Sunday, September 29, 2013

Klíma's Century

The Czech writer Ivan Klíma, now in his early eighties, has survived the German occupation of his native land, during which he and his family — of Jewish descent, though entirely non-observant — were interned in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, as well as four decades of communist rule, and he has outlived such compatriots and friends as Josef Škvorecký, Václav Havel, Jiří Gruša, and Pavel Kohout. Though barely established as a novelist of international stature before he turned forty, he came into his own in the 1970s and '80s, at a time when it was impossible for him to publish in Czechoslovakia. A member of the Czech Communist Party from his teens (two communist uncles were executed by the Nazis), he became gradually disenchanted in the years leading up to the Prague Spring of 1968, during which he was active as a writer, journalist, and editor, and he was eventually expelled from the party. Though he evidently never signed the dissident manifesto known as Charter 77 — he is somewhat reticent about the reasons, which seem to have included both personal and philosophical factors — he was closely allied with the leaders behind the document, helped organize the publication and distribution of samizdat, and was an active participant in the breathtaking sequence of events that brought about the end of Czech communist rule in 1989. Since then he has largely kept to the political sidelines, content to concentrate on his writing.

Much of the territory in My Crazy Century, the English-language translation of a two-volume memoir published in Prague several years ago, will be familiar to readers of his fictional work, especially My First Loves, My Golden Trades, A Summer Affair, and his masterpiece, Judge on Trial. Klíma is said to have written at least twenty works of fiction, many of which are not available in English and which I have not read, but he seems to be a writer who needs to hew closely to his own personal experience; in fact in this memoir he mentions deliberately choosing menial employment, at a time when it was politically impossible for him to earn his living as a writer, in order to be able to write knowledgeably about that kind of work. He also makes it clear that his own marital infidelities have often been reflected in his fiction. He has not, to my knowledge, previously described the cultural and political movements in which he participated in as much detail as he does here.

Klíma's narrative ends in 1989 and the last hundred or so pages are made up of a group of brief essays — "expendable chapters" we might call them, following Cortázar, who may in fact have been his model — on various themes: "Ideological Murders," "The Party," "Dogmatists and Fanatics." These rather solemn and general pieces add little to the book, and suggest that although Klíma as moral novelist (and memoirist) has a keen sense of the ambiguities experienced by ordinary, essentially decent people who are unfortunate enough to live through extraordinarily dark chapters of history, he is not a particularly original moral or political philosopher. No matter, though; the stories are enough.

Update: A profile of Klíma in the New York Times (November 18, 2013) implies that the English-language version is an abridgement of the original. If so it's not clear what may have been taken out.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Notes for a Commonplace Book (12)

The preferred reading matter of the Mexican writer and photographer Juan Rulfo, as described in Luis Harss & Barbara Dohmann's Into the Mainstream: Conversations with Latin-American Writers (1967):
He was always particularly fond of Russian literature — Andreyev, Korolenko — and, above all, a great admirer of Scandinavia literature: Selma Lagerlöf, Bjørnson, Knut Hamsun, Sillanpää. "Once upon a time I had a theory that literature had been born in Scandinavia, then gone down to Central Europe and spread from there." He is still an assiduous reader of Halldor Laxness, whom he considers a great renewer of European literature, from a position diametrically opposed, say, to that of French intellectualism. United States literature, he thinks, has also has a salutary influence in latter years. But Rulfo, with his love of the diaphanous, favors the Nordics, because of their "misty atmosphere."
Rulfo's own books are set entirely in rural Mexico, but literature is not a respecter of borders.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

War (Joe Sacco)

My impression is that, with some salutary exceptions, contemporary graphic novelists tend either to focus on personal traumas or strike out into the realm of the fantastic — or both. There's nothing in principle wrong with either approach, but the situation does leave certain territories unexplored, serious journalism being one of them. Of course, on the face of it, there might seem to be a fundamental incompatibility between the art of making "comic books" and the kind of sober and objective reporting one expects from a reporter, but the Maltese-American journalist-cartoonist Joe Sacco has made as good a case as anyone for disproving that supposed incompatibility.

Safe Area Goražde, originally published in 2000*, covers the Bosnian war of the 1990s, one of the nastier phases of the troubled breakup of what was once the multiethnic state of Yugoslavia. It focuses on a small pocket of territory, largely inhabited by Bosnian Muslims, that had been officially and ineffectually designated by the UN as a safe haven. While what happened in Goražde may not have attained the level of atrocity of the massacres at Srebrenica (another safe area, not far away), it was bad enough. Sacco doesn't appear to have been on the scene during the worst period, but he was there in 1995 when the city was still besieged and had ample opportunity to interview eyewitnesses with fresh memories. Except for a few pages of historical background, it is those eyewitness accounts, along with Sacco's self-deprecatory description of his efforts to document them, that make up the book.

A little later this Fall W. W. Norton will be publishing The Great War, Sacco's wordless 24-panel folding panorama of the Battle of the Somme, which is being issued in a slipcase along with a pamphlet that contains Sacco's introduction and notes to the project as well as a brief essay by Adam Hochschild. (I've received an advance copy.) Hochschild's contribution (which is adapted from his book To End All Wars: A Study of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918) ends with a visit to the cemetery that holds the remains of the members of the British Devonshire Regiment who were killed in the battle:
In the cemetery's visitors' book, on a few pages the ink of the names and remarks has been smeared by raindrops — or was it tears? "Paid our respects to 3 of our townsfolk." "Sleep on, boys." "Lest we forget." "Thanks, lads." "Gt. Uncle thanks, rest in peace."

Only one visitor strikes a different note: "Never again."
* There is a more recent "Special Edition" of Safe Area Goražde, with additional material, which I have not seen.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

On the memory of stones (Benedict Kiely)

— In Devon, he assures her, lived a man who experimented in dousing and other devilment. He found by means of his dousing pendulum that some seashore stones he tested responded to the vibration tests for anger. He concluded that once upon a time those stones had been used for war and murder.
— Crap a brick, as my father used to say. What rot is that?

Though the two novels were published within a few years of each other and both deal (at least in part) with the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Bernard MacLaverty's Cal (see last post) and Benedict Kiely's Nothing Happens in Carmincross could hardly be more different in tone and manner, the former taut and efficient and the latter rambling and verbose — but not necessarily less entertaining for all that. Kiely's novel follows the travels of an Irish academic who has come home from America in order to attend a wedding just across the border in the North. For most of the novel what actually "happens" is next to nothing, mostly drinking, rambling around, talking, a bit of screwing, but the book has the pleasures of listening to a long-winded but gifted storyteller with a seemingly inexhaustible store of events, memories, legends, and lies at his disposal. Scraps of song, newspaper clippings, and references to Irish history and mythology are woven into almost every paragraph, and much of it is bound to fly over the head of the average reader (like me). Yet despite its generally flippant tone, the book never strays far from the theme of violence.

The sanguinary Irish ballad "Follow Me Up to Carlow" is quoted in the book's first pages, and Planxty's rousing version (below) is possibly the one Kiely had in mind. In keeping with the spirit of the novel it should be listened to appreciatively but with a healthy dose of irony as well. The singer is Christy Moore.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

The cottage (Bernard MacLaverty)

Cal heated a tin of beans and tasted himself slice after slice of bread at the fire. He fell asleep and when he awoke it was dark. He rubbed the window and looked out. Between the cottage and the lights of the farmhouse he could see the blizzard. It was after eight o'clock and the fire had died down. Shivering, he raked the embers to redness and put on some kindling wood, then blocks on top of that. He pulled his chair nearer to the fire and put his feet up against the tiles of the mantelpiece. After such a long sleep he knew he would spend the night tortured with guilt and insomnia. There was a knock at the door and he leapt to answer it, knowing who it was.

Bernard MacLaverty's Cal is now thirty years old, and it has probably been at least twenty-five years since the last time I read it. I picked it up again earlier this week, prompted by the death of Seamus Heaney, who like MacLaverty was a native of what depending on your point of view is either Northern Ireland or Ulster. Set during the height of the Troubles, the novel follows one not very willing participant, a teenaged boy with no particular prospects who is pretty much trapped from the outset, though his story will take some unexpected turns along the way. Dark as the background is, and as grim as the unfolding of the events, there's nevertheless a gentleness about the book, as MacLaverty is more interested in his characters than he is in indulging in yet another rehearsal of the cycles of violence and retribution that finally seem to have burned out, at least for now, in that much bled-over corner of the world.

Put another way, the book is not an example of noir. Which isn't to say that it holds out much hope, but it does at least have enough compassion for its characters to make us care about their fates, even if their prospects for happiness were never more than remote.

Bernard MacLaverty has written many short stories, some of which I've read and which are very good indeed, and several other novels, which I've never quite caught up with. This one still holds up quite well.