“The Gold-Rimmed Glasses” by Giorgio Bassani

Bassani’s fog-bound Ferrara is up there with Joyce’s Dublin or Bely’s Petersburg as a city which was re-created and re-invented by the narrator in such a way that the two will forever be associated. ‘The Gold Rimmed Specatacles’ follows the story of Athos Fadigati, a cultured and kindly doctor whose place in society is destroyed by the revelation of his homosexuality. The novel is told from the perspective of a narrator-presumably the same one as the “The Garden of the Finzi-Cortinis” who is reminicing about the fall from grace of Dr Fadigati.

The core theme of the novella is that of alienation; the narrator, who is Jewish,  is drawn to Fadagati by his own sense of alienation following the creation of the racial laws in Fascist Italy and the creeping feeling of Anti-Semitism. Although the novel isn’t as bleak in its outcome as “The Garden of the Finzi Cortinis” it is set in the early days of the rise of anti-Semitism and explores the dynamics involved in creating social intolerance and the subtle, yet pervasive shifts in attitudes in society to persecuted individuals. In many ways Fadagati, whose homosexuality is over-looked so long as he keeps it secret, is symbolic of this-as soon as his homosexuality becomes public knowledge he is openly castigated and treated as a pariah. In many ways the novel explores how vital societal acceptance is for individuals; whereas Fadegati collapses beneath the sense of judgement and alienation placed on him by society, seeking the hide behind his empty masks of respectability, the narrator has the opposite reaction, as he chafes under the increasingly pervasive feeling of oppression and oppression which is creeping up on Ferrarese society. In many ways the novel highlights how easily, given the right circumstances, these feelings can develop.

A tragic and haunting account of the collapse of a man beneath the weight of societal prejudices, although ‘The Gold-Rimmed Glasses’ lacks the brilliance of ‘The Garden of the Finzi Cortins’ is is nevertheless a wonderfully narrated story which captures society on the brink of intolerance.

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“Forgetting Elena” and “Nocturne for the King of Naples”

There is a strange, almost hypnagogic cadence to Edmund White’s prose; the reader becomes slowly embedded in his shadowy and sable world, coalesced with the grey, bleak atmosphere which pervades his novel are explosions of light and brightness, as he prose fulminates into a series of incandescent images ;

“A wind said incantations and hypnotised a match flame up and out of someone’s cupped hands. Now the flame went out and only the cigarette pulsed, each draw molding gold lead to cheekbones. There are qualities of darkness, the darkness of grey silk stretched taut to form the sky, watered by city lights, the darkness of black quartz boiling to make a river…”

If there is more poetry in ‘Nocturnes for the King of Naples’, there is greater emotional resonance in ‘Forgetting Elena’; whereas the narrator of ‘Noctures’ seems detached and indifferent, a streak of tragedy flows through the pages of ‘Forgetting Elena’, as the adolescent narrator explores his feelings for the title character, a brazen, beautiful and troubled woman. However, one of White’s shortcomings-in his early novels at least, is that his characters seem to self-absorbed and selfish to be fully realised; they adhere to tired caricatures of WASP characters, from their superficial and meaningless dalliance with culture and art, to their egotism and self-absorption it is hard for the reader to fully empathise a cast of characters who are not well fleshed out and instead act as the conduit for White to create his bleak, if unique and at times dazzlingly beautiful world view, where the narrator, although heavily involved in the world around him, often seems detached and insensate.

The central theme of both novels is love and sex, especially the budding of adolescent desire ; in ‘Forgetting Elena’ the narrator is having an affair with Elena, yet the narrator seems more curious than emotionally engaged, although he is able to explore the inner life of Elena, who beneath the mask of confidence hides a sea of insecurities and her relationships with the other men on a mysterious, unnamed island. ‘Nocturnes for the King of Naples’ is the promiscuous reminisces. Hidden beneath this is one single paean to a lost lover, who the narrator treated with cruelty and contempt. If this all sounds a bit like pulp fiction then that is because it is-but pulp fiction raised to art via White’s wonderful style and beautiful, incandescent imagery.

“Memed, My Hawk” by Yashar Kemal

Yashar Kemal is able to evoke the arid, yet effervescent, land of Taurus; from the ebullient sunsets to the incandescent moon-light, to the pellucid mountain slopes and parched plains or the baleful lives of the peasantry who struggle to survive beneath the oppression of feudalism, all of this is conjured up within the poetry of Kemal’s prose.

The central character-aside from the protagonist Memed, is the country in which the story is set. Kemal. Desolate, yet beautiful, Kemal captures the deciduous and ethereal sunsets which illuminate the country, transmogrifying everything into a kaleidoscope of different colours, textures and tones, shedding some light on the bleakness of the peasants lives-there is something almost religious about Kemal’s evocations of nature, something sacrosanct about the land which the workers toil under the turgid oppression of the landowners-even the prickly thistles are transformed in the sun-light;

“In spring the thistles are an anaemic, pale green. A light breeze can bend them to the earth. By midsummer the first blue veins appear on the stems. Then the branches and the whole stem turn a pale blue. Later this blue grows steadily deeper, till a field, the whole boundless plain, becomes a sea of the finest blue. If a wind blows, towards sunset, the blue thistles ripple like the sea and rustle; just as the sea turns road at sunset, so do the thistles.”

At times the novel seems to be bathed in sun-light, as the never-ending brightness of the sun shines upon the land, upon the mountains, the swamps and the brooks, as colours coalesce from purple, to blue, to green and a glaring yellow. In contrast to this is the pale luminescence of the moon-light, as the world becomes a colder and darker place, but with a beauty which is more delicate and ephemeral;if sunlight transforms, then moonlight enhances and draws out the beauty of nature, as the whole world seems to be drowning  beneath a sea of melancholy as its torrents are washing over the characters.

The lead character, Memed, acts as a kind of Robin Hood for the local peasants who are struggling under the oppression of the landlords. The primary antagonist in the novel is the cruel land-owner Abdi Agha; whilst the characters are drawn out relatively well, what is more important is what they represent; the powerless peasants, whose fickle cowardice allows Abdi Agha to dominate them, Abdi Agha and other landowners such as Ali Safa Bey, whose greed and avarice are responsible for the poverty of the peasantry and of heroic figures such as Memed, who represents the key with which to unlock the vice of oppression and to free the workers from the shackles of their masters, who constantly seek to coerce and dehumanise them.  Although Kemal is clearly sympathetic to the plight of the peasantry he is also critical of their inability to fight back and rely on others, such as Memed, to win back their lands and rights-without the active involvement of the workers. The workers will never free themselves from the tyranny of the land-owners until they themselves also begin to confront the injustice of the system which envelops them and although Kemal feels they were initially over-reliant on others to take back what is theirs, Memed’s actions in some ways act as the spark which will eventually set their revolution ablaze, just as the sun is able to transform the thickles into something radiant.

 

 

 

“The Ballad of the Sad Cafe” by Carson McCullers

McCuller’s characters echo the lachrymose loneliness depicted in the paintings of Edward Hopper; the feelings of urban alienation, of a outward sense of quietude and quiescence, beneath which there bubbled emotional turmoil and a sense of deep-seated disaffection which his characters felt from the rest of the world. At times the McCullers pushes the sense of grotesqueness too far, the weirdness of her characters can at times seem jarring against the otherwise naturalistic tone of her stories,  sometimes they come across as caricatures, freaks endlessly fulminating against a world within which they don’t belong, yet, the deep-seated empathy which McCullers is able to create for her characters draws the reader back in, especially in “Wunderkind” where Mccullers chronicles the struggles of a formal child prodigy to re-engage with music and in “A Domestic Dillema” where she explores the tribulations of a married couple who are struggling with the fast-paced life of New York after moving from the rural South. Displacement and lonesomeness are the key themes within McCuller’s stories, but the loneliness is often punctuated with ephemeral moments of hope and beauty.”

“The Ballad of a Sade Cafe” explores the relationship between a triptych of strange characters; the bellicose criminal Marvin Macy, his-ex wife (of 10 days) the gruff Amelia and the grotesque hunchback Lyman. A multifarity  of colours flashes across the reader’s eyes, from the prismatic snow; white, silver and powder blue to the cerulean flight of crows across the whimsical clouds of a Spring morning, McCullers is able to imbue the back-drop of her novel with a painterly sense of beauty which stands in stark contrast to he desolation of the human relationships in the novel;

“The wild crows flew down close the fields, making swift blue arrows on the earth. In town the people set out with their dinner pails, and the windows of the sun were blinding gold in the sun. The air was fresh and the peach trees light as March clouds with their blossoms.”

The happiness of the early part of the novel, as Lyman and Amelia’s relationship blossoms and blooms, is punctuated by the arrival of Marvin Macy, Amelia’s former husband, a cruel curmudgeon who, for reasons never fully explored, fell in love with Amelia when he was young and who has been nursing the pain of her rejection since their marriage fell apart. Lyman, a silly and imbecilic gossip, spurns the affection of Amelia for the cruelty of Marvin-again, his rejection of Amelia for Marvin is never fully articulated or explained, and it is McCullers skill as a novelist to make the reader empathise with the strange, unreal characters and their often irrational and inexplicable motives and emotional lives, McCullers is able to masterfully build the readers interest in her character and invoke their pity for their pale and pathetic plights, for their idiosyncrasies and foibles.  The music cadence of McCullers prose, her often striking imagery and her exploration of the isolation of American life put her in a league above more mediocre proponents of ‘Southern Gothic’ fiction,  as McCullers is able to expound an artistic view which is wholly original and free from the narrow limitations of artistic schools or movements.

“The General is his Labyrinth” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The reader gradually succumbs to the hypnagogic world fashioned by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; a world seen through the eyes of the now old and dying General Simon Bolivar, liberator of South America and revolutionist, but in the eyes of Marquez, a cynical and embittered man whose soul and body have been crushed an insurmountable weight of disillusion. In some ways Marquez is upending typical fictional accounts of great men, which usually concentrate on their greatness and skip their humanity, whilst ignoring their fault, instead Marquez’s portrayal of Bolivar is the opposite-Marquez instead explores Bolivar’s neuroses;from  his monstrous pride, now tempered by his sense of mortality to his personal idiosyncrasies and his most quotidian quirks.  All this serves to magnify and further emphasise Bolivar’s decline in the eye of the reader-gone is all the all powerful revolutionary who freed and entire continent and in his place is man whose body is ravaged by Tuberculosis and whose mind is consumed by a life-time of memories and regrets. Gone is the man who could sleep on horse-back and conquer a city within a night, gone is the man who could charm, captivate and control whole countries and in his place is a man who can barely shave, who spends much of his time mumbling incoherently or stuck in a state of delirium and all of this adds to the fall of Bolivar. Neither does Marquez attempt to embellish Bolivar’s standing in South American politics-for some a hero and for others a monster, for some a liberator and for others a monster, Marquez is able to capture the complexity of not just Bolivar’s role in the liberation of South America, but on the positive and negative effect it had on its citizens and how that coloured their views on Bolivar. Interspersed with this is Bolivar’s love life, from he many unnamed and often unremembered women to Manuela Sanez, a woman with whom Bolivar enjoys a tempestuous relationship.

Marquez is able to capture the mellifluous and magical atmosphere of South America, from the suffocating atmosphere of the cities, to the muggy and oppressive, yet at the same time diaphanous and ethereal jungle;

“After three days of rain, the light was a golden powder that filtered through the leaves of the trees and moved the birds to sing amongst the orange blossoms”

More than anything, “The General in his Labyrinth” is a fundamentally  a story about choices, regret and what might have been. Bolivar’s regrets are not so much about his political decisions, but more about what life had been like if he was not General Bolivar, if he was not the liberator of South America, if he was not on of the greatest revolutionaries the world has ever seen, worshipped and reviled, but if had remained simply Simon Bolivar, Creole land-owner, a disaffected but entirely anonymous aristocrat who concentrated or farming rather than fighting, if he had been, just as Marquez depicts him, just a man, rather than a myth.

‘Scarred Hearts’ by Max Blecher

The slow, sonorous flow of the seasons echoes around the languorous thoughts of the sickly narrator; from the light, translucence of spring, to the dark, dank and deceitful winter, the journey of the protagonist, Emanuel, from hope, to despair, back to hope and gradual acceptance of his mortality, as he learns to appreciate and make the most of the time he has left, from the iridescence of beneath spring sunlight, to the shared appreciation of the weird, gothic poetry of Lautreamont with a infirm patient in the hospital he is staying in, Max Blecher is able to recreate his time in the French sanatorium via his vivid, dream-like prose style.

The world created by Blecher, in a style which, as with all great artists, is utterly unique, is at times nightmarish, as in this Borgesian description of a room with infinite reflections and a sinister cashier

“Around him, the walls were covered in large mirrors framed in bronze that reflected the same empty room for one to the other, each one more faded and greenish than the last, until, far away in the furthest reflections, the room had become as aqueous as the fish-tank in the doctor’s waiting room.

There, far off amidst the murky, stagnant water, floated solitary, pallid the bloated carp-like face of the cashier, gazing sluggishly out of her round, cold eye”.

Yet, interspersed between this gloom are genuine moments of hope and beauty; from his doomed romance with Solange and their awkward love-making beneath the insurmountable weight of his cast, to the gentle ebb of the ocean beneath the half-light of a winter afternoon or the peace of quiet in being able to reflect and observe his surroundings and transform, as if my magic, his harrowing story, his long and dreary convalescence, his physical discomfort and weariness into a bleak, yet beautiful story.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Quicksand’ and ‘Passing’ by Nella Larsen

Few writers are able to capture the sense of alienation engendered by the deeply-embedded racism of America like Nella Larsen. Larsen explores not so much the ostensible side of racial politics in America, but instead explores the more insidious nature of racism, of the deeply embedded prejudices in American society which stripped African-Americans of their humanity, of the links between this and the perpetuation of the dominance of the white population, of the little things, such as the affected condescension Helga experiences in the employment office, which gradually chip away at Helga’s sense of self, until she is forced to become grateful for even the most base level acceptance.  In addition, Larsen explores the tedium of  constantly  having to view everything via the prism of race, that whilst ethos behind self-aggrandization and the regaining of power amongst the African-American community was undoubtedly a great thing, it risked engendering a kind of collective myopia, where every aspect and problem in life becomes racial.

‘Quicksand’ follows the story of an intelligent if morose young woman named Helga Crane. Feeling displaced and utterly alone in the world, Helga eventually reacts to any attempt by other people to connect with her with contempt and derision after an initial, often ephemeral period of acceptance and happiness. What I like most about Helga is how flawed she is as an individual-irrespective of some of the underlying societal causes of these, her feeling of being perpetual piqued, her self-absorption and selfishness are often traits which when associated with male characters, are often viewed positively, as a kind of anti-hero,yet typically when it comes to female characters exhibiting this type of behaviour it is frequently viewed in a negative light-as well as giving an underlying rationale behind Helga’s character, Nella Larsen is able to give her character depth and an a rich, if often contrarian, emotional life which evokes the reader’s sympathy.  Passing’ is a slightly more experimental style in terms of style, with the narrative at times bordering of stream-of-consciousness and the ending-and much of the story-shrouded in ambiguity.  In addition, Larsen is able to evoke and re-create the muggy, slightly claustrophobic nature of life in the ghetto, the sense of suffocation and yet, at the same time freedom it offered, its febrile and feverish atmosphere;

“Chicago. August. A brilliant day, hot, with a brutal staring sun pouring down rays like molten rain. A day on which he very outlines of buildings shuddered as if in protest against the heat. Quivering lines sprang up form baked pavements and wiggled along shining car-tracks. The automobile at he kerb were a dancing blaze, and the glass of he shop windows was a blinding radiance. Sharp particles of dust rose from the burning sidewalks, stinging the seared or dripping skins of wilting pedestrians. What small breeze there was seemed like the breath of a flame fanned by slow bellows”

Acerbic and insightful, Nella Larsen blazed the way forward for African-Americans to speak about and share their experiences, however more than this, Larsen was an brilliantly talented writer, who was able to re-create the deliriousness of Harlem as well as the quaint quiescence of Copenhagen but, more importantly, was able to create flawed, but full-realised and therefore empowered black female characters.

“The Eye” by Vladimir Nabokov

‘The Eye’ follows the story of a sombre, somewhat preposterous young man, Smurov, a kind of maniacal Gogolian anti-hero whose attempt at suicide sends him into a existential crises, where he imagines his many “selves” as seen through the eyes of other people.

Although ‘The Eye’ contains many of the hallmarks of Nabokov’s fiction; unreliable narrators, the exploration of concepts of the self and a superficially charming (though with Smurov even this is a bit of a stretch) solipsistic narrator,  however there is something lacking in ‘The Eye’-even in such intentionally two dimensional fantasies such as ‘Invitation to a Beheading’, Nabokov is able to create a fully-formed world with fully-realised, though often grotesque, characters, however the world of ‘The Eye’, as seen through the eyes of the half-mad, paranoid narrator comes across as a bit flat. The narrator is a bit too neurotic, the side characters too obvious caricatures of what Nabokov detested the most-literary conventions, the plot, despite the odd moments in ingenuity a bit hackneyed and so, when the narrator springs his big surprise, the reader feels more a sense of indifference due to being so detached from the characters.

Despite its mediocrity, the careful reader can still observe the incipient blooming of Nabokov’s genius, which would fully flower a few years later in ‘Despair’ and whose efflorescence would last nearly ‘Ada’.

“Sanshiro” by Natsume Soseki

Soseki’s prose is opalescent, just like he cumulus of clouds which appear so often in ‘Sanshiro’, there is something ethereal and captivating about the atmosphere which Soseki is able to create in ‘Sanshiro’, a kind of wistfulness hovers over the characters as the reader is caught up in the wan beauty of Soseki’s prose style. One can easily distinguish the influence on (especially early) Murukami not only with the prose style (although Soseki is more poetic, but also with their preoccupation with the isolating effect of city life and the disaffected and diffident protagonists. Out of all the great Japanese novelists of the early and mid 20th century;  Akutagawa, Kawabata, Mishima and Tanizaki, Soseki is probably the one whose themes and concerns most resonate with modern readers, whilst retaining a quintessentially Japanese sense of aesthetics.

The story follows Sanshiro, a young student who moves to Tokyo from the country-side. The novel captures the disorientating nature of this change to Sanshiro, the sense of torpor which over-takes him as he tries to accustom himself to the fast-pace of city life, its endless dissonance and the duplicitous nature of its inhabitants.

“The sun, now sinking in the West, illuminated the broad slope at an angle. The windows of the Engineering buildings flanking the top slop were sparkling as if on fire. Pale red flames of burning sun swept back from the horizon into the sky’s deep clarity, and their fever seemed to rush down upon him”

In contrast to this, is the sense of beauty awakened in Sanshiro’s heart by two female characters, the vivacious Mineko and the pallid yet beautiful Yoshiko. The image most often associated with Mineko is her kimono and kaleidoscope of colours which blaze forth from it, it is as if her kimono-which the painter Haraguchi finds so difficult to capture in his portrait of her, is symbolic of the brightness which emanates from Mineko is the eyes of her narrator, her febricity contrasting with Sanshiro’s own feebleness and lighting up his own colourless inner life. By contrast, the sad and somnolent Yoshiko is more similar in terms of personality with Sanshiro, and although she is beautiful, her beauty is too familiar, too similar when contrasted with the enigmatic Mineko. In many ways, in addition to being a coming of age novel, the story is about Sanshiros choice between these two types of beauty.

Other central themes of the novel include societal dynamics in late Meiji era Japan under the increasing sense of Westernization, the incipient blooming of Japanese literature under Western influences and the changing role of women in Japanese society-in many ways Sanshiro captures Japan just as it is on the cusp of modernisation, as the old traditions of Japan are being over-taken and over-whelmed by the modern world, just as Sanshiro is over-whelmed by Tokyo. Yet beneath this, a sense of beauty blooms and blazes forth from the pages of the novel, from the white rose in Mineko’s hair, to the reflections of a setting sun on the windows of a building, Soseki is able to imbue the world with a brilliant beauty;

“The morning sunlight streamed in form the eastern window behind her, and where the sunlight touched she wore a violet-flame, living halo. The face and forehead were in deep shadow, pale in darkness. The eyes had a far off look. A high cloud never moves in the depths of the sky, yet it must.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Billy Budd, Bartleby and Stories” by Herman Melville

Weird and wonderful, the short stories of Herman Melville, from the story of the incorrigible scrivener Bartleby, to the homo-eroticism of ‘Billy Budd’ to Melville’s mellifluous imagery ‘The Piazza’, a kind of lachrymose wisdom is embedded within Melville’s stories of lugubrious loners and insouciant individuals who inhabit the fictional world created by Melville.

The bucolic short story “The Piazza” is the tale of an unnamed narrator’s perambulations across the idyllic Massachusetts countryside. The narrator, although broadly satisfied with his abode, laments the fact that there is no piazza, thus inhibiting his ability to truly enjoy. A kind of heir to Don Quixote, who is just of the literary characters name-checked by the erudite narrator, he is often too caught up his dreams and fantasies to truly appreciate the beauty of the world around him-nevertheless this is Melville’s most poetic work, in which his pen shimmers and shines with beautiful imagery;

“For not only do long ground-swells roll the slanting grain, and little wavelets of the grass ripple over upon the low piazza, as their beach, and the blown down of dandelions is wafted like the spray, and the purple of the mountains is just the purple of the billows, and a still August noon broods upon the deep meadows, as a calm upon the Line;but the vastness and the lonesomeness are so oceanic, and the silence and the sameness, too, that the first peep of a strange house, rising beyond the trees, is for all the world like spying, on the Barbary coast, an unknown sail”

Eventually the narrator comes across a woman-who may or may not just be a figment of his imagination, who is also caught up her sense of isolation-what good is beauty if it is punctuated so often with boredom? During their dialogue she wistfully wishes that she lived in the house she can occasionally see across the valley, whose inhabitant she realises must be a completely happy person-with the narrator realising that the house she is talking about his own. In some ways the novel is about the joys of the imagination, of hours spent in febrile fantasies and delirious day-dreams, but it many ways it is about appreciating what you have, about not spending your life wistfully wondering about what may have been or could have been, but on appreciating what you have.

“Bartleby”, however, is the true highlight of this collection of short stories. The principle character, aside from the narrator, a nameless, nondescript lawyer, is Bartleby, a scrivener whose pretty much sole dialogue in the story is the response of “I would prefer not to” to any work which he feels beneath him which, eventually, applies to any work at all. It is hard to really understand what-if any-moral Melville wanted us to take away from the story, outside the sense of non-conformity and individuality which Bartleby demonstrates in his inability to interact with other individuals in anything approaching a normal manner-instead he acts a kind of phantasm who haunts the life and conscious of the well-meaning if slightly dull lawyer who employ and eventually inadvertently houses him. In some ways the story is a kind of precursor to Kafka’s nightmarish descriptions of office life, of its meaningless tasks, the sense of conformity it enforces on and the ultimate meaningless of it all (Nippers and Turkey seem like the kind of characters who Josef K would run into in the office blocks he explores in ‘The Trial’) however irrespective of whichever moral message Melville was attempting to promote, ‘Bartleby’ remains one of the most original short stories of he 19th century.

‘Billy Budd’ is a story pervaded with homo-eroticism, of the beautiful Billy Budd and the jealous, highfalutin John Claggart who, presumably is swept in a physical passion for Billy which festers into hatred and causes him to falsely accuse Billy of treason. As with Moby Dick, Melville is able to capture both the excitement and dreariness of life at seas, the drudgery of every-day tasks juxtaposed with the excitement of discovery and the raucous dynamics between the crew. However, more than this ‘Billy Budd’ is the story of loss of innocence, of the innate goodness of Billy Budd, whose death by hanging is captured in the full-light of dawn and which, Christ-like illuminates the innate goodness of his soul in a world too corrupt for Billy to survive in.