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Posts Tagged ‘allegory’

Simon at Stuck in a Book commented here at bookconscious recently and I checked out his blog. When I saw the #1930club post, I looked around at my shelves and realized I had a to-read novel, Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse, which was published in 1930.

I think I first heard about it on The Readers and I bought it with a gift card when I left my previous library job. That was about a year and a half ago, but sometimes I think books recede into the shelves until the time is right. I hadn’t read anything else by Hermann Hesse but noticed in the author bio in my ugly little mass market paperback that he won the Nobel prize for literature in 1946. As the world contemplates the bizarre 2018/2019 announcement, marred first by last year’s prize being delayed by scandal and then by accusations that the 2019 winner is “an apologist for genocide,” I read this strange and beautiful book about two motherless medieval men and their search for meaning.

Narcissus and Goldmund is set in a cloistered monastery in Germany, where Goldmund, a fair haired and sweet natured boy, is left by his father to study and prepare to enter monastic life. His teacher is younger than most, still training to be a priest himself, an intelligent and preternaturally observant man named Narcissus. As Goldmund reaches the end of his formal education, Narcissus tells him plainly that his calling isn’t scholarship or the priesthood. He conjures memories of Goldmund’s loving but faithless mother and brings back the pain of her abandonment.

After this crisis, Goldmund’s leaves the cloister on a years long journey of pleasure, responsible to no one, loving as many women as he can, skirting a possible calling in favor of wandering. I’ll leave the details for you to read but suffice to say he has plenty to confess to years later, when he’s in a real scrape and Narcissus manages to rescue him.

They return to the monastery and have a series of conversations about when people can realize their true selves, the role of ideas versus images, whether thinking and ideas are worth anything on their own or are made worthy when they are applied to life’s challenges, and more. Goldmund tries a more settled life and work, and the book’s final crisis leaves both men more aware of who they are and what they mean to each other.

The story feels less like a novel than an allegory, as many key details point to ideas about love, friendship, caring, faith, sin, bigotry, greed, selfishness. The role of nature and study in developing one’s identity, the purpose of art and ideas, and the benefits of ritual and discipline are also among Hesse’s topics. It’s an old fashioned tale, a little more male-centric than I’m used to reading, with women only playing the roles of temptresses or virgins.

Still it was a good read, and Hesse’s writing is powerful and descriptive. Take this passage where Goldmund has come across a house where all the occupants are dead of plague:

“How sad and ghostlike was this small home, with the remains of the hearthfire still glowing, inhabited by corpses, completely filled with death, penetrated by death. . . . What other people performed in the privacy of their coffins, in the graves, well hidden and invisible, the last and poorest performance, this falling apart and decaying, was performed here at home by five people in their rooms, in broad daylight, behind an unlocked door, thoughtlessly, shamelessly, vulnerably. Goldmund had seen many corpses before but never an example like this of the merciless workings of death. Deeply he studied it.”

Pretty vivid. I’m glad I picked it up and that the #1930club gave me reason to read it.

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I order fiction for my public library and when I came across glowing reviews of the new American edition of Magnus Mills‘ novel, The Maintenance of Headway, I was struck by two thoughts: 1) no matter how much I read, and how much I follow the publishing world, there will always be wonderful authors out there I have somehow missed and 2) I really wanted to bring this author to our library collection because we don’t own any of his previous work, not even his first novel, The Restraint of Beastswhich won wide acclaim, awards, and nominations.

So this weekend I read The Maintenance of Headway, which is a book told from the point of view of a double decker bus driver. The title refers to “The notion that a fixed interval between buses on a regular service can be attained and adhered to.” The narrator and his fellow drivers carry on their routes with occasional interference — or is it lubrication? — from inspectors, whose job it is to oversee the maintenance of headway and overcome the problems that arise when buses draw too close together or too far apart.

Being late is acceptable, being early is not. Edward, one of the drivers, notes, “Lateness is something they know how to deal with. They can quantify it, label it, and apportion blame accordingly.” If you’re sensing an absurdist flavor you’re right — a novel about keeping buses running a certain number of minutes apart even if that means discharging passengers before the end of the route or redirecting a bus so that it heads north when it had been heading south, in the interest of the maintenance of headway, is dealing deeply with the ridiculous.

And that’s what I loved about it. I enjoy dry British humor. Mills wittily magnifies the quirks and habits of the drivers, the million little factors that speed or slow a bus route (traffic lights, weather, number of passengers, even waterworks maintenance), and the way the drivers who become inspectors embrace their new power. It’s also a lovely read; the descriptions of the narrator’s view from the driver’s seat of his bus and the admiration he has for the buses and the system are somehow beautiful.

But is it all about the buses? Near the end of the book, the narrator notes, “It was people of one kind or another who ultimately disrupted the bus service. Sometimes I even wondered whether they wanted buses in the first place: I was once driving up the rise toward the common with about forty people on board when suddenly my bus ran out of diesel and stopped. Without exception the entire load of passengers got out of the bus and walked away, all in different directions. As I watched them disperse I was unable to answer the question: what are we here for?”

I don’t know about you, but that question is one of the reasons I read. The Maintenance of Headway is a book you want to talk about as soon as you’re done reading it, a book that lingers in the mind. Look for it.

Also, I hate summer reading lists, but I love Books on the Nightstand, and their summer reading bingo card seems like a fun way to try something new this summer, if that’s something you enjoy. I think I’m going to give it a go.

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