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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

August Reads

A list of the books I read and what I thought of them.

The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosiński

This 1965 third novel by Polish American author Jerzy Kosiński is an unrelenting portrayal of unmitigated suffering. Set during the beginning years of the Second World War, across the borders of undisclosed European countries where savage violence is commonplace; where famine and disease ravage the wastelands; where home-brewed concoctions serve as medicine and superstition runs rampant; where villagers are driven to extreme lengths just to survive; and where nearly all live in constant fear for their lives, the novel is narrated by a nameless six-year-old boy who, abandoned by his parents, wanders aimlessly from village to village, through forests and along train tracks, in search of food, shelter, and work. Because the boy is “olive-skinned, dark-haired, and black-eyed,” many believe him to be of Romani or Jewish descent which puts him at great risk. During his travels he’s taken in by various people in various villages–peasants, farmers, carpenters, priests, and numerous others–where, in exchange for lodging, he is put to work often performing laborious and dangerous tasks. All the while, the boy bears witness to a litany of monstrous events and is subjected to unspeakable acts of physical and psychological torture. Such are the events that comprise a span of six years before the boy meets a fate which has long evaded him.

It is easily one of the most shocking, nauseating, anxiety-inducing, wince-causing, horribly horrific, heartbreaking and harrowing books I’ve ever read, all of which add to the novel’s established notoriety. While its verisimilitude remains more of less undoubted, controversy surrounding both the novel’s historicity and creative formation has long followed the novel and persists still today. However, in my opinion, the novel’s significance resides in the interpretive dimensions which rise from its picaresque form, so numerous and offering a litany of textual analyses. Below the surface of the text and in the structure of its episodic chapters hides a labyrinthine exploration into the nature of evil and innocence, the interconnectedness between animals and people, the psychology of alienation and acceptance, the duality of depravity and dignity, the clash between despair and hope, the dynamics of iniquity and indifference, and the evolution of victim to exploiter, oppressed to oppressor. I’ve been going through much of the literary criticism surrounding the book, and in each subsequent essay I read I discover something new–a connection, detail, easter egg–that I had missed upon my own first reading. It’s truly a feat of the imagination and a novel masterfully constructed, teeming with narrative and descriptive loci to provoke both thought and emotion. But it is certainly NOT for the faint of heart. It is an extremely disturbing novel and one that I hesitate to admit that I loved, if anything for the visceral reaction it evoked. Though there are scenes in this novel that will forever stay with me, scenes that I am not eager to revisit for a long, long time, I do think that this is one that I will reread sometime in the far future.

Also, I watched the 2019 film adaptation by Czech filmmaker Václav Marhoul which is shot in black-and-white, runs nearly three hours long, and won myriad awards upon its premiere. I did enjoy the film, particularly for its aesthetics and cinematography; however, the film strays quite a bit from the book at parts and there are details inserted into the film which were absent in the book. I would highly recommend reading the book first and watching the film second.

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

This 1842 first full-length novel by Ukrainian-born Russian author Nikolai Gogol is a satirical picaresque tale which follows a gregarious and eloquent yet capacious and swindling Pavel Ivanovich Chichikov, a middle-aged “gentleman” of middling social status who arrives to a small town and begins charming the local officials and landowning citizens. He befriends a large cast of quirky characters, all of whom are slightly neurotic or like caricatures in their own ways; characters include the magistrate, the police chief, the inspector of the board of health, the tax farmer, the architect, the governor, and various other officiates of the town’s local government, many of whom invite him to their homes for meals and outings. Chichikov, ever the shrewd charlatan, offers each host a business proposition: to buy up the “dead souls,” their serfs who have deceased since the last census count, under the guise of selfless intent. Befuddling as his proposal is, a number of the citizens agree, and Chichikov amasses a large amount of “dead souls”; however, soon his scheme comes to light and suddenly the town is after him. Chichikov flees yet again to another town and continues his plotting, and just as the law catches up to him, the novel abruptly ends unfinished in mid-sentence.

Not only was it my first time with Gogol but it was my first foray back into Russian literature after many years. And it was quite enjoyable. Dead Souls is widely regarded as an exemplar of 19th century Russian literature, famed for both its treatment of the prevailing social classes of the time and its stylistic structure: a “novel in verse” in a picturesque form, invoking classics like Homer’s The Odyssey or Dante’s The Divine Comedy. But what intrigued me the most was its metafictional qualities which most saliently arise in the voice of the narrator and his ongoing deliberation with how to narrate the story. It is uncertain who the narrator is or might be as the ambiguity in his narration intimates at once the author Gogol himself; a fictionalized version of Gogol himself, an aspiring writer whose commentary he cannot prevent from seeping into the text as he writes; another character in the novel, one unnamed but who, by either intimacy, friendship, or voyeurism, possesses a sort of omniscience to the events and machinations of all other characters; or some other, amorphous, all-seeing entity who cherry-picks which details to reveal and which to obscure, often struggling to do so. The narrator/narration was by far my favorite part of the novel; such uncertainty and frequent wavering inspired countless hilarious moments in the narrating of a story with countless hilarious moments already. It is easy to see why it's so highly regarded. I look forward to reading more of his work, especially his famous short stories.

The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen

This 1968 eighth novel by Danish poet and author Tove Ditlevsen is at once an unnerving portrait of psychological devolution and searing exploration into both the conditions which foment such a descent and the unlikely liberation discovered therein. Set in Copenhagen towards the end of the ‘60’s, the novel follows Lise Mundus, a famous children’s book writer, who is married to a philandering and uncaring man named Gert, and is the mother of three children, Hanne, Gitte, and Søren. Existing in a constant state of stress, much of which inflicted by her husband’s frequent affairs, her sister’s constant belittling, and her children’s truancy, Lise experiences audio and visual hallucinations of faces and voices and falls into a downward spiral of paranoia and delusion which culminates in an unsuccessful suicide attempt and subsequent institutionalization. But once Lise is in the hospital, even stranger things begin to happen; the visions and voices which relentlessly torment her start to multiply and grow in their horror and hideousness. And Lise, wavering between reality and illusion, begins to grapple with impossible choices amid an uncertain future.

Like her Copenhagen Trilogy which I read and reviewed last May, which also made my top ten list of the year, in The Faces Ditlevsen draws a narrative that deals with themes such as art, family, motherhood, marriage, and mental illness, with numerous autobiographical aspects abounding throughout its telling. Ditlevsen, who struggled herself with addiction (depicted at length in the final installment of her memoir trilogy) and mental illness, was admitted to psychiatric hospitals multiple times, doubtless inspiring the details of this novel. Whether or not, she experienced hallucinations, at all or to the extent of the narrator protagonist, I do not know; however, Ditlevsen’s searing and terrifyingly lucid portrayal of such hallucinations seems to imply she may have. The book reads like a psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator throwing not just the characters, events, and details, but the structure of the text itself into jeopardy. And with Ditlevsen poetic sensibility, the words burn through the pages, provoking both thought and fear. I found tinges of Linda Knausgård, particularly The Helios Disaster, as well as the stark tone and phantasmagorical atmosphere of Anna Kavan’s work–both are authors who share similar psychiatric experiences with Ditlevsen, personal histories which also serve as inspiration for their work. That it is such a brief novel, too, is a testament to Ditlevsen’s virtuosic command on language, frightening imagination, and brilliant ability to craft a narrative.

The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells

This 1896 third novel by English author H.G. Wells is a brilliant and terrifying classic work of early science fiction. The novel opens with English biologist Edward Prendick surviving a shipwreck in the Pacific Ocean, soon to be subsequently rescued by a passing ship. Nursed back to health by a man named Montgomery, Prendick learns that the ship, carrying a large menagerie of dangerous animals, is headed to an undisclosed island. After landing, Prendick takes house in a room on the outer edge of a large, enclosed compound and begins catching glimpses of the “animal-men” who inhabit the sprawling island jungles. Soon he meets Dr. Moreau, the owner of the island and mad scientist who conducts clandestine experiments on animals–experiments involving vivisection. With animal screams of pain sounding nearly at all hours, Prendick grows weary of his situation, recognizing that horrible danger has befallen him and worrying there may be no escape. And just as Prendick begins to learn the true nature of Dr. Moreau’s experiments, all hell breaks loose, and Prendick must fight for both his life and sanity.

A novel as famous as this one has long been on my list, and, as one might imagine, it held up to all my expectations. Firstly, the structure of the narration draws the reader in from the outset: categorically epistolary, the book is framed like “found footage,” each chapter being an entry in the Prendick’s surviving notes of his travels, its confessional nature making it even more real. And each chapter is more exciting than the last, ever teeming with the tension and suspense that only seems to grow with every turn of the page. Secondly, the exhilaration of the novel belies an intricate excavation into numerous subtextual motifs: science–evolution and the “uplift” trope, referring to the transformation of an animal species into intelligent beings, are centered in the novel, concepts doubtless influenced by the growing popularity of Darwinism of the time, yet also controversial in its straying away from traditional religious beliefs; philosophy–specifically ethics pertaining to human relations and perspectives of animals, and the benefits/detriments of experimentation, as well as the idea of ‘playing god’ in contrast to natural selection, but also the definition of consciousness which harkens Hegel’s master-slave dialectic; and politics–systems of power and exploitation, contracts, rules, and laws all play specific and important parts in the novel. To put another way, the novel is quite thought-provoking, lending itself to many different interpretations and inspiring discussion. I blitzed through this one, astonished to find so much in so short a book, and bewildered to think how prescient it seems now and how disturbing it must have been for its first readers.

Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk

This 1993 debut novel by English author Rachel Cusk is a slice-of-life portrait of a young twenty-something woman living and working in contemporary London. The novel follows Agnes Day, an editor of a magazine, navigating both her work and personal life seemingly without much success. In a house with a growing crack in the wall, she lives with her two friends/housemates, Nina and Merlin, both individualistic, successful, and confident in ways which Agnes is not. It is to both of them that Agnes divulges her wavering romantic life–a scattered frenzy of flings ranging from a one-time date to an undefined significant other lasting nearly a year–and increasingly stressful work life which would surely have fomented Agnes's devolution into hopelessness if not for her coworker friend Greta, a quirky hot mess whose anecdotes of her wild city escapades are as impressive as they are reckless. Uncertainty abounds across the board for Agnes, and as she struggles to find and maintain a sense of structure in her life, she slowly begins to think that any semblance of normalcy–in her friendships, lovers, and family–may just not be written in her stars.

Having read her Outline Trilogy: Outline, Transit, Kudos, and her book of essays Coventry which came out in 2019, I’m beginning to believe that Rachel Cusk is the Virginia Woolf of today, a claim I do not make lightly. Winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award, Saving Agnes is a powerful debut–a portrayal of life so realistic it felt at times as if I were living it. That Cusk wrote the novel when she was only 25 years old is beyond impressive if not completely demoralizing. The two aspects which stand out the most are Cusk’s characterization, particularly Agnes, and her style of prose. The back cover blurb describes Agnes as “chronically confused by the most basic interactions”; but her confusion is not without reason. Cusk shines a light on the absurdity, detriment, and even danger of modern dating; the unavoidable drama within personal, professional, and familial relationships; and the psychology of a paradoxically intelligent yet naive individual. Agnes is plighted with the belief that she’s fated to do things the wrong way, to always stray from the perception of “normal” due to an inherent defect of her own. And it’s this sensibility which drew me in from the start, a feeling which I’d be willing to argue is near universal in millennials today. When the structures of society, the order which drove the “traditional” trajectory of a person’s life has been dismantled, a sense of despondency, ennui, and “chronic confusion” is only inevitable. And Cusk’s treatment of these sentiments elevates the novel into its literary brilliance: her extensive range of vocabulary, dictional precision, masterful syntax, and astounding ability to craft metaphors entail a prose that is lofty but not condescending, wordy but efficient, illuminating, detailed, and above all, intelligent. Too, a subtle tone of melancholy pierces through the abundant levity of the novel, an ever-present comment on the current condition of culture and love and perhaps a tilt to where it’s headed. Saving Agnes reminded me of the show Fleabag, only more sober and solemn. And as Run River is to Didion, so Saving Agnes is to Cusk: each a brilliant and impressive debut wherein first established are the themes and characters which will recur again and again throughout their work. For anyone keeping abreast of contemporary literature, Cusk is a name they must know. I cannot wait to read the rest of her work.

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

This 1930 twelfth novel by English playwright, novelist, and short story writer W. Somerset Maugham is a tale about legacy and reputation, art and criticism, ideology and individualism, the effects of gossip, but more than anything, friendship and love. Set in early-twentieth century England, our narrator is writer William Ashenden whose friend Alroy Kear, also a writer, enlists his help with writing a biography about another writer: Edward Driffield, the “last of the great Victorians.” Ashenden, in his childhood and early adolescence spent in a town called Blackstable, was neighbors and later friends with Edward Driffield and his wife Rosie who used to frequently invite young Willie over to dine, play games, and chat, much to the disapproval of his guardians. But after absconding unexpectedly, young Willie fears he’ll again see his friends the Driffield’s. Years later as a young man, William is reunited with them in London, and not only is their friendship reignited again, this time extending to encompass a wide array of artists, poets, and cultured individuals, but William’s relationship with Rosie blooms into a romantic affair the likes of which he has never known. What unfolds is a story of scandal, complicated relationships, and surprising turns of fate which reverberate across the turbulent tides of time, rippling into new and striking revelations.

I was long overdue to read some Maugham, it having been nearly two years since I read The Razor’s Edge and three since Of Human Bondage, books which sit among my all-time favorites. And of course, Cakes and Ale did not disappoint. Maugham wrote in an introduction to a 1950 Modern Library edition, “I am willing enough to agree with common opinion that Of Human Bondage is my best work…But the book I like best is Cakes and Ale…because in its pages lives for me again the woman with the lovely smile who was the model for Rosie Driffield.” It’s a quote that I was so happy to find because not only does the magnificence of the novel truly reside in the character Rosie Driffield, but that she is modeled off a real person lends the notion that other characters, details, and events may too be inspired by Maugham’s real life, and I’m convinced they are and that this novel is in fact a roman-à-clef. As Rosie is modeled from a real person, so is the town of Blackstable: undoubtedly inspired by Whitstable, an actual English town on the north coast of Kent where Maugham spent many of his childhood years. With this, plus Maugham’s medical background reflected both in William Ashenden and in Philip Carey of Of Human Bondage, I’m starting to believe that Maugham’s entire oeuvre may also serve as his own autobiography, the shards of his own life scattered across his novels, seeping into the subtler details, various plot-points, and his countless, lifelike characters. I’m reminded of a quote of his: “I’m forced to stick to the truth by the miserable paucity of my imagination.” Could it be that Maugham, as a boy, knew he would eventually write about the people who inspired the Driffield’s; that he would dive into the mechanics of their relationships, expounding the flagrant absurdity in social class prejudice, puritanical sensibility, and the susceptibility to dogma, while simultaneously revisiting the happy memories which he strove to hold on to, the rises and falls of young love, the pain and the treachery along with the beauty and brilliance, to put it all down in ink and so thwart the unthinkable onslaught of forgetting? For me, it just throws the novel into a new light, a coat of sentimentality brushed onto its already prevailing excellence. It’s a novel that made me laugh and tear up and exult in the eloquence of its telling. It was riveting from beginning to end and left me only wanting more.

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