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“Do you feel absolutely no concern for your future, boy?”

“Oh, I feel some concern for my future, all right. Sure. Sure, I do.” I thought about it for a minute. “But not too much, I guess. Not too much, I guess.”

“You will,” old Spencer sad. “You will, boy. You will when it’s too late.”

I didn’t like hearing him say that. It made me sound dead or something. It was very depressing. “I guess I will,” I said.

Hello folks. I am still in Ireland, not long before my return flight to Oz. You may recall I attempted yet another unwise challenge during my flight here during which I read three books on the plane. Not the most conducive of reading experiences it must be said.

Which is why I have taken so long to write this review. Were my impressions on returning to this book, which I enjoyed so much as a teenager, affected by the long-distance flight? Or is it the case that I now view the book with new eyes, as a consequence of how I have changed since I first read it?

Holden Caufield’s adventures begin with yet another expulsion from a well-known boarding school in Pennsylvania. Rather then suffer further embarrassment he travels to New York, deciding to enjoy a short break before returning home to his family. He gets drunk, tries to look up old girlfriends and behaves in a manner befitting a wealthy twenty-something New York socialite as opposed to a fifteen year old who refuses to grow up.

Yes he cherry-picks the behaviours of adult hood that he enjoys, but most of all he clings to a sense of innocence that he feels the world is robbing him of and indeed everyone else. Part of this stems from the death of his brother Allie, whom Holden regards as superior to him in almost every way. Partly he is also concerned for what will happen to his younger sister, Phoebe, who worships him. Most others, including his talented older brother D.B. who departed for Hollywood to work as a writer, he regards as phonys.

I’m quite illiterate, but I read a lot.

Holden is frequently criticised by fellow students and teachers for his seeming immaturity. He deliberately speaks in an exaggerated teenage manner and oftentimes Salinger presents him as thinking in this way too. But his spoken words and thoughts belie the thoughtfulness of Holden, desperately trying to understand a world he does not believe himself fit to live in. Yes the world is full of phonys, but they seem to know what to do with their lives. Why did he survive into adolescence and Allie not?

I used to think she was quite intelligent, in my stupidity. The reason I did was because she knew quite a lot about the theater and plays and literature and all that stuff. If somebody knows quite a lot about those things, it takes you quite a while to find out whether they’re really stupid or not.

Crap, he’s on to me!

I opened this review with a certain tired reluctance and unfortunately for all the great craft and sincerity on show here – Salinger is too clever to allow his archetypal rebel to succeed – I have fallen out of love with Holden. I think this is mainly because the trickle down effect of this novel’s incredible success has quite diluted its impact. There are hundreds of Holdens out there. In fact watch an episode of Gossip Girl some time. Go on, I dare you. Notice how clever they all seem to think they are? Maybe a hipster reference every ten minutes or so? Yeah. That’s what they did to Holden, turned him into a neo-dandy.

Whereas I saw him as Peter Pan who failed to find NeverLand. Stuck in the grimness of New York, unable to rescue all the lost boys and girls. A few years ago I read Franny and Zooey which I enjoyed immensely. I notice that has not attracted the slavish worship of The Cather in the Rye. For the best I feel.

An undoubted classic, but weakened by the repetition of the decades since.

I am D-503. I am the Builder of the Integral. I am only one of the mathematicians of the One State. My pen, more accustomed to mathematical figures, is not up to the task of creating the music of unison and rhyme. I will just attempt to record what I see, what I think – or, more exactly, what we think.

I have a curious relationship with the work of George Orwell. I love his essays, his war-time journalism. I have even reviewed some of his fiction here on the blog. When I was in my teens however, Orwell’s writing, particularly 1984 but also in this respect Animal Farm, seemed to me to be something of a sacred cow. He had achieved the apex of dystopian fiction, the very pinacle of any allegorical take on communism and much like with  the sweeping claims of Fukuyama’s The End of History – this was a subject that was no longer relevant. Socialist theory was anachronistic and its era already long-gone before I had read a word of Marx.

So naturally I signed up to be a fan of Aldous Huxley instead, whose Brave New World I announced to (bored) friends was the far better book, more prophetic, more cleverly insidious in its soft dystopia. Of course I was wasting my time. Before Huxley, before Orwell, there was Yevgeny Zamyatin.

D-503 is a cipher, a member of One State, the perfect human civilization. As a mathematician he sees perfection everywhere, the angles of buildings and the shapes formed by a human mouth more real to him than any person, or archaic emotional response. D has begun a log of his day-to-day activities, as a demonstration of how One State has accomplished its utopia. He is a function of that mathematically precise machinery of society (at one point he recalls how as a child he was driven to despair by the idea of the negative square root of one – irrational numbers are something he finds terrifying.).

Daily life is strictly regimented, in order to ensure that each cipher contributes as much as possible. Work time, sex time, even ‘Personal Time’, is alotted to each member of One State according to a schedule. D has been allocated a romantic partner named O-90, whom he shares with his friend the poet R-13. This state sanctioned love triangle lumbers along pleasantly, with the only privacy afforded to either couple them by sex time, which allows the right to pull a curtain – all homes and structures in One State are transparent.

D’s life changes when he meets I-330. Temptatious, where O is demure, with no interest in sex for procreative purposes, or indeed any other responsibility ordered by One State, she slowly introduces D to concepts from ancient times long made taboo. As he becomes increasingly obsessed with her, his mathematical certainty crumbles and he begins to think about what he wants, what is good for him, instead of the state.

One thing that struck me while I was reading was that each of D-503’s log entires opens with a selection of ‘keywords’. So not only can we credit Zamyatin for inspiring the likes of Orwell – did he invent Livejournal as well?! There is much that feels surprisingly anticipatory here. The prose is spare, elliptical, oddly similar to the disjunctive abbreviated manner of online discussions today. This edition’s translator Natasha Randall quotes the author as having said ‘Old, Slow, creaking descriptions are a thing of the past; today the rule is brevity – but every word must be supercharged, high-voltage.’

I also like how ahistorical the setting for the novel is. It occurs in some unknowable future, with the spirit of humanity long since crushed. There is a haunting passage where D wanders deserted, glass streets, with all the other ciphers having congregated by the command of the state. Zamyatin theorises the eventual elimination of the organ of imagination itself, with the human ideal of becoming like unto a machine the most desirable outcome.

Bitter, acerbic and oddly witty, a classic dystopian work.

The Furs had been married seven years but had no children, a situation in those fecund days that caused them both grief. Mizpah was a little cracked on the subject and traded one of Bill’s good shirts to a passing emigrant wagon for a baby pig, which she dressed in swaddling clothes and fed from a nipple-fitted bottle that had once contained Wilfee’s Equine Liniment & Spanish Pain Destroyer but now held milk from the Furs’ unhappy cow – an object of attention from range bulls, rustlers and roundup cowboys, who spent much of her time hiding in a nearby cave. The piglet one day tripped over the hem of the swaddling dress and was carried off by a golden eagle.

Another first for me – I have never read Annie Proulx before today. I must confess that was a deliberate choice. I have some sympathy with the likes of B.R. Myers, who has argued that as a novelist she is representative of a certain turn away from genre fiction, yet another literati exploring the faultlines left by Woolf and Joyce with modernism.

On the other hand, I figured a book of short stories would be an interesting introduction to her style, that should it prove not to my liking, could be dispensed with quickly.

Fine Just The Way It Is I understand is another in a series of books by Proulx about ordinary folk living in countryside  Wyoming. The tales featured here are set in various periods of American history, although two relate to the adventures of the Devil and his personal secretary, satirical visions of a Hell that is not all that far removed from the world we know.

Family Man opens the proceedings with a tale set in the present-day of an elderly man being visited in a retirement home by a young relation. She hopes to record his memories of their family’s past, something he only agrees to do with the understanding that this will be a true account of what happened, not some sentimental memoir. His life has led him to The Mellowhorn Home, with its insistence on group activities and a lack of privacy. One of the nurses even eavesdrops on Roy Forkenbrock’s account of his past. Ultimately his experiences, the history of his family (and the painful secret he chooses to unburden himself of) becomes just another trivial story, swamped in an age of sensationalist reality television.

Them Old Cowboy Songs returns to the pioneer era of 1885. A young couple make a stake on a plot of land and the man goes off to find work, leaving his wife Rose behind, pregnant and alone. The story opens with a chilling note that many folk who lived in these times ‘had short runs and were quickly forgotten.’ It makes for a timely warning as to the couple’s fates and the random dangers of the wild country. Testimony of the Donkey skips back to the present day and has another couple, this time separated by a spurious argument, with one of them leaving to hike on a mountainous trail by herself. What follows is a horrific description of the human body being subjected to exposure and crippling thirst.

Proulx has a reputation as an archivist of an idea of America, like McCarthy, unveiling some notional ‘true history’, of the country through the prism of fiction. Whether it be the cost of isolation on the pioneers, the prevalence of homosexuality among men left to themselves, or the slow erosion of identity caused by modernity. It is easy to see why her stories have proved so popular with Hollywood. She is offering a counter-point to their own mythology of the Old West, a shock to cinema-audiences who have grown bored with stories of cheerful manifest destiny.

So it was some surprise to encounter fantastical stories thrown into the mix here. There are the aforementioned ‘Devil’, interludes, I’ve Always Loved This Place & Swamp Mischief, as well as the bizarre The Sagebrush Kid, which is quoted above and slowly drifts into horror fiction.

Even when her stories fail to keep me gripped throughout, in each I found at least a momentary shock, a passage that impresses with its callousness, or randomness.

The jury is out. I am eager to learn more about Proulx.

‘If she didn’t live in a big house how could it be a question of her having rooms to spare? If she were not amply lodged you’d lack ground to approach her. Besides, a big house here, and especially in this quartier perdu, proves nothing at all: it’s perfectly consistent with a state of penury. Dilapidated old palazzi, if you’ll go out of the way for them, are to be had for five shillings a year. And as for the people who live in them – no, until you’ve explored Venice socially as much as I have, you can form no idea of their domestic desolation. They live on nothing, for they’ve nothing to live on.’

Right that’s it. I am decided. I will never travel to Venice. Only bad things happen there. As for evidence, I present you with Death in Venice; Don’t Look Now; the city’s a literary death trap! Plus I hear Venetians don’t like tourists and I look just like a tourist. Even when I am at home.

So this book’s setting earns a black mark from me, but also its author. I have had a troubled history with Henry James. I tried to read The Portrait of a Lady when I was a teenager (I believe the Nicole Kidman film had just come out). I did not make it past the second chapter. The prose just killed me, it was far too dense. I have since managed to read The Turn of the Screw (an excellent book that has been adapted into an equally excellent film - The Innocents), but that was nice and short, not long enough for James’ prose style to hurt my fragile brain.

This book is equally short and I am quite grateful for it.

The Aspern Papers is concerned with the efforts of our nameless narrator, a poetry devotee, to worm his way into the affections of two ladies who may in possession of missing material belonging to the dead poet Jeffrey Aspern. Pretending to be an innocent lodger, the narrator moves into the home of Miss Juliana Bordereau, a former lover of Aspern. Attempting to feel out how she would respond to his request for information about his literary hero, he discovers that her reserve is unaffected by his obsequious entreaties. Instead he turns to her niece, Tina, who proves more amenable to his advances.

A curious game of cat and mouse emerges, bound up in wordplay and the limits of politeness. As Miss Juliana’s health begins to fail, the narrator becomes more desperate to become the beneficiary of his literary hero’s legacy. How far is he willing to do.

I have to say I actually found myself enjoying the prose of my nemesis with this book. James invests an incredible amount of psychological detail into his characters. The narrator’s treatment of Tina is quite cruel, but she is revealed to have hidden stores of strength, taking him by surprise before the story’s conclusion. Miss Juliana might be a Dickensian Miss Haversham (certainly in the narrator’s covetous eyes she is), were it not for the fact that she has lived a full life and now simply wants to be left to her memories. What right does this book thief have to plunder them?

A civilized battle of wits, with a satirical bent. Surprisingly enjoyable for me.

He recognized her despite the uproar, through his tears of unrepeatable sorrow at dying without her, and he looked at her for the last and final time with eyes more luminous, more grief-stricken, more grateful than she had ever seen them in half a century of a shared life, and he managed to say to her with his last breath:

“Only God knows how much I loved you.”

Today has been reported as the hottest day in Sydney for 85 years. I certainly felt it. When I set out this morning the air had been pleasantly cool. One quick deposit of previously reviewed book titles and the collection of this coming week’s novels and I was back outsde, stepping lightly on sizzling concrete.

Absolutely unbearable. While waiting for the bus I began reading Love in the Time of Cholera, a book I am sad to say I am mostly familiar with following its use as a prop in that Kate Beckinsale romcom Serendipity. I felt as if the heat simply dropped, so absorbed was I in the book’s fluid prose. Later when I retreated to my shady bedroom, with my wife curled up asleep beside me in bed, I felt like I was the luckiest man alive.

The story begins with the tragic suicide of a man who refused to grow any older once he had reached his sixtieth year. Though he does not figure in the rest of the story, a narrative that flashes back and forth across the lives of three individuals caught in a strange love triangle, this man’s refusal to grow old reflects the concerns of the novel itself. Whether love, that animating principle that sustains both generation and devotion, is possible in old age?

For fifty-one years, nine months and four days Florentino has remained passionately in love with Fermina. They met while they were both teenagers and conducted a secret affair of the heart through love letters. Florentino is given to over-romantic poetical outpourings of affection, gifts and persistent entreaties for Fermina’s love. For her part, she maintains a degree of reserve in her replies, although she is convinced that she loves him. Even after the affair is discovered, she persists in her shared attraction to the poet, until one day, having overcome many months of obstacles thrown in their path to be together, she sees him in a new light: as a pathetic looking figure, completely dependent on her reciprocation.

She rejects Florentino and instead finds herself courted by Dr. Urbino, sophisticated and possessing of wordly knowledge where her former lover was insular and consumed by an irrational infatuation. Urbino has returned from Europe with the sophistication of a true Parisian, a cultured interest in literature and modern medicine, having aided in the defeat of a devastating cholera epidemic. They marry and raise a family together, discovering an enduring domestic happiness.

Florentino fastidiously preserves his own body to remain in shape for his beloved and is incapable of writing anything but love letters in memory of the woman who rejected him – something of a hindrance when it comes to writing business letters for a shipping company. As the years pass he begins to take a series of lovers, generally widows, with whom he has clandestine relationships, never marrying, never accompanying any of them in public. As he rises up the corporate ladder rumours spread that he is in fact homosexual and with his studied vanity, unusual attention to his health and obsession with sex is seen as an odd character.

When Urbino finally dies, having fallen in an attempt to retrieve a parrot from a mango tree, Florentino presents himself to Fermina while she is still in mourning and presses his suit. Horrified she rejects him a second time, in disbelief that such an unnatural request be made while her husband sits in his coffin waiting for burial.

The death of Urbino occurs at the beginning of the novel, with the three lives of the spurned lover, wife and dead husband poured over for the rest of the book. There is a Proustian quality to the proceedings, with memory the fuel of the narrative. The frailty of the human body is ever-present. Florentino’s romantic obsession is symptomatic of cholera; the aging characters are betrayed by bodily effluvia. At one point someone declares that romantic love in youth is ridiculous – during old age, obscene.

This book remains passionately defiant and wickedly seductive till the last page. Delirious, amoral and bewitching.


But Serezha could not sleep: he was only pretending to be asleep. Outside, the whole house was moving through the twilight into the evening. To the material slave-song of the floors and buckets, Serezha was thinking how unrecognizable everything would become in the light when all this movement was over. He would feel as if he had arrived a second time and, what was more important, well rested into the bargain.

Ah the Russians! What a people. The hallmark of a would-be teenage intellectual is a dog-eared copy of Dostoyevsky - though of course the French also have Sartre and Camus on offer, but really to my mind Notes from the Underground is required reading for the budding existentialist. The Russians nailed this philosophy of distancing oneself from life itself as an unromantic process before Frenchmen had even begun to enrage clerics with their secular pontifications (while donning the necessary turtle neck, puffing on a Gauloises and simpering in impressionable girls’ ears as well!).

As Lydia Slater points out in the introduction to this novel, Russians have the same word for pity as they do for love – zhalet, which may provide a clue as to why Russian literature enjoys such a reputation for philosophical depth. While I was reading the introduction I was alarmed at the degree of emotion expressed regarding the international reception of Pasternak‘s work following the phenomenal success of Doctor Zhivago. It was only later that I realized the introduction was written by the author’s sister.

Where family is concerned, perhaps it is difficult even for Russians to maintain that literary hauteur.

The story of The Last Summer concerns Serezha’s reflections on the events of the previous year in Moscow. The war is still ongoing. His mother has passed away and numbed with shock, he has only just managed to complete his university exams. He travels to visit his sister Natasha and her family. Exhausted from his journey an too tired to indulge his sister’s curiousity about events in the war, he falls into bed and thinks back on the summer just gone.

Following the completion of his studies, Serezha was hired as a private tutor to the son of a family named Fresteln. He is given a room at their mansion, is well-paid and finds the work not to taxing. In the evenings he joins the family for dinner and afterward wanders the city streets till well into the morning. Serezha is a curiously intense and romantic sort. He spends most of his evenings with prostitutes, even developing an obsession with them, convinced that it falls to him to ‘save’, them by dispersing large sums of money to each of the Muscovite street-walkers.

Of course, work itself is not the solution. Work enslaves and provides small financial reward. He hits instead upon the scheme of writing a play for an acquaintance, Kovalenko and with the proceeds liberating these women with whom he feels a kindred spirit.

However, the main focus of Serezha’s romantic interest is a fellow employee of the Fresteln household, a Danish maidservant named Anna Arild Tornskjold. Though she is referred to as the ‘companion’, of Mrs Freteln, when Anna speaks to Serezha she complains that she was recruited under false pretences. Her husband had only just died during a stay in Berlin when she accepted the notice and travelled all this way to discover the role was more menial than described. The two converse in a mixture of German and English, with the intimacy of their talks encouraging Serezha’s interest in the widow.

I have squeezed what little plot there could be said to be found in these pages, but do not take from that that this is a slight novel. Pasternak’s prose is a revelation of descriptive power and private musings. A morning start is described as ‘tangled threads of sultry heat, as nightmarish as crumbs in the beard of a corpse’. This is more poetry than prose, with heavy hints of semi-autobiographical reflection.

Pasternak appears to be describing the death-throes of romance itself in the wake of The Great War. His desire to save not just the prostitutes, but Anna herself, indeed all women, speaks to a peculiar messianism. Serezha’s concerns are far too bound up with his own thoughts. There is a beautiful moment when, having propositioned Anna, she finds him at the appointed meeting time furiously writing a draft of his proposed play. Quietly she retreats, leaving him to his private enthusiasms.

A master of language, beautifully written.

Before him, Siddartha saw a single goal: to become empty, empty of thirst, empty of want, empty of dream, empty of joy and sorrow. To let the ego perish, to be ‘I’, no longer, to find peace with an empty heart and await the miraculous with thoughts free of Self. This was his goal. When all ego had been overcome, had perished, when every longing and every drive in his heart had fallen silent, only then could the Utmost awaken, the great secret, that innermost core of being that is no longer Self.

I avoided Hermann Hesse for the entirety of my teenage years, for fear of turning into a hipster doofus in a coffee shop. You know the kind. For years I became instinctively suspicious of anyone who even mentioned Steppenwolf in conversation. At the time I saw readers of Hesse as being at the opposite end of the same spectrum to Ayn Randers, two sides of a fanatical attachment to a solipsistic ideology of self.

I had a sneaking curiousity about the German mystic, however. His evident interest in Eastern philosophy was attractive, something I had been eager to learn more about ever since a Religious Education class in 1994, when my teacher dismissed Buddhism as an aberration in a single rant.  Today I took the opportunity to see whether my prejudice against Hesse was justified.

Siddartha is a young man who has been raised to become a Brahmin like his father. Having a noble bearing and a native thirst for knowledge, his family feel proud as they are confident he will follow in his father’s foot-steps. His closest friend, Govinda, is in awe of his boyhood companion, whom he regards as someone who is truly special, already having the makings of a very wise and holy Brahmin.  What he does not realize is that Siddartha’s goodness and learning has not earned him any true sense of satisfaction. He is searching for a different path to enlightenment, becoming distrustful of doctrine and anyone who claims that there is an ordered path to wisdom. One day a group of Samanas, pilgrims with no property or livelihood, come to his town. Siddartha decides that he will join them and requests permission from his father to leave. The proud Brahmin is dismayed by his son’s decision and refuses. When Siddartha does not relent, patiently waiting in the same spot where he asked his father’s blessing for hours, eventually permission is given. He has learned that quiet determination can not be denied. As he leaves, his friend Govinda joins him.

The two live as Samana, fasting  and studying under their elder fellow pilgrims, suffering the physical indignities of an ascetic lifestyle in their quest for wisdom. Siddartha takes in all that the men have to teach them and still finds it wanting.

Instead Siddartha chooses yet another path again, alone this time, plunging into the lives of ‘child-men’, who reside in cities. He becomes a lover of women under the instruction of the courtesan Kamala. Enters the world of business, becoming rich as a tradesman and living in a fine house of his own. Instead of the rags of a pilgrim, he wears fine clothes and oils his hair. Siddartha sees that knowledge in itself is worth the effort and that the life of a holy man hides itself from many experiences out of a fear of Sansara. Yet as the years pass he realizes he still feels discontent, that though his knowledge is great, he still lacks true wisdom.

What I enjoyed about this book is how the trope of the young man seeking enlightenment is initially reversed. Siddartha is raised to be holy and only discovers the more venal world of city life after fully exposing himself to the rigours of abasement in search of self-knowledge. It is actually a quite simple tale, a well-composed twentieth century religious parable.  

Hesse has an interesting approach to the naming of the characters. Obviously Siddartha shares his name with the Buddha, here referred to as the ‘Sublime One’. His friend Govinda, who chooses to part company from Siddartha and become a monk is named for one of the aspects of Krishna and so on. The technique signifies the novel’s intent – to argue that those seeking for enlightenment and ‘oneness’, need only recognize what is holy all around them.

Siddartha is an Eastern take on the Bildungsroman of Goethe written with a quiet lyricism. I was pleasantly surprised.

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