Brick Lane by Monica Ali

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There are all kinds of layers and themes to this novel. It deals, for example, with the difficulties of immigration and integration (turns out that moving to a new country is especially difficult if you have a very different color, religion, and cultural background than the majority of people living there); with the family ties and social background that can determine what you do and what you can do with your life; and then with a bit of contemporary history, and Muslim and non-Muslim tensions (9/11, demonstrations and anti-demonstrations).

I think the story-line that deals with history and with the tensions of society is the weakest one in the novel. I noticed already a few years back, when I was reading In the Kitchen, that Monica Ali is much better when she concentrates on individual lives and expresses big and important ideas through those individual lives than when she writes about intangible, faceless organizations, like in this novel – all I can make of this Muslim and non-Muslim story-line here is that a group called Tigers and another group wage a pamphlet-war in the neighborhood and organize who-knows-what-kind-of demonstrations and marches, with a pretty much unknown goal in mind.

But all this is just an aside, because what made me endlessly intrigued here was the story of the novel’s protagonist. Reading her story often reminded me of Kate Chopin’s Awakening, and it made me realize that not much has changed in the past 100 years.

The protagonist is Nazneen, a village girl from Bangladesh, who is forced into an arranged marriage with an older man from Bangladesh living in London. Nazneen is a good and obedient daughter with a strong desire to do her duty, and with an equally strong belief that everything is controlled by Allah/Fate, so everything that was meant to happen will happen, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

There’s an interesting contrast between Nazneen and her younger sister, the beautiful Hasina, who decides to take her fate into her own hands (which leads to catastrophic results, by the way, as we learn from the letters the eternally absent Hasina sends to her sister). Hasina, who violently rejects the mentality that we’re here on this earth to stoically withstand the amount of suffering that was destined for us, leads an entirely different kind of life than Nazneen, but her successes and failures don’t indicate that, after all, Nazneen’s road was the better choice. And they don’t indicate, either, that Hasina’s road was better. (Fortunately, there’s very little moralizing in this novel.)

The story is basically about how the ever-obedient Nazneen very slowly gains her independence and learns (and accepts the responsibility) to lead her own life. Nazneen’s slowly awakening desire for independence and her first small independent actions are very natural, there’s no big breakthrough or anything dramatic here. Nazneen isn’t exactly a feminist, her husband is not an abusive brute from whom she is forced to run away, and if we only look at the surface, her life in London isn’t bad at all – so theoretically, there’s no reason for her to rebel. And yet – there’s a curiosity in her, and a small (and then bigger and bigger) desire to see what she can do on her own. Which is wonderful and very human.

And the way Monica Ali describes Nazneen’s awakening right from the beginning is very subtle. For example, once Nazneen goes for a walk in big and sinful London, she gets lost, she has to pee, and anyway, she’s just a Muslim woman who isn’t even supposed to walk about on her own – so of course, Nazneen panics, but then she manages to solve the difficult situation, she’s proud, and she’d like to share her moment of triumph with someone. Or later on, she gradually discovers her body and she even entertains wild thoughts about shaving her legs. And still later, she becomes bold enough to open her mouth and say what she wants.

And this whole story of awakening is drawn very sensitively and gently – and it doesn’t for a moment seem that there’s a fixed end to it.

And just by the way: this is a very funny novel, too, with a bunch of great characters who look like caricatures yet remain alive, authentic and understandable, and it’s also a novel with a lot of smells and colors, which make me want to walk down on Brick Lane.

Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster

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I’m hardly an expert when it comes to Forster’s works – I’d only read A Room With a View earlier, but at least I’d read that countless times – and this lack of expertise might be the reason this novel was a big surprise to me.

First of all: I’m always intrigued to see how writers develop, how they enlarge upon their main themes and how they improve their favorite motifs from one book to the next. (This isn’t the main point here, so I’m not going into details now, but my theory is that in fact, everyone has only two or three really interesting things to say in their life – but it can take a good while until someone finds the best possible form, genre or mode of expression for that two or three amazing thoughts. And I like to read the experimental, voice-finding pieces of someone’s life work, too, not only the masterpieces.)

And it was interesting to compare this novel with A Room With a View (I don’t mean any kind of deep and involved parallel reading – I only mean that I’ve read A Room With a View so many times that I almost know it by heart), and to encounter a huge number of motifs and themes Forster must have found so irresistible and enchanting that he quickly put them not just into one novel, but two. Just a couple of examples: the charm and dramatic and dramatizing power of Italy; the view (yes!) you can enjoy from the balconies of Italian houses and from the walls of Italian towns, the view that’s more than enough to completely change someone’s direction in life; the purple flowers blooming all over the Italian hillsides every spring; little babies (real or otherwise); and so on. And further, it’s interesting how the same motifs can have such a different effect in different novels.

The reason this novel surprised me is because I had no idea Forster’s writing could be so dark. (I had no idea that A Room With a View is supposed to be his lightest novel, and all the others are way darker.)

And I didn’t suspect anything at first – this novel, too, starts out lightly enough: with two young English ladies embarking on the Big Italian Adventure, which around 1900 wasn’t supposed to involve getting romantically entangled with attractive Mediterranean demigods – but as it is, exactly this happens here, while all the relatives and neighbors back in England watch with horror as the events unfold, and then decide to send a rescue team to save the hapless ladies from the misfortune – a misfortune they got into out of their own free will. (Of course, Italy is attractive only as long as the English tourist can observe and admire it from behind the safe wall of the Baedeker. The approved plans of „learning” Italy never involve any real, non-touristy interactions with the locals, and if any such interaction occurs, Italy immediately becomes a barbaric country whose inhabitants all harbor evil plots to rid the innocent English ladies and gentlemen of their money and good morals.)

Anyway, up until this point, the novel is lighthearted and funny enough – then the mood turns gradually darker, and I don’t even realize how we suddenly get to topics such as gender equality; the cultural differences between countries, and how these differences might be insurmountable; and the possibly mortally dangerous English stiffness, cold blood, and hysterical regularity. To illustrate these points, Forster makes rather brutal things happen to his characters, and he doesn’t stop at being just nicely ironic and gently sarcastic. (He does these, too, of course – and with such wit and charm that he immediately climbs right next to Jane Austen on my fictitious list of top English authors who can make the most devastating remarks while maintaining a perfectly innocent face.)

I don’t mind, by the way, that this novel is pretty sombre. What I do mind a bit is that Forster doesn’t always seem to be in control, and it feels as if he wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted with his characters and what road he wanted them to take. (Additionally, it seems he wasn’t sure what the characters want from each other, either.) But perhaps this is again the effect of Italy – that someone who used to be a moderately boring, moderately annoying, not particularly attractive neighbor in the good-natured world of rural England magically becomes a goddess in Italy. It’s possible, I guess – it’s only that Forster doesn’t manage to convince me how these things occur.

(If I ever found myself in Monteriano, though, I’d make sure to look for the places mentioned in the novel because even if Forster seems somewhat uncertain about his characters, he is absolutely sure about the magic of Monteriano. It’s a pity that Monteriano probably doesn’t exist.)

The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis

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This is the most disagreeable coming-of-age novel I’ve ever read. This is one of my favorite genre – for some unfathomable reason I’m still deeply interested in what it’s like to grow up, and of course I’m aware that some of the main themes of growing up are sex and our own wonderful, special, one-of-a-kind snowflake personalities which we are positively dying to exhibit to someone, but the protagonist of this novel is so disgustingly self- and sex-centered that my usual powers of empathy don’t seem to work here.

Charles, the 19-year-old protagonist makes it his goal in life to have sex with an older woman before he turns 20. The older woman in question is only about a month older than him, but so be it. Charles develops a crush on Rachel and he’s determined to get her. He employs quite a nerdy method for this end, by the way – he wants to win the heart of his lady with quotes from Blake’s poetry, with whole conversations and mini-presentations prepared before their encounters, and with books, vinyls and magazines arranged in his room in masterly and artful disarray that’s supposed to indicate how irresistible and tasteful he is.

Does he succeed? I won’t go into that. In any case, during his big Rachel-siege, Charles learns a lot not just about Rachel but about himself, too, and – supposedly – he gets somewhat wiser by the end.

Is this a good novel? On the one hand, it’s absolutely infuriating, because this story is exclusively about how Charles feels, what happens to him, and how he’s unable to accept the humanity of anyone else besides himself. I’m not sure how such things work now among teens, but I think/hope this must have changed since the 1970s when the novel is set. Anyway, this here is still an era where contraception is something only the girl is supposed to worry about, where it’s still unmanly and embarrassing for a guy to buy and use a condom, and where it’s cause for a major relationship crisis if the male finds out that girls also poop. (Naturally, girls don’t crap or take a shit – but according to Charles’ world view, they shouldn’t even poop.) And the reason I’m only talking about the bodily aspects of a relationship is because there’s no other aspect mentioned here in this novel. As regards the mind and personality of Rachel (or anyone else), the closer we come to that is Charles indicating that the girl probably doesn’t have a personality, and even if she does, it’s surely not very interesting.

On the other hand, though – if I look at this novel from a literary perspective, it’s not bad at all. I believe Amis when he says that this is one kind of life as a teenager: this nightmare of hormones, this huge desire to fit in, this posh-English elitism, this machismo, this constant smart-assery, this insensitivity to every other human, which means that even while you’re trying to win your girl, the only thing that matters to you is how you look in the other’s eyes, while not giving the least shit about how the other person is. So yes – it’s written convincingly.

And I understand and feel that this novel is satirical. Charles wasn’t meant to be a likeable teenager. (Which is a pretty big feat, by the way – creating a teenage character I hate. I like basically every teenage character in the history of teenage novels, starting, naturally, from Holden Caulfield right up to Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower.)

But even if  it’s a satire, and even if it’s written decently, it’s still a hateful novel for me. It’s not entertaining, not satirical enough to make me forget about its detestable sexism.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

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I used to have a period long ago when I read lots of books by Agatha Christie. I wasn’t methodical, I didn’t have a plan, and altogether I read perhaps a third of her books. And this novel is one I keep returning to. I’ve read it three or four times already, and even though I know all the twists by heart, it’s enough for me to read the little poem on the first page, which serves as an inspiration for the murderer when he plans his murders, and I immediately have the shivers running down my spine. (I’m not intending to name the murderer, but his identity might be guessed from the following paragraphs.)

As for the story – at the beginning of the novel, ten guests arrive on a small island that’s just off the coast of England but inaccessible in bad weather. One guest dies on the first evening, and by the next morning, the housekeeper’s wife is also dead. No wonder then that a panicky mood soon sets in among the remaining guests as the suspicion arises that there’s probably a killer hiding somewhere on the island. They soon establish that there’s nobody else on the island except for the guests, so the only important question remains: who among the eight is the murderer, and how can he be stopped before he goes on to kill everyone?

Reading And Then There Were None for the first time was a stunning, deeply unsettling and uncomfortable experience for me, and this hasn’t changed much during the subsequent re-readings. This novel is so ominous and so claustrophobic that it doesn’t matter that I learn the truth in the end (or that I already know the truth because I remember it from my previous readings), because by that time I’m already well under its effect. Finishing this novel is not like finishing any other mystery story: here I don’t feel the comfort and satisfaction I usually feel, and I cannot sit back and say: well, this was an interesting murder mystery, brilliantly solved by a smart detective while I had some good fun. Instead, I feel as if I finished a deep psychological drama of several hundred pages, something that would occupy my mind for several days to come, something I’d never be able to completely forget.

In this novel Christie managed to do something that is quite unusual in a murder mystery and something that sets this novel apart from her own works, too. This is the only murder mystery (not only by Christie but in general) I’ve read more than once in my life, so it’s definitely more than a moderately engaging story that’s good for a rainy Saturday afternoon.

What makes it special, then? First, that it deals with the question of sin much more deeply, analytically and philosophically than most crime stories. The specific murders don’t even matter that much here – what matters is the philosophy of the murderer, the philosophy that makes him want to kill and see to it that the truth prevails. This philosophy here often reminds me of Crime and Punishment without the long psychological analyses – and in fact, these analyses aren’t even missing here, they are hidden, in embryonic form, in the epilogue.

Another thing that makes this novel special to me is its atmosphere. I’m too lazy to look for specific examples, but the way Christie depicts the mounting tension, the unbearable claustrophobia, and the feelings of rising doubt, terror, and animosity is deeply terrifying.

And one more thing which I didn’t notice at first, but which became obvious through subsequent re-readings: this is a deeply ironic novel. It makes for some good (and comparatively light) fun in this dark novel to note how often and in how many different ways the murderer claims that the culprit can only be a dangerous maniac, while no-one has a clue that he’s talking about himself. I’m grateful for this irony here – even with that, this novel is terrifying, and I wouldn’t even like to imagine how it would be without it.

Cityboy by Geraint Anderson

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Geraint Anderson worked in London’s financial district, the City for several years, and when he had had enough of that, he first wrote a series of anonymous articles for a magazine and then wrote this book to air the dirty laundry of the City.

This doesn’t sound half bad, however, Geraint Anderson isn’t exactly a master of truth-exposing, eye-opening writing, and he isn’t a present-day Dostoyevsky, either, someone capable of accessing all the hidden corners of the human heart and revealing just what kind of moral-killing and soul-crushing practices go on in the world. Anderson is a rather neutral, nothing-special writer – his writing lacks life and sparkle, he’s extremely repetitive, and his humor is forced and bland most of the time.

The subtitle – Beer and Loathing in the Square Mile – refers to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and indeed, Cityboy’s main character (Anderson himself) does drugs almost as enthusiastically and is paranoid almost to the same extent as Raoul Duke (or Hunter S. Thompson), but the similarities end here because – as opposed to Thompson – Anderson doesn’t possess a remarkable sense of humor or a truly feverish and insane imagination, moreover, he’s not as talented a writer as to be able to give sufficient shape to the creations of his ordinary imagination or his paranoid visions.

So as regards the debauchery, drug-doing, orgies and general assholery of the protagonist’s life as Cityboy – this story-line is painfully dull. Anderson, for example, relates how absolutely awful and embarrassing it was when he – totally shitfaced and wasted – ran into his future boss who was accompanying his daughter to the Glastonbury Festival, and yes: I can imagine that meeting your boss when you’re shitfaced can be quite awful and embarrassing, but it’s sure as hell that Anderson isn’t able to make me feel how and why this was awful for him. That’s it for the hard-partying stock-broker story-line then.

The other main story-line is the truth-exposing and soul-searching one. It’s about the dark deeds of banks, stock exchanges, and all kinds of other institutions in the money business; and about how the once normal people who work in this business all become amoral, inhuman, extremely competitive zombies, working 70 hours a week, equally obsessed with making and wasting money. Oh well – yes, I believe it can be like this, this life, but it’s nothing I didn’t already know, and more importantly: the way Anderson narrates this, it doesn’t make me experience neither the 70-hour workweeks, nor anything else.

Anderson, by the way, quit the money business a while ago, and in the afterword he says that, after all, it’s not money that matters, but love, family and friends. Yeah, sure. And this isn’t a sarcastic “yeah, sure”. This isn’t a sign of my agreement, either. This is a sign of my complete lack of interest.

Anyway, Anderson is not without brains, and he possesses a minimal amount of self-irony, too. And the things he says about the workings of the banking world are most probably true, and those things could normally throw me straight into a fit of rage and despair. However, this book doesn’t induce rage or despair in me, and I cannot work myself up into a fit because Anderson – regardless of his topic – can’t kindle any sort of emotion in me, save indifference. But at least I learned that when a boring writer talks about exciting or unsettling topics, the result is still boring.

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

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Ian McEwan again writes about his favorite themes: about the darkness inside us; about inexplicable desires and aversions; about the difficulty and fragility of intimacy; and about all kinds of moral dilemmas stemming from the clash between a rational and a less-than-rational/emotional/religious world view.

The most emphatic (and I’d say: over-emphasized and not very fair – but more on this later) theme this time is the one about moral/religious dilemmas. The main character, Fiona, is a well-respected high court judge, specializing in family law, and incidentally, she’s also the champion of rational thinking, constant planning, and emotion-suppression.

As it turns out from the (not really) randomly mentioned past cases she’d ruled on, Fiona’s met with parents of all kinds of religious beliefs who jeopardized the well-being and healthy development of their children due to their religion: we learn about a Muslim father who got his child out from the sinful and secular England without his ex-wife’s agreement so that he could raise the child in a proper Muslim manner; then we learn about a Jewish family where again it’s the father who takes religion more seriously, and he plans to raise his children according to the orthodox Jewish tradition, while the mother would prefer a more secular upbringing; and then we also learn about a hardcore Christian family where the parents don’t want to allow a life-saving operation on their children, claiming that whatever happens to their children, it’s the intention of God.

Based on the rulings Fiona made in these cases, it’s perhaps easy to guess what her judgment will be in the case this novel is about (so let’s say that McEwan slightly spoils himself). Because the main case here is also something similar: there’s a very ill boy coming from a Jehova’s Witnesses family, who’s a few months short of his eighteenth birthday, and who wants to reject a life-saving procedure due to his religious beliefs – while the hospital wants to fight to save his life.

Even if we might guess what Fiona’s decision will be, there’s enough tension here, as the case ends up on Fiona’s desk at a moment when she’s emotionally unstable and even a little bit sentimental – which is understandable, given the fact that her husband’s just announced that he’d like to leave now, at age 60, and take the last possible chance to experience a passionate, wild, unsettling relationship – because with Fiona, queen of cool, things aren’t exactly working anymore. Due to her emotionally vulnerable state, it’s not the case here that Fiona rules about the fate of A.H., minor, in her impersonal, remote manner. Fiona happens to be vulnerable, approachable, easy to influence, so the main character of the case becomes much more to her than just two initials – A. H. becomes a real human being – Adam Henry, an intelligent, beautiful, innocent, humorous, life-loving, poetic-romantic boy, who at the brink of his eighteenth birthday decides to accept a painful death.

I read a great, sarcastic-poetic question in a review somewhere. Would Adam become such a mythical hero if he hadn’t been such a perfect, out-of-this-world Adam – writing poems, playing the violin, and so on, but had been an average teenage boy instead, with pimples on his face, with teenage angst and cynicism galore, playing World of Warcraft all day? I guess – he most probably wouldn’t. The reason Adam can become such an attractive hero for Fiona is that she meets him at just the right moment in her otherwise pretty unemotional, reserved life, at a moment when she’s in a perfect emotional state to connect with a romantic, warm-hearted, poetic figure like Adam, who’s living his emotions and beliefs so intensely that he’s willing to die for them.

So I feel – and it’s an interesting contradiction to me – that even though the judgment in Adam’s case is exactly the judgment we could expect from the rational, careful and coolly intelligent Fiona, still, this judgment is not based on rational thinking. It’s based on emotions – which is a whole different matter.

And this is the most heart-breaking element in this novel: how the basically rational Fiona decides something based on emotions, but then she’s unwilling or unable to accept that emotional decisions can entail emotional consequences. This is brutal and unsettling – not counting with the possibility that showing emotions towards someone might just possibly awaken emotions in the other, too, and after a moment of sentimentality just retreating to the fortress of rationality, from where there’s a great and safe view of the world, where it’s possible to continue with the usual same smart-assery of the previous 30 years, and where it’s even possible to treat a marriage crisis along the ways of a game, basically saying that: “you performed an act of reconciliation today; so now it’s my turn; and so on; and slowly, slowly we’ll rebuild something and we’ll be just fine in the 10 or 20 years remaining for us on this earth.” (As you might guess, I’m not an extremely rational person/reader, and Fiona will most certainly not feature on my list of favorite literary characters or fictitious soulmates – even though I do understand what she does, because she does exactly what being herself compels her to do.)

And as regards the overt and rather imbalanced moralizing manifest in this novel I already mentioned: it’s partly my personal preference that I’m less interested in moral questions than in McEwan’s perceptions about how extremely awkward and vulnerable we, humans are in our most emotional, deepest relations (McEwan’s insight into what it’s like to be a human always and forever fills me with awe). But partly it’s not only my personal preference: the moral dilemma presented here is only a token dilemma – McEwan only takes one side seriously and it’s quite obvious that he’s extremely pissed off by any kind of (religious or other) fervor and passion. (Of course it’s quite possible that it’s not McEwan himself who’s pissed off by this but Fiona – I’m not intending to mix them up – McEwan is the writer, though, so if he really wants to deal with moral dilemmas, he might just take the trouble and present both sides with equally serious and detailed treatment.)

And it’s weird – and again: heart-breaking – for me here: how rational thinking wins. It sweeps over everything, it levels all differences, and – after a huge emotional upheaval and a couple of dangerously-real acts – it goes on to revert everything back to normal. And the romantic, the emotional, the taken, the ones who are not willing to repress their souls at all times – they can only come to a bad end.

London Fields by Martin Amis

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Martin Amis feels like the Michel Houellebecq for one-time literary majors like me who don’t necessarily like to take everything seriously. Amis writes about the same topics as Houellebecq (the world is coming to an end; the era of emotions and „normal” human relationships is past; the only possible connection between two humans is sex; nothing makes sense any more; and so on) in the same postmodern way, and if I were inclined to take him seriously, he would make me want to cut my wrist like Houellebecq does. As opposed to Houellebecq, however, Amis does have a sense of humor, and he gives me the chance to not take him seriously. And this is a chance I gladly take – partly because I don’t think that life is terribly bad, and partly because – if life were really such terribly bad, I would only be able to stand it with lots of humor.

But now on to the novel. London Fields is the story of a carefully planned murder (or suicide), and symbolically the story of the whole world’s suicide. As regards the particular personal suicide and the characters in the novel: the protagonist is Nicola Six, a mind-blowingly seductive, manipulative sex goddess, and mistress of all kinds of erotic games – a woman who’s always been able to give men anything they wanted, except for love, a woman who’s always been able to get everything she wanted from men – except for love. It’s not at all certain that love would have changed anything in her life (Nicola Six is not exactly a sentimental woman), so her lovelessness in life is not the only reason why she decides to commit suicide – but it’s part of the picture.

Nicola, however, doesn’t want to go through the suicide-business alone – she needs someone who does her the favor of killing her. At the beginning of the story, she finds two possible candidates for this role. One of them is Keith Talent, a violent, not particularly winsome con man whose life consists of sex, booze, and darts, and who generally acts like a man perfectly capable of and willing to kill a woman, should the circumstances arise. The other candidate is Guy Clinch, a soft, gentle, exceedingly naive aristocrat, who doesn’t at all look capable of killing anyone – but Nicola Six is just the person to induce murderous rage in the most peaceful man on earth. And then there’s a third man here (and a fourth, hidden in the background) – these latter two are ironic alter-egos for Martin Amis: one of them is the person who knows the most about Nicola’s plans and is writing a supposedly true-life novel about Nicola’s way to self-obliteration, and the other one is also a writer, and he’s the person Nicola has been the most attached to all her life (or not).

Is this already sufficiently tangled, annoyingly over-complicated, and postmodern? I guess so. But I also guess that this is Martin Amis’ method. I haven’t read all his novels, far from it, but from what I’ve read, it seems that he likes to build his stories around a single joke. This is what happens in Money, this is what happens here, and this is what probably happens in some of his other works I either haven’t read or don’t remember anymore. Another typical Amis feature is that he likes to exaggerate (a lot), thereby making everything hardly-real, hardly-credible. Case in point: his characters’ name, and their habits and behavior: Guy Clinch with his out-of-this-world naivety; Keith Talent with his unsustainable habits of drinking, smoking, and womanizing; and Nicola Six with her one-of-a-kind sexual prowess.

And I’m glad Amis writes like this – this way I can pretend while reading that none of it is true. Sure, if I try to glance behind the exaggerations, the irony, and the unreliable narration, then I see how hideous and horrible all this is – but I don’t necessarily want to see all of this. And I appreciate it that Amis lets me decide when and how much I take him seriously. And I like it, too, that it’s also my decision how much I take this novel to be the suicide story of not just Nicola Six but of the whole world. Right now – not too much. Amis can be awesome when he deals with someone’s personal apocalypse but he hardly ever manages to make me believe in his large-scale apocalypses. In fact, I feel as if he himself hasn’t yet figured out – hmm – why exactly he thinks the world is ending, and what’s this world-scale apocalypse anyway. Which is just as well for me.

A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

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I saw the film version of this novel a couple of years ago, and I still remember one episode vividly: George and Jim are sitting on the couch, both of them are deeply immersed in their books, but all the while their bodies are touching – casually, naturally, non-sexually – and from their positions, attitudes, light touch it’s obvious that they can talk to each other any minute, and it’s obvious that if one of them starts talking, the other won’t be annoyed.

Isherwood describes this more beautifully than I ever could, and he doesn’t need quite so many explanations, either:

“He pictures the evening he might have spent, snugly at home, fixing the food he has bought, then lying down on the couch beside the bookcase and reading himself slowly sleepy. At first glance, this is an absolutely convincing and charming scene of domestic contentment. Only after a few instants does George notice the omission which makes it meaningless. What is left out of the picture is Jim, lying opposite him at the other end of the couch, also reading; the two of them absorbed in their books yet so completely aware of each other’s presence.”

This is one of the most beautiful and most succinct depictions of intimacy I’ve ever read, and besides its beauty, it also implies everything that happens before two people can exist with each other like this: observing the other and being observed by the other – but not eating up each other; being constanstly aware of the other, even during times of separation; and most importantly: being aware that the other person is another person, not the continuation, supplement, or copy of the first person.

People, in the plural, can be hell – they are all different, they are all others: unknown (all of them – themselves), frightening, with all their different desires. This episode with the couch depicts that state when the other person (not other persons) still – very probably – wants all kinds of things all on his own, and he’s still unknown (and will forever be, being other) – but he’s no longer frightening.

The main character, George loses his partner, Jim – and following this loss everything reverts to its original frightening state. And the way Isherwood writes about this from George’s point of view – condensing everything into the events of a single day – is desperately, heart-breakingly bitter and angry.

But the novel isn’t only about George’s personal loss – it’s also about the state of being a stranger in a frightful world in general, about the ways people try to become less strange, less frightening to one another, and about the realization how random, selfish, ridiculous, and meaningless these experiments in taming other humans can be.

And George is very smart and experienced, and he knows all too well what social interactions mean. He knows that his neighbor doesn’t want to invite him over when she has other guests because she’s afraid the other guests might notice that George is gay. He knows that his eager student at the university only invites him for dinner for the second time because two dinner engagements – according to a weird social code – already signify intimate friendship, and two dinners with George will enable him twenty years later to boast to his university friends: yes, George and I used to be good friends. And he also knows that his friend living next door only requires his company because she needs a manly shoulder to cry on.

Everyone wants all kinds of everything, and – as it often comes up in the novel – everything is symbolic. The relationships, the conversations, the way Americans live – are all symbols for something, but they themselves are not something. At the same time there’s the hope, knowledge, certainty in the novel that finding – or rather: building – something is not impossible. Not impossible – but it takes long. And it’s difficult. And at any moment you might wake up to realize: there won’t be time for it anymore.