Monthly Archives: April 2009

The Living End– Stanley Elkin

The Living End


Stanley Elkin is a Post War American novelist who has somewhat fallen through the literary ‘cracks’ (tho still on the critic’s radar)

I first heard of his early novels, A Bad Man and Boswell, when I was in college (oh so long ago)… He was at the time on the forward edge of the new wave of contemporary American fiction along with Hawkes, Coover and Gass (and Barthelme of course).

I remember an ancient PBS interview with him and a reply he made to the interviewer when asked: “What is the most important advice you give to young aspiring writers” (he taught creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis ), his response:

“Go and get yourself a word processor”…This was in ’79 and we were thinking what is a word processor???

I FINALLY read his 1977 National Book Critics Circle Award winner The Living End  and the reward was worth waiting for. The last time I encountered such megawattage prose and sparkling narrative voice in a post war American Novelist like this was maybe Barthelme, Gass, Hawkes or Coover (his contemporaries). This short novel is a messed up 20th Century Divine Comedy…Purgatory in the middle section, sandwiched by a little heaven and hell before and after. Elkin takes irreverance to a level so absurd, it loses its context. Elkin’s Hell is sadistic pleasure in pain, (and with bene’s).After reading this, I almost look forward to the ‘afterlife’ as much as reading the rest of his novels…


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Music of a Life–Andreï Makine

Music of Life


Born in Russia in 1957, Andreï Makine went to France in 1987 as part of a teacher exchange program and ended up staying after being granted asylum. Writing in French, he like Conrad and Nabakov do not pen their works in their mother tongue. He currently has ten novels published in English translation. France’s Le Figaro claims “Makine without a doubt, is one of the greatest living writers.”

When asked , why he set Music of a Life in a railroad journey he replied:

“Our life is a journey that is both long and brief. The metaphor of the Odyssey, the endless road, the space engulfing us, is one that corresponds best to the ephemeral nature of our lives and the eternity of our souls.”

The work is framed with a nameless first-person narrator in the opening chapter who is on a winter journey traveling by train from a remote Siberian town to Moscow. Through his indifferent, disdainful view in the opening scene at the train depot where he embarks, we see the fellow passengers crowded and herded like cattle: the soldiers, the prostitute, women and children, the workers, he recalls a quote from a Munich philosopher who had coined phrase describing the country’s inhabitants as Homo Sovieticus.

In the train depot, he cannot fall asleep and he hears strains of a piano and follows the sounds through a cluttered passageway and encounters the piano player. He strikes up a conversation and finds they are both heading to Moscow. Boarding the train,  they take a seat in the same cabin and the narrator notices in the pianist’s handbag are crumpled pages old sheet music. His curiosity gets the better of him and finally asks the pianist about them…fade to the story of Alexi Berg…

The narrative of Alexi’s life is some 25 years earlier, set in the war years of Stalin’s Moscow. Its telling is in the form of an embedded, nested novel told in third person omniscient, and in contrast to the first narrator, a warmer intimate voice. It paints a picture in stark contrasts of a family of artisans as they try to survive and still pursue passions, their music and the theater in Stalin’s ominous Moscow. Alexi’s parents are arrested before his first scheduled solo concert. The rest is an engaging story in Makine’s inimitable prose, a musical piece, where lines, images recur, emotional tones rise and fall and are built upon and are like phrases in a concerto. This is a Life’s Music , the struggle of a young musician as he searches for harmony, in a world of dissonance. The most striking symbol was the burning of the violin in Alexi’s parents flat and the sound emitted when they forgot to loosen its strings, the lament of the notes of its strings snapping in the fire.

It is a powerful, condensed work. An ‘epic’ in 109 pages. I had read his Prix Goncourt winning Dreams of My Russian Summers and was smitten by its lyrical prose. For me, it was the best novel I read in 2008.  Music of Life was no let down. Geoffrey Strachan’s rendering into English is as good as it gets. Even translated its the best prose in English I have read this side of Hawkes and McCarthy. What is the poker expression, ‘read em’ and weep’…

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The Maias– Eça de Queiroz



First published in 1888, The Maias is considered to be one of the masterpieces of this often unjustly overlooked 19th century novelist. Along with his novels, The Crime of Father Amaro and Cousin Basilio,  Eça de Queiroz major novels are considered to be cornerstones of Portuguese literature. Zola considered him a greater talent than Flaubert. 

With my first encounter of his work, the narrative for me is artistically at the very least on a level with Flaubert or Zola. Eça de Queiroz is more of a ‘show-er’ than a ‘teller’ than any of the French Realists/Naturalists, more similar to modern authors than most 19th century writers. The prose maybe more efficient and fluid than any of the french masters. One feels after the first few scenes one is reading someone who is in total command of his craft. A few deft strokes and the nuances of scenes resonate beyond the five senses.

In this novel,  the reader encounters a fine Balzacian array of (mostly male) main characters. Most are memorable, finally drawn and go beyond mere flat types. Though you could find some of the society types found in The Maias, in the The Human Comedy, they are not mere stereotypes like drawing room silhouettes. They are unique and can be more apt to change and less apt to be predictable. Things/characters take place in a binary form. With the great exception of the two Maias, the grandfather Afonse, the old school Portuguese, and his grandson, our hero Carlos, representing the ‘new’ Lisbon, they aren’t really foils or contrasts, and the relationships between schools of thought (Liberals vs Socialists, Naturalists vs Positivists?), the human relationships of the characters for that matter are not symbiotic. The societal and individual human juxtapositions are incapable of dialectic, in any sense ‘healthy’ or capable of procreating…society, nor individuals ultimately benefit from the kind of relationships found in the novel.

The subtle recurrence of the Rose in the Japanese vase losing its leaves in Ramelhut echoes the inevitable dying off of beauty that is ephemeral and merely cultivated for aesthetics. The hero and his merry band of society most-eligible bachelors are all dilletants, they talk and spend big, but contribute nothing to their society. The lone exception is Afonso, the older Maias. His is the lone voice pleading that their culture needs a shot of Voltaire’s Pangloss…’No one is raising Vegetables’ he complains at one point. He is the only one, who is not one of the hollow men, seen in small discrete narrative snapshots helping out the poor with contributions of work, food or money in back doors or alley ways..

The knock on this novel has been that its plot is simplistic and not dramatic. I will argue, though while true to a point, it reflects De Queiroz theme that satirizes Portugal’s cultural malaise. In a society characterized by its enervation, nothing truly meaningful takes place. It is ALL style, NO real substance. The gardens are all for decor, there is nothing cultivated of sustenance. An interesting aside, twice the protagonist in passing was called a “weed”. At one point Ega, (great sidekick of Carlos that bears a lot of resemblance to the a younger De Queiroz) after an oration by a nationally acclaimed poet at public performance: What does it matter what he said, it was done in great style, and that’s what we Portuguese thrive on (I am paraphrasing). Of the three challenges to duels in the novel, none are acted on!

Eca’s prose style in The Maiasis so nuanced, lyrical yet economical and a perfectly calibrated authorial distance. I find I am more easily apprehending his text more readily than those I mentioned. Turgenev’s I liked as well as Eca’s based on Sketchesonly…and not to construe I don’t appreciate the others immensely, it just that Eca’sstyle is closer to a more ‘modern’ register. With him, I am not listening to myself think in the narrative inter-locutions, as in Balzac and Stendahl, ‘ok, this is where my implied author reading/buddy is putting his arm on my shoulder and offering comments on his story or making generalizations based on it.

A brief example of his stlye, the ‘frame’ of Carlos and Cruges riding in a caliche on their way to Sintra:

“On either side, as far as the eye could see, the land was dark and sad, and high above them, in all that solitude the endless blue sky seemed equally sad. The horses hooves kept up a steady trot, beating monotonously on the road. There was no other sound; occasionally a bird would cut through the air, flying fast, fleeing the bleak wasteland. Cruges, heavy with eggs and sausage, was staring vaguely and glumly at the horses’ lustrous rumps”

The Margaret Costa English translation was awesome BTW

This book was to be part of a larger series, or scenes of society and that De Queiroz abandoned the idea. A surprising introduction for me into a writer I had no familiarity with.

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