Thursday 30 September 2010

Charles Bukowski's Alter Ego in Post Office

When I hear Bukowski I no longer associate it with this terrible cafe a friend of mine made me go to because of some bartender, cocktail or whatever. Now I connect it to Charles Bukowski, definitely a unconventional author. Born in the beginning of the 20th century, the American poet, novelist, and short story writer is highly influenced by the atmosphere of his home city LA. He focuses on the life of poor and ordinary American citizens, on the act of writing, booze, women, and on the drudgery of work. Critics call Bukowski the Hemingway of the West Coast and absolutely deservingly assign him a very special place in the modern American literature.

Post Office is the first novel, which features the author's alter ego Henry Chinaski. The story follows the years the author worked in a post office; the female characters in Chinaski's life resemble Bukowski's women. Before reading Post Office I wasn't quite prepared for the brutality and vulgarity of Bukowski's descriptions. By the end of the novel I got used to this language and I must admit I enjoyed reading something honest, light, funny, and ironic for a change. 

The plot is simple. Henry Chinaski is the regular 30 something guy, who starts work at the post office as a substitute mail carrier. The work is tedious, boring, and unimaginative. Henry has to endure his boss's hatred, his colleagues' stupidity, and the ingratitude of the rest of the society, whom he supposedly serves. Chinaski survives the monotonous life by indulging in booze and women. The protagonist quits for a while and lives on his winnings on the track. Yet, he again returns to the post office to become a mail clerk. With a great sense of humor and reasonable sarcasm Bukowski explores the life of the ordinary person, who is trapped in a boring, degradative, and menial work. 

Personally, Henry Chinaski is not my protagonist. He is unambitious and sluggish; he hates his job and his boss but he does nothing to change it. Whenever Henry feels like it (and this is very often) he gets drunk and spends money he doesn't really have on women. Without any purpose in his life, Chinaski has left himself on the flow, not caring where it will take him. Women, people, jobs, even events pass by him without making any change to the degradative and purposeless life he has chosen to live. It seems as if Henry doesn't care about anything that happens around him as long as he has booze. As a friend of mine, who recommended the book, correctly pointed out, the protagonist in the Post Office reminds of Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye by J.D.Salinger. However, in the latter novel Holden is a confused and lonely teenager, for whom the whole world is simply phony. Here we are introduced to a middle-aged man, who behaves just like a careless and irresponsible child. 

Do not get me wrong. I am not criticizing Bukowski's novel. On the contrary, I sincerely loved it. I am just pointing out that this kind of life is a great contradiction to all my morals and perceptions. 

Wednesday 29 September 2010

The Pigeon - Disorder Intruding in an Organized Existence

Recently I shared with a friend of mine that I was bored with life. I didn't have anything in particular to complain from - my parents and friends were in good health, I had the possibility to travel, go out, visit the seaside, I studied in a good university and got good grades; basically I wasn't deprived from anything in particular. Yet, I felt deprived from all in general. I felt I was living a monotonous life, where nothing really exciting happened. I didn't want a calm and organized existence, I wanted fireworks. I couldn't settle for a day, just a simple regular day, where you get up, do your chores, see your family and friends, watch a movie and then go to sleep. I needed excitement, passion, risk. I longed that each and every day of my life was a day to remember. And if it wasn't, I fell into depression, self-resentment, and panic. Wait a minute, I was 21 and I was barely living. At least that was what I thought.

The Pigeon by Patrick Suskind is a story about a monotonous, meticulously organized existence, where each and every day is exactly the same as the previous one. The protagonist, Jonathan Noel, is a solitary Parisian bank security guard. He has been a Parisian bank security guard for almost 20 years and he doesn't want to change. Jonathan lives in small room with a bed, a desk, and a wardrobe. He has lived in that small room for 20 years and he doesn't want to change. Jonathan gets up every morning at exactly the same time, performs his morning ritual, and goes to work. There he has a strict routine, which he follows unquestioningly. Jonathan has followed this routine for 20 years and he doesn't want to change.

Until one day Jonathan meets a pigeon in front of his door. The pigeon is a symbol of a disorder intruding in the character's pre-organized existence. An event so insignificant that many wouldn't even notice it, this rendezvous threatens Noel's sanity. Jonathan becomes obsessed with the pigeon. He feels his whole life is collapsing because something different from the daily routine has happened. The novel follows one day of Noel's life, shaped by this strange acquaintance. The Parisian security guard is unable to perform his daily routine, his struggles to focus, to work, to move, even to live. He even considers killing himself. Jonathan's obsession with the pigeon is terrifying. For a man, who doesn't want anything from life, except that it doesn't change even in a bit, this pigeon seems like a catastrophe. A catastrophe that threatens to impose change, something Noel has fought throughout his whole existence.

Are we really so terrified of change? Why is there a negative connotation to the word change. Isn't change supposed to be a good thing. There was a saying When one door closes, another one, a better one, opens. So shouldn't we anticipate change, welcome it, appreciate it, search for it? Isn't change what helps us grow and develop, what motivates us, what distinguishes us, what pushes us forward? I like change. I envy change. I want change there, in my life, every second, every minute, every day of it. I don't want to simply exist, I want to live.

You may recognize Patrick Suskind from his famous bestseller The Perfume, which was also made a movie. Here, the author explores one day of the life of an ordinary Parisian. Even if it seems to the reader that nothing really happens, The Pigeon is one of those novels, which swaps you like a whirlwind. I was astonished and terrified of how an obsession can startle, change, and even ruin someone's life. Noel simply couldn't handle the change that came into his life. His thoughts obsessed him, leading him to exaggerated and strange conclusions. I leave to the readers to decide: is it because Jonathan Noel's existence was so monotonous and pre-organized that he was resistant to change? Or is it that we should settle for what we have here and now and do not let an obsession disrupt and pervade our existence?

You know me. I want that change. I am just not sure whether I can handle it.

Sunday 26 September 2010

L'Homme Qui Rit by Victor Hugo

L'Homme qui rit or The Man Who Laughs by Victor Hugo is a strange novel. Full of irony, sarcasm, symbolism, and hidden messages, it left me thinking about it long after I finished it. I still cannot make up my mind whether I like it or not. 

The Man Who Laughs or should we say the man who cries, the man who condemns, the man who criticizes, the man who laughs, the man who suffers, the man who grows. Many more can be said about the main character of the novel, Gwynplaine. As a child, he becomes a victim of a group called the Comprachicos (a word invented by Victor Hugo referring to child buyers). These criminals steal children and transform them into carnaval freaks, whose only purpose is to amuse and entertain the aristocratic English society. Gwynplaine has a grotesque face, which provokes laughter amongst the people, who see him. The boy is left as a little child and is grown up by the charlatan Ursus (latin for bear) and his wolf Homo (latin for man). Here Hugo demonstrates a great play of words, which I am going to discuss a bit later. The three of them, together with the blind orphan Dea, earn their living by performing on carnavals and fun fairs around England. Until Gwynplaine discovers he is the long lost son of a lord, an enemy of the king. The latter ordered the severe transformation of the boy as a revenge to his father. Now Gwynplaine enters a different world; he moves up the social caste, from a poor travelling performer to a wealthy and powerful member of the English aristocracy. 

The Man Who Laughs was written during Hugo's fifteen months exile in the UK due to his political beliefs. Through the character of Gwynplaine, the author condemns the current caste system in England. Victor Hugo is a well known socialist and idealist; he preaches democracy and social equality, an ideal which has transformed him from a well known romantic poet to a politically engaged individual. Still, the plot is typical for the Romanticism - unbelievable events, complicated situations, secret conspiracy, all around Gwynplaine and Dea's unearthly and sublime love story. Gwynplaine passes from the lowest to the highest social class to realize the immense injustice in the English political system - the poor are very poor and the rich are very rich. The latter explore the first, who suffer and die on the streets. Hugo's disappointment with a world, where democracy and freedom cannot exist is highly evident in his novel.

 To be honest, I started reading The Man Who Laughs two times before I managed to finish it. The reason - Hugo's EXTENSIVE descriptions. I had to CAPS LOCK this word because it is very typical for the French romanticist's way of writing. More than 1/3 of the novel is devoted to the norms and habits of the English aristocracy, which, although valuable to know, I found a bit boring and excessive. Thus, I was slightly tempted to skip pages (which I honestly didn't do) or to leave the novel for yet another time. I managed to finish it and I was really glad. The Man Who Laughs is worth reading because it demonstrates a view of social equality and freedom, which although highly idealistic, is desirable. What's more, Hugo's style (excluding the descriptions of course) is enthralling without being too serious. If you have been a religious reader of my blog, you might have deduced I like a bit of irony and sarcasm in the works I read. Even if they discuss urgent and pressing issues.

Another bonus of the novel is the extensive use of symbolism and word play. Take Ursus (bear) and Homo (man). The fact that the animal is named after the human, and the human after the animal, says a lot about Hugo's pessimistic view of contemporary society but I will leave the actual interpretation to each and everyone of you, through your own social and moral prism. Sadly, even an idealist, the author sees that his ideas are not applicable to the current political and social system. His exile to the UK is though a proof that Hugo stays strongly behind his views and is ready to defend them. Using literature as a main weapon of course.  

Sunday 19 September 2010

Dostoyevsky's Biography

Whatever I say about Dostoyevsky's Biography by Henry Troyat will not be enough. Ever since I started managing my own blog I have conveniently evaded commenting on world classics; I just felt that the titles speak for themselves. Moreover, some of these classics are so profound and psychological; they are amazing on so many levels and I do not flatter myself to think I even understood 1/3 of them.

Dostoyevsky is one of the authors whom I greatly admire. I have read Crime and Punishment, The Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov. All three novels reveal the great psychological genius of Dostoyevsky. The plot is not important, the author gives us a limited portrait of the characters' outward appearance. The most important topics in Dostoyevsky's literature are the metaphysical anguish of the soul, the conflict between God and the Church, the meaning of life, the connection children - father, all seen through the eyes of the ordinary person. What made Dostoyevsky, otherwise an aristocrat, to focus on the beggar, the prostitute, the murderer, the thief, the rapist, the atheist, etc instead of the glamorous Russian bourgeois class. Why do women always play a secondary role in his works? Where does the fascination with God and the church come from? Why focus on the metaphysical expressions of the mind? Many more questions rise in my mind and to many of them the answer was given in Henry Troyat's Dostoyevsky's Biography.

Henry Troyat is a French author, biographer, and historian from an Armenian descent. He was born in Russia in 1907 but his family fled the country due to a threat of a revolution. They settled in Paris, where Troyat received a degree in law. His rich biography includes novels about some of the most eminent Russian figures - Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Gogol, Boris Godunov, Tolstoy, etc. For Dostoyevsky's Biography Troyat shares in an interview: Many famous people have lead a life, which is not as nearly impressive as their works. Faced with their monotonous lives, the biographer feels the incentive to romantize, invent, interpret, and even make up. Dostoyevsky's case is different. His life path is so rich, passing from infinite despair to miraculous exaltation, that the author is more likely to diminish the tones, than to exaggerate them. It seems as the life of the genial writer is his best novel. 

Having read Dostoyevsky's Biography, I would have to agree with Troyat. Dostoyevsky's life, just like his novels, was full of rises and falls. Born in an aristocratic family, the young Fyodor spent his childhood in a severe isolation. His father deprived the family from any social activity; a typical scrooge, he established an unbearable routine, where Fyodor grew up as a loner. Even as a student in St Petersburg, his father refused to send him enough money and Dostoyevsky lived in poverty. A trend that continued during a big part of his life. Hence, the constantly repeating theme of the complex relationship father - son (mostly evident in The Brothers Karamazov). When his father died, Dostoyevsky felt guilty for ever wishing his death (remember Ivan Karamazov).

The four years in prison in Siberia greatly shaped the author's character. He was accused of a betrayal against the king for his ideas; at that time movements for the abolishment of the serfdom were highly popular. Dostoyevsky portrays his sufferings in Siberia in Notes from the Dead House.

Dostoyevsky's personal life was also difficult. He felt unrequited love several times; the author willingly sacrificed his feelings to connect the women he loved to their chosen ones. These love sacrifices have found their places in his novels as well.

The great author struggled with two sicknesses - epilepsy and gambling. The first tortured his physical body, the second - his mind. As a result most of his life he spend in constant poverty, borrowing money from friends and relatives. His second wife, 24 years younger than him, supported him greatly despite the death of two of their children.

The literary career of Dostoyevsky didn't have the best start either. He was accused of copying Gogol, of  not having a talent, even of lack of understanding of the human nature. Still, the author continued writing  and proved his opponents wrong. As already mentioned, the Russian author focused on the metaphysical anguish of the sole; he didn't care about what happened to the individual. Instead, he was fascinated with the internal dialogue, the motivation; not the actual crime, but what happened before that and after that in the human mind. Dostoyevsky was in love with the Russian people. He believed them to be European prophets, meant to take care of and wake up the Western world. The clash between God and the Church and the problem of the true faith were also central in his literature. Again, mostly evident in the novel that made him famous - The Brothers Karamazov.

I can continue writing about Dostoyevsky's life and how it shaped his talent and this blog will not be enough. As for Henry Troyat, his style is amazing. Dostoyevsky's biography is far from boring and uneventful, but I believe that even if it was, Troyat would still make a masterpiece worth reading from it. Indeed, a very good novel. If you are fascinated with Dostoyevsky, just like I am, you won't let go until you finish it. Highly recommended for all of you Russian fans.

Monday 13 September 2010

Bogomil Rainov - There is Nothing Better than Bad Weather

"Because bad things are far more than the good ones, we have no other choice but to accept them and learn to love them."

This sentence, beside being my favorite from Rainov's novel There is Nothing Better than Bad Weather, is also very descriptive of his type of writing. With his elegant sense of humour, moderate pessimism, and enthralling tone, the author easily becomes a favorite to read. Bogomil Rainov is a highly controversial personage in Bulgarian literature. A member of the Central Committee of the Bulgarian Socialistic Party, he is responsible for the imposition of the so-called "socialistic idealism" and for the banishment of many "ideologically confused" writers. If you have never lived in a communist country, such as Bulgaria, this means writers who openly opposed the regime in their works. Rainov, quite the opposite, supported the regime and consequently was largely criticized after 1989 (the year the Communist rule ended in Bulgaria). Nevertheless, I am not ashamed to say I like his style, I enjoyed There is Nothing Better than Bad Weather, and I will indeed be reading more of his criminal and spy novels.

The first Bulgarian writer that appears in my blog is a Communist. This, however, doesn't give you the right (or the pleasure) to condemn me immediately (as my father loves to say) BRIGHTLY RED. I completely agree that the political beliefs of an author largely influence the themes in his works (take Victor Hugo, for example, about whom I will talk in my next post). However, one being a Communist (or pretending to be such in order to escape persecutions) doesn't immediately say anything about the quality of his works. Rainov is gifted with an incredible voice, which the reader must indeed benefit from. Keeping in mind, of course, he worked during the Communist rule.

Bogomil Rainov is mostly famous for his criminal novels, which were very popular in the USSR as well. The protagonist is Emil Boev, who, in my opinion can easily compete with Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes. Boev is a fascinating person with a sense of humour and an enviable flair for solving crimes and riddles. There is Nothing Better than Bad Weather finds him a Bulgarian spy in Western Europe, trying to uncover a corporation, which trades illegally behind the Iron Curtain. There is love, of course, in the presence of his voluptuous secretary Edit (which also happens to be an Eastern European spy). Highly addictive, this novel is a very good example of an almost perfect criminal novel. Ideal for the beach, for a lonely and boring Thursday night with a glass of wine, or simply for all those of you that love thrillers. I am not one of them, still Rainov impressed me as well and I will be indeed reading more about Emil Boev.

Friday 10 September 2010

Alessandro D'Avenia - Another Brilliant Italian Writer

What's up with the great Italian writers that emerge lately? First, it was Paolo Giordano with his amazing novel The Solitude of Prime Numbers (check my review). Now, the next young and charismatic writer is on his way to enchant the hearts and minds of the passionate readers. I am not exaggerating even a bit - Alessandro d'Avenia's White as Milk, Red as Blood (the original Italian title is Bianca come il latte, rossa come il sangue is childly simple but highly philosophical and influential. You would miss a lot if this novel is not in your library.

Alessandro d'Avenia is an Italian teacher of Classical Languages. His debut novel, understandably, is devoted to the problems that all growing up teenagers face - boring school, mean teachers, unrequited love,  arguments with friends, rivalry. Leo is a 16-years old boy, who loves his guitar, his football team,his motorbike, music, and Beatrice. When Beatrice gets sick from leucemia, Leo is forced to grow up very quickly. He starts questioning the meaning of life and the importance of dreams. His teacher, whom he calls the Dreamer, helps him discover his dreams by asking the right questions. The novel tracks Leo's development from a small, naive, and pretentious little boy to a more mature, independent, and understanding individual. His relationship with his family, his best friend Silvia, and even his teachers evolve reflecting the dramatic change in his character. Leo stays with Beatrice throughout her sickness, seeing her slowly fade away and finally deciding to live not only for himself, but for her as well.

White as Milk, Red as Blood refers to the way the boy perceives his beloved. In the beginning, Leo is afraid from the white color; he connects it to loneliness, void, and lack of purpose. Red, on the other hand, is the color of love, passion, and dreams. Throughout the novel Leo stops fearing everything that is white; he understands the complexity and unfairness of life; he understand he has to live for the moment and to appreciate each and every one of his relationships for the way they are.

The novel is very easy to read; it is not an exaggeration to say that it reads by itself. Do not be fooled by the simple language, because the ideas the author implies are highly philosophical. D'Avania uses a trivial, very recognizable story but he manages to turn it into a novel that cannot leave the reader indifferent. What I absolutely adored is his unique style; the author talks about a simple thing as riding the motorbike or buying shoes; yet at the next moment he strikes the reader with a provocative question about the meaning of life. I literally felt that unconsciously kept underestimating the novel because of the simplicity of the plot and the language. In a minute, though I started re-reading some passages, trying to understand and interpret them; trying to relate them to my life and to extract the moral.

It took me exactly two days to read White as Milk, Red as Blood. Once I put my hands on it, I just couldn't let go. And now it is finished, I feel a little nostalgie for each and everyone of the characters. Because I loved seeing them change and grow - first doubt life and God, then question morality and justice, and finally accept life for the way it is - white, red, silver, black, blue - whatever you want to see it.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Gustave Flaubert's Salammbo - a Historical Masterpiece

If you have read Flaubert's masterpiece Madame Bovary you will hardly recognize that the historical novel Salammbo is written by the same author. Whereas in the first book the French novelist focuses on the adulterous affairs of Emma Bovary as a means to escape the banal and empty provincial life, in Salammbo he depicts a rather unexplored period of history - Carthage immediately before and during the Mercenary Revolt in 3rd century BC.

What unites both works of literature is Flaubert's astonishing writing style. While I was reading his novels I felt as if there were no unnecessary words or expressions; the author searches for the perfect set of words to describe an event, an emotion, or a character. The result is obviously brilliant - Salammbo is a historical masterpiece about Carthage, which amazes the reader with the author's extensive research and knowledge about the topic.

When after the First Punic War Carthage is unable to fulfill its promises to the mercenaries, it finds itself under their brutal and outrageous attack. Three years of war are portrayed by constant shift of power between the Carthaginians, lead by their brave general Hamilcar Barca and the mercenaries under the rule of the Lebanese Matho. The novel gives a brutal depiction of the battles - the warriors are grotesque, vulgar, and heartless. They have lost their human shape; friendship and love have been change by the instinct to survive. The Carthaginians rituals to conciliate the Gods are unimaginable - they sacrifice all the nobility's children to ensure the positive outcome of the war. The mercenaries are no angles either. Hunger and thirst deprive them from their human virtues and force them to act as animals - killing and eating each other in order to beat death.

In the middle of this horrific picture rises the character of Salammbo - Hamilcar's beautiful daughter. Matho falls deeply in love with her and steals the sacred veil of Carthage. This prompts Salammbo to enter the mercenaries' camp and to return the sacred symbol thus securing Carthage's victory. The girl feels strangely attracted to him and when the war ends and Matho is publicly executed in Carthage on her wedding day, she dies as well.

Although the novel was extremely difficult to read, I enjoyed it quite a lot. Flaubert indeed did his research. The author shows extensive knowledge in this tale of blood and cruelty. The book is all about the precise and accurate description of the barbaric tribes, the ancient rituals and weapons, the battles, and the strategic moves. Gustave Flaubert indeed creates a detailed portrait of the Mercenary revolt. Salammbo is an epic masterpiece about sensuous and violent exoticism. Even though Flaubert's first novel Madame Bovary is considered his absolute masterpiece, Salammbo is another bestseller, which seals his reputation as one of the best French novelists. If you enjoy historical novels, I would definitely suggest Salammbo because you get to explore a time period not largely exploited in literature. Hence, you will be interested and fascinated.

Thursday 2 September 2010

Stephen King - The Dead Zone

Stephen King doesn't surprise us with The Dead Zone. The real and the fictive, the fantastical and the concrete interact again to signal the degradation and the defects of contemporary society; to present problems, phenomena, and tendencies, which attempt to turn the human brain into an arena of a new world war; to provoke the reader to analyze the complex events and intrigues, which shape the situation in the USA in the 1970s and 1980s. Hardly a masterpiece, The Dead Zone is still a powerful and enthralling novel, at moments slightly predictable, which moral is more or less obvious - the masses are being controlled by the selfish and inhumane actions of certain spheres, striving for power, money, and success.

John Smith is a regular high school teacher until he undergoes a terrible car accident, which leaves him in a coma for almost five years. A medical miracle, John wakes up with a strange ability - he is gifted with the supernatural power to predict the future and to read people's minds. The Dead Zone is that part of his brain, affected largely by the accident. Johnny sees things, but some of them remain in the dead zone - blurred, unclear, and difficult to analyze. Still, he solves a murder, saves teenagers from a fire, and predicts other people's accidents only to remain a loner and a stranger in society. His actions to prevent the spreading fascism in the USA political spheres shape his last months to live. Using his gift, John Smith takes a brave step to free society from a dangerous and selfish political leader. Stephen King's idea is pretty obvious as I already mentioned - the loss of morality and ethics in contemporary USA and the falseness and degradation of a society, driven by beastly motives.

Born in 1947, Stephen King is famous for his thriller novels, where the fantastical plays a major role in shaping the story. I understand many readers are attracted by the intriguing plots, the paranormal abilities, and the fantastical events, but I am hardly amazed, or thrilled. I am not a huge fan of fantasy novels and I wouldn't imagine that soon I will be reading anything else from Stephen King. One of the most popular American writers, King's style just doesn't do it for me. I had to push myself constantly in order to finish the book. I just couldn't dive into the story or feel the intrigue and the amazement. For me it was just another story about a paranormal gift that can be supposedly used for the benefit of the society. And of course, the hero is neglected, convicted, and criticized by society until his death. Predictable, Mr. King, very predictable.