One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez, 1967)

4*

solitude

Finally finished this after stopping and starting a few times last year. Wasn’t initially sure I’d enjoy it after feeling rather ambivalent about both Love in the Time of Cholera (though flawlessly put together, I struggled a bit with the premise – the Great Gatsbyesque pining was waaay over the top) and Love and Other Demons (which was similarly grotesque for other reasons), but my familiarity with Márquez’s writing style compelled me to give it a go, with the novel being his magnum opus and all. And – I’m glad I did, as I found myself swimming pleasurably along in its depths for a good few months, a couple of pages a night, relishing the humour and delicacy of the prose.

There’s lots to say about this novel (including lots I probably missed!), and it’s definitely one I plan to revisit later down the line. Some of it is pretty weird, in a classic Marquez way (the sex, rape and inappropriate relationships make Humbert Humbert seem a total saint by comparison), but barring that (lol), it was absolutely astonishing, so rich and layered and lovingly written, even if every sentence averages around 2000 words and everyone in Macondo has the same two names (seriously, I thought Anna Karenina was bad, but this easily beats the Russians in its level of name-confusion). Honestly, I had to draw myself a little family tree once I met the fifth Arcadio. Once you get past that, though, it’s a sheer delight. Oh, and everyone in the book is completely insane, which makes it all the more fun.

Now, I’m still not convinced I fully get this novel, and it was certainly a challenging read, but the reason I’d rate it so highly is due, quite simply, to the way it made me feel while reading it. There are a great many books that are close to my heart, and a great many writers that inspire me (to read, to write, to think, to somehow just be better) but it’s quite a rare thing when the experience of reading a novel ignites that overwhelming, tingly sense of unbridled wonder that this one did. Macondo is a microcosm of the world; it is the world in miniature. Inside it, and inside the relations between the Buendía family, there exists quite possibly the entirety of human wisdom, feeling, madness, possibility, absurdity. Just everything. Really, read it – it’s mind-blowing. But perseverance is key! There were indeed several times that I was tempted to give up, and a few times that I almost did. How glad I am that I ultimately did not.

I always feel a little sad when I read a translated work. Despite the quality of the translation, I’m sure some nuance is lost. (Note to self: must read more in Hindi, must get back on the German, etc. etc….)

Anyway, this has been a lazy and mostly rambling review. Whoops. But there’s not much else I am able to say.

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A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara, 2015)

3*
a little life cover

Who am I? Who am I?

You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs. You’re a New Yorker. You live in SoHo. You volunteer for an arts organization; you volunteer for a food kitchen. You’re a swimmer. You’re a baker. You’re a cook. You’re a reader. You have a beautiful voice, though you never sing anymore. You’re an excellent pianist. You’re an art collector. You write me lovely messages when I’m away. You’re patient. You’re generous. You’re the best listener I know. You’re the smartest person I know, in every way. You’re the bravest person I know, in every way. You’re a lawyer. You’re the chair of the litigation department at Rosen Pritchard and Klein. You love your job; you work hard at it. You’re a mathematician. You’re a logician. You’ve tried to teach me, again and again. You were treated horribly. You came out on the other end. You were always you.

Having finished this novel, having somehow ploughed through to its shattering conclusion, I cannot overstate the absolute heartache that re-reading the above passage evokes. The protagonist, Jude St. Francis, does not learn to believe these things about himself. He does not, cannotaccept the countless, distinctive attributes that comprise his personhood. He does not, despite being deeply endeared to those around him, manage to move beyond the profound trauma of his past. He is a character we love desperately, a character we want to see get better desperately, but a character that will not, ultimately, be saved from himself. This is something that we, as readers, know intuitively all along. It is an awareness present throughout A Little Life’s 800-odd pages, and it is possibly the most heartbreaking thing about this book.

I spent around two weeks on my commute to and fro work getting through A Little Life. I noticed a sort of lethargy that would set in after I’d stop reading, one that’d continue well into the latter half of the morning. It’s not only that the subject matter is dark. It’s the way that this darkness envelops Jude entirely, and invariably seeps its way into all the little kernels of happiness he has established for himself: his high-powered job (and his genuine enjoyment of it); his stylish New York apartment; his solid, loving group of friends. I found there to be something almost meritorious about the author’s refusal to let Jude ‘get better’, about her total commitment to ensuring that his trauma remains the epicentre of his existence, always. Perhaps because the generalised atmosphere of anxiety that permeates the book’s pages resonates particularly with a generation of ‘millennials’ raised with the conviction that life will be extraordinary, only to find that it is, in truth, bleak and underwhelming. Or, perhaps Yanagihara’s determination not to rescue Jude is admirable for its apt and honest acknowledgement of the lasting, damaging legacy that childhood rape and sexual abuse can have. Either way, the novel serves as a stark confirmation of something most of us eventually realise about life – that nothing is really guaranteed, ever.

Though it was a compulsive read, I’m not sure if I enjoyed A Little Life. Is it possible to really enjoy the deliberate, graphic chronicling of a person’s deep-seated anguish and suffering? I shared the same sentiment of outrage with many other of the book’s readers: how can so many bad things all happen to one person?! At times, the writing felt a little manipulative – as if I was being forced to feel sad, forced to fixate on the brutalities of Jude’s existence, like the book was sustaining itself on my misery and disgust. It seemed as though all the forces of life had conspired intently against Jude, in the most grotesque way imaginable – though this is precisely what Yanagihara says was intended:

One of the things my editor and I did fight about is the idea of how much a reader can take. To me you get nowhere second guessing how much can a reader stand and how much can she not. What a reader can always tell is when you are holding back for fear of offending them. I wanted there to be something too much about the violence in the book, but I also wanted there to be an exaggeration of everything, an exaggeration of love, of empathy, of pity, of horror. I wanted everything turned up a little too high. I wanted it to feel a little bit vulgar in places.

Indeed, this quality of exaggeration is wielded throughout the novel. The writing is certainly unabashed in its sentimentality; there are frequent and recurring declarations of love, guilt, regret. These occur mostly within the context of adult male friendships, the fundamental lens through which the story is told. I did love this aspect of it, and it dawned on me how little the theme of friendship seems to be traversed in literature and culture more generally. It is the romantic relationship that is usually at the centre of all things, the romantic relationship that is presented as the ultimate, most significant relationship, the one to which all other relationships are but subordinate. This is an idea that comes up repeatedly, and is echoed here in one of my favourite passages:

Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.

I loved the first few chapters for the very reason that the friendship between Jude, JB, Malcolm and Willem was examined with so much depth and humour.

And yet, in the end, friendship and love are unable to keep Jude from succumbing. There is no ultimate, conclusive fix, and in retrospect we are amazed that he has made it this far.

The book certainly made me think. All those that care about Jude – his friends, his adoptive parents, his colleagues, doctors, psychiatrists – despite their measures, are unable to save him. Through his multiple suicide attempts, his decades of self-harm, they insist, and keep on insisting, that he must carry on living. He must carry on living no matter what, in spite of himself and in spite of everything he feels. Of course, this is hardly callous. It is the most intuitive, most instinctual reaction that any one of us would have towards someone we care for. It is a wider precept, too – that people should strive to better their lives. Still, it is striking that nobody, not even for a moment, is willing to accept that Jude – to put it simply – may never get better. Yes – that would be defeatist, unduly pessimistic, perhaps. I am optimistic that most of us can recover, over time and with adequate support, from our traumas and anxieties, however severe they might be. And yet the passage below, though from Willem’s perspective, perfectly encapsulates one of the underlying motifs of the book:

But these were the days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.

And so, whilst I am still unsure of my feelings towards the book on the whole, there was something undeniably powerful it had to say about modern life, and the attitudes and expectations of the world in which so many of us live.

 

 

 

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

Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

3*

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, 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 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.

 

 

Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy, 1877)

5*

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 examination of each and every meticulously 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)

5*

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 in old age. 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, compelling me to re-read them, and marvel once 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)

2*

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 all those 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.

Interestingly, I was speaking with a friend about On the Road, who said he thought that in the current age of online blogging etc., the book has far less appeal. I think its cultural impact, like many books’ I suppose, may very much have been just a product of its time.

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 can often disappoint in one way or another.