The Plague by Albert Camus

  

“All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.”

Oran is a dreary port city where boredom disguises itself as contentment. Inhabitants go about their lives as though in a daze; not uncomfortable, not joyous. This is a place of greys.

And then the plague comes. All gates are shut, and the town is sealed. No one will be leaving for a very long time. Uncountable rat corpses are coverings streets and doorsteps, men and women are coughing up blood, and thousands are dying. We follow Rieux, a doctor trying to do what he can to help, as lives are changed and the question of whether or not you have lived well becomes a much more immediate concern.As you can, this isn’t an always a cheerful read. It is engaging, though, despite being almost a polemic (or, to be more blunt, preachy), but as this is Camus that’s rather like complaining water is wet. The dialogue felt stilted and forced at times, though, but how much of that can be blamed on the translation from French I couldn’t say. The characters are well-drawn, with some fascinating motivations and painful backgrounds. I was actually surprised at how personal this often feels considering the heady subject matter, as individual worries are again and again at the centre of concern rather than society wide sweeping change.

All stories come together to give readers a message that sounds extremely trite summarised. Big truths often do, though. Camus makes us understand that only individual sacrifice can stop the plague (which, as might be obvious, is very much a metaphor), to stop pain from spreading if you possibly can. Heroism isn’t something that should be glorified to Camus, it’s merely what must be done. Ordinary people have no choice but to become exceptional, or their friends and family will go through gruesome ends. In fact, friends and family might die either way. But, even if defeat’s inevitable, we should still try to be good.

This isn’t what I could exactly call an exciting read in the way The Stranger was, something which I raced through and made me question the way I looked at the world. It’s less direct than that, and as such maybe less impactful. All I can say is that three-hundred pages of misery somehow made me feel uplifted, and that’s an accomplishment.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

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“…she starched and ironed her face, forming it into just what people wanted to see…”

Some novels give you interesting ideas to think about. Some create an entertaining stories. Some do an interesting mixture of both of these things. A rare kind of book, however, can transport you into a time, place, and body that are far away from anything you would normally experience, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurtston achieves this with ease and grace.

Hurston creates the humid, vibrant landscapes of South Florida through a dramatic third-person prose style that borders on mythical, but it’s dialogue – phonetic, funny, and raw – that lets her truly shine. Crafting insightful, funny conversations that still propel narrative almost looks easy when she does it. Almost.

The characters are flawed, even the most lovable: the protagonist can seem self-centered;  Tea-Cake is affectionate and funny, but his temper and gambling can make him almost dangerous; her other love interests are cruel, but understandable. That’s why it’s possible to really believe and care about them (“loving” characters can be a trite phrase used to describe mere affection, but in this case it’s appropriate), and one of the reasons why I almost didn’t want the book to end.

I was turned onto this book by an essay by Zadie Smith, who once again is scarily perceptive. Her thoughts as to why the love of Tea-Cake and Janie rings so true despite the deluge of poor romance in a lot of otherwise strong fiction, for example:

“[T]he choice of each other is experienced not as desperation, but as discovery, and the need felt on both sides causes them joy, not shame[.]”

Put simply, what makes this novel truly special is that Hurtston’s characters feel as organic in the way they interact and clash. This is a love story with conflict and heartbreak, but completely devoid of cliche and over-sentimentality. That’s something rare and fantastic.

V2 | Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (with too many mentions of The Secret History)

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It happened in New York, April 10th, nineteen years ago. Even my hand balks at the date. I had to push to write it down, just to keep the pen moving on the paper. It used to be a perfectly ordinary day, but now it sticks up on the calendar like a rusty nail.”

Note: I accidentally overrode a version of this after posting. Thankfully, WordPress saved the post. Oopsie.

As always, I’m years late in reading a “trendy” book. When The Goldfinch came out in 2013, the hype was (in the tiny world of book-publishing) enormous. Untrendy confession: with an author I’d never read before, and didn’t know if I was likely to enjoy, it just looked too long for me to bother. I don’t mind chunky novels, but they’re an investment: hours upon days upon weeks of time. I want to have some assurance that it will, quite plainly, be worth it.

The Secret History, which I picked up having heard great things, had me in a pleasant vice grip. The characters were both admirable and despicable, and you were drawn into their lives with a sense of fascination which mirrored the protagonists’. It had a clear-sighted view of class, addiction, and thoughtless cruelty with a strong, ornate style of writing, which made the earnestness of the protagonist’s refreshing. It had an obsession with Ancient Greek and Roman myths and writings which mirrored my own (harbored since around age six). It had a carefully built sense of place: the university felt inviting due, but cold. It was really, really good.

With so many of my own favourite topics covered, along with some beautiful, ornate writing, The Secret History unsurprisingly became one of my favourite novels. Tartt had earned my trust. So into The Goldfinch I dove…

There’s an explosion, a theft, and a panic stricken young man, living with horrendous guilt and anxiety, named Theodore Decker. 

There’s a breathless pace (despite numerous plot diversions) which makes The Goldfinch hard to stop reading. Character twists, a great eye for strange details, and a smart sense for just the moment a reader might start to mean that the common abstract sections examining art and the meaning of beauty don’t leave the plot in a quagmire which the novel would struggle to escape from. These are all great qualities, which was frustrating while writing this review as it made it harder to pinpoint why I still got far less out of this The Secret History.

Maybe it’s unfair to make direct comparisons to another novel; maybe The Goldfinch should be evaluated on its own merits. I’m not sure. All I am certain of is that, possibly due to the artifice and coincidences that everything hinges on in The Goldfinch, many sections feel artificial. I didn’t notice at the time but looking back it’s glaring. Everything hinges on coincidences, which may be why many call this novel Dickensian, but you end up feeling almost pulled along from section to section. Reading it was like going on an exceptionally well-made rollercoaster rather than taking a wander through unknown woods, which was the case with The Secret History. It’s as though—if she doesn’t explicitly state themes, or direct your attention carefully during ambiguous interactions—Tartt is fatally afraid you’ll miss something. Half the fun of a novel comes from what you find beneath their surface. By making things so direct, Tartt weakens the ability of the reader to become truly immersed.

While our protagonist is a subdued introvert, side characters are over the top and extremely endearing. Boris, a wild young Russian, is extremely likeable but dangerous, and when Theo becomes friends with him you can tell this will mean trouble. Tartt captures the dynamic of intense young male friendships shockingly well: the bonding over mischief and danger, the in-jokes, the secret languages, the itch to do something that could end incredibly badly just because you can. Hobie is a charming, fuzzy headed furniture dealer who comes across in his benevolence almost Father Christmasesque—still, he has his complications and blind spots. There’s also a love interest named Pippa who unfortunately never feels quite as fleshed out as those around her; her role is by design to be mysterious, but I never got a sense of revelation about who she was even when I got the sense I was supposed to.

The Secret History’s cast were emotionally stunted narcissists, but you would want to spend actual time with people from The Goldfinch. That’s part of why I wish I loved this book instead of just like it: I want to be compelled to come back and live with the characters again. If The Secret History was cold, with an emotionally reserved cast of characters and an obsession with the past—not to mention heaps of actual snow—the Goldfinch is warm.  It’s the warmth of a house with a fire going after you’ve come in from rain. If that sounds annoyingly abstract, I understand, but trying to convey the mood of a novel almost 900 pages long and taking place over such a long period is necessarily vague. Theo lives in a world with people and places he defines by whether or not they instill a sense of comfort in him. He’s searching for a place that lets him feel like he belongs, continuingly going back to a kindly old Hobie. 

I probably sound like I don’t like the book, but I do. A lot. There are some beautiful reflections about art and the way it can impact your world, for example:

“—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.”

Maybe I got the secret whisper from The Secret History and not The Goldfinch because it appealed to my personal interests more, or maybe because I value ambiguity more than straight-headed storytelling. Maybe. But I don’t think so. I think The Goldfinch is a very strong, well-paced novel with a great atmosphere, but it’s so on-the-nose with its themes that it become difficult to connect with on a truly personal level, which is a shame. It yells instead of whispering.

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

  
This feels like a very timely novel, despite that it was written over sixty years ago.

A world-weary reporter works in Indochina, waiting to die. His time writing for The Times in this warzone is essentially an inefficient method of suicide, and he lives with a young local woman whom he knows he will likely abandon eventually. He loves his new country but hates the world it occupies. In enters a quiet American, Pyle, a naive young man with big ideas about democratising the country with a third force, who could rise up and end the conflict.

The key theme here is the danger of good intentions and innocence. This a country ravaged by war, and so any decision made quickly and easily will likely result in innocent deaths. Greene is cynical about human nature but warm regarding individuals, refusing to demonise his characters, even those with ideas he clearly finds reprehensible. At its heart this is an anti-conflict novel without the simplification that these often entail. Greene is still unafraid to be direct, though, through the main character’s simple recurring thought: “I hate war.”

As the foreword points out, there is a fascination with morality and unintended consequences here, as “there is no real way to be good in Greene, there are simply a million ways to be more or less bad.” Colonialism and a specific breed of Western arrogance in regards to far-flung conflicts of many different stripes are examined as the story rolls on. In a moment that feels appropriate to our current moment of history, the idea of military intervention in countries we don’t truly understand is taken to task:

“We go and invade the country: the local tribes support us: we are victorious: but like you Americans we weren’t colonialists in those days. Oh no, we made peace with the king and we handed him back the province and we left our allies to be sawn in two. They were innocent. They thought we’d stay. […] We shall do the same thing here. Encourage them and leave them with a little equipment and a toy industry.”

Changing My Mind: Ocassional Essays by Zadie Smith

  

“I think of reading like a balanced diet; if your sentences are baggy, too baroque, cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage. If your aesthetic has become so refined it is stopping you from placing a single black mark on white paper, stop worrying so much about what Nabokov would say; pick up Dostoyevsky, patron saint of substance over style.” 

“Changing My Mind” is a strange title for a book of essays. The majority of opinionated writers in the UK often appear worryingly sure of themselves. The columnists littering the pages of our newspapers are a strident bunch, desperate to demonstrate that they know what’s best for us.

Smith isn’t strident about much, despite her obvious mental gifts. This is one of the many reasons she comes across as far more intelligent than the majority of non-fiction writers who have bothered to write in the last few years (that I’ve read). She weaves her way through topics from strange angles, isn’t afraid to take readers on weird asides, and peppers her pieces with footnotes containing strange trivia. I’m certain I won’t be the first person to compare these essays to David Foster Wallace (whom is namedropped in almost half the essays here), but Smith comes across as, if anything, more erudite than him, which is intimidating but great fun to dig through.

The range of subject matter covered is wide considering how cohesive this is: race, E.M. Forster, Christmas, Kafka, the Oscars. Smith has a distinctive voice: she’s learned but friendly, challenging but inviting, sombre but hilarious in the space of a paragraph. She enthusiastically engages with whatever she decides to muse on, and references philosophers, rap artists, Madonna, traditional literary canon figures, anything that appears to pop into her mind. There are fine lines between fun and frivolous, serious and dour, knowledgeable and pretentious, but Smith knows just how to maintain engagement.

Smith’s willingness to question her own motivations and delve into her topics with endearing self-consciousness mean that, despite how often she’s uncertain, you’ll be glad to have heard what she had to say.