Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Review: Claude Simon's The Flanders Road

© 1960; trans. Richard Howard © 1961, 1985

 

The central incident of The Flanders Road is that of four horseman retreating from the rout of the first days of the German invasion of France in WWII: the captain of the unit, his lieutenant, his lackey, and a forth cavalryman, the last the central voice of the book. They are all that remains of their unit, who were decimated in the first moments of battle, as would be expected when horsemen are sent forward against Panzers. Indeed, that absurdity is brought forward again and again, as with this passage:

Apparently they use those tanks as. . . then he was too far away I had forgotten that such things are merely called a 'business' the way you say 'that business' when you mean 'fighting a duel' a delicate euphemism a more discreet more elegant formula well so much the better not all was lost since we were still among well-bred people say don't say, example don't say 'the squadron has been massacred in an ambush', but 'we had a bad business outside the village of [. . .] (101)

But the incident is not merely the four of them trotting down Flanders Road, both them and their horses completely exhausted, most likely already behind the German advance if not, because of the age of their orders of retreat, on their way right to German forces, yet trotting nonetheless, the captain and his lieutenant talking about what the other two cannot hear, the captain leading the way, just trotting, head on into the sights of a german sniper, who kills the commander.

But then that is by extension the central incident of the squadron, riding head on, lead by a captain with sabre drawn, into the sights of advancing German armor. And yet again, it is the central incident of the "well-bred" French who "had a bad business" along the whole of the Eastern front. And there are plenty of moments in The Flanders Road that makes that extension clear.

That is the central incident. (And it was a real incident, of which Simon was a part.) However, the central question is whether the captain, slowly trotting down that road back straight in plain sight, was looking for that very thing to happen, for a kind of suicide he was unable to bring upon himself in response to humiliating defeat.

That extension of thought from one context to the next, carrying ideas from each to the other, is the mode of The Flanders Road. As Stephen Fletcher points out in the introduction in my Calder Publications edition, Simon was heavily influenced by William Faulkner, and The Flanders Road is written in a style of long flowing sentences, at times pages long sentences running on from one thought to the next, sometimes created merely by removing the periods and the following capital letters. And yet, it works to the desired end of creating continuous flow. Which is necessary in this book where scenes blur into each other and need to blur into each other and where thoughts should not ever be confined by punctuation. It is false to call it "stream of consciousness" because the stream is more in the mind of the implied author and not in that of a character. But it is very much yet a "stream," a flow of ideas, less like a river, more like a pool of swirling eddies.

Indeed, when it comes to it, there are only a handful of scenes in the book, primarily centered on Georges, and the captain, de Reixach (a distant relative), and the lackey, Iglésia, who before the war was de Reixach's jockey for his stable of horses, and the text, which does not reach 200 pages in my edition, moves back and forth between the scenes, without warning or cue. But as said, this is how the book operates, by not permitting any one scene to form borders and discern itself from any other. One example is an important steeplechase race that in the middle becomes the squadron's advance into battle and then returns to that equally fateful race. They are not discerned in the text, and should not be wholly discerned by the reader. One can perhaps do an essay on how mud appears and functions throughout the text as an idea that ties scenes together. Because of the style you flow right through the text — indeed, I read the whole of it in three sittings. Though, it is a text that requires concentration so at the same time there is want to read slowly. And even in translation the language offers its own delights. But, then, the language is important to Simon's aims.

But the work pays off with the whole of it becoming one thought — or, perhaps, three thoughts as there are three chapters. But, they cannot wholly be separated, nor are they intended to be. This is a story about a horse soldier, and it is a story about his captain. But it has to be said it is also a story about France in its facing down the German threat as, perhaps, well-bred, but in the end, wholly inadequate people, of whom de Reixach is representative. The back of my edition describes the book as "a haunting portrayal [. . .] of the chaos and savagery of war." I disagree with that description entirely. There is wreckage, and the book closes on that theme in a scene that is in the moments prior to de Reixach's death, the four riding through the quiet aftermath of the German advance:

[. . .] the war somehow stagnant, somehow peaceful around us, the sporadic cannon fire landing in the deserted orchards with a muffled monumental and hollow sound like a door flapping in the wind in an empty house, the whole landscape empty uninhabited under the motionless sky, the world stopped frozen crumbling collapsing gradually disintegrating in fragments like an abandoned building, unusable, left to the incoherent, casual, impersonal and destructive work of time. (193)

Yes, there is wreckage, but the book is not a book about war, it is about defeat. As said, humiliating defeat. The devastation is, simply, the consequence of an utterly unprepared army facing an utterly capable army. And as description in The Flanders Road only infrequently stands on its own as mere description, it is usually put to the work of ideational depth, so also should that last thought be taken. The Flanders Road might be a book that occurs during war, but it is not a book about war. It is "about" something else entirely, in a different way entirely.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Review: Neil Gaiman's American Gods

I will be honest. I want so very much to like Neil Gaiman's books. I do. Perhaps that is because I so enjoy the movies: Stardust, Coraline. (O.K., the tv show American Gods mostly bores me.) But, so far it just has not come to be to any great degree. The first one I read was Neverwhere, which I enjoyed enough but did not think much of. It was rather for me just this string of events happening one after the other, with only minimal connection between them (outside of what holds them onto that string). And, to be honest, if I am going to spend time entertaining myself with that kind of thing I would rather watch a shoot-em-up movie because it only takes two hours. But, I guess it was enjoyable enough. It did not wow me, but I did finish it. (And I will not finish something I am not enjoying.)

Now, I was teaching at the time and my class kind of agreed with me: Neverwhere was enjoyable enough, but nothing special. What I really needed to read, though, they all agreed, was American Gods. Which I finally got to, a few months ago. Between those two I have looked between the covers of others of his books. I eavesdropped on a conversation that said good things about The Graveyard Book, but when I looked for myself — and I read more than a few pages — I was not wowed enough to buy it. (Indeed, if I remember correctly, the writing put me off. Maybe I misremember, though.) And, perhaps, if I found cheap copies in the used (budget, you know) I might pick that up yet, or Coraline, or Stardust. Like I said, I do want to like Neil Gaiman.

Oh! I should say I have read the first volume of The Sandman comics, and found that interesting. Never committed myself to the cost of buying them all (as I said, budget). Though, my daughter laughed when I told her that story and then pointed to all the DC volumes I have bought for my other daughter (and me) to read. I did recently find volume two used and in perfect shape. Perhaps I will give them a new go.

But, American Gods. Definitely much more ambitious than Neverwhere, and I can see — even for only reading the couple — how people would say this is the book to read. And it has what Neverwhere lacks: a plot that brings everything together rather than just strings everything along.

Except for Lakeside. Up until Part 3 it is a travel book, and the energies of the book is tied up with that motion. But it all completely stalls out in Lakeside. Indeed, the question must be asked, is there any reason for the long Lakeside episode to exist except for it to be a means by which Shadow ends up in jail, and thus captured by the enemy? By the way — and it is important to note this — I have a thing about heroes getting captured by the enemy. In video games I consider it very lazy plot structuring and it pisses me off every time. Here, perhaps Shadow being saved by zombie-Laura (what else to call her?) maybe makes it interesting. But, still, I hate when the hero gets captured, because that usually means the story is about to get contrived.

But Lakeside is greatly a flaw. A bunch of stuff happening that points no further forward than when Shadow leaves Lakeside. (Or was taken from Lakeside.) At which, as I said, I was wondering, "Why then did I have to read all that?" And it's not that the Lakeside stuff is not interesting. The problem is you do not want your reader feeling like the plot just ended, especially in a book whose energies are tied up in motion. Lakeside does not point to the conclusion of the book, and that's a problem.

You know, when it comes to it, the World Tree episode felt a little anti-climactic as well.

To be honest, once they left Lakeside, the book did feel like it wanted to go back to the episodes strung along one after the other style of Neverwhere. Wanted to, at least.

Now, as to that conclusion. It was a nice rap up. A nice idea to the story. Though, I was not wowed by it. In fact, everything about the final showdown felt odd to me, like the motivations did not quite fit what was happening. I think a little bit it is because up until Lookout Mountain the reader is greatly outside of it all, as though an exterior witness to the threat against the old gods and the threats of the new gods. (To a great degree Shadow is but an outside participant. And, really, the old gods seem totally apathetic until suddenly they all — or however many — show up.) And, to be honest, a great war on the slopes of Lookout Mountain just seemed silly to me. (I've been there. It was a while ago, though.) But I enjoyed the plot twist, however quickly narrated. It was not wholly out of the blue. And plot twists that are wholly out of the blue are bad writing.

A word on the intervening chapters? Some worked. Some did not. The first, Bilquis, chapter set a tone that sticks out from the rest of the book. It did not work, and I thought it silly. But others I found interesting. Some I found boring. So it goes. I am not sure with myself whether they as a whole added or subtracted from the book, because the book is not . . . . creative — symbolic? — enough in its language for interjections like that to effect resonances. The creativity of the book is in what happens, not in how it is told. The interruptions are mostly more intervening episodes that, to be honest, you can either take or leave. And I was paying attention, because how such things like that work is interesting (if not important) to me. And yet, curiously, there is a part of me that felt there needed to be many more of them, to create a kind of behind the scenes gestalt.

All in all though, I finished the book without too much laboring through it. The way Lakeside ended like a cook chopping the butt off celery stalks did piss me off a touch. But I enjoyed it otherwise. Not great literature, in no way. Gaiman is a more than competent writer, but nothing exceptional happens in the words. (Not in the two books I've read.) Not genre fiction, either, though. Which is important. He is definitely a better writer than that. If someone asked if they should read it I would say read ten pages in the middle and if it sounded interesting go for it. Well, if they normally read just genre stuff I would say "It's better than the crap you normally read." And I am not put off of wanting to read other things by Gaiman. For as I said, I so do want to like Neil Gaiman's books.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Three Short Reviews: Mistborn, The Fifth Season, Dune

I have wanted to get back into reading fantasy and science fiction, and have been making slight effort to for a while. But now a little more effort to looking at contemporary fantasy. To be honest, most of it I look at in the stores and pass on. But I do give one here and there a chance. And then there is the going back to read the classics.

 

Mistborn. Brandon Sanderson (2006)

 

I bought a trade copy of this through the mail for two bits because it seemed well known and Sanderson seems everywhere.

I made it to page 70 and stopped with no desire to go forward. It was about as genre fantasy as genre fantasy can get. Which means it was not literary as not literary can get. And I rather found the premise daft, its execution unoriginal, and the writing mediocre at best.

 
 

The Fifth Season. N.K. Jemisin (2015)

 

I actually got almost all the way through the book, about a hundred pages to go; but that is mostly because it took zero effort to read it. It has the density of talcum powder. And I am not a fast reader. It also helped in that there are all kinds of white space on the pages, so the book tricks you into thinking you have read more than you actually have. For its content I am guessing it is not meant for the YA crowd; but yet, for the level of writing I would have thought so. At least I was not pushing myself through boredom. I was interested in where the book was trying to go. Though, the book very much reads like it is trying to pad out a 250 page novel into three volumes. When it comes to it, even for the three story lines, very little happens. But, as said, not the densest tree in the woods.

I got to the geode city and found that completely stupid and stopped. It was a moment that rather made the rest of the book suddenly seem a little less intelligent as well. And so little happens. I mean, you have a whole plot line which, through the first book, takes two main characters out of the action and strands them on an island? O.K., that I had to push myself through. They no longer had a purpose to the storyline so I no longer understood why I was having to read about them. And the telling of them on the island was not in itself interesting enough to get by that obstacle. But, then, talcum powder.

 
 

Dune. Frank Herbert. (1965)

 

I believe this is the third time I have read it. It has been a good long time since the last, though. And the reading was curiously tinged by my fragmentary memory of the earlier readings and of the Lynch film. (I don't believe I saw any of the miniseries.) It made for interesting interplay.

Dune is one of those books that devotees of imaginative fiction hold up as being literature. But it is not so much, really. The writing is competent but it never rises to the exceptional. And the book is mostly narrative. There is very little depth. Indeed, in reading it I would often note how Herbert was passing up opportunities to develop depth. Brian Herbert, in the afterward to the most recent edition (the one I read) speaks of people finding various readings in it — religious, ecological. But as I point out with my review of Lord of the Rings, it is often the case that the reason people are able to find "readings" only inversely has to do with the book. That is, the book is shallow enough that people are readily able to bring readings into the book that do not actually exist therein. That, I believe, is very much the case here. There is, for example, no great ecological statements being made here, however the claims.

The plot also has its difficulties. The entire takeover of Arrakis by the Harkonnens occurs between chapters. That seems to me rather a problem in the writing. It does not speak of a clever technical maneuver, it speaks that Herbert could not figure out how to do it. Same with Paul's descent into the visions of the Water of Life, which is to me a huge error in the writing. That should have been a major part of the book. The book opens on the idea. Instead it speaks that Herbert simply did not engage the spiritual aspects of the story as a whole as he could have. When Jessica takes the Water of Life, the journey is not visionary, it is told in terms of biochemistry. The spiritual aspct is wholly pushed aside. Which made me look back and say, "Well, maybe the original scene with the gom-jabbar wasn't as spiritual as I thought. It was entirely political." I do not think that that is what Herbert was aiming for. But Herbert was committed to writing science fiction; and, perhaps, too limited by that conviction. Or, simply, limited in ability. Not giving Paul's journey is a major error.

One more example, a big one, is the final scene of everbody gathered together in one room. Perhaps acceptable in terms of the negotiation of peace between Paul and the Emperor. (I should note that the telling of the reclaiming of Arrakis was awfully quick as well.) But when Paul and Feyd-Rautha had a knife fight in the middle of it the scene fell into the comedic. It was almost as thought Herbert could think of no other way to get rid of that character.

What Dune is, what it can be praised for, is that it is an imaginative book. The first of its kind, says the publishing history offered by Brian Herbert in the afterward. It is "creative" in the sense of the phrase "creative writing." But it is a false conclusion to step from that to saying Dune is literature. It is not. It it a mundane book, with writing that meets the needs but rarely rises higher than that, and hardly any symbolic resonance at all. Which is an important point to make. A book can be creative — can be really creative — without it being literature. And people are willing to praise contemporary imaginative fiction because of that trait. But keep in mind, just because it is creative, does not mean it is not also pulp.

Still, as fun a read as the first time I read it. (And, yes, I am eager for the film to come out.)