classics · literary fiction · review

Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Alfred Döblin

35886439Originally published in 1929, Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Alfred Döblin, has been newly translated by Michael Hoffman and published by the New York Review of Books press. This novel is a classic of German literature for its portrayal of Weimar-era Germany and its use of sound effects and other cutting edge (at the time) writing techniques. I marvel at Hoffman’s ability as a translator because he was able to translate a lot of the weirdness so that it made sense, while preserving Döblin verbal fireworks and the central tale of Franz Biberkopf’s trials and tribulations.

The novel opens when Biberkopf is released from Tegel Prison. He has just finished serving four years for beating his girlfriend so badly she died of her injuries. I was never able to forget this fact in spite of the novel’s attempts to get readers to sympathize with Biberkopf. And it certainly does try. Over the course of the novel, Biberkopf gets tangled up with criminals more dangerous and intelligent than he is, only to suffer the consequences (which include losing his right arm after his nemesis throws him out of a moving car). He wants to go straight but, in the late 1920s, there are few options for a man with no skills, a violent temper, and lacking in the brain department. It’s really just a matter of time before he ends up dead or in prison. The only mystery is how that happens.

There are frequent references to Job, the Whore of Babylon, and Death (who does make an appearance late in the novel) that reminded me of old medieval Everyman plays—though a lot dirtier. In the Everyman-type plays, an ordinary man seeks heaven or atonement while life and fate through everything they can at him to try and knock him off the straight and narrow. Without these references, Biberkopf’s story is rather sordid. I mean, it’s sordid anyway, but the references force us to take a step back and think about what we might have done in Biberkopf’s shoes. Would we have been able to go straight with a criminal record and no trade? The closest Biberkopf gets to making legitimate money is selling copies of Völkisher Beobachter, a Nazi newspaper.

Biberkopf and Mitzi, in a still from the 1931 film Berlin-Alexanderplatz

I was entertained by the openings of the chapters that seemed to be taken straight from the front pages of the many newspapers referenced in Berlin Alexanderplatz. While Biberkopf gives us a view of his little corner of criminal Berlin, the excerpts give us a better look at a vibrant city with all sorts of ventures in the offing—they also show us many stories of people reinventing themselves only to be exposed, providing frequent doses of foreshadowing for Biberkopf. These snippets might have been my favorite part of Berlin Alexanderplatz, given my dislike of Biberkopf and the portrayal of the women as hysterical dupes who, for some reason, work to support men like Biberkopf who just mooch off of their earnings.

In translating the word salad that is Berlin Alexanderplatz, Hoffman used low class London accents to try and capture the flavor of Biberkopf’s criminal acquaintances. In fact, there are parts that are translated as “Leave it aht.” I understand why. More English speakers are familiar with how low class Londoners sound—at least from the movies—than they would be with how low class Berliners would’ve sounded. But this struck me as odd more than once as I made my way through the book. I kept forgetting we were in Berlin in 1929 until someone mentioned marks or the litany of S-Bahn (tram) stops started up again. I can’t fault Hoffman too much; this book must have been a monster to translate.

Even though it was a challenge and I hated the protagonist, I’m glad I decided to read Berlin Alexanderplatz. It really does capture a time and a place that was definitively lost a few years after the book was published. More than that, the Weimar-era is a time and place that personally fascinates me because it gave rise to Hitler and National Socialism. There are hints of what’s coming in this book, but the sense I got was that everyone seemed like the party and the liberties would continue forever—except for the doomed Biberkopf, anyway.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

classics · review

City Folk and Country Folk, by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya

Country Folk and City Folk

The divide between country and city is a popular trope in Russian fiction (at least as far as I can tell with the handful of Russian novels I’ve read). City people believe themselves to be more cultured and intellectually sophisticated than their rustic countrymen. The country people are baffled by the affectations of the urbanites. I hadn’t seen any stories take on these assumptions until I read Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s Country Folk and City Folk (translated by Nora Seligman Favorov). This comic novel—reminiscent of Jane Austen and flavored with the usual Russian philosophizing—takes place around 1860 in the provincial town of Snetki. A trio of Muscovite aristocrats descends on Nastasya Ivanova and her daughter, Olenka and try to manipulate the “bumpkins,” only to realize that these country folk have their share of common sense.

Nastasya Ivanova and Olenka are quite different from each other, though they are an affectionate pair. Nastasya is accommodating and frets if she thinks she’s failed as a hostess and gentlewoman. To Olenka, everything is a joke and she rarely shies from saying exactly what she thinks. They’re cheerful enough living on their estate until Anna Ilinishna, Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, and Katerina Petrovna Dolgoroskaya turn up in Snetki. Anna wants a free place to live while she waits for the princess she was living with to realize her mistake in turning Anna out. Anna is a “holy woman,” an exceedingly pious woman on the surface but a con artist underneath. Erast Sergeyevich, on the other hand, is a bit more honest. He also wants accommodation, having run through all his funds and learning that even the manor house was dismantled and sold off. Both Anna and Erast find a place to live. (Erast rents the newly built bathhouse.) Katerina Petrovna wants to marry Olenka to Semyon, Katerina’s lover, so that Semyon can have an income and a reason to stay in the country.

Olenka is wise to all of these schemes pretty much from the start, but it takes Nastasya a while to stop trying to see the best in these exasperating people. It also takes a while for the action in Country Folk and City Folk to get rolling. Erast is given many opportunities to embarrass himself at the beginning of the novel. To Russians, I suppose, Erast is a hilariously incoherent social philosopher but I was rolling my eyes hard along with Olenka. When the manipulations start in earnest, I saw a lot of similarities to Austen’s comedies of manners as characters schemed to win over opinions and maneuver people all over the place.

I requested Country Folk and City Folk from NetGalley because I’ve been keen to read another female Russian writer ever since I read Teffi’s Memories. I’ve really enjoyed reading another side of Russian literature: comical rather than depressing, lightly social rather than heavily philosophical. I’m very glad Columbia University Press published this novel, which was previously unavailable in English. It’s a wonderful read for its sarcastic honesty and the way it turns old stories inside out.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 15 August 2017.

classics · review

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott

Little Women

Young adult literature has changed profoundly over the past century and a bit since Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, was written. While modern young adult literature encourages readers to stand up against tyrannical governments, experiment with relationships with vampires, and navigate the darker sides of life, Little Women is part and parcel of how literature for minors used to show youngsters the benefits of following tradition and being a good Christian. There are some parallels in terms of doing the right thing even when its hard, but books like Alcott’s are difficult to read in this age because the characters are just so wholesome.

I first read Little Women when I was a teen, probably because I enjoyed the 1994 film version and wanted more time with Jo. (To this day, the film’s plot is the version that sticks in my head rather than the book’s plot.) Now that I’ve reread it, years and several gender in literature courses later, I have more than a few problems with how the March sisters are hammered into the shape of “angels in the house” while living in genteel poverty during and after the Civil War. I also have serious issues with Laurie, the boy next door who loves Jo but later marries her younger sister Amy. These problems are much better expressed by Maddie Rodriguez in her article for Book Riot, “Laurie Isn’t a Good Guy; He’s a Nice Guy™.”

The first half of Little Women is the one most familiar. In it, we are introduced to the four March girls, each with their particular vanities and quirks. Apart from the saintly Beth, each one is encouraged by their mother (who speaks mostly in parental lectures) to work on their character defects. Jo is too boyish—wild, messy, inclined to pull pranks, etc.—and has a temper that frequently flares up. Meg is too fond of material comfort and wealth. So is Amy, but Amy is also vain about her appearance. Some of these flaws are genuine concerns, but I was uncomfortable with the way the girls were taught to strive to become the Victorian ideal of wife and mother. Meg and Amy come the closest by the end of the book. Jo preserves some of her delightful eccentricity, but even she becomes a somewhat idealized wife and mother.

The half of Little Women reads like an extended epilogue in which we learn about what happens to the girls as they grow up, after their father returns from war and Beth fails to die of scarlet fever. (Beth’s death is completely different in the book.) It’s episodic and has little of the depth of the first half. We see less of the characters struggling with flaws and more hearing them talk about it, giving the appearance of summary rather than development.

I can’t help but be a product of my own time. I suspect this is the big reason why I dislike Little Women so much now. I’ve been taught about the virtues of individuality, how women have been culturally oppressed for centuries, and the myth of the friend zone. The narrative pushes its mid-nineteenth century values and morality through the characters and onto the reader. (I daresay readers in another century will say similar things about contemporary young adult fiction.) There are moments—usually when the girls are allowed to be themselves—that I enjoyed. For these moments, I think Little Women remains a classic that readers will look on fondly—but maybe shouldn’t reread after they’ve gotten a degree in literature.

classics · review

Parnassus on Wheels, by Christopher Morley

Parnassus on Wheels

Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheelis a delightful novella about two oddballs who fall in love over books and light adventure in the early twentieth century. It’s a perfect book for bibliophiles, especially if they want something that has a happy ending (unlike my beloved The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry).

Spinster Helen McGill is fed up to the teeth with her writer brother’s peripatetic ways—and with being treated like his servant. So when Roger Mifflin rolls up in his mobile bookstore, Parnassus on Wheels, it seems like the perfect chance to have a bit of adventure to Helen. She writes out a check for $400 and buys Mifflin out, thinking to sell the bookstore on when she’s done with it. Mifflin accompanies her to help her learn the ropes, though it’s clear early on that both have lived very solitary lives and are lonely. All through the book are Mifflin’s monologues about the magic of literature. Mifflin is an evangelist for the written word.

The adventures start when Helen’s brother returns from his latest walkabout and starts making trouble, thinking that Helen has been tricked out of her money. After that, it’s one scrape after another for the odd couple. They face hobos, lost horseshoes, money troubles, weather, and more.Though he plans to leave Helen to her journey, Mifflin never quite gets around to it and is always popping up just in time to help. If the love of literature wasn’t enough to hook me, I would have enjoyed this book about two weirdos finding one another when they thought they couldn’t meet someone who would look past their outside appearances and eccentricities.

Parnassus on Wheels is a joy to read.

This book is freely available from Project Gutenberg.

classics · review

The Same Old Story, by Ivan Goncharov

The Same Old Story

I used to joke that prozac, if invented before 1800, would have wiped out the entire Romantic movement. After reading Ivan Goncharov’s serio-comic novel, The Same Old Story (translated by Stephen Pearl), I’m more convinced than ever than Romantics (even if they produced great art) could have used a little therapy. Originally published in 1848, The Same Old Story, tells the tale of naive and Romantic Alexander Aduyev and his highly practice uncle, Pyotr, as they clash on how to live the best life and how to love.

Alexander has been spoiled all his life. His mother and servants have always attended to his every need. His mother in particular and his first love, Sophia, praised his writing to the skies. But when he moves to St. Petersburg from the country to do something with his life, Alexander suddenly learns that life is a lot more difficult when people insist on not living up to his expectations—mostly informed by Greek epics and Romantic poetry.

His only ally in St. Petersburg is his uncle, whose personality is almost the complete opposite of Alexander’s. Pyotr believes in keeping a steady head, planning for the future, and working his way up the table of ranks. Most of The Same Old Story is written in dialog between the two men as they argue back and forth about what love and life should be. Unlike the dialog in, say, War and Peace, the two make jokes and tease to lighten the mood every now and then while they philosophize. Still, Alexander falls in and out of depression with his changes of fortune, and these can get a little wearying.

The Same Old Story covers eight years in Alexander’s life as he (sort of) grows up and learns to leave some of his high expectations behind. We get to see him fall in love only to have his heart broken, then have another woman fall more deeply in love with him than he was prepared for. We watch him as he realizes that he doesn’t have the talent to become an instant literary phenomenon or the patience to earn acclaim the hard way. But was also get to see Alexander’s effect on his uncle, who slowly realizes, that love, happiness, and emotion can make life worth living.

I enjoyed The Same Old Story. It was kind of refreshing to read a contemporary of the late Romantics take potshots at their overwrought displays of emotion. Not only that, but I was happy to discover that there are other funny Russian writers apart from Gogol and Teffi.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 30 March 2017.

classics · review

Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens

Little Dorrit

Like many of his other books, Charles Dickens’s Little Dorrit is about the (eventual) triumph of good people over adversity. But it is also about the futility of struggling against the establishment. The good people in this book don’t strive so much as endure what life hands them until good fortune lifts them up. While this makes sense in light of the fact that Dickens was satirizing an ineffectual government, it makes for a curiously unsatisfying reading experience.

The first half of Little Dorrit centers on the Dorrit family. The patriarch, who manages to be a snob in spite of his circumstances, is incarcerated in Marshalsea Prison for debt. His family works to help keep them all fed and clothed, while Mr. Dorrit keeps up the pretension of being a gentleman. His youngest child, Amy, takes care of him and helps him preserve his illusions. In the periphery (because in a Dickens novel, there is always a fully stocked periphery of characters), Mr. Clennam hunts down a family secret, the Meagles lose their children to marriage and misunderstanding, the Merdles wheel and deal, and Flintwinch and Mrs. Clennam try to maintain the status quo.

Nothing much changes in the first half, so we a treated to Dickens hilarious treatment of the Circumlocution Office in addition to his lampooning of various characters who are unaware of their own ridiculousness. The Circumlocution Office is a massive government organization that exists solely to prevent things from being done. In the first half, the thing they are blocking is Mr. Dorrit’s release from the Marshalsea and Mr. Clennam’s business partner’s patent for an invention. These plot points are really just an excuse for Dickens to rail against governments that are more concerned with the form of things rather than actually helping people. It’s fun to read, but I will admit to skimming a few chapters just to get back to the plot.

In the second half of Little Dorrit, the plot kicks into high gear. Mr. Dorrit has been released and now possesses a large fortune—which transforms him into a worse snob than he ever was. The second half is full of fortunes found and lost. The second half is also about another implacable institution: Society. Appearances must be kept up and polite fictions circulated (much like the interminable memos of the Circumlocution Office) in order for Society to carry on as it always has. The satire is less successful in the second half because Dickens is so busy pulling plot rabbits out of hats that the major theme gets lost.

Unlike his other novels, Little Dorrit feels much less cohesive as a whole work. I know that Dickens often altered the course of his novels and his characters in response to reader feedback but, most of the time, I don’t feel jarred or confused when I find one of those changes. There are parts of Little Dorrit that are downright clumsy and entire subplots just fizzle. Further, because luck plays such a big role in this book, Little Dorrit mostly reads like Dickens was just winging it.

There were parts of Little Dorrit I did enjoy. I laughed out loud at the descriptions of the foolish characters and the exquisite scene setting passages because, even though Dickens wasn’t a his best here, he can still turn a phrase. For example:

All the natural charm of the previous day was gone. The eaters of the dinner, like the dinner itself, were lukewarm, insipid, overdone—and all owing to this poor little dull Young Barnacle. Conversationless at any time, he was now the victim of a weakness special to the occasion, and solely referable to Clennam. He was under a pressing and continual necessity of looking at that gentleman, which occasioned his eye-glass to get into his soup, into his wine-glass, into Mrs Meagles’s plate, to hang down his back like a bell-rope, and be several times disgracefully restored to his bosom by one of the dingy men. Weakened in mind by his frequent losses of this instrument, and its determination not to stick in his eye, and more and more enfeebled in intellect every time he looked at the mysterious Clennam, he applied spoons to his eyes, forks, and other foreign matters connected with the furniture of the dinner-table. (Chapter 17)

These comic moments were the best part of Little Dorrit, but they didn’t make up, for me, for the passivity of so many characters. Mr. Dorrit and Mr. Clennam both resign themselves to their fate when they are imprisoned for debt. Little Dorrit is a striver, but she is content with her situation at large so long as she can provide a little comfort for the people she loves. I have a hard time liking a book with the message that good things come to those who wait and that trying to change one’s circumstances is doomed from the start.

classics · review

A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster

A Passage to India

E.M. Forster’s 1924 classic, A Passage to India, is a bitingly caustic look at race relations in British India. Anyone with any knowledge of the British Empire will know that the average British attitude towards any indigenous person in the colonies was a blend of condescension, racism, and paternalism. All of these attitudes are on display in varying intensities in this novel, along with the attitudes of the Indians (anger, frustration, hatred, occasionally aspirational). Two Englishwomen arrive in Chandrapore (fictional) to “see the real India” only to find two entrenched camps of people who are civil on the surface but absolutely loathe each other. One of the women causes a legal incident that threatens to destabilize the entire city—and offering us readers a chance to see what happens when someone throws a metaphorical matchstick on dry tinder.

Miss Quested has traveled to India for two reasons. The unofficial reason is that she will be renewing her acquaintance with Mr. Heaslop, the chief magistrate of Chandrapore. Mr. Heaslop’s mother, Mrs. Moore, very much wants the pair to marry; the pair have traveled together to see Heaslop. The second and official reason is that both Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore want to see India. I wrote it quotes before because India is such a vast country, with so many people and ways of living, that one could spend a lifetime trying to see everything. Still, Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore want to try. Their initial efforts—a garden party with Indian and English guests, tea with a smaller group of Indians and Englishmen—fizzle into embarrassing failures. There’s too much history and too much prejudice on both sides for the ladies to make much headway.

Dr. Aziz, a complicated man who works as a surgeon and doctor for the English in a hospital, offers another chance for Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore to see some “real India” by inviting them to the famed caves outside of the city. Aziz is fascinating because he is able to see the good in some English like his friend Dr. Fielding, but is infuriated by the casual racism and constant snubbing of the rest of the English. He is an educated, interesting man, yet he is always just another Indian to most of the English people he meets. In spite of all this, he offers to take Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore to the caves. Unfortunately for him, the plan starts to fall apart almost immediately. Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore’s English chaperone and the local expert fail to make the train. Mrs. Moore has a bad reaction to the first cave. After she drops out of the little expedition, Miss Quested runs from another cave, into the cacti and sun, shouting that Dr. Aziz has assaulted her.

By this point, almost half of the book has pointed out just how fragile the civility between Indian and British is. The arrest and trial of Dr. Aziz on very flimsy evidence (mostly just racism than actual physical evidence) spark the sub-surface fury of the Indians. The fury of the Indians reminds the English of “the Mutiny” (the Indian Rebellion of 1857). Both camps circle the wagons, spreading hysterical rumors, and making plans for what might happen if things do turn violent. Forster writes:

But [Mr. McBryde] looked at him sternly, because he was keeping his head. He had not gone mad at the phrase “an English girl fresh from England,” he had not rallied to the banner of race. He was still after facts, though the herd had decided on emotion. Nothing enrages Anglo-India more than the lantern of reason if it is exhibited for one moment after its extinction is decreed. All over Chandrapore that day the Europeans were putting aside their normal personalities and sinking themselves in their community. Pity, wrath, heroism, filled them, but the power of putting two and two together was annihilated. (181*)

Affairs march on ahead of Miss Quested who, on reflection, isn’t entirely sure what happened that day in the caves after all.

The caves and the subsequent trial form an early climax in A Passage to India. The rest of the book centers mostly on Dr. Aziz, Dr. Fielding, and, to a lesser extend, Miss Quested, as they try to put their worldviews back together. At the beginning of the book, each was willing to reach across the aisle, so to speak, and form friendships that their co-nationalists warned them against. Many men, British and Indian, point to their long years of experience as their authority on the futility of fraternization.

I was expecting A Passage to India to end on a very depressing note. It is rather depressing for most of its chapters. And yet, there’s a strange feeling of stubborn hope at the end of the book. Dr. Aziz is not quite ready to stop trying, no matter what the English have done to him (though he is much more reserved than he used to be). Near the end of the book, Aziz meets the youngest of Mrs. Moore’s children and is able to form a friendship because the boy has no preconceptions of what he’s supposed to think of Indians. It’s possible, the book suggests, that both Indians and British can set aside their histories and prejudices and built anew in the future. It will be hard, but it’s not completely impossible.

The other thing that lightens A Passage to India is the commentary provided by the narrator. Everyone is a target for the unnamed third-person narrator. My favorite line comes from the furor after the attack on Miss Quested: “[The Englishmen] had started speaking of ‘women and children’—that phrase that exempts the male from sanity when it has been repeated a few times” (202). The book is packed with small, pithy observations that puncture all of the deluded or bloviating character. So, even though this is a very serious book, about very serious things, the commentary had me snickering throughout. 

* Quote is from the Rosetta Books kindle edition.