The Society of Others by William Nicholson

I’m not a bad person. I’m a bad person.
I didn’t mean to kill the man in the reading room. I did mean to kill the man in the reading room.
What happened afterwards wasn’t my fault, don’t blame me. It was my fault. Blame me.

I came across the above quote by chance and I immediately knew I wanted to read this novel, and I even suspected that I was going to like it. I do not like to over-mystify this and say that I felt as if the book was calling out to me and was irresistibly drawing me towards itself. I’d much rather put it this way: it happens to me sometimes that I read a couple of sentences from a novel, out of context, my curiosity arises in a moment and I want to know at once what other stuff can be found in a book that contains such exquisite sentences. Luckily, the novel was for sale on a low price at a big bookstore chain, so I bought it to find out if my gut feeling was right about this book. (It was.)

The Society of Others tells the story of a twenty-something, nameless and aimless boy, told in the 1st person singular. One day the boy decides to spend his 1000 pounds he got from his father as a graduation present to hitchhike somewhere – it does not matter where. He is picked up by a truck-driver, heading towards an unnamed European country (to be more precise, the boy does not hear it clearly when the driver tells him his destination and he does not bother to ask again), and this suits our hero just fine, as he is right on his way to lose himself entirely. When arriving in the unknown country, it turns out that the place is a less-than-friendly totalitarian state, controlled by the police, and realizing the danger, the spleen of the protagonist disappears in a moment, and leaving the country alive as soon as possible becomes his major concern.

The irony of the previous paragraph is only a scam: in reality, I loved the narrator from the very first page, who, by the way, declares at the beginning of the story that he would not tell us his name and advises the reader to use his own if he needs one. I followed his advice and used my own name, and at once I felt close to the boy’s life and thoughts. Identifying with the protagonist was all the easier because the boy has an absolutely everyday life which might be familiar to several readers in their twenties (it was for me, though not from my own experience): the boy just graduated from a not particularly good college, in a not particularly interesting subject, and now it would be time to grow up and look for a job, however, it is much more convenient for him to sit around in his room and argue that he never asked to be born in the first place, therefore no-one has the right to expect any activity from him.

Probably in real life I would not have too favorable an opinion of such a passive, inert, self-justifying person, but fortunately this is not life but literature, so I quickly took a liking to the narrator and I enjoyed reading his witty, slightly sad and cynical remarks on his family, the world of supposedly infinite possibilities, the way dreams slowly die, and also on his own inactivity and introversion. (Nicholson’s young boy, by the way, reminded me slightly of the narrator or Erlend Loe’s Naiv.Super.)

Of course all of this changes when the boy starts his journey. This is not the first novel about a journey on which the protagonist reaches his maturity, on the contrary, I believe this is quite an overused concept in literature, but Nicholson manages to fill the old form with new life. I will not go into the details of the narrator’s experiences in the foreign country, all I wish to mention is that the way the protagonist’s confidence, disillusionment and complacency is contrasted to the simple but satisfied lives of the inhabitants of the totalitarian state who live under constant threat is very effectively contrived.

However, this is not only about the way the boy’s comfortable life in England is contrasted with the hard life of the people of the unnamed Eastern European (?) county – this is also about the boy facing reality for the first time in his life. The first 30 or 40 pages of the novel depict a well-organized and well-protected life – a life which is often lived only in theory. When he arrives in the foreign country, the protagonist suddenly finds himself in real life where words and actions have consequences.

Yes, there are probably hundreds of novels on this subject. What makes this novel stand out from amongst the hundreds is the following: while the protagonist is struggling to learn how to exist in reality and not only in his mind, his previous complacent way of thinking comes to the foreground from time to time, and then it seems as if he considered all his current experiences to be fictional – or perhaps this means that by thinking about the inessential, everyday details of life, the boy erects a fence between himself and the over-realistic reality which surrounds him. For instance: our hero can indulge in a one and a half page long essay on the making of the ideal bath water even amongst the greatest dangers and difficulties, and digressions like this generate a very interesting tension in the text.

This tension and the digressions are all the more welcome as it is partly because of these that the novel does not degenerate into one of the usual unrealistic books about some larger than life hero’s struggles to find his own way and happiness, and change his life. For me at least it seems much more authentic if a character of a novel sometimes ponders over trivialities, and does not spend all his time thinking about majestic ideas. And since the protagonist behaves in such a simple, but very human way (which is, by the way, manifested not only in his habit of pondering over small stuff), I believe his more serious thoughts and the story of accepting his own path in life much more easily.

What also makes this novel different from the usual Coelho-style, find-your-own-way bestseller is the language the protagonist uses: he speaks in a modern, slightly informal, slightly slangy way, and this makes his character even more authentic to me – sometimes I positively felt that I could easily have been in his place.

Probably this is not the most important part in the interpretation of the novel, still, the question of the translation also made me think. I wondered how faithfully the translator mirrored the informality of the boy’s language usage and how outdated this language would seem to be in 10 or 20 years’ time. What I mean here is that the translator used expressions in the book which qualify as a bit slangy in Hungarian and I do not know if the original novel contains words with similar qualities. The words the translator employs are easy to understand now, but I am not sure if they remain so in 20 years, or they become ridiculous-sounding.

Besides all my well-earned praise, I must also add that the final scene of the novel and the conversations (covering mostly religious topics) that lead up to that scene tired out my patience a little bit. These conversations were a bit too pompous to my taste (or perhaps I can even say: phony), but the preceding 200 pages were so outstanding that they make me forget about the slightly slimy quality of the final couple of chapters.

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Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris

I had not read any of Joanne Harris’s novels before this one last year. Though I often came across her nice-looking books, which reminded me of children’s books, and I watched the movie version of Chocolat several times and enjoyed it very much, I did not feel any urge to read any of her stories. Then a few months ago I read a review of a Harris novel on one of my favorite book blogs, and I decided that it was time to go ahead and finally read at least one of Ms. Harris’s works. I picked Gentlemen and Players more or less at random, and it turned out to be a good choice.

As this book has been quite a hit among Hungarian book bloggers and many reviews and story outlines have already been published, I refrain from going into too many details regarding the story. So let me stick to the basics: the novel is set in St Oswald’s, a renowned public school for boys, where a dangerous game unfolds between a mysterious trickster and an old member of the faculty, the Latin teacher Roy Straitley, who is heading towards his 100th semester as a teacher. The evil person who is doing his dirty tricks among the antique walls of the school has only one goal in his life: to destroy St Oswald’s and this way make up for the injuries and failures of his past, for which he lays the blame on the bureaucratic (and, for him, previously inaccessible) institution. The story is told from the alternating point of views of Straitley and the evil person (whose name I withhold on purpose), and from the two intertwining storylines we slowly come to know the events of the past that led to the trickster’s wish for revenge, and we also get acquainted with the people who took important parts in those events and who are still haunting the school.

My first impression of the novel was less than favorable. I was irritated by the abundance of telling names (such as Light, Meek, Strange, Dare and so on), I could not tell the different characters apart, and most importantly, I had no idea whom I should focus my attention on, out of the dozen characters introduced all too quickly. When I managed to sort out these distractions after a couple of pages, I came to think that even though the novel is undeniably readable and dynamic, it is still a long way from being a remarkable story. And in the next step, I suspended my skepticism (and disbelief) and started to enjoy the novel.

I assume I do not have to dwell on this again, as those who had read my earlier posts may well be aware of the fact that I am keen on all kinds of interesting narrative techniques: having two or more narrators in a novel, alternating between different points of view and having the story jump between various time periods always please me immensely. Gentlemen and Players sufficiently gratified this obsession of mine, and after the first 50-60 pages I hugely enjoyed the alternating storylines of the evil character (symbolized by a black pawn chess figure) and Mr. Straitley (symbolized by the white king). I found the wit, wisdom and unrelenting investigating spirit of Mr. Straitley very interesting, and I also liked the extent to which he seemed to love his profession and his students. However, I found the parts of the black pawn even more curious and unsettling, as it is in his parts that we get to know the most about those old events which made him become such a maniac, secretive, vindictive person that not even in his adulthood can he fit in and live a normal life.

Then came the last 50-60 pages with the oft-mentioned great twist, which made me reconsider all the previous 400 pages, and after which I just sat in my chair for minutes and stared ahead with a huge smile on my face, trying to figure out how Ms. Harris managed the feat that I never even thought about this solution during the whole course of the novel. It is not as if the story became very cheerful or light by this turn, I simply enjoyed the fact that Ms. Harris could fool me in such an elegant manner, and I felt like starting the book again from the beginning, and this time methodically look out for all the small misleading or else revealing details, which were there from the very first page, only I chose to ignore or misinterpret them. I think I will re-read the novel some years later and will try to find out where and how exactly I got misled.

The great twist of Gentlemen and Players very much reminded me of another novel I read earlier last year, but I am afraid that even mentioning the title of that novel would spoil Harris’s story, so I keep this thought to myself. All I want to add is that Ms. Harris managed to convince me with this novel and I will not hesitate to read some of her other stories in the future, should I wish to have some good entertainment.

The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy

I read Cormac McCarthy’s highly praised novel The Road last year, but I wasn’t at all convinced of McCarthy’s exceptional talent. However, I continued to read with interest the blog entries about his work, and I was intrigued by the fact that he manages to evoke highly different emotional responses in his readers, so I was planning to read at least one of his other books to be able to form a more informed opinion of him. As one of my friends kindly lent me his copy of The Sunset Limited, it wasn’t difficult to decide that this would be my next McCarthy read. The Sunset Limited also seemed a good choice as a forty-page play (or, according to the author, a novel in dramatic form) only takes about an hour to read, and if the book is good, I will find it out in forty pages, and if it’s not that good, then at least it doesn’t take up much of my time.

Before the onset of the play, one of the two characters, White, a well-educated, cynical and disillusioned university professor is planning to commit suicide by jumping in front of the train called Sunset Limited, but the other character, Black, the religious ex-convict with a chaotic life-style saves his life. After the incident, Black more or less forcefully takes White home, and engages him in a soul-searching conversation about the futility of his attempted suicide and the beauty of life. In their long talk, Black tries to understand White’s motivations and his situation in life, but above all, he wants the extremely irreligious White to discover the wonderful and benign force of God. For some readers, the outcome of their conversation may be easy to predict, and indeed, the outcome is not that original, but still, the play is quite a shocking and harrowing read.

The main strength of The Sunset Limited is its language. There is hardly any action in the play, and the background isn’t described in detail, either – as opposed to The Road, here there is no such thing as an endless journey through America, and there are no exaggerated descriptions of the end of the world either. Here we only have the astonishingly precise and expressive words, each with its multiple layers of meaning, and it’s enough to read a few lines of McCarthy’s wonderful dialogs to get to know the personality, social position, world-view, way of thinking, education level and humor of both his characters.

While reading The Road, I also loved McCarthy’s language usage the most (or rather, the beautiful language was the only feature I liked about that novel), so it’s no wonder that such a play as The Sunset Limited, with its focus on language and its complete lack of pathos made a strong impression on me.

The secret of its effect (apart from the language of course) may be that The Sunset Limited is a simple and forceful play, without any crap whatsoever, since McCarthy bases his work on only a few (sometimes a bit overused) oppositions. For instance, his characters come from two very different social backgrounds, and in normal circumstances they wouldn’t meet at all, but since they do meet, it’s inevitable that they each have an effect on the other and change each other’s life. Apart from the basic social differences, however, there are several other oppositions in the play: cynicism and naivity, belief in God and atheism, disillusionment and optimism, sophistication and simplicity are all contrasted in the conversation of Black and White, and for quite a long time, it’s not easy to guess which side will win in the argument.

By the way, The Sunset Limited reminds me of my all-time favorite play, Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story in several respects: both plays feature two male characters who have nothing in common; both plays contrast radically different ways of life and world-views; and both have a devastating outcome. Perhaps this similarity, which was obvious for me from the very first page, might have been one of the reasons why I read The Sunset Limited with great interest. But after I finished reading, I thought that it didn’t matter if the similarity existed or it was only me who saw it, as The Sunset Limited is in and by itself a strong and unsettling work of art. And now I definitely want to read more books by Cormac McCarthy.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This is such an imperfect novel and still, I love it so much. So far I have only read this and The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald, and since both novels deal with similar topics (ruined love, the corrupting power of money and the amorality of the rich) comparing them comes naturally to me. I think The Great Gatsby is the better novel of the two: it is structurally sounder, more succinct, more dramatic, and much more tragic. Tender is the Night, on the other hand, is more like a slow river: it is a meandering tale with quite a few uninteresting characters, and its end is much less dramatic and emotionally less oppressing than that of The Great Gatsby. What is more, since Tender is the Night is the long chronicle of the slow deterioration of a marriage, both truly shocking and truly uplifting episodes are virtually missing from the novel: the drama is made up of several small, disappointing moments, in the wake of which everything is slowly taking a turn for the worse. Lurking in the background, there is also a sad nostalgia for things which somehow always seemed to be better in the past. And perhaps it is because of this appealing sense of constant mellow melancholy that despite all its weaknesses I love Tender is the Night more than The Great Gatsby, and my current, umpteenth re-reading of the novel was just as heart-wrenching an experience for me as ever before.

The novel tells the story of the marriage of Dick Diver, a talented but not too aristocratic psychologist, and Nicole Warren, an illustrious member of the American monied class. Dick meets Nicole during World War I, when the mentally unstable, schizophrenic girl is being treated in a Zurich sanitarium. Nicole starts sending letters to Dick while he is away at war, and when the man returns, they renew their relationship and after a short while Dick decides to marry Nicole who is slowly but steadily recovering from her mental illness. Dick knows what he undertakes when he marries Nicole: he knows that there is a good chance that the girl will never make a full recovery, and that he will constantly have to be on the alert for signs which might indicate Nicole’s relapse into illness, and that he will have to keep shielding her from everything that might upset her or remind her of her illness. Although he does not admit it even to himself, with this marriage Dick gives up his promising career and dedicates his whole life to a single patient: Nicole. At the same time, Dick wishes to keep some of his independence and not to sponge on Nicole’s money, but the nonchalance and amorality which comes with having a lot of money slowly starts to ruin both his marriage and his personality.

What makes this novel particularly sad and melancholic is that we read virtually nothing about the happy periods of the couple’s relationship. We learn that they got married ignoring the scruples of the Warren family, and when we see them again six years later at a beautifully rustic spot on the French Riviera (which is not yet ruined by the crowds of tourists), we already witness the first signs of the collapse of their marriage. However, there are a couple of clues in the novel which indicate that the first years of the Divers’ marriage – despite the mental instability of Nicole – were truly happy, and the fact that we do not get much insight into this period makes the novel doubly sad for me: on the one hand, the sense that the Divers’ relationship was not doomed to failure makes its actual failure even more painful; on the other hand, since the happy period is only hinted at a couple of times, its importance is diminished and on the whole it feels as if it did not matter at all.

The couple, by the way, can be viewed as a two-in-one Gatsby: Dick and Nicole, just like Gatsby, are tremendously wealthy and magnetic people who throw magnificent parties, who are elegant beyond belief and can hit it off with everyone in a moment’s time, and who, at the same time, manage to keep their private lives private. So even though there are some who suspect something, no-one really knows what huge efforts it takes the couple to keep up the appearance of their perfect, elegant and active life, and hide the incessant threat of Nicole’s illness.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the major themes of the novel is the corrupting and demoralizing effect of money. This effect is manifested in the book in several different ways. First of all, Dick knows that many believe that he only married Nicole for her money. To disprove it, Dick insists for a long time that he use his own income to cover his personal expenses. However, as Nicole’s income increases and the family starts to live in a more luxurious way, Dick can no longer keep up the pretense of his independence. It is an important turning point in this respect when Dick agrees to buy his share in a sanitarium using Nicole’s money. This can be seen as a gesture of surrender, and even though Dick can again practise his profession in an institutional way, it is exactly at this point that his deterioration speeds up: he drinks more than ever, becomes an intolerable bully, and does not improve himself professionally.

Second, even though Nicole has had money all her life (and perhaps this should make her a bit more resistant), she does not escape the depraving effect of money either. During the years of her illness and the first years of her marriage, she does not care much about her wealth, but then she learns to enjoy the advantages and the power which come hand in hand with money. And as time passes, she adopts the mentality of her rational, material sister, Baby Warren, who has always regarded Dick as the pet doctor bought by the Warren family for Nicole’s personal use. So in the end, Nicole does not feel any remorse for having completely drained Dick of his talents and personal charms.

I am unable to say anything else. This is one the saddest books I have ever read, and perhaps the reason why I find it so unbearably sad is that it is beautiful and true to the core at the same time. Usually things do not end in such a dramatic fashion as in The Great Gatsby, they simply disappear slowly, and Tender is the Night conveys this in a harrowing way.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

I read The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter a couple of years ago, and it was such a good novel that I definitely wanted to read more by the author. Plus, as I was an English major student at the university, it is still important for me to get to know the work of such formative authors I only heard about as a student, but due to a lack of time or my different schedule did not have the chance to read their works.

Speaking about majoring in English, I must mention that after reading two of her books, I consider Angela Carter to be one of the most suitable authors for a course in English literature. Her books are full of literary and cultural references (of which, I guess, I only recognize about 1 percent); they can be read from a psychoanalytical, a feminist or a magical realist point of view; and whole courses could be filled with the analysis of her strong, often erotically charged words and symbols. Despite all this, Angela Carter doesn’t intimidate me, and I don’t consider her to be a writer whose work can only be appreciated and enjoyed if you happen to be a university professor of English literature.

The Bloody Chamber consists of ten short stories, and each one is the adaptation of a well-known tale or legend. Among them we find the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Puss-In-Boots and the Beauty and the Beast. In her foreword to the book English author Helen Simpson mentions that The Bloody Chamber is not the rewriting of these tales from a feminist perspective, instead (according to both her and Angela Carter) it is a collection of stories which bring the hidden contents of the old tales to the surface and use these contents to write new stories on their basis. And I agree with Simpson and Carter.

While reading these tales, I indeed felt that Angela Carter wrote new stories, and the fact that her stories are based on tales known to virtually everybody is ’only’ important as this way the stories are provided with an extra layer of meaning. This of course entails that you don’t necessarily have to know the original tales in order to understand the tales of Angela Carter. I, for example, was not familiar with the exact story of Puss-in-Boots, but I greatly enjoyed Carter’s tale of the same title.

Angela Carter also creates an interesting effect by featuring modern devices such as the telephone, the train or the bicycle in the tales set in an unidentifiable period. By using such out of place objects in her stories, she creates a distance between the original tales and her own versions of them (since in the original texts, naturally, no such objects appeared), and also emphasizes that the violence and the erotic content present in the original tales is also very much there in the lives of heroes living in an era of technical achievements.

The short stories of this collection are, by the way, rather oppressive, stifling and orgiastic texts. A reason for this oppressiveness could be that most of the stories consist only of descriptive passages, and contain no dialog whatsoever which would make the story easier to read and digest. Another reason could be that Angela Carter obviously enjoys her own writing and luxuriates in dark words suggesting decadence, animalistic feelings, perverseness and corruption. In her world, the sweet smell of roses always mingles with the dazing stench of decay, and even the purest virginity always foreshadows future promiscuity and cruel sexuality.

Because of all these, it must be a real challenge for any translator to translate the work of Angela Carter. It can’t be easy to render the poetic and erotic language of Angela Carter in another language without the result being kitschy and ridiculous, and it must also take a lot of effort and ingenuity to make sure that the motifs surfacing at different parts of the same short story or appearing in several stories (such as the contrast between the cold North and the seemingly warm, friendly South; the roses which appear all the time; or the not entirely human lovers) appear where they need to appear, and that the bizarre words appearing from time to time resonate throughout the whole collection, and constantly remind the reader of the context in which they previously appeared.

And simply reading Angela Carter is quite a challenge for me – but it’s a pleasure as well. I have to pay a lot of attention to it but it’s worth the effort. My only problem with Carter is that she is a bit too clever and conscious for me (and I’ve never thought that one day I will object to these qualities). If only she were a bit more spontaneous and human, I could easily become her greatest fan. But this way I only know and understand what a good writer she was and I will definitely read her other works as well, but she will never become my favorite.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

It happens to me quite often that I come across a book at random and it suddenly exerts an irresistible force on me. I don’t think there’s anything miraculous in this, I simply mean that a good title, a nice cover or a chance sentence I happen to read when picking up the book can awaken my interest so much that I feel I cannot live without knowing what’s in between the covers. Now, I don’t really know what exactly kindled my interest in Life of Pi, as usually I’m not particularly into novels featuring animals or overtly religious themes, and I had an idea that Life of Pi was such a novel. In retrospect, I think I was hooked by nothing else but the cover which I liked so much that I did not care about the themes of the novel at all. Anyway, I became interested, and then felt I must buy the novel and read it as soon as possible. This I did.

Let me mention right here that the novel was a bit disappointing for me – though this probably has more to do with my irrationally high expectations than the quality of the book. My final disappointment was all the more bitter as the novel has an exceptionally good start which satisfies all my needs: it features multi-layered narration, jumps between past and present, a lot of delightful philosophy and an immensely likeable protagonist, Pi.

The story starts out with the narrator, a Canadian writer travelling to India in order to make his little money go a long way. There he meets an old man who tells him about the strange story of Pi Patel. When Pi was sixteen years old, he survived a shipwreck in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and then he drifted in a lifeboat for 200 days in the company of a huge Bengal tiger and a couple of other animals until he finally arrived at the shores of Mexico. The old man suggests that the writer visit Pi, now a mature man, when he gets back to Canada and ask Pi to share the whole story with him, because this is a story which has the power to turn even the most incredulous person into a believer in God.

The narrator takes the old man’s advice and contacts Pi when back in Canada. Pi agrees to recounting his story to the writer – and from this point, we mostly read Pi’s own narration, except in a couple of short chapters where the writer shares his impressions about Pi and his family with the reader.

In the first part of the novel, we jump to and fro between present-day Canada and the India of 25 years ago, and we learn about Pi’s childhood and the origins of his unique relationship to animals and religions. Pi’s father happens to be the owner of a zoo, so Pi has the chance from his early childhood to learn how to live together with animals and how to respect the ways of animals. Apart from animals, religion is the other important driving force in Pi’s life. Though he comes from a Hindu background, as a teenager Pi discovers the beauties of Christianity and the Muslim religion as well, so he becomes a young man with three equally important religions.

This part of the book is entertaining and philosophical at the same time, and I truly enjoyed Pi’s ruminations on as diverse topics as the difficulties of running a zoo, the needs of animals, the human mistake of believing animals to be anthropomorphic; the importance of belief, or the idea that man can doubt, but no good comes out of making permanent doubt a life-philosophy.

The thoroughly enjoyable first part of the book ends with Pi’s family deciding to close up the zoo and emigrate to Canada. The second part starts with the sinking of their ship. Pi is the only one to survive the tragedy, and from this moment on, the novel becomes something of a standard castaway story – though one spiced with a couple of dangerous animals, unbelievable difficulties and magical elements. I won’t divulge more details as I don’t want to spoil your pleasure.

Let me just add something regarding the end of the novel. As the story is told in retrospect, we know from the beginning that Pi managed to survive, so I think it comes as no surprise that after several days, Pi ends up in Mexico. And this is here that he first tells the story of his survival to two doubtful Japanese gentlemen – and suddenly everything is (or can be) seen in a different light. If we decide that we want to see things in this new, cruel light. Anyway, as time passes, I’m beginning to feel the end to be more and more tricky and multi-faceted. And I feel that perhaps one day I will want to re-read the novel so that I’ll be to interpret everything in at least two different ways throughout the whole novel, and not only at its end.

As a matter of fact, Life of Pi was a really good read. It was uplifting, tragic, funny, witty and dramatic at the same time, so I definitely don’t regret buying it. The only thing is that I didn’t turn into a believer simply by reading it. Of course, this is not a huge problem for me – all that happened is that now I feel that the novel promised more than it could deliver (to me). And perhaps this failure has more to do with me than with the novel itself.

Fiesta – The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

I never used to like Hemingway’s writing. I read a couple of his books as a high-school student, but I could never learn to like his spare language, his macho protagonists reeking with testosterone, and the whole masculine, brutal world in which his novels are set. Then as a university student I had the good luck to attend a course on the American literature of the 1920s, and besides other things, here I encountered the first Hemingway novel I could love. This was Fiesta, which amazed me when I first read it, and which still amazes now, after reading it for the third time.

It’s a mystery even for me what I love about this book, as it seems to be a typical Hemingway novel just like all the others, full of masculine activities which I don’t care about a bit. I’m not interested in bullfights, and I don’t care about trout fishing (except if it’s going on in America) or the number of bottles of wine two or three healthy men can drink in the course of a hearty Spanish meal. But still, there’s something in this novel which makes my heart sink and which makes me want to re-read the book again and again.

One thing is certain, though. The strength of this novel doesn’t lie in the story, as the story is virtually non-existent. Fiesta is about a bunch of American people living in Paris or traveling in Europe who try to live a good life first in Paris, and then in Pamplona, Spain, during the fiesta. For them, living a good life means that they drink all day, wander aimlessly about the city, obsessively cling to one another’s company, break their hearts in the most diverse ways over the only important female character of the novel, the irresistible, unfaithful, unhappy Brett Ashley, and finally drink some more.

The story itself is not a big deal then, but the way Hemingway presents the events and the feelings of aimlessness and meaninglessness permeating the world he depicts is. He writes in such a simple yet colorful language that I have no trouble at all imagining the beads of water glistening on the wine bottles as they are taken out from the ice-cold water of the stream; I can see and feel the smoke meandering in the cafés and taverns; and I can also understand what makes a bullfight so attractive to many a person, or why every man wants to possess Brett. And from all the evocative descriptions I get a feel of the sad hedonism of all the characters, and of the whole era when a wealthy American expat in Europe could do absolutely anything, but of course the fact that they could do anything didn’t necessarily entail that they were happy as well.

The two main organizing forces in Fiesta are waiting and yearning, and perhaps these characteristics make the novel so heart-wrenching. The characters of the novel are constantly on the road, and they are always waiting for something: a fishing together; the beginning of the fiesta; the dinner; the next round of drinks; the arrival of the others; a bullfight; or, most of all, Brett’s presence and love. Due to this constant waiting, they can never enjoy what they are doing, because no matter what they do, the elusive spirit of Brett seems to haunt and make fun of them.

The novel, by the way, very much reminds me of two novels by F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night. Just like Fiesta, these two novels also deal with desires which didn’t come true, with a search for happiness, and with the sadness and disillusionment necessarily following the days of manic experience-seeking. The similarity is, of course, not an accident, since Hemingway and Fitzgerald must have had some common experiences as both of them belonged to the lost generation after World War I, but still, it’s very interesting that two writers of such different styles, ways of life, and language usage created works with highly similar atmospheres.

Though I’ve never liked Hemingway, I’ve always loved Fitzgerald, and perhaps I only like Fiesta this much because it is a novel which could almost have been written by him. And even though Hemingway is a Nobel winner, while Fitzgerald is not, I still don’t consider this comparison offensive to Hemingway; and I would definitely recommend Fiesta to anyone who is not overly enthusiastic about Hemingway and doesn’t like any of his other works: read this novel, because it may well become the only novel by Hemingway you’ll love.

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey

I came across this novel on a blog somewhere, though I can’t recall exactly what I read about Frey’s book that made me want to read it immediately. Anyway, I asked my sister to get the book for me from the library – and not buying my own copy proved to be a good idea, as this novel (or memoir? who knows) is not as good as I expected. Before I begin, let me warn you that this post will contain spoilers – if there’s such a thing as a spoiler when talking about an autobiographical, supposedly non-fiction book.

A Million Little Pieces tells the story of how James Frey became addicted to alcohol and drugs, and then how he quit drinking and taking drugs. James was admitted to a world-famous rehabilitation center at the age of 23, when he was already in a life-threateningly dangerous bodily and mental condition. The institution where James was cured is one of the most successful such institute in the world, with a success rate of around 15%, meaning that approximately 15% percent of the patients treated there remain sober one year after the end of the treatment, which is a world record. James is, therefore, in good hands, and he has everything he needs in order to quit doing drugs, but this is not easy at all, given his decade-long substance-abusing habits, his rage and his self-hatred which all make it seem much easier for him to continue drinking and die. Finally, of course, James manages to quit drinking – otherwise this book wouldn’t have been written at all.

The book deals with the period James spent at the institution, but we get flashbacks about his past, and slowly get to know his family background, the roots of his deviant behavior and the worst deeds he committed during his decade of substance-abuse. This whole lot of background information is necessary because James needs to confront the memories of his past, and needs to face himself before he can even hope to attain sobriety and start a new life. By the way the motif of facing ourselves is the most beautiful and poetic image in the book, it surfaces again and again both in its literal and metaphoric sense, and finally becomes the symbol of James’s recovery.

As you might imagine, James’s life and the story of his recovery is full of horrible events, and the book contains several sufficiently dreadful, brutal and dramatic details of the suffering James went through before he attained sobriety. However, despite all the shocking and cruel scenes I consider this book a bit too much like a fairy tale, and it is far from being the most authentic book I’ve ever encountered in the topic of addiction.

Even though the credibility of the novel was questioned, and finally the author admitted to changing and over-emphasizing several elements in the story to make the book more dramatic, A Million Little Pieces is not inauthentic because it contains a number of fictitious elements, but because if paints too bright a picture of James’s wonderful recovery.

First, James poses as some kind of lone hero who manages to get through all the difficulties of giving up a drug habit because he is infinitely obstinate and has superhuman self-control – what’s more, he can tackle these obstacles even though he doesn’t give a damn about following the rules, in fact, he breaks all of them continuously. This in itself is a fiction of the most incredible order. James is by no means alone: he has a loving, caring, supporting family, and he undergoes the best possible treatment imaginable. Without these advantages, it would have been virtually impossible for him to recover, or simply to stay alive.

Second, despite the fact that James supposedly almost destroyed his body (there’s a detailed account in the book of the massive damage virtually all his vital organs suffered on account of his continuous alcohol and drug abuse), I think he recovers relatively easily. Of course, at the beginning of his rehabilitation, James feels rather bad, he could die for a drop of alcohol, and can hardly keep any food in his system, but suddenly, without any obvious transition he can eat and drink normally, his craving for alcohol disappears, and it’s sufficient for him if he can poison himself with coffee and cigarettes. I may have dozed off while reading certain passages and missed some vital information, but I still don’t consider James’s recovery credible. He simply recovers too quickly and too easily. It seems unimaginable to me (though may be true for all I know) that someone with a decade-long, serious drug habit gets up one day with the philosophy that „from now on I will simply say no” – and manages to live accordingly ever after.

It seems that this simple solution worked well enough for James – good for him. But this memoir is definitely not about the screwed up life of the average junkie. It’s a fictionalized personal success story, which is fine, but don’t expect too much authenticity and broader real-life relevance from it.