‘The Notebook’ by Agota Kristof – Living Through Hell on Earth While Losing the War

 

‘The Notebook’ by Agota Kristof (1986) – 183 pages            Translated from the Hungarian by David Sheridan

‘The Notebook’ has some of the most brutal perverse scenes I have read in a novel. It is painful to read but original, blunt, and powerful. It takes place during 1944 and 1945 in I suppose Hungary whose people welcomed the Germans, but now they are waiting for the invading Russians who will stay there for many decades.

If ever there was a place of Hell on Earth it was Hungary during the last days of the war. The Germans and some of the Hungarians, upset about their losing the war, started murdering the Jewish people in earnest, murdering and destroying whole camps in order to cover their evil tracks. The civilian population, realizing that the war is ending and they lost, either welcome their rampaging Russian liberators or descend into theft, violence, or insanity.

During this time, life is perverse for everyone, not just the soldiers. Life is hard for rural folk, but the situation is even more desperate in the cities.

A mother from the city where there is no food sends her two twin boys to live with their grandmother who lives in a small town and is called the Witch by her neighbors. She is cruel and stingy with the little money she gets through selling vegetables in the town. The grandmother takes the boys whom she calls “sons of a bitch” since the mother agrees to send her money. The grandmother is rumored to have murdered her husband many years ago.

The twin boys always act in unison throughout and are never differentiated from each other. They learn to dispense a rough form of justice during these brutal times. They must do what it takes to survive and will retaliate against those who are cruel to their neighbors. One of these neighbors is a desperately poor woman and her daughter Harelip. The daughter went to the local priest for money just to survive, and the priest would give a little money to the girl if she let him see her slit. When the boys find out about this, they blackmail the priest into providing regular payments to Harelip and her mother.

There are scenes in this novel would make a sailor blush. Along with a rough sense of justice there is a stark sense of honesty here.

At one point there is the following exchange.

A man says:

You shut up. Women have seen nothing of the war.”

A woman says:

Seen nothing? Idiot!! We have all the work and all the worry: children to feed, wounds to tend. Once the war is over, you men are all heroes. The dead: heroes. The survivors: heroes. That’s why you invented war. It’s your war. You wanted it, so get on with it – heroes my ass!”

The chapters in ‘The Notebook’ are all very short and are made up of short and choppy sentences. It is difficult to read more than a few pages at a time. However this rugged crude style is entirely appropriate for this harsh and blunt account.

I plan to read the other two novels, ‘The Proof’ and ‘The Third Lie’, in this trilogy by Agota Kristof after I recover from ‘The Notebook’.

 

Grade:      A

 

 

‘The Seagull’ by Anton Chekhov – A Play of Unrequited Lovers

 

‘The Seagull’ by Anton Chekhov (1898) – 61 pages             Translated from the Russian by David Magarshack

When the one you love loves someone else, it’s a problem that only a play can resolve.

The schoolmaster Simon loves only Masha, but Masha ignores Simon because she has her heart set on aspiring writer Konstantin. However Konstantin is madly in love with and has eyes only for aspiring actress Nina. Nina begins the play in love with Konstantin but when renowned author Trigorin arrives, Nina immediately falls for him. Meanwhile Trigorin hangs around with the famous actress Irina Arkadina who happens also to be the mother of Konstantin, but Trigorin is open to any and all affairs on the side. And the married Paulina, the mother of Masha, is having an affair with the doctor Dorn. Of course women have always fallen for the doctor Dorn. So it goes.

Each of these unrequited love situations resolves itself in its own way.

Anton Chekhov subtitled ‘The Seagull’ as “A Comedy in Three Acts”, but for the life of me I can’t find much of anything humorous about the play. There is a silly play within the play in which Chekhov makes fun of symbolist plays which were coming into vogue in Russia at that time. Also there are plenty of other good-natured people around besides all these unrequited lovers. However I believe most viewers would say this play is a tragedy.

‘The Seagull’ contains a large cast of characters, and the amazing thing is that Chekhov can capture the human qualities of each person on stage with just a few lines of dialogue for each. Although Konstantin and Nina and Trigorin would probably be considered the main characters, Chekhov does not slight any of the more peripheral characters, and their life situations are also rendered with poignancy. I believe that is why I admire Chekhov’s writings so much, his strong empathy for each of his characters. Someone may be off to the side, but their life is just as important to them as it is for the main characters. Chekhov recognizes this fact.

The following introductory lines by the translator David Magarshack go a long way to explain the appeal of ‘The Seagull’:

Chekhov’s attitude toward the characters in his plays is one of profound understanding without any false sentimentality. It is this that explains best of all the marvelous blend of the tragic and the comic that is so characteristic of them.”

Much of ‘The Seagull’ takes place near the lake on the country estate of old man Sorin. Here Chekhov is opening up the stage beyond the restrictions of the drawing room.

And then there is the seagull or, in a fancy literary term, the objective correlative of the play. First Nina mentions the seagull to show how she is drawn to the lake. Later Konstantin shoots the seagull and gives it to Nina who just leaves it lying dead on the stage. Then Trigorin has the seagull stuffed as an ironic token of what he is doing to Nina by entering into a love affair with her. Heavy stuff.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

Some Humorous Quotes About Writing and Other Things

 

The following quotes were all found in the Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotes by Gyles Brandreth.

 

I’ve learned from my mistakes, and I’m sure I can repeat them.” – Peter Cook

I always wanted to be somebody, but now I realize I should have been more specific.” – Lily Tomlin

The trouble with words is that you never know whose mouth they have been in.” – Dennis Potter

If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” – Anonymous

“The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” – Winston Churchill

Too much of a good thing can be wonderful “ – Mae West

Maturity is a high price to pay for growing up.” – Tom Stoppard

I have never yet met a man who could look after me. I don’t need a husband. What I need is a wife.” – Joan Collins

This is not a novel that should be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” – Dorothy Parker

Oh, Jack Kerouac – That isn’t writing, it’s typing.” – Truman Capote

To see him (Stephen Spender) fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sevres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee.” – Evelyn Waugh

Words are like leaves and where they most abound, much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.” – Alexander Pope

Facebook is for people who can’t face books.” – Madeleine Beard

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.” – Stanislaw Lem

“Computers make it easier to do a lot of things, but most of the things they make it easier to do don’t need to be done.” – Andy Rooney

The only way to amuse some people is to slip and fall on an icy pavement,” – E. W. Howe

I would have answered your letter sooner but you didn’t send one.” – Ace Goodman

Two things are infinite. The universe and human stupidity, and I am not yet completely sure about the universe.” – Albert Einstein

“No one gossips about other people’s secret virtues.” – Bertrand Russell

“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” – Oscar Wilde

I won’t say she was silly, but one of us was silly, and it wasn’t me.” – Elizabeth Gaskell

If you want to get rich from writing, write the sort of thing that’s read by persons who move their lips while reading.” – Don Marquis

There is no greater bliss in life than when the plumber eventually comes to unblock your drains. No writer can give that sort of pleasure.” – Victoria Glendinning

 

 

 

‘Big Sky’ by Kate Atkinson – A Very English Crowd

 

Big Sky’ by Kate Atkinson   (2019) – 400 pages

There is nothing really wrong with ‘Big Sky’. It is an entertainment with a lot of English cute along the way. But the novel is so busy showing the idiosyncrasies of its large cast of quirky characters that it has no time for any real depth. You almost need a scorecard to keep track of all the folks running around.

This time detective Jackson Brodie has moved to the northeastern coast of England and while watching for a possible wayward husband is reluctantly on the trail of a sex trafficking ring which supplies young girls from other countries for some of Britain’s elites. The sex trafficking ring is made up of three small-time criminals who conveniently are not involved in any of the actual sexual abuse so that they and their family members can also be portrayed as cute. Since the sexual abuse is never portrayed, ‘Big Sky’ can keep its characteristic light sense of humor. Instead of sex abuse we get loads of physical violence.

Along the way of this very tangled plot there are some humorous lines:

You would have thought that getting divorced from a woman would free you from the obligation of identifying her corpse, but apparently not.”

Since Jackson Brodie is a recurring character in a series of novels, we find references to other extraneous events here. Also there are more recurring characters including Brodie’s family and the two female policewomen Ronnie and Reggie. The subplots concerning Jackson’s family are probably of great interest to Jackson Brodie fans but not so much to the rest of us readers.

‘Big Sky’ is a whirlwind of English persons and plot lines. ‘Big Sky’ is so busy with its multitude of eccentric characters to have any profundity. It is all on the surface. Atkinson would have to slow down, simplify her story, and drastically reduce the number of characters in order to achieve any real depth. This is a crowd pleaser which is not a bad thing, but that’s all it is.

I still very much admire Kate Atkinson’s more literary novels such as ‘Life After Life’ and ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’. However Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels do not have the depth of for instance Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache detective series, so from now on I will probably stick with Atkinson’s more literary novels and avoid her detective novels.

 

Grade:   B

 

 

‘The Party Wall’ by Catherine Leroux – Linked Stories of Four Family Member Pairs

 

‘The Party Wall’ by Catherine Leroux (2013) – 243 pages Translated from the French by Lazer Lederhendler

‘The Party Wall’ is a highly original intriguing work about four pairs of family members. Thus we have young sisters Monette and Angie, husband and wife Ariel and Marie, brother and sister Simon and Carmen, and double woman Madeleine and Madeleine (If you are wondering why Madeleine is listed twice, read the book).

Catherine Leroux is a Canadian author from Quebec writing in French.

At first there seems to be no linkage between the four separate stories but subtle connections develop. The arrangement of the stories is quite unique with a very short story about the little sisters Angie and Monette opening each new section, and the other three stories each first having a opening section and then later each has a closing section. All this jumping around did seem somewhat disjointed and hard for me to follow, but I’m sure the author had her purposes.

My favorite of the stories is that of the politician Ariel and his wife Marie, so I will mainly refer to that story. Politician Ariel rises to a Canadian leadership role only for him and his wife to become the subjects of a huge scandal through no fault of their own. They wind up having to leave Quebec in disgrace and wind up in the sparse plains of Saskatchewan. Leroux gives us an apt description of the people living there:

In any event, in this region of vast distances, where neighbors are recognized by virtue of their cars more than their faces, no one studies them up close. The inhabitants of central Saskatchewan have become so scarce they hardly look at each other and are identified from a sideways glance at their hairdos, their voices, the unique vibration of their presence, always perfectly distinct from someone else’s.”

The political scandal that beset Ariel and Marie involved an extremely rare medical or biological family anomaly which I won’t reveal. All three of the main stories are driven by just such uncommon biological aberrations, and I felt the author over-relied on this plot device.

Another device the Leroux overuses is the surprise grotesque horrific ending. Stories don’t have to be grotesque or have dreadful endings in order to be interesting. If they have quiet happy endings, they might be even more satisfying for the reader, at least for me.

‘The Party Wall’ is a difficult novel to rate. The writing itself is intelligent and well-crafted and carried me along pleasantly. I suppose its odd arrangement, one-in-a-million coincidences, and sudden terrible conclusions could all be considered part of its charm. However I would not count on it.

 

Grade:   B

 

 

‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ by Olga Tokarczuk – Astrology and the Plight of the Animals

‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ by Olga Tokarczuk (2009) – 274 pages                                                      Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ begins with alarming but fascinating stark intensity:

We left the house and were instantly engulfed by the familiar cold, wet air that reminds us every winter that the world was not created for Mankind, and for at least half the year it shows us how very hostile it is to us. The frost brutally assailed our cheeks, and clouds of white steam came streaming from our mouths.”

The old woman who lives in a rural forest area, Janina Duszejko, and her neighbor Oddball find the newly dead body of their other neighbor Bigfoot lying on his kitchen floor. He appears to have choked to death on the bone of a deer. Nearly everyone here has a nickname. The old woman’s reaction is severe:

I disliked him. To say I disliked him might be putting it too mildly. Instead I should say I found him repulsive, horrible. In fact I didn’t even regard him as a human Being. Now he was lying on the stained floor in his dirty underwear, small and skinny, limp and harmless…for someone as foul as he was did not deserve death. Who on earth does?”

I can think of no other novel in which the main character’s reaction to events is so fierce and sharp.

The old woman has two strong beliefs. One is a belief in astrology. There is much talk of which planet or moon is ascendant or in opposition. I usually avoid like the plague books that go too heavily into astrology, but I am happy I stuck with this one.

Her second belief is a love of and a passion for justice for animals. She absolutely detests the killing of animals, especially by hunters. Here is her justification:

They were more human than people in every possible way. More affectionate, wiser, more joyful… And people think they can do whatever they want to Animals, as if they are just things. I think my dogs were shot by the hunters.”

She becomes livid when she finds the hunters near her home have set up salt licks to attract deer.

And when the Animals come to feed, they shoot at them. It’s like inviting someone to dinner and murdering them.”

She is fanatic about all animals, even the lowliest:

It occurred to me that every unjustly inflicted death deserved public exposure. Even an Insect’s. A death that nobody noticed was twice as scandalous.”

When the old woman reports cases of animal cruelty to the authorities, they see her as “a tedious madwoman who is hopeless at everything, pathetic and laughable”. However in her younger days, she worked as a bridge construction engineer and then a grade school teacher.

At one point the irate old woman tells us of the value of anger:

“Sometimes when a Person feels Anger, everything seems simple and obvious. Anger puts things in order and shows you the world in a nutshell. Anger restores the gift of Clarity of Vision, which is hard to attain in any other state.”

All I can say is that despite the old woman’s beliefs in things I don’t necessarily agree with, she states her views in such a clear straightforward fashion that she won me over as a fictional character.

‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ is a powerful passionate intense novel, and I strongly recommend it.

 

Grade:    A

 

‘Turbulence’ by David Szalay – A Whirlwind Trip Around the World

 

‘Turbulence’ by David Szalay   (2019) – 145 pages

‘Turbulence’ is a quick trip around the world in twelve separate airplane flights.

Turbulence – irregular atmospheric motion especially when characterized by up-and-down currents; violent disorder or commotion

This novel depicts not the turbulence in the air but instead the turbulence in people’s lives.

Thus we have twelve very short stories about 12 very diverse people of many different nationalities and occupations – pilot, co-pilot, writer, elderly mother, etc. – as they travel from city to city around the world. Thus we travel from London to Madrid to Dakar to Sao Paulo to Toronto to Seattle to Hong Kong to Saigon to Bangkok to Delhi to Kochi to Doha to Budapest to London.

Along the way we deal with people who are avoiding close members of their own family, unfaithfulness, severe illness, and other kinds of unrest. The stories are only minimally connected.

This is perhaps a clever idea for a novel, but it did not work this time. There are too many characters with not enough development of the characters and not enough plot. We barely get to know these people before we are off to the next flight and an entirely different set of people. There is little description of the landscape or atmosphere in all these diverse cities except for the airports which all tend to be about the same.

The stories are too sketchy and too diffuse to have much of an impact. All Szalay does is show the turbulence in these characters’ lives. He makes no attempt to show how each character handles the turbulence. He is in too much of a hurry to move on to the next character, and that was unsatisfying for this reader. The stories that make up ‘Turbulence’ just do not go deep enough into these characters’ lives.

Previously I had been extremely impressed with ‘All That Man Is’ which was also written by David Szalay and I considered it one of the very best novels I read in 2016. That novel was also a collection of only slightly connected stories of people on the move, in that case men traveling around Europe. However the stories in ‘All That Man Is’ were much more fully developed and entirely convincing in their understanding and insight into the male psyche.

‘Turbulence’ is a sketchy disappointment.

 

Grade:    C+

 

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