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Submission (2015) Michel Houellebecq

 

The book is set in France in the year 2022 where, with the help of the socialists, a Muslim political party is elected into government. This is the premise of Houellebecq's controversial novel. The book follows an academic called Francois who teaches literature at a university and specializes in the work of Huysmans. Before long, only Muslims can teach at the University and he loses his job. Meanwhile, education is altered and women are taken out of the workforce.

Francois struggles with his place in the world and seeks answers. Like in most of Houellebecqs books, he finds none, and only acknowledges the futility of western civilisation. And that's what the book is about: the west's slow march into irrelevance. Some have accused Houellebecq of stoking the fires (the book was published the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre) but that's too simplistic. As I said, this is far less a criticism of Islam and far more a criticism of the West and its atomised and directionless culture. Not to mention its apparent willingness to sleepwalk into obscurity.

I must say I didn't find the transformation of French society from secular to Muslim very convincing and Houellebecq doesn't spend much time justifying that. Most speculative novels of this nature would have involved a slow build up of some kind but since it was published in 2015, Houellebecq clearly isn't very interested in doing that. For him, this is clearly a satire where the sci-fi nature of the plot is somewhat irrelevant. He wants to play around with themes rather than give you a convincing dystopian narrative.

Truth be told, this was one of the most readable books I've ever come across. I fizzed through it. The story isn't that compelling and never really goes anywhere in terms of plot but the writing is wonderful and fluid, with short chapters that fly by as Francois explores art and religion and love and the death of Europe.

 

The bottom line is: if you kill your own culture, don't start moaning when something fills the void.


So many books lack the beauty and the balls of Houellebecq.

 

8/10

 

Edited by Hux

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Man's Fate (1933) André Malraux


I read this purely because it was number 5 in Le Monde's 100 Books of the Century. I was slightly disappointed to discover it's a rather formulaic action adventure story regarding a group of Chinese communists in 1927. Truth be told, I found reading it a bit of a slog. Malraux is very articulate and writes sweeping sentences that contain a million ideas and thoughts. But as a style, it's not always compelling to read and while I might condemn the translator more than the writer for that, I think that would be too simplistic. Malraux clearly meanders a great deal and produces a swamp of words that don't really go anywhere or give any meaningful information to the reader. And he dwells on political or economic concepts that might successfully explain the story's background a little but which are definitely not fun to read.

The plot predominantly follows Ch'en and Kyo but there's quite a few other characters too. These two individuals are part of the communist insurrection and endeavour to acquire arms or recruit men. Ch'en takes it upon himself to try and assassinate Chaing Kai-Shek. At times, the narrative was interesting but just when it became so, Malraux would go back to filling the pages with dense paragraphs that never really went anywhere and soon, I was losing focus again.

I've certainly read worse but the book just never grabbed me. Truth be told, as I get older, I've become less and less interested in plot driven narratives. I'd prefer to hear something more personal where one person's worldview is explored. Plots tend to bore me a little.

Slightly bewildered as to why this book is (seemingly) so popular in France. Maybe it's no more complicated than the romanticisation of communism. Glad I read it but I doubt I'll be reading any more of his work.

 

5/10

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Nightwood (1936) Djuna Barnes

 

I was expecting a lot from this but found only meandering writing and a nothing plot. The prose is thick and clingy and tries desperately to be poetic and meaningful but is so tediously unreadable (with a few exceptions). I really struggled to enjoy the writing and found it cloying and unnatural to the extent that it never feels like you're reading a person's real thoughts or hearing any real dialogue. The prose is more about presenting you with meaning than conveying any particular information. Some might be tempted to apologise for this obvious flaw by suggesting it's a book that you need to read more than once because it's demanding but that's nonsense. Other writers manage to write demanding and meaningful works without making me groan every time I turn a page to discover that the chapter hasn't ended yet.

So why do people make a fuss about it? Well, because it was published in 1936 and predominantly (and openly) details a lesbian love affair (Plus, it throws in a cross dresser for good measure). The plot itself is a straight-forward story about a woman named Robin Vote who marries Felix, has a child with him, realises she doesn't want to be a mother, runs off, starts an affair with a woman named Nora, then leaves her for another woman called Jenny. Pretty much all of the characters are unlikeable (not always a bad thing), and they all seem to come from a background of privilege and comfort (they swan about Europe and the world despite never seemingly working for a living). Suffice it to say, it was difficult to care about any of them.

The bottom line here is this: if you're going to enjoy this book then you're only going to enjoy it based on the style of writing and the thick, gloopy prose which Barnes offers.

I didn't.

Not to say that the book is bad or anything, just that it's not my thing. Had this been a story about bricklayers going to the park for a picnic, I doubt anyone would be talking about it today. But because it explores a lesbian affair it seems to have acquired a more noteworthy status. Definitely worth a look (especially if you like that style of writing) but not for me.

Thank goodness it was short.

 

5/10

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Ask The Dust (1939) John Fante

 

I really enjoyed this. For those saying it's very similar to Bukowski, yes it is. But I'd actually say Fante demonstrates a significantly higher standard of writing when it comes to the bleak day-to-day minutiae of the dusty streets of L.A.

The book follows Arturo Bandini (Fante's alter ego) as he tries to make his name as a writer. He rents a hotel room and wanders the streets before meeting the beautiful Camilla Lopez. He pursues a relationship with her which is more fantasy than reality and the two of them always seem to fight and miscommunicate their feelings. Bandini is not really in love, he's merely in love with the idea of love (it might give him something to write about). Whereas Camilla is actually in love with someone else entirely, a man named Sammy who has no interest in her. Watching Fante explore these two idiots who love the wrong people is fun; their youthful ineptitude has made them incapable of connecting to people in any meaningful way and these relationships rather beautifully capture the nervous energy of youth and its tendency to be pointed in the wrong directions. My only real criticism is the fact that Camilla ends up in a mental asylum. Every writer seems to have a (usually female) character who ends up in the loony bin at some point. But I suppose for a book written in 1939 it was considered progressive to explore anything relating to mental health.

I'm reliably informed that this book was third in a quartet of books that follow the Bandini character but I doubt I'll be seeking the others out. This one stands on its own merits and doesn't require any further insight. As much as I enjoyed it, the book wasn't anything spectacular in terms of writing or worldview. But it's a very enjoyable to read and was right up my street.

If the story of a struggling writer reminds any of you of Knut Hamsun's 'Hunger' that shouldn't be too surprising since Fante was a big fan of that book and the title itself (Ask the Dust) is actually a quote from a Hamsun novel called 'Pan.'

"The other one he loved like a slave, like a crazed and like a beggar. Why? Ask the dust on the road and the falling leaves, ask the mysterious God of life; for no one knows such things."

I certainly noticed the similarities between the two and while the excellent Hunger is a far superior work, this is an excellent addition to the whole 'poor writer wanders the streets seeking meaning' canon. I suspect, much like Bukowski, that Fante's work is a one-trick pony of following his alter ego. As tricks go, however, it's very entertaining.

 

8/10

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The Drinker (1944/50) Hans Fallada
 
The first half of this book details the sudden alcoholism of the main character Erwin Sommer and his decent into chaos. His inability to see his own spiraling behaviour results in a series of moments which are actually very funny involving, as they do, a rather comedic lack of self-awareness. There's one moment, for example, where he's at work with his wife Magda and pretends to drop something behind his desk so that he can bend down to drink, all while believing that his wife is none the wiser. I actually laughed at this (it even reminded me of the drunk family from the Fast Show). This absurd behaviour continues and escalates until he finds himself trying to seduce a local barmaid (who weirdly acquiesces) before he eventually begins stealing money and silver from his own house (this resulting a physical altercation with his wife and a hollow death threat).

He then rents a cheap room from a man named Lobedanz, a badgering weasel of a man, who endlessly manipulates the drunkard into giving him more money and jewelry. At one point, after withdrawing a significant amount of money (thousands) from the bank, the two of them wrestle in a train station toilet and Lobedanz takes the vast majority of the money. Sommer, however, is so thrilled to have enough left to buy drink, that he doesn't even appear remotely bothered by this. Which also made me laugh.

This, however, is where the novel changes course quite abruptly. It stops being quite so funny. Sommer is soon arrested for the 'attempted murder' of his wife and ends up in gaol with some unsavoury characters (including, towards the end, Lobedanz) before being moved on to a psychiatric asylum. The descriptions of this world are clearly from his own experiences and he details, quite matter-of-factly, the homosexual relations taking place between the men. Having recently read Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (which is famous for being about a lesbian love affair) I was impressed by the way Fallada more straight-forwardly approaches the subject matter. Barnes skirted around it with flowery language, while Fallada simply lays things out as they are.

Sommer's time at the asylum makes him even more self-loathing and pathetic, slowly but surely allowing his growing resentment towards his wife to intensify despite the countless opportunities others have encouraged him to see for a potential reconciliation. This all culminates in a supervised meeting between Sommer and his wife at the very end of the book which is very blunt to say the least.

Ultimately, this is the story of a man who is petty and selfish, immature and bitter (mostly because his wife is more competent than him). It begins with an almost comedic tone before setting up a rather more depressing second half. Given that Fallada wrote the book whilst in a Nazi asylum and was accused of attempted murder of his own wife, I think we can safely say it's very autobiographical.

This was right up my street. Roman à Clefs are increasingly my preferred form of fiction, especially when they're written in such a clear and concise style.
 
8/10
 
 

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Riddley Walker (1980) Russell Hoban

 

First thing's first: this whole book is written in pidgin English. "He dint say nothing I sust how it were with him some times when we were boath lissening hy 1 of us wud starve the other like when 1 boat put a nother in its wind shadder."

This will either enhance or reduce your enjoyment. I read the first page and immediately put the book down and decided... nope, not for me. It was frankly infuriating. After giving it a few minutes, however, I gave it another look and strangely found that it wasn't that bad. As I continued reading it even began to slowly feel quite normal (this helped by the generally short chapters). Later in the book, unfortunately, the chapters get much longer and it started bothering me again.

Anyway, the fact is, the gibberish style does add something. But sadly it also take something away. It creates a strong sense of the world and the people (especially Riddley, the writing style forcing you to slow down and reach his speed -- that of a twelve-year-old boy). But it also became annoying and distracting, often tiresome. Ultimately, however, I think I'd have to say that it was ultimately effective.

As for the plot, it deals with young Riddley just after his father dies. He lives in Kent 2000 years after a nuclear disaster and, like everyone else, understands the world through a series of stories about the past told by puppet show politicians (think Punch and Judy). These stories revolve around Eusa (bastardised version of St Eustace) and the shiny man (nuclear power) as well as the hidden meanings of other things from the past. He goes on an adventure to Fork Stone (Folkstone) and Cambry (Canterbury) and seeks knowledge about the past and the future (usually accompanied by feral dogs).

It's a very condensed landscape and story. There are some interesting themes about knowledge and power, about those who posses one very often being those who possess the other. Riddley is a sympathetic character and is wise enough to understand that those who dictate the narrative, can shape the future. It was a worthwhile read but ultimately the style was too distracting for my tastes. It reminded me of those kids in the film Mad Max 3 which is funny because, having googled it, I now realise they actually stole all their ideas from this very book.

 

6/10

Edited by Hux

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On 22/08/2021 at 10:06 AM, Hux said:
The Drinker (1944/50) Hans Fallada
 

 

If you enjoyed The Drinker you will probably also enjoy one of Fallada's other books published a few years later called Nightmare in Berlin. It is set just after the end of the war and covers similar topics and is also considered to be fairly autobiographical.

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2 hours ago, Brian. said:

 

If you enjoyed The Drinker you will probably also enjoy one of Fallada's other books published a few years later called Nightmare in Berlin. It is set just after the end of the war and covers similar topics and is also considered to be fairly autobiographical.

 

Alone in Berlin is on my to read list. Will probably check out more of his work when time allows. 

Edited by Hux

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A month in the Country (1980) J.L Carr

 

Like drinking a pint of ale on a warm summer's day overlooking a still river.

This was charming. A novella, a short story, about a London man in 1920 going oop north to Yorkshire to do some work uncovering a white washed mural in a church. Over the course of the month he meets a selection of the locals and falls in love with one of them without ever revealing his feelings to her (she being married to an older man). Then there's his friend Moon who, in a nearby field, has been commissioned to search for a lost grave. These two men often sit in the grass drinking, smoking pipes, putting the world to rights, discussing their experiences of the war.

The whole book has a warm feeling to it, a nostalgia for an England that no longer exists, but there's also a modern feel to it, most notably in the way Carr describes sex as well as Moon's homosexuality. There's a great deal of wit in the book and it's a slow, languorous, and gentle stroll through the summer countryside and a month that will live with the protagonist forever.

The book is mostly light-weight, nothing too strenuous, but charming and profound. Apparently there's a 1988 film with Colin Firth and Kenneth Brannagh (news to me).

 

"If I'd stayed there, would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older die, and the bright belief that there will always be another marvelous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies."

 

7/10

Edited by Hux

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23 hours ago, Hux said:

Like drinking a pint of ale on a warm summer's day overlooking a still river.

Well that sounds lovely :lol:. It's been quite a while since I read A Month in the Country, but the main thing I remember about it is that charming, rural atmosphere. To be honest, I remember that far better than I remember anything about the plot!

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Steppenwolf (1927) Hermann Hesse

 

The mid-life crisis manifesto.

This is a wonderful book that plays with some important ideas (especially if you're over 40). First of all, the writing is sublime, fluid, flowing, and intensely engaging (for me at least). The sentences pulled me along with such entertainment until I discovered that I'd read far more pages than I realised, to such an extent that I almost regretted finishing each part. Hesse really does draw you in and allow you to enjoy the ride with such ease, his writing smooth and crisp, almost refreshing in its ability to seduce you. I loved every minute of it.

The plot is essentially one that's been seen before: suicidal man (Harry Haller) seeks meaning. At the age of 47, he has decided that 50 will be the threshold for crossing over into death, one way or another. It almost brings him a sense a peace that this date is so nearby. But after discovering a tract (a pamphlet) regarding the Steppenwolf (those outside of life who struggle with their many personalities and traits), plus an unpleasant meal with a professor friend, his suicidal nature becomes more acute. He goes to a bar to avoid going home because he believes he will use the razor to cut his own throat if he does (something he doesn't entirely want to do). Here, he meets Hermione, who in turn introduces him to the world of dancing, jazz, and drugs as well as her friends Pablo and Maria (she being a prostitute Hermione provides to Harry). The book then ends with a ball and a magic theatre which, like other parts the book, has hallucinatory dream-like qualities.

This book engages with the surreal, the other, the magical; and there are philosophical questions to be answered. Truth be told, more is going on here than meets the eye and I think you can interpret the book in many ways. Personally, I have concluded that most of it was an invention of his own wandering mind (this theory heavily influenced by the opening 'editor's preface' which is given to us by the nephew of Steppenwolf's landlady). I also couldn't help notice the similarities with Dazai's 'No Longer Human' when it comes to the use of found notebooks. I find it hard to believe that Dazai wasn't directly influenced by this. Like that wonderful book, this is about a misanthrope searching for meaning but while Dazai has no answers and ultimately focuses on the darkness, I couldn't help but feel Hesse has a more optimistic outlook. The life we live within ourselves is, after all, just as important as what we see around us.

There is no reality except the one contained within us. That is why so many people live such an unreal life. They take the images outside of them for reality and never allow the world within to assert itself.

 

9/10

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The Rings of Saturn (1998) G.B Sebald


On the face of it, the book is a kind of travel book/memoir hybrid about an unknown author's time walking the county of Suffolk. But to me, it qualifies as fiction and quite frankly is exactly what great fictions should actually be. The author tells us about his journey along the coast and the various sights and places in which he stays, but then quickly allows himself to go wandering in his mind on all manner of topics. Just as he's describing the scenery, the flow of nature, the history of a place, he will then take a detour and begin crawling through a variety of subject matter, everything from anatomy, colonialism, the Irish civil war, the doomed love affair of the writer de Chateaubriand, the works of Joseph Conrad, to the practice of sericulture. Each chapter begins in one place but swirls and dances through a myriad of thoughts, histories, and people until you're practically intoxicated. You'll be amazed at how one paragraph can begin on one subject but then finish in an entirely different place.

This is such a wonderful novel and encompasses everything I want from literature, namely a narrator who very evidently breathes and lives and loves. You can sense his fascination with the world, grasp his opinions and concerns, tangibly feel the tremble in his voice as he contemplates the very nature of being alive and part of a race which is so ludicrous yet equally so beautiful and mysterious.

To describe the book as a travel book would be absurd. It is an insight into humanity, a thoughtful exploration of thinking itself, a love letter to the idiotic animal known as the human being. I wish I could find more books like this, specifically in the fiction genre which, again, I adamantly claim this to be. It's quite exquisite.

In an era of ubiquitous robot narrators who tell us nothing, it was a pleasure to be in this author's company (whoever he might be).

 

8/10

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