Some reading (Buying generously III)

by Chris Bertram on December 30, 2004

I’d been meaning to write a brief end-of-year post about books I’ve read recently. I’ll do it now and pledge (like Henry and John) that any Amazon Associates fees I get if any of you are moved to buy any of them (or anything else after clicking on the links) will go to tsunami disaster relief. Full post below the fold.

Rousseau is, as so often, my point of departure. But not directly. Nick Dent’s new _Rousseau_ (forcoming in the spring some time) alerted me to Andrew Crumey’s novel “Mr Mee”: . Like Crumey’s other novels, it is a Calvino-inspired, multi-layered affair, moving from internet porn in the Scottish present to the adventures of two characters from the “Confessions”: (Ferrand and Minard) who — like Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern”: — are given a life beyond Rousseau’s depiction of them. It is both funny and insightful and led me to explore three other novels by Crumey: “Mobius Dick”: [link to Amazon UK], “Pfitz”: , and “Music, in a Foreign Language”: . I’d recommend all three. A fourth, “D’Alembert’s Principle”: , lies unread by my bedside because I became diverted into the work of W.G. Sebald.

Next year’s Rousseau Association conference is on the “Reveries of the Solitary Walker”: , and I had a vague, but unoperationalized plan, to do some walking myself in the summer and blog about the experience and the thoughts that occurred. It is probably just as well that I didn’t, but I have just finished a work of ambulatory reflection that is in some respects not unlike Rousseau’s: Sebald’s “The Rings of Saturn”: . The walks in question take place in East Anglia, but they are really just a starting-point for extended digressions on China and the opium-wars, on Sir Roger Casement and Joseph Conrad, on Chateaubriand, and on much else. As with all Sebald’s writing, the pace of his prose coupled with the idiosyncrasy of his focus and the detail of his attention, gives rise to a very strange feeling of stillness within me. The two other books by Sebald that I’ve read recently have much the same effect: “Austerlitz”: , about a boy evacuated from Prague and brought up by a Welsh pastor in ignorance of his Jewish roots is marked by digression after digression on architecture, writing, language. And “The Emigrants”: , a series of accounts of the lives of Jewish emigrants from Nazi Germany, follows something of the same model. In both books there is an enormous sense of absence, of disappearance, of the very ordinary family life of German Jews, swept away by Nazi tyranny. (By way of a digression of my own let me, on this very subject, link to “a post the other day by Eric the Unread about Inge Deutschkron”: and her survival in wartime Berlin.) All of Sebald’s books are illustrated with remarkable photographs which sit, sometimes enigmatically and disconcertingly, on the page.

I’ll round off with two more novels. I didn’t know Italo Calvino’s work until I became aware of the impact of his writing on both Crumey and Sebald. I bought, more or less at random, his “If, On a Winter’s Night a Traveller”: , and was hooked by the first few pages. After that it was much harder going, as the tale loops through a series of extracts from books that the protagonists are reading, never really to go anywhere. But I shall persevere, and read more by Calvino in the future (recommendations commenters?).

Finally, I just finished (yesterday) Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America”: . I’m a big Roth fan, and I’d rate his “American Pastoral”: among the best novels I’ve read in the last ten years, but this wasn’t on the same level. That doesn’t mean that it wasn’t enjoyable, but the writing wasn’t as good as some of his earlier work. The central character is Roth himself as a young boy, but in an alternate America where the soft-on-Nazism aviator-hero Lindbergh wins the 1940 Presidential election on a promise to keep America out of Europe’s war. The book is good psychologically about the creeping impact of fascism, about how people adapt to and normalize evil (there’s a connection to “Heimat”: [PAL, region2 link to Amazon UK] in this). On the other hand, it is clear that Roth has an allegorical purpose, but it isn’t clear what that purpose is. Is the “message” that America cannot isolate itself from the world and must not compromise with dictators, a message that Washington’s neoconservatives would find congenial? Or is it rather that, with the Patriot Act and Guantanamo, with Fox News, and the right-wing of the blogosphere, a fascism of sorts can take hold by gradualist and constitutional means? My guess is that Roth leans to the second, but I can’t be completely sure about that.



Anatoly 12.30.04 at 1:45 pm

Calvino’s “Invisible Cities” and “Mr. Palomar” both deserve attention, and are better (in my opinion) than the more frequently mentioned “If, On a …”


pedro 12.30.04 at 2:22 pm

I may disagree with Anatoly on the relative merits of the three works mentioned, but I second his recommendation. I also liked The Nonexistent Knight and the Cloven Viscount, as well as Difficult Loves–that is to say, everything I’ve read by Calvino has been truly delightful.


Nat Whilk 12.30.04 at 2:41 pm

Any comments on Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction?


tps12 12.30.04 at 4:04 pm

t zero was the first Calvino I read. The imagery in “The Soft Moon” is pretty amazing.


Motoko 12.30.04 at 6:32 pm

I am very fond of Calvino’s “Six Memos for the New Millennium” (lectures on “Lightness”, “Quickness”, “Exactitude”, “Visibility” and “Multiplicity”; he died before he could write “Consistency”.)


praktike 12.30.04 at 8:48 pm

Calino is God. Invisible Cities should be your next read, followed by The Cloven Viscount and Mr. Palomar.


Maynard Handley 12.30.04 at 9:20 pm

People might consider reading the rather chilling post at before they state (as Chris did not, but some have) that _The Plot Against America_ is ludicrously over the top in its fears, that in modern America anti-semitism just isn’t part of the landscape.

Seeing what has happened since the book came out, I have to wonder if Roth’s fears are less subtle than Patriot Act and Guantanamo; that perhaps he, unlike the rest of us happily reading our blue-state media and talking to sane people everyday, had and has some idea of just what ideas lurk out there in Red America waiting for their moment, and getting bolder by the hour.


Backword Dave 12.31.04 at 10:01 am

I’d nominate Invisible Cities for Chris’s next read too. I go along with the ‘everything by Calvino is delightful’ line and don’t find him ‘hard going’ at all. Chris is right about the stories not really getting anywhere; they’re far more like musical variations than ripping yarns.


Matt McGrattan 12.31.04 at 6:49 pm

For Calvino I’d recommend ‘Difficult Loves’ which are mostly sweetly self-contained short stores.

Bizarrely, several of the short stories from ‘Difficult Loves’ were combined and turned into indie-film “Palookaville” (

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