Friday, 7 July 2017

Book #30

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel journeys to Vienna to apprentice at a tobacco shop. There he meets Sigmund Freud, a regular customer, and over time the two very different men form a singular friendship. When Franz falls desperately in love with the music-hall dancer Anezka, he seeks advice from the renowned psychoanalyst, who admits that the female sex is as big a mystery to him as it is to Franz.
As political and social conditions in Austria dramatically worsen with the Nazis’ arrival in Vienna, Franz, Freud, and Anezka are swept into the maelstrom of events. Each has a big decision to make: to stay or to flee?

Franz Huchel is a seventeen year old mummy’s boy who moves from his quiet and lazy life in the Salzkammergut to Vienna, where he begins work as a tobacconist’s apprentice (arranged by mother, of course). The tobacconist himself, Otto Trsynek, is an utter defiant; having had one of his legs blown off in the First World War, he makes no secret of his political opinions, and as a result is branded a Jew-lover by his peers, and is persecuted terribly.

One of the tobacconist’s more notable Jewish customers is the Professor Sigmund Freud himself, who enjoys the Nene Freie Presse and twenty Virginias. Franz becomes fascinated with this intelligent yet vilified figure, and they develop a strange and gorgeous relationship through cigars and conversation. The words passed between them illustrate the changes in Vienna, and the slow loss of safety for its people. They are also testament to Franz’s transition from (quite frankly a quite irritating) mummy’s boy into a strong, wilful young man.

Beautifully, Franz falls in love with a Bohemian girl, and laments for pages and pages over this lost love. The contrast of this against the political backdrop was quite jarring, and seeing Franz realise this towards the end of the novel was a gorgeous thing to see.

Seethaler’s writing has an almost lyrical, melancholy feel to it. He describes the smallest details of Vienna, the most minute things captured by Franz’s senses, so that character, time, and place all come together to create a setting of pure wonder. All of this came through perfectly in the translation, and the result was captivating.

A very quiet and gentle commentary on the Nazi occupation, it shows the life of one boy, and how the Nazis affected it - however minutely in the grand scheme of the Holocaust. The finale is a grand punch of satisfaction peppered with a realisation of the futility of it all. A wonderfully poetic depiction of life during the Anschluss - I loved it.  

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Book #29

A Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert

With pathos and humour, Flaubert imagines the unexamined life of a servant girl. 

Un coeur simple.

Like our wonderful protagonist, this is a simple story that holds so much more than you initially realise. The prose is quite stark, yet has something gorgeous about it; it’s reserved in much the same way as (our ironically named) Félicité, who keeps all of her heartbreak and woe to herself, living life very much in solitary as the servant of a household. She doesn’t let her sadness take away from her duties, and used religion and small tokens to remind her of everything that was important to her.

Flaubert explores Félicité’s bleak existence, one which would have garnered absolutely no interest otherwise, and one which could quite easily be considered dull. Yet Félicité’s life on display by him is so interesting, her history painful yet glorious, and Flaubert plants an important idea in our heads - everyone is important, and no matter how small a story, they all have meaning.

This was absolutely wonderful, and I feel Flaubert’s skill transcends translation. Madame Bovary was a work of art for me, but this is a smaller, more profound piece. I feel utterly humbled to have read this woman’s story. A simple heart is a momentous heart.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

Book #28

IT by Stephen King

The story follows the exploits of seven children as they are terrorized by an eponymous being, which exploits the fears and phobias of its victims in order to disguise itself while hunting its prey. "It" primarily appears in the form of a clown in order to attract its preferred prey of young children. The novel is told through narratives alternating between two time periods, and is largely told in the third-person omniscient mode. It deals with themes which would eventually become King staples: the power of memory, childhood trauma, and the ugliness lurking behind a façade of traditional small-town values.
I’ve decided books don’t really scare me. Put the scenes on film, with some creepy atmosphere-building music on, and I will jump out of my skin. It didn’t scare me. Really, it wasn’t scary.

Having quickly come to terms with this fact a mere less than fifty pages in, the book began to read as more of a character study, as a commentary on childhood, on trust, and on the power of friendship. I fell in love with these kids, and the depth to the characters is exquisite in allowing this.

King works magic, travelling from the 50s to the 80s, and back again. We see the kids conquer It as eleven year olds, and then see them return 27 years later to carry it out all over again. The juxtaposition of them both young and old, was glorious, and seeing how they had changed (or in most cases, how they hadn’t) was wonderful.

Using children as the protagonists here was important. We forget how different they are to us; how they can cope with so much more than we can, simply due to their power of imagination; how time works differently for them; how responsibilities and worries, although smaller, take on a different feel. In It, King shows us how the power of children and their imaginations were enough to conquer the demon lurking in Derry, the one the adults couldn’t see, smell, or even imagine.

As an exploration into the wonders of childhood, and with the addition of some really good commentary on racism and homophobia at that time, it’s great. The sheer length of it, however, is way too much. There were a colossal number of unnecessary elements or subplots here, some grossly long paragraphs about things that had no relevance. Although I enjoyed the depth of the characters, and the explanations of how It had attacked in the past, I felt it could have been cut down immensely, and found myself dragging myself into it just so I could get to the end.  

In the end, I imagine we’re all the same; what we’re afraid of most is having no one there to face terror with.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Book #27

The Meek One by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

In this short story, Dostoyevsky masterfully depicts desperation, greed, manipulation and suicide. 
Dostoevsky perfectly uses stream of consciousness narrative to get inside the head of a husband and pawnbroker as his wife lies dead before him. Driven to suicide by his own selfish way of loving her, the grief consuming the pawnbroker is mingled with regret, self-deprecation, and futile justifications. The jarring contrasts of all of these build a clear picture of both his mental state, and the events and behaviours that led to the meek one taking her own life.

This style of writing also allows for the pawnbroker to be considered an unreliable narrator. Grief aside, we are only able to view his wife through his own eyes, and it's entirely possible there were various other reasons at play here. 

A fantastic short exploration of the human psyche when confronted with loss, and one you absolutely have to be prepared for some confusion, and some reading between the lines. A perfect depiction flaw and shame.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Book #26

Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

This was no ordinary war. This was a war to make the world safe for democracy. And if democracy was made safe, then nothing else mattered--not the millions of dead bodies, nor the thousands of ruined lives...This is no ordinary novel. This is a novel that never takes the easy way out: it is shocking, violent, terrifying, horrible, uncompromising, brutal, remorseless and gruesome...but so is war.

What a book. This is an utterly unforgettable work; a masterpiece wrapping the romanticism of war into a tight parcel and storing it forever out of sight.

Joe Bonham is a soldier who is hit with a German shell in WWI. He wakes up in hospital unable to see, hear, speak, or even move. His injuries are horrific, but not quite as horrifying as following his mental state as he comes to terms with the loss of his senses, each of his limbs, and practically, his life. He's a dead man who thinks, and his thoughts are profound, they are tormented, they are hopeless, and they are beautiful.

We are shown Joe's mental decline as he comes to terms with his disability (if disability is strong enough a word to describe what Joe is suffering). We are shown memories of his life before he entered into war. We hear his thoughts on fighting for democracy, for decency, and I'll be damned if we don't agree with each and every single one of them as we lie on that bed immobile with him.

Joe painstakingly learns how to keep track of time. He counts the nurse's visits, he counts his baths, the times his bed is changed. He loses count, and in doing so, loses a bit of his mind each time. He tries again; he has nothing else to do. He spends days working out how to communicate; rejoices when he does, only to discover what he has to say has no importance to the man; he is to remain silent, to remain trapped. This is undoubtedly the most harrowing point of them all.

Trumbo's juxtaposition of past and present sent shockwaves through me. Just as I was spending young adult years with Joe, I was transported back into that room I couldn't see or smell, and reminded we were trapped, prisoners in Joe's body without a hope in hell. The contrast of his freedom against his captivity was heartbreaking, sickening, and hurt me deeply.

I was amazed this was published in 1939. It feels so contemporary, so real, and entirely relevant that it's a wonder almost eighty years have passed without the slightest political change on the novel's themes. Trumbo conveys a perfect anti-war message that is impossible to argue with; the importance of human life, the futility of war, and the price we pay to those who orchestrate the wars, yet never seem to fight them.

As someone who can't quite bear watching the news most days, as someone who likes to hide from the atrocities of our world, this hit me hard. Read this for the message, read it for the story, I don't care. I consider this required reading despite the gloom, despite the claustrophobia, and despite the horror of being imprisoned in your own body. Read it to learn about war.