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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

August Reads

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

Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline

This 1932 debut novel by French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline charts the escapades of a young Parisian medical student who, disillusioned with society, people, and the incendiary political climate of the day, sets off across the world in search for meaning to the pervasive misery of life. Beginning in Paris, Bardamu first enlists in the French army and is thrust into the horrors of WWI, where he is wounded and put on convalescent leave during which he becomes romantically involved with two women, Lola and Musyne, who both end up leaving him after he’s deemed psychologically unfit. Discharged from the army, Ferdinand travels down the Western coast of Africa and finds work managing a trading post in the jungles of Togo. After weeks of fever, typhoons, and fire, Ferdinand flees on a galley headed towards New York City, where he finds room at a lavish hotel and spends his days ambling about the streets before his money runs out. Detroit is next. He finds work at a Ford factory and meets a girl and things seem okay for a moment, until Ferdinand, listless and despondent, boards a ship back home to Paris, where, after he opens his own doctor’s office in a poor part of the city, he’s faced with more death than even encountered on the battlefield. What ensues is nightmarish reflection on violence, suffering, and the inevitable demise which all must meet at the end of the night.

Structured in a semi-autobiographical, first-person anti-narrative, it is no wonder Journey to the End of the Night inspired writers like Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski, the latter of whom famously said, “First of all read Céline, the greatest writer of 2000 years.” Céline was their literary progenitor, and one can trace his influence well through the twentieth century and into the next, connecting Jean Genet to Michel Houellebecq with threads of style, form, and tone whose versatility and experimentation were amplified courtesy of Céline. Tone, perhaps, is the most salient of those components: prose which combines the journalistic laconicism of a Hemingway with the bleak starkness of a Kosinski, seamlessly spinning fustian phrases into layman’s language, in turn, propelling a unique voice that wavers between mordant and meaningful, satirical and sincere, exemplifying what the French call narquois. And yet, this unique voice, Bardamu’s, seems to stray from his control as the novel progresses: delirium, dreams, and delusion threaten to pull our narrator asunder and disorient the reader in tow. But beyond the tone are the themes which run rampant throughout the text: violence, suffering, death, hatred, war, and existential demise take thematic superiority; seldom is there a moment untouched by the devastation which each these enumerated elements entail. But indeed, there are, though brief, though rare, small instances of hope, beauty, and kindness. Like a flame sparking into being, flickering for a second, then dying out against the darkness, these moments arrive suddenly, sometimes just a line or two, or merely a phrase or even a single word, and provide a short respite from the ruination, a pause in the all-pervasive pessimism. But these little moments do more: they limn a subtle grace to the gloom, intimating a notion that kindness, even against an indifferent, callous world, will still find a way to emerge; that beauty will inevitably beat brutality, even against the odds. However, I use the words “limn” and “intimate” purposefully because such optimism is all but completely squashed in a novel like this. This is truly a philosophically pessimistic novel, and one that, with each subsequent rereading, I know I’ll discover more and more lessons, if not universals truths about life and death.

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

This 1981 second novel by English writer Ian McEwan explores the intertwined nature of sexuality and violence, replete with all its complexities, contradictions, and conundrums. Set in an undisclosed coastal European city, the novel follows Colin and Mary, lovers on vacation, who meet an eccentric yet enigmatic couple, Robert and Caroline, locals of the cities. Listlessness, tedium, desultoriness define Colin and Mary’s relationship at the start of the novel; each seek an adventure which the other seems unable to provide. So, when they meet the boisterous Robert, the owner of a local bar, who gives them great conversations, great drinks and food, and great times, the couple is eager and excited to finally have the vacation they sought. But soon strange happenings ensue: Robert introduces Colin and Mary to his housebound wife, Caroline, whose sweet disposition belies, as Mary gleans, a certain fear and anxiety; to Colin, Robert begins disclosing disconcerting convictions related to the nature of man and woman, power and control; and both Colin and Mary start finding photographs which only amplify their unease. Suspense accrues as the couple wavers between action and inaction, to dive deeper into the mystery that is Robert and Caroline, a decision wrought with the potential for adventure and danger, or to return to the mediocrity of their own lives and likely waste their vacation. By the end of the novel, this tension is stretched to its limits, thrusting Colin and Mary into a nightmarish realm of animalism, deviancy, and a type of violence known only to those most depraved.

Ian McEwan has quickly become the writer to whose work I turn when I’m in-between titles and need something deep, dark, and endlessly entertaining. I still remember reading Nutshell, my first of his, and then shortly after, The Cement Garden, his debut and which, with The Comfort of Strangers, his follow-up, earned him the nickname Ian Macabre. And it’s easy to see why: like his debut, his second novel explores dark themes and depicts stark instances of depravity, violence, and sadomasochism. And as McEwan is wont to do, he complicates such themes and instance by imbuing and tying them to themes of love, sexuality, and childhood, the last of which harkens his debut. Beneath the desultory relationship of the two leads boils an underlying tension whose heat is only increased after they meet Robert and Caroline, and yet, like a frog in the pot, the interweaving relations of these four characters on the surface seem more or less benign. It is more in the pauses, silent intervals, the things not said, things not seen or heard, that glimpses into a different, darker nature first are gleaned. And because McEwan is a master at sewing discord and disquiet in the subtleties of human interactions, the ending of the novel comes pummeling out of the shadows full force. This slim novel, just over 100 pages, is a tightly packed psychological thriller which kept me in its grip over the course of two days. I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys complicated relationships, twisted themes, and damn good writing.

Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano

This 2014 book is a collection of three novellas by French writer Patrick Modiano: “Afterimage” (1993), “Suspended Sentences” (1988), and “Flowers of Ruin” (1991). Each novella is set in Paris and leaps around the nineteenth century. “Afterimage,” the shortest of the three, is narrated by a man who recounts his friendship with a photographer named Francis Jansen, an elusive, enigmatic artist whose paranoia and hermitage border on the neurotic. Our narrator, fascinated with Jansen’s work, endeavors to compile his photographs, a futile exercise according to Jansen, but one which inevitably sends our narrator down a spiral of strange events. “Suspended Sentences,” our titular story, follows two young brothers, who, abandoned by their gallivanting parents, move in with three women just outside Paris. While Patoche, our young narrator grapples with coming of age in an unconventional way, he begins to notice that the women and their friends may be up to something bigger, more serious, than they let on to be. When his suspicions are confirmed, his childhood ends abruptly. The final story, “Flowers of Ruin,” is a mystery-thriller of sorts: our narrator’s investigation of the double suicide of a young couple begins to unearth some uncanny clues, yet at the same time, more questions, mysteries, and conundrums arise, leading our detective into a web of devious affairs.

I’ve written about Patrick Modiano in the past, having read Out of the Dark and In the Café of Lost Youth; and with each subsequent read, each introduction to a new work of his, more and more I am certain that not only is he one of my favorite contemporary writers, but that he is one of the greatest writers living today. And that he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014 surely means I’m not alone. Suspended Sentences was a fantastic read. It spans a little over two hundred pages, and each novella is told through brief, quick chapters, some lasting a few pages, others limited to a single paragraph, striking a flow nearly impossible to resist. But more than the structure of these stories, it was Modiano’s signature style which kept me enthralled. Through each novella runs a torrent of underlying tones and tensions, threads and themes, airs and auras which interlink the characters, events, time, and space. As is Modiano’s trademark, nostalgia, memory, ephemerality, love, and violence permeate the text, often captured and juxtaposed with the varying narrative perspectives ranging from an elderly man looking back on his life, recounting his adulthood and middle age, to the eyes of a young child whose innocence and unfamiliarity mar his attempts to understand the present and envision the future. Fracturing time, blending interiority and exteriority, and painting the brilliance of the mundane, Modiano inspires a world of words all his own. One of my favorite New York writers Lucy Sante has a wonderful blurb on the back; she writes, “Reading Modiano is like experiencing a very specific flavor you don’t encounter every day—saffron or asafetida, say. He’s direct and precise, but also gently melancholy, like the squeezed essence of passing time.” That last phrase, “like the squeezed essence of passing time,” will also ring true for me, a brilliant way to encapsulate the distinct tone and atmosphere of Modiano’s work. For anyone new to Modiano, I think Suspended Sentences is an excellent place to start.

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