Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Novel reading

I have been writing a book that is not about Goethe. It has a rather personal subject, and I hesitate, for the moment, to detail here what it is about. Suffice it to say that it was a book I was working on before Rick died. After his death, I put it aside and went back to it about over a year ago, since it was something he wanted me to finish. Which I now have done, and, if I find representation for it, I will say more. Thus, it is not that Goethe has not been on my mind, but that Goethe takes a lot of concentration. Moreover, now that I am done with "the book," I can return to Goethe fully.

In the meantime, however, some thoughts on Goethe that were provoked by some recent novel reading. For some years I have been the leader of a book group. I am in the enviable position of being paid to read novels that I probably would never have otherwise read. And since I make the selections, I try to find novels that are critically and literarily interesting. Thus, I comb the important book reviews e.g., the TLS, the London Review of Books. I even go through the New York Times Book Review, which is a pretty sad review. Or maybe the NYTBR simply reflects the sad state of literary publishing. Lots of novels are being published, but who can stand another novel about a dysfunctional American family? Here are the books my group read this "term" (we have a fall term and a spring one):

Karl Ove Knausgaard, “My Struggle,” book 1
Kamel Daoud, The Mersault Investigation”
Miranda July, “The First Bad Man: A Novel”
Joseph O’Neill, “The Dog”
Paul Kingsnorth, “The Wake”
Haruki Murakami, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and the Years of Pilgrimage”
Maylis de Kerangal, “Birth of a Bridge”
 Kazuo Ishiguro, “The Buried Giant”

All of these went over well, except for "The Wake." Hardly anyone went beyond the first page. Well, it is written in what the author Paul Kingsnorth calls a "shadow language," which suggests Old English. (Go to the Amazon listing and take a look.) It take a little getting used to, and frankly I only read half. I listened to the whole thing on Audible, however, and it was quite understandable, particularly if you know German.

Haruki Murakami by Lucas Eme A
It was the Murakami novel that got me to thinking about Goethe. In fact, I think Murakami was thinking of Goethe, too. First of all, the "years of pilgrimage" in the title refers to the title of a work by Franz Lizst entitled Années de pèlerinage, which itself refers to Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters novels. The protagonist of Murakami's novel, Tsukuru Tazaki, has a friend who has a recording of the pianist Lazar Berman playing this work by Lizst, and when Tsukuru hears the recording he is reminded of a friend from his youth, herself a pianist, who used played one of the suites. (I recommend listening to Berman's rendition. Truly beautiful. Then, read all the comments by the enthusiastic readers of Murakami's novel who have also listened to the recording.)

Murakami's novels often revolve around young men who are "lost," so to speak, trying to find their way in the world, somewhat like Wilhelm Meister. But what really cinched the Goethe connection for me were several scenes in which Tsukuru receives something like "life lessons" from chance encounters with strangers or hears stories of people who stand for something more than themselves. For instance, the friend with the Lazar Berman recording tells of an experience his father had when still a university student. He worked one winter in a spa in northern Japan, where he met a jazz pianist who had only a month left to live. He had no disease; he did not plan to commit suicide; but he had received a "death token" from someone. The only way to avoid dying was to pass the token on to someone else, but he didn't plan to do that. As he says, "I've been thinking for a long time that I'd like to die as soon as possible." When asked how the death token can be passed on, he replies. "It's easy. The other person just has to understand what I'm saying, accept it, give their complete consent, and agree to take the token. Then the transfer is complete. ... It isn't some kind of bureaucratic thing."

When asked how to "pick" someone, he says that you look for a person's color: "Each individual has their own color, which shines faintly around the contours of their body. Like a halo. Or a backlight. I'm able to see those colors clearly." This ability to see colors is not something one is born with; you get it only in exchange for accepting immanent death.

There is a lot more like this in this novel and in other Murakami's stories and novels. There is always a mixture of realism with something approaching allegory. Again, as in Goethe's "fiction."

Sir Gawain
Kazuo Ishigoro's novel takes place in England in the 6th or 7th century, in which Britons and Saxons have long lived together, sometimes indistinguishably. Yet this peaceful co-existence has been achieved at a terrible price, in earlier times by King Arthur, and the peace has lasted because people's memories of the slaughter have been extinguished by a mist that covers the land. But the dragon Querig, who is the source of the mist and the loss of memory, is on her last legs, and the old animosities between Britons and Saxons will revive with her death, with the prospect of genocidal wars. One of the last incidents in the novel is a challenge between an ancient and rusting (literally, his armor) Gawain and a character identified only as "the warrior," who represents the growth of Saxon power.

The novel combines fairytale, fantasy, and myth to explore what I think must have been the impetus for Ishiguro's treatment, namely, the revival of ancient animosities after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, especially in the Balkans. Tea Ohbrecht, in her novel The Tiger's Wife, did something similar. Alongside fabular tales of the Deathless Man, Darisa the Bear, and the Tiger's Wife are events from the headlines, all illustrating the complexities of Balkan history,  especially the long-held suspicions, superstitions, and violence that pervade the region. Obreht, like Ishigoro, shows that strong leaders –– Tito, King Arthur –– might be able to guarantee peace for a while among people of different ethnicities, but the violence from such historical animosities can never be totally extinguished, as long as we have memories. What Neil Gaiman writes of The Buried Giant in his review expresses what I think a lot of us feel about Goethe's late novels:  it is "a novel that is easy to admire, to respect, and to enjoy, but difficult to love. Still, The Buried Giant does what important books do: it remains in the mind long after it has been read, refusing to leave, forcing one to turn it over and over." And no matter how many times one reads it, "it guards its secrets and its world close."

Picture credit: Society 6

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