It's never a good idea to expect a novel in the traditional sense from Italo Calvino. Instead of your standard character development and plot structure, a Calvino novel is likely to follow a path similar to a Rube Goldberg device, and the result is typically brilliant. His 1972 classic Invisible Cities contains 55 one-to-three page descriptions of various cities visited by the famous world traveler Marco Polo. In between these descriptions are brief conversations between Polo and the emperor of these cities, the 13th century Mongul ruler Kublai Khan. Khan is getting older and wishes to hear of the greatness of his cities and the types of people who inhabit them, and Polo's stories provide fantastic and imaginative images of cities that may or may not exist.
Calvino has always had a talent for fitting several balls of yarn into one normal-sized sweater. In one conversation between the two historical figures, he writes:
Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone. “But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks. “The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that they form.” Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: “Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is the arch that matters to me.” Polo answers: “Without stones there is no arch.”
In this gorgeous passage, we can see how Polo is trying to frame Khan's view of his empire - as a series of stones, capably holding up his entire bridge of a kingdom.
Many cities contain features that can be said about many cities today, whereas others couldn't possibly exist in our reality. The city of Armilla contains no walls, ceilings or floors, but a vast system of water pipes. Octavia is suspended in a precipice between two large mountains, hundreds of feet above the ground. Andria was built so that every street follows a planet's orbit. Other cities defy space and time, and seem to stretch out over the entire planet.
One of the most interesting and still relevant aspects is the reoccurring theme of overcrowding and environmentalism. Leonia is a city where the inhabitants throw away anything that isn't new, eventually creating an enormous trash pile that is larger than the city itself. The pile of trash grows so large, Calvino imagines one city's garbage pile pressing up against neighboring city's piles, creating a world of waste. The city of Procopia possibly satirizes the overcrowding of the Far East, as every time Polo returned to it, the population had grown exponentially and eventually no one could even move at all.
While many of Calvino's cities portray chaotic and negative features, his final message directly addresses how to avoid the calamity of our "unjust world":
“The first [way] is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
Invisible Cities has provided architects and designers with inspiration since it's publication thanks to Calvino's overflowing imagination. Art students in many universities are given this book, and told to design one of cities inside, a true testament to the far-reaching influence this book has had in the short time it's been around. An absolute classic from a must-read author.
The Stranger is one of those books that your English teacher tells you to read in high school and you blow it off because you are in high school and your teacher told you to read something. If you did manage to read it, you thought it was dark and depressing, and were annoyed by how pointless everything seemed. Then over the next few years, you endure a lot of pointless things - like taking pre-Algebra - and you start to get it. Mersault, the main character of Albert Camus' classic absurdist novel, takes this feeling to the next level, and the result is pretty startling.
This brief but powerful story begins as Mersault is told of his mother's death and reacts with absolutely zero emotion. He doesn't cry at the funeral, he doesn't wish to see the body, and the next day, he is out with his girlfriend carousing at the beach and watching a "stupid" movie. He is so emotionally detached, his girlfriend later asks him if he loves her and he responds that it doesn't really mean anything, but he probably doesn't, and they could get married "if she really wanted to". He only speaks when he has something to say (which is rarely ever) and he only seems to enjoy the physical elements of the day, such as pleasant weather or the colors of the night sky. He is completely devoid of ambition, and turns down a nice promotion because it's really just all the same to him.
Mersault becomes involved in a confrontation between his friend and neighbor Raymond and a cheating ex-girlfriend. After helping Raymond get back at the girl (because he sees no reason not to help), the girl's brother and an Arab posse confront Mersault and Raymond with knives, wounding Raymond in the process. Shortly after, Mersault runs into the the Arab alone, and shoots him five times, squeezing the trigger as a result of the extreme Algerian summer heat and the misery it produces on his physical senses. Mersault is soon arrested, and eventually sentenced to death.
Mersault is declared a monster at the trial, as the prosecution spends more time talking about how he didn't cry at his mother's funeral rather than discussing the actual murder. The prosecution claims that if Mersault is incapable of remorse during his own mom's funeral, he is extremely dangerous, and should be executed. Mersault has nothing to say for himself, and can't even think of a reason as to why he killed the Arab. He is clearly not the monster the prosecution makes him out to be, but he isn't innocent either, and you can't help but feel strangely sorry for him after the trial is over.
The highlight of the book comes at the very end, as a chaplain tries to help Mersault turn to God before his execution. The chaplain is concerned with the afterlife and other things no one has any control of, whereas Mersault sees only the pointlessness of the entire situation. In a final angry outburst, written in a stunningly beautiful passage, Mersault realizes that only man is responsible for his own actions, not God or anything else. According to Camus, freedom lies in the recognition of the absurdity of life - and once Mersault accepts this, he triumphs over society. By refusing to admit regret for his crime, he cleanses himself morally of any wrongdoing. He admits that this is not a popular viewpoint in society, and he will likely be executed for his version of the truth. The story ends with the following quote:
"As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself — so like a brother, really — I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate."
You may not agree with existentialism or view life in the same absurd light that Mersault does, but the somber and colorless prose traps you in a kind of trance, and when Mersault finally comes to his realization of nothingness, you can't help but get caught up in the explosion. It's a simple plot and there isn't much that actually happens, but this is a great jumping on point for someone looking for an introduction to existentialist literature.
During my never-ending quest to read as many classic works of literature possible, I've ended up ignoring most books written in the last 25 years. Recently I stumbled upon a list of books to read before you die, and was happy to see a good number of novels from 2000 on. As with any list, it's not all-encompassing and surely leaves some good stuff out, but it seemed like a decent place to start. As a result, I will be taking a look at some more recent books (and if you pay attention, you will probably be able to see me work my way straight down that list, seeing as how Never Let Me Go is the first one).
One book in, and this already seems like a good idea - Never Let Me Go, shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize in fiction, is set in a dystopian not-too-far-off version of England that has not only perfected cloning, but uses it for a pretty believable purpose. Clones are raised in special zoo-like schools until they are old enough to be used as organ donors for humans. Once they donate three or four times, they "complete", which is a fancy way of saying they donate themselves to death. The story revolves around three friends who grow up together and experience a lot of mysterious happenings, all the while passing through the tender age of fornication and poop jokes.
This may be science fiction, but non-dorks can relax - you don't need to be a 5th level Paladin in Dungeons and Dragons to enjoy this one. Ishiguro keeps the science light (if not almost annoyingly transparent) and concentrates on the relationships and internal connections these cloned students share. Despite it never being explicitly stated, you are able to figure out after a few chapters that the students are indeed clones, and the "guardians" are not - the students aren't told much about the outside world, and there are many subjects that simply aren't addressed. The main characters do things most normal teens do, playing sports, doing homework, and in the later years, having a lot of sex. They are eventually told that none of them are capable of producing babies, so you can imagine they go at it a lot.
Ishiguro masterfully builds suspense throughout, revealing only a little at a time until things come to a head during the fairly tidy and satisfying conclusion. However, there are many things were left unexplained. Where do the clones come from? How did these schools get set up? How do the guardians explain to the students how they came into being? A lot of obvious questions regarding the actual process of cloning itself are ignored. However, this is not what Ishiguro is choosing to focus on. The big question is (and will be, once humanity inevitably gets to the point where cloning is a reality) the freedoms of clones. They can think for themselves. They have emotions. They can display artistic expression. Will we treat them as lesser beings? Will we be afraid of them? Should we even cross that line in the first place? It's not the most original concept, but Ishiguro presents it in a fresh manner.
There were a few things that bothered me even long after I finished reading. Not once in the entire book did any of the clones get pissed. They calmly accepted their fate as donors who would never live a full life. The loftiest dream the main characters could conceive was to be granted a few years more to be in a relationship before they had to start donating organs. They never once considered fighting for individual rights. They never tried to hide or run away. They simply did not question their fate. And I guess that is part of Ishiguro's point - an isolated upbringing can surely reprogram or sedate an individual into submission (for non-clones as well). I understand that the clones' desire for seemingly trivial things over freedom is satirizing current human behavior - we value materials, money, etc with so much intensity while more important things aren't within our bubble of reality. I just can't believe that not a single clone in the book even comes anywhere close to speaking out or flipping a table.
Not to mention the main characters aren't that likable. The narrator Kathy seems to able to pick up the most subtle expression or shrug and turn that into a full blown psychological analysis. The three friends the story revolved around spent so much time purposely making each other angry, fighting with each other or blowing minuscule things out of proportion, it's a miracle they even talked to each other at all. The phrase "and the next day, it was all back to the way it was before" is used about 20 times. I guess you could chalk it up to the fact that they were just being kids or that they didn't have a lot of other people around to make friends with, but I really didn't sympathize with them as much as the author probably intended.
It's a flawed work to be sure, but still a very interesting one. I was left with a very uncomfortable feeling during and after reading this, and that is a credit to Ishiguro. The story is told from Kathy's viewpoint as an older woman, looking back on all that happened. Things as common as sitting on a bench together, watching the sunrise or staring at a marooned boat, all take on massive significance for them. Their world is portrayed as so small, and yet it's really not that different from ours. Which is exactly the point.
If you're anything like me, you spend most of your day trying to think of a really simple idea or invention that everyone could use and no one has thought of yet. You know, like color changing clothes or a car windshield that is just a camera image of what's in front of you so you don't have to worry about windshield wipers during bad weather conditions. (Both ideas are pending patents by the author of this blog. Don't bother looking into it.) We're talking about the kind of inventions that require seemingly no effort, are sure to result in millions of dollars of revenue, and lead to worldwide praise and submission to your awesomeness.
Chichikov, the central character of Nikolai Gogol's 19th century masterpiece Dead Souls, had a similar idea to acquire wealth without doing too much work. Russian landowners in those days owned serfs (basically slaves) who worked their land. At random intervals, the government would make a census of how many serfs (or souls) a landowner owned. The more souls you had, the more your supposed wealth. Chichikov gets the bright idea to go to each landowner in the area and buy all the souls that have died since the last census was taken. Since these deals were done on paper, all he needed was a written deed saying the souls were now his. And since the souls were already dead, Chichikov figured to get them for dirt cheap, or even for nothing. After a few deals, Chichikov aimed to be in legal possession of a lot of souls, thus acquiring wealth and prestige - all without actually owning any land or living souls. Here's to you, dead-soul-acquiring guy. Real men of genius.
The characters Chichikov runs into throughout Dead Souls are representations of the qualities that led to the downfall of many Russians of the day. The first landowner he encounters is your standard stupid woman (sorry, ladies!), another is your excessively greedy landowner, while yet another is the cheating drunk type. Gogol intended this bookto be the first of a trilogy - a massive work highlighting problems and solutions of Russian culture. Dead Souls took Gogol years to finish and in the process of writing the next part, he fell into a deep depression, burned most of his unfinished manuscripts, and died shortly thereafter. In short, he was so obsessed with this grand project of his, he drove himself insane. You know this has to be good.
The plot here is pretty simple: In the short time he spends upon arriving in the village, Chichikov says all the most honorable things, behaves most gentlemanly, and is quickly regarded as a person to be held in great esteem. Each landowner he meets is at once pleased to greet and entertain him. However, none of them can understand what Chichikov could possibly want with the dead souls, and their reactions to this proposal are what constitutes the majority of the book. The naive landowner Manilov is so enamored with Chichikov, he gives away his dead souls for next to nothing. The carousing Nozdrev will only hand over the souls if Chichikov will buy a bunch of other worthless goods as well. The educated Sobakevich assumes that if Chichikov wants these souls so badly, they must be worth something, and will only sell them for the value he would've gotten if the souls were still alive.
Each one of these deals in conducted in private, and the hilarious climax comes when the whole town finds out Chichikov is trying to buy dead souls, and their imaginations run wild with why anyone would do such a thing. Some think he must be Napoleon in disguise. Others think he is from the government and trying to spy on them. Certain city officials assume he must be after their jobs. Each individual (including Chichikov) is only trying to achieve their own prosperity and good fortune, and this self-serving mindset does them all in. Given our current economic situation here in the States, I would say this kind of story holds up well to this day, wouldn't you?
This book is quite funny, and contains plenty of memorable scenes and characters that have remained in Russian lore since it's publication. Chichikov isn't your normal hero figure, and only once you learn his back story (at the very end of the book) do you really understand where he's coming from. What helps get you there is the complete absurdity of everyone else around him, and how clever Chichikov is in maneuvering around their faults. Not quite a novel and not quite a poem, Gogol's modernist narrative style is easy and enjoyable to read - clearly a lover of nature and the simple life of living on a farming estate, Gogol crafts a well fleshed out Russian social scene that, despite being a satire, remains a fairly accurate depiction of what it was all really like.
The edition I bought came with some of the second book, albeit with parts cut out and notes that say things like "rest of page missing" - truly frustrating because what we are given is so good yet so short. If you want a good jumping off point into Russian literature or a look into what future heavyweights like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were influenced by, don't even hesitate to start with Dead Souls.
In all honesty, this is the book that inspired this blog. This book is the ending of Sixth Sense, the feeling of running for your life, the equivalent of a literary car crash. Never have I seen so many "holy shit" moments crammed into 180 pages. Jorge Luis Borges, arguably one of the most important Spanish American authors, fits enough imagination and energy into this collection of short stories to rotate the planet. For someone like myself, who often will value ideas over execution, this book as an idea bonanza.
The fact that this book is only 180 pages is not unimportant - in the introduction, Borges writes: "The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes!" Each story in Ficciones is indeed short, but the crazy thing is that each sentence, each concept is so thick that it takes you about five times as long to finally digest each story as it would with your regular ol' prose. This is not for passive readers who read on the bus or simply to pass the time - this is brain aerobics.
Topics range from absurd to bonkers. The first story, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", is a good introduction to Borges, as a man discovers the possible existence of a hidden country somewhere around Iraq, which ends up being a hidden planet, which ends up being the work of a centuries-old secret society, and soon elements from this fictional world start entering the real world, until eventually the real world turns into the originally fictional world. Sounds confusing, but Borges presents it so well that by the time the story ends, you almost pass out from amazement. Within the mere 30 or so pages of the story, Borges finds time to invent two dialects of a new language (one with no nouns and the other consisting of mostly monosyllabic adjectives) as well as touch on religion and philosophy. It's crazy, exhausting, baffling, inventive, enlightening, funny, complex, and above all, brilliant. From just this one story, I ended up buying three other unrelated books about concepts touched on within this short tale.
One of the other standout stories is "The Library of Babel", in which the universe consists of a library containing an infinite number of books containing every combination of characters possible. To get an idea of that kind of scope, imagine just one book. And then that same book without the last period. And then that same book without one comma. And then that same book without a single letter 'b'. And then that same book with an almost infinite combinations of characters in the book. And that's just ONE book in just ONE language! The order of these books within this infinite library are seemingly random, and scholars spend entire lifetimes trying to decipher some kind of meaning from all the madness. They figure that if the library contains every combination of words, it must somewhere contain predictions of the future or the meaning of life. And yes, you are correct to assume that most of these scholars end up committing suicide.
Other stories contain so many fascinating subjects, it's impossible to list them all here. "The Babylon Library" tells of a small lottery between a few people that spawns an all-encompassing lottery company that decides every single decision made in society (and possibly nature as well). "The Circular Ruins" tells of a man who dreams a boy into existence. "The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim" is a book review of a made up book. "The Garden of Forking Paths" is a particularly engaging story of a man who finds his ancestor had written a book that contains a world where all possible outcomes of an event occur simultaneously.
Unfortunately, the second half of the book doesn't maintain the vividness or originality of the first. I'm not sure if it's because my imagination was thoroughly exhausted after reading the first half, or if it's because the stories are just not as good. I definitely would recommend not reading this book all at once (as with most books of short stories), as each story requires significant time spent with it. Many stories deal with the topic of infinity and it's relation with time, reaching scales that are so huge, it's hard to wrap your brain around, but Borges puts it into action with unique circumstances that are fairly easy to understand. The brilliance of this book is how it challenges the reader to add their own thoughts - Borges seems to be encouraging you to daydream while reading. You will find yourself thinking about these stories long after the book is put back on the shelf. I recommend this book to absolutely anyone - it may be too much fantasy for some, but I can't believe that anyone couldn't take something away from this.
Being a non-Mensa scholar, I wasn't really sure what to expect from a Dostoevsky novel. I mean, the guy is name-checked in just about every piece of literature that has come out since Crime and Punishment was published, and fills at least two to three spots on any "Best Novel Ever" list. I was not only expecting a heartbreaking work of staggering philosophical genius, but high levels of maddening confusion as well. However, this thing isn't a classic for nothing - it's an incredibly gripping, deeply personal, and ultimately relatable look into the head of a man who murders someone and goes completely bananas.
Crime and Punishment is a detective novel from the point of view of the killer: the main character, the impoverished Rodion Raskolnikov, bludgeons an old pawnbroker woman and her sister (who happened to walk in at the wrong moment) in the face with a big honkin' axe. Raskolnikov feels justified to do so because it is the general consensus that the old pawnbroker is a detriment to society, and quite frankly, not very nice. Figuring that the overall good of humanity would be served by her death, Raskolnikov sees himself as a superman who can step over societal rules and make the world a better place by offing the wench. However, it soon becomes apparent that he can't simply "step over" the murder: not because he disagrees with what he did on principle, but because he can't get over the paranoia and grief. Several things contribute in the "so not helping" category - a detective who has the whole thing figured out but can't prove it yet, the arrival of Raskolnikov's mom and sister, a creepy sexual predator who is after Raskolnikov's sister, a complete douchebag who is engaged to Raskolnikov's sister, and a veritable cornucopia of unwanted attention focused on a guy who just wants to be left alone. As the novel moves along, Raskolnikov finds an unlikely savior in a young, orphaned, virtuous prostitute (of course) named Sonya. After confessing his crime to her, Raskolnikov is eventually able to come to terms with his guilt through their shared suffering.
If you haven't guessed by now, it's a pretty depressing and miserable situation. However, Dostoevsky masterfully moves the plot along without much weariness or slip in intrigue. The early scene of the murder is one of the most exciting things I've ever read, and would probably make for a pretty good episode of '24'. Some of the best parts of the book occur when the detective Porfiry Petrovich questions Raskolnikov, taunting him with his psychological prowess, and nearly getting him to confess on several occasions. It was interesting to see Porfiry try and break Raskolnikov without a shred of physical evidence, and Dostoevsky wonderfully captured Raskolnikov's increasing paranoia and anxiety as pressure caved in on him from all sides.
Which brings me to another credit to the author - at the beginning of the book, you envision Raskolnikov as a pretty strange, slightly crazy guy who has run upon some epic bad luck. It's pretty amazing that Dostoevsky is able to get you to not only sympathize with him as the novel goes on, but at the end, you find yourself liking and almost agreeing with Raskolnikov. I did think the book ran a little long - whenever any character had even the simplest of things to express, they often went on for giant paragraphs of monologuing. However, this same facet allowed for top-notch characterization and well developed co-stars, so I guess I can excuse it.
The issues with utilitarianism presented here are worth discussion - is it worth sacrificing someone for the good of the group? It sounds easy on the surface, but you will definitely think otherwise after reading this. Amazingly, even though the abundance of philosophy was a top concern of mine going in, I thought many of the philosophical ideas presented could've been expanded on. The concept of religion as a source of redemption is there, but never fully explored. At a time and place where Christianity was under attack by nihilism, Dostoevsky did his readers a disservice by failing to expand on the topic.
And then there's the rather fascinating theory put forth in the latter stages: famous rulers like Napoleon and Caesar were able to kill and pillage without consequence and are considered great, while killing and pillaging amongst the poor is considered dangerous and those who do so are locked up. These ideas, as well as the concept of moral supermen, are unique and significant notions that Dostoevsky starts to get into, but never fully attacks.
Regardless, Crime and Punishment is a crucial and compelling piece of literature that can honestly be understood and enjoyed by anyone, if even just for the intensity of the surface action. You may not picture this as being very uplifting after reading even just a short description, but it really is - in this book, you see a man literally dragged through an internal and external hell, and have his spirit endure. Those of us who have suffered less can certainly be thankful.
Trying to explain this book to someone inevitably results in some kind of "what the fuck are you reading" response. First of all, the title instantly makes you think Lord of the Rings (as in, "King Erewhon rode through Mordor while battling demons with his light saber"), but in actuality, it's a version of 'nowhere' spelled backwards. Secondly, trying to make a snap judgement about the plot after hearing it explained briefly will make your head explode. Not to mention the assertion that this book is part Gulliver's Travels, part Darwin's "Origin of Species", part 1984, and part Francis Bacon. You really want to read it now, don't you?!?
The basic premise is that a fine upstanding Englishman discovers a remote society of people tucked away in the mountains who have some pretty strange beliefs. Upon first meeting them, the narrator Higgs is impressed that everyone is beautiful, vibrant, and seemingly very happy. After learning their language and getting to know their customs, Higgs is shocked at the kind of things these people blindly believe in. For starters, physically ill or unwell people are disgraced and imprisoned, while criminals and murderers are sympathetically looked upon as ill, and sent to be rehabilitated by 'straighteners'. So someone who has a cold will try to conceal it from everyone so as not to be arrested, whereas the butchering of a house full of people is nothing more than a passing trifle in a person's head that can be corrected. Wacky!
While many of the people of Erewhon's beliefs may seem arbitrary, they all serve to satirize particular aspects of the English Victorian Era of the 1800's. As with most well-executed satire, an understanding of what is being poked fun at definitely adds to the story, but being completely clueless doesn't mean you won't find any enjoyment in reading it. However, the satire, when understood, is pretty funny - people's belief in the church of England is compared to Erewhon's system of 'musical banks': financial institutions that almost everyone uses, but only to keep up appearances with the enlightened society, and without any confidence or use for the bank in general.
The second half of the book is a fairly interesting (if not overly wordy) look at the theory of consciousness within machines - machinery was destroyed and forbidden in Erewhon hundreds of years ago, as they fear that machines will eventually evolve and take over (satirizing Butler's views of the Industrial Revolution). The argument laid down against machines may not be the most original anymore, but at the time, this was some pretty heavy stuff, and still holds up fairly well today.
Higgs gradually gets frustrated with Erewhon's willingness to believe things that sound good without questioning reason: at one point, a 'prophet' convinces everyone that eating meat is not moral, while another 'prophet' convinces everyone that eating vegetables is even worse, leading to quite a food problem. Eventually Higgs bails with his lover (part of a horribly underdeveloped bullshit love story subplot) and pledges to return and convert them all to Christianity. (LOL!)
This book, while short in pages, feels like it takes forever to get through due to Butler's unexciting and pedantic tone. While the book's topic admittedly wouldn't work as well with a lot of action and dialogue, it still feels like a chore at times to get through certain parts. Other complaints include a pretty weak escape scene, the aforementioned love story, and waaaay too long of a setup before Higgs even gets to Erewhon. Despite these style-related concerns, and not every aspect holding up as well as others since the time this book was written, Erewhon makes up for it in ideas. If anything, I'd suggest looking through 'The Book of Machines' section for a facsinating and still relevant look at technology's role in society.
I have a great deal of respect for true intellectuals - those who can take in, fully understand, and even expand on ideas that are way over my head. However, no matter how smart a guy is, there is one common thing that none of us will ever be able to figure out: women. If there was ever proof of such a statement in book form, that proof is Saul Bellow's Herzog.
Moses Herzog is a mid-40s failed teacher, failed writer, failed son, failed husband, and failed father in post-war 1960's Chicago. Everything he touches seems destined for shit despite his obvious intellectual wit, good looks, and general charm. Not much really happens in this book outside of Herzog's head - he is dumped by his insane wife and separated from his kids as he tries to make sense of what's left of his life and where to go from there. The recurring device throughout this novel is the letters Herzog writes that are never sent - to famous people, dead people, presidents, people he knows, and to people he hates. These letters serve as way for him to sort out his life and deal with the things going on around him, or at the very least, to call out somebody for being a bitch.
The only problem I have with most Bellow novels, and particularly with the idealist Herzog, is that so much of the conflict is internal and a lot of the philosophy and psychology doesn't hit me as was probably intended. However, don't let this distract you, as there is so much to enjoy here. No one provides believable, truly human characters like Bellow - you can relate to Herzog's struggles to get over his ex-wife Madeleine, his disappointment over being betrayed by his best friend Gersbach, and the internal grief of someone who has been wronged even though he brought on some of the wronging himself. It's hard not to sympathize with Herzog - like so many of us, he realizes the contradictions between his actions and his thoughts and really isn't sure what to do about it.
My favorite part about Bellow's writing is the way I can get stuck on one small section and have it branch off into a bunch of other ideas. Herzog is full of phrases that really stop you in your tracks:
"Unless you are utterly exploded, there is always something to be grateful for."
"Beauty is not man-made."
"It would not be practical for her to hate herself. Luckily, God sends a substitute, a husband."
"Today's asylum might be the dungeon of tomorrow."
"If existence is nausea, then faith is an uncertain relief."
If you're having a bout with uncertainty in your life (where I am going, what should I do, what's this liiiiiife foooooooorrrr??, etc.), you'll hopefully come to the same realization that Herzog does: nothing is concrete and you just have to put your faith into the unknown, whether that be religion (as with Herzog's Jewish faith and family), other people (his possible newfound love Ramona), or just the little moments of happiness that pop up here and there. Herzog is a hopeful book when all is said and done.
Look, Saul Bellow knows what he's doing - he won a Pulitzer Prize in literature for this book, has several works on almost everybody's top novel lists, and is generally considered one of the greatest American fiction writers ever. Do your self a favor and pick up either this or The Adventures of Augie March and I promise you'll find something you'll like.
There weren't too many funny things going on in Moscow around 1930. Stalin operated an oppressive regime as an absolute dictator, and the secret police suppressed civil disobedience by simply making people disappear. So what happens when Satan decides to pay a visit, along with his running crew consisting of a huge talking cat, a smooth-talking assistant, a creepy fanged assassin, and a hot naked vampire lady? Pretty much anything.
Such is the premise behind one of the greatest novels ever to come out of Russia (or anywhere, for that matter), and probably one of the best books I've ever read. In this brilliant Soviet satire, Bulgakov manages to provide a deep look into not only Stalin-era Russia, but religion, philosophy, and the superficiality of modern life as well. Despite the breadth of scope involved, the story is easy to follow, full of non-stop action, and can be enjoyed on many different levels, regardless of the reader's knowledge of Bible verses or Russian life. Also, the Lawrence Arms reference this book on The Greatest Story Ever Told, which means reading this book makes you some kind of punk rock!
First and foremost, this book is very funny - it opens with Satan discussing whether or not he really exists with a snooty atheist editor, as Satan proceeds to predict and then watch the editor's death. From there, Satan's posse proceed to cause havoc by magically changing paperwork, transporting people thousands of miles away, removing heads, causing large groups of people to burst into song, disappearing, reappearing, and sending most of Moscow's citizens to either jail or the looney bin. At one point, someone receives a telegram from the recently deceased atheist editor, proclaiming: "Have just been run over by streetcar...funeral friday three [in the] afternoon..."
At the heart of the story is an unnamed writer (the Master) who has written a story about Pontius Pilate's execution of Jesus - the setting of The Master and the Margarita switches back and forth from 1930's Moscow to ancient Jerusalem, and provides some pretty interesting dialogue between Christ and Pilate: Pilate: "Why is it that you use the words 'good people' all the time? Do you call everyone that or what?"
Jesus: "Everyone. There are no evil people in the world."
Pilate: "The first I hear of it. You read that in some Greek book?"
Jesus: "No, I figured it out for myself."
Bulgakov's obvious intimate knowledge of Biblical passages adds a whole new level to the story, and the lives of Master and his lover (Margarita) end up intertwining with these famous characters from Scripture.
Other targets include the bureaucratic literary elite of 20th century Russia, whose uninformed criticism and know-it-all attitudes are dealt with in hilarious fashion. Bulgakov wrote this novel in a period where novels like this were grounds for death - he started working on it in 1928, and it wasn't published until 1966, surviving Bulgakov's attempts to burn the manuscript out of fear, and even Bulgakov's own death in 1940. Thankfully we're left with an astoundingly creative, clever, and vastly enjoyable work that is accessible to anyone. As the novel famously says, "manuscripts don't burn", but as Satan and his pals will show you, everything else sure can.
(Note: there are many English translations of this book available - after some research, I chose the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky version. You would have to be familiar with the Russian language to truly comprehend the differences between the several translations, but there IS a noticeable difference in tone and readability between them, and I'd suggest looking up what others have said about the various editions available before making your choice. Also, if you decide to read this, make sure you check out the reading companion website - it gives a lot of helpful information and chapter-by-chapter breakdowns of some of the Russian and Biblical references.)
I'm not sure how it happened, but I managed to graduate high school and then college without having read a single book that wasn't assigned to me. It reminds me of a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where they are about to read a book during the summer - Calvin asks if they should even be reading instead of having fun, and Hobbes replies that reading counts as fun if nobody makes you do it.
The last class of my last college semester, a professor told me he had compiled a long list of books everyone should read in their lifetime, and by doing so, you would end up a lot smarter than you would've otherwise. I'm not sure what made me browse his list, and I'm not positive why I decided to read, of all things, "Don Quixote", but I'm so glad I did.
In the two years that have followed, my life has been noticeably altered by the many books I've read. I don't think reading is something to be done to make yourself smarter, or to try and appear intelligent to your friends, or to be able to name-drop obscure authors and passages - I think it's something to enable you to look at a city block and wonder who could've been standing right where you are 200 years ago, or to wake up in the middle of the night and remember something that will from that point on always stick with you, or to look at your desk lamp and secretly wish it were alive or had a hidden, ancient purpose, or was the representative of an alien sect sworn to bring light to the barren, Marxist, microscopic, four-legged civilization that is your desk.
So I'm making this blog. Hopefully someone will read it and decide to pick up something I've gone over. At the very least, I'll be able to glance over it myself and remember what I was going through when I read a particular book.
And hopefully this is as sappy and melodramatic as it gets. Also, I should curse more. And I will.
Also, the link to the prettier Blogspot blog this is all coming from can be viewed here. Reading Rainbow FTW!