26.10.13

John Edward Williams - Stoner

Rating 8.0

In one of the best written and most nailbiting scenes of 'Stoner', a committee of university professors has to decide whether the student they're examining can go ahead with his doctorate in English Literature or not. They have three options: fail, conditional pass and pass but, for a number of reasons, cannot find a mutual agreement.

Now that I'm done with this novel, I have no such doubts on how to rate it. For 'Stoner' and John Edward Wiliams did eventually deserve their pass. And yet, the author and this book of his took their time to make me clap at them.

On the one hand, the beginning of 'Stoner' was not that convincing. The parable of the poor farmer boy rescued by a dull existence tiling arid soils in Missouri by a lucky coincidence (and a foreseeing dad) which brought him to pursue a university education is never fully justified by Williams. The reasons, motivations and ultimately the ingenuity  which turn Stoner from a semi-illiterate country boy into a bookworm, a teacher and an academic are almost given for granted.

Imagine the hero of a novel by William Faulkner, John Steinbeck or Sherwood Anderson kicking off his half-broken and mud covered shoes to start teaching the sonnets of Milton, Shakespeare and Ben Jonson at the University of Missouri. It sounds rather unlikely, doesn't it? On the other hand, even though I cannot deny how the writing of Mr Williams is incredibly effective and - at times - astonishing in its beauty, the author relies way too much on the forms he likes the most.

Let's take the expression 'as if'; now I've always found it nice and sound, but John Edward Williams put it everywhere here. Understand, I'm not that picky to notice these sort of things when I'm reading a good book - and in fact the only time in which I fought a battle against the use and abuse of a certain expression was with Cormac McCarthy's innumerable 'okay' in 'The Road'. But, believe me, Mr Williams does love his 'as ifs' peppering any given page of this book with them.

Fine. Now you're probably wondering why I gave this novel such a good rating and a (non-conditional) pass upon all this criticism. Well, the reason is simple: 'Stoner' is an excellent novel. The way Williams writes about university life, gossiping and academic bitching is amazing. So far I thought that the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies was the best to deal with this business on the western shore of the Atlantic Ocean, but Williams here overcomes Davies' talent.
The fact that another undisputed master of fiction revolving around academics like the British author C.P. Snow did a lot to encourage the rediscovery of this semi-forgotten classic a few years ago may give you a hint on how good Williams is in this topic.

'Stoner' is a melancholy novel and I've little doubts it will leave you sad for a while.
However, it would be wrong to assume that William Stoner's life was a failure given his unhappy marriage, the estrangement from his daughter and lost chances of either an academic career or to leave a permanent mark into his field of studies. What Mr Williams makes clear here is that it is possible to savour, nurse and keep forever those brief moments of happiness and intellectual fulfilment that life is likely to bring us at some point.

Sure, William Stoner had little friends, taught to students who didn't remember much of him and met love being only too aware that he would have lost it soon. But he always kept his most important principles unspoiled never losing his moral integrity, human kindness and his eagerness to study, learn and spread culture. And I believe that the greatest power of this novel lies in this teaching which is never expressed by patronising the readers, but always by encouraging their thirst for knowledge as a shelter against let downs.

“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”

18.10.13

Heðin Brú - The Old Man and His Sons

Rating 6.1

I would have liked - would have really liked - to enjoy this one more than I did but, alas, it didn't happen.

This is an interesting if sparse insight into the remote Faroese community around seventy years ago and yet virtually timeless, save for a couple of mentions to the telephone.
I'm fascinated by the Faroe Islands and did look at this book with favourably biased eyes for a long while either waiting for something relevant to happen or for the plot to take a relished twist. Unfortunately, nothing like that ever happened and the book was soon over.
And, to be honest, without the Faroe Islands in the background I wouldn't save much of this novel.

Brú is not Laxness and I guess it was wrong of me to involuntarily set a comparison between the two given the cultural similitudes between Iceland and the Faroe and the period in which both authors lived.

I liked the odd tiny sparkle of dry Nordic humour here and there and appreciated the no-nonsense approach of the author to the story. But it's the story in itself that ultimately didn't catch my interest.
The fact is that I've found the beginning of the book much more powerful (and for those who cannot stand whale slaughtering, quite disturbing) than the rest of 'The Old Man and His Sons'.

Blame it on the translation, but it looked like all the following events happening to old Ketil, his family and his neighbors after the blessed (or cursed?) whale meat bonanza are somehow disjointed from one another and none of them got me.

It's a pity for I thought and believed that this could have been the sort of book I treasure and Heidin Brú himself one of those unrecognized authors that I revere.
However, to be fair 'The Old Man and His Sons' was a disappointment and I wouldn't do any justice to scores of books I read by rewarding it with more than a mere pass.

12.10.13

Kevin Barry - Dark Lies the Island

Rating 6.8

This is the second book by Kevin Barry that I bought, but it became the first one that I've actually read.
For the Gaelic-Nadsatesque reputation of 'City of Bohane' is still too intimidating to win over. Time will tell.

Thus, I decided to give Mr Barry a go starting with a selection of some of his most recent short stories, thanks to a fruitful and affordable harvest along the shelves of the Hay Cinema Bookshop.

There are 13 short stories in 'Dark Lies the Island' and five out of the first six are no short than excellent.

I know some of you don't like those reviewers comparing one novelist to others or making cocktail percentages out of literary influences, but I will annoy you nonetheless; my first impact with Kevin Barry brought to my mind Raymond Carver and - less surprisingly - Roddy Doyle.
Not that I'm the greatest fan of Raymond and Roddy, but to my mind Mr Barry managed to get the best features of both: Carver's straight prose finding beauty in a dull everyday's life and Doyle's sharp sense of humour and Irish cosmopolitan savoir faire.

As a bonus, Kevin Barry showed me that he knows how to draw with a wide palette.
Whereas the opening of 'Across the Rooftops' is poignant and melancholy in its adolescent stillness, the vibrant 'Wifey Redux' is a comic gem which the author quite obviously enjoyed writing.
From what I read here and there, it's the the third short story 'Fjord of Killary' the one that got more praise around (perhaps due to having been published on The New Yorker). Well, I liked this one enough and appreciated its self deprecating irony and cliffhanging mood, but my favourite in the lot lies elsewhere.
The Fjord of Killary does exist although Barry fictionalize it a bit

After the disappointing interlude of 'A Cruelty' which left me lukewarm and forced me to briefly reconsider my initial awe for Mr Barry, things got bettter again with 'A Beer Trip to Llandudno' the first short story in the collection set out of Ireland and reminiscent to me of certain works by supposedly minor British authors (Magnus Mills? John O'Farrell?).


Apparently 'A Beer Trip to Llandudno' won The Sunday Times Short Story Award on 2012. And Kevin Barry looks like Tom Waits (or it's just the hat?)

But it's with 'Ernestine and Kit' the sixth installment of the book that I've finally set my mind up and blessed the 3 quids I spent for the my second hand copy of 'Dark Lies the Island'. What Kevin Barry accomplished with the 12 pages of this short story is a truly amazing miniature of Irish on the road life on a serene Sunday afternoon. And the two affable and gossipy ladies of a certain age who take charge of the plot will twist it in unpredictable ways.

For the remaining seven stories don't shine.
Open up your umbrella, then.

Sure, Mr Barry read his Irvine Welsh and tried to pay his homage to him (see 'The Girls and The Dogs'), but the outcome is disappointing if not clumsy.
The vaguely ambitious 'The Mainland Campaign' fails in delivering a convincing portrait of a self-made romantic teenage bomber (and shows to some extent how Barry's knowledge of what music a post-Goth teenager might listen to is somewhat limited: Sisters of Mercy? Einsturzende Neubauten? Aw, come on! I don't buy this).

Both 'White Hitachi' and 'Wistful England' left me bored and quite puzzled on what actually Barry wanted to express apart from boredom and numbness. The penultimate short story 'Dark Lies the Island' didn't really justify its status as the title track of the whole collection. To be honest, it's not a bad story but then again it left me umoved, untouched and convinced me that Mr Barry had already shot all of his best bullets in the first round.

The oddly titled finale of 'Berlin Arkonaplatz - My Lesbian Summer' looks more like a rielaboration of a hypothetical 20 something Barry's own diary in Berlin (even though it doesn't look like he ever lived there) than like an actual short story. I'm weak and have this tendency to give unconditional love to everything set in Berlin, but Barry's effort is out of focus and the fictional (?) character of post-war refugee, post-raped, post-squatter, post-feminist, post-lesbian, semi-artistic photographer Silvija sounded too unnatural to me.

All things considered, I've no doubt that Kevin Barry is talented, brilliant and even - at times- fucken entertainin' (as he would put it in one of his short stories), but this island lying in the dark could have been more interesting to map had it had a good 80 square mil...ehm pages less.

5.10.13

Elias Canetti - The Torch in My Ear

Rating 7.7

Well, I've to confess that my expectations for The Torch in My Ear  were not that high upon having been struck by the mesmerizing (if slightly self-referential) beauty of the first volume of Canetti's autobiography, The Tongue Set Free.

This was essentially my problem as I do prefer memoirs dealing with childhood years and focusing on other characters than the protagonist himself.
In fact, this book took a little longer than the first one to catch my attention as I've found the first pages about young Elias in Frankfurt a bit rusty and not that compelling.

Yet, from then onwards The Torch in My Ear stopped taxing and took off.

The years Canetti spent in Vienna as a chemistry student pining for solitude up in the Austrian mountains were interesting enough, but what I did enjoyed were the pages on the months he spent in Berlin in the late 1920s.
This is a wonderfully exciting intellectual and hedonistic Berlin caught in between the writings of Robert Walser and Christopher Isherwood. Just imagine this: Canetti hadn't published anything yet at that time, but had the chance of being introduced to the likes of George Grosz, Bertolt Brecht and Isaac Babel.
And the way these these great men of letters behaved is described in such a perfect, hearty and sincere way by Canetti that I loved it.

As for the Viennese years of Canetti before and after Berlin, there is a good deal of Karl Kraus and a lot of entertaining insights on interesting characters. Those who read and remember Auto Da Fe will be delighted to recognize - in nuce - Fischerle the dwarf and Professor Kein himself in two of the people Canetti met while in Vienna.

Moreover, it's Canetti himself telling the reader from where did he get the inspiration for his two most important works. First, the author recounts how he got fascinated by crowds during a Viennese tumult in the 1920s thus planting the seed in his head of the future  and seminal Crowds and Power.
Then, Canetti explains the process which led him to the creation of Prof. Kein - the buchermenschen par excellence - and how he spent six years working on Auto Da Fe from a garret overlooking the Steinhof, the mighty Viennese mental hospital.

The final part of 'The Torch in My Ear introduces the reader to the fascinating character of the crippled in body but brilliant in mind Thomas Marek whom Elias Canetti got acquainted with.
If I have to find a flaw in the way Canetti arranges his narration here is that the author seems estranged with and not interested in his youngest brother (Nissim later to become Jacques) - whose name is not even mentioned once. However, as the other brother of Elias - Georges - is barely mentioned in The Tongue Set Free but gains more importance in this book, I've reasons to expect a better treatment for Nissim/Jacques in The Play of the Eyes.

All in all, I look forward to read the third and final installment of Canetti's memoirs with far better expectations than I thought. I should have known better!