A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene

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I was given A Burnt-Out Case by a philosophy professor in early January because I was feeling quite dissatisfied with my job and I was considering starting from scratch, embarking on a different track to study comparative literature. Because I knew my professor was a Catholic Christian, I assumed the book would deal with Catholicism; doubtless, the subject matter revolves around faith, but I also had the feeling that other topics were similarly present.

The book packs a handful of concurrent themes. Readers of Greene might be expecting to read about matters of faith, morality or politics. I found that the book dealt more with choice, and this central presence of decisions and alternatives that are felt in the insignificant details of our lives, yet, somehow they end up throwing us into different trajectories, sometimes independently of our intentions.

On the surface, yes, matters of faith are examined, especially Christian theology. Since faith and choice cannot be separated, in particular, the interpretation of theological subjects, I felt that the fabric of the plot is woven around the characters’ responsiveness and flexibility to their own  choices.

That said, I suppose that someone with Greene’s experience and unstable life, must inevitably conclude that choosing any course of action, any form of companionship, or even any belief system must seem quite an absurd and random decision.

The book starts with an ambiguous European, later to be identified as (aptly-named) Querry, arriving at a leproserie, somewhere on the borders of a river in Congo, because the boat he embarked upon cannot go any further. It is clear from the first pages that he is in torment, for he is unable to smile, unwilling to talk, isolating his inner self to avoid facing questions he cannot reasonably answer.

As the story unfolds and Querry gets in contact with the other characters: Dr. Colin, of the dispensary, the order of the Fathers, the manager of an oil factory and his wife, the reporter and his own African servant, we are informed that he lost the ability to love: not his work, wherein he excelled as an architect, nor women, nor God.

With the contact of the inhabitants, both Africans and Europeans, of this leprosery, a mild metamorphosis occurs to him: he begins to care, even if fleetingly, for his African servant, a cured leper and he offers his services as a builder to the people working on establishing a new hospital. Though both changes are quite diluted and meager in comparison with what the others are and have been doing in this isolated enclave, yet they form the connecting threads of this plot for they rally the other characters around them. For instance, the Superior of the order of the Fathers accepts them without moralizing about them, without analyzing their motives. The rigid Father Thomas is too enthusiastic to declare victory of faith over disbelief in this man’s heart. The manager of the oil factory glorifies such acts to reflect the humility of the famous Querry; “the” Querry, as he calls him, against whom he would like to measure his intellect and his actions.

Following these “heroic” acts, as they were dubbed, by the inhabitants of the leproserie, Querry does not feel regret for doing them, but he spends a frustratingly long time, attempting to refute them, to reflect their true worth, in vain. “The innocence and immaturity of isolation” as Greene writes inevitably compels people to project their own needs, their own aspirations even, to this new change in their environment.

My own interpretation of why Querry undertook these two actions does not take me far. As plain as it may be, I assume that the drive behind these actions is the interaction that Querry felt with the people of the leproserie; in particular, with Dr. Colin, the atheist physician who thrives to cure his patients, sometimes against all reason, without the demotivation which such disappointments might bring. Dr. Colin is content with his atheism; Querry is fighting an inner struggle against disbelief.

What I liked about the book is that throughout a good chunk of it, nothing obvious happens. The inner transformations and reactions of the characters are what brought the plot to such a climactic ending. Additionally, I liked the equidistance Graham Greene takes towards his characters. I did not detect any judgement against them; I felt they were ‘honest’ characters, acting within a margin of behavior which faithfully entraps them. Perhaps this is why in the introduction to the book, Greene states that these characters are pure fiction and cannot be identified. One has the feeling that he was accurately reporting on real people he encountered.

Having finished the book, I went on to check out Greene’s biography [I am a fan of this website on writers’ biographies: http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi] and I was stunned to discover how much aspects of his life, including people he encountered, are represented in his books; this one in particular. For example, Greene hated being labeled a Catholic novelist, much like Querry despised being referred to as a Catholic architect. Another point of interest to the readers of the book, Querry’s love life seems to revolve around affairs with married women, not unlike Greene’s.

I think A Burnt-Out Case is one of those books that one enjoys reading without putting them down; I finished it in a couple of days, which is quite the record for my reading habits. The absence of any dynamism in the plot allows one to enjoy Greene’s furtive comments against colonialism, (“Yet in our century , you could hardly call them fools. Hola Camp, Sharperville and Algiers had justified all possible belief in European cruelty.”), his remarks on the specificities of African culture (“Father Thomas, when you have been in Africa a little longer, you will learn not to ask an African a question which may be answered by yes. It’s their form of courtesy to agree. It means nothing at all”), and why not, his theological interpretations (“Bad things are not there. They are nothing. Hate means no love. Envy means no justice. They are just empty spaces where Yezu ought to be”)

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La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert

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I have mixed feelings about this book. The fact that it won the “Prix de l’Académie Francaise” 2012 tips the scales towards disappointment. Then again if I was not intrigued by a crime book that won the said prize, I probably wouldn’t have even picked it up.

It is a 660+ pages crime book; that made me quite hesitant to consider it, I just assume there would be unnecessary details and characters and boring repetitiveness. I was wrong about the first two.

The book’s back cover states that it is a “reflection on America”. I don’t know how one understands such a phrase, nevertheless it felt to me a bit too much to qualify the book as such.

It is the story of a first-time successful young writer, Marcus Goldman, struggling to start his second work, who flies to the rescue of his mentor, the great Harry L. Quebert. Quebert is arrested and accused of the murder of the 15-year old Nola Kellergan, whose body (or the remains of it) is discovered 33 years (2008) after her disappearance (1975) from a small New Hampshire town, Aurora.

The book’s front cover is a painting by Edward Hopper, one of my favorite painters, “Portrait of Orleans”, and this book is certainly a portrait of Aurora. The inhabitants of Aurora seem typical of any small village; endowed with the natural virtues and vices and small-town life; they are friendly, nosy about each other’s affairs, yet understanding, even respectful, of each other’s privacy (if such a privacy exists in a small village), and as is the case in any small town, and especially those described in crime novels, newcomers almost always carry a deeper past with them.

Though the book is more action than description, yet the characters and the events occuring in the past are chronicled in such a way that one feels as if he was part of that fateful 1975 summer.

What felt a bit unsettling, in my opinion, was that the recalling of past events did not create in me this feeling of mystery one anxiously anticipates following the deep-digging in crime novels. I even felt that the paths that led our amateur detective-writer to snatch bits of truths about what happened from the dwellers of Aurora were too “programmed”; it was as if people awaited in their houses, or diners, or stores for the arrival of Marcus to recount him in precision what happened 33 years earlier. Over the lifespan of the book, I could count rare occasions in which characters seemed suspicious, or wary or cautious of the questions and deductions thrown-in by Marcus Goldman.

As the case is closed, every little twist of events is lucidly narrated by Goldman/Dicker so much that the imagination of the reader is left thirsty. This is because, throughout the book, Dicker retells the events from the perspective each and every actor directly or indirectly related to the crime, which generates so many overlapping narratives leaving no room for guesswork.

As the detective-writer finds himself entangled in the twists and turns of the book he is simultaneously writing, the reader is offered an entrance to the world of book publishing; there is a most revealing chapter of the book, chapter 6, that completely takes the charm out of the book publishing process. Nevertheless, it is revealed in such a way that I found it quite funny to read.

Overall, I enjoyed the book; it is an easy read of the simple lives of simple people in an average small town. I particularly appreciated that an author can still up an addictive crime novel without the bells and whistles of forensic science and technology, and rely on the simplicity of the characters to elucidate the mystery.

La Neige Était Sale -The beginning-

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To read Simenon in his native language; to grasp his world, to indulge in every word he carefully selects, to capture his elusive characters is, without a doubt, to be privileged.

This book, “La Neige Etait Sale” (In English, Dirty Snow) is supposedly his best. Perhaps.

I’m only at the 22nd page and already feel the need to write something about them.

The story, I don’t care much about it to be honest, starts with Frank losing his virginity. Nothing sexual; it’s the first time he kills, not commits murder. Simenon differentiates between the two. (In Maigret et le Tueur, he highlights this distinction). The opening sentence reads: “Sans un événement fortuit, le geste de Frank Friedmaier, cette nuit-là, n’aurait eu qu’une importance relative.” Knowing Simenon beforehand, one assumes that this act could only mean killing; and it sounds alarming; taking another human’s life does not represent much of a significance to Frank. But Simenon is rarely harsh on his protagonists, possibly because he lives with them this short time span writing the novel.

We can only guess why Frank does what he does or thinks the way he thinks; Simenon generously distributes question marks when defining his characters: “Est-ce parce qu’il était à l’affût que cela a fait figure d’occasion?” […] “Alors pourquoi toussa-t-il juste au moment ou l’homme allait atteindre l’impasse?” […] “Est-ce à cause de Sissy, la fille de Holst?”

But I daresay that it’s because of these questions, because of so many “cela etait sans aucune importance” that one enjoys his books… Because this protagonist is not a murderer, he is not a calculating psychopath, his psychological portrait is open to interpretation; Simenon’s characters do not fit a pre-defined classification; after all they are people whom he sees in cafés, strolling down sidewalks, strangers he briefly encounters. These everyday beings, he transports them into his world, and proceeds with his social and psychological experimentation. (As much as writing allows experimentation)

Moving a couple of pages along, Frank starts making some sense to us, not because of a psychological elaboration; rather we begin by sensing this relation that develops between an individual and a surrounding society. This relationship is paradoxical; it feels as if Frank is dependent on it, yet at the same time he wants to detach himself, he wants to demonstrate his indifference towards it; this is perfectly reasonable in Simenoian world: being part of this society was not Frank’s choice. It was imposed on him, not in the negative sense, no; simply, as a matter-of-fact.

For the moment, I content myself with this short introduction, transcribing below, what I consider to be, Simenon at his best.

“Il les obligeait presque à manger. Il mangeait avec elles. Il les pelotaient devant tout le monde. Il regardait ses doigts mouillés et il riait. Puis, régulièrement, un moment venait où il débouclait son ceinturon et le posait sur la table.

À ce ceinturon, il y avait un étui contenant un revolver à répétition.

En soi, tout cela était sans importance.”

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Is Paul Auster worth your time?

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Review of Paul Auster’s Brooklyn Follies

This is my second Auster, the first was “Travels in the Scriptorium”Both works I have “read” as audiobooks while taking interminable journeys around the country. The journeys themselves were less taxing than the books.
The reason I checked both is because of -and I’m not ashamed to admit it- the publicity this guy gets!

“The Brooklyn Follies”, written in the first person narrative form, is about an ex-insurance salesman, Nathan Wood, well into his 60s, who survives cancer and returns back to his native Brooklyn (Auster’s perpetual home). Does this return symbolize or mean anything? No. Do we get to feel Brooklyn? No.

Serendipity brings him in contact with his nephew; a would-have-been brilliant author / critic, had it not been for… Well we don’t really know. Tom Glass, Nathan Wood’s nephew (and yes, Nathan/Auster does mention this brilliant pun), foregoes his writing ambition for the “safe” job of a cab-driver.
Gradually, characters inhabit the story, effacing any potential interest it might spur, besides it being a family-reunion fiction.

It feels tedious, and possibly boring, to give an account of what happens along, but I can safely say that, in comparison with third-degree storytellers, no other writer I know of uses this “magical wand” so frequently, and liberally, to make things happen and work like Auster does: Love develops, people are reunited, oppressed freed, money distributed to those in-need, people cured… So much, that at the end of the story, I am impatiently waiting for: “And they lived happily ever after”

In all fairness, real life is real life; monotonous, uneventful, duplicate acquaintances tending towards normality… and it is about this ever-flow with its stubborn perturbations, here and there, that Auster writes. But he could have done it with style, with some depth, with something original, something different, than the everyday banter we engage in.

Throughout the book, a couple of stories are told about Poe, Thoreau, and Kafka, though they feel to me as”Did you know?” blurbs.

To the post’s question, my answer is No! This will definitely be my last Auster; there are other contemporary writers out there, some certainly in Brooklyn, who better deserve our time and support.