Monday, July 26, 2010

NYRB Challenge #35-37: Catching Up on Some European Classics. . .

I definitely haven't abandoned my 50 book NYRB Challenge, but I have been forced to slow down a bit, tempted by all sorts of other reading fare and a good chunk of upcoming fall and spring manuscripts. But I do like to dip into the classics over the summer and this seemed a good time to mine the NYRB backlist and tackle some fiction by these three influential authors.

I knew when I started this challenge that I would definitely get around to reading Memoirs of an Anti-Semite: A Novel in Five Stories by Gregor Von Rezzori, translated in part by Joachim Neugroschel. Not only is it one of those books that has been recommended to me many times, but I also wanted the chance to delve further into some of the key works of Eastern European literature. It is a masterfully written dissection of the years leading up to the Second World War (with one epilogue) that portrays the anger, hatred, and despair of that interwar period. The novel consists of five episodes in the narrator's life. He's quite a loner - a man who wants to be an artist but lacks the ambition and discipline. He also gets easily sidetracked by his apathy, and his many jealousies involving both men with more talent, and the women he embarks on affairs with; several of them are Jewish. This is not a portrait of a Nazi in the making, but an unsympathetic and unsentimental depiction of a man very much defined by society's prejudices and his family's own sense of loss after the break-up of the Austrian-Hungarian empire. As a child, he is repeatedly told by his father that character is "troth" (also the title of one of the most powerful sections of the novel), which means loyalty - to a country, a region, or an ideal.  This becomes one of the key conflicts in the novel. What can one do or believe in when not only historical, but cultural boundaries and ways of life are undefined, constantly shifting and changing? Rezzori writes very powerfully and balances a violent tension with the occasional scene of almost absurdist humour.  But most of these sections uncomfortably jolt the reader with a shocking conclusion or observation. An excellent novel.
I've read several plays by Luigi Pirandello, his most famous of course being Six Characters in Search of an Author, and his fascination with ontology also infiltrates his fiction.  In The Late Mattia Pascal, translated by William Weaver, the title character is a man who inadvertently finds himself married to a woman who isn't quite as beautiful as he'd originally thought, and who brings a truly awful mother-in-law to live with them. Escaping his household for a few days to gamble away a small sum of money, Mattia hits the jackpot, not only in the casinos but on his way home, when he reads in the newspaper that a dead body has been found near the local mill and identified as himself.  With his family believing he is dead, Mattia takes his winnings and travels, finally settling in Rome under an assumed name. But the initial freedom he celebrates proves to be illusory and full of complications. If you successfully escape yourself - who then are you? To be or not to be isn't the only philosophical question debated in this novel, but it offers the most laughs. I very much enjoyed reading this entertaining comedy.

The stories in Hugo Von Hofmannsthal's The Lord Chandos Letter and Other Writings, translated by Joel Rotenberg, have a slightly sinister, ethereal feel to them. The characters seem to inhabit dual worlds simultaneously - the real one, and a dream-like one conjured up by an extraordinary and ongoing emotional awareness of not only nature, but the intensity of people's fears, desires and regrets. Death both fascinates and paralyzes, as shown in two haunting stories set among soldiers - "Cavalry Story" and "Military Story". And this culminates in his most famous story "The Letter", in which the narrator laments his inability to articulate these "coded messages" or sensations that he receives:
A watering can, a harrow left in a field, a dog in the sun, a shabby churchyard, a cripple, a small farmhouse - any of these can become the vessel of my revelation. Any of these things and the thousand similar ones past which the eye ordinarily glides with natural indifference can at any moment - which I am completely unable to elicit - suddenly take on for me a sublime and moving aura which words seem too weak to describe.
It's a slightly creepy collection and makes a good companion to Theophile Gautier's My Fantoms which was an earlier challenge read.

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