The Caretaker by Harold Pinter

the_caretakerAs far as I know Harold Pinter, plot and story are usually non-existent in his works, but I write a few lines about what goes on in this play. (I don’t think it really matters here, but I must add that my post contains spoilers.)

So, the play is about two brothers, Mick and Aston. Mick works in the construction industry, and leads an average, moderately pointless life; Aston – through no fault of his own – doesn’t work anywhere, and leads an absolutely pointless life. Mick is the owner of a run-down building, and his idea is that he lets Aston live there, and Aston, in return, renovates the house. At the beginning of the play Aston brings home an old never-do-well, Davies (or perhaps his name is Jenkins), and he offers him a bed to sleep in. Aston wants to help Davies – who is even more screwed-up than him – and he comes up with the idea that perhaps Davies might become the caretaker of the building. Some time later – independently of Aston – Mick also comes to the conclusion that it would be nice if Davies became the caretaker. But finally Davies doesn’t become the caretaker.

Basically, this is it, but of course the story isn’t too important here. What’s important, and what the play is about is the characters’ inability to communicate, their impotence, helplessness, and their all-permeating, almost tragic cluelessness. Each of the three characters is impotent, helpless (etc.) to some extent, but the level of their defencelessness varies greatly.

To understand the level of the characters’ emotional and mental nakedness, it’s worth considering their typical, trademark sentences one by one because these sum up their philosophy in life very succinctly. For instance, Davies, the old idler (who says that he’s a jack of all trades but I’ve got the hunch that in fact he’s a jack of no trades) keeps repeating that as soon as the weather clears he’s going down to a distant London neighborhood to get his identity documents which he had left in the care of an acquaintance ten-odd years ago. Davies argues that all his problems will be miraculously solved once he gets his documents back – for example, he will be able to prove his real name, and he will also be able to prove that he’s the perfect candidate for the caretaker position. Of course, Davies never goes down to Sidcup for his papers, but there’s always a good reason for his inertia – it’s either raining; or it looks as if it’s going to rain; or his shoes are so worn that it’s impossible to take a long walk in them. (But then again – Davies’s constant search for excuses is understandable, given the fact that he probably knows well enough that having his documents on him wouldn’t really change a thing, but as long as he doesn’t have them, he can pretend that his failure in life is due to the missing papers.)

Aston’s philosophy greatly resembles that of the old would-be caretaker: he keeps saying that he will start the renovation of the house by first building a shed in the backyard, and when it’s built, he will be able to get down to the more important tasks. The shed, however, never gets built – Aston’s only noteworthy activity around the house is that he collects junk, and he tries to repair a broken toaster. Aston’s impotence and his constant procrastination arise from the events in his past: as it turns out, he suffers from some mental illness and he was treated with electric shock therapy when he was younger. The treatment left him even worse off, and since then, Aston keeps wandering around in reality and he’s virtually unable to act and think „normally”.

And Mick – even though he lives a more or less „normal” life – is also constantly waiting for the ideal circumstances, and he does virtually nothing to advance his plans. His dream is that one day he will live with his brother in the beautifully redecorated house, and everything will be just fine and idyllic – but presumably he knows that if it’s up to Aston, the house will never be renovated. So the suspicion might arise that perhaps Mick doesn’t really want to live together with his mentally deranged brother.

These underlying thoughts and motivations, naturally, never come to the surface. And even the thoughts that are given voice to are such that the others never understand (or completely misunderstand) them. We might say that The Caretaker is a „typical”, depressing, sickly-funny absurdist play. But the reason why I find it almost unbearably sad and depressing is that The Caretaker – contrary to some really absurd/abstract absurdist plays – is too much like the reality I know. Reading this play broke my heart now – partly because it’s very real, and partly because it’s clear from all the fragmentary, meaningless conversation attempts of the characters that these people basically mean well, and if the need arises they protect and stand up for each other (e.g. Mick doesn’t let Davies dismiss Aston disparagingly) – but in the end, all this good-will, all these plans are for nothing.

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Cain by José Saramago

cainCain is the last novel by José Saramago and I was somewhat afraid that for this reason it might lack that wit, originality and playfulness which characterize his earlier books. But it soon turned out that this was not case, and Cain isn’t just an afterthought at the end of a lifetime, but an excellent, fresh novel – it’s a worthy closing piece of a great oeuvre.

Even though the protagonist of the novel is Cain, the story starts not with him but with Adam, Eve and their life in Paradise. But Saramago deviates from the usual depictions of Paradise right at the beginning, and he makes God out as a rather ridiculous being. It turns out that God is not pleased with his creations: Adam and Eve cannot speak, and God knows that he has to blame himself for this. To rectify the situation, he swiftly and thoughtlessly places tongues in their mouths and then leaves them to fend for themselves in the Garden of Eden. Afterwards things happen more or less in the way known from the Bible: Adam and Eve are expelled from Paradise; their children are born; Cain kills Abel, after which God punishes him by marking his forehead and by condemning him to eternal wandering. And the real story unfolds during the course of Cain’s wanderings.

During his ramblings, Cain sometimes unexpectedly finds himself at different, unknown places and times, and this way he witnesses several well-known Biblical events: he’s there when Abraham is getting ready to sacrifice Isaac; he’s there when Jericho is destroyed; and he’s also there when Satan tempts the god-fearing Job. And Cain doesn’t only observe these events – he often interferes, and tries to change them. After living through a whole lot of bloody and cruel episodes, his opinion about God deteriorates rapidly, and he gives voice to his doubts during his bitter and passionate arguments with God.

It’s quite obvious from the very beginning that Saramago’s God is neither benevolent, nor fearsome, nor omnipotent. And while we follow Cain’s adventures, we get more and more proof of his impotence, and we can ascertain that this God is dumb, inconsistent, cruel, selfish, indecisive, inhuman, and prone to making one mistake after the other.

Of course we should bear in mind that we see God’s actions through the eyes of the first murderer of humankind. Cain is by no means irreproachable – he’s an impetuous, instinctive, stubborn, and rather immoral man, and he often gets into unpleasant situations due to these characteristics. So it’s rather ironic that Cain dares to criticize God even though he’s very much like Him. Still, in the end Cain – with all his human weaknesses and sins – appears to be a wiser and more humane being than God with his godly weaknesses and sins.

As regards the style of the novel, it’s the same as the style of the earlier works of Saramago: the sentences are paragraph-long; the dialogs are not set apart from the descriptive parts in the usual way; and the narrator often comments ironically or pragmatically on certain events, and he addresses these comments directly to the reader.

I guess that Saramago’s stylistic oddities and his disrespectful, doubting, desecrating tone might not equally please every reader. As for me, I highly appreciate his unique style and playfulness, and I don’t find his tone disagreeable because I feel that behind all his lack of respect, there’s the philosophy that human beings are the most sacred and precious entities in this world.

But even though this novel features Saramago’s trademark humanism, Cain is still his most bitter and pessimistic novel I’ve read so far (I don’t know all his books yet.) Cain’s wanderings and time travels seem to be postmodern, somewhat aimless games for a while – but then it turns out what consequences these travels have, and the end of the story leaves the reader with very little hope for humankind.

Light in August by William Faulkner

lightinaugustLena, a simple, quiet, trusting country girl already learned when she was in her teens how to open and close the window of her small and crowded bedroom in the quietest possible way. She makes use of this ability when – at the age of about twenty – she meets Lucas Burch. After a couple of secret midnight encounters, she gets pregnant, and Burch promptly disappears.  However, Lena is not the one to panic, as she unwaveringly believes that the man will surely provide for her and her baby, and he will send a note when their future home is ready. When Burch fails to contact her, Lena gathers her meagre possessions, and starts her journey towards the place where she assumes her man might reside, because she wants to reunite with him before her child is born.

Lena arrives in Jefferson, Mississippi right at the beginning of the novel, and it soon turns out that Burch indeed took up residence here – but their reunion and the legitimation of their relationship is not that easy to arrange. And anyway, after a while it seems that Lena’s journey and her relations with her husband-to-be are not the most important themes of the novel: the focus is gradually shifted to the other residents of Jefferson, and their lives and deeds.

Jefferson is a typical dusty town with a suffocating atmosphere (both literally and metaphorically), a community where you find all the usual figures characteristic of a Southern town: there are bigoted people who cannot forgive their pastor for having a wife who led a shameful life; there’s a man who cannot find his place in the community, and both the white and the black shun him, because he looks like a white person but is still regarded as black since there’s a drop of black blood running in his veins; there’s a monomaniac parson whose single desire in life is to live in Jefferson as he feels that his family’s civil war heritage binds him to this town for eternity; and there’s a Yankee old maid who lives alone at the edge of the town and spends all her money and power on improving the life and circumstances of black people.

It’s hardly surprising that there’s a whole lot of tension among all these people with different personalities, past histories, family backgrounds, skin colors, world views and political views – and it’s not surprising either that there comes a moment in the inhumanly hot Jefferson summer when things reach their breaking point.

Faulkner is the master of building up tension, but he’s also more than this: he expertly shifts between different points of view, and between past and present – and this makes the novel a treat for me, being a sucker for all kinds of narrative tricks and peculiarities. Lena’s arrival in Jefferson and her departure from the town provides the frame for the story, however, in between these two events Faulkner freely jumps both in time and space, and he shows the events from constantly changing points of view. Sometimes he digs right into the mind of a character, and we get a first-hand account of that particular character’s thoughts and emotions; and sometimes we only learn some crucial details filtered through the mind of minor characters of whose trustworthiness we know nothing. For instance, we hear the end of Lena’s story from the mouth of a travelling salesman who only appears on the last couple of pages of the novel and who tells his wife about a strange couple he met while on the road to Tennessee.

Because of the lack of a single unified narrative voice and point of view, it’s often doubtful what you may accept as the „truth”, so it’s highly recommended to always note who’s telling something to whom. Of course, even with the closest reading you may miss out on the „truth”, or you may come to the conclusion that no single truth exists – but anyway, with all his narrative tricks, and with his careful measuring out of tension and information, Faulkner will surely draw you in to this bizarre, cruel, hopeless, bigoted world where people alternately follow the road to their past or try to run away from their past – but no matter what they want, they will surely get something they don’t expect.

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

This was the second novel I read by J. M. Coetzee. The first, Waiting for the Barbarians put me into a state of intense mental misery for days, however, I didn’t doubt for a minute that I would read other books by Coetzee – not because I’m masochistic, but because I’m curious. At least now I had some ideas about what I can expect from Coetzee, so the story of Disgrace and the themes the novel covers didn’t take me by surprise. I don’t mean that I’ve become immune to the brutality of Coetzee, and I can sit back and watch contentedly how he puts his characters up to difficult, no-win ethical choices. But I certainly tried to read the novel in a cool, distant manner, and avoid empathizing with the characters too much.

I guess this detachment was a good attitude to assume, as without it I would’ve found Disgrace even more unsettling than Waiting for the Barbarians. In that novel perhaps we can fool ourselves with the idea that the world depicted in the novel is not real, however, in Disgrace we don’t have this option, as this novel is set in the all too real contemporary South Africa, and the characters also seem more real than those in Waiting for the Barbarians, who are more like symbols than rounded characters.

Disgrace tells the story of David Lurie, a fiftyish, twice-divorced university professor and womanizer. David abuses his authority as a professor in order to seduce one of his students, young and beautiful Melanie. However, their secret affair is brought to light, and even though David pleads guilty and accepts his responsibility in the issue, he is unwilling the assume the role of a scapegoat, and decides to leave his job instead. He moves in with his daughter, Lucy, a strong woman living alone on a farm, but it seems that no matter how far he goes and where he hides, Lurie cannot find his inner peace anymore.

I read some articles earlier about South Africa, so when I learned that a part of Disgrace is set on a farm managed by a white person, I immediately had some serious forebodings – and I had every reason to be afraid of what might happen in the novel. South African farm attacks are so common that the topic even has its own Wikipedia article, and Lurie and Lucy are also attacked by a violent group. After the attack, their situation in the world becomes increasingly disgraceful, and they are looked upon with distrust, as if they had been the ones to invite the attack.

The novel deals with quite a few intriguing topics, such as the relations of the black and the white in South Africa; the difficulties of creating art; the uselessness of the English language when it comes to depicting South African reality (or simply to communicating efficiently); or the all-permeating feeling of constant mortal danger in which the characters are forced to live. Still, as we may assume from the title, the most important theme of the novel is shame, and its private and public interpretation.

For instance, David privately accepts the disgrace he suffers because of his affair with Melanie, but he does not want to atone for his sin, and chooses to go into exile instead, while the supposedly modern university and his whole town superstitiously wants to turn his private shame into something of a public cleansing ritual. In Lucy’s case, this happens the other way around: even though she is the victim of the farm attack and it isn’t Lucy who commits a shameful act, she is the one whose reputation is shattered and who has to bear the disgrace attached to her victimized condition. However, contrary to her father, Lucy doesn’t back out from her situation and run away, but stays on her farm, and at the end of the novel it seems that she even humiliates herself on purpose and positively relishes in her disgrace.

Coming from me, this might sound a bit too obvious and spoon-feeding, however, the novel is not like that at all. The different characters and themes are beautifully balanced in the novel, and Coetzee refrains from any kind of over-explanation. I assume he knows that the topics he writes about are serious enough on their own, so they are bound to weigh heavily on the readers without the writer engaging in any superfluous artiness or explanations.

I read it somewhere in a review of Waiting for the Barbarians that Coetzee writes in a muchtoobare and non-literary language. This statement definitely holds true for Disgrace as well. I cannot recall encountering any particular adjectives or unique metaphors in this novel – but anyway, I don’t think the novel worse for this. Based on the two novels I read so far by Coetzee, I believe that his strength is the depiction of social and ethical questions in a bare, seemingly simple form, and he is not that good at playful, beautifully written ruminations about lighter topics. (By lighter topics I mean anything which is not a matter of life and death.)

I have a need for both kinds of literature, however, I don’t need Coetzee’s kind as often as the other. Despite all my precautions, his writing unsettles me to a great extent: I find his dark world exceedingly depressing, and it also unnerves me that so far I haven’t encountered a single likeable character in his novels. I don’t need much hope and encouragement, but I definitely need some. I don’t think that everything is hopeless; that every man is a disgusting swine; and that human beings don’t have the slightest chance to make meaningful, humane decisions. Coetzee continuously makes me believe that I’m wrong in these assumptions – and this, I resent.

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.