All the Names by José Saramago

Although José Saramago appears to be quite popular in Hungary, I consider All the Names to be one of his lesser-known works. I have several acquaintances who read Blindness, or The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, but relatively few who read All the Names. But as it happens to be one of my favorite novels (not only by Saramago, but generally and all-time) and I re-read it every two or three years, I hope I might promote this wonderful book with this blog post.

All the Names tells the story of Senhor José, a fifty-something, indistinct employee of the Central Registry of Births, Marriages and Deaths who lives alone in a small house attached to the side of his office building, which has a half-forgotten door leading directly into the office. Senhor José leads an uneventful life, but he has one innocent hobby which one day changes everything. Senhor José collects newspaper clippings and biographical data concerning the most famous people of his country, and he likes to take advantage of the unique position of his flat, and steal into the office during the night to find and copy the exact biographical information pertaining to the famous people in his collection.

One night, however, he happens to grab the papers of an obscure woman together with the papers of the famous people, and he is at once seized by a philosophical hunting instinct. Although he never used to be a person prone to useless, metaphysical musings, a strange sensation overcomes him now, and he starts pondering about the unknown woman. He realizes that the life of the woman is in fact no different and no less interesting than the life of any arbitrary TV star, sportsman or bishop who are only famous because of the momentary whim of their fans or their flock. Consequently, argues Senhor José, the unknown woman deserves just as much attention as any world-famous personality. Senhor José therefore decides to find the woman – albeit it’s not at all clear for him why he wants to do so. The rest of the novel is the story of his search for the woman. During the search, he is greatly assisted by his strict, sarcastic boss, and he meets several people who sometimes help him and other times hinder him in his undertaking – an undertaking which ends in quite an unusual way.

I try to find a good way to sum up what makes All the Names such an exquisite novel, but it’s not easy, as I feel that the overall effect of the book is much too subtle to be put into simple words. First if all, the story of the novel is a very good one: it’s the archetypal story of a search, and as such, it abounds in symbols and allusions. We have a labyrinth here with the corresponding Ariadne’s thread, several obstacles to overcome, and a fearless detective, Senhor José. Apart from all these, the novel also features absurd elements (such as the graveyard scene, of which I will not tell you anything as it’s one of the most entertaining and philosophical episode in the novel and I don’t want to spoil your pleasure), and these go nicely hand in hand with the trivial details of the everyday life of Senhor José – and the way the incredible and the bluntly uninteresting details are mixed provides the novel with a unique flavor.

Then of course I must mention Saramago’s style and language usage. The story is told by an invisible, omnipresent, omnipotent and exceedingly ironic narrator, who, during the course of actions frequently engages in conversation with Senhor José. In these conversations he either provides Senhor José with instructions as to the best ways to conduct his search, scorns him for the mistakes he made, or simply talks to him about the theories of life and death. I consider these philosophical conversations the best parts of the novel, as they also make me think about topics such as what makes a person alive or dead.

For those of you who aren’t yet familiar with José Saramago, I have to add that his language usage can be a wee bit distracting or frustrating at first, as instead of inverted commas, he only uses capital letters to indicate that a dialog is going on, moreover, he lets his sentences and paragraphs flow through the pages with hardly any breaks. This way every chapter seems to be a long, curvy, boundless river in which it’s easy to get lost. However, once you get the rhythm, the text is immensely enjoyable, and just as before, I could hardly tear myself apart from the novel.

But even if it might be somewhat difficult to grasp the meaning of Saramago’s long, periodic-style sentences, reading the novel would still be worth the effort, if only for the pleasure of the perfect, epiphanic last couple of paragraphs. Saramago has a unique talent of writing unforgettable story endings. I remember I had the same sensation earlier, while reading one of his other novels, Baltasar and Blimunda. The final paragraphs were so overwhelming, creepy and enthralling that I wouldn’t have regretted reading the whole novel if there hadn’t been any other sources of pleasure in it, only those magnificent sentences in the end. And it’s just the same with All the Names: though it’s immensely beautiful and enjoyable from the very first page, the last paragraphs make it even more perfect for me.

Christmas Holiday by W. Somerset Maugham

This novel was one of my favorites when I was a high school student. I borrowed it more than once from the library, and I longed to own my own copy but I was unable to obtain one. I have no idea what might have first drawn me to this book, as the cover of the Hungarian edition is an eyesore, and the blurb doesn’t make up for the ugliness of the cover either. Anyway, somehow I came across this book in the library, borrowed it, read it, and was immediately fascinated by it. I was enchanted by the unique atmosphere of Paris lingering in the pages of the novel, and I loved the way Maugham contrasted the sheltered and happy English life of Charley, the naive, kind, childish protagonist with the life led by the other characters in Paris. Moreover, I absolutely adored the character of Charley’s disagreeable, ruthless, cynical friend, Simon, who is planning to conquer the world.

I’ve been planning to re-read the novel for a long time to see what I might find in it as an adult reader, but when I finally I got around to re-reading it, it was with some apprehensions. As it turned out, I still find Christmas Holiday a rather good novel, but my teenage enthusiasm is gone, and now I see many faults in the novel that escaped my attention ten years ago. But before I go into this, let me write a couple of words about the story and the characters.

The protagonist of the novel is young Charley Mason who leaves a loving and caring family behind in order to spend the Christmas holiday in Paris and while there, visit his childhood friend, Simon. The trip to Paris is a coming-of-age present from his parents, and it is the first opportunity in Charley’s life when he can try out what it’s like to be a man. However, as you might have guessed, the trip doesn’t turn out as expected. Simon mostly ignores Charley, and when he doesn’t, he goes on to fill the head of the innocent (ignorant) Charley with angry and cynical expositions of his political and other views. When he is not with Simon, Charley spends most of his time with Lydia, a prostitute of Russian origins who gradually lets him in on the story of her past and her tragic marriage.

The characters, stories and views of Simon and Lydia of course all serve to disrupt Charley’s happy, quiet, complacent and boring life which he’s been living for 23 years, and to make the young man question the meaning of the life he’s been living up until now. Christmas Holiday is a kind of rite-of-passage and bildungsroman, in which the initially naive protagonist catches a glimpse of a life hitherto unbeknownst to him, and this makes him re-evaluate and rearrange his own opinions and priorities in life.

I don’t have any problems with this idea as such, but I don’t like the way Maugham handles his material as much as I liked it ten years ago. There are novels which contain several dated elements but still don’t feel dated as a whole. And there are novels – and Christmas Holiday is one of these – which seem to belong to a world so very much different from mine, and deal with this old world in such a musty way that I cannot help but feel that I no longer have anything to do with that particular book.

And I feel the same in connection with Maugham’s characterization, which is much too 19th century style for my current taste. As nowadays I’m a reader of mainly contemporary fiction, reading descriptions of a character’s physical appearance and eye color feels strange and a bit irritating for me. Charley may well have a pair of playfully shining blue eyes, but this fact doesn’t tell me anything about his personality, and I find it superfluous that Maugham keeps repeating such small, irrelevant details throughout the novel.

Fortunately, however, I managed to find several elements in the novel which were more to my liking. In fact, these are exactly the things which I probably didn’t notice ten years ago but notice and love now. First of all, I really enjoyed the way Maugham mixes the different viewpoints and pieces of different stories: the stories of Simon and Lydia sometimes complement each other nicely, and at other times contradict each other, therefore it’s a job for naive young Charley to decide whom of the two unreliable narrators he gives credit to.

Here let me mention a small and virtually unimportant, but for me beautiful and hugely satisfying episode of the novel. At one point Simon is telling a story to Charley about Lydia’s husband, and he mentions a detail which can only be known to someone who was present at the event Simon recounts. Well, Simon was definitely not there. Charley also notices this, and mildly reproves Simon for freely embellishing the story and not sticking to the truth. Of course these sentences really don’t count for much in the novel as a whole, still, I appreciate this kind of self-reflection and irony to a great extent.

Apart from the interesting characteristics of the narration, I still consider the way Maugham contrasts the innocent joviality of Charley with the unhappiness, cynicism and world-weariness represented by Simon and Lydia magnificent and rather beautiful. And the last couple of paragraphs of the novel still give me the creeps and make me forget about all the faults and old-fashioned style of the previous pages.

Stuart – A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters

Alexander Masters first met Stuart Shorter in Wintercomfort, a Cambridge institution for helping the homeless. Stuart was an ex-convict, a junkie and an alcoholic; he suffered from borderline personality disorder and muscular dystrophy; he was prone to self-mutilation and outbursts of anger; and earlier he lived the chaotic life of a homeless man. The Cambridge social workers considered Stuart’s case a great success story as they more or less managed to turn him into a ’normal’ person: they provided him with a council flat so that he could finally live a regular life free from the strains of homelessness, and Stuart even stopped doing drugs.

Alexander (whom I will mention by his first name, as he also appears in the book as Alexander) wanted to dig deeper into Stuart’s story and find out where his life went off the tracks, so he decided to write his biography. The book took him years to complete, and during this time he conducted countless interviews with Stuart and his family, and he also managed to become friends with Stu: he tasted Stuart’s famous prison curry; lent him some money every now and then; accompanied him to his court hearings; and based on Stuart’s idea he organized a big campaign in order to have the authorities release the leaders of Wintercomfort who were arrested on less than just charges.

After several years, Alexander finished the biography, which is in fact not only a biography as it also contains the story of its own creation, and the story of the friendship between Alexander and Stuart. Among the biographical chapters proper, we find the chronicle of the events of Stuart’s and Alexander’s present days, and we can also read about the difficulties Alexander faced while writing the book.

At the beginning of the book, Alexander admits that Stuart found the first version of the biography excessively boring and recommended that Alexander write the events in a reversed order, in the manner of a crime novel, so that the reader can keep guessing as to what might have happened in Stuart’s childhood which turned him into a dangerous misfit bound to live a chaotic life. Alexander listened to Stu’s advice and I’m glad he did. Even though the outcome (or rather: the beginning) is predictable, I was keeping my fingers crossed and kept anticipating what might surface in the subsequent chapter, and kept hoping that it wouldn’t be what I expected.

Despite the constant shifts between past and present and other such ’literary’ things in the book, Alexander doesn’t turn Stuart into a romantic hero. He writes about Stuart in an honest, often rather ironic way, doesn’t try to make his actions appear in a positive light, and doesn’t depict him as a poor misunderstood man. And even though Alexander considers himself to be a friend of Stuart, he readily admits that sometimes he is absolutely fed up with Stuart’s behavior, way of life, unpredictability and constant chattering, and that he often thinks that the best solution would be to lock up Stuart in some safe place where he wouldn’t be able to harm anyone – least of all himself.

By the way, it’s very interesting how Stuart himself withstands even the most feeble attempt on Alexander’s part to turn him into a tragic hero with a hard life. As I mentioned before, Alexander tries to pinpoint the event which turned the lively and happy little Stuart first into a teenager constantly running away from home and sniffing glue, and then into a thief and drug-abuser who was bound to end up in prison. And even though Stuart claims that his life changed forever the day he discovered violence, he immediately adds that a lot of kids with a similar background grew up to be normal adults. Therefore even though Alexander may think (and with every reason I’m sure) that a childhood such as Stuart’s can wreck someone’s life forever, Stuart himself is not willing to blame only others for ruining his life, he refuses to make a melodrama out of his life, and this indeed makes him rather special.

Finally I must mention that I had the misfortune to read the Hungarian edition of the book, which is of a very low quality. The translation is full of mistakes which often make it really hard to understand a sentence, and sometimes even suggest a meaning totally different from the real meaning of the sentence. So I wasn’t even surprised to see that the name of the author is three times written as ’Alexanders’ instead of ’Alexander’ on the book cover. It’s a pity that mistakes (or rather negligence) of this kind make this book seem a cheap pulp book, when in fact it is everything but cheap and pulpy.

Persuasion by Jane Austen

I read an extensive and exquisite post on the sequels to Jane Austen’s novel not long ago, and I immediately got a craving for one of Ms. Austen’s books. Although my all-time favorite is Pride and Prejudice, this time I chose Persuasion for some reason. I only read this novel once so far, and I did not like it very much that time, but I was curious how it might strike me now, reading it for the second time. Moreover, I could not really recall the story of this novel, while I know Pride and Prejudice almost by heart, and even though the story of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth never ceases to fascinate me, now I wanted something else.

I will not dwell for long on the story, on the one hand, it can be found all over the internet, and on the other hand, Persuasion is set in the same limited world where all the other Austen novels are set, and it depicts the same intricate relationships existing among the noblemen of the countryside that can be found in every Austen novel. So just as in Ms. Austen’s other books, in Persuasion we get to know all the games, intrigues, strengths and weaknesses of every character, with a special emphasis on their attempts to catch a husband or a wife. In the meantime, we also get a clear and quite ironic picture of the everyday life and insurmountable problems of the country gentry.

I assume it comes as no surprise that after tackling the necessary number of obstacles, the hero and heroine of Persuasion are successfully united, but it seems to me that the mere fact of the protagonists’ marriage is the least important part of the novel, and in fact Ms. Austen gets done with the big reconciliation and all the usual explanations in a couple of pages. In comparison with this, it is much more emphatic that the protagonists need to go through a long series of difficulties which provides them with ample opportunities to get to know their own and their lover’s personality, to learn to think in an independent and mature way, to regret their previous mistakes, and finally, to become really deserving of a sensible marriage based on similar ways of thinking and similar virtues.

Still, the process during which the characters acquire the self-awareness and maturity necessary for marriage is in itself but a small part of the novel. Much more important is the way Ms. Austen depicts contemporary society, and the way she proves her opinions with several witty, often sarcastic observations. Sometimes I felt as if Ms. Austen bothered with coming up with a plot only for the reason that hiding behind the façade of a light, romantic story she could freely indulge in irony and write down her opinions of everything she considered tiresome or ridiculous. Of course my heart is not made of stone either, and I shed some tears at the relevant parts of the novel, however, the fact that in the whole book we find around 5 pages of romantic love as opposed to 250 pages of realistically depicted vanity, selfishness, intrigue, vacuousness and weakness, seems to indicate that Ms. Austen was not the author of silly, lovely stories for romantic girls.

The relative unimportance of the plot itself was also made obvious to me by the fact that Persuasion reminded me of Pride and Prejudice in several details. For instance, when the heroine, Anne learns at the beginning of the novel that there is a good chance that her former lover will come to the neighborhood again and will tread on the same paths she used to tread on, she emits the same big sighs as Ms. Eliza Bennet does when she arrives at Pemberley as a visitor, and contemplates that Pemberley is Mr. Darcy’s home and she is now walking on the same ground as her beloved does at other times. Of course it is possible that the heroines of a given novelist are in the habit of reacting to similar situations in a similar way, but I can also imagine that, when writing Persuasion, it was much more important for Ms. Austen to express her opinion than to create absolutely unique heroines, reactions and scenes.

And I believe that she succeeded very well in writing a highly ironic and critical novel. Apart from creating a series of strongly caricaturistic character (such as Anne’s father, the exceedingly vain Sir Walter; her sister, Mary, who always imagines that she is being trodden on by the others; or the slimy Mr. Eliot), she also strikes out at the everyday airs and social graces. For a 21st century reader of Ms. Austen, it may seem at once funny and pathetic how many things depended on such politeness formulas as making a sufficiently low bow for the other person, keeping up a conversation for the right amount of time, or being the winner in the “who is the most polite” competition of two equally courteous ladies – and Ms. Austen also knows very well how ridiculous this is. As a matter of fact, it is quite a wonder that despite all the obstacles and the general ignorance of the majority of the characters Ms. Austen is optimistic enough to let all her heroines be married at the end of her novels and to go as far as to imply that their marriage will be a success.

And to answer the question implied in the first paragraph of this post: I liked Persuasion much better now than for the first time, and I am sure that in the future I will not omit it from my regular Austen re-reading sprees.

The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis

In the last ten or so years I read all of Bret Easton Ellis’s work, actually, I think I read all of them more than once. But I don’t think I read them first in the proper order – if there is such a thing as a proper order. I recall that I first read The Rules of Attraction after American Psycho, and I guess it would have been better to read them in the other way around. Anyway, as I didn’t really remember the novel anymore, I thought I’d re-read it.

The thing I like the best about this novel is its title. I think it’s exceedingly suggestive, beautiful, mysterious and it conveys sensuality and intimacy. As regards the story, however, it’s not worth going into details, as the novel doesn’t feature any kind of linear storyline whatsoever. As it is, the events of the novel center around three main characters (Paul Denton, Sean Bateman and Lauren Hynde) and several minor characters who get into various emotional and sexual relations with one another while living the boring life of rich elite university students and working hard to drug and drink themselves to death.

What makes the novel interesting despite all this is the narration. (Of course this is one of my several hobby-horses: I love virtually any novel that employs a tricky narrative technique.) Every episode in the novel is told in the first person by one of several characters (mostly by Paul, Sean or Lauren), and most episodes are told by more than one narrator. This way we get highly personal accounts of the events and the way they affect the narrator, and we also run into a lot of intriguing ambiguities concerning the „true” meaning of a specific party or date: an evening a character considers life-changing may only be a dull couple of hours for another one, or may feel for him or her as if it didn’t happen at all.

This kind of storytelling suits Bret Easton Ellis’s cold and detached world admirably. Ellis lets each of his characters tell their own version without superimposing a definitive meaning above their different interpretations. He doesn’t attempt to convince the reader of the truthfulness of any version, and I can really appreciate it if a writer lets his readers fend for themselves and doesn’t feel the need to explain and interpret everything.

The narration is excellent end greatly enjoyable, but the characters themselves are quite easy to forget. What lends them charm is that some of them reappear in other Bret Easton Ellis novels. Sean Bateman is, of course, the brother of the infamous Patrick Bateman, and as I recall, Lauren Hynde also appears in some other novel of Ellis, though I don’t remember in which one. I tend to think that the characters are uninteresting because in fact, they don’t have any personality or any distinguishing character traits worth mentioning. In The Rules of Attraction everyone is a tanned, sexy, muscular, beautiful demi-god, and though everyone is quite heartbroken when they find that their current romantic interest prefers someone else’s company, usually they easily manage to find a substitute with whom they can forget, as they are mainly interested in the body of the other person, and one body can easily be substituted for the other, since each is perfect.

Only one character seems to be an exception to this rule. There’s a girl in the novel who keeps sending love letters to Sean, and finally commits suicide as she realizes that she will never get the boy of his dreams. But even in her case, it’s not at all obvious whether she kills herself because she sees something in Sean other than his body, falls in love with his soul, and therefore cannot be satisfied with someone else, or because she is a misfit in her surroundings and simply cannot adopt the concept that it is only the exchangeable body that matters and it’s naive and ridiculous even to think about such things as a soul.

By the way, because of the weightlessness of the characters and the lack of story, The Rules of Attraction is not the kind of novel to get lost in. While reading the book, I sometimes simply drifted over the pages, just like the characters drift in their lives, and I feel that this was a fine way to read this novel. And even though I don’t think that The Rules of Attraction measures up to American Psycho, which was the subsequent novel in Ellis’s œuvre, in the proper state of mind it can be quite a shocking read: it is appalling to face the emptiness that can exist within the human heart.

I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe

I came across this novel in my favorite bookshop. Its loud cover was sticking out a mile and after a while I felt myself forced to pick up the book, so I took a look at it, checked what it was about, and finally bought and read it. I was a little bit afraid of what I would find in between the covers, because based on the blurb I thought the plot might be a little too complicated and the language usage a little too frustrating and/or hard to follow. Actually, some of these fears came true but still, I am Charlotte Simmons was quite a good read.

The novel tells the story of young Charlotte Simmons, a native of the small mountain village of Sparta, North Carolina, a naive, innocent and inexperienced freshman student at the great and prestigious Dupont University. Charlotte comes from a modest background, so she arrives at Dupont with a full scholarship. And even though she is not the most friendly and easy-going person in the world, she quickly manages to strike up an acquaintance with three of the more charismatic senior students of the university: with Jojo, the enthusiastic but not too bright star of the basketball team; with Hoyt, the unscrupulous womanizer, the most popular person on the whole campus; and with Adam, the superbly intelligent geek editor of the university paper who nurses great plans about changing the world. The story then revolves around these four central characters – and it revolves in quite an entertaining and clever way. There are a whole lot of surprising twists and turns to keep the reader’s attention alive, and fortunately these are not just twists coming out of nowhere, they are all well-explained and they also always have their consequences.

Apart from being highly entertaining, the novel also draws a frighteningly clear picture of several personality types, worldviews and situations in life. For instance, my own freshman year came clearly to my mind when I was reading about Charlotte’s difficulties with fitting in, or about her fears, vanity, thirst for knowledge, moodiness, overcompensated inferiority complex, awkwardness,  need to conform, inexperience and self-pity. I remembered what it was like to be a freshman student in a strange city, coming from a faraway part of the country, and I could easily understand Charlotte’s constant uneasiness, her painful loneliness and also why she is not able to explain to anyone what is bothering her when she goes home for the Christmas holidays.

Although Charlotte is far from being an appealing character and I quickly came to the conclusion that she is a terribly manipulative person, her characterization itself is still very impressive and I could easily imagine what being Charlotte Simmons must be like. And it was just the same way with Hoyt, Adam and Jojo as well. It is quite clear that Wolfe carefully researched university life and the interests, motivations and ambitions of university students in order to make sure that he depicts the characters and the events in an authentic way.

However, exactly because of his desire to be as authentic as possible, Wolfe goes too far in authenticity when it comes to language usage. It is one thing that the novel is full of words in italics and with dot-dot-dots even within sentences – and these features actually did not bother me at all, as they were often useful in showing the embarrassment, shock or enthusiasm of a character. Apart from these peculiarities, however, Wolfe also keeps referring to Charlotte’s dialect, he often writes her words in something like a phonetic transcription, and he also writes some unnecessary mini-essays on the topic of the slang usage of university students – and these were just too much for me. If the author had not felt the need to emphasize approximately sixty-three times that in a stressful situation Charlotte always reverts to using her dialect, it still would have been quite clear, and then perhaps I would not have felt the novel to be a little too spoon-feeding sometimes.

The other (minor) problem I have with the novel is its length. Although the story is quite exciting and the characters are really very interesting, 670 pages seem a bit too many and I got a bit tired towards the end. And it was not just me, I guess. At least it seemed to me that Wolfe also got somewhat tired of writing, and the end of the novel seems a bit of a quickie. But apart from all these, I am Charlotte Simmons is a good novel, and I can imagine that one day I will reread it as it certainly features so much content and so many ideas that it is impossible to grasp every single detail and concept in one reading.

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

It happened a few years back that one of my teachers mentioned Don DeLillo’s name and his novel White Noise in an American literary seminar, and the title immediately grabbed my attention, so much so that I decided to read the novel as soon as possible, even though apart from its title, I did not know anything about it. However, when I finally acquired the book and read it, it failed to live up to my expectations – though I did not really expect anything specific from it. After this experience, I did not really plan to read more books by DeLillo for a while, but then I saw Cosmopolis and decided to read it, as it seemed to be quite a good novel, and I also thought that perhaps I have become more appreciative of DeLillo’s talents in the past years.

Cosmopolis tells the story of a day in April 2000, in Manhattan. The protagonist is Eric Packer, a twenty-something multimillionaire stock-broker who decides in the morning after a sleepless night that he must immediately drive to the other end of the city in order to have his hair cut. The journey takes longer than expected, as his white limo is continuously stopped either because of a presidential visit, a famous rapper’s funeral procession or a violent protest. Eric uses his free time in the limousine to get involved in shady stock-market deals in order to lose all his money, to get himself thoroughly examined by a doctor, to consult with various members of the his executive team and to have a few meals with his wife whom he runs into at various parts of the city. It is also revealed that Eric might be the target of an assassin, and the excitement and fear he feels because of this possibility becomes one of the main organizing forces of his day.

The novel is dedicated to Paul Auster and I considered this dedication to be absolutely justified while I was reading the first few, stunningly beautiful pages of the novel, I felt as if DeLillo had recreated Auster’s The New York Trilogy without imitating it slavishly. The description of Eric’s insomnia and the city as it is waking up is simply marvelous and I could have continued reading about it for ages. But this was not to be, as Eric’s eventful day starts after a couple of pages and Cosmopolis slowly assumes the exact same qualities I did not like in White Noise: DeLillo wants to say too much too quickly – the novel runs to 200 pages only, and these 200 pages contain far too many events, written in a rather big font type and on smallish pages.

Through all the events outlined above, DeLillo offers his insights into the following topics: money and its use, big-city loneliness, alienation, sex, time and how it passes, death and the creative force of language – and I believe I might have omitted some themes from this list. DeLillo indeed does have something to say on all these topics, still, I often feel that he simply gets started on one topic, says something true, beautiful, thoughtful or witty, and then quickly goes on to the next theme, intoxicated by his own cleverness.

It is undeniable that there are some unique, bizarre or else eerily beautiful passages in the novel that will probably stick to my mind for a long time (e.g. the sex scene in the limo between Eric and his chief of finance, Jane; or the shooting of a movie Eric runs into towards the end of the novel), and I strongly regret the fact that the whole book isn’t as perfect as some of its parts. In conclusion, I have not become a much bigger fan of DeLillo now, and I don’t think I will bother with him again for a couple of years at least.

After I finished Cosmopolis, I read it somewhere that this novel is not usually supposed to be one of the best works of the author. However, I do not think it would have made much difference if I had chosen another book for my second go at DeLillo, say, Underworld, which is considered to be one of his masterpieces. I assume I came to know DeLillo’s style, language and his major themes by reading White Noise and Cosmopolis, and I admit that he writes about important topics in quite a good and sometimes piercing and beautiful language, but still, I do not feel myself at home in his world and I cannot love his work. Perhaps simply I am not his ideal reader after all.

Smiles on Washington Square by Raymond Federman

I first heard about Smiles on Washington Square in an American literature seminar at the university a couple of years ago. The novel seemed interesting, so when I found it in a second-hand book shop I bought it immediately but then put it aside without ever reading it. But now I was in the mood for something postmodern and this seemed like the ideal choice, and actually it turned out to be one.

Although the blurb of the Hungarian edition quite mercilessly tells the reader the whole “story”, I will not go into details. Suffice it to say that the novel tells the story of a love affair. The protagonists, Moinous and Sucette go through all the usual stages of an affair and we can follow them through their relationship from the first tentative glances and smiles until the bitter end.

But this is only the beginning, and in fact, the story is almost insubstantial, so it would not be worthwhile to read the novel just because of that, even less so because this is not a novel to get lost in: the author makes sure that the reader is aware that this is fiction, not the faithful depiction of reality.

What actually makes it worth while to read this book is its style, its constant and very interesting shifts between past and present, its playfulness, its irony and the way it depicts the influence of reality, fiction and imagination on one another. For instance: Moinous and Sucette first meet at a rally on Washington Square, smile at each other but do not speak a word. After the rally Sucette goes home and incorporates the stranger with the nice smile into the autobiographic short story she is writing: she imagines that he must be French, she devises his whole past and personality and finally names him Moinous. And when Moinous and Sucette meet again in “reality”, the girl tells the boy about her short story, and Moinous says that he would go by the name of Moinous then, and would not tell Sucette his real name.

This is only one, quite simple example of how the novel blends together the different layers of reality, fiction, and reality within fiction. However, Federman goes even further than this: he puts the whole story into the conditional, and makes the reader question the credibility of even the simplest of events. The only thing which is certain is the afternoon in March (or is it February?) when Moinous and Sucette first smile at each other, then go on their different ways.

By the way I think it is extremely clever and ironic that despite the emphatic fictitiousness, the pervasive feeling that perhaps nothing happened after all, and the constant shifts between past and present we still manage to learn every important (and sometimes quite unimportant) detail of the protagonists’ past, personality and the way their relationship develops: for example we know that at the beginning of their affair, Sucette was not willing to have sex with Moinous for 42 days; we see their first argument and also the birthdays they celebrate together.

It seems to me that Federman attempted to write an excessively textual text, and in the process he also created an absolutely banal, everyday love story, the pieces of which he scattered here and there in the novel – but in case someone is only interested in the romantic story, they can easily find and put together the pieces, and ignore the irony.

It is because of novels like this that I love postmodern literature: Smiles on Washington Square gives the reader the freedom of several different interpretations, it reflects on the world and itself, it is very playful and seemingly simple, but in fact it demands great attention – and gives great delight in return.