in the mountains. In fact, quite a few scenes are etched in my memory from that allegedly wordy and over-wrought tale.

No doubt Frazier’s books will someday be easy to find at the local Goodwill, just as the works of Louis Bromfield and Pearl Buck once were. For now, let’s just relax and enjoy them.      

The Budding Tree
six stories of Edo Japan by Aiko Kitahara

Japanese writers have never put much stock in the popular Western notion that the author must “show, not tell.” Their books tend to be overflowing with analysis, both social and psychological. Often at issue is where people stand with regard to one another, how the things they say are taken, whether some other tack might have been more polite (or effective)  in a given situation. 

In The Budding Tree Aiko Kitahara gives us six such situations united only by the fact that they’re all set during the Edo period (1600-1868) and they all focus on young, unattached, artistic women. One is a teacher, another a print-maker, another a vaudeville singer, another a jewelry designer. Along the way we learn a good deal about the Edo-era publishing industry, how restaurants succeed and fail, and how a small-town school operates. That’s half the fun. But the stories themselves are well constructed and complicated.

For example, in one story a young woman named Okaji faces two crises simultaneously. She’s trying to make ends meet at the restaurant she established after leaving her philandering husband. She hires on a woman named Ogen, a distant cousin of one of her waitresses, against her better judgment,  only because rice prices have skyrocketed and the girl’s family is starving. Ogen turns out to be a lousy worker, asks for loans repeatedly, and then starts criticizing Okaji for serving fancy meals to rich guests while the masses are starving.

Meanwhile, Okaji’s estranged husband wants her to return to his family restaurant—a much more prestigious establishment than her little start-up. She left not long after he arrived home from one of his benders with a mistress and infant in tow. Okaji’s mother-in-law, who also lives at the restaurant, likes her new grandson, though she never liked Okaji much. Only now that Okaji has left is the family beginning to realize how important her management skills have been to the restaurant’s success.

Things come to a boil when Ogen starts stealing money from the cashbox and Okaji’s husband secures a loan from some local gangsters on a promise that Okaji will, indeed, be returning to manage his restaurant. A rice riot and some enforcement goons add a threatening element to the tale…but all the while I was reading it, I was dying to have a bowl of miso soup and a plate of sushi..or at leas a can of sardines.

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