Se non ora, quando? – Primo Levi

Primo Levi’s Se non ora, quando? (If Not Now, When?) is the first work of his that I’ve read. It recounts the journey of a group of Jewish partisans from the Soviet Union and Poland, whose efforts to survive and fight back against the Nazis take them on an odyssey across Europe to Italy.

Levi, though he was Jewish, a Holocaust survivor, and a partisan, was writing about an experience with which he was unfamiliar (that of East European Ashkenazi Jews) and lists his resources in the back of the book. He explains a lot of terms to the presumed Italian reader, who is probably unfamiliar with, for example, Yiddish insults. He mixes in unexpected humor and a clear literary voice with shocking violence and tragedy, resulting in a book that is easy to read despite its heavy subject.

The novel is written in omniscient, with the narrator occasionally drawing back to comment, for example stating that he will not describe a massacre because that is not the point of this book. But for the most part (with a few detours into other characters’ minds), the narrator stays in the head of Mendel Nachmanovich Deutscher, a Soviet soldier dispersed from his unit, whose village has been destroyed and wife murdered. Living alone in the woods, he is inspired to fight back after meeting up with another dispersed soldier, Leonid, who has a mysterious and dark past. They journey from group to group before meeting up with Gedali, leader of a Zionist partisan group, and joining his all-Jewish (with one token Christian) band. Most of the characters, like Mendel, have nothing to go back to in Eastern Europe, but Dov, the oldest of the group, is from a Siberian village that has not been occupied, and he, though he is Jewish, declines to follow the group to what would become Israel. (The token Christian, on the other hand, is thrilled to follow the group on their long journey.) Though there are a lot of hints as to future developments in the Soviet Union and the Soviet takeover of Poland, there are no hints about the way Zionism will develop, and the characters are last seen in Italy, celebrating the end of the war and the birth of a child.

Though it’s not an especially character-driven piece (major developments in Mendel’s psyche are abruptly revealed rather than shown from inside), all the characters are distinctive, with my favorites being the above-mentioned Dov and the fierce and cold Line, an independent young woman who fights alongside the men and becomes Mendel’s lover for a time without ever “belonging” to anyone.

The narrative is episodic, but each of the episodes is exquisitely well-placed. In particular, the death of Black Rokhele after the end of the fighting, in a hate crime as they travel through Germany, comes as a shock even though she’s a minor character, because of its placement at a time when the characters seemed safe.

A thread I found fascinating was the interaction between the main characters and the non-Jewish Poles they meet on their journey, with gradual comprehension developing from initial mistrust. Mendel and Dov recognize themselves in a young Polish partisan who, like they once did, fights “for three lines in the history books”–to show that he and his people existed and fought back–rather than any possibility of survival.

Levi creates beautiful moments from the intersection of war and ordinary life–for example, the night the front finally catches up with them as they are celebrating the wedding of two of their members. He also shows his Italian patriotism (and perhaps an uncritical acceptance of the “Italians are good people” myth about World War II and the Holocaust?) with a long description of Italians and their national character as the main characters prepare to travel to Italy.

All in all, this is a beautiful, intense, and very readable book. I recommend it to people who, like me, speak Italian as a second language, because of Levi’s remarkably clear style.

 

 

Advertisements

The Ides of March – Thornton Wilder

A terribly clever epistolary novel by the author of Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, The Ides of March consists of four sections, each of which begins earlier and ends later than the last, each with a different theme. The first introduces the characters, the second deals with love, the third with religion, and the fourth with politics and death–specifically, the assassination of Caesar, who is the main character.

While it’s far from being historically accurate, Wilder gets points in my book for being upfront about the changes he made to history and about his intentions–more a “fantasia” as he calls it than a historical reconstruction. This is in contrast to authors like Conn Iggulden, who seek to minimize the extent changes they made (in the case of Iggulden, these are egregious changes to the same period as The Ides of March).

The book is dedicated to Lauro de Bosis, an antifascist writer (who had translated Wilder’s work) who died in plane crash after flying over Rome to drop subversive leaflets, and to Edward Sheldon, a physically disabled friend of the author’s who provided him with guidance, similar to the in-text relationship between Caesar and his correspondent on Capri, a severely wounded, reclusive torture survivor who is Caesar’s closest friend.

This last is the worst failure of a Chekhov’s gun I’ve ever seen. The mysterious correspondent remains silent throughout the text, yet is built up by other characters. I was expecting a letter from him to finally tie the plotline together and show us what was special about him, but he remains unknowable. Worst correspondent ever!

Some of Wilder’s changes didn’t seem to add anything to the text (eg having Cato alive messes with Porcia and Brutus’s motives without providing any interesting scenes) and his explanation for Clodia’s lashing out (that she was raped by a relative as a young girl) isn’t very well-explored and is a bit cliched.

I’m not making this book sound very appealing, but it’s a marvel of construction, taking the reader over the same ground several times without getting boring, and the characterization is very fine, particularly of Caesar himself, groping for a “limit [he] can respect” in the solitude of absolute power, as the other characters grope for this same limit in the social and ethical spheres. I’m not at all sympathetic to the historical Caesar, but Wilder’s Caesar can do the terrible things Caesar did and remain fascinating and complex.

The ebook version contains some extra material, including discussions by the author of what is fictional and real in the story and how he drew his conclusions. For example, the main trait of Caesar’s that he seized on was his famous clemency, and the Capri (non-)correspondent was inspired by a moment in De Bello Gallico when Caesar’s emotion breaks through for a moment in describing the death of an officer.

I now want to read Wilder’s Alcestiad, the beginning of which is sketched in the novel, attributed to Catullus.

The Hate U Give

f043712f-4655-4c8a-b60f-fca1e4c6ca9fAngie Thomas’s debut novel about the Black Lives Matter movement rocketed to the top of the NYT Bestseller list when it came out recently. And while I have some quibbles with it, I can certainly see why.

Starr Carter lives in the majority-black poor neighborhood of Garden Heights, in an unnamed city, but she attends a wealthy prep school outside it. Her worlds collide when a childhood friend is wrongfully shot by police as she watches. She will have to face down her trauma, a grand jury, a media quick to vilify her friend, and King, a gang leader who’s trying to claim the victim as one of his own.

Meanwhile, the effects of Starr’s political awakening and traumatic experiences ripple through her life, affecting her relationships with her prep school friends Hailey and Maya, and her white boyfriend, Chris.

Some positives about this book:

-The characterization of Starr’s family, particularly her larger-than-life father, an ex-convict who’s left the gangs behind but finds himself making more compromises than he’d like with King, until the moment King goes too far. Starr’s father is also politically committed and keeps living in Garden Heights, where he owns a small business, because he believes that moving would be selling out his people. Above all, he loves his kids. Over the course of the book, he changes in many respects, but not that one. He’s an example of well-done character development of an adult character in YA fiction. This is one YA where the parents aren’t absent.

-I also loved the plotline involving Starr’s half-brother, whose mom is dating King. Starr’s brother wants to protect his mother from her abusive and murderous boyfriend, but as Starr points out, it’s she who should be protecting him.

-The relationship between Starr and Chris was a great example of a supportive interracial relationship. They had awkward moments, but Chris ultimately is willing to put himself in uncomfortable situations for Starr and Starr is willing to let him into her life. It’s hard-won but beautiful.

-Starr’s relationship with Khalil, the victim of the police shooting, struck a chord with me because despite her love towards him, circumstances have pushed them apart by the time the shooting happens. It’s more complicated than “her best friend got shot” and yet the intensity of feeling is still there.

The negatives:
-Okay, this is a minor thing, but Maya (not me, but Starr’s Taiwanese friend) basically exists to be a Good Minority Friend to Starr and validate her feeling that Hailey is a Bad White Friend. Neither of them is super-developed, but Hailey felt real–Maya is very thinly characterized. As she’s one of the few characters who’s neither white nor black, it felt like a missed opportunity.

-Sometimes the author seems worried the reader won’t get it without her explicitly summarizing what’s going on emotionally and politically in the book. The “telling” outweighed the “showing” at times.

-The plot was a bit episodic, though it comes together really well at the climax, the night the grand jury decision is handed down.

Overall, the excellent characterization and relationships, as well as an exciting climax, outweighed some problems with didacticism and pacing. Plus, the book has an important message, and I’m not going to pretend that didn’t affect my view of it.

Paladin of Souls – Lois McMaster Bujold

61904-_uy475_ss475_Paladin of Souls won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards when it came out, and is generally reckoned one of the prolific Bujold’s masterpieces, perhaps the best book she’s ever written. That’s a lot of hype to live up to. And it lived up to it.

All the problems I mentioned in my review of The Curse of Chalion stand. However, the heights of emotion which this book reached, particularly in the final third, more than make up for the worldbuilding problem I discussed in my earlier post.

In summary: Ista (analogous to the mentally ill Isabella of Portugal, mother of Isabella the Catholic) is freed from the titular curse of the last book. With her husband and parents dead and her sole surviving child grown-up and married, she’s not quite sure what to do with herself. To escape the narrow life planned for her by well-meaning relatives and friends, she goes on a pilgrimage, but when her party is attacked by enemy soldiers, she ends up at the castle of her rescuer Arhys dy Lutez–the son of Arvol, the man she killed long ago trying unsuccessfully to break the curse.

There are bigger problems than her old guilt and hatred towards Arvol, though. Arhys, his wife, and his brother are caught in a demonic mess that threatens to kill them all, and Ista has been brought there by a god, the Bastard, to sort out the problem. But with her last brush with divinity and magic having ended in Arvol’s murder, she’s reluctant to trust any deity.

Things get worse when more enemy soldiers show up to besiege the castle. There’s no way they’re all getting out of this tangle alive, but death at the right time might be worth everything…

My favorite part of this book was the character of Arhys, who is a genuinely good guy (despite his lax fidelity to his wife Cattilara). The other characters call him “great-souled” and despite his flaws, it’s obviously true. He has a strong sibling relationship with his illegitimate brother, and a romantic image of his long-dead father, which Ista shatters. But when the truth about his father, whose courage broke during the effort to lift the curse, is out, he says he does “not desire any softer wreath”.

The way Ista sees him shifts over time, from rescuer/potential romantic prospect to son of a man she hates to hapless part of a mess she’s meant to fix to hero. Their (decidedly non-romantic) relationship, with the grace of the gods, manages to heal Ista of all the rage, guilt, and bitterness that has haunted her since she killed Arvol in her failed ritual.

All the other characters are also sharply drawn–the clever, good-hearted Illvin, the determined though childish Cattilara, the complex figure of Arvol, and Ista’s own personality–cynical, impatient, tough, but reawakening to life.

Three Plays

Most of my reading over the past month has been drama. Briefer-than-usual reviews of the three plays I’ve read recently follow.

1. Prince Friedrich of Homburg, by Heinrich von Kleist

I have less to say about this than I imagined. It didn’t worm its way into my heart like my favorite plays do. It was tight and chilly and the characters were hard to like. Nonetheless, there’s some interesting stuff going on. The Elector is a spectacular manipulator whose manipulations–more reflex than anything at this point–backfire on him, as is pointed out by a minor character who reveals that the entire sequence of events that forms the play would not have happened if the Elector had not interfered with the sleepwalking Prince in the first scene.

The Elector reminds me a bit of the Duke in Measure for Measure. I’d like to expand on that, but I don’t have the energy to dig for evidence at this point.

2. Fortune, by Marina Tsvetaeva

I’ve been slowly translating this play for months, and finally finished a first draft a few weeks ago. It’s mostly decadent poetry–roses, champagne froth, alabaster cleavage–combined with some sharp political commentary in one soliloquy, as the main character prepares to be executed by the revolution he once served, against his interests and those of his order.

But the main thrust of the play is in the protagonist Lauzun’s (French Revolution enthusiasts will recognize him by the name Biron) “gift” from Lady Fortune. He’s innately seductive, without knowing precisely why he’s so fascinating to the ladies. Over the course of the play, he changes from the bewildered young man dumped by his first girlfriend, to a self-assured courtier who has Marie-Antoinette at his feet, to a prisoner enjoying the last sweetness of life with the jailer’s daughter.

3. Conversations in Tusculum- Richard Nelson

This play by an award-winning contemporary playwright was first performed in 2008. It concerns Cicero, Brutus, Cassius, Porcia, and Servilia under the rule of Julius Caesar. It’s hubris to cover the same territory as Shakespeare’s incredible Julius Caesar, and Nelson doesn’t try–he situates his play mainly in the lead-up to the realization that, as Shakespeare’s Brutus puts it, “It must be by his death.” This Brutus doesn’t need Cassius to lead him to that conclusion–they both stumble towards it unwillingly.

Caesar is portrayed, unfairly and inaccurately, as personally cruel and manipulative rather than simply ruthless. He’s more the typical tyrant, more like Sulla or any number of 20th century dictators than himself. (For what it’s worth, I find Caesar a perfectly appalling character in history, but his portrayal here just isn’t fair). There’s also some veiled commentary on the Iraq War, Bush, and terrorism which I think weakens the play.

But it was an intense read that I couldn’t put down. Nelson anatomizes the characters’ reactions to the off-stage Caesar’s mindgames and their self-disgust. Eventually it becomes clear that Brutus will either kill Caesar or himself (as it happens, historically, he did both). The ghost of Cato hovers over the characters, reminding them that they have options other than just, as they put it, sitting around talking.

Cassius is a bit underdeveloped (and certainly nothing to the Shakespearean character) but it’s nice to see a play explore the hint in Cicero’s letters that Junia Tertia (Servilia’s daughter, Brutus’s sister, and Cassius’s wife) slept with Caesar and how that might have affected this tangle of relations.

By the time it ended, I was sorry the play, whatever it’s faults, couldn’t have been longer.

Walking on Knives is out!

You can purchase it at Amazon here!

Thanks to all of you for your support!

WalkingonKnives-fThe little mermaid has no idea that as she makes her way on land, she’s being watched over by the sister of the very witch with whom she made her bargain. She has no idea that the witch’s sister is falling in love with her.

When the prince decides to marry another woman, the little mermaid’s secret helper offers her a chance to live. But the price may be too high…

Content warning: Walking on Knives contains some explicit content and opens with a disturbing scene of dubious sexual consent.