Emma by Jane Austen

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I know (or at least vaguely remember) I always mention this when I write about Jane Austen, but I will mention it again that my favorite Austen novel is always the one I’m re-reading. So I enjoyed this again, a lot, and right now this is my favorite, even if my latest re-reading wasn’t the result of my usual spring-summer desire for English romanticism (which is, by the way, not really romantic at all – and I probably like it exactly because it’s not romantic) but mostly the result of the fact that Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own wrote about Austen in a most flattering way.

Looking at Austen from Woolf’s perspective, I realized that she really didn’t try or want to please anyone, which is great. Her style, her irony, her cool-headed sensitivity, the way she describes her characters through their style and mannerisms, and the way she criticizes are all very much her, filtered through her own experiences, way of thinking and imagination – and the amount of criticism or compassion she has towards people doesn’t depend on whether Austen is a man or a woman, or whether the character she describes is male or female.

I read somewhere once how Austen never wrote scenes where only men were present, after all, she couldn’t have known how men behave, what they talk about when they are in an all-male company. I must have been a bit surprised when I first read this but now I tend to consider it another sign of Austen’s genius, and I think about how fantastically smart she must have been, and how great it is that she never presumed to be a know-it-all, and didn’t attempt to write about things she hadn’t seen with her own eyes. And I think, too, that she could draw extremely precise conclusions from the things she had seen.

Of course: this is a true Austen novel, where the main goal is marriage, and where everyone lives happily ever after when the goal is reached. But I see her idea of conjugal happiness less and less romantic and fairy-tale-like, even if all her novels end with saying something like how the couple then went ahead to spend their lives in the most perfect harmony imaginable. Yes, the text might end like this, but the implication that this is not a static state is very much there.

Here and now I was especially struck by how much she emphasizes the importance of happy couples complementing each other, and how much her idea of happiness in marriage is based on the assumption or foundation that man and woman will have a good influence on each other.

Perhaps Austen was an archetypal romantic after all. But no matter in what I light I see her, I always feel that what and how she writes – is real, ever since I first read her work in my teens.

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The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

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There’s something in the story and atmosphere of Hartley’s novel that reminds me of Ian McEwan’s Atonement (it must be McEwan’s novel that’s similar to The Go-Between, and not the other way around, but I read Atonement earlier than this): it’s an ominous, cruel, and fateful atmosphere.

At the beginning of the novel, Leo, a man in his sixties, comes across an old journal and other mementos of the past he had carefully hidden from himself throughout his life because confronting them would have been too painful. However, the moment of truth is finally here, so Leo starts out on his journey to the past.

The main story is set in the summer of 1900, when one hot day follows another. And weather is important here – there’s something menacing in the long heatwave of the summer, as it creates an atmosphere full of anticipation, an atmosphere with an oppressive and hypnotic force. You know the heatwave will end sooner or later, but while it lasts, it feels as if time has stopped, as if nothing could lead to consequences, and this encourages reckless, thoughtless behavior.

Leo, aged 13, spends the month of July vacationing at the pleasant country estate of one of his rich classmates of noble descent, and somehow he ends up being the messenger between the young lady of the house and two men who want to win her heart and hand. Leo dutifully carries the messages to and fro among the three adults, and for a long while he doesn’t suspect the significance of the verbal messages and written notes – and even when he learns about it, he still doesn’t grasp the real seriousness of the situation.

Which is, of course, understandable – England in 1900 was probably a very innocent world (or rather: a world full of pretended innocence), and Leo at the age of 13 has absolutely no idea what passions, feelings, and hidden motivations guide the mysterious adults. Leo is still just an average little boy (probably dreamier than average, and with perhaps more propensity to embellish the truth than the average boy), whose favorite pastimes include sliding down on haystacks and looking for treasures in the garbage pile. His mind is usually not on girls – and even when it is, he only thinks about them in a purely abstract sense, without the idea of bodily contact, and he finds the idea of lovemaking simultaneously boring and nauseating.

It’s hardly a surprise then that all this secret messaging leads to nothing good, but the process leading up to this nothing good is much more interesting than the events themselves, and the most interesting here is the behavior of the characters: their secretive and pretentious ways, the way they use, abuse, and manipulate each other without qualms, and the way they cheerfully ignore the possible consequences of their actions. It’s an amoral bunch, here (with one exception – who, naturally, suffers the direst consequences). And even if Leo is supposedly just an innocent child and isn’t much to blame, still – even he is amoral, frighteningly emotionless, and rather cruel – in a way children can be.

And seeing the events from Leo’s immature, naïve, childishly selfish perspective is strangely unsettling. Sure, there’s the usual dramatic irony at work here, and it’s upsetting that the reader knows and understands a lot of things better than the narrator. But it’s unsettling for me mainly because Leo as an adult is just as incapable of understanding the significance and the real meaning of events as he was at the age of 13.

Like I said, the story is told by the old Leo, not the 13-year-old one, and he interprets the events of his childhood as an adult now. We might assume that perhaps there’s a spark of empathy in him now, and that perhaps he’ll be able to understand things more now. But no. He just doesn’t get it. And reading his clueless recounting of the events I feel like crying tears of rage and desperation, and my heart breaks.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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I usually have all kinds free associations while I’m out walking, so when I was walking home after an afternoon spent with reading this book and doing some photosynthesis by the lake, I recalled the motto of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”

Then I thought: the one who makes a plant of himself also gets rid of this pain, like Yeong-hye here, who’s the most ordinary woman in the world (her only distinguishing habit is that she doesn’t like to wear bras) – until she decides to quit eating meat, and then quit doing lots of other things that made her human.

Her decision is understandable and justifiable: why would she want to be a human, after all, if everything that makes her a functional human being was designed and forced onto her by someone else? Still – and this is my personal preference, no doubt the product of my limited human understanding – I think it’s probably much more interesting to be a human than a flagellate or an oak tree, and the way Yeong-hye consistently chooses to dehumanize, un-humanize herself, and the way she employs the most drastic methods so that she can be herself and do whatever she pleases – not even with her life, but at least with her body, something that’s supposed to be her most private possession (and of course, it’s scary and brutal, how in fact her supposedly most private possession isn’t just hers – how others are constantly desiring, wanting, using, abusing this body, often without pausing to think how, for example, those shameful, erect nipples pushing their way through the fabric of a blouse are not self-standing, shameful nipples, but parts of a person, and they aren’t even anything shameful) – so all this, her willingness to go to the very end, her willingness and desire to step out of every convention, habit, routine imaginable – this also terrifies and unsettles me.

Oh, isn’t it just possible to live a cautiously authentic life? Isn’t it possible to be ourselves – just a little, just comfortably, just so that it’s still acceptable to everyone else, just so that it doesn’t bother or cause discomfort to anyone else? Spoiler: It isn’t.

And the question of being a vegetable is an interesting one, too. I’ve been thinking how this appears in language, and – somehow it never has a positive connotation when we say that someone lives in a vegetative state. While in fact it’s possible that plants and vegetables have rich inner worlds, and live extremely intense inner lives – or perhaps it’s much better for them as they don’t have rich inner worlds, and don’t live such intense inner lives as humans in general.

Look at Me by Jennifer Egan

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Now I got to the point that I’ve read every one of Jennifer Egan’s book (I deliberately took my time because she just doesn’t have that many), and this is the first and only one I don’t absolutely adore and admire.

Of course, it’s still great, at least it passes my very scientific test, namely, that a book is good when it’s powerful enough to force its way into my dreams. And it’s also good because it has everything I love in Egan’s work (for details about what I love in them, check my earlier, enthusiastic posts; now, for once, I don’t want to repeat myself).

But I was not swooning with delight reading Look at Me, and there were things that bothered me.

For example, it bothered me that there’s just too many characters in this novel, and that it’s about way too many themes. In this respect, it foreshadows A Visit from the Goon Squad, with its multitude of characters, points of view, styles, and topics ranging over decades and continents, but in Goon Squad, Egan handles and juggles everything with a masterly hand, and her writing doesn’t get overwhelming. Here, though, I was sometimes asking: Just why is there so much stuff here? Do you really have to try telling everything in one novel? Can all this fit into a single book?

What’s all this? Roughly (and without attempting to be comprehensive): public and private identities, the connections between the two, and whether they are mutually exclusive; the connections between reality and non-reality (virtual reality, projection, reproduction – you name it); the cultural monopoly of the US that burdens every other culture in the world; the peculiar feeling of being lost that permeates our teenage years and that’s still full of hope and that secret thought that there will still be a whole life for everything; the eternal longing for being someplace else, sometime else. And these topics are all exciting or heartbreaking, it’s just that – all this, here, feels too much for me.

Another thing: to me, it felt that Jennifer Egan was sometimes repeating herself here. True, I read her books in random order, not chronologically, so perhaps it confuses me that I remember them both forward and backward. Still – I’ve read in at least two of her novels so far how she describes that weirdly specific feeling, using basically the same words, when a character (usually very young and naïve, and wishing for perfection) who’s deeply immersed in a situation and in an emotion, suddenly finds herself in the future in her thoughts, and realizes the temporariness of her current situation – and suddenly understands how the thing that hurts now won’t hurt anymore 20 years later, and how what’s real now will only be a memory then.

And yes, it’s fantastic how Egan can capture the essence of this feeling (of any feeling for that matter), and it made me shiver just as it made me shiver when I read about this feeling in her other novels, but still: it bothered me that I’ve already seen this – the same thing described in the same way. I want to see things I haven’t seen before. Or: I want to see things I know in ways I haven’t before. Here, it didn’t happen for me.

(And now I’m just looking forward to Manhattan Beach, Egan’s new novel out in October.)

This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

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Tropper’s novel started out entertainingly enough (it even made me laugh out loud, twice) but I soon became annoyed and towards the end I kept thinking this novel was just too loud, too action-packed, too forced, too cheap. Just a whole lot of quick and supposedly witty talk, just a whole lot of cruising on the surface without ever getting deep into anything.

As for the story: the patriarch of the Foxman family passes away, so the family get together to sit shiva, the 7-day Jewish mourning period. The family members are none too enthusiastic, and not just because of the death in the family, but because their relations are the best when they are all far away from one another. Anyway, they must honor the last will of the dead father, so the widow and the four grown-up children, together with all the spouses, significant others, grandchildren, and so on resign themselves to the fact that they’ll have to spend a week together and mourn.

This period, naturally, brings all the hurts, fears and desires of the past to the surface, and because the family members possess no self-control whatsoever, their erupting emotions lead to extremely dramatic and spectacular situations. So much so that I got the impression that the book was written explicitly so that it could be turned into a film, even if, supposedly, that wasn’t the case.

Anyway, we soon learn – because Tropper hammers the point home on every fifth page or so – that the Foxman family is famous for being completely dysfunctional, and that it’s a family made up of utterly tactless people who are unable to express their emotions in any way that could be considered halfway normal. This is a very comfortable solution as it provides an excuse (to the writer, I think) why the characters constantly get into fistfights (because the poor little souls have no other methods of communication), and it also provides an excuse for the general shallowness of the novel – after all, if the characters are emotionally illiterate morons, then it cannot be expected that the author characterize them properly.

Wait, actually, it can be expected. But Tropper doesn’t care about characterization and depth, and most of the characters are exaggerated caricatures with approximately one defining feature – there’s the vulgar, bitchy old mother (something like Bridget Jones’ mom); there’s the belligerent sister-in-law whose only desire is to finally get pregnant; there’s the prodigal son who can get into the pants of any woman in about 3 seconds; and so on. After a while it starts to be a pain in the ass to read about such one-dimensional characters (but at least it goes fast).

The only exception is the main character, Judd, who’s in the middle of a messy divorce and in the process of disintegration, and who’s a bit like Rob from Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, in a slightly less melancholic edition. His constant flow of emotional whining is good, darkly funny, and real – perhaps simply because he at least has some kind of depth, and in his case, we don’t only see that he’s messed up because Tropper says he’s messed up.

Fortunately, Judd is the most important main character, so we can read a whole lot of his whining, and that’s enjoyable, but the novel is still far from being remarkable.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

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I bought this book quite randomly, except, not really – I liked the title, the topic, and the fact that it’s set in New York, which is my favorite mythical city – and it turned out to be a good book. The Lonely City contains a bit of everything: there are autobiographical ruminations about loneliness, there’s a bit of art history, politics, psychology, a bit about the history of New York and so on.

The book grew out of Olivia Laing’s experiences when, in her mid-thirties, she moved to New York to be together with a man, except it turned out that the man didn’t want to be with her after all, which left Laing all alone – alone in more than one sense: in a strange city (and New York at that, the most archetypal alienated and alienating city), with the pain of a fresh breakup, without close friends.

What do you do in a situation like this? You drag yourself out to the street when you really must, but then you run back home as fast as you can, and then spend most of your time lying around in your bed, watching videos on YouTube, and searching online for the illusion of human warmth, without accepting the dangers inherent in real human contact.

Laing does exactly this, but fortunately her brain is still working, so in her case binge-watching videos, wasting time online, and thinking about her poisonous and stinking loneliness leads somewhere: to this book. Laing, just for something to do, starts to research loneliness, looks into the psychology of loneliness, and examines how this is a state/feeling that’s universal and yet weirdly impossible to share with others. Then she moves on to the loneliness of cities, then to artists who lived and worked in big and lonely cities and who were also themselves lonely and/or whose main artistic theme was loneliness.

The book is structured in the way that at the beginning of each chapter, Laing talks a bit about the stages of her own loneliness, and then she jumps into the life and art of one of her heroes (David Wojnarovicz, Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, Henry Darger), constructs the biographies of their loneliness, and analyzes their work from the perspective of how they expressed or diminished the eternal loneliness of the given artist.

And then there are her digressions, of course. She talks about the AIDS epidemic and how inhumanly society treated those diagnosed with the illness when it first appeared; about sexual and other kinds of transgressions, about enlarging and changing the self; about abnormality and the inability to fit in; about the old and wild and dangerous New York, a city that despite its dangers still provided more opportunity for human contact than contemporary New York; about everything becoming uniform; about online relationships and the disappearance of privacy in this here age.

Even though she doesn’t get too deep into any of these topics (there are way too many topics here for that) and even though I didn’t have any major epiphanies while reading her thoughts about loneliness (maybe, just maybe, I have some experiences of my own with it, just like – probably – most everyone), Laing still inspired me and she made me want to read a whole lot of other books. For example, out of the four artists whose names I so casually dropped two paragraphs back, I only knew Andy Warhol’s name so far, but even knowing his name and some of his work, I had no idea about his loneliness, and as for the other three artists (and lots of others mentioned here), I’ve never heard about them before – and it was great to hear about them because their work seems very exciting, and anyway, everyone’s more interesting and more complex if you look closer. (For example, Valerie Solanas did other things in her life, too, didn’t just shoot Andy Warhol.)

And the gentle ambiguity and irony surrounding the „art of loneliness” in the title is beautiful. Being lonely is not an art – but creating art out of loneliness is an art, and that art might help others feels a little bit less lonely.

I must add, though, that Laing’s style irritates me from time to time: it’s a bit too didactic, a bit too gushingly nostalgic (I bet it was awesome when in the 1970s Times Square was the center of porn and prostitution, and I bet it was just great when during this same era everyone could go and pick up someone for some casual intimacy among the ruins of one of New York’s old ports, so at least the lonely and the dispossessed could find some human interaction, and so on – but I feel it’s a bit of a stretch to treat this era as a wonderful golden age), and a bit too pessimistic (or perhaps I’m the one who’s too optimistic – anyway, I don’t think everything’s becoming uniform, and I do think that in many places it’s easier today to be an outsider, a non-model citizen, or a person with „non-traditional” sexual preferences than it used to be in that supposedly golden age of the 70s that Laing describes with such tearful nostalgia).

And even though her biographies about others are very human, emotional, and often truly touching, the way she talks about her own experience of loneliness just isn’t that interesting. Seriously, who hasn’t yet had the experience of moving to another city because of a love interest that didn’t work out well? True, I haven’t, still, I know the feeling, and Laing’s loneliness in the face of this event (as much as she can or wants to express it) is not a bit more interesting or a bit more unique than the loneliness I also knew at some points of my life.

Beyond All Love by Martin Walser

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Walser’s antihero, Franz Horn used to be a successful businessman at a denture manufacturing company, but in the present day of the novel, things don’t look so bright for him anymore: he keeps screwing up business deals, he misses out on opportunities, he reacts badly to everything, he never feels at home in anything, and in general he feels that life, success, love, and happiness had passed him by long-long ago.

Franz Horn’s world is a bleak one – a world all about the surface, full of superficial politeness, and sophisticated business and family games. There’s no „real” life in this world, and joy, meaning, and personality all disintegrate in this terrifying simulacrum of reality.

Speaking of simulacra and fake lives: it’s probably not an accident that Horn works in the denture industry – phony polite smiles, teeth clenched in anger and frustration, forced laughs all play a big part in this novel – you’ll need new dentures after all this. And of course there’s the contradiction and ambiguity inherent in dentures: it’s clear even when you look at the most perfect set that you’re looking at fake teeth – and perhaps one revealing sign is that a set of dentures is always perfect. But could a company manufacture natural-looking, perhaps crooked, perhaps nicotine-stained dentures? Of course not, so once you get to the point that you need dentures (and in the great 20th century welfare state Walser talks about so cynically, we’ll all need them sooner or later), you’ll just have to accept a perfect set of teeth. A fake, unnatural set with which you cannot smile one honest smile.

In the present day of the novel – which is the story of only a couple of days – we’re well into the era of fake smiles. In the story Horn goes on a business trip to England where – as is now his custom – he screws things up badly, and then he returns to Germany. (Where something else happens, but he screws that one up, too.)

During the course of these days Horn’s mind wanders all around in a stream-of-consciousness or randomly associative style, and in his thoughts he relives the most painful, most irritating, most embarrassing events of the last few years in his job and in his now defunct marriage. Often these are tiny little things: for example, how Dr. Liszt, the new wunderkind at the company, a calculating and devious asshole, always manages to be so fucking infuriatingly polite, and how because of his politeness no-one can find fault with him. Or how irritating it is that all Horn’s fights with his wife end with the recurrent line: we have to move to a bigger place because we can’t fit into this apartment.

So yeah – these are just the usual everyday oppression and power games. They are meaningless, they don’t lead anywhere, and any attempt at fighting against or resisting them is bound to be meaningless, too. Horn tries to rebel against his lot – for example, in his lonely home, he sneeringly toasts his perfect-muscular-healthy boss with his sixth beer of the evening, exactly because the boss hates how Horn’s beer smell and beer belly gets more and more noticeable as the days go by. Naturally, the boss doesn’t see Horn’s childish rebellion – and even if he did, he’d just smile his impenetrable, indulgent, lightly condescending smile and would ask Horn in a friendly-manipulative manner to please be more considerate about this or that.

There’s no escape, and there’s no hope or chance for something (more) real. Sure, Horn at least keeps trying – at least he still sees the emptiness and meaninglessness around him, while others are content living fake lives. But I’m not at all sure who has it better in the end.

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver

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Lionel Shriver’s novel is an intriguing, smart and witty thought experiment about the question of what if.

The topic: romantic relationships. Of course, romantic relationships, because – as Shriver says in the afterword – it’s time to admit that everyone spends much more time thinking about romantic love and all the things it entails and involves than thinking about, say, global warming. (Perhaps not everyone – but I, for one, do.)

The protagonist is Irina, a woman in her forties, who’s spent the past decade or so with her reliable, loyal, smart partner, in a relationship that seems nice and peaceful and quiet. One day, however, at the end of a birthday dinner with an extremely hot and attractive acquaintance, Irina feels an irresistible desire to kiss her dinner partner. From this moment on, the story continues on two parallel story-lines. Irina One kisses her dinner partner, and – after a bit of agonizing and soul-searching – dives head first into the new, the exciting, the unknown. Irina Two resists the temptation because it’s important for her to save the old relationship that’s been functioning apparently well for ten years.

Which road is better and more satisfying, and which one leads to happiness? Fortunately, Shriver doesn’t really take sides (perhaps she does, just a little), and I like it that instead of providing answers, she prefers thinking and asking questions that don’t have a single good answer.

As usual with Lionel Shriver, reading this novel can be a rough and demanding experience – I’d guess it shakes up a whole lot of memories in everyone, memories centered around the topics of why did I (not) stay with my partner, why did I (not) listen to my heart/my reason, what I could have done differently, and so on. So yeah, this novel provides ample material for thinking, and it can be a great conversation-starter with our past, present, and future partners about questions surrounding the expectations in a relationship, intimacy, sharing a life, giving up ourselves, succumbing to routines, setting priorities, and so on.

Writing about it in detail, though – that would bound to be way too personal.