The Age of Innocence

age of innocenceLooking back on my reading history, I last read Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence ten years ago, just pre-blog. I barely remember it. As I turned the pages, everything seemed new and fresh. I couldn’t anticipate the plot, and I had the strong sense that I was seeing these characters differently than I’d seen them before, or maybe that I’d never seen them at all. The magic of re-reading with a bad memory: I tell you, it’s a palace of delights.

This book is told from Newland Archer’s point of view. He is a wealthy young dilettante, the cream of the crop of New York society families in the 1870s. Everything revolves around this small group of clans: the Mingotts, the Dallases, the Archers, the Wellands, the van Luydens. If you behave the way everyone expects (job, marriage, brownstone house, big parties for the clan, children) you’re one of Us. If you behave with less than spotless propriety — especially if you’re a less-than-spotless woman — you’re one of Them, cast into outer darkness. Newland is well on track to remaining one of Us for all time, and quite smugly contented to be so.

Until Countess Olenska comes, literally, on the scene (he sees her first at the Opera.) The Countess used to be little Ellen Mingott, but married an abusive Russian count and escaped, some say with a lover. Shocking! to leave a husband — more shocking still to have another man involved — the most shocking thing yet, to appear brazenly in public afterward. How can she not know that she should hide away? But she doesn’t, and Newland is unaccountably drawn to her, perhaps because she is so different from his innocent, untouchable fiancée May Welland.

This is a wonderful novel. The writing is absolutely outstanding: elegant, wry, fascinating. (One of my favorite statements: “Until a few months ago he had never known a ‘nice’ woman who looked at life differently; and if a man married it must necessarily be among the nice.”) The characters absolutely leap off the page. This time through, the most interesting thing to me by far was the difference between Newland’s assessment of May and the Countess, and my own ideas about them.

Newland spends a lot of time thinking about May as pure and beautiful, but not very bright. There are a lot of descriptors for May like clear, transparent, bright, shining, graceful, “a young Diana,” and so forth. Her intellect, however, is described as distinctly sub-Newland. He mourns several times that he will always know what she is thinking; that she will never surprise him; that she will never understand the poetry or art that he likes. Hmmm, I thought. Maybe. But since she does spring a huge surprise on him in at least one place in the book, and smaller surprises elsewhere, maybe she’s smarter than you think. And it’s possible that she understands the art and poetry just fine, and is tired of you mansplaining it.

Newland also plays what I consider a pretty dirty trick on Countess Olenska, supposedly out of his rising passion for her. (I would actually put it down to his pig ignorance of the realities of the world, none of which he has ever personally had to face.) He obeys his family’s pressure to convince her not to get a divorce from the abusive count (because divorce would be a scandal for the family), but then doesn’t ever ask himself what’s become of her. The family cuts off her allowance, and the count won’t send her money either. She has no way to live, and Newland is blithely ignorant. Once he finds out, he’s briefly angry that the family left him out of this decision to pressure the Countess to return to her husband, but takes no responsibility for the part he played, or for… forgetting, I guess, that everyone needs money. He has power, so he doesn’t ask himself what becomes of those who don’t. She doesn’t seem angry with him, either. I would be.

I would be very interested to read a modern novel based on this one, a version written either from May’s point of view or from the Countess’s (or both, maybe in alternating sections or chapters.) There is so much going on behind the scenes here, and Newland, to my mind, doesn’t come off well. This is a novel rich in irony and subtlety. It’s splendid.

Advertisements
Posted in Classics, Fiction | 9 Comments

Ill Will

When Dustin Tillman was 13 years old, his parents and his aunt and uncle were murdered. At the trial, Dustin and his cousin, Kate, testified against his adopted brother, Rusty. He claimed that Rusty was into Satanic rituals—it was the 80s, and Satanic panic was a thing. Plus, Rusty’s own parents had died mysteriously, so it kind of added up, even if there was no physical evidence. Now, 30 years later, Rusty is being released from prison, thanks to DNA evidence.

That’s just one major thread in this novel by Dan Chaon. Dustin is now a psychologist, and one of his patients has become obsessed with the idea that there’s a serial killer kidnapping young college men and drowning them a few days later. A former cop, Aqil has been studying what were presumed to be freak, accidental deaths, usually due to drunkeness, and found what appears to be a pattern. He wants Dustin to help him get at the truth. Dustin, grieving the death of his wife and lacking anything else to do, ends up going along with it.

Meanwhile, Dustin’s college-age son, Aaron, is caught in his own spiral of addiction. And he has started getting phone calls from Rusty, the uncle he never knew existed.

Chaon moves through multiple timelines and multiple voices to tell this complex story. There are several mysteries to unfold, all of them revolving around the human tendency to create stories out of the information we have, even if the story doesn’t make any sense. That story may then become our truth, whether it conforms to the facts or not. As far as Dustin is concerned, Rusty is a murderer. As the book unfolds, we learn why he believes that, and we’re given enough information to sort out what aspects of the story he’s told himself are likely to be true, and which aren’t.

As I’m writing, I realize that I’m making this book sound more straightforward than it is. All of these elements are common to psychological suspense. But Chaon is going for something weirder than that. There are sections where voices overlap, each one appearing in a separate column on the page. Who’s speaking? Are there three characters here, or just one? There are clues that are never explained, characters with dual (or more) identities, one character that I suspected for a while wasn’t even real. It’s that kind of book.

Chaon also does this weird thing with fragments and spacing that served no useful purpose, other than making the (obvious) point that memories are fragmentary. Most of the time, it just looked like mistakes.

And the end just leaves you with the questions hanging. I think it’s possible to work out what happened, and I think that the solution is pretty straightforward, although I’m still puzzled about one last text message that appears. But is that because of my own human tendency to impose a narrative on disparate clues? Has Chaon put me in the same trap as his characters?

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 11 Comments

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

Ta-Nehisi Coates rose to prominence as a writer largely through his articles for The Atlantic, and this collection includes nine of those articles, each drawn from a year of the Obama presidency and the year following. Through them, we can trace Coates’s development as a writer and a thinker, and we can follow elements of the national conversation about race.

The title of the collection refers to a statement by Thomas Miller, a black Congressman lamenting the end of the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, a time when African Americans rose to prominence only to have their achievements quashed by white supremacists. In his introduction, titled “Good Negro Government,” Coates reflects on the white response to Reconstruction and, by extension, other achievements by African Americans:

When it becomes clear that Good Negro Government might, in some way, empower actual Negroes over actual whites, then the fear sets in, the affirmative-action charges begin, and birtherism emerges. And this is because, at its core, those American myths have never been colorless. They can not be extricated from the theory that a class of people carry peonage in their blood. That peon class provided the foundation on which all those myths and conceptions were build. And as much as we can theoretically imagine a seamless black integration into the American myth, the white part of this country remembers the myth as it was conceived.

This point reminded me of some of Carol Anderson’s writing in White RageAnd the logic points the way to the Trump presidency, as Coates explains in the book’s epilogue.

I’d read several of these articles before, the most memorable being “The Case for Reparations” from 2014 and the epilogue, published under the title “The First White President” this month. Both of these are powerful examinations of white supremacy. The first focuses on the recent past, particularly in the area of housing discrimination. And the second focuses on how attitudes of white supremacy, more than economics, bolstered the rise of Trump. If you haven’t read these articles, I strongly recommend them.

Other articles address Bill Cosby’s conservatism, the life story of Michelle Obama, the Civil War, Malcolm X, mass incarceration, and the shortcomings and successes the Obama presidency. If you’ve read Coates before, you’ll know he writes thoughtfully and with passion, blending research and interviews with his own perspectives. It’s the kind of magazine writing I tend to love, and each article in this collection has something to offer.

Coates introduces each article with a few reflections on where he was in his life and career at the time he wrote it and what he might do differently if he were to write each piece today. These openings make this collection an interesting glimpse into a prominent writer’s early career. Given that all of these articles are available on the Atlantic’s website, these reflections are a big part of the collection’s value. (That and the fact that it’s nice to have some of Coates’s most ambitious pieces in one volume.)

These reflections show a writer growing in confidence and influence. The early profiles—of Cosby and Michelle Obama—are excellent, and I really liked the essay about the Civil War. But these are just stong magazine pieces, raising thought-provoking points and shining a different light on a well-worn topic. It’s the pieces in the latter half of the book, starting with “Fear of a Black President,” that show Coates bringing the fire and emerging as a major modern intellectual.

If you haven’t read Coates’s magazine writing, this collection is a fine introduction to his work. And if you’re already a fan of his work, the new material is worth reading. I used to subscribe to the Atlantic, and I’d read about half of these on publication, but I was glad to revisit them and to see Coates’s thoughts about them.

Posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 8 Comments

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

elegance of the hedgehogGather ’round, everyone, it’s time once again for Jenny to loathe a bestselling novel that everyone else in the whole world adores!

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery, is about Renée, the downtrodden, frumpy concierge in a high-class Parisian apartment building. The two narrators of the story are Renée herself and Paloma, a twelve-year-old girl who is a resident of one of the apartments. Both of them are hiding the same secret: they are highly intelligent autodidacts, interested in literature, art, philosophy, movement, beauty, and many other things in the world. Of course, this brings them endless, hidden joy and connection with so many others who share these interests. No! Ha ha! I’m kidding! This makes them both isolated and miserable (Paloma is planning suicide on her thirteenth birthday), and they both despise everyone around them.

Renée spends her narrative episodes explaining the pointlessness, meaninglessness, and banality of the lives of the wealthy people in her building. They buy things! And… other things! Usually in multiples, like nightstands and bedside lamps! They see psychiatrists, that’s how you can tell they live meaningless lives. They study ridiculous philosophy! Oh, wait, Renée also studies philosophy. Well, it’s meaningful and life-giving when she studies it, but it’s “meaningless simpering” when that rich girl studies it. Also, these people don’t look past the surface or get to know her, so they don’t know she has a rich inner life. She doesn’t know them, either, but she can tell by looking that they don’t have rich inner lives. The poor are also beneath contempt, in case you were wondering. They don’t love their children, they communicate in “grunts and gestures,” and they despise other poor people. Oh, and the ignorant! Even worse! The occasional comma error sends her into a frenzy of shuddering: how can people be so bestial?

Paloma is equally contemptuous of those around her: her parents, her sister Colombe, her sister’s boyfriend, her classmates at school. The purpose of her journal entries is to try to find a reason for living before her intended birthday suicide, but everyone and everything is just so boring and corrupt: the education system, the government, her parents trying to get her therapy. She plans to set her apartment on fire. Terrific.

So far, so revolting. I found both these characters just gratingly annoying. Both used their intelligence as a bludgeon to hate and mock others with, and it seemed to be the expectation of the author that the reader would find this an endearing and understandable trait. Aha! A brilliant analysis of the class system in France! Yes! That is how we intelligent people must live — truly alone! Well, I don’t think so.

About two-thirds of the way through the book, a new person moves into the apartment building: a Japanese gentleman named Mr. Ozu. He is very cultured, intelligent, and kind. He immediately sees through the veneer of dowdiness and ignorance Renée and Paloma have created, and reaches out in friendship. They blossom! They instantly become close friends! How heartwarming. Yes?

No.

The message of this book is that if you are exactly like Renée and Paloma, you’re a good person, and if you’re different in the slightest degree, you’re banal, pretentious, shallow, or disgusting somehow. Mr. Ozu is just like Renée. He has the same obsession with Tolstoy (his cat is named Kitty, a detail I did find genuinely great), a connection to her favorite filmmaker, the same love of Dutch painting. And therefore he is perfect. No one else gets the same treatment, not even her friend of thirty years, Manuela, who is “an aristocrat of the heart” but gets condescension around vocabulary. I know the end is supposed to show this big joyful moment of connection, but actually these characters don’t grow at all.

Oh, and speaking of vocabulary, I know this is a translation from the French (by Alison Anderson), but the language is so cringey. It’s extremely flowery and over-erudite; she never uses a twenty-five cent word when a five-Euro word will do. (I kept thinking of the quotation from Lolita when Humbert Humbert says, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”) There are long, digressive passages on philosophy (including one in which she says, “phenomenology is a fraud,” and then goes on to explain what it is for four pages. Honestly.) And the translation itself is moderately lumpy, with the French showing through. There are at least four or five examples of words being misused, and coming from someone who nearly has a fit over the difference between “bring” and “take,” that’s hard to stomach.

So. I hated it. That being said, every reviewer on earth disagreed with me, and it was a huge bestseller in France and also a NYT bestseller. Perhaps you liked it! Perhaps you will tell me how wrong I am, in the comments! I’m as ready as a hedgehog; fire away.

Posted in Fiction | 21 Comments

The Mistress of Alderley

mistress of alderleyCaroline Fawley has retired from doing sitcoms and theatre — “Thank God!” she says. Her charming, attentive partner, Marius, has set her up in a lovely manor in the small town of Alderley, near Leeds, as his mistress. He is still married — “only in name, darling” — so she only sees him on weekends, but the arrangement suits her perfectly. One weekend, they go to see Caroline’s oldest daughter, Olivia, sing the lead role in a Verdi opera — but Marius steps out for a breather in the interval, and never returns. Detectives Mike Oddie and Charlie Peace must try to get to the bottom of the many, many layers of secrets in the lives of the suspects, and especially of the victim, before they can find out what happened.

I’m always on the lookout for good mystery authors. Robert Barnard has written at least thirty mysteries, maybe more, and this is the first one I’ve read, picked at random because it was one of the two or three my library had on the shelf. And oh, did I enjoy it. The writing isn’t elegant, but it’s fluid and funny, with sly jokes sprinkled everywhere. The structure is terrific and unusual, with over half of the book passing before the crime occurs, so we really get to know the characters before the detectives come on the scene. I like this — the book doesn’t focus on the detectives’ lives and struggles, it focuses on the crime, and the people involved. And the characterization is great. The book gently lampoons Caroline, with her blind spot when it comes to love; the people in the village of Alderley; Caroline’s three sarcastic children; Marius himself, and the various surprises we keep uncovering about his life. I didn’t want to put it down.

And just because the mystery doesn’t focus on the detectives doesn’t mean they’re boring. We spend more time with Charlie Peace, a black detective, than with Mike Oddie. Peace is observant and wry, and there are several sharp exchanges about race in the book along with the detection. I also liked the setting, partly in Alderley and partly in Leeds.

Overall, I was so pleased to have picked this up. I will certainly be looking for more of Barnard’s work. What fun.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 2 Comments

Lockdown

My favorite Laurie King novels are those about Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes, but I’ve enjoyed her standalone novels as well, so I was glad to get a copy of her new bookLockdown through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program even though I was a little skeptical about the premise. It turns out I was right in my hesitation. This book is not at all up to King’s usual high standards.

The book takes place at Guadalupe Middle School in California. Linda McDonald is in her first year as principal and nervously preparing for career day. The previous year, a student attacked the local district attorney during the event—this was connected with the trial of gang member “Taco” Alvarez who was suspected of killing former student Gloria Rivas and had shot Sergeant Olivia Mendez when she encountered him during an investigation into the disappearance of a witness.

On top of all that, another student, Bee Cuomo, had recently disappeared without a trace. Her friend Nick had started a social media campaign accusing her father of being behind it.

So there’s a lot going on at Guadalupe, and the first pages of the book indicate that there’s more to come, as we see a list of characters turned over to the police after “the Guadalupe Middle School incident.”

Most of the book follows the large cast of characters hour by hour through career day, starting just after midnight the night before. This tick-tock countdown method is meant, I think, to amp up the tension, but with many chapters being only a half a page or so, it ends up making the book feel choppy.

The longest chapters are flashbacks into stories that may or may not matter. We learn all about Linda’s husband Gordon, who she met when she was doing mission work in Africa. There’s a secret in his past that Linda has only intuited and that they both want to keep quiet. Also believed to me carrying a secret is Tío, the school custodian, although his history is only revealed late in the book.

The theme of career day is that life—and school—is a tapestry, with lots of disparate parts coming together to create a unified whole. And I think King was attempting to create a book that feels like a tapestry, with elements that don’t make sense in isolation but work when you step back and see the whole. And when I step back, I can see how most of the pieces fit to build tension or create mystery.

Even though I can see what King was trying to do, the total effect is something of a mess. The characters are largely unconvincing, with students seeming older than they are a lot of the time and adults seeming much younger. The stakes around career day seem weirdly high—and not just because of the previous year’s violence, which would be an understandable reason for tension. And there is simply too much going on.

I appreciate that King is trying to do something outside her usual style here. (One of the reasons her Russell/Holmes series remains fresh is that she doesn’t follow a formula.) But I can’t recommend this. She has a new Russell/Holmes book coming in spring 2018, so I’ll look forward to that instead.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 4 Comments

No One Is Here Except All of Us

I’m not sure what to make of this novel by Ramona Ausubel. It has the feeling of a fairy tale, but one in which the horrors are real. It’s a tribute to the power of storytelling, but it also exposes the limits of the tales we tell. It’s a strange book.

The book is set mostly in a tiny Romanian village called Zalischik. When the novel begins, it’s 1939, and the Jewish villagers are just starting to hear whispers of war. What to do? Their people have moved on again and again, and they don’t want to move anymore. So they decide to create a world where they don’t have to move, where only they exist, and where they can start again.

It’s a pretty picture, and it fills the villagers with hope. But making a new world means giving up the old one, which most aren’t entirely willing to do, regardless of what they say aloud. And, of course, the new world still contains human selfishness and sickness. It takes a while to settle on rules that limit harm, and the work requires some compromises, including the breaking up of a family. The fantasy holds for years—long enough for the novel’s narrator, Lena, to marry and have children in this new world.

Eventually, however, the outside world intervenes, and Lena must learn to live in a bigger world. The story has fallen apart, but the story continues, too. As one character says, “There is always a story. No matter what we do, it can’t help but unfold.” It’s just that there’s no way to totally control how it unfolds.

The rest of the book involves characters telling stories to each other, sometimes lying to get what they want. But the lies are also a sort of kindness, sometimes protecting people from pain. It’s complicated. And the story Lena tells herself is one of remembrance, so that she doesn’t forget who she is and where she is from. The story may keep unfolding in ways she doesn’t want, but she can hold on to her truth. Or, she can choose to elide the horrors she’s better off forgetting so that she can focus on the good around her.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 5 Comments

Our Souls At Night

our souls at nightAddie Moore and Louis Waters have lived in the small town of Holt, Colorado for years. They’ve known of each other for decades, the superficial facts of each other’s lives, in the way of small towns, but have never been friends. But one day, Addie comes to Louis’s door and asks — well — if he would like to come over to her house at night and sleep with her. Just sleep, she says, and talk. Nights are so lonely, she has trouble sleeping. “But I think I could sleep again if there were someone else in bed with me.” she says. “Someone nice. The closeness of that. Talking in the night, in the dark.”

That’s how their relationship begins: Louis showers, and shaves, and clips his toenails, and brushes his teeth, and brings over his pajamas in a paper bag, and they… sleep together. But the intimacy and tenderness of lying together in the dark and telling each other about their lives — the happy times, the disappointments, the grief and loss, the ways their lives did, and didn’t, work out the way they hoped or imagined — deepens and enriches their lives. They find themselves happy, and happier, and more so because they don’t take it for granted.

Soon, Addie’s son Gene, who is having problems with his wife, brings Addie’s grandson Jamie to stay with them for a while. Jamie is six, and Addie and Louis fold him into their routine with no problem, as another piece of gentle happiness. They get a dog. They go camping. They get a baseball bat and gloves for all three of them, and they go see a game.  And every night, they’re together. It’s simple — absolutely simple — but the depth of feeling behind it is as complicated as every human heart.

I was trying to tell my husband about this book, because I found it so moving. He looked at me with a raised eyebrow and said, “Isn’t it sappy?” I hadn’t even thought of that possibility until that moment. This book could easily have been dripping with sentiment — new love! second chances! a six-year-old lisping platitudes, and his dog! — but it just isn’t. Kent Haruf’s prose is minimalist, for one thing, stripped bare of platitudes or twee quirks. It has some twists of wry humor, and one unexpected meta-reference, which was fun. But the most important thing is that it acknowledges the essential messiness of life. Addie and Louis have both been through loss, pain, and failure of connection with the most important people in their lives. Sometimes that was someone else’s fault, and sometimes their own. In bed, in the dark, next to each other, they can admit these things, admit the anguish, and be forgiven. The ending of the book is the same. I won’t specify the pain that occurs in the last 20 pages or so, but it’s hard to read. Still, hope blossoms out in human connection and forgiveness.

I read Our Souls At Night in an afternoon, and afterward I felt slightly stunned. I was so deeply drawn in, like sitting on the bottom of a pool, with that thick wavering light. This was such a lovely book, and I’m very grateful to Teresa for prompting me to read it for our Book Swap.

Posted in Fiction | 15 Comments

Death at La Fenice

death at la feniceDonna Leon began writing her series of Venetian police procedurals when I was in college (1992, if you’re counting) and has written one every single year since then. (Twenty-seven of them. Whew.) Death at La Fenice is the first of them, and the first one I’ve ever read, despite recommendations especially from my father, who loves this series.

Police commissioner Guido Brunetti has seen a lot of death, and so has the famous old La Fenice opera house. But when Maestro Wellauer is killed with cyanide in his coffee, both of them prove capable of being scandalized. Wellauer was a harsh, rigorous, prejudiced man who had a surprising number of enemies. Which of them actually had motive for murder? Brunetti interviews divas, lovers, wives, scholars of Chinese history, and gossips, usually over amazing Italian food and wine, as he circles closer to the truth.

This is a fairly slow-paced murder mystery with a not-exactly unpredictable ending, and the writing is workmanlike (except for the food, which is rhapsodic.) But my friend Stacey helped me see that this book is a window into the Italian way of life. Brunetti is surrounded by Byzantine bureaucracy, a vain and incompetent superior, and sergeants who are essentially thick-headed goons. He is dealing with a set of laws that are inconsistent and sometimes incomprehensible. His suspects are well aware of this, and they are carving out their own way in the world, each with their own idea of justice and fairness. How can Brunetti act within the law, as an arm of the law, and bring about justice in an unjust situation?

There are several small examples of this sprinkled through the book. One particularly endearing one is when Brunetti visits an American living in Venice. She has remodeled her 15th-century apartment to include beautiful skylights, and he asks, amazed, how she got permission from the tangled city bureaucracy. She tells him that she simply went ahead and did it and then sent to the city planners to ask how much the fine would be. Brunetti, gobsmacked, laughs to himself. A Venetian would never do such a thing.

I’ll probably read at least one more of these mysteries and see if Brunetti remains an island in a sea of incompetence or whether he gets some partners he can work with. But I did enjoy this, as a snapshot of Venice.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | Leave a comment

Life with a Star

Josef Roubicek, a former bank clerk, lives alone in an empty house. He’s destroyed almost everything he owns because he doesn’t want “them” to get anything of his. So, now, he scrapes by, moment to moment, day to day, eating the meager rations he’s allowed, doing the jobs assigned to him, dreaming of his former lover, and wondering what will happen when he, inevitably, is called up to join a transport.

Czech author Jiří Weil was a Jewish man in hiding during World War II. His 1949 novel, Life with a Star, translated by Rita Klímová with Roslyn Schloss, presents an excruciatingly grim picture of daily life during those years, as experienced by someone who has  been stripped of everything he has, yet still, somehow, has more to lose. The novel doesn’t go into detail about the politics of the time, nor does it spell out each and every indignity the Jews of Prague faced. It’s the experience of one man, and this particular man is both trying to be realistic about his situation and trying to ignore the details. He knows his choices are limited and his death perhaps certain, but he can’t be bothered to memorize every rule.

The book contains some remarkable passages about the German torment of Jews, the most striking perhaps being the comparison of the transports and work camps to a circus. Josef begins with his happy recollections of being a spectator at the circus, and then gets introspective:

When I watched the seals pushing a ball with their snouts I didn’t know it was a bad thing to be an animal in the circus. It never occurred to me that it was something seals did not usually do. I had also never seen a dog walk on two feet, with a little hinting cap on his head and a gun over his shoulder. But it was amusing to look at him as he walked around the circus arena. The circus was a wonderful, exciting place, where thing happened that I had never seen. It was thrilling to sit comfortably on the wooden bench and watch the acrobats.

But when I myself was to perform in the circus, I didn’t like to remember the sound of the whip and the cries of the tamers. I didn’t want to remember the horses running around and around or the dog jumping through a large hoop covered with paper, I wouldn’t life my head to look at the ropes under the ceiling when I myself had to walk a tightrope and look down at the gaping faces.

To “them” (the only term Weil uses to refer to the Nazis in the novel), imprisonment, torment, and murder of Jews is an entertainment. They are forced to act against their nature to avoid immediate punishment.

In other sections, Josef remembers his past life, though the details are fragmentary. Most of the time, he just takes the next step in front of him.

For much of the novel, he lavishes his concern on a stray cat he names Tomas who turns up as his dilapidated shell of a home. Jews are not allowed pets, but he makes a friend of Tomas, feeding him tiny scraps from his meager meals and coming to love the feeling of his soft fur up against him each morning as he wakes. He has nothing, but he’s willing to give what little he has to sustain this little life.

By the end of the book, this willingness to sacrifice for another becomes important as Josef debates whether to allow some friends to help him hide when he is summoned to join a transport to the camps. His friends want to do it; they’ve done it for others, and they say they know what to do. But Josef knows that getting caught would mean death for them. Still, life wants to go on, and perhaps helping others and allowing them to help us is the only way to persevere. It’s not just about literal survival but about survival of the soul and spirit.

Weil doesn’t present the dilemma in such didactic terms, however. This is not a book that explains itself. It just puts you there, in the midst of it, having to figure out, with Josef, what the big questions are and what the right answers are when there seem to be nothing left.

Posted in Fiction | 4 Comments