Monday, 28 August 2017

Book Review - Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

London: Penguin Classics, 2000      ISBN 9780141184845

I recently read a piece on the New York Review of Books website by Tim Parks about being receptive to literature - how, if read at the wrong time, even the greatest of literary feats may ring hollow to a reader. Parks had that experience when he first read Ulysses, not seeing past his own prejudices and habits and projecting them onto the work. This is indeed natural, and is why there is such a wide variety of literature out there to be consumed and pondered upon.

When it comes to Borges, I have had the same experience that Parks had with Joyce. I just don't get it. I know it must be something to do with me, as Borges is almost universally regarded as one of the leading proponents of South American literature. Added to that is my realisation on reading Labyrinths that one of my favourite authors, Gerald Murnane, owes a lot to Borges, both in content and style.

To me, at this moment in my life, the stories and essays contained in this book seem light-weight and facile, despite the undoubted erudition of the writer. As well as Murnane, I am reminded of the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, in the description of impossible buildings, speculative literary works, variations in timelines and so on. Some of the stories in Labyrinths are no doubt good, but I haven't been convinced they rise much above the realms of good speculative fiction. I wonder that it is the thin premise of many of these stories that is the reason why many of them are so short: they can't actually be stretched out longer than a few pages.

Stories about a person who set about re-writing the Quixote, of a Library that contains everything, or of a spy pre-figuring his own death seem to me to be so much idle Sunday-afternoon puffery. I found little in this book to nourish me.

As I suggested at the beginning of this piece, my view of Borges must be "wrong", as he is such a lauded writer, and so I am perhaps revealing my blindness and philistinism by writing as I have. Perhaps, as Parks did with Joyce, I shall return to Borges later on in life and discover what is hidden from me now. As for now, all I can say is that Borges is not for me.


Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

Monday, 7 August 2017

Book Review - The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

London: Picador, 2007              ISBN 9780330513005

Those few who have followed my reviews will know that I rate Cormac McCarthy's novel Blood Meridian very highly: so highly in fact that I have never attempted any of his other books for fear of being let down. Thankfully, while The Road is in many ways a very different book to Blood Meridian, it in no way diminishes my view of McCarthy as a writer.

McCarthy has great power as a descriptive writer; whereas Blood Meridian revelled in an almost baroque descriptiveness, The Road is a model of concise writing, paring words down to the essential. Which of course reflects what the protagonists are doing: cutting life back to its essentials. While the Father fervently wants to believe that what they are doing is not mere existence, his son is not so sure. As for the reader, we are left in a state of suspense - will they find a promised land? What will life become? And of course the big one - what really happened to the World?

McCarthy, never one to telegraph his intentions in a book, leaves the reader to make up their own mind on many of these questions. Much as in Blood Meridian with the character of the Kid, we don't know what drives the Father in The Road: does he really believe in a better future, or is he just trying to outrun death? Or is he a coward? The description of how his wife decides to suicide can be read several ways... certainly God seems to have deserted humanity, even though the Father is still invoking him at the end. In fact, like all good literature, The Road not only reflects the reader's thoughts, it flings them back into your face, making you question your own beliefs.

The horror of the Father and Son's predicament dawns slowly; it is by stages that we discover that they are not in fact travelling towards a safer place, and that in fact the whole World is destroyed. We see how the cruelty it takes to survive in such situations, while driving those with a predilection to evil further down that path, also begins to corrupt even "the good guys": the Son being the moral compass that the Father tries to, but can't, ignore - and in fact needs - to stay human. He sees his Son as the special one, and indeed he might be, as the Son seems throughout the book to be the only person who does keep his human-ness the whole time. Yet even he at stages seems to wish for death. The question must be asked what is the point of surviving in such a World?

If the expectation is that McCarthy will provide us with a point, disappointment will be all that the reader will harvest. Perhaps one thing McCarthy does give us is a picture of the indomitable will of humans to go on: that no trial is too much, at least for some, even if there seems to be no hope, and no adversary will not be faced when survival is at stake. Like Blood Meridian, there is much to ponder in this work.

I briefly touched on the style of the book at the beginning of this review and will return to it now. The book is written in many (over a hundred) small vignettes, mostly describing what the Father and Son are doing on their journey. The writing is spare, without flourish for the most part - just the facts. That the facts are so depressing makes the small wins - like finding a can of Coke in an upended vending machine - that much more of a highlight. The early "history" of what happened after the catastrophe (nuclear war? Hinted at but not confirmed) leads the reader to expect a constant battle with evil: but while it is an ever-present fear (and a very occasional reality), it is cold and hunger that are the real enemies, in a landscape where most houses are destroyed, food looted, and countryside barren.

The spare writing style works well in a book where dialogue mostly consists of brief exchanges between Father and Son. The style is also a page turner. I started this book on a Friday night after work and finished it three hours later in a single sitting. I couldn't even speak for the next half-hour, such was its effect on me. I will have to read it again: the spell it casts is different to Blood Meridian but just as strong. I have no idea how they managed to turn this book into a film.

Is this a bleak book, a book with a depressing view of the human race? I'm not so sure of that, but I am sure it's a classic.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell