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When Rip and I first fell in love, I sometimes used to imagine us as romantic characters in a great tempestuous love story set against the turbulent background of the miners’ strike, transgressing boundaries of wealth and claims to be together. I was his door into an exotic world where noble savages discussed socialism while soaping each other’s backs in t’ pit baths. He was my door into Pemberley Hall and Mansfield Park. We were so full of illusions about each other, maybe it was bound to end in a splattering.
I’m home alone this evening, which is why this review is being posted so late. See I’m someone who lacks any real self-discipline. This is why I am very lucky to be married, because if I ever slack off my wife kicks my arse. Stephanie is in Canberra today, so I have been pottering around the house, trying to convince our old dog to eat its medication, googling funny pictures with cats and generally not reviewing the book I chose this morning!
Finally I wrenched myself back to the business and found myself laughing out loud for most of this afternoon.
Georgie (aka Georgina aka Georgia aka Georgine) has been living a quiet life of writing freelance articles for a specialist magazine (“Adhesives!”), and managing to raise her two children while her husband synergises the world from his blackberry. One day something snaps. She kicks her husband out of the house, orders a skip and dumps all his belongings into it.
Which is how she comes to meet Mrs. Shapiro. An elderly Jewish lady followed by a pride of house-cats, Naomi Shapiro stops in front of Georgie’s house to retrieve Rip’s collection of classical records. The two begin a slow intimate friendship, with Georgie’s own attempts at a poisonous novel based on her own marriage dropped in favour of her new friend’s past, filled with tragic love, young lives ground up by the second world war and escape from certain death at the hands of the Nazis.
Then Mrs. Shapiro has a bad fall and winds up in hospital. Georgie unwittingly has become her carer and it falls to her to have her home, stinking of cat-piss and damp, in order so that the hospital doesn’t have social services dump her friend in an institution. What began as an innocent friendship is soon swallowed up by bureaucratic fencing with hospital officials and wolfish estate agents. As Georgie slowly begins to piece together the history of Mrs Shapiro, the house itself becomes a disputed zone between several parties, all laying claim to the property. Meanwhile her own son has developed an obsession with religious prophecies about the end of the world. It is all too much for Georgie, her head swimming in eschatological trivia, disputed geography, inventive uses of velcro and, of course, the erotic uses of adhesives.
This story is warm, inventive and far cleverer than it has any right to be. The creation of the Israeli state, the Holocaust and apocalyptic prophecy, are all neatly bound up with one lonely middle-aged woman desire for a meaningful life. Throughout the novel seemingly innocent oppositions are teased out to reveal more fundamental conflict. Georgie break from Rip seems initially trivial, but the more we learn about their relationship, there appears an essential imbalance present from the very start. Her son’s pursuit of fundamentalist Christian concerns is a neat irony, showing how her hard-won parental liberalism is quick to collapse in the face of something so monolithic.
But it is Mrs Shapiro who proves to be the secret treasure of this book. Marina Lewycka‘s dialogue is quite funny and far more convincing than the tortured English of Alexander Perchov. With her random combinations of Yiddish and English slang I found her to be a far less self-conscious creation. Think Everything is Illuminated meets Sue Townsend, if you’ll pardon the high concept.
Witty, very clever and studied, a fine novel from Marina Lewycka. Strongly recommended.
Ah, the old doggie has gone to bed for the evening. That’s a relief.
“What does it mean schmuck?” “Somone who does something that you don’t agree with is a schmuck.” “Teach me another.” “Putz.” “What does that mean?” “It’s like schmuck.” “Teach me another.” “Schmendrick.” “What does that mean?” “It’s also like schmuck.” “Do you know any words that are not like schmuck?” He pondered for a moment. “Shalom”, he said, “which is actually three words, but that’s Hebrew, not Yiddish. Everything I can think of is basically schmuck. The Eskimos have four hundred words for snow, and the Jews have four hundred for schmuck.” I wondered, What is an Eskimo?
Five years ago I went to see Liev Schreiber’s excellent film adaptation of Safran Foer’s novel. If you have yet to see this movie, I would strongly recommend you get the dvd. It manages to be many things at once – comic, witty, stunningly shot and finally heart-breakingly sad. Everything Is Illuminated also introduced me to Eugene Hütz lead singer of gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello. Hütz was hired by director Schreiber to consult on music for the film. Indeed his irrepressible song ‘Start Wearing Purple’, is featured on the soundtrack. However, so impressed was Schreiber by Hütz that he hired the singer to play the role of Alexander Perchov. Alex is one of many interpreters, or story tellers, challenged with unravelling the mystery presented to us by Safran-Foer in the novel.
‘My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name.’ Immediately Safran-Foer throws us into the company of yet another unreliable narrator, one for whom English is not even a first language. Hired by a young man named Jonathan Safran-Foer to act as translator on his trip to the Ukraine, Alex regales us with his impressions of the curious American Jew. Why would anyone leave America to travel all the way out to Odessa, when everyone wants to travel in the opposite direction? Why would someone actually pay to do so? This strikes Alex as the act of a very stupid person.
The book acts as an investigation of Safran-Foer’s own family history, tracing the origins of a small community known as Trachimbrod and its fate during the events of World War II, as well as Alex’s growing awareness of how his family’s past is tied to the strange American’s. The two narrators of this tale are joined by Alex’s grandfather and his ‘Seeing Eye bitch’ Sammy Davies, Junior, Junior. Safran-Foer is of course deadly afraid of dogs, but their gruff driver insists upon her presence in the car as he is convinced he is blind. They travel out of Odessa across the Ukrainian countryside, but are unable to discover any clue as to the location of Trachimbrod. Everyone they speak seems either not to know, or strenuously insists that no such place ever existed. The three men and a dog continue until they find the one person willing to ‘illuminate’, what happened to the community of Jews that once lived at Trachimbrod, a secret that changes the lives of the three men forever.
Safran-Foer skips through time and memory lightly, hinting at the eventual reveal of the book, while also distracting us from the grim fate of Trachimbrod with the comic narration of Alex. There is much to laugh at in this book and even the family history of the Safran-Foers proves to be an absurdist account that is half cabbalist fugue, half preordained tragedy. When the truth finally is revealed, it is gruesome, tragic and powerfully captured. The jumps through history suddenly coalesce into a grand narrative that is part condemnation of the horrors of the Holocaust, part meditation on the role played by memory in Jewish culture.
The film made me cry and sure enough the book did also. This is self-aware writing that embraces post-modern tropes, but also manages to retain a heartfelt emotional core.
It was not a bang, it was a rumble, not overloud, but it thudded into all corners of the morning like a great door slammed in the deepest hollows of the sea. Beside me a heavy wire stay unexpectedly quivered like a cello string for a moment, then stopped.
Now, standing up unsteadily from the sea, was the famous Mushroom.
‘Where were you when it happened?’ Isn’t that the refrain after any major event, or historical signpost erected in hindsight? ‘What were you thinking when you heard the news?’ Historical accounts give a narrative to the events that overtake us throughout our lives, establishing a meaning, or telos as the philosophy lecturers say, out of the reports and findings that are pored over. The twentieth century still defines us, that is to say our understanding of the past one hundred years define us, our ideas of nationality, culture, who we are as peoples. The danger lies in being too selective in what we remember and what we ignore.
Robert Fox’s book is a collection of different writings on the twentieth century. It features easily digestible extracts from personal journals, biographies, reports and, as the twenty-first century approaches, web-blogs. There are even selections from the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, folk songs from Woody Guthrie and gonzo ramblings from Hunter S. Thompson. The book begins with the age of discovery and ends with the century’s extended epilogue that followed the events of September 11 2001. A ‘clash of civilizations’, along religious lines on a scale not seen since the Second World War.
This book also describes the evolution of how we account for our history, the changes in the language employed to describe momentous events. Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of radium is an adventure that equals the race to the Antarctic between Scott and Amundsen. Britain’s Edwardian Age is seen as the last gasp of the Empire, with the fallout from the tragic expedition to the South Pole a presentiment of the dark days ahead. We refer to the First World War, placing it in sequence. To the peoples of Europe it was known as the Great War, which spread from the mainland to Africa and felled the Russian Tsarist regime. Fox presents John Reed’s ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’, once more, reporting the spontaneous cry ‘Revolutionary discipline! Property of the People..’ during the attempted sack of the Winter Palace. We have an account from the son of a Turkish soldier, whose father was left to die by his fellow troops somewhere on the side of a road. Then there is the Easter Rising in Dublin, seizing the opportunity to try and fight a beleaguered British occupation.
The cracks that followed a ‘peace that brings more victims tomorrow’ (a quote from a Serbian General from an article published in 1993) inevitably pulls Europe towards a second conflagration. The Spanish Civil War becoming a testing ground for German Blitzkrieg; the new form of journalism that evolves on the hoof courtesy of writers such as George Orwell soon coming to define the style of war reporting; the burning of the Reichstag; the grim doom levelled on European Jews by an insensible madman; and the centrifugal force of the conflict sucking in armies from America, Japan and Australia. Finally the testing of the atomic bomb at the Bikini Atoll, a death-warrant for the whole of humanity prematurely signed with the swirl of a mushroom cloud.
Fox darts and weaves between enemy lines to give a broader appreciation to the conflicts he covers. The story of a British POW escapee’s encounter with a sympathetic German lepidopterist in Occupied Italy was a favourite of mine, as well as the suspicion Robert Graves receives for carrying a copy of Nietzsche’s poems, portrayed in the press as ‘the sinister figure behind the Kaiser’. Then there’s Evelyn Waugh’s contribution to travel writing: ‘I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountain almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the tops and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of grey smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have even seen in art or nature was quite so revolting.’
Fox’s selections are both intimate and revealing. I wonder if we even now realize how soon history will leave us behind.
Murray was new to the Hill, a stoop-shouldered man with little round glasses and an Amish beard. He was a visiting lecturer on living icons and seemed embarrassed by what he’d gleaned so far from his colleagues in popular culture.
“I understand the music, I understand the movies, I even see how comic books can tell us things. But there are full professors in this place who read nothing but cereal boxes.”
“It’s the only avant-garde we’ve got.”
When I was still in college I dared to express a negative opinion about Don DeLillo’s Underworld. I found it difficult to read, occasionally over wordy and slightly pretentious. Threatened with expulsion from several friendships unless I revised my opinion, I ploughed on and eventually during the second half of the book, something clicked. I finished Underworld suitably impressed with its themes of how discarded objects and hidden histories have just as much importance as official accounts of where we came from. DeLillo is one of the great figures of American letters. By amending my opinion of the book I found myself once again tolerated by my peers.
This is the second book by DeLillo that I have read and I am sorry to say…I didn’t really like it.
Jack Gladney has cornered the academic market in a peculiar field. A lecturer at College-on-the-Hill, he has founded and is the head of the Department of Hitler studies. He pours over biographies of the Nazi dictator, shows his students hours of propaganda film footage, keeps a copy of Mein Kampf close at hand and muses on the cultural significance of The Holocaust. Embarrassingly he cannot speak German. He befriends a new lecturer who has come from New York named Murray Jay Siskind, who is looking to follow Gladney’s example and set up a Department of Elvis studies. The two banter throughout the novel on how television inoculates us to recorded atrocities and how death underpins all media entertainment.
Gladney and his new wife Babette live with a sampling of their respective offspring from several marriages. Their children are precocious for their age, addressing their parents often as peers, a product perhaps of their multifarious parentage. On Fridays the family gather together as a unit to watch television, a ritual designed to deprive the box of its allure for minors.
Throughout the novel television and the mediated image is shown to desensitize the Gladney family and Jack’s academic colleagues from any sense of what is real. The only remaining reality is that of death itself, something that is impossible for people to understand. Midway through the novel the town is forced to evacuate due to a chemical disaster. Jack argues with his family as to the serious of the event. The children insist on the family seeking shelter after they hear the broadcasts warning of an approaching flume of poisonous gas. Jack questions them as to the intonation of the warning, just how serious was it? His authority as a parent is negligible, his relationship with his wife based on constant prevarication in the hope of seeming always rational. What else if left to define him beyond a fear of dying?
While reading White Noise I found myself continually comparing it to other novels. When Jack and Murray discuss violence as entertainment, the latter finally successfully setting up his own course on car crashes, I was reminded of J. G. Ballard’s Crash. Ballard also focuses on the fear of death, celebrity and the human sex drive, but in a far less disjointed manner. When Jack is lost to a neurotic fugue, unable to relate to his wife, caught in nonsensical arguments with his colleagues, I thought of Saul Bellow’s Herzog. That book featured a much-divorced academic trying to bring his professional intellect to bear on his neurosis. However, it was a far more balanced and solid book, at its core ultimately hopeful.
As a satire I found White Noise to be lacking in focus, at times too broad. We spend our lives waiting for death, so during the disaster Jack encounters a group that practices emergency responses to just such an event in live simulations. Unfortunately they’re not prepared for the real thing. Where other readers might see examples of DeLillo’s humour, I see only failed attempts.
I guess he’s just not for me.