Friday, July 31, 2009

5: The Piano Teacher

Elfriede Jelinek, The Piano Teacher

Elfriede Jelinek was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004 and the Piano Teacher, first published in 1983, is one of her best works. The titular character is Erika Kohut, a piano teacher at the famed Vienna Conservatory, who, despite being in her thirties, lives with her mother and lets her mother control all aspects of her life, except when she spends money on clothing that her mother will never allow her to wear and when she trolls the seedy underbelly of Vienna nightlife. Erika spirals out of control as an affair with one of her students, dilettante Walter Klemmer, down a road of self-destruction and a perverse version of freedom.

I liked this novel because it was powerful and it made me think. The writing is very vivid; it pulls the reader into the book, into Erika’s mind, in a brusque, unapologetic way. Perhaps there are other novels like this, but I haven’t ever read anything like this. Everything reads so strongly and yet is simple and ingenuous.

The relationship between Erika and her mother is a sort relic of the degenerate Old World, the world that consists of the facets of Europe that I think Humbert Humbert escaped from. It was never the toy-coloured Swiss villages that drove H.H. from Europe; I believe it was the sense of saturation of potential and tendency towards decline, for which state H.H. (lecherously) found remedy in the form of an uncouth, unschooled, unread America girl, full of youth and potential to improve. For fuller details of what I think of H.H., see the second comment to my post on the 100 books that I read.

Erica’s mother lives through Erika; she is completely invested in Erika and treats Erika’s life as her own. It’s something like a cycle where parents live through their children, who, in turn, live through their own children. In Erika’s case, Erika’s mother doesn’t want Erika to have children; she wants Erika to stay with her and only with her forever. It breaks the cycle, but not in a good way.

Erika both hates and loves her mother. She hates being controlled by her mother and rebels through small actions like buying dresses to which she lays ownership only by the fact that she alone can wear them, even though her mother may sell them without telling Erika, destroy them, give them away, or throw them away. But Erika is dependent on her mother also. When Klemmer stays late talking to her, hoping to spark a romance, all she can think of is going home and watching television with her mother. Erika doesn’t want to change; she’s in her mid-thirties and she’s past the point of being able to be free of her mother.

Halfway through the book, I was aware that there cannot be a happy ending for Erika. She’s not going to be the heroine of a Blockbuster romance and stand up for herself. She’s not going to build her own life. She cannot have a healthy, loving relationship with anyone. All that’s left for Erika to do within the confines of her life is to disintegrate and crumble slowly. And it’s clear that she wants nothing better than to crumble.

As I was reading, this one particular line jumped out at me: “he is afraid of the piano teacher’s inner worlds, which haven’t been ventilated for such a long time”. It’s true; Erika’s inner worlds – her feelings, her fantasies, her dreams – have not been ventilated. She has had no one to share them with because she conceals them from her mother, who has too much of her life already. And those things have festered and twisted in the isolation and when she finally tries to bring them to fruition, they could only result in self-destruction.

On a separate note, I’ve decided to no longer call my blurbs “reviews” because they’re not exactly reviews. I mean, I do discuss books and what I thought of them and whether or not I’d recommend them, but I don’t think that my purpose in writing these blurbs is to criticize or praise writers. I’m interested in what these books make me think of and what impact they have on my way of thinking. Also, I’m reading quite a few books, like the Piano Teacher, which are wonderful books that I highly recommend but not exactly popular; I know because I had quite a bit of trouble locating a copy of this book to read. Certainly, the likes of Jelinek and Némirovsky don’t need my advertising, but sometimes when someone explains to me their personal connection with a certain book, it makes the book become more real to me and provides impetus to get around to reading the book. The act of reading, for me, is like bringing myself into the author’s world and to know that someone else, real not fictional, has been there before is kind of comforting.

So. Read Elfriede Jelinek.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Review 4: People of the Book

Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book

This book traces the story of Sarajevo Haggadah from its creation to its restoration by Hanna Heath, the first-person narrator of the story, except in the flashback sections.

This is a book about a book and, being a lover of books, I should just love this, right? Wrong. I did not like this book. This is like the time I really liked algebra and number theory and decided to try algebraic number theory only to find myself drowning in a sea of nasty numbers.

Heinrich Heine is often quoted saying “where they burn books, they will ultimately burn men”. This book begins with that quote, somewhat appropriately. Quite coincidentally, I am currently reading another book which also begins with the same quote (Elias Canetti, Auto-da-fé), also very appropriately. Both books inspire in me a horror of burning men but only one inspires a horror of burning books.

There are no physical horrors described in Auto-da-fé, but ignorance, particularly of books, is portrayed in such a cynical and disturbing manner that I worry for Kien’s books even though I find Kien himself despicable; Canetti’s book conveys that book burnings are abhorrent. Brooks’s does not.

Auto-da-fés prefigure in a few places in People of the Book but only because of the physical suffering and torture. Just as the whole book operates at a primitive level (with the attractive female lead discovering herself and the action sequences and heart-tearing scenes of the other people of the haggadah), the reference to Heine’s quote works at a primitive level. With all her gore, Geraldine Brooks manages to inspire a repulsion to burning flesh and human pain, but like the primitive man that can only sate his hunger and lust, she does not have a degree of refinement necessary to spare energy and love for the actual book.

When she discloses what the book means to her characters, her words are singularly unconvincing and trite. There are some wafts of airy statements about the goodness of books but nothing that touches anyone deeply. Brooks is much more concerned with Hanna, liebchen’s love life and betrayals and the Heine quote feels to me to be attached mostly for show and because it superficially fits the book.

The abuse of Heine’s quote is a point close to the heart of why I did not like this book. The other is Brook’s writing style. “Show, don’t tell”, writer are always told. Brooks certainly does show here, but it annoyed me. Immensely. Following the main character (in first person, which I don’t like due to the inherent lack of detachment and its relation to the mother of all 1st person atrocities) like a buzzing fly is annoying. Describing all the action, step by step, with trite phrases is not cool. There are other, better ways to show without hitting the reader over the head with gripping details. There are better ways to bring the reader into the character’s world without beating down their spirits with gratuitous descriptions of brutality (which oddly didn’t affect me much thanks be to being desensitized by a desensitizing book – maybe that’s why I found it easy not to be invested in the book: second-rate violence) and then dragging them by the heel around the walls of the author’s world.

On the positive side, this book does trace the history of a most interest book, albeit in a fanciful way. It presents many eras of history (Spanish inquisition, etc) and I can understand why people think it’s an intellectually stimulating book. It makes history easy to read because of the underlying story that everything is pulled back to. On that historical note, I’d like to conclude with the comment that Isabella of Castile was such a good queen; she was strong-willed, brilliant and held her own in a structure of power which heavily favoured men (unlike Hanna, who buckled under pressure from her male colleagues in a central scene of the book). Except that one thing, which is the Expulsion of the Jews, as portrayed in this book.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Review 3: Fire in the Blood

Irène Némirovsky, Fire in the Blood

Némirovsky died in a concentration camp in WWII and this novel, along with the famous Suite Francaise, was found amongst her papers, handwritten and unedited. The blurb on the cover says “a morality tale with doubtful morals, a story of murder, love and inheritance of harmful secrets, Fire in the Blood, written in 1941, is set in a small village ...” but, as in the case with most blurbs about books like this one, I find that I’ve read something else in the book other than the list in the blurb. It isn't always obvious to me that the person who wrote the blurb and I both read the same book.

Yes, there was something about doubtful morals, murder, love and harmful secrets and there is probably something of a morality tale in this story, but there are other books more obsessed about murder and love and harmful secrets and lesser books that better deserve the label “morality tale”. What I got out of this book was a story that unraveled throughout the book, in a simple tone and calm. The calmness is like the calm after the storm, wherein one reflects on follies committed so long ago that they’ve shed their moral deficiencies and foolishness.

Her writing reminded me very much of Flaubert and Tolstoy in that she describes the same types of mannerisms of the people. The traits of the villagers that Némirovsky tells of are the kinds of traits that Flaubert draws to attention. This book is however not like Madame Bovary; it is a much smaller work. Firstly, this is a short book and secondly, its setting is contained completely within the little village; characters may think passively of places outside the village but most of the ideas and actions of the story take place within Issy L’Evêque. Madame Bovary needs the faraway splendour and richness in novelty of Paris or Rouen to draw its characters away from their mundane setting, but this book needs no other thing in the world but Issy L’Evêque.

There’s some seemingly randomly determined but consistent set of rules that govern what people may do for each other in Issy L’Evêque. There, no one defies these set standards; the person who may have witnessed the murder does not speak up because it is just not the way. Silvio makes no heroic defiance of what one does and does not do to defend Collette, even when she asks him to. Despite his refusal, he still helps her, in a quiet way and in the way of those people. This is what I mean by “contained”; the story happens in Issy L’Evêque and everyone has behaved in ways harmonious with the ways of the people of Issy L’Evêque. The story and Issy L’Evêque needs no other places to exist. It is such a small world and yet it is such a lovely story and unfolds like the unpacking of children’s clothes, long unworn, stored lovingly by a doting parent in an old box with moth balls. There’s such mystery in something that may seem mundane.

This is probably one of my favourite books right now. This is what I underlined in my copy as I read (something on a theme of risk-taking, failed endeavours, etc. that I might know a little something about):

“My blood burned at the thought of the vast world that existed, while I simply remained here. So I left, and now I cannot understand the demon that drove me far from my home, I who am so unsociable and sedentary. [...] How is this fire lit within us? It devours everything and then, in a few years, a few months, a few hours even, it burns itself out. Then you see how much damage has been done. You find yourself tied to a woman you don't love any more; or ruined, like me. Perhaps, born to be a grocer, you struggle to become a painter in Paris and end up in a hospital. Who hasn’t had his life strangely warped and distorted by that fire so opposite to his true nature? Are we not all somewhat like these branches burning in my fireplace, buckling beneath the power of the flames?”
Némirovsky, Fire in the Blood