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The Confusions of Young Törless (1906) Robert Musil


The book is about four boys in a boarding school. One of them (Basini) is caught stealing by the other three and they decide to spare him from being reported to the school authorities, agreeing, instead, to punish him themselves. At first, it's basic humiliation and violence, but gradually it descends into severe beatings, disturbing sexual humiliation, and eventually sexual abuse. Meanwhile, Torless finds himself attracted to the boy and Basini reciprocates, leading to a series of sexual encounters which border on tenderness and love. But Torless is ashamed of this and finds himself growing ever more appalled by Basini.

I thought this book was fascinating. Partly, because it was published in 1906 and yet deals (very openly) with homosexuality, but mostly because it explores the human instinct for cruelty, shame, and horror. Musil is tapping into those human qualities which would inevitably lead to the rise of fascism, that human desire to have power over others combined with the need for social norms to be met (even in resistance to our own happiness). This urgent defence of normalcy is the driving force of western civilisation, and is so powerful that it fosters a kind of dull ignorance of our true selves and natures. Torless is clearly falling in love with Basini but knows that a heterosexual marriage to a woman is in his future -- this is the norm -- and so he hates himself for his feelings towards Basini but more explicitly, he hates Basini for having triggered them. It is this battle between rational and irrational which confuses him, though it also applies to his sexuality and his faltering grasp of morality. Reason fascinates him but there is a spiritual element -- an imaginary reality -- which always stands in the way of that reason.

The book isn't as beautifully written as The Man Without Qualities but it is more accessible. Sadly, there aren't many more works by Musil to read beyond these two (some short stories, I believe) which is a tragedy because he is a superb writer.

 

8/10

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The Blind Owl (1936) Sadegh Hedayat

 

I know a lot of people rave about this book so my expectations were high. But I found it utterly mundane and devoid of emotion. In theory, it ought to appeal to me; an opium fueled fever dream of repetition and prose, a swirling descent into madness and surrealism. And as much I loved the idea of his perspective being lost in a haze of vague interpretation and illusion, the murder of his wife, his 'lady of the night', set to a backdrop of obscured memory, unreliable narration, and confusion, the fact remains... I was so thoroughly bored by its sheer banality.

There's something interesting here to be sure, something unique and worth exploring, but it simply drags on in a monotonous tone of drab half-formed stream of consciousness. If you're going to do that then the writing needs to be significantly better than this (I will assume the translation was an additional hurdle).

Even the fact that it's short doesn't help. It only adds to the sense that something meaningful needs to arrive sooner rather than later. But it never does. The whole book felt like a slog to me, only a brief moment towards the end possessing a lyrical fluidity which is lacking everywhere else. But even that doesn't last. As much as I like the themes of the book (as well as the subverted narrative style), the fact remains I need to be engaged and I just wasn't. I might go back to it in the future (an alternative translation perhaps) but it's not a priority.

 

4/10

Edited by Hux

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Did this site just censor the word: 'lady of the night'.

 

 

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Just now, Hux said:

Did this site just censor the word: 'lady of the night'.

 

 

 

LOL apparently. 

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Boredom (1960) Alberto Moravia

 

I adored this.

 

I'm not sure if it was the writing, the subject matter, the characters, or even just the feel of the book in my hand (heavy, with a smooth surface and crisp pages). Hell, even the yellow cover was hugely appealing to me. All I know is that I haven't enjoyed reading a book as much as this for a very long time. The words almost seemed to melt from the pages as I read them.

It begins with our narrator (Dino), the wealthy son of a rich mother, telling us that from a very young age he has always suffered from boredom. Not the regular variety that accompanies a lack of activity or engagement, but a version which is probably better described as ennui. He finds that once he is bored of a particular thing (inanimate object, person, lifestyle) he no longer feels connected to it, no longer feels that it exists for him as part of realty. Reality itself is taken away from him. He is a painter who, ten years after taking up the vocation, can no longer do so. This too has left him bored and detached. Across from his studio is another painter named Balestrieri, older, in his sixties, who paints beautiful young models and often has sexual relations with them. These women come and go but one day, a young 17-year-old girl becomes Balestrieri's muse and he is apparently besotted with her, in a way that has evidently never happened before. Then, not long after this, Balestrieri dies (perhaps during love-making).

Dino finds himself almost instantly beginning a relationship with this young woman, Cecilia, and he seems to slot into the same role as Balestrieri just as quickly. They regularly meet for sex, until Dino decides that in order to end the relationship with her he must become bored of her, so that she is no longer a part of his reality. But there is something unique about this girl, something which, despite her vast sexual appetite, almost suggests the same illness of ennui. She is very matter-of-fact, passive, unemotional, and sees the world only in terms of today and now. Dino finds himself struggling to escape from her as a result, believing that only by possessing her can he become free of her.

I must say, I think Cecilia might be my favourite ever female literary character. She is everything which Dino claims to be and more. She is utterly uncompromising. You keep thinking there might be a twist, but there isn't. This is just who she is. And the fact that she (painfully) reminded me of an ex-girlfriend might admittedly have played a part in my fascination with her too.

This book was an absolute joy. I only discovered Moravia a few months ago and will definitely be reading more of his work.

 

10/10

Edited by Hux

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The Iliac Crest (2002) Cristina Rivera Garza

 

Very engaging.

I'm not sure how to describe this book. The writing feels very stream-of-consciousness without actually being stream-of-consciousness. I think this is due to the vague narrative, the way it's always on the cusp of describing reality but holds off, almost keeping the reader at a distance so that the story has a foggy, unclear quality which borders on something magical and obscure. It actually reminded me of The Blind Owl but with a stronger framework and a more concise method of story telling. There are cities that are simply referred to as South City and North City; there are blurred lines regarding where we are, and at what time. Plus, there are characters who are detached and ill-formed, almost ghosts or memories. But, despite all this, it's still very accessible (and immensely easy to read).

The basic premise is that a young man (a doctor) is at home one stormy night when a woman appears at his door. He doesn't know who she is but let's her in. This woman is then followed by his ex girlfriend and the two women come to live at his house where they speak a private language he doesn't understand. The stranger is called Amparo Davila (a real writer) and she claims to know the protagonist's secret. That he is actually a woman.

The book explores notions of gender and reality, of insanity and language, and of the means of trying to know the difference between these things. I didn't fully connect with a lot of those themes (women might better enjoy that aspect) but I enjoyed the book overall (which was pleasingly short).

 

7/10

Edited by Hux

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The Birds (1957) Tarjei Vesaas

 

This is the story of a mentally challenged man named Mattis who lives with his sister, Hege, in a small cottage by a lake in a rural part of Norway. She is 40, acquiring grey hairs as she makes a living knitting jumpers, while he is three years younger and tries to find work on the local farms. Sadly, the local community knows of Mattis (many refer to him as simple Simon) and they know he isn't very good at doing the work required. But occasionally, he might still get some work. His sister has spent most of her life looking after him and while that has been frustrating, nothing has yet come between them. Until Jørgen arrives.

The story is very basic, matter-of-fact, and the prose reflects this, it also being very terse and to the point. It reminded me of Hemingway a little. It's actually enormously engaging. And the narration is third person but we also hear what Mattis is thinking (as well as what he isn't thinking), so it often feels more like a first person story. That element is important because it shows us how Mattis thinks. Or rather how he can't seem to fully express his thoughts or feelings. It's extremely well done. You can feel the frustration that Mattis feels, can understand how his inability to communicate is causing him problems (it brought to mind Lenny from Of Mice and Men).

I found it very enjoyable, especially the world it evoked. One of those very simple human stories that just has a very concise and beautiful charm. You're dropped into a small community, in a simple time (almost medieval but for the reference to cars), and you follow this character for a brief period of his life with the assistance of some very gentle and authentic prose.

 

8/10

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Stoner (1965) John Williams 

 

I've been hearing a lot of hype about this book for some time. The copy I bought even had the words 'the greatest novel you've never read' on the front cover. I think those days are over. This book is now a hipster's wet dream.

Firstly, it's beautifully written with some exquisite turns of phrase. Secondly, it's a story that will utterly pull you in. A story about a man's life passing him by (because that's what most lives do). He leaves his farming parents behind, goes to university, marries, becomes a teacher, has a daughter, has an academic rivalry, watches two world wars come and go, has an affair, becomes middle-aged, gets cancer.

All the while, you feel as though Williams is trying to say something about passion, about the ability to communicate your feelings. This is presumably why the book is written in third person (when such a narrative suggests a first person perspective would make far more sense). He wants Stoner to be a little detached from us, to be cold, stoic, unemotional. But he also wants us to know that Stoner wishes he could overcome that flaw, could demonstrate love for his wife and daughter, for his work. Stoner tells us (more than once) that he can't quite adequately communicate the passion he has for English literature to his students (but it seems evident that he doesn't entirely try either). Perhaps Williams is saying something about the times. It would seem clear that he's criticising it (and yet, paradoxically, I long for the culture he laments and find the endless sharing of feelings we have in the modern world to be thoroughly repugnant). His wife, Edith, also suffers from this same malady, perhaps more so. She is even more emotionally closed off and seemingly struggles to share any moments of sincere joy, an affliction which their daughter begrudgingly inherits. It's only Katherine who provides Stoner with any such fleeting possibility of fulfillment.

It's all dreadfully sad. Stoner is no-one important and yet his life still matters. It is still worth knowing about. As the book tells us on the opening page: 'Stoner's colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now.'

One can't help but feel that this probably applies to his family and friends too. In truth, this might be the best novel I've ever read about life being both pointless and meaningful all at once. I would give it a higher rating but for the fact that it occasionally manipulates the reader, utilising techniques which are nonetheless subtle and enormously entertaining to read (like when Spielberg wants to make the audience feel something, he'll use music to provoke an emotional response).

That aside, I thought the book was wonderful.

 

9/10

Edited by Hux

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7 hours ago, Hux said:

Stoner (1965) John Williams 

 

 

I absolutely adored this when I read it for many of the same reasons as you. I went into knowing nothing about it which is just as well because the synopsis would have put me off even picking it up.

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Hangover Square (1941) Patrick Hamilton

 

There's a modern term that's used to describe men who pander and flatter women in the hopes that they'll be rewarded with love, sex, attention. Simp! And this book is about the king of the Simps -- George Harvey Bone. He is in love with the beautiful Netta and hangs around with her and her set, drinking at all hours and avoiding employment of any kind. He confesses his love for her but she continues to use him for his money and, later, for his connections. One of her hangers-on is Peter, a spiv character who is just as keen to take advantage of George as she is.

I honestly found myself despising Netta quite viscerally but also George too, his unwillingness to grown a spine despite being treated like a doormat something that infuriated me. The book reminded of the Tunnel by Sabato but whereas the paranoia of that book's male protagonist could be interpreted as self-inflicted, there is no ambiguity about George's feeling of humiliation and poor treatment. Netta is, quite explicitly, a bitch. She has a past working as an actress and has aspirations to get back into that world but otherwise she is, like the men she consorts with, a self-interested alcoholic. And George is nothing more than a means to an end for her.

And here's where things get complicated because George, also a big drinker, suffers from a unique mental illness. I would describe it as a dissociative personality disorder but it's all a little vague. Essentially, it involves George going into a kind of dream state where an alternative version of himself is in control of his thoughts and actions. When George clicks in and out of these personalities, he remembers very little of what has happened. The whole thing is very effectively done by Hamilton and you get the impression that George is just one person but has two states of being.

The book also takes place just as the 2nd World War is about to begin and I found it fascinating seeing these young people presented in a manner that was very familiar to me. When I think of that period, I think of straight-laced individuals wearing starched clothing and doing their bit for the war effort. But obviously, young people were just the same as they've always been; keen to get drunk, have fun, and avoid work. That the book was published in 1941 at the height of the war is also interesting as Hamilton essentially takes it for granted that fascism will lose.

This was a great book. And very uniquely British.

 

8/10

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Blindness (1995) Jose Saramago

 

A man is stuck in traffic and suddenly goes blind (a milky white blindness as opposed to darkness). A good Samaritan takes him home only to later steal his car. The next day he sees the doctor who is baffled. The day after that, the doctor discovers that he is now blind. And on it goes, with more an more people discovering that they are blind until the government starts rounding them up and placing them in an asylum. To begin with there are forty to fifty but gradually the numbers drastically increase. The doctor's wife also claims to be blind to stay with her husband despite this not being true. The army are positioned outside with strict instructions to shoot anyone who tries to leave. Soon the place is overpopulated with excrement everywhere and dead bodies. Then a group in a separate wing decides to keep all the food for themselves and demand money and jewels for food. Soon, they switch and demand that females from each ward be sent as payment. Eventually, the army abandon post as the blindness epidemic continues and the small group leaves and roams the apocalyptic streets in search of food and shelter.

The allegory here is fairly obvious, concerning the true nature of humanity and how civilisation has a tendency to ignore what's in front of their eyes. But I found that fairly simplistic and predictable with little originality. Most of us know exactly what humanity is. Most of us keep that truth close to the front of our minds on a daily basis. There is nothing especially groundbreaking here and in truth the high praise this book receives is slightly bewildering to me. I get the impression that it's a lot of people who want to read Stephen King but also want to seem more intellectual (Saramago won a Nobel prize after all).

That being said, I enjoyed the book and was swept along at a decent pace; the story is very engaging and though the writing style is often chaotic (very few full stops), it's actually quite an easy to read. My only criticisms would be the oppressively long chapters which, more than once, had me craving that they would end (never a good sign). And I also disliked the doctor and the girl with glasses having sex; it seemed absurd and pointless, and strangely presumptuous of a male writer.

Overall, very good though.

 

7/10

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