Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel García Márquez, 1985)

Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

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LiTtoCIt’s been a while since I’ve wanted to write about a book, probably since my feelings towards most of what I’ve recently read have been without doubt or ambivalence. Love in the Time of Cholera, however, was different. After I’d finished, I came away with this lingering sense of nothing much having really happened. In actual fact, in its 350 pages, the novel tells the tale of two people’s entire lifetimes.

My thoughts, however, remain unclear.

Undoubtedly, the story made an impression – the title alone is ladened with melodrama. Its aims and ideals are noble, aspirational – eternal devotion, the enduring power of love, the unique human capacity for unwavering faith, even when the odds are stacked against us. The prose is glorious, the writing technically excellent, the lyricism magnificent. Throughout the novel, Gabriel García Marquez weaves a complex but beguiling web; a web of rich, lovingly constructed characters, all with their own unique histories and idiosyncrasies and impulses. The structure and pacing are intricate, but flawless – the story circles back on itself time and time again, each time revealing new layers for us to get lost in, layers coated in charmingly vivid detail. All that is ordinarily mundane – about life and about love – is made magical by Marquez’ complete mastery of language. The novel is, in essence, a delight to read.

And yet – there are themes and references that are, to the modern reader, plainly problematic: the casual racism (reflective of the time, no doubt, but even so), the blasé portrayal of paedophilia, and the normalisation of rape. These are not adequately dealt with, or even presented as occurrences which warrant being dealt with. The chain of events stemming from them (a young girl committing suicide, for example, following an ‘affair’ with Florentino, a man who is three or four times her age) have no consequences for the perpetrator, who at most, seems to perceive them as mere inconveniences disrupting the course of his ultimate quest for Fermina. We are not made to feel as though we should alter our opinion of Florentino following these incidences. He remains the ultimate hero, a symbol of a pure, profound ‘higher’ love that, to my mind, appears to be excusing him from the monstrosities of his less noble exploits. It is his love for Fermina that alone defines Florentino, and defines the novel; his love for Fermina is all that matters, and all that can ever matter.

The problem with this so-called love, the force sustaining the story, is that it is simply not convincing. It is a love – if you can call it that – that is superficial, that is glib, that is grounded in nothing but shallow observances and juvenile fantasies. It is an all-consuming, obsessive, absurd kind of love. It is too senseless, too sentimentalised to be truly romantic, and, ultimately, too bizarre to be revered.

It is this, for me, that prevents the novel from having any real or potent impact or meaning. But for all his grand proclamations, Florentino is essentially a slimy, self-abasing, and decadent character. Perhaps if he wasn’t made to be glorified, perhaps then I would take a different view – but I found the fundamental premise of the novel, and indeed the nature of Florentino’s ‘love’, too grotesque to empathise with.

Having said that, there is a genuine love story in the novel. It is the love story between Fermina – a spunky, stubborn, headstrong woman whose characterisation I absolutely adored, save for her incomprehensible acceptance of Florentino at the end – and her husband, Dr. Juvenal Urbino. The passages detailing their complicated, decades-long marriage were amongst the most beautiful and moving in the entire book, their years of oscillating happiness, misunderstandings and compromises serving as a study of the realities of long-term love, in all its beauty and complexity:

It was the time they loved each other best, without hurry or excess, when both were most conscious of and grateful for their incredible victories over adversity. Life would still present them with other mortal trials, of course, but that no longer mattered: they were on the other shore.

It was as if they had leapt over the arduous cavalry of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love. They were together in silence like an old married couple wary of life, beyond the pitfalls of passion, beyond the brutal mockery of hope and the phantoms of disillusion: beyond love. For they had lived together long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death.

I also especially enjoyed the passages describing Fermina’s newfound independence following her husband’s death, and her acceptance of her status as a widow. Often, upon remembering that Gabriel García Márquez was male, I was impressed by the remarkably acute and insightful depictions of Fermina’s psyche, and of Marquez’ intuitive sense of what she, as a woman, may be experiencing. The Fermina we meet at the beginning of novel, the teenage girl who writes her response to Florentino’s proposal on a scrap of toilet paper, has remained, but her character has been etched out so fully and completely that she is a joy to have followed through the story. The same cannot be said of Florentino, whose life of vice evokes, at most, a sense of pity, but a pity devoid of compassion, or of any real understanding of what he has become.

Despite this ambivalent review, Love in the Time of Cholera is a graceful, poetic read, and certainly a memorable one. The style trumps the substance, without a doubt, and it is precisely this – the magical, dreamlike quality of the writing – which has led me to immediately want to read more of Marquez’ work.

 

 

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Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy, 1877)

So I’ve spent the past few weeks rapidly and greedily devouring Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and what an absolute revelation it has been. At 806 pages, it seemed a little intimidating at first, not least because I hadn’t read anything by Tolstoy before. Despite him being such a seminal and celebrated author, my preconceptions of his novels told me he was someone with whose writing I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, relate to. But how wrong I was, and how glad I am about it.

Facetious though it may sound, these last few weeks really have felt to me as if I’ve been embroiled in an earnest and passionate love affair. Nothing else in my recent reading has come even remotely close to matching the intensity, the excitement – in fact, just the whole spectrum of possible human emotion – that I’ve experienced while reading Anna Karenina. I’ve read and re-read (and listened to the audiobook version for times when holding a hard copy just hasn’t been possible) and read and re-read, and I’m positively certain that this novel consists of an entire (and highly necessary) education that up until now, I had no idea I’d been missing out on.

Tolstoy was clearly someone who was deeply in love with life. How could he not be, for such detail, for such in-depth consideration of each and every lovingly constructed character, to comprise this novel?

When he went in to the sick man, his eyes and his attention were unconsciously dimmed, and he did not see and did not distinguish the details of his brother’s condition. He smelled the awful odour, saw the dirt, disorder, and miserable condition, and heard the groans, and felt that nothing could be done to help. It never entered his head to analyse the details of the sick man’s situation.

But Kitty thought, and felt, and acted quite differently. On seeing the sick man, she pitied him. And pity in her womanly heart did not arouse at all that feeling of horror and loathing that it aroused in her husband, but a desire to act, to find out the details of his condition, and to remedy them.

The basic plot – a love affair between two aristocratic elites in 19th century Russia’s high society – doesn’t necessarily lend itself to becoming regarded one of the greatest novels ever written. Not at first instance, anyway. But Tolstoy, among other things, was a philosopher, a psychologist, and in his world, nothing and nobody is mundane. Nothing and nobody is commonplace. Everyone and everything is delightfully and uncompromisingly complex – and thus, complete.

There are no archetypes, no caricatures. The writing reads timelessly; we are reminded, constantly, of the sheer, unparalleled uniqueness of the human experience. Characters don’t feel like characters; they are afforded the richness and fullness and complexity of actual people. They have their joys and sorrows and struggles, their conflicts and turmoils, their triumphs and their despair, all laid out with meticulous, artful analysis. The famous opening line – ‘[a]ll happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ – hints at this forthcoming examination of human nature: it is the ways in which we hurt and suffer that make such an examination so fascinating. It is our distinct, individual reasons for suffering that set us apart, making us – whatever else they may make us – so overwhelmingly, and uniquely, human.

Stoner (John Edward Williams, 1965)

Stoner is a novel that really allows one to revel in the delights of language. So beautifully and movingly written, its sad descent into the forgotten depositories of literature is a shame. However, recently reissued by Vintage Classics, the novel is now being (rightfully) celebrated for its grace and elegance.

Stoner follows the life of the protagonist, William Stoner, from the age of 19 up until his death from cancer as an elderly man. His life is not remarkable in a conventional sense: he enters the University of Missouri to study agriculture, later switches to literature, and then stays on and remains there as a teacher for the rest of his days. What is remarkable, though, is the startling poignancy of its prose; the way it slowly, softly – but surely – breaks the reader’s heart.

Very loosely juxtaposed against the events of World War II, the historical context of the novel heightens the intensity with which Stoner’s life is depicted. Two weeks after he receives his degree, Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist, and war breaks out over Europe. Stoner, however, doesn’t see the future as uncertain and obscure. He is to go on and do his doctorate, while teaching a seminar at the University:

He saw it, not as a flux of change and potentiality, but as a territory ahead that awaited his exploration. He saw it as the great University library, to which new wings might be built, to which new books might be added and from which old ones might be withdrawn, while its true nature remained essentially unchanged.

‘Reclaiming the significance of the individual life’, the prose draws our attention to aspects of life and of experience which are, despite what they might appear, inevitably filled with meaning and significance. The ease with which the novel reads makes it very hard to put down. Each paragraph contains delicate insight, uninhibited truth and subtle wit, and some passages left me so moved that they would murmur in my consciousness for hours after, causing me to re-read them, and marvel again at the beauty of the prose.

It’s a sad book – you’ll surely shed a few tears. But for me, what overrode the sadness was the notion that often, the inner life, the life of the mind, compensates for the outer. Quiet thought and silent reflection can carry just as much ‘meaning’ as actions on the outside. Stoner is a graceful reminder of the soundless conflicts, defeats and triumphs of the human race.

Lying (Sam Harris, 2011)

If you’re not familiar with Sam Harris, he’s great.

As well as being a public critic of religion and one of the major proponents of the New Atheism movement, he’s also a neuroscientist, philosopher, and blogger. He parts company with a lot of other atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens etc.) in that he’s interested in (and believes in) transformative spiritual experiences, and he writes and speaks about topics such as meditation (he spent a year in Asia studying meditation under Hindu and Buddhist teachers) and human consciousness fairly regularly. In fact, he has a new book coming out – ‘Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion’ – in September.

Lying is one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read. The premise is simple – lying, in most situations (even situations in which most of us would make exceptions), is bad. It’s bad for you, bad for those around you, bad for relationships, bad for the world. By way of many, many examples and anecdotes, Harris illustrates the destructive effects of lying. Some are funny, some heart-breaking, some surprising. It’s also quite a daring book – Harris doesn’t shy away from difficult cases, such as lying to a terminally ill child about dying, or lying to a murderer about his target’s whereabouts. It covers a broad range of ground, from white lies to life-changing lies, and there’s a Q&A section at the end dealing with readers’ questions.

Harris’ arguments really made me think. I thought that in such a small number of words (it’s really more of a long essay than a book), he did a fairly thorough job of convincing us that there aren’t many examples of seemingly virtuous lies that can easily escape scrutiny. Having said that, he’s not an absolutist in his stance. He is simply inviting us to think – to pay attention to what the truth is in every moment and to evaluate whether it’s really necessary or beneficial to deviate from it – rather than outright condemning all lies. The writing is also impeccably clear, and it’s not a difficult or challenging read, making it accessible to and enjoyable for most anyone who enjoys a mental workout, from time to time.

Yet, I did think that some of Harris’ arguments lacked a certain cultural awareness, if that’s what you’d call it. This is surprising, given that a lot of his work and engagements have seen him talking to people from rather orthodox, oppressive backgrounds. Having said that, the book is only around 50 (very small) pages or so, and its ambitions were probably more just to plant the seeds of thought as opposed to setting out the most detailed and comprehensive argument possible. Still, for me, the culture factor was too big not to address, simply as I thought it was just so relevant to a lot of his discussions. It made it seem like he was oblivious to the realities and situations of people less affluent, less free, with less opportunity, and less privileged generally. I don’t think Harris had to accommodate lots of space and time to this in the text, but just alluding to some of the limitations of his ideas might have made all the difference and, in my opinion, made it more of a credible read.

On the Road (Jack Kerouac, 1957)

Feels kind of piddling to be writing an unfavourable review of a book as popular and generation-defining/culturally important as this one (especially since I didn’t finish it). But here goes!

I never finished On the Road (I had 30 pages or so left). If I’ve started reading a novel I usually see it through, even if it kills me. But it felt like Jack Kerouac really didn’t care about me as a reader, and I felt completely excluded from the whole experience. I’ve been told this is one of those ‘marmite’ books, but I wanted to love it – I expected to love it, because I loved the idea. I recently spent some time in San Francisco just after graduating, and after seeing the Beat Museum, the Jack Kerouac alley with its lovely quotes and poems from Beat-era literature engraved into the concrete, and the brilliantly quirky City Lights bookstore, I was enchanted by the energy of it all. So, I picked up a copy and began.

The story simply doesn’t go anywhere. It goes to lots of places, sure. It goes all the way across America, several times. I can see why so many love it – the excitement, the speed, the fleeting moments of pain, pleasure and madness – it’s a visceral read. But in between all the madness, there wasn’t enough to keep me going. The characters weren’t sympathetic, not individually anyway. Collectively, there was something relatable about their situation that spoke to the human condition, but I didn’t like them (with the exception of Sal, about whom I felt neutrally).

The book is filled with Americana, and I wasn’t too familiar with a fair few of the cultural references – which is likely the reason I didn’t connect with it as much as others may have. But besides that, it felt to me that these characters didn’t really stand for anything – except their own madness! That’s what it’s about, it’s been said – the immediacy of experience, and the uninhibited, free style of prose which was new for its time. There are some really beautiful sentences, some that hit you hard.

What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.

But ultimately my conception of Jack Kerouac became of somebody who never really grew past adolescence, and so wasn’t able to offer anything more to this story than just a bunch of guys moving from one city to the next, getting drunk…and then doing the same thing again, over and over.

But who knows – maybe I’ll try it again someday. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong frame of mind, perhaps. I find when you pick up a book expecting great things, it’s likely to disappoint in one way or another.

Interestingly, I was speaking with a friend about On the Road, and he said that in the current age of online blogging, the book has far less appeal. I think its cultural impact, like many books’, was very much a product of its time. This isn’t to deny its importance, but just helps explain why I myself might not have found the experience of reading it as enthralling as I thought I would.

Audition (Ryu Murakami, 1997)

A compulsive, one-sitting read.

I picked this up by mistake while browsing the (Haruki) Murakami section at Waterstones. So this is who they call the ‘other Murakami’! This ‘psychosexual thriller'(?!) races at top speed through the story of Aoyama, a documentary film-maker living in Tokyo with his son Shige. After Shige suggests that Aoyama remarry (his wife died seven years ago due to cancer), and best bud Yoshikawa agrees, a series of events is set into motion, ending in a pretty gruesome and genuinely shocking climax.

The premise is this: in order to find a suitable wife for Aoyama, Yoshikawa suggests holding auditions for a bogus movie (that he has no intention to produce). This is a quick and easy way to filter through tons of women until the right one comes along. So far, so good.

The thing is, the premise turns out to be kind of pointless, because Aoyama becomes infatuated with Yamasaki right at the start of the selection process, as soon as her resume catches his eye. At the insistence of Yoshikawa, he reluctantly watches the other women’s auditions, utterly convinced that they are all petty and shallow compared with the stunning Yamasaki. Given that the title of the book is ‘Audition’, and that the audition idea is introduced early on in text and serves as the motor for all subsequent events, I thought a lot more could have been done with the idea. It really didn’t feel germane to the overall plot. I expected it to be explored more deeply and was left feeling a bit cheated when it wasn’t.

Anyway, Aoyama begins his courtship of Yamasaki, who I found to be a bit of a two-dimensional character. I didn’t share Aoyama’s infatuation, and for me she held no intrigue. I think in an attempt to make her seem compelling and captivating, Murakami actually constructs her character rather unconvincingly. We see only two sides to her – the lovely and sweet side, and then the monstrous side we experience at the end. Poorly layered? We are told she suffered awful abuse in the past, but because of the undeveloped characterisation, it all seems a bit mad at the end when she breaks out psycho. I did like the concept though, and if you enjoy blood and gore and gruesomeness as much as me then the final act is a treat.

So – a quick, fun read. That’s not to say it lacks all manner of depth. Some of the observations contained are thought-provoking. We’re given some insights into Japanese culture and society: a slightly tipsy Aoyama philosophises about sushi bars at one point – how Japan’s conformist, rigid social culture is reflected even in its cuisine. The descriptions of how Aoyama and Shige adapt after the mother’s death are also moving and delicately executed.

Siddhartha (Herman Hesse, 1922)

Written in an elegant, lyrical style (at times it really does feel like poetry), Siddhartha, by German author Herman Hesse tells the story of a handsome and intelligent Brahmin’s son who abandons the comforts of his home and sets out on a spiritual journey of self-discovery. On a quest to seek enlightenment, he encounters many people and situations along the way, all leading up to his final realisation that the world must be loved in its completeness, and it is the totality of conscious experience that is the best approach to understanding reality.

The eloquent, fairy-tale-like prose of the novel lends pathos to the preoccupations of Siddhartha, with whom we empathise even at his worst. There is something very recognisable about his confusions and conflicts; they speak to the seeker in us all. Although the text is informed with tenets of Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, it should not be seen as a substitute for or guide to the principles of those religions. Published in 1922, long before the Hippie movement of the ‘60s, it was the first major work dealing with Eastern thought in the Western world. For this reason, it has influenced the works of many others ahead of its time, such as well-known Beat-era author Jack Kerouac.

What I liked most about Siddhartha was its optimistic outcome. It’s a deep book, a profound book, but somehow still has a light and airy feel about it. The ending left me feeling uplifted, positive and to an extent, wiser. The final chapter was very touching, particularly with its musings on love and life and meaning, and I put the book down with a smile on my face.

And all the voices, all the goals, all the yearnings, all the sorrows, all the pleasures, all the good and evil, all of them together was the world. All of them together was the stream of events, the music of life.