Review 1634: Palace of Desire

The three books of Naguib Mafouz’s Cairo Trilogy are all named after streets in Cairo. The home of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is located on Palace Walk, the name of the previous book. His oldest son Yasid’s home is on the Palace of Desire, and desire is certainly a theme for this novel.

The novel is set five years after the last one, beginning in 1924. Since his middle son Fahmy’s death, Ahmad has stopped his nightly drinking and womanizing, but fairly soon in the novel he decides to go out with his friends again. Now a middle-aged man, he finds he has lost his confidence. Instead of flitting from woman to woman, he is soon spending a lot of money setting up his mistress, Zanuba, in a house boat.

Kamal, definitely a portrait of the writer himself, as I suspected in the last book, is now 17 and in love. He is entranced by Aïda, the sister of one of his school friends, who was raised in Paris. This girl belongs to a relatively aristocratic family, and Kamal seems to have no hope but just wants to worship her.

Yasid, having been divorced by his wife in the first book, now decides to marry Maryam, the girl from next door that his brother Fahmy wanted to marry. Also a terrible womanizer, Yasid only decides to marry her because she won’t sleep with him. His choice causes some family problems. His mother Amina and his sisters have broken with her because they think she slighted Fahmy by becoming acquainted with an English officer after Fahmy’s father refused to let him marry her. They also think Yasin should leave alone the girl Fahmy loved. His father cannot admit that he doesn’t approve because he himself had an affair with Maryam’s mother, Bahija.

So, Yasin must go to ask for Maryam’s hand himself instead of sending a relative. When he does, he complicates matters more by starting an affair with Bahija. At this point, I almost wondered if I was reading a farce except that Mahfouz is so deadpan serious.

I wasn’t sure how much I liked Palace Walk, but I liked Palace of Desire less. For one thing, Mahfouz doesn’t spend much time with Kamal’s sisters, Aisha and Adijah. But frankly, I found Kemal’s obsessions and long internal dialogues tedious. Either he’s rhapsodizing about Aïda, whom he seriously doesn’t want to be a real girl, or he’s philosophizing about some other subject. In Mahfouz’s attempts at realism, he frequently interjects a character’s thoughts into the middle of a conversation to show what the character is really thinking. When overused, this technique slows things down too much. Finally, Kamal’s conversations with his friends seem terribly formal and artificial, and the other characters’ flirtacious and joking comments seem clumsy and crude, but this just might be a cultural difference. I was most bothered by Kamal’s interactions with Aïda. Without saying too much about what happens, I’ll just say that he comes off as a bit of an idiot and a prig.

I still plan to read the third novel, Sugar Street, but I hope to like it better.

The New York Times reviewer comments that Mafouz essentially invented the Egyptian novel form with reference to Arabic poetry. I can see that in some of Kamal’s musings, but I don’t have much patience for it.

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Review 1611: Flights

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead was unusual, but Flights is in another category altogether. It is an attempt to escape the boundaries of the conventional, linear novel.

It is written in snippets. Some of them are stories, some little vignettes or descriptions, some philosophical discursions, some lectures. Some of the snippets are observations from the narrator, an unnamed Polish woman who likes to be constantly traveling, often to visit museums of curiosities, particularly those that show the workings of the human body. Others are stories about people she meets on her journeys or just stories about people. Some of the threads recur in the novel; most do not.

Anchoring all this is the theme of movement. Most of the stories are about people on their way somewhere else, occasionally to another stage of being.

This novel was widely acclaimed by reviewers and won the Man International Prize. How it will strike ordinary readers is hard to guess. It’s not easy. I found parts of it interesting and other parts, particularly the lectures on travel psychology, which I doubt anyone would ever listen to, incomprehensible, as if someone were reading from a dense professional manual.

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Review 1563: #1956 Club! Palace Walk

I experienced quite a bit of culture shock reading Palace Walk, which made me realize that although I have read books set in Egypt about Egyptians, all but one were written by Western writers, and that one, Map of Love, was much more modern. Palace Walk is about Ahmad Abd al-Jawad and his family, and I believe it’s Mahfouz’s own family thinly disguised.

The novel is the first of three in Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy. It begins with al-Jawad’s wife, Amira, getting up at midnight to help her husband get ready for bed after his usual night of carousing and womanizing. Although her husband is a good friend and convivial participant in nightly drinking bouts, at home he is an angry tyrant to his wife and children. I found it interesting that although he has the reputation of a righteous and observant man, no one seems to think his drinking and womanizing make him a hypocrite.

Mahfouz was a writer in the Realism school and as such explores both the good and bad facets of his characters’ personalities (although it sometimes seems like Realists concentrate on the gritty). The novel develops slowly, introducing us to al-Jawad, Amina, and his five children—Yasin, a government clerk who immerses himself in sensuality like his father but with less control; Fahmy, a university student who is serious and ardent; Khadiya, the older, sharp-tongued daughter; Aisha, the younger, beautiful daughter; and Kamal, a schoolboy who may be Mahfouz’s alter ego.

Beginning in 1917 near the end of World War I, the novel at first focuses on purely family concerns such as Fahmy’s desire to be affianced to Maryam, the neighbor girl; Aisha’s receipt of an offer of marriage before Khadiya’s, when their father has decreed that the younger girl will not be married before the older; and Yasin’s mother getting married again, which Yasin thinks is obscene, since she has been married several times. In these domestic incidents, the family constantly faces their father’s anger and intransigence. Mahfouz frequently tells us of his good points although they are not often demonstrated. In fact, there is a lot of explanation going on about the thinking and characters of the family members, some of it quite repetitive.

As the novel develops, external events become more important, especially the Arab Revolution of 1919 against the protectorate of the British. This more outward view makes the second half of the novel move along more quickly.

Certainly, al-Jawad’s actions toward his wife and children are shocking, and Mahfouz makes clear that he is stricter than most others by the comments of al-Jawad’s friends. Yet, it is also clear that no one would interfere in his treatment of his family, since it is his right to behave as he wishes. As an example of some of the things he does, Amina, who has only left the house a few times in 23 years of marriage, takes the opportunity of her husband’s absence on a business trip to visit a nearby mosque. Because Kamal guides her out of her route so that he can visit a pastry shop, she becomes disoriented and faint and is hit by a car. After she recovers, her husband banishes her from the house for leaving it without asking him (and believe me, he would have said no).

His son Yasin, the leaf not falling far from the tree, thinks later in the book when his wife is not happy with his nights out that it is the husband’s right to do anything he wants and the wife’s to obey. Nice.

The trilogy is supposed to be about the effect the father’s tyranny has on his family. I read it for the 1956 Club, and I suppose I will go ahead and read the other two novels. It certainly provides an intimate look into family life and customs in early 20th century Egypt.

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Review 1524: Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead

Mrs. Dusczejko lives in a tiny Polish village near the Czech Republic, so remote that they get Polish or Czech police depending upon where in town they call from. In the early morning, her neighbor, whom she calls Oddball, comes to get her, telling her he has found their other neighbor’s body. Although she hates this other neighbor, whom she calls Big Foot, because he’s a hunter and she believes it’s a crime to kill animals, she helps him make the body decent before the police arrive. Later, it’s determined that he died from choking on a deer bone.

Mrs. Duszejko is an eccentric old lady who spends her time doing astrological charts, helping an ex-student translate William Blake’s writings into Polish, and writing letters to the police complaining about poaching. After a few months, though, her life is disturbed when men in the area begin dying in a series of bizarre killings.

This is an unusual crime story that’s not so concerned about the criminal case as it is about the activities of its characters. It is sometimes funny and always atmospheric. I really enjoyed it.

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Review 1511: Nocturnes

Nocturnes is a collection of five loosely linked short stories all on the themes of music and night. A few of them are linked a little more closely by repeating characters. All but one feature struggling musicians.

In “Crooner,” the unnamed narrator is an Eastern European guitarist eking out a living in Venice when he meets Tony Gardner, a once-famous singer his mother listened to. When Tony invites him to help serenade his wife, Lindy, he learns that Tony is so eager to make a comeback that he is willing to give up something he loves.

In “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Ray, a middle-aged English language instructor, is invited to stay with his old school friends, Charlie and Emily. Once there, though, he finds he’s been invited to be a negative contrast to Charlie, showing how much more successful Charlie is. He finds common ground with Emily only in their shared taste in music.

In “Malvern Hills,” a would-be singer-songwriter is staying with his sister and helping out at her café when he meets two professional musicians, Tibs and Sonja, on holiday. He unwittingly gets involved in the breakup of their marriage.

The narrator of “Nocturne” is a gifted saxophone player whose ex-wife and manager convince him that he would be successful if he wasn’t so ugly. Reluctantly, he agrees to have plastic surgery. In a hotel recovering from his procedure, he meets Lindy Gardner, also recovering from plastic surgery.

In “Cellists,” it is perhaps the same narrator from the first story who tells the tale of Tibor, a gifted young cellist he and his friends met seven years earlier. Tibor’s personality changes once he is taken under the wing of Eloise McCormack, who claims to be a virtuoso cellist.

This is a book that explores the place of music in each character’s life, and in some cases, the character’s commitments to music or to fame. Although there is a lot going on in these ultimately sad tales, they felt unsatisfying to me in some way. I felt that some of the situations were ridiculously unlikely, as well. This is a book I read for my James Tait Black project.

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Day 1047: The Beggar Maid

beggar-maidLike Olive Kitteridge and a few other books I’ve read the last few years, Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid is a novel constructed from short stories. It tells the story of Rose and of her relationships with other people in her life.

The stories about her childhood and adolescence are mostly about her complex relationship with her stepmother, Flo. Rose feels she can never please Flo, but at the same time she finds Flo rude and vulgar. These early stories also portray an environment of ignorance and poverty, her stories about school particularly shocking.

“The Beggar Maid” is what Rose’s first boyfriend Patrick calls her. But as Rose marries Patrick, who moves them to Vancouver to run one of his father’s department stores, Rose slowly learns that both of them have overestimated Patrick’s own gentility. Rose has thought she was marrying a scholar not a department store heir. As she is attracted more and more to the bohemian crowd in Vancouver, it becomes more obvious how unsuited the two are.

Munro’s stories are insightful about people, and as I believe Rose is Munro’s alter ego, unsparing in looking at herself. Her prose is, as always, spare and beautiful.

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Day 928: The View from Castle Rock

Cover for The View from Castle RockThe View from Castle Rock is an earlier Munro collection of short stories than Family Furnishings, which I previously reviewed. Since Family Furnishings is an anthology of Munro’s stories over the course of her career, I had already read several of the stories in The View from Castle Rock.

All of these stories have to do with the history of Munro’s family. In “No Advantages,” she has traveled to the area of Scotland where the Laidlaws came from. This story incorporates excerpts from other writings and quotes the epitaphs of some of her ancestors. It explains their hard life and the kinds of people her 18th century ancestors were.

In “The View from Castle Rock” Munro relates a family legend about how their drunken great-great-great grandfather James Laidlaw took his son Andrew up onto Castle Rock in Edinburgh to view America, probably as a joke, since they were looking at Fife. Although he talks of emigration throughout his life, he is unhappy when some of his sons finally take him and their families to America. This story is about their voyage and the fates of some of the family on board.

Other stories are more recent. “Hired Girl” is about a summer when Munro worked as a hired girl at a beach house on an island. For that summer, she had to learn that her employers did not consider her an equal. This was a tough lesson, as her mother especially had always had some pretensions of superiority even though they were poor.

In “Home” she revisits home after living away for some years. Her father has remarried after her mother’s death, and her old house has changed almost completely.

Cover for The View from Castle RockThe stories in this collection are powerful, relating the hard life of her family farming and raising fur, their close-mouthed quality, pride, and stubbornness. She is courageous in her ability to look at everything with honesty, even her own foibles.

One comment I have to make is on the cover of my Vintage International edition, shown here. It has absolutely nothing to do with the contents of the book and gives an entirely misleading idea of the stories. The only story that even faintly is about a beach is “Hired Girl,” and the girl is not exactly lying around in the sand. Sometimes I wonder what publishers are thinking. The cover that I used at top is much better.

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Day 709: Family Furnishings

Cover for Family FurnishingsBest Book of the Week!
I felt it was about time I read something by Alice Munro, having only ever encountered a story or two in a magazine. Now, I only wish I’d read her earlier. A note in Family Furnishings explains that the stories were selected to cover the entire time of Munro’s writing career, although it also refers to two volumes. So, I assume this volume is from the latter half.

I am usually more a long fiction person, because I like to get thoroughly involved in what I’m reading, and short fiction doesn’t usually accomplish that. But in this case, I found myself completely absorbed in story after story.

Early on in the volume, I thought I detected a pattern of Munro telling how the different characters formed their families, sometimes in unusual ways. Later, I thought I might have imagined this pattern, or it may not fit all the stories. In any case, the stories are spell-binding, often toward the end revealing something that happened earlier than the timeframe of the story and illuminating some truth. Some of the stories appear to be autobiographical and some may be about Munro’s ancestors.

“The Love of a Good Woman” at first seems to be two unconnected stories, one about three boys discovering a car in the river with a body in it, the other about a nurse discovering tender feelings for a man she knew in high school while she is nursing his dying wife. Yet, it turns suddenly into a murder mystery. But Munro somehow makes this a banal and everyday event.

In “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” we seem to be reading about a swindle. An old man’s servant suddenly runs off with his dead daughter’s furniture to live with his ex-son-in-law. But halfway through the story, we meet two adolescent girls, Edith and Sabitha, who are actually controlling this situation through a prank.

“The Bear Came Over the Mountain” is the touching but even more complex source of the wonderful movie Away from Her, about a man helplessly observing his wife’s growing loss of memory from Alzheimer’s. In “The Children Stay,” a young woman walks away from her family during a vacation on Vancouver Island to leave with her lover.

Several of the stories are about Munro’s own childhood—how her father began raising animals for fur too late to make a success of it and had to go work in a foundry, how her mother suffered for years from Parkinson’s, how the truth of a story long told about a crazy neighbor’s behavior when Munro was a baby suddenly was revealed years later when she saw a poem in a newspaper.

All of these stories show us the complexities and depths of human interactions. They are minutely observed and beautifully written. I’ll soon be looking for more to read by Alice Munro.

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Day 633: Kim

Cover for KimBest Book of the Week!
Up until now, the only book I read by Rudyard Kipling was Puck of Pook’s Hill, which is definitely a children’s book. I always assumed that Kim was a children’s book, too, or at most a boy’s adventure story, but I don’t think I would describe it that way.

Kim is the son of an Irish soldier in India, but both of his parents died impoverished when he was young. He has been brought up by a Eurasian woman who leaves him to himself most of the time, only insisting that he wear European clothing. But he keeps some native clothing hidden away, and when he is wearing it, he cannot be discerned from any other street urchin. He knows everyone in Lahore, and they call him Friend of All the World.

One day he is playing outside the Lahore museum when a holy old lama comes to look at the wonders inside. Kim sees that he is a truly guileless man with no one to help him in a foreign country. The lama explains that he is searching for a holy river that will wash clean all his sins. Kim decides that he will go with the lama as his chela, his disciple who begs for him and takes care of him. Before leaving Lahore, though, Kim goes to see Mahbub Ali, an Afghani horse dealer for whom he has run some errands. Mahbub gives him a dispatch to take to a British Colonel Creighton.

The description of the journey of Kim and the lama is very colorful and interesting, reflecting Kim’s joy in the bustle of the road and a love of the country on the part of the author. But Kim’s father told him long ago that he would be saved by a red bull on a green field, so when he sees a regimental flag flying the device, he goes nearer to look and is suspected of being a thief.

He has always carried his papers in an amulet, and when he is captured, his identity as Kimball O’Hara is established. The priests in the regiment, of which Kim’s father was a member, plan to send him away to a Masonic orphanage. Kept a watch on and forbidden to see his lama, Kim writes to Mahbub for help. Mahbub makes sure that Colonel Creighton understands how valuable a boy like Kim would be as part of the Great Game, of spies and explorers in the far regions of the area.

So, Kim’s fate is taken out of his own hands and he is sent to school to learn to take his part in the Raj. But the lama pays for his schooling and makes sure he goes to a better school than originally intended.

This is really a great novel. I came to it prepared for perhaps some outmoded racism or hints of British superiority but found a novel that reflects a deep love of India and of all its peoples. Of course, there is an implicit assumption that the Raj is a good thing, but the British characters in the novel are as varied as any, and there are comments about mismanagement and misplaced airs of superiority on the part of the British. Kim is rich in colors and smells, in the flavors of language and the stories of the orient, and in this complex tale of a boy with loyalties both to the soldiers who raised him and to his beloved lama.

 

 

Day 559: Snow Country

Cover for Snow CountryPerhaps I did not spend enough time considering Snow Country, because I kept feeling as if I was missing something. I couldn’t figure out if this problem was cultural or more an issue with the misogyny of the 1950’s, when it was written.

The novel follows the affair of Shimamura, an effete and sophisticated intellectual, with Komako, a simple country girl who during the novel becomes a geisha. Part of my initial problem had to do with understanding the implications of being a geisha. After all my prior reading lead me to believe that a geisha is different and in fact higher in status than a prostitute, I had to read the introduction to understand that in these hot springs villages, at least in the time the novel is set, a geisha was essentially a prostitute.

Nevertheless, when Shimamura meets Komako, she is a geisha in training, so clearly not a prostitute. Shimamura has come down from traveling in the mountains and immediately asks the hotel clerk for a geisha. None are available, so she sends him Komako. Shimamura spends the night talking to Komako but then asks her to send him a geisha. It is clear what he wants, but he seems to think he deserves some kind of credit for “behaving well” with her, whereas I, and Komako as well, understood his request as insulting. I do not think we’re supposed to like Shimamura, and I didn’t.

We know far more about Shimamura than we do about Komako. We first encounter him on a train on the way back to Komako’s village after the affair is already started. He is struck by Yoko, a girl who is tending to a sick man. Throughout, though, he is far more interested in his fantasies around Yoko than in actually getting to know her. The essence of Shimamura’s personality comes clear when we learn that he is an expert on occidental ballet even though he has never seen a ballet performed—and prefers not to.

For her part, Komako throws herself into the affair with Shimamura even though it is clearly doomed. Although Shimamura’s behavior remains consistent and it is clear that he is incapable of love, Komako is erratic. Toward the end of the relationship she says one thing and does another, she arrives roaring drunk, and she seems to have an inexplicable love/hate relationship with Yoko, as Yoko does with her.

Of course, the future for Komako is not bright, and she becomes more dissipated as the novel progresses. Although I feel we are supposed to sympathize with her, I found her exasperating. The love affair seems sterile, and I don’t see the point of it.

But this novel is set in the cold and gray snow country. Although part of the affair takes place in other seasons, the most important scenes are in the beginning of winter, and the affair ends in the fall. A sense of isolation permeates the novel.

The writing is beautifully spare, as Kawabata is a poet. I feel it is dense in meaning, but if so, I probably missed a lot of it.