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The Trial by Franz Kafka

The former “Teen the Younger” gave me a couple of books for Christmas last year, found in their thrift shop outings (my favorite kind of gift). One was Queen of the Underworld which I very much enjoyed. The other is a Modern Library edition of The Trial billed as “the definitive edition.” I decided a couple of weeks ago, when I’d finished a book I read for Kirkus, that I had time for a “tough” book like this before my new year in grad school began. Classes started yesterday and I just finished The Trial at lunch today. It was definitely not a fast read.

What I didn’t realize, but the rest of the world is hearing about (or remembering again) because of a new book out last week (Kafka’s Last Trial by Benjamin Balint) is that Kafka might never have meant for The Trial, one of his most famous works, to be published. He left directions for his executor, Max Brod, to burn his papers, manuscripts, letters, etc. The Trial was unfinished; one thing that makes my copy “definitive” is that it was published with unfinished chapters, passages that Kafka deleted, and three postscripts that Max Brod wrote for various editions.

I admit that by the time I reached the end I didn’t feel motivated to read these “extras.” To say The Trial is a downer is putting it mildly. Especially in today’s world, to read about a man caught up in a legal system that is labyrinthine, sprawling, overreaching, all powerful, impersonal, and corrupt is somewhat distressing. If there’s hope anywhere in this story I didn’t find it — even the few people who show Joseph K., the self-proclaimed innocent (but not very likable) accused man some kindness are not really very kind, nor very helpful. My edition opens, “Someone must have traduced Joseph K., for without having done anything wrong, he was arrested one fine morning.”

It doesn’t get any better. K. begins by trying to fight the system, but is soon undermined at work, mocked at home, and thoroughly ensnared in “the Court.” A lawyer friend of his family seems ineffectual and encourages his maid to have affairs with his clients. A priest who seems to show an interest in K. is an employee of the Court and only tells K. a convoluted parable which he then makes more complicated by offering multiple interpretations. K. — and the reader — are left wondering whether the priest means any comfort or solace or is just playing a part in the same system that is grinding K.’s life down. Other people cause most of K.’s suffering, and he brings on some himself.

Still, I knew it wouldn’t be uplifting. But I’m not sure I even enjoyed it, and I almost feel better knowing it wasn’t really finished when Kafka died. It felt disjointed to me, and I don’t know whether that was intentional or inadvertent. And I don’t know I would like to read something else he did finish, to see whether I like Kafka or not. The Computer Scientist points out that conveniently, he picked up a collection of Kafka’s shorter work in a used bookstore this summer, so I’m in luck.

And now, back to reading about policy for my class.

 

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I haven’t looked at trees the same way since reading The Hidden Life of Trees. So when Richard Powers‘ latest novel, The Overstory, came out, I was immediately interested, because the reviews mentioned how Powers incorporates a lot of what’s in that book — trees have the ability to communicate, to adapt, to care for each other — in this novel. And he does, to amazing effect. 

Reviewers have also referred to The Overstory as “magisterial” and “operatic,” both of which may be code for “really long.” It takes just over 500 pages to tell decades of stories, about characters whose lives don’t even begin to intertwine until about a third of the way through.

But if you persevere you’ll begin to understand, perhaps in a muted and not very clear-eyed human way, how the characters are connected to each other and to the heart of the story — the overstory — of man’s inhumanity not only to man, but to the planet. The message is, there are some of us who see and understand that we’re on a self-destructing over-consuming mission, and some of us who don’t, but if we would just pay attention, trees, with their long memory, learned through thousands of years of interconnectedness and cooperation, could teach us to live. 

I’m still not exactly sure of all the characters’ roles — it may take me some time, and conversation with someone else who has read the book, to get how Ray and Dorothy connect with the others. And whether Patricia, the independent, earthy scientist whose work on tree communication is discredited and decades later, celebrated, is based on a real person. 

But a little uncertainty doesn’t detract from enjoying The Overstory. It’s a work of fiction that incorporates science and philosophy and economics, that digs into the way we and our world works and why, and what we can do about it. It’s a reflection on how much we don’t know, and how many of us live blindly, and might not even choose to know what we don’t know. Powers manages to work into his characters’ lives many of the seminal shifts in our lifetimes — communism, terrorism, globalization, environmental degradation, the computer age. And he works in the history of human threats to trees, which can be summarized as environmental mismanagement and cluelessness.

I love his writing, too. Take this description of Ray and Dorothy’s reading tastes: “Ray likes to glimpse the grand project of civilization ascending to its still-obscure destiny. . . . Dorothy needs wilder reclamations, stories free of ideas and steeped in local selves.” Or this description of two characters with a tenuous relationship: “Douggie steps from the car with that stupid, air-eating, sun-eating grin Mimi has come to enjoy,  the way you might enjoy the yips of a dog you’ve rescued from the pound.”  

In the end, I’d describe this as a literary psychodrama in parts. There is the central thread, about five people who come together as environmental activists and turn to eco-terrorism after being ignored by the public and challenged by corporations and the law. That leads to a cataclysmic event. On the periphery are the stories of the aforementioned tree intelligence scientist, the married couple who seem to me to represent the ability of people to grow and change, and a brilliant computer programmer who creates a smash hit game that he comes to see as reflective of all the worst human instincts.

The programmer and the tree scientist are the people whose legacies may turn the tide. But Powers doesn’t say their work will be enough. He leaves us with a clear understanding of only one thing: it’s not over. Nick, one of the environmental activists, is in an unnamed place using downed branches and snags to create an art installation that consists of a giant word — STILL — on a forest floor. He’s done, ready to move on, when he hears a whisper: “This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end.”

 

At the Five Colleges Book Sale last April I got a Penguin Street Art edition of Armadillo by William Boyd. I have to admit I hadn’t heard of Boyd nor read any of his work, but I was intrigued. I picked it up over the weekend and really enjoyed it. Dark humor, a bit of intrigue, a hero who wants to live and prosper as his own man yet is also deeply loyal, kind, and ethical — I devoured it.

Lorimer Black, said hero, is “a young man not much over thirty, tall — six feet plus and inch or two — with ink-dark hair and a serious-looking, fine-featured but pallid face, went to keep a business appointment and discovered a hanged man.” That’s the opening sentence. Lorimer, we learn, was born Milomre Blocj, youngest of five in a family of Transnistrian Rom (gypsies) whose parents emigrated to Fulham during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, having landed there during previous upheavals in Eastern Europe.  After a formative and “life changing” experience (too hilarious to give away here) at a Scottish Univerisity, young Milo makes a fresh start in the insurance business as Lorimer Black, the name he legally gives himself.

The dead man we meet on page one is proprietor of a factory that had suffered a fire, and Lorimer, who works as a loss adjustor was there on behalf of his employer. Lorimer is a fascinating character, who buys fresh flowers for his flat (but hates carnations), is partial to very old helmets and takes fashion advice from his antiques dealer, is part of a sleep study conducted by a man in his building, is sweet to an old lady and her dog who live downstairs, is in a relationship of sorts with a woman who owns a scaffolding company, and a strong moral code that leads him to life changing actions. The minor characters are also fascinating and even those with cameos — a surly waitress at Lorimer’s favorite “caff,” or the misogynist anti-tax flower seller whose kiosk Lorimer frequents, for example — come fully to life.

Throughout the book, Boyd includes excerpts from Lorimer/Milo’s diary, The Book of Transfiguration, where he muses on everything from revelations from the Institute of Lucid Dreams (where his sleep is analyzed) to the history of insurance to Milo’s personal history to words, literature, mythology. These shed even more light on Lorimer/Milo’s character. Between this very interesting hero and the other fascinating characters, the detailed settings (you can see, smell, and hear Lorimer’s world as you read) and the intriguing, black humor-laced plot, I could not put this down. The writing, too, kept me fully engaged. Here’s an example: ” . . . he gazed across the road through the porthole of clarity he had smeared in the condensation.” It’s the kind of book that you can’t read at breakfast, because it’ll make you late for work. The kind you might get a sunburn reading because you’ll forget to reapply sunblock.

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to find William Boyd’s work but I want to read more of it. I feel like I’ve been saying that a lot lately, but I think that’s because I’ve found a lot of interesting things to read this summer!

I got to know a small but lovely independent bookstore this summer, Belmont Books, and one Saturday I spied on their staff picks display Joshua Hammer’s The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts. I had heard about the book when it first came out — although clearly I didn’t remember much, as you’ll soon see — and who doesn’t love that title? Not this librarian.

Only it turns out, it’s only partly about the librarians and a good bit about extremist jihadis and their takeover of Mali. I’ll grant that a good bit of the beginning of the book explores Mali’s history and the personal story of the incredible librarian, scholar and conservationist Abdel Kader Haidara. His story and that of the manuscripts of Timbuktu weave throughout the book. But Joshua Hammer also writes in great detail about why the manuscripts needed saving.

Haidara, son of a scholar whose family treasures included a very large collection of medieval manuscripts, was only seventeen when his father died and he was named the heir of the family library. The director of the Ahmed Baba Institute, established by UNESCO and the Malian government in the 70’s, sought Haidara out and asked him to come work for them. At the time, they had only about 2,500 manuscripts in their collection. Nine years later, thanks almost entirely to Haidara’s personal efforts, the collection had grown by 16,500, “one of the largest public collections of Arabic handwritten books in the world.”

Haidara wasn’t done. He went on to establish a private library to house his family’s collection, and he also established Savama-DCI, an organization of other families in Timbuktu with manuscripts. With his own library housing around 50,000 manuscripts, and the growing number of private libraries he had influenced, Haidara had been a huge force in re-establishing Timbuktu as a cultural center, and in reminding the world of the city’s long heritage of scholarship.

All of that is very inspiring. What is amazing is that as Hammer tells readers, Haidara’s hard work had only just begun. Despite these accomplishments and his successful fundraising (many prominent foundations from around the world supported his work and that of his colleagues), the most challenging tasks were still to come.

And this is where I had a harder time reading The Bad-Ass Librarians of  Timbuktu. Hammer spares no grisly details as he describes the rise of radical Islam in the Sahara and the Sahel. I admit part of my discomfort came from realizing that even though I try to pay attention to news from around the world, I don’t recall hearing much about the civil war in Mali and the jihadist takeover of the northern part of the country. And part of my discomfort is because I don’t usually read accounts of brutality as detailed as Hammer’s.

Faced with a growing fear that the jihadis would destroy Timbuktu’s manuscripts, as they had smashed Sufi shrines, broken and burned musical instruments and threatened Mali’s other cultural treasure — musicians — with disfigurement if they continued to play or sing, Haidara, knew he had to do something. So together with an American woman in Mali, known in the book as Emily Brady, he once again raised funds and worked to evacuate the manuscripts. Like the gripping story of his collecting them in the first place, the story of Haidara’s rescue is uplifting and mind-boggling.

They gathered trunks, recruited donkey carts, trucks, and boats, recruited families to hide manuscripts in Timbuktu and then recruited them again, to evacuate the trunks. Despite the dangers and expense, they succeeded. Around 377,000 manuscripts survived. Hammer tells the story well. Just be prepared for a fair bit of geopolitics and out and out horror if you read this book — well written, but hard to stomach.

First I should say that I’ve done an unintentional experiment in reading Ondaatje‘s two novels, The Cat’s Table and then Warlight. I had  just finished The English Patient and was planning to check out Warlight in print from my library when I read Alex Preston’s review in the Guardian suggesting that the two narrators, Michael/Mynah in The Cat’s Table and Nathaniel in Warlight have a similar “voice and quality of perception.” I decided to read The Cat’s Table first, and found it was available to borrow as an eBook from my public library. It took me eleven days to finish the eBook and only two to read Warlight in print, even though Warlight is 304 pages to The Cat’s Table‘s 288. So the next time someone asks me why I prefer print I can say honestly, it’s much easier to read!

Anyway, these are beautiful books. The Cat’s Table is about an eleven year old boy traveling by ship from Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to England to meet his mother in the early 1950s. Flavia Prins, a friend of his family, travels first class and acts as a sort of guardian to him, and his cousin, Emily, is also on board. But Mynah, as he is known, spends his time at the “cat’s table,” far from the important passengers, and below decks, in the mysterious places where one passenger tends an exotic garden, others tend dogs and pigeons bound for England, and a mysterious prisoner is kept in chains. Mynah befriends two other boys, Cassius and Ramadhin.

Together these friends learn from the adults around them over the three week journey. There is a rich man dying of rabies on board, an incognito police detective sent to watch over the prisoner, a deaf girl who becomes Emily’s friend, and the people at the cat’s table, all providing the three boys fodder for speculation and intrigue as they roam the ship, hiding in life boats, eavesdropping, and watching the adults, unseen. At the heart of the story is a mystery, but The Cat’s Table doesn’t unfold in a traditional way towards a solution.

Instead it is the remembrances of a man reflecting on a boyhood journey, with all the uncertainty and unreliability of memory. A few things are sure: Michael/Mynah is changed by the journey, he learns that “Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves,” while others, seemingly of lesser status or on the fringes, make everything happen. And he learns that as his cousin Emily tells him decades later, “I don’t think you can love me into safety.” We must all make our way, Ondaatje seems to say, and love or friendship is not enough to protect anyone from the vagaries of life.

From this meditative, mysterious book I dove into Warlight, which I liked even better (but was it because I could read it more easily in print?). While the characters in The Cat’s Table ranged from exotic and intriguing to ridiculous, Warlight is a hero’s tale, seen again through the lens of remembered childhood. It’s the story of Nathaniel, who tells us in the novel’s opening line, “In 1945 our parents went away and left us in the care of two men who may have been criminals.” From that surprising start, Nathaniel tells the story of postwar London and the shadowy world he and his sister Rachel find themselves in after their parents allegedly leave for his father’s job in Singapore. And of the long reach of wartime secrecy deep into the decades that follow.

The Moth and the Darter, the two men who watch over them inept, non-parental choices, who have what Nathaniel sees as “grudging, uninterested concern,” for them, but also all kinds of strange talents and knowledge. The Darter, for example, realizes Rachel is epileptic and inducts Nathaniel into his business, smuggling greyhounds. He is also unperturbed when Nathaniel presents him as his father to a girl Nathaniel has been seeing.

The Moth on the other hand has an even more opaque life. He tells the children about Mahler’s notation “schwer” in his scores — “Meaning ‘difficult.’ ‘Heavy.’ We were told this at some point by The Moth, as if it was a warning. He said we needed to prepare for such moments in order to deal with them efficiently, in case we suddenly had to take control of our wits. Those times exist for all of us, he kept saying. Just as no score relies on only one pitch or level of effort from musicians in the orchestra. Sometimes it relies on silence. It was a strange warning to be given, to accept that nothing was safe anymore.”

Understandably, this is a difficult thing for young teens to process, especially given their parents’ absence. Their unease is compounded by the people who come to see the Moth and the Darter, a strange and haphazard crew including a beekeeper, an ethnographer, and an angry Russian woman. Nathaniel explains, “And our house, so orderly and spare when inhabited by my parents, now pulsed like a hive with these busy, argumentative souls, who, having at one time legally crossed some boundary during the war, were now suddenly told they could no longer cross it during peace.” Rachel withdraws from this chaos, drawn into the theater. Nathaniel is immersed, and as the book unfolds we learn that like his mother before him, it becomes his life.

The story of the adult Nathaniel piecing together the story of his mother’s war work, her friends and colleagues, and the way they are linked to both is past and his present is, like Mynah’s story, a bit rambling and indistinct, as memories often are. But beautiful, and steeped in the detailed and lyrical language that are Ondaatje’s hallmark. His description of squeaky floorboards in Nathaniel’s grandparents’ Suffolk home, where he and his mother went to live, as “the nightingale alarm” because of the resemblance to the birds’ cries, for example. And a beautiful and heartbreaking scene where the adult Nathaniel returns to the village near that home to buy his own house, and talks to the owner, Mrs. Malakite, who cannot remember him. “Still it was clear watching and listening to her that the details about the care of her garden and the three beehives and the heating of the angular greenhouse would be the last things forgotten.”

I’ve enjoyed my foray into Ondaatje’s books and plan to read more of his work. In print, preferably!

 

My book club decided to read The English Patient after the recent announcement that it had won the “golden” Booker, chosen by readers from a shortlist (selected by judges) of 5 books representing the five decades of the prize. I’d never read it before, but I had recently ordered Warlight, Ondaatje‘s recent novel, for my library and was curious to read the book he’s possibly most known for.

The copy I read has the movie cover — a marketing trend I dislike — with a blown up image of a kiss between two of the characters. This image misleadingly indicates that this love affair, between the man known throughout most of the novel only as the English Patient (because is burned beyond recognition) and the wife of a fellow desert explorer is the central story. Spoiler alert: it isn’t.

The story is actually four fragmented stories which come together, as the people they belong to do, at the end of WWII in an abandoned monastery, Villa San Girolamo. Hana is the first to be there, when it was still an active war hospital. Only twenty years old, she has served as a nurse throughout Italy, where she has suffered her own losses as well as caring for dozens of wounded and dying soldiers. When the allied hospital staff move on she turns in her uniform and stays, in a place where she “felt safe  . . . half adult and half child,” with the English patient, who is too injured to move. For some time it just the two of them in the ruined building, which really isn’t actually safe. Then Caravaggio, a man described as a thief who was Hana’s father’s friend in Toronto, shows up after hearing about the strange young nurse and her patient. Finally Kip, a Punjabi Sikh man from a British sapper unit, comes to stay at the Villa, clearing it of explosives, sleeping in a tent in the garden.

Ondaatje provides only glimpses of each of his main characters, just as one might get from meeting strangers in a war torn place in strange circumstances. Of the four, it is Kip we come to know best, and whose future Ondaatje most clearly portrays. And it is the love between these four, the comradely love that develops when people are thrown together in loss and danger, that is really the centerpiece, not the English Patient’s and his Cairo lover’s. I still think it is accurate to call it a love story set in wartime. But it isn’t just about passion.

It’s also the story of the end of the colonial world, and the rise of a world where wars will now have “mutually assured destruction” hanging over them in the shape of no longer theoretical mushroom clouds. The most moving parts of the book, for me, are towards the end, when Kip hears over his crystal radio set about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and is horrified, realizing that as he has been risking his life throughout the war to disarm bombs, the allies have been planning to unleash this new weapon. He sees, suddenly, that these people he has come to love and admire are the enemy of “the brown races” just as his militant brother in India has warned him.

This isn’t a book with a lot of action, although again, Kip’s story has the most. It’s a book with a lot of scenes in the dark, where the English Patient’s identity stays for much of the time. It’s incredibly interesting — salted with history, geography, literature and art, and a few real historical figures who appear as characters. And it’s a drama about the human capacity to wound and to heal.

 

Pride and Prejudice

As I wrote earlier this month, my church has started a 19th century British fiction book club. Our first book was Adam BedeIn August we’ll be discussing Pride and Prejudice. 

I’ve read Pride and Prejudice at least twice before, and have seen an adaptation. But I still throughly enjoyed re-reading it this weekend. I find Austen’s biting wit entertaining, but more than that, I enjoy knowing she was unafraid to assert her views at a time when women were often meant to be, like Elizabeth and Jane Bennet’s younger sisters Lydia and Kitty in Pride and Prejudice, more interested in bonnets and balls than in independent thought. Austen approves of sensibility and goodness and doesn’t shy away from showing how silly it is to live a life of vanity and vacuousness. Eliot does this to some extent as well, for example showing Hetty in Adam Bede to be vain and foolish in believing that the young Captain Donnithorne, heir to the local squire, will marry her.

But Austen does it with humor, and allows the brooding but ultimately honorable Mr. Darcy to quietly come to the aid of the Bennet family when Lydia goes astray, while Eliot makes Hetty an object lesson, has her sentenced to death, and shows the good rector, Mr. Irwine, and the man guilty of causing Hetty’s disgrace, Captain Donnithorne, only able to spare her life, but not to rescue her. Hetty has to serve a sentence, Donnithorne goes away to do his own sort of penance. Both stories make for good reading, but I personally have a soft spot for Austen’s wit. In fact, regular readers of bookconscious will know that I often invoke Austen when praising contemporary books that employ witty social criticism as part of the story.

And she just has such a way with words. Take this line, describing the moments after Mr. Bennet has spoken with his cousin, the bumptious clergyman Mr. Collins, who due to entailment will inherit Longbourn, the Bennet’s home. Austen writes, “Mr. Bennet’s expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure.” In one sentence, we can see understand how Mr. Bennet feels and how he is behaving, down to his expression.

And she doesn’t spare even her heroines or heroes from her sharp pen. Both Elizabeth and Darcy act with pride or prejudice or both, and it is only as the novel progresses that the two of them, independent of but in relation to each other, realize their errors and learn from them. It’s a credit to Austen’s keen observation of human nature that in her books there are often three types of character — those whose folly or unkindness never improves (mainly because they are unaware of their own faults), those who like Elizabeth and Darcy grow, often in order to be better people to those in they care about, and those who like Elizabeth’s older sister Jane are simply good people, able to maintain their equilibrium and to treat others with dignity even when they are silly or mean.

If you look around, we’re much the same today, and that’s the final reason I think Austen’s work holds up and continues to resonate with readers today. The things she observed were often “a universal truth” and still apply to our world even though so many social norms are different. For example, we still “make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn” — you only have to turn on a reality TV show to see that. If you haven’t re-read Austen lately, I recommend you spend a sunny summer Sunday afternoon with her soon!