Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marías

battle

I love obsessive writers, such as Javier Marías. Of course, I can’t relate to every writer’s obsessions, but I can relate to Marías’ obsessions with perhaps alarming ease.

Marías is a writer fascinated by language and all the surrounding phenomena (that things are un-sayable, untranslatable, inexplicable, inexpressible, and that whatever we say and mean, it will never mean the same to another person, and everyone is locked inside their own language, and still we try to express and explain what we mean even if the result is unsatisfactory, because telling and expressing [and listening, too]) is always much more interesting than living alone and quiet in a caves, we don’t live in caves anyway, we live on archipelagos, enchanted by 400-year-old words and by their modern interpretations, and that water these words what can they do what can they do, they can – somehow – enable us to express ourselves and understand someone else); and he’s fascinated by the past, the present, and the future (the past-present-future of his characters and everything that comes with the past-present-future: There was; There wasn’t; There is; I imagine there is; I pretend there is even though there isn’t; There could have been; I wish there had been; I wish there hadn’t been but there was; There will be; There won’t be; I hope there’ll be or I hope there won’t be; I wish there was); and with never-ending curiosity he examines (again and again, throughout multiple novels) the layers and connections of pretenses, realities, falsehoods, roles, games, and truths that make up a life, and he always has something new to say.

And I always feel immediately at home in his work, because I feel that what Marías is doing only looks like a sprawling, repetitive, over-complicated and over-complicating and overwhelming and fascinating and infuriating and beautiful mess of random unconnected details – reading him is surprisingly easy because (sometimes) life feels (can feel) exactly like this.

Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit

wanderlust

It’s usually difficult to mention this important fact casually in the post about whatever book I’m writing about, so probably I haven’t mentioned it too often on this blog yet that I love to walk. I don’t mean ambling, strolling, or hiking. I mean walking. Walking to reach a destination, or walking just for the sake of walking. Mostly in cities, but anywhere else for that matter.

I don’t have a car (nor do I have a driving license), I don’t have a public transport pass, and I don’t have a bike. I go wherever I can on foot, and when I can’t go somewhere on foot, I take the public transport, preferring the slower and more earth-bound options because I like to be in close contact with the ground I tread, and I like to go as slow as possible because the journey is usually more interesting than the arrival.

Nowadays I’m preparing mentally for a long walk, and while I was reading up on my intended trip, I came across this book. I wanted it immediately.

And I wasn’t disappointed – this book is just like a walk.

A walk taken by someone else, therefore not precisely as enjoyable as my own walks.

Solnit’s walking style, rhythm and speed don’t always match mine; she doesn’t always stop for a break at the places I would stop at, sometimes she wanders around for hours at places I wouldn’t even stop to look at, and sometimes she rushes by things I find enormously exciting. Despite all this, it’s mostly very interesting. Solnit’s thoughts about the beauties of walking are similar to mine, and she writes about her passion for walking in a way that I immediately start to plan my next all-day walk.

For instance, she says that walking, the speed of 3 miles per hour is somehow perfectly matches the speed of the mind, which is the reason why you can do a lot of wonderful free association, thinking, and remembering during a walk.

Another attribute of walking she finds attractive, which I find very attractive, too, is the slowness of it, and the fact that walking is one of the best and most accepted ways of doing nothing while still doing something. Sure, walking is slow. But one of the reasons I walk everywhere is that my daily walking time is often the only part of my day when I’m free to do seemingly nothing, when I’m not required to be efficient or seem efficient – and this is great because nothing could be farther from my mind than a desire to be efficient 24 hours a day.

Of course, everyone walks all the time. Everyone used to walk throughout history. And even though the book deals with Solnit’s own walks and her corresponding theories about walking, too, it’s still mostly a book about the interesting bits of the history and development of walking. It’s not a definitive history of walking (writing such a thing would probably be impossible), it’s one history of walking – and it’s a strange topic: what kind of history could such an everyday activity have?

Turns out walking does have a history, and not only that – it also has a lot of cultural, political and social aspects, and the answer to the question of who, when, why, where and how much could walk isn’t that everyone everywhere could walk just as much as their legs desired.

Solnit touches upon a whole array of topics and fields of sciences – there’s literary history here, together with anthropology, cultural history, feminism, philosophy, climbing, landscape architecture, art history, city planning, urbanization and suburbanization, and countless others.

She really goes in so many directions that I have to contend myself with mentioning only a few interesting bits.

For example, Solnit talks about the connections among the rise of automobile traveling, suburbanization, the decline of walking, and alienation. It’s not only that everything is far away in an American suburb so you can’t possibly get anywhere on foot – the reason you can’t go anywhere on suburbia is that there are no destinations there and that everyone goes by car anyway, so walking is suspicious. And another reason is the lack of sidewalks – and by the way, the lack of sidewalks or any kind of walkable spaces for that matter is terrifying for me, and I’m glad that in Europe it’s still possible to walk at most places. Of course, the lack of walkable spaces also entails that the street as a space for public discourse ceases to exist, and everyone just moves from one private space to another in the privacy of their car, while the street becomes ever more dangerous and scary.

Another exciting topic Solnit deals with is the male and female presence on the street – it’s a fascinating topic of gender studies – why the street is more dangerous and more forbidden for a female than for a male, and this is one of the topics I would have liked to read much more about.

And then Solnit also talks about walkable and unwalkable cities; about metaphors and similes connected to walking; about Elizabeth Bennet’s scandalous two-mile walk across the muddy fields which resulted in getting her gown dirty; about revolutions, festivals and peace marches, all of which involve people getting out there on the streets, walking there alone or together with others, creating traffic obstacles or just having fun; about walking clubs and walking movements; about the cult of nature; about the accidental beauties of walking and the unexpected meetings it can lead to; about walking-as-art; about the (literary) figure of the flâneur; and about a million other things.

This book is like what happens when you set out in the morning and you know that you will spend the whole day walking, you will cover several miles, you will see and think many things, and though not everything will be fascinating or even interesting, a lot of things will be like that. And this is another great aspect of long walks – if the walk is really long, than you can easily spend 3 miles thinking about finally reaching a spot where you can pee – because there’s time enough for this, for something completely mundane to fill your mind for miles. Because there will be all the other miles for all the other kinds of thoughts.

Naïve.Super by Erlend Loe

After reading Doppler and its sequel, I grew to love Erlend Loe very much and I could hardly wait until I had the chance to read another one of his books. And Naïve. Super was no disappointment – just like in the case of the two Doppler novels, I read this with a constant smile on my face, the only difference being the quality of my smile. While the Doppler novels were often screamingly funny or made me laugh in a sarcastic/slightly evil kind of way, Naïve.Super put a soft, glowing, happy smile on my face throughout.

The novel doesn’t have a story proper so I won’t dwell too long on the plot – partly because it’s forgettable, and partly because Naïve. Super happens to be about non-action and not about action. Just to give you some idea though, the novel is about a couple of months period in the life of a 25-year-old young man. During these months, our unnamed (?) protagonist systematically burns all the bridges between himself and society, he drops out of university and moves into the temporarily empty flat of his brother where he spends his days day-dreaming, throwing a ball around, playing with a silly children’s toy which involves some hammering, compiling lists and, in general, doing nothing. In the meantime, he tries to figure out how the things of the world are interconnected and whether it’s possible that there’s a happy ending to the events going on.

Maybe it’s only because I read Doppler before reading Naïve. Super and I tend to compare everything by Erlend Loe to it, but I feel that this novel is the prequel to Doppler in many respects. For instance, the withdrawal from society is a central theme in both novels, childish/childhood activities play an important role in both of them, and both Doppler and the main character of Naïve. Super tend to stand apart and adopt an ironic, critical point of view, but neither of them takes himself too seriously or pretends to be some infallible wise guy. By the way it’s interesting that some topics are covered in both novels in almost exactly the same way, e.g. the main characters of both novels tend to get involved in long trains of thought about the fact that they know too many unnecessary facts, they are too clever, but all this cleverness is no advantage whatsoever, instead, it makes their lives more difficult.

Anyway, Naïve. Super is a good novel on its own as well. It’s a nice and simple read which makes you wonder dreamily about life and the world. And even though the main character might be a trifle too naïve for a 25-year-old, I was happy to live in his mind and to wonder with him about questions such as where his childhood enthusiasm (which enabled him to ski for hours until he fainted because of hunger) drained away; and I enjoyed reading his lists about important and not so important things, or his musings about the nature of time.

Speaking about time – the nicest thing in the novel (for me) is that the protagonist gives himself enough time for everything: time to think, to play, to rage, to day-dream, to categorize things – and to find his peace with the world while doing all this. I believe it’s a truly amiable personality trait if someone can get lost in all this – perhaps useless – wondering, thinking, path-finding to such a great extent as the main character of this novel can. Perhaps I’m just jealous of him, because I’m not like this, but I definitely grew to love this boy very much.

Finally some words about the postmodern traits of this novel. Naïve. Super is full of unusual textual elements, such as lists, the results of library catalog searches, faxes and emails, and these are not there by accident at all. For instance, I think it’s a lovely episode (and it shows us how innocent the protagonist’s mind is) when the main character and his brother run searches in the library catalog for fun, and while his brother searches for obscene words, the protagonist runs a query for „ball” and „clock” – he’s interested in such ingenuous things. So I think it’s worth while to pay attention to these small details which may seem to be there only to fill up some space – if you do this, you may also find out the name of the narrator at one point, which could make you question and reinterpret everything you’ve read that far – but I shall leave this up to you.

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

I used to go to the movies a lot as a teenager, and there were some years when I saw virtually every new film released in Hungary. Of course this wouldn’t be a big achievement nowadays and I wouldn’t even have to go to the cinema to watch every new release, but this doesn’t matter now. What matters is that I came across the title of this novel about thirteen years ago and I’ve been planning to read it ever since. I didn’t care what the story was about, it was enough that I knew the title because I was sure that a book called The Moviegoer had to be my kind of book. But before I could read it, I had to tackle some obstacles, mainly, I had to learn English, because the novel never came out in Hungarian – which is something I understand now that I read the novel. But more about this later. Anyway, I finally got hold of a copy and read it, but as it usually happens, the novel wasn’t exactly what I expected it to be.

The story takes place in the 1950s, and the protagonist is Binx Bolling, a man from a wealthy old New Orleans family. He works as a bondsman, and in his free time he strikes up relationships with all his new secretaries, goes to the movies, and goes rambling in the New Orleans suburbs while meditating about his life. The story consists of a series of small episodes, memories and desires, with the Mardi Gras carnival going on in the background. While the carnival is going on full swing, the family background, the war memories and the future plans of the protagonist are gradually revealed.

Binx is a man on a constant quest who lives his life in his imagination and not in the real world. He is continuously looking for patterns and recurrent images in the world, and he is also looking for God, himself and, most importantly, the possibility of a real life. His biggest fear is that he will be entrapped in everyday reality, and during his quest, he hopes to find the antidote to the mundane.

Binx is an ambiguous and unknowable character. At first he seems to be a disagreeable person: an obsessive, cynical, money-grabbing and selfish womanizer. But we soon get to know the other side of his personality: his fears, anxieties, doubts, and his all-permeating sadness. For instance, we learn that Binx has a fear of traveling because it’s hard for him to get used to the fact that in other parts of the country, people relate to the world differently; and we also learn that despite his cynicism he strongly believes that people are basically good and kind – only, the fact that everyone is good and kind fills his heart with some inexplicable sadness. And small details like these help to make his behavior understandable, if not appealing.

Among the usual review quotes printed on the cover there is one which says that The Moviegoer is The Catcher in the Rye for adults, and this comparison certainly seems apt: Binx is caught up in the same trap of existentialist thoughts and has the same problems adapting to the world and to himself as Holden Caulfield; the smallest things can make him sad, he wants to run away from everything which is ordinary, and even his style resembles that of Holden.

Besides The Catcher in the Rye, the novel reminded me of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, too. Percy describes the New Orleans carnival with the same great style and gusto as Hemingway depicts the Fiesta in Pamplona, and just like in Hemingway’s novel, there’s a strong sense of foreboding lingering in this novel, too – you constantly feel that something irreversible will happen before the carnival is over. As you might guess, The Moviegoer isn’t lacking in dramatic tension, however, the story ends with a huge anticlimax – which is a bit disappointing but truly understandable. Given the fact that the 20th century is the age of anti-heroes, it would hardly have been believable if Binx’s quest had ended with the man discovering some kind of world-shattering solution which would have enabled him to avoid the mundane forever.

As I mentioned, the book never came out in Hungarian, and the reason for this may be that this is a very American novel. The cover of my copy says that The Moviegoer is a masterpiece which is bound to evoke nostalgic feelings in every American. It’s not an accident that the cover says „every American” instead of „every person”. Despite the fact that the American South is well-known everywhere from the works of such authors as Carson McCullers, William Faulkner and Truman Capote, I feel that Percy’s novel features an extraordinary dose of Americanness and Southernness, and this makes the novel difficult to appreciate if the reader is not an American. For instance, when Binx travels to Chicago and gets to thinking that no-one can maintain such an ambiguous relationship with a Northern city as a man from the South, I got the sense that being a European instead of someone from the American South, I have no chance to grasp the peculiarities of this relationship, ever.

Perhaps it is due to this sense of strangeness that despite the interesting, philosophical themes, the cynical-melancholic style, the beautifully poetic repetitions weaving through the text, and the sometimes truly dramatic soul-searching I still feel that I missed the point of this novel, couldn’t get to the depth of the story and the characters, and couldn’t really get to know the fictional world of The Moviegoer.

Doppler by Erlend Loe

A few years back I used to see this novel quite often in the bookstores, but its oft-criticized cover baffled me and I had never felt the slightest inclination to read the book. Then I came across a review of Doppler peppered with some quotations from the text, and I realized that Loe’s book is something I might be interested in. I got hold of the novel soon after and quickly read it, and it turned out that Doppler is everything I expected and even more than that.

The anti-hero of the novel is Andreas Doppler, a middle-class husband and father of two children, who lives an uneventful, normal middle-class life. Then one day, after a bicycle accident he decides to suspend his boring life for a while and move to the forest surrounding Oslo, in order to stop being a smart-ass, to avoid communication with people and to bring the art of idleness to perfection. However, his solitude is not unperturbed: Doppler finds himself in the company of the young moose, Bongo, the scale-modeling Düsseldorf, the bourgeois Bosse who is busy organizing a peace festival in the forest, his cartoon-junkie son, Gregus, and the burglar Roger who was just thrown out by his girl-friend, and finally Doppler leaves his tent to search for a quieter place, as the forest has become too crowded for his taste.

The novel abounds in extremely funny episodes: for instance we can witness how Doppler goes about killing a moose then uses the meat to trade it in for his daily liter of low-fat milk; we see Doppler in his house, jovially chatting and drinking away with the burglar who is just about to steal his belongings; and we can also see how Doppler erects a monument in order to commemorate his late father. And apart from the grotesque quality of the events, we also read hilariously amusing and self-ironic meditations on the bad effects of TV, the ubiquity of popular culture or the harmful consequences of being a wise-guy.

Judging from the beginning and the general topic of the novel, Doppler could easily have been a moralizing, gloomy and cynically told story which wants to hammer in a lot of serious truths. Fortunately, Doppler is everything but this. Rather, it is an outstandingly entertaining read. I hardly ever laugh out loud while reading, but I giggled through Doppler from the beginning to the end. As Kurt Vonnegut says in one of his novels the title of which escapes me now, we are on this earth in order to horse around, and I believe Doppler is the perfect example of „fooling around as a way of life”.

Of course Doppler also contains a lot of social criticism, talks about the emptiness of human relationships and refers to the dark historical background of some of the characters, however, I never felt it to be a distressing work, thanks to the style and self-irony of its anti-hero. Doppler does not take himself seriously for a minute and does not pretend to be the only person in the world who knows the road to wisdom and salvation. On the contrary, he frankly admits that he cannot and does not want to be anyone’s spiritual guide, since his own move to the forest was only due to a lucky coincidence.

Doppler does not want to convert anybody to his lifestyle, on the contrary, he would prefer if everybody stayed at home or kept to the beaten tracks in the forest, and let him carve his monument for his father, play memory games with Bongo or simply do nothing. To preserve his quiet way of life, Doppler can even become violent or start to casually threaten other people with violence. So it seems that despite the apparent similarity, Doppler is not quite a mild, Thoreau-like figure camping out at Walden Pond and peacefully contemplating the beauty of forest animals or bean-cultivation, and in the meantime showing everyone the wonders of simple life and the possibilities lying in passive resistance. Instead, Doppler is the cynical, witty product of modern life who would like to get out of the grasps of civilization, but is only able to do this partially and for a short period, as civilization follows him to the forest (e.g. he cannot get rid of the tune of the cartoon Bananas in Pajamas, which is stuck in his mind) and he cannot cut himself loose from it either, as he is dependent on some of its products, such as low-fat milk.

It is of course possible to interpret Doppler’s failure to create an alternative life in the forest as something tragic, and it is also possible to think that it really must be an awful world where individual values and efforts are doomed to failure, as no-one can get out of civilization completely, however, Doppler is much too ironic and entertaining a novel and I do not think it should be spoiled by too much moralizing and gloomy thoughts. As I already mentioned, Doppler does not take himself seriously, so I believe the reader should not take him too seriously or consider him an example to follow either. This is a very amusing novel, so the best you can do is to be amused by it.

The End of the Road by John Barth

When I was at university, this book was one of the cult novels in my circle of friends. We read, reread and discussed it constantly, we analyzed its humour and philosophy all the time and the first sentence („In a sense, I am Jacob Horner.”) became a saying we quoted to each other on a daily basis. And though I’m not at university anymore, The End of the Road is still one of those novels I can reread and enjoy anywhere, anytime.

The anti-hero of the novel is the afore-mentioned Jacob Horner who periodically suffers from a strange psychiatric condition: when he is presented with a lot of different options to choose from, sometimes he is bewildered by the choices to the extent that he is unable to move. His doctor urges him to find a job where he can follow a huge number of rules, because the regularity of such a job will always enable him to choose from his options. Jacob Horner follows his doctor’s advice and accepts a position as a teacher of English grammar in a school in Wicomico. While there, he meets his fellow teacher, Joe Morgan, an excessively self-consistent man who has a rational explanation for everything, and his wife, Rennie. The three become friendly, and the rest of the novel consists of their conversations, their attempts to persuade the others out of their beliefs and opinions, and the power games they play – until all this talking leads to certain tragic consequences.

The End of the Road is a deeply philosophical novel, and it’s mainly concerned with the basic problems and questions of existentialism. Barth sometimes treats these themes seriously, but his approach is more often ironic. For instance, the starting point of the novel is realistic and absurd at the same time: Jacob Horner has a paralysis attack when he has to decide which town to travel to with the 20 dollars he has in his pocket. The ticket clerk names four different towns but Jacob is unable to choose from them. It’s not that he’s afraid of the consequences of his decision – he cannot decide because none of the four names mean anything to him and none of the towns interest him more than the other three, so he feels that selecting any one of the four is simply not worth the trouble.

For Jacob, freedom is a restrictive factor, but he can function as a more or less healthy human being if he is provided with straightforward instructions as to how to choose from his options. What further complicates Jacob’s condition, however, is the fact that he has no personality and no opinions about anything. Or, as Jacob likes to put it, the problem is that in fact he has several personalities and several opinions about everything, and he’s capable of alternating between his personalities and opinions at a moment’s notice, what’s more, he is able to hold and voice several, mutually exclusive opinions about any subject at the same time, and this leads to his inability to decide.

Jacob’s lack of opinions and personality is contrasted with Joe Morgan’s unchanging personality, inner consistency and steady opinions. Joe has an opinion about virtually everything, each of his actions derives from certain underlying principles and base virtues, and he can go on analyzing everything he does for hours. His wife, Rennie is a paler version (disciple) of Joe: her earlier, immature personality was completely overwritten by Joe – partly with the help of his persuasive discourse and partly with the help of some domestic violence. Their smug, complacent life is deeply disturbed by Jacob’s incomprehensible personality, chaotic mind, indifference, amorality and inconsistency. The Morgans are unable to find a place for Jacob in their own, thoroughly categorized world, and they seriously play with the idea that since perhaps a man is nothing more than the sum of his opinions, and Jacob keeps voicing mutually exclusive opinions all the time, it may be that he doesn’t even exist.

All this talking is very entertaining for a while, but then philosophy is put into practice, and the seemingly innocent, harmless quarrels and debates lead to a tragedy – one from which, predictably, only Jacob Horner, a person with no personality and with nothing to lose emerges unscathed.

And speaking about personality and the lack of thereof: I think it’s a touch of genius that the three protagonists of the novel are a person with no personality, a person with too strong a personality, and a person with a copycat personality. Because of this, the interactions between Jacob, Joe and Rennie never for a moment become boring, and the relations between them give rise to several interesting questions: to what extent is one allowed to deliberately influence the other’s personality? Where does one person’s personality start and where does the other’s personality end? And anyway: what constitutes someone’s personality?

Intriguing points, intriguing novel. It’s definitely worth reading.