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  • Writer's pictureRussell Magee

July Reads

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

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

This 1984 fifth novel by Czech writer Milan Kundera is at once an intriguing, heartrending drama about an entangled web of spouses and lovers, a scathing critique on the power of political factions, a hilariously raunchy exploration of sexuality, and a deeply philosophical novel refuting Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence. Set between Zurich and Prague in the late 1960’s, in the months of growing political tensions which would culminate in the Prague Spring, the novel follows four individuals: Tomas, a philandering surgeon whose sexual escapades seem to constitute most of his ambition in life; Tomas’s wife Tereza, a keen photojournalist whose love for her husband she deems the result of a series of fortuitous events; Sabina, Tomas’s close friend and mistress, a lithe, shrewd, and whimsical painter; and Franz, Sabina’s lover, a university professor of quixotic disposition and athletic musculature whose lofty dreams and impulsive actions tend to override his better judgment. Also, a main character of sorts, there is Karenin, the pet dog of Tomas and Tereza, whose role in the novel is subtle yet undeniably significant. As the characters and their own unique personalities weave and clash and ebb and flow, what unfolds is a literary masterpiece at the heart of which lie some of the greatest questions that have mystified, stumped, and puzzled people since the dawn of humankind.

I had read this one years ago, before I began reading avidly and writing about books. And I remember the truly visceral effect it had on me; it changed the way that I view the world and people and relationships and so many more things. In my opinion, it’s one of the greatest novels of the late 20th century and one of the most profound books I’ve ever read, not simply because of its philosophical explorations, but also its imagination, ingenuity, form, characterization, hilarity, social commentary, and unpredictability. It’s at once entertaining and cerebral, the latter of which I can’t help but focus on. The novel probes into a litany of subtextual analyses spanning from Foucauldian panopticism to the Oedipus myth (both psychoanalytic and structuralist), from dream interpretation to the morality of euthanasia, from New Historicism to the ethics of sexuality and libertinism, and most saliently, Western existentialism as Kundera develops his refutation against Nietzsche’s eternal return through the exploration of fate, free will, and the nature of being. And it’s in the last of these motifs which I find what I consider to be probably the best and most enjoyable interpretation of the novel: an incredible laudation of and powerful argument for the very act of reading. Central questions in the novel are, how does one make a choice when one cannot “test out” other choices in the moment to see how they’ll fair? How should one lead their life when “the first rehearsal for life is life itself?” Kundera writes, “We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.” Ultimately one must take a chance, make a choice not knowing if it will turn out the right or wrong one, and that’s the plight of living–never knowing the correct decision. One cannot have hindsight in the present. And yet, literature offers a kind of solution to such a problem; books allow one to “try on” different decisions, actions, events, emotions, even entire lives, all experienced vicariously through the characters, fictional or real, in the pages of a book. Literature can act as a kind of rehearsal for whatever a reader might experience in their own lives, and, in turn, allow a reader to live many lives within one, which to me is something grander than I can begin to express. I credit this novel with fueling my passion for reading, my love for literature, and it was so wonderful to dive back into it again after all these years. Can’t wait to do it again.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

This 1984 twenty-second novel by French author Marguerite Duras is the story about forbidden love. An unnamed, fifteen-year-old French girl, living in Indochina (now Vietnam) in the year 1929 regales her relationship with a twenty-seven-year-old Chinese-Vietnamese man whom she meets while traveling alone on a ferry through the Mekong Delta returning to her boarding school from a family vacation. The man is a young professional, wealthy, shrewd, and the heir to his businessman father’s fortune. The two begin a conversation which lasts the duration of the trip, she accepts a ride into town in his chauffeured limousine. The two, drawn to the magnetism between each other, embark on a romantic and sexual relationship which lasts over the course of many weeks before the man abruptly cuts it off, owing to the disapproval of his father. Forlorn and the afraid at the prospect of being thrown back into a life of penury and uncertainty, the nameless narrator grapples with the events which has thus taken place, the relationship she had, and whether it was love or deception which inspired it.

It’s a book that has become widely regarded in certain literary circles and even taught in some university literature courses; a book that I had heard of a while ago and knew I would read at some point. It’s fairly short, clocking in just under 120 pages, and it’s written in a chapter-less yet episodic form, short vignette-paragraphs divided by breaks delineating time shifts, memories, and streams of thought. And the prose itself is fractured, conversational, terse yet full of detail–all the while hypnotic and haunting, melancholic and mournful in ways that, for me, evoked the work of Jean Rhys and Patrick Modiano. But while the prose was evocative, engaging in ways greater than the story, it was the subtle allegory residing beneath the text that captured my interest most. The relationship between the girl and the man seems to represent the colonialism of the east by the west–the intersection of class and love evoking a keen exploration of the power structures which drive imperialism. There are many questions which arise from this novel: can love exist or persist amid an unmistakable power dynamic? Is exploitation inevitable even under good intentions, while loving and caring for another? Duras bridges the macro with the micro, decades and centuries of conquest, subjugation, and violence condensed intimately between the relationship between two people, and I think for that reason the novel is significant and a powerful exemplum of the ways in which power affects individuals, communities, and civilizations.

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

This 1929 second novel by American writer Ernest Hemingway is at once a romance and intense war novel. Set at the Italian Front during the First World War, the novel is narrated by Lieutenant Frederic Henry, referred to as “Tenente,” an ambulance driver for the Italian Army who falls into a love affair amid the brutalities of war. It opens with Henry returning from a trip and being introduced by his good friend and surgeon Rinaldi to a nurse at the British hospital named Catherine Barkley with whom Henry quickly becomes enamored. The two begin a secret relationship but it’s soon cut short by the advancing conflict in which Henry is gravely injured. Bedridden as he is recovering in an American hospital in Milan, he is reunited with Catherine, and their affair, once again, is reignited. But, also once again, it is to be short-lived as after Henry is fully healed, he is thrown back into the bloodshed, this time separating from his troop, falling into the hands of the enemy, and having to find a way to escape. On his own, he navigates the war-torn terrain, and all through the treachery and peril, he wonders if he will live to see his beloved Catherine, now with child, again.

It tops Joan Didion’s ultimate reading list; it’s regarded as one of the “premier American war novels” and one of Hemingway’s finest, for me it’s always been a title to eventually get to, one that “I know I should read and will likely read at some point.” Finding a cheap used paperback in a Milford, CT bookstore made the decision for me; I began it on a train home and couldn’t stop reading. The novel is heavily inspired by Hemingway’s own experiences serving as an ambulance driver in the Italian campaign in the 1910’s, Catherine Barkley being modeled after Agnes von Kurowsky, a nurse who cared for Hemingway himself after he had been injured on the lines. The certified autobiographical aspects of the novel impart a curious conflict in the reader–where to draw the line? How much is based on real events, real people, real relationships, and real experiences? It simply adds to the curious nature of the novel, a nature made curious by both Hemingway’s penchant for omission and hypermasculine sentiment which, in this one, rings loudest in the idiosyncrasies of certain characters. Most striking for me was Rinaldi, and his relationship with Lieu. Henry, a friendship I’ve seen described as “brotherly” though I think “homoerotic” is a more apt descriptor as the constant “baby’s” and forehead kisses tend to perk an eyebrow or two. It’s just one of many subtextual undercurrents that run below the graphic bloodshed and absurdity of war, threads made more pronounced contrasted against the love story between Henry and Catherine. And Hemingway’s portrayals of combat and war are truly astounding, “one of the greatest moments in literary history” as the back-cover blurb puts it; dramatic but understandable. It is a great novel, not perfect in my opinion, but certainly great, and I’m curious how it will compare to the rest of his works I still have yet to read.

The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector

This 1977 eighth novel by Brazilian novelist and short story writer Clarice Lispector is her final novel published non-posthumously, arriving in print just months before her death in December of the same year. The novel is narrated by Rodrigo S.M., a writer struggling to both write and make commentary on the constitutive story of the novel which revolves around Macabéa, a 19-year-old girl from the Northeast–frequently referred to as “the northeastern girl”–who is struggling to survive in Rio de Janeiro. She lives in near destitution, sleeping in a crowded tenement housing with four other roommates, and barely makes enough money to scrape by working as a typist. After a series of romantic betrayals, Macabéa visits a fortune teller who prophesizes that her life will get better, that she will meet a wealthy man, marry, and soon live happily ever after. What actually happens, however, is not in the least bit close to what the seer foresaw.

Though rather short, spanning just over eighty pages, it’s a novel, like most of Lispector’s works, teeming with grand questions about life, relationships, love, and death, and, as always, Lispector does not shy away from a stark, in-depth philosophical excavation which has become her trademark, an excavation incited and carried by her hypnotic, inquisitive, meandering prose. And while certain passages of introspection and rumination absolutely constitute some of my favorite parts of the book, what I couldn’t help but focus on the most was not Macabéa and her plight which make up the bulk of the plot, but the narrator himself. Rodrigo S.M. is a strange voice – at times an amorphous all-seeing entity, at other times a very real character, occupying reality, though one different from the setting in which Macabéa exists (after all, Macabéa and Macabéa’s world are but figments of Rodrigo’s imagination). There are layers to the narration and the story being narrated, distinctions, boundaries which separate the two. And it’s how those boundaries, at certain times, fall apart, break down, erode which made for the most intriguing moments of the novel for me. Colm Tóibín, another one of my favorites, writes that the novel has “a sense of form and content dancing a slow and skillful waltz with each other,” which is a beautiful way to put it; what is written and how it’s written are inextricably connected, and Lispector plays with that connection in ways I’ve yet to see matched in recent contemporary literature. It was a fascinating, mesmerizing short read.

The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje

This 2011 sixth novel by Sri-Lankan-born Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje is narrated by Michael in adult age as he recounts a journey he made when he was eleven years old traveling from Sri Lanka to England aboard a massive, seven-story ocean liner named Oronsay which carries in total over six hundred people. His aunt is aboard as well, though a passenger in first class, and he seldom sees her during the three-week voyage across the Indian Ocean and through the various Eurasian waterways. The boy meets and befriends two other boys around his age, Cassius and Ramadhin, at his assigned dinner table, referred to as “the cat’s table,” along with a number of quirky adults–a musician, a botanist, and a schoolteacher to list a few. With near entire run of the ship, the boys embark on their adventures, sneaking out past curfew, breaking into various cabins, spying on other passengers, creating games, tracking a mysterious prisoner who’s only allowed out in shackles during the night, and even tying themselves to the deck during a vicious storm. Juxtaposed with the problems of present-day which plight adult Michael, it is a story about childhood, friendship, memory, and grief.

Ondaatje has long been a name that I’ve wanted to get to, having heard about The English Patient which is his most known and renown novel. However, perusing his book in the store, I was drawn to this story–something about its simplicity of plot, a boy on a journey across the ocean, captivated my interest. And the novel turned out to be quite entertaining, though it did not soar to my hopes and expectations. It’s entirely character-driven, which I loved, and the characters are the finest parts of the novel. Ondaatje invents characters as real as passengers on a cruise line, each unique and filled with quirks and idiosyncrasies, secrets and past lives which every so often spill into the present. And the adventures which the boys get up to were at once exciting, at times hilarious, at others surprisingly poignant. Where the novel fell for me was in the present-day happenings–the portrait of emotion, in particular grief, seemed diminished contrasted against moments of childhood whimsy and lightheartedness. And though there is a mysterious element which emanates from the past-present fluctuation, something which carries the dips and swells of the plot, the prose itself, I felt, was not engaging or striking enough to carry it into the next level. However, I still very much enjoyed the novel, and I look forward to reading his other work.

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