Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction are some of my Literary Interests

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littlell (2006, 972 pages, translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell, 2009)

I "The novel’s gushing fans…seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness.”  Michiko Kakutani.  New York Times Book Review

A brilliant Holocaust novel…A world-class masterpiece of astonishing brutality, originality, and force…I read it without pausing for breath, so powerful and terrifying was its portrayal of Nazi Germany, and of the Holocaust.” Michael Korda, The Daily Beast

 Amazon reviews of The Kindly Ones by Jonathan  Littell range from glowing accounts of the genius of Littell to one star reviews in which the work is described as pornographic disgraceful trash.  In the two quotes above the book image you will see the division of opinion among professional critics.  With some slight reservations I am in camp that sees this as a great work of art in the grand European tradition of the literature of cruelty. 

The Kindly Ones was first published in English in 2009, shortly before I began The Reading Life.  After reading several glowing reviews from other book bloggers I badly wanted to read Littell's account 
of the day to day expereinces, mental life,  of a German SS officer assigned initially to the mass executions of Jews by gunshot in occupied Eastern Europe.  Somehow I had so much to read I never got to The Kindly Ones.  I as very glad to receive a promotional email a very recently offering the Kindle edition for only $1.95, temporarily reduced from $10.95.  I acquired the book and emerged myself into a very dark world.  

The story is told from the point of view of Maximilien Aue.  When he begins to tell his story he is a silk merchant living in France.  The war is over and like many others he feels compelled to tell his story, which he begins with these words:

"Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened. I am not your brother, you’ll retort, and I don’t want to know. And it certainly is true that this is a bleak story, but an edifying one too, a real morality play, I assure you."

Max, we will call him that as we end up knowing him better than we will wish to, is a very cultured man, fluent in French.  His favorite authors are Flsubert and above all Stendhal.  He is comfortable quoting Plato and loves the music of Bach.  He becomes an officer in a unit initially scheduled in the Ukraine, charged with shooting as many Jews as possible.  Max goes into great detail about the procedural matters involved.  He does not seem to personally hate individual Jews but he totally supports the goal of eliminating all Jews.  He is gay and their are lots of depictions of sex acts.  Homosexuality was a crime carrying a possible death sentence in Nazi Germany but in Max's world everyone he encounters seems open to anal sex.  War time writers often talk of the heightened sexuality the near possibility of violent death produces and this is exemplified throughout The Kindly Ones.  Max will later play various roles in the treatment of Jews.  There was a tension in the SS between those who were primarily interested in killing Jews and those charged with producing labor for slave labor camps.  Much space is devoted to this quandary.  How much food must a Jew have to work in a factor is debated at length.

Max has as a sexual fixation on his sister, stemming from apparent childhood incest.  He is obsessed with shit.  (If seeing this term offends you, The Kindly Ones is not for you.). He goes on an on about how victims of shootings, hangings, and slave laborers are filthy from their own waste.  He also has a sexual obsession with his mother.  In following Max's rise through the ranks in the SS, I learned a lot about how things worked in Nazi Germany.  As the war dragged on defeat of Germany became inevitable, though to even suggest the possibility could get you executed.  Max's descriptions of the Allied Bombing of Berlin were brilliant, for sure he brought this to life.  

There are many side plots, minor characters, even Hitler makes an appearance, and  top Gestapo leaders play an important part in the story.  

Max as a narrator seems bent on disgusting, horrifying his readers.  I admit in one long dream sequence involving his sister which violated all rules of taste, decorum, etc I actually laughed thinking this was a bit much.  Littell very subtly shows how the long war and his terrible experiences change Max.  He has a kind of romance with a German war widow and there  is a subplot involving him as a suspect in murderring his mother and step-father which got tedious for me.

Reading this book is a powerful experience.  Many on Amazon said they could not finish it.  Some see it just as an endless obsession with shit.  I found it near compulsive reading.  I do see it as overall a magnificent work of art.  I think the length of the book is meant to mirror the length of the lived experience of the war.  As the Russians approach Berlin, Max and some of his colleagues begin to plan their own escape and cover stories.  Many horrible things are depicted.  

I am very glad I have now read The Kindly Ones.  It is an international bestseller, a literary prize winner. It is a brilliant work, perhaps it will become a classic.  

Is Max a monster or is he just another person? 

JONATHAN LITTELL was born in 1967 in New York of American parents but was raised and educated mostly in France. Previously he worked for the humanitarian agency Action contre la Faim, mainly in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He now lives in Spain.

Mel u

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Anti-Judaism The Western Tradition by David Nirenberg (2013, 464 pages)

"Anti-Judaism should not be understood as some archaic or irrational closet in the vast edifices of Western thought. It was rather one of the basic tools with which that edifice was  constructed" from Anti-Judaism The Western Tradition by David Nirenberg 

Anti-Judaism The Western Tradition by David Nirenberg is a brilliant, highly learned work that anyone interested In understanding world history, not just Jewish history,  should read.  I predict it will replace The Origins of Totalitarianism and Anti-Semitism by Hannah Arendt as the most read scholary work in the field.  

Of course anti-Judaism became a dominant force in Western culture because of the rise of Christianity as the dominant religion.  Nirenberg begins his account of the rise of anti--Judaism further back, to Egypt around 350 BCE with an alternative account of the departure of the Jews from Egypt. He cites a text from the Greek historian Heraclitus which suggests the Egyptian authorities expelled the Jews as a socially undesirable group.   He does a very detailed story of the portrayal of Jews and Jewish culture as seen in the Gospels of the New Testament.  The commonplace view on the biblical roots of antiSemiticsm arise from the attempt to place the blame for the cruxifiction of Jesus on the Jews.Nirenberg goes deeply into the ways in which Christianity defined itself as a repudiation of Jewish cultural identity.  There is very interesting chapter on the Koran.  There are very detailed chapters on medieval anti-Jewish texts,including those of Augustine.

One of the most informative  s cations of the book was on the role of the rise of the theories of Martin Luther in making anti-Jewish ideology one of the foundations of Western culture.  Luther was vehemently anti-Jewish and the spread of Lutheraism in Germania gave Kings backing for extensive special legislations restricting the economic and cultural lives of Jews.i was fascinated by his account of the relationship of Jewish money lenders to the royal authorities throughout Europe. Jews were allowed to loan money at interest, considered a sin.  The authorities then would force the Jewish money lenders to sell them the debts at big discounts.  Kings considered Jews in their fiefdoms to be their property.  

Nirenberg shows us how the historical explanations of blaming the Jews for all the troubles in the world has very ancient roots.  

Nirenberg’s thesis is that this idea of Judaism, which bears only a passing resemblance to Judaism as practiced and lived by Jews, has been at the very center of Western civilization since the beginning. From Ptolemaic Egypt to early Christianity, from the Catholic Middle Ages to the Protestant Reformation, from the Enlightenment to fascism, whenever the West has wanted to define everything it is not—when it wants to put a name to its deepest fears and aversions—Judaism has been the name that came most easily to hand. “Anti-Judaism"- from the Tablet's review of the book. 

Nirenberg intentionally does not use the commonplace expression "AntiSemiticsm".  

I was very pleased when in the closing chapters of the book Nirenberg referred to the work of Edward Said and Eric Aurerbach.  He also rebukes the central themes of Arendt who placed part of the blame for Anti-Semticism on her theory that Eastern European and Russian Jews choose to keep themselves culturally separated from Christians. 

Nirenberg's closing thesis is that Anti-Judaism has been used for two thousand years as an intellectual and historical,framework in which people could explain both what they are not and find a source for the evils of the world that exculpates themselves.  We learn from his book that any such overarching theory is really the result of a shallowly based understanding of history, a search for an easy theory to explain everything.

David Nirenberg -University of Chicago Department of History

Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Professor of Social Thought, Medieval History, Fundamentals, Middle East Studies, and the College; Member of the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge; Dean of the Social Sciences Division,
PhD 1992 Princeton University

I give my highest endorsement to Anti-Judaism The Western Tradition.  It is aserious academic work which  general history readers will find it fascinating.  There is much more in this book than I have mentioned.  For example I learned how even Nazi Ideology used as foundation for their warped the understanding by their alleged scholars of ancient Egyptian texts as a justification for their hatred of Jews.

Mel u


Saturday, September 17, 2016

Ernest Hemingway A Biography by Mary Dearborn (forthcoming May, 2017, 752 pages)

1899 to 1961 (USA)
Nobel Prize, 1954

Opening note- this gets my vote for worst cover image for a literary biography so far this century!

Ernest Hemingway pretty much created the prototypical American literary image of the super-macho, hard drinking, womanizing, big game hunting, bull fighting, living at the edge war correspondent writer. He did love cats! The problem for an author of a long comprehensive biographer of Hemingway is that most potential readers of such a book already know the basics of his life.  Others can get by with Wikipedia. Everything seems a build up to his death by a self inflicted shot gun blast. 

Mary Dearborn's biography is a very detailed chronology of Hemingway's life.  She spends a good bit of time explaining who the different figures in his books and stories might have been inspired by in his real life.  We learn a lot about his various marriages.  Clearly Hemingway needed the support of a woman to function.  

Hemingway is a very influential literary figure.  I personally prefer his short stories to his longer works.  Hemingway was, in my mind, a very American figure.  He liked to be surrounded by a group 
of sycophants and reacted very badly to criticism of his work.   

I am glad I read this book.  I was given a review copy.

I endorse it to well endowed libraries.  I find the price of $35.00 makes me unable to suggest others purchase this book.

Mel u

Friday, September 16, 2016

"The Story of my Dovecote" by Isaac Babel, 1925, (Translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk Pushkin Press)

Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel, translated and introduced by Boris Dralyuk 

I first became aware of the importance of the Russian writer Isaac Babel (1895 to 1940, Odessa) in reading the only book worth reading on the short story The Lonely Voice: A study of the Short Story by Frank O'Connor.  Now years later I do not think O'Connor was culturally equipped to place Babel in the context of Russian Jewish, especially Yiddish culture.  Sometime ago I was given a great gift by Yale University Press, their comolete set of works of Yiddish literature in translation.  In his illuminating introduction Boris Dralyuk explains the relationship between Russian as employed by the very large Jewish community in Odessa and Yiddish.   In Odessa Stories Dralyuk has assembled all of Babel's set in Odessa short stories.  Most focus on the struggles of Jews to survive in a society in which their rights were few and in which they were deeply, constantly in danger from anti-Jewish pograms. 

I decided to begin my complete reading of Odessa Stories with "The Story of My Dovecote" because Dralyuk said it very poignantly depicts the impact of anti-Jewish feelings on the life of a young Jewish man.  The father of the young man desperately wanted him to get in the top secondary school in Odessa.  The quota for Jewish students was five percent.  When he got in the whole family, but for the cautious mother, went wild celebrating.  Then his dreams are seemingly crushed when a rich merchant bribes the school so his son can be admitted and he loses his place.  I do not want to give away more of the rich plot.  Babel brings the family and the community to life.  The story does close in a crescendo of anti-Jewish violence.  

For sure I will read all of Odessa Stories, about 260 pages.   

Dralyuk has done a wonderful job editing, translating, and introducing Odessa Stories.  I offer him the thanks of the reading life world.

Be sure and look at Dralyuk's very well done webpage 

‘The Story of My Dovecote’was First published in the journal Krasnaia nov’, No. 4 (May 1925). Reprinted in the Odessa journal Shkval (Squall), No. 17 (May 1925), and in three issues of the daily Krasnaia gazeta (Red Newspaper), 18–20 May 1925.

       From Pushkin Press

Mel u

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

New Ways to Kill Your Mother Writers and their Families by Colm Toibin (2012)

Colm Toibin (1953, Ireland) is one of my favorite writers of fiction.  I especially liked his novel based on the London years of Henry James, The Master and Brooklyn.  Additionally I learned a good bit from his non fiction work, Lady Gregory's Tooth Brush.  I have posted on these works and several of his short stories.  Additionally I have read several of his short pieces on Henry James. When I was notified a collection of his literary essays, Nine Ways to Kill Your Mother Writers and Their Familes was on sale as a kindle for $3.95 happily made the purchase. 

Among the Irish writers covered are Yeats, Synge, Joyce, Beckett, Sebastian Barry, Roddy Doyle and Hugo Hamilton.  There is very interesting chapters on Jane Austin and Henry James on the importance of aunts.  Conflicts brought on by the difficulties their families had accepting their sexuality feature Hart Crane,Tennessee Williams and Thomas Mann.  There are two chapters devoted to James Baldwin.  Borges and John Cheever are also featured.

I learned something from each of the essays.  The chapter on Synge and Yeats will reshape my vision of Irish literature.

I  much enjoyed this book and endorse it too all interested  in the subject matter.  The families of writers have many of the same issues non literary families have which gives the book greater interest.

Mel u

Monday, September 5, 2016

George Eastman Bringing Photography to the People by Lynda Pflueger (a young adult biography, 2015)

1854 to 1932
Founded Eastman Kodak Compnay, popularized the use of film as the medium for photography, made cameras affordable to the general public, major philanthropist.

Last week I read a very good young adult biography by Lynda Pflueger on Thomas Nast, the founding father fhe American political cartoon famous for fighting political corruption in New York City.  I was very pleased to learn she also has written a book on one of the greatest of American inventors, businessmen, George Eastman, whose Kodak and Brownie cameras meant most anyone could be a photographer.  

Eastman first was interested in photography as a hobby.  His first camera cost a month salary for him Photographs were taken on plates.  Eastman, from Rochester, New York, with some help, basically invented photographic film.  He went into business making film and was very successful.  He set up plants in London and Paris as well as Rochester.  It was his inexpensive cameras, like the Kodak, a name he made up, that made him truly wealthy.  Eastman was very good to his employees, giving them periodic extra pay based on company profits.  Eastman never married.  He built a magnificent home for he and his mother.  He gave very generously to local colleges and had a special passion for providing dental care for poor children.

Eastman was a very good man, he gave away most of what he earned.  We can all admire him.

www.lyndapflueger. com

You can learn more about Pflueger's work on her very well done webpage.

I think both of her books belong in school libraries.  Raiders into American history will greatly enjoy them.

Mel u

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Judas by Amos Oz (2014, translation by Nicholas de Lange forthcoming 2016)

In January 2013 I read and posted on two short stories by Amos Oz, both published in The New Yorker.  Judas, set in Isreal in 1959, was a great reading experience.  It centers on Samuel Ash, a biblical scholar focusing on Judas, as depicted in Jewish writings.  Ash was supported in his studies until his father had a severe business loss.  He has taken a job as a companion to a seventy year old man.  The older man is highly educated, was in his younger days an authority on symbolic logic, he is versed in theology and Isreali politics.  Ash receives room and board and all small salary, his primary duty is to converse with the older man, to keep his mind occupied. 

Also living at the house is a beautiful mysterious forty five year old woman.  Slowly her relationship to the old man is revealed.  Slowly,Ash and the woman develop a relationship.

Ash in his biblical studies has a radically alternative view of Judas, who he sees as the first true Christian and the cause for the rise of the faith.  Agree or not, it is a very interesting idea.

We get a good feel for Isrrali life in the period.  We come to see the role of the Holocaust in the creation of Isreal.  

I found this a fascinating book.

I was given a review copy of this book.

AMOS OZ was born in Jerusalem in 1939. He is the author of fourteen novels and collections of short fiction, and numerous works of nonfiction. His acclaimed memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness was an international bestseller and recipient of the prestigious Goethe Prize, as well as the National Jewish Book Award. Scenes from Village Life, a New York Times Notable Book, was awarded the Prix Méditerranée Étranger in 2010. He lives in Tel Aviv, Israel.  -from the publisher