Books Read – June 2020

I’m going to divide this month into 4 parts (probably), there’s so much I’ve read (or, at least, finished).

Andreas, by Hugo von Hofmannstahl

This is a novel (or part of one) from last month which I forgot. I really enjoyed it, and it’s a great pity Hofmannstahl couldn’t overcome his hang-ups about writing and finish it. On account of the bizarre nature of the happenings in it, it reminded me a lot of ETA Hoffmann. The whole business of the servant seems like the typical Hoffmann story starting off normally and then spiralling off into unexpected dimensions; – and then, as far as I remember, there was a woman who climbed up walls like a spider. I’d like to have known more what that was all about.

A Maze of Death, by Philip K Dick

Philip K Dick is an author who can be divided more easily than most into his good and bad books. A Maze of Death falls into his good category. From what I’ve read before, it’s closest to Ubik. The set-up is the same (a group of people start mysteriously dying in a world which for some reason is disintegrating), and so are a lot of the preoccupations (mostly, death). That is to say, like most Dick, it’s not your run-of-the-mill sci-fi. The reader is left with the usual sense of not really knowing what’s going on throughout, though unlike Ubik, where the ultimate “explanation” for all this leaves you strangely none the wiser, A Maze of Death‘s explanation – like the previous Dick book we read, Time Out of Joint – seemed a bit disappointingly (ahem) deus ex machina.

Plays 2, by Dario Fo

I can’t say I was much impressed by these, although 2 of the plays (Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay – a sort of socialist strike play – and The Open Couple – about what it says) were better than the other two. Elizabeth, the longest play, has the problem of competing in my mind with Miranda Richardson’s portrayal of Elizabeth, against which nothing can compare, and is in the end rather silly (which is a harsh criticism of a farce).

The Saga of Gisli

I think this is so far my favourite Icelandic saga. It’s short, only about 60 pages, and is the usual Icelandic story of murder and revenge. Four friends are destined to fall out and kill one another. The explanation as to why is left very vague (perhaps one friend commits adultery with another friend’s wife?) the reader remaining as uncertain as the characters seem. It all escalates, until our hero Gisli ends up an outlaw (no one is allowed to give him shelter, though naturally many do) and is hunted down (rather like say The Running Man – i.e. the book, not the film).

The Mabinogion

I’ve been reading this for a while, and it’s only the last two romances I read this month. (The four books of the Mabinogion themselves are very strange – in fact, beyond the first one, they’re reasonably incomprehensible. I guess it’s what happens with oral story-telling, once everyone’s forgotten what the story was originally about). These last 2 pieces are Arthurian romance. I’m not sure I quite grasped the point of Gereint son of Erbin: – because he paid too much attention to his wife, and not enough to his kingdom, he was ashamed and made her ride in front of him on a purposeless quest, killing any knights who approached them (the bit about mists at the end reminded me of Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant). Peredur son of Efrawg, on the other hand, I found fascinating as another version of the grail story, but this time without the grail, or any of the appropriate elements of the grail legend. Peredur is Percival (Parsifal), who grows up not knowing what knights are, becomes a knight, only to fail to ask the question of the Fisher King, just like in Chrétien de Troyes, but the stories thereafter differ – presumably around the point when Chrétien de Troyes died and left his story for other people to complete, and they decided to hedge it around with all kinds of Christian mysticism; whereas here in the Mabinogion the whole business has a much more prosaic explanation, it’s nothing to do with Christ or the last supper or Joseph of Arimatheia. There’s some scholarly discussion (so my introduction says) of which story influenced which, or if it all just comes from the same source. I can’t help feeling myself that this is probably how the original story was completed – and would have been how Chrétien finished his (but I need to re-read Chrétien some time).

The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, by Joseph Conrad

I was going to review this in light of Chinua Achebe’s criticism of Conrad as a racist (primarily, if I recall, and without actually looking up the article, because he feels Conrad refuses to ascribe black men (as Achebe says, Conrad’s favoured term is “niggers”) with humanity, using them rather as mere backdrop to the white man’s issues; though I remember at the time thinking it was odd that the article omitted all mention of The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus‘, which as I recall might at least have attempted to imbue one black man with humanity), but since I started re-reading it, the issue’s become too close to the zeitgeist for me to be bothered with it. Besides, it’s the kind of novel you could argue almost any position on. (If you’re looking for an undergraduate dissertation though, and don’t want to do Heart of Darkness like everybody else…)

What did trouble me in thinking about this matter, was who the narrator was in this novella. It’s told from an “I” point of view, which is often in truth a “we” point of view, like a Greek chorus. The narrator is clearly a member of the crew, observing events, and yet as a member of the crew he is invisible, a ghost – there is no interaction between him and anyone else. The only time he appears as an actual sentient being is at the end, when he says goodbye to one of the crew members (Belfast, the one who was best friend’s with James Wait, the “nigger” of the title – you see, Conrad even gives him a name). Otherwise the story is basically a comparison (in some way and for some purpose) between James Wait, who claims he can’t do any work about ship because he’s dying, and a character called D – who is a shirker, and perhaps proto-socialist shop-steward (I’m not sure Conrad says much difference) – who just doesn’t want to do any work; – and the attitudes of the crew to the two of them (generally, they’re favourable to Wait and dislike D). Or perhaps it’s just about a storm.

Let the Wind Speak, by Juan Carlos Onetti

After enjoying The Shipyard and Body Snatcher, I’ve struggled with the last few Onetti novels I’ve read. Even with this one, I’d previously read the first 80 pages, and believe I enjoyed them. The reason I never went on, I think, is that I put the book down for a month, and when I picked it up again, I had no idea what the book was about or who any of the characters were. This is perhaps not so surprising, as the book doesn’t put in much effort to make any sense, either in plot or structure – or even, one might say, consistency of character. As far as I can ascertain, a character Medina is living in Lavanda (a world parallel to Onetti’s usual Santa Maria, and which in the real world parallels Onetti’s own exile in Madrid), where he’s in a relationship with Frieda, and some other characters, and maybe has a son; and then he goes back to Santa Maria, where he is the police chief, and is still in some way having a relation Frieda, who is also having a relationship with his supposed son. The unwillingness to be comprehensible naturally began to grate after a while.



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