Dilettante's Diary

Fall Reading 2012

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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.
Since we haven't yet been able to post reports on all our Summer Reading, we'll catch up on this page. 

Reviewed here: Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, Mortality, The Testament of Mary, The Map and the Territory, Next, Walks With Men, Lost Genius'

Mentioned briefly: The Winter Palace, The Other Family, Specimen Days, No One Is Here Except All Of Us  
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (Novel) by Mohammed Hanif, 2012

It was through an interview with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC Radio’s “Writers and Company” that I first heard of Mohammed Hanif. A writer from Pakistan, currently working for the BBC, he had become somewhat famous because his first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008), had dared to offer a satirical take on the death of General Zia, President of Pakistan from 1977 to 1988. Apparently, various authorities were not amused by Mr. Hanif’s treatment of the suspicious airplane accident that ended the general’s life.

Seeming to have weathered that storm well, Mr. Hanif sounded in the CBC interview like an intelligent and sympathetic man. Ms. Wachtel was asking him about Malala Yousafzai, the teenager shot by the Taliban for attending school. Mr. Hanif had met her while preparing a BBC  broadcast of some of her diary entries a few years ago. He said, of course, that he was shocked by the shooting but what upset him most, he said, was that this fourteen-year old should have to be a hero. Fourteen-year-olds, he said, should be allowed to be normal, annoying teenagers.

As to the sources for this second novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, Mr. Hanif said, if I remember correctly, that the idea came to him when visiting his mother in hospital in Pakistan. He was impressed by a nurse who attended to his mother. The nurse was a kind Catholic young woman, who was married to a Muslim. 

The central character of the novel, Alice Bhatti, is, indeed, a kind Catholic nurse who marries a Muslim. Apart from that, the novel isn't anything like what I was expecting.

Although Alice has pulled herself up by some sort of education, she comes from one of the lower castes. Her father, who raised her, after the death of her mother, is an “untouchable,” who cleans sewers for the city. Now and then, Alice goes back to visit him in French Colony, an area that appears to be a slum settlement. Alice’s training as a nurse seems a bit iffy; she often finds herself forced to handle medical emergencies she’s not qualified for. She has many fraught encounters with a head nurse who is, by unpredictable and unfathomable turns: cruel, unkind, smart, practical, understanding and helpful. Alice’s friend in the hospital is a teenage boy who is keeping an eye on his dying mother. Somehow, the boy has worked himself into a position of being a jack-of-all-trades around the hospital. He takes notes of important meetings, runs errands for people, fills in wherever needed. Another major character, Teddy, the Muslim who takes an interest in Alice, is a thick-headed goon who seems to act as a kind of self-appointed security guard around the hospital – when he’s not employed (unofficially) by the police to provide companionship and convivial chat for victims who are being driven to remote spots where they’re going to be summarily executed.

For the most part, the novel follows the day-to-day affairs of these people, until a dramatic incident in the hospital becomes the pivotal event on which subsequent events turn. 

Not hard to make sense of all that, right? But I can’t get the novel as a whole. It seems to be an odd mixture of comedy, satire, outrage, violence, sensitivity, parody, indignation and whimsy. I can’t figure out how these disparate tones are supposed to make one cohesive whole. What is Mr. Hanif trying to do here?

No question that he has a gift for many different kinds of writing. To give just one small example of a fine touch, there’s this about school letting out:  “...eighteen hundred children suddenly start talking to each other in urgent voices like house sparrows at dusk.” And flashes of wit light up almost every page. For instance, somebody tells a would-be assassin in the hospital: “Don’t waste your bullets, this hospital will kill them anyway.” When Teddy tells Alice that the holy book says a woman’s pubic hairs shouldn’t be any longer than a grain of rice, she asks: “Basmati?” 

Some of the humour has the counter-intuitive, paradoxical quality of Oscar Wilde. As in this gem about marriage: “Men should go away so that they can come back and then go away again. Their comings and goings make a home a home.” One exchange is almost a blatant steal from the master. When Alice says she doesn’t smoke, the head nurse gives her a conspiratorial smile and says: “Every girl does something. I really worry about those who say they don’t do anything. Usually they end up with something worse than cancer.” To my ears, that sounds a very loud echo of the scene in The Importance of Being Ernest, where Jack admits that he smokes and Lady Bracknell responds: “I am glad to hear it. A young man should have an occupation of some kind.” Maybe there’s nothing amiss in Mr. Hanif’s giving us this tiny example of the many ways British culture has influenced the world he’s writing about.

Some of his best comic writing comes in terms of the characters. Here’s what we learn about Teddy, the thug who’s interested in Alice:

Teddy is one of those people who are only articulate when they talk about cricket. The rest of the time they rely on a combination of grunts, hand gestures and repeat snippets of what other people have just said to them. He also has very little experience of sharing his feelings. 

Teddy’s so inarticulate, in fact, that he really isn’t able to speak without a gun in his hand. His marriage proposal to Alice takes place in a hospital room while Teddy’s waving his automatic weapon around.

In a somewhat less comic vein but equally fascinating, there are manifestations of character like this comment on men from the head nurse: 

“I mean, they might have a fine understanding of how a carburettor works or how a human brain is wired, but ask them to understand your sadness on a sunny afternoon and their brain starts doing push-ups. They want to physically lift your sadness and smash it to bits. God, sometimes they want to tie RDX to your sadness and put a timer on it."

Alice’s father, another intriguing character, is a Catholic. Here’s what he has to say about the more prosperous adherents of that faith: 

“And then they turn up at church on Sundays wearing their suits and their devotion, as if Yassoo [Jesus] is not the saviour of all mankind but an usher who has got their names on the guest list, who’ll escort them to the roped area in the VIP enclosure, as if He was born and died and was resurrected for the sole purpose that He can whisk them through the formalities and take them into paradise.”

But Alice’s father is something of a puzzle to me. In spite of his being Catholic, he’s famous for curing stomach ulcers by a method that looks like witchcraft. And are we to believe that his procedure – something involving a candle and a drinking glass placed on the belly – actually works? Whether it does or not, there is, admittedly, something wry about the man’s insistence that his method works only for stomach ulcers. He has to keep fending off people who want him to cure other ailments. 

Interesting as some of these characters are, you never feel very close to them. At times, they feel like pawns in the author’s game. I’m reminded of Muriel Spark’s work (if Mr. Hanif wants to take that as a high compliment, he’s welcome to). As in Ms. Spark’s sly novels, the author seems to be keeping the characters at arm’s length in order to push them around according to some satirical plan.

An aspect of Mr. Hanif’s authorial control –  another thing that may interfere with a feeling of intimacy between a reader and the characters – is that the writer’s voice often intrudes. He does too much explaining about the characters and reporting on things that are beyond their ken. For instance, he informs us that one doctor’s impatience towards Alice “is that of a privileged person towards someone less fortunate, someone who has been granted an opportunity but is hell-bent on squandering it.” At one point, we’re told that Alice retches in a sink “for about half a century.” That’s surely an authorial exaggeration that takes us beyond the immediate experience of the character. About conditions in a jail known as the Borstal, the author says: “There is nothing scarier than a sixteen-year-old in the Borstal who feels he has been discriminated against.” You feel that you’re getting sociological commentary more than the inner life of a character. There’s a similar effect in this description of a teen’s craving for Alice: “The hormonal rage is such that he could make love to that chair warmed by her....” The phrase ‘The hormonal rage’ elbows aside the character’s feelings with a scientific perspective. 

One of the strangest things about the book is that it’s hard to get a sense of the physical realities of the settings. The cover blurb tells me that it’s all taking place in Karachi but I’m not sure the city is ever mentioned in the text. There’s so little detail about the hospital where Alice works that it feels like an airy, non-specific place in the author’s head. Much of the time, it sounds like she’s the only rank-and-file nurse. Apart from a couple of head doctors and the head nurse, there’s virtually no mention of other staff members, until near the end of the book. Around the same point, we’re told that the hospital sees seven thousand patients a week, but we have hardly any sense of such throngs in the hospital’s halls. The psychiatric ward, one of the few departments that’s described in any detail, is treated like the classic “looney bin.” A large vehicle, manned by security guards for a rich patient, is parked in the corridor of the emergency department... What kind of world is this? Is it real or not?

What’s more troubling about the book is the cavalier treatment of some tragedies. A minor traffic mishap, we’re told, leads to chaos that paralyzes the city for a couple of days. That’s a nice satiric touch – except that the author happens to mention that a number of little school children were killed in the fracas. Are we supposed to find that all part of the fun? As in his interview with Ms. Wachtel, Mr. Hanif notes male violence against women:

During her house job she [Alice] worked in Accidents and Emergencies for six months and there was not a single day – not a single day – when she didn’t see a woman shot or hacked, strangled or suffocated, poisoned or burnt, hanged or buried alive. 

And yet, when it comes to a horrible incident at the climax of the novel – one of those cases of a man’s throwing acid in a woman’s face – the author presents it almost parenthetically, with no expression of regret or dismay. Is the insouciance supposed to make us feel the horror all the more? 

The book’s epilogue deals with an incident described in a letter that Alice’s father is writing to the Vatican. Never mind that the tone of the letter is far too literary for such a man, it includes some great shots at the Church’s system of saint-making, including a couple of digs at a certain well-known nun, her nationality here fictionalized as Polish. She was canonized, Alice’s father claims, “despite overwhelming evidence from the local community that she was nothing but a stingy old witch who revelled in the suffering of dark-skinned, malnourished children...” Fair enough. But the man is telling the Vatican about a fantastic, utterly implausible incident that was supposedly witnessed by many people. Are we to take this as a case of mass hallucination? 

Perhaps Mr. Hanif is trying to tell us that the world of Pakistan is so crazy that it can’t be depicted according to the expectations of conventional Western literature. Or is it just that this book exemplifies an Eastern sensitivity for a certain story-telling style that escapes me?

In spite of all these reservations about the book, I’m in awe of the power of Mr. Hanif’s writing in places. Here’s Alice’s response to the case of a stillborn baby:

She prays like she has never prayed before, like nobody has prayed before. It doesn’t matter if there is a God listening or not, it doesn’t matter if He is busy somewhere else trying to avert a war or working out the chemical make-up of a deadly new virus. She just conjures up her Lord Yassoo and gives it to Him. She holds him by His throat till He can’t breathe, she hangs from His robe till He can’t take a step forward, she grabs His goblet of wine and flings it across the room, she heckles Him when He descends from the Mount of Olives and starts to give His sermon, she snatches the fish from His disciples and throws it back into Galilee. [sic] She sings Him lullabies when His mother goes outside the stable to look for firewood, but that doesn’t last very long. When He washes His disciples’ feet, she accuses him [sic: no upper case on ‘him’] of being a deadbeat Lord leaving poor wretched girls to bring dead babies into this world; she actually starts cursing Him in Punjabi when He starts to raise Lazarus. What she is doing is probably the opposite of a prayer. In the heat of her demented devotion, she even forgets to ask Him for anything.  

Agreed, nobody has every prayed like this. Nobody has anybody ever written like this, either!

Mortality (Essays) by Christopher Hitchens, 2012

Some people make their lives sounding off about the big issues. And few people have aired their thoughts on such matters as publicly and vociferously as the noted contrarian Christopher Hitchens. It’s of particular interest, then, to find out what he had to say when he was facing the big issue that puts an end to speculation about all the others.

The essays in this short book (just over 100 pages) appeared, in almost the same form, as columns that Mr. Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair in the eighteen months from his diagnosis of esophageal cancer to his death in December, 2011. They show how quickly one’s mind tends to focus on the immediate in such circumstances. Mostly what we have here – understandably – is Mr. Hitchens’ concern about his physical condition and his attempts to cope with it. Oh, there are some passing references to politics (a couple of snarkey digs at Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger) and, of course, religion comes in for a certain amount of discussion, perhaps inevitably in the circumstances. In that context, it seems to me that Mr. Hitchens is probably one of the few people the world has ever known who approached his death while watching a website established for bets on whether or not he would convert before the end. Further diversion was provided by the online comments of religious antagonists who were wishing unbearable torment on him in this world and worse in the world to come.

None of which caused Mr. Hitchens’s defiant spirit to falter one bit. You wouldn’t expect him to become maudlin or self-pitying, and he doesn’t. His mordant wit is unfailingly on display, even as applied to some details about his year of “living dyingly.” This, for instance, about the effects of chemotherapy:

I was fairly reconciled to the loss of my hair, which began to come out in the shower in the first two weeks of treatment, and which I saved in a plastic bag so that it could help fill a floating dam in the Gulf of Mexico. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the way that my razor blade would suddenly go slipping pointlessly down my face, meeting no stubble. Or for the way that my newly smooth upper lip would begin to look as if it had undergone electrolysis, causing me to look a bit too much like somebody’s maiden auntie.

Physical agonies are mentioned often enough to convince us that this dying of his wasn’t much fun, but there isn’t any belabouring of the subject. After the initial shock of diagnosis, in fact, he’s struck by how boringly commonplace his plight is. One of the most telling remarks about the bother of it all is his statement that he was forced to appreciate the full truth “of the materialist position that I don’t have a body, I am a body.” 

As for what he’d done to that body, he never makes any explicit noises of repentance about the booze and cigarettes which probably had a lot to do with putting him in his sorry state. But he does advert to them in reference to his  “burning the candle at both ends.”  (And noting, in a mischievous aside, that a candle so used "often gives a lovely light.”) His ironic – paradoxical? – comment on the subject is that, if he hadn’t been so healthy, he might have lived longer. I take that to mean that he was able to abuse his body because his constitution was so strong. If he’d had a weaker constitution, he might have been more careful.

The closest Mr. Hitchens comes to anything that might seem like bragging about his fortitude is his description of the ordeal of having blood taken. It got to the point that his body was so wasted that nurses had great difficulty finding a vein that was able to produce the required liquid. Sometimes, the process took two hours of pricking with needles. He assures us that, while one small prick of a needle may be as innocuous as is usually promised, such prickings on end are not so easy to endure. And yet, it became his self-assigned role during those sessions to express his sympathy for the nurses, to try to buck up their spirits, so that they would not be discouraged by the difficulty of the process.

If there is need of any further evidence of the man’s courage, there’s the fact that he kept up his speaking engagements and other public appearances as much as possible throughout the process of dying. That might come as a surprise to people who did not encounter him at any of those events. Many of us may have more or less written him off when the public was informed that his condition was terminal. It’s good to know that a person in that situation need not see himself or herself as finished. (Although few can likely be propelled out of bed by the ambition and drive that Mr. Hitchens could call on.) Sometimes, on the way into a tv studio or an auditorium, he had a bit of a scramble to find the nearest garbage can to vomit into, but he seems to have treated those incidents as minor inconveniences.

One of the most important insights that Mr. Hitchens gained from it all – ruefully, one might say – has to do with that old saying (usually attributed to Friedrich Nietzsche) that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Bullshit, says Mr. Hitchens. Some things, as he discovered, just wear you down and down; there’s no bounce back. Looking back at those treatments that dragged him down so low, he thinks that he might have passed on them if he’d known how harrowing they’d be. And yet, he acknowledges that they gained him a bit more of life. Were they worth it? Yes, but they didn’t make him stronger. 

You don’t look to Mr. Hitchens for self-help content or kindly advice but there’s an element of that in his comments about the behaviours and attitudes of his visitors. Even if those comments are made in his trademark drollery as regards human foibles, he’s offering tips that will be helpful, not just in sparing people like himself from unnecessary suffering, but also in saving visitors from embarrassing themselves with unfortunate gaffes. Don’t make your questions too blunt, he says. In one instance, he was lamenting the fact that he wouldn’t be able to get to England for a niece’s wedding. A well-meaning visitor asked if the patient was upset at the thought that he might never see England again. Full marks to the visitor for nailing the issue spot-on, but Mr. Hitchens could have done without the confirmation. “I’ll do the facing of hard facts, thanks. Don’t you be doing it too.” 

On the other hand, you should try to avoid unintentional gallows humour, as committed by the friend who phoned and said he was going to be in town on a coming day, asking if Mr. Hitchens would be around. Above all, Mr. Hitchens says, you should avoid cloying exhortations full of optimism and uplift. As one of the worst examples of that sort of thing, he cites the famous lecture by the late Randy Pausch, the professor who made a video proclaiming his noble sentiments in the face of death from pancreatic cancer. Not only is it larded with cliché, says Mr. Hitchens, the piece “should bear its own health warning: so sugary that you may need an insulin shot to withstand it.”

Although Mr. Hitchens’s thoughts about writing have nothing to do with his terminal state per se, the fact that he was unable to rely on his vocal equipment to work on cue prompted what is, for me, his most striking comment on writing: becoming a writer is about finding your voice. A mentor of his once noted that one of Mr. Hitchens’s early essays was well-reasoned but dull. The young Mr. Hitchens should try to write more the way he talked, the mentor said. Mr. Hitchens goes on to make something of a rule of this: you have to be able to talk well to write well. By talking well he doesn’t just mean knowing a language and articulating clearly. He means really talking, in a grand style. It’s an interesting point but I question whether it can be posited as a universal rule. (John Updike, a great talker? Thomas Hardy? J.D. Salinger?)  

However, I can see that being a good talker could definitely have something to do with becoming the kind of writer Mr. Hitchens was. His works are all about the flow of language, the spinning of words in long sentences that come to dazzling conclusions. From what is reported by his friends and loved ones, this was his brilliant, much-treasured style in conversation. On that score, I do have some problems with these essays. Although one naturally feels a need to be magnanimous to a recently deceased person, I don’t think anything less than a truthful response would do justice to his work and his memory. And the truth is that there are times in these essays when I have to backtrack in a sentence in order to try to nail down precisely what Mr. Hitchens is saying. 

Which is not to deny that the book is rivetting and meaningful. Possibly its most important message, for me, comes in the epilogue by Mr. Hitchens’s widow, Carol Blue. She says that, much as her husband realized the severity of his situation and the inescapable ending that was in store, he still had projects he wanted to complete. He was looking forward to research on a new book. His charisma and charm prevailed when he held court in his hospital room. He and she thought that his final visit to hospital would be brief and that he would soon be back at work. 

So nobody really wants to let go, to admit that it’s truly the end. I find that human ambivalence more inspiring than saintly talk about resignation and acceptance. 

The Testament of Mary (Novel) by Colm Tóibín, 2012

This brand new and attractive novella from Colm Tóibín caught my attention on the “Quick Read” shelf at the library. As you may know, I often don’t pay any attention to cover blurbs or, in this case, the title. The book looked good for a couple of hours’ reading on a quiet weekend, so I took it home. 

A few pages in, I began to wonder what the hell was going on. The story was being narrated by some very disgruntled woman who seemed to have a distinctly unfavourable view of human beings, especially those of the male variety. She was talking about them hanging around her house, spying on her. She couldn’t stand their presence, the smell of them. Meanwhile, she was recalling some nightmarish things she’d seen – a man feeding live baby rabbits to a caged hawk, for example.

Around page seven, there was a reference to some guys at the foot of a cross playing dice for somebody’s clothes. Did this, then, have something to do with early New Testament times? If you, dear reader, have noticed the title at the top of this review, you’re probably like: Well, duh!

Given that the gospel story has had such an influence on the world for two millenia, I guess it’s inevitable that many writers will want to put their own spin on it. (I’m one of them.)* Mr. Tóibín’s Mary is not at all the sweet, demure person we think we know. This is a Mary who’s mighty pissed at the way things went. And she’s not best pleased with the way the evangelists have twisted her words and her experiences to make them fit into a simplistic, more coherent and edifying narrative.

As she tells her story, Mary’s living in Ephesus where she’s supposed to be safe from the dangers threatening the rest of the community her son left behind. She tells us that, when her son was becoming popular, a man named Marcus came to warn her that there was trouble brewing. The authorities were riled by the crowds her son was attracting; they wanted to silence him at the earliest opportunity. Living alone at that time (her husband had died), Mary wondered what on earth had happened to her son. Could this rabble-rouser be the child whose heart had beat inside her, who had nursed at her breast? (You’re not far into the book before you remember that one of Mr. Tóibín’s big themes is the connection between mothers and sons.) After a long separation while his public career has flourished, Mary encounters him at the marriage feast in Cana. When she describes him in his swanky new robes, surrounded by his fans (a bunch of misfits, in her view), she sounds like a mother scoffing at the posturing of a son who has become a rock star. 

Mary’s unappreciative mood on that occasion may have had something to do with the fact that she didn’t even want to attend. She didn’t like drunken wedding festivities; she only showed up out of duty to relatives who were putting on the party. As for the famous miracle that made fresh wine flow, Mary doesn’t want us attributing any part of it to her. She expressly says, in contradiction of John’s gospel, that she was indifferent to whether or not there was enough wine. Yes, she says, more wine was produced, but she doesn’t explain how. She takes somewhat the same approach with other miracles. (You always wonder how a writer today will handle that thorny problem.) Jesus’ walking on the water and calming the storm? People tell her it happened, that’s all. She does give a vivid description of the raising of Lazarus, as reported to her by witnesses, but she puts a unique spin on that event: maybe it wasn’t a good idea, after all. Poor Lazarus, when he comes back to life, seems to be tormented with memories about where he’s been and what he’s seen.

It would spoil some of the best effects of the book if I were to say much more about the ways that Mary’s version of events differs from the traditional one. In one respect, though, Mr. Tóibín seems to take the New Testament at its word. He casts the Temple priests as the major instigators of Jesus’ downfall. As I understand the gist of the best scripture scholarship today, most experts feel that the priests are pictured that way because the gospels were written to make the Jews look bad. That impulse was in response to conflicts within the early church. The more likely scenario leading up to Jesus’ fate, I gather, would be that the Romans would have summarily dispatched such a trouble-maker without much need of input from the Jewish authorities.

At times, Mr. Tóibín’s writing verges on being just a touch too literary, too poetic, for my taste Here’s Jesus, for example, saying that Lazarus will arise, “...as all mankind will rise, when time relents, when the sea itself becomes a glassy stillness.”About her inability to communicate with her son, once he has become a celebrity, Mary says: “...it would have been like speaking to the stars or the full moon.” The style skirts dangerously close to cliché, but maybe it strikes a tone that’s appropriate to the spirit of the telling. 

I found a few details questionable. For instance, Mary’s talking about her “shoes” rather than her sandals. My research turns up the fact that a sort of shoe was worn by wealthier people in those times; I wouldn’t think we’d include Mary among them. And there are times when she seems to be referring to visits she made to the “Temple” in her hometown of Nazareth. I think she would have meant the “Synagogue.” 

But those quibbles don’t interfere with the pleasure of being carried along by the compelling thrust of the book. Mr. Tóibín’s very good at building a sense of crisis, a feeling of impending doom as events rush to their awful conclusion. Come the crucifixion, it strikes me as quite plausible that Mary doesn’t catch the oft-quoted words that were supposed to have been uttered. That debacle, as she experienced it, was something of a schmozzle, what with the paid agitators doing their thing, other people enjoying something like a carnival atmosphere, while inexpertly raised crucifixes were falling down. Mr. Tóibín makes it well worth your while to hang in for the surprising ending, one that, admittedly, won’t provide much comfort for traditionalists.

* I Give You My Word, by Patrick Donohue, Arcadie Books, 1998

The Map and the Territory (La carte et le territoire) (Novel) by Michel Houellebecq, 2010 (English translation by Gavin Bowd, 2011)

The name Michel Houellebecq, when spotted on the library shelf, stirred vague suggestions of controversy. Wasn’t he the enfant terrible of contemporary French literature? Hadn’t his books caused some sort of scandal? If those tantalizing thoughts weren’t justification for taking the book home, there was, of course, the fact that it won the 2010 Prix Goncourt, France’s highest literary award.

Some Google research confirms that, yes, Monsieur Houellebecq’s books have been accused of promoting racial hatred and libertine sexuality. In response to his works, words like “repugnant” and “Nihilism” come up. About this book, specifically, there are charges of plagiarism – which M. Houellebecq blithely blows off. He admits that he’s lifted some passages from the Internet but he says it’s not plagiarism when you’re recycling of all sorts of raw material for artistic purposes. 

Apart from that, I couldn’t find anything especially shocking about The Map and the Territory. One quirky aspect of it, though, is that M. Houellebecq has written into the novel a character who is a writer and who is named Michel Houellebecq. Other writers have done this sort of thing. I recall Martin Amis’ doing it in one of his novels. But they don’t usually give themselves a big role, more like a passing reference. What’s rather entertaining about M. Houellebecq’s use of the device is that his Houellebecq is one of the major characters, and a pretty despicable one. This guy’s speech, he notes, is littered with “infantile neologisms.” He says that the character is “a tired old decadent.” Another character sees him as a “tortured wreck.” And, just in case you’re wondering whether the novelist really intends an identification between himself and the character in the novel, the latter lives in an isolated cottage in Ireland, as did the former when this novel was published.

Large as M. Houellebecq’s role is in the novel, he’s not the central character. He enters into the events because he, as an eminent French author, has been asked to write the introduction to the catalogue for an exhibit by a contemporary French painter. That painter, named Jed, is the central character. As such, he’s rather an atypical specimen. The guy’s so dull that you wonder how he could sustain a novel at centre stage. He doesn’t have friends. He has had a love affair, about which he was supposedly very passionate, but we don’t feel any of the heat. He’s very committed to his work but he seems to take a bemused, detached view of what’s happening around him. He’s rather diffident about his success. It seems to have happened to him more or less by accident; he’s not particularly ambitious. He’s often told that he’s at his best when silent; so he tends to keep his mouth shut at glitzy show openings. I kept thinking of an artist with the kind of impassive, unflappable mein that Andy Warhol strove for, but without a the flamboyance and outrageousness that sustained Mr. Warhol’s act.

About two-thirds of the way in, a grisly murder occurs. The victim is one of the major characters. Now we go for about fifty pages without any reference to Jed. Instead, we’re getting to know a new bunch of people: the chief police inspector and his team. Eventually Jed does get involved in the investigation. The cops have learned that he was one of the victim’s contacts. They interview Jed and he’s able to provide them with their first important clue. The mystery is then solved by a couple of accidental discoveries that occur in a sort of chain reaction. 

It could hardly be said, then, that this is one of the most brilliant examples of the whodunnit genre. So what, then, is the point of the book, other than to show what life on earth is like for one rather odd person? That, granted, is enough reason for a novel. But this one has much broader implications. You could say that the book functions as a repository for lots of fascinating thoughts about our contemporary world. Not hard to see why it was a strong contender for the Prix Goncourt.

First, there’s the world of things. M. Houellebecq seems enthralled with objects the way no other novelist has been. It was through photographs of manufactured objects – print cartridges and so on – that Jed made his name as a student in art school. The opening phase of his career consisted of his photographs of Michelin maps; he’d focus on small sections of them, distorting and manipulating the images to produce art works that the cognoscenti took up enthusiastically. 

Quite apart from Jed’s art work, there are many other fond references to the world of inanimate objects. The troublesome boiler in his apartment has a major role in the opening pages and, near the end of the book, we hear of that same boiler: “It was, when all was said and done, his oldest companion.” Several paragraphs detail lovingly the finer aspects of certain models of automobiles. There’s also a lot of detail about cameras Jed has owned. The Houellebecq character, in one of his semi-drunken discourses, laments the shoddiness of manufactured things nowadays and he rhapsodizes about three perfect things that he once owned: a certain pair of boots, a parka and a laptop-printer combination.

The loving attention to manufactured things leads, naturally enough, to issues involving business, international affairs and social change. Underlying these thoughts is the importance of Jed’s master works: portraits of people at their work. Here’s why Jed considered it so necessary to dedicate himself to such paintings:

What’s the question you first ask a man, when you want to find out about him? In some societies, you ask him first if he’s married, if he has children; in our society, we ask first what his profession is. It’s his place in the productive process, and not his status as a reproducer, that above all defines Western man.” 

Regarding his painting of a meeting between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, we get their respective contributions to, and views of, the economy. Elsewhere, we learn how the grocery business has changed: more range and choice. Jeff’s dad rambles about architecture and education, with special reference to Le Corbusier and William Morris. We learn that French companies now have to kow-tow to their offices in Russia and China. And that France has changed a lot: traditional inhabitants of rural areas have almost completely disappeared; newcomers with business plans and real estate savvy have replaced them. Due to the persistence – in South America and Russia – of the image of the Parisienne, France is enjoying a resurgence of its reputation for sex tourism.

Much of the reason for the above material is summed up in this note near the end of the novel:

The work that occupied the last years of Jed Martin’s life can thus be seen – and this is the first interpretation that springs to mind – as a nostalgic meditation on the end of the Industrial Age in Europe, and, more generally, on the perishable and transitory nature of any human industry.

But, this being a novel about an artist, you might expect that some of the best observations have to do with the arts. When Jed is asked what it means to be an artist, we get this:

He would find nothing very interesting or original to say, except one thing, which he would consequently repeat in each interview: to be an artist, in his view, was above all to be someone submissive. Someone who submitted himself to mysterious, unpredictable messages, that you would be led, for want of a better word and in the absence of any religious belief, to describe as intuitions, messages which nonetheless commanded you in an imperious and categorical manner, without leaving the slightest possibility of escape – except by losing any notion of integrity and self-respect. 

Later, Jed has a somewhat bleaker view of the artist’s calling: 

He fleetingly wondered what had led him to embark on an artistic representation of the world, or even to think that any such thing was possible. The world was anything but a subject for artistic emotion. The world presented itself absolutely as a rational system, devoid of magic or any particular interest.

Although the Houellebecq character’s comments about one famed artist may be labelled unorthodox, if not defamatory, I can’t resist the temptation to quote them here:

“Picasso’s portrait of Dora Maar, who gives a fuck about that? Anyway, Picasso’s ugly, and he paints a hideously deformed world because his soul is hideous, and that’s all you can say about Picasso. There’s no reason anymore to support the exhibition of his works. He has nothing to contribute, and with him there’s no light, no innovation in the organization of colours or forms. I mean, in Picasso’s work there’s absolutely nothing that deserves attention, just an extreme stupidity and a priapic daubing that might attract a few sixtysomethings with big bank accounts.”

About the art of writing – his own, in particular –  the Houellebecq character has a somewhat higher opinion, as in these observations remembered by Jed: 

You can always take notes, M. Houellebecq had told him when talking about his career as a novelist, and try to string together sentences; but to launch yourself into the writing of a novel you have to wait for all of that to become compact and irrefutable. You have to wait for the appearance of an authentic core of necessity. You never decide to write a novel, he had added; a book, according to him, was like a block of concrete that had decided to set, and the author’s freedom to act was limited to the fact of being there, and of waiting in frightening inaction for the process to start by itself.

In terms of sociology, or the writer’s knowledge of certain kinds of people, it seems to me that there may be a few lapses in the understanding of M. Houellebecq (the novelist, not the character in the novel). His reference to homosexuals as speaking in a “hissing and querulous tone” sounds like homophobic stereotyping. And, although I think he misses the meaning of the lives of priests, his view of them is remarkable: 

Inheritors of a millennia-old spiritual tradition that nobody really understood anymore, once placed in the front rank of society, priests were today reduced, at the end of terrifyingly long and difficult studies that involved mastering Latin, canon law, rational theology, and other almost incomprehensible subjects, to surviving in miserable material conditions. They took the Métro alongside other men, going from a Gospels-reading group to a literacy workshop, saying mass every morning for a thin and aging audience, being forbidden all sensual joy or even the elementary pleasures of family life, yet obliged by their function to display day after day an unwavering optimism.

The message that emerges most poignantly, for me, from the multifarious digressions and observations, is a quiet, understated one. It’s summed up in Jed’s thoughts about his father: “It doesn’t amount to much, generally speaking, a human life; it can be summed up in a small number of events....” In keeping with that tone, the writing about Paris is not romantic or magical; it’s an ordinary, cold, rainy place (except in the fall) A quirk of the writing that I found slightly questionable is that there are frequent silent lapses when people are talking. Does that really happen to M. Houellebecq and his friends? It seldom does to me.

Fascinating as the book is, some of the material may not be  relevant to readers not very familiar with contemporary French culture. References to current media celebrities, for example. And there are times when a person who isn’t reading the French version of the novel can’t be certain of getting the right tone. In the Houellebecq character’s long disquisitions, he can sound pompous and pedantic. There’s even a stilted, pseudo-literary quality to his monologues; sentence structures are used which would be common in journalism but not in conversation. Is M. Houellebecq, the author, here making fun of himself? Or is it just lousy writing? It might be easier to tell if a reader could appreciate the flavour of the French original. 

And what’s with the frequent use of the titles of M. Houellebecq’s books, as tags to his name? Very often, we get wordings like: “Monsieur Houellebecq, the author of [title of book].” The titles given are the real titles of M. Houellebecq’s real books. Is the author mocking his reputation or is he plugging his own work? Hard for me to say.

Next (Novel) by James Hynes, 2010

When reading the work of a writer who’s new to you, it can take a while to get used to the tone of voice. You may be tempted to pack it in if the prospects don’t appear very promising from the get-go.

As was the case with this novel.

It’s about one Kevin Quinn, a guy around fifty. He has a not-very-prestigious job as an editor in the publications office of a department at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbour. On the morning that the novel opens, he has taken an early flight to Austin, Texas, to be interviewed for a better job. The novel, taking place all on this one day, follows Kevin as he kills time on the streets of Austin prior to his interview. For the most part, he’s thinking about his past life, worrying about terrorist activities around the world and lusting after a young Asian girl who was sitting next to him on the plane and whom he keeps bumping into – accidently on purpose – on the streets of Austin.

Kevin is the kind of guy who gives men a bad name. He’s obsessed with sex. He sizes up every woman he encounters in terms of her sexual appeal. It’s hard to see how any female reader could have any sympathy with this character. Even I was having trouble on that score. This guy is so relentless in his testosterone-driven quest that you begin to wonder if there’s anything else about him. You long for some other signs of humanity. It’s not the memories of past affairs that bother me so much as his dogged pursuit of the Asian girl who’s half his age and to whom he’s virtually invisible because of his age.

Mind you, the guy does see himself in a pretty unflattering light. He refers at one point to his “geriatric priapism.” He knows that he’s like one of those cartoon wolves drooling with lust. He realizes, with respect to himself, that maybe the radical feminists are right when they say that all men are rapists at heart. As the terrorist scenarios play over and over in his mind, he imagines himself jumping between a bomber and a woman with a child but he knows he’d probably do it only out of good manners, not out of any genuine feeling for the intended victims. 

 And it must be admitted that some of the scenes that he pulls up from his memory are very well done. Like the one where he was lying in the bathtub reading, and his partner of sixteen years came in, sat on the toilet, took the book out of his hand, and told him that she was leaving him. A remembered episode of sex when he a girlfriend were at a beach, in the water fully clothed, has more reality and immediacy than any sex scene I’ve read in a long time; the page would burn up if it weren’t for all that water. Some of the good scenes from the past don’t have anything to do with sex. His father’s death, for instance, and his grandfather’s. 

What finally did win me over to Kevin’s side was his response to an accident that day in Austin. It’s page 146 and he’s been knocked down by a rambunctious dog. Here’s Kevin lying on the pavement, listening to the dog’s owner: 

The kid, Kevin can see, wants nothing more than to be let off the hook, and Kevin, even though he’s hot, angry, and frustrated, can’t for the life of him see any reason to make this boy more uncomfortable than he already is. Kevin’s a midwestern college-town liberal not just by accident of birth, but by temperament. It’s in his bones to see both sides of a question, and even now he knows just how this boy is feeling – simultaneously guilty and resentful, wanting to do the right thing but afraid he’ll have to pay for something that he doesn’t really think is his fault. Times like this, Kevin wishes he were a Republican, full of absolute certainty and righteous, tribal wrath: he’d yell at the guy, threaten to sue him, offer to visit some Old Testament shock and awe on the kid’s fat ass. He could even have the dog impounded – and then the very thought pierces Kevin’s congenitally bleeding heart, because the spaniel is looking up at his plump master with a goofy, endearing look of pure devotion. 

After that, I was pretty well on board with Kevin all the way. And author Hynes does eventually give you insights into what might be making Kevin the sex hound that he is. We find out about secrets that he’s been carrying with him for decades, things that have hurt him deeply and perhaps prevented him from being the nicer man that he would have liked to be. 

The following passage, Kevin’s response to a chance encounter with a former girlfriend, shows just how fine Mr. Hynes’ writing can be:

He knew that look, and even now, when it shouldn’t matter anymore what she thought of him, he hated it and feared it. It was the look she gave him when she was measuring him against some private standard in her head. It was a look that already held the expectation that he would disappoint her. The problem was that he never knew what the standard was, and she wouldn’t tell him. It was a look that still made him angry – not the implied judgment itself, but the fact that he still let it get to him. 

So much for Mr. Hynes' insight into the male psyche. But don't think he's one of those male authors who isn’t capable of creating good female characters. When Kevin’s comparing his current girlfriend with his previous one, we get very vivid sketches of each of them, with each woman’s flaws and virtues vividly illustrated. 

Another virtue of Mr. Hynes’ writing is that you get several good satirical notes on today’s society (as is obligatory, I suppose, in any contemporary novel). There are digs, not just at consumerism, but also at the fatuous pretense of rising above it. Class consciousness and snobbery come up, mostly in terms of fashion sense. There are riffs on the current trend for over-protecting parenting.  The snooty aspect of academic hierarchies is pilloried. 

Somewhat less satisfying to me is the detail about the streets of Austin (the author’s home town). When it comes to a novel about somebody’s trek through a particular city on a given day, I don’t suppose we can avoid thoughts of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Given that precedent, one could assume a certain amount of physical detail is required in the spirit of you-are-here. But there’s so much of it here that I began to skip the description of the strip malls, the billboards, the neon signs, the crossroads, the thoroughfares. I’m sure Austin’s a fine place in its own way, but not that interesting.

Generally, though, the writing is so good that it’s a bit surprising to find what I consider some flaws. Kevin’s physical reactions to things often seem too strong to me. Especially  the many mentions of the actions of his heart – its stopping, seizing up, missing a beat and so on. The frequency of these references makes me wonder if the author really experiences life this way (differently from the way I experience it, to be sure). Or is the author merely falling back on stock phrases as a handy way of trying to indicate emotions? There’s a similar question about his frequently saying that women characters dig their fingers into someone’s arm. Does Mr. Hynes really think that so many women are inclined to act this way? (If so, it’s a rather unfair comment on women, I’d say.) Or is he, yet again, resorting to a handy shortcut for conveying feeling? One minor blemish doesn’t really reflect on the quality of the writing: a character has a “narrow jaw” on page 113, but on page 115, the same character has a “broad chin.” I don’t see how you can have both, unless you’re an anatomical marvel. But this is probably just a result of the inadequate editing that books get these days. 

No matter what your reservations about Kevin and his quest, Mr. Hynes is a good enough writer to make you persevere. You keep wondering what’s going to happen in that job interview. Kevin’s been dithering about it all day and, the closer the interview gets, the more likely it looks that he won’t even accept the job if it’s offered. But this is one of those cases where a reviewer can’t say what’s best about a book: the ending. Trust me, it’s worth sticking with Kevin for the sake of some amazing discoveries. The implications of the title will floor you.

Walks with Men (Novel) by Ann Beattie, 2010

Given my memories of Ann Beattie’s short fiction in The New Yorker, I was expecting this novella to offer elegant prose applied in an accessible way to the intimacies in the lives of east-coast US sophisticates. 

Well, that sort of prose is there, and the smart east coast types, but the material isn’t so very accessible or easy to get your bearings in.

This short book – just over 100 small pages – gives us slices of the life of Jane, an upwardly mobile journalist and a grad of Harvard. Mostly, the material deals with her relationships with two men. One’s an older married man, also a journalist, with whom she’s having an affair. The other’s the soulful youth with whom she lived in the country for several years. There are deaths, bereavements, spats, and an encounter with a female rival. 

But it’s never clear to me, quite, how it all fits together. I can never get a clear focus on the time sequence. Sometimes we seem to be in the present, sometimes years ago. Sometimes a scene that we’ve already witnessed is repeated further along the line, with some small interpolations that give the scene a different slant. At one point, Jane, who has been narrating everything in the first person, decides to start talking about herself in the third person.

Maybe the muddled context is supposed to be a reflection of a certain woman’s state of mind. That has a certain appeal, no matter how hard it may be for a reader to get with the program. In any case, Ms. Beattie sprinkles her somewhat ambiguous tale with marvellous insights. Here’s Jane talking to a young fan who has some misconceptions about her as a starry journalist: “People talk about other people, and they make things up. Then it becomes real to them. But it doesn’t have anything to do with the other person.”

This memorable outburst comes from Jane’s married lover when she says they have to talk about their situation:

“Talk,” Neil said. ‘When did I ever say talk solved anything? It’s a device of politicians, to obfuscate. It might be slightly useful for priests who are cornering altar boys. Or to teach a dog its name. Talk? That’s what’s wrong with relationships: we’ve been made to think we can communicate through talk.” 

On the point of the break-up in the relationship with Neil we get: “Neil reached across the table and took my hand and narrowed his eyes – it was the way he punctuated important moments, as if time were a vowel he could elongate simply by staring. 

So the book certainly wasn’t a waste of the small amount of time required to read it. But it did leave me unsatisfied in one respect. Jane tells us at the beginning that her married lover promised to tell her everything she wanted to know about men and about how they think. But no such revelations ever came! And here I was hoping to find out some big secrets about the male of our species – at least as Ms. Beattie sees us. The title of the book led me to expect no less. Do you blame me for feeling cheated?

Lost Genius (Biography) by Kevin Bazzana, 2007

And you thought Glenn Gould was weird. Canada's most eccentric pianist looks like Mister Rogers, compared to the musician who’s the subject of this biography.

In the 1940s, after failing to live up to huge promise and international acclaim, pianist Ervin Nyiregyhŕzi was stuck in back rooms at society parties in Los Angeles, tinkling the ivories while the celebs in attendance paid no attention. Except that one promoter did. He was so impressed that he persuaded Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi to do a public concert. It was supposed to be something of a comeback, a re-launch of the pianist’s career. Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi reluctantly agreed to the proposal but he was so beset by anxiety that he would only play the concert if he could wear a black hood over his head. 

Not that that was any impediment to publicity. Great suspense was generated at the prospect of this concert by a mystery man. When Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi appeared on stage with his head in the hood, however, some savvy audience members guessed his identity. Memories of his glory days had not completely faded.

Born in Budapest in 1903, Ervin Nyiregyhŕzi was hailed at an early age as a pianistic phenomenon. One thinks of a little Mozart, on hearing how young Ervin, before the age of puberty, was paraded around Europe to play for the nobility. Such gigs included a recital for Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace. He was barely into his teens when a psychologist, Géza Révész, a lecturer at Budapest University, wrote a book, based on several years of minute study of Ervin, extolling his genius and analyzing every aspect of what was seen as his fascinating creativity, not just as a pianist but also as a composer. 

Not surprisingly, that early fame, the sense of living under a microscope, might have had a somewhat unbalancing effect on young Ervin. What may have been even more detrimental was the parenting he received. His father seems not to have been too bad a guy, in spite of some flagrant philandering and some violent outbursts of bad temper that led to Ervin’s being beaten. The dad at least expressed what looked like genuine love for the kid. Unfortunately, the dad died when Ervin was still a child.

His mother looms as the villain of the piece. Ruthlessly intent on milking Ervin’s talent for every financial advantage, she was – paradoxical as it may seem – fiercely jealous of the attention he received. She would not let him indulge himself with the Romantic composers like Franz Liszt, whom he loved best. She forced him to concentrate instead on the classics, such as Beethoven’s compositions, because she felt sure that, since that’s what audiences wanted, it would bring in more money.  Well into his teens, she made Ervin keep his hair long and wear short pants because she thought that enhanced his image as a prodigy. For as long as she could, she tried desperately to prevent him from learning about sex for fear that entanglements with females might ruin him. And yet, there are indications, although not conclusive, that she may have abused him sexually. 

In spite of all that, Ervin’s musical gift couldn’t be thwarted. As a young man, he was amazing audiences around the world. A concert in the Maine Music Festival in the early 1920s drew this from the critic of the Bangor Daily News: “Nyiregyhŕzi has no rivals. Others are pianists. He is a magician – a god, who has given the machine capacities it had previously not possessed, a Piper of Hamelin, who draws the wondering crowds after him by his magic art.” At a concert in Montreal around the same time, the audience demanded over an hour of encores from Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi. The American pianist Raymond Lewenthal, born in 1926, said that Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi was one of “the demon-driven poets, artists who have seared their way into my heart...the evokers of passion and tenderness, of the epic, the strange, the mysterious, of great darkness and brilliant light.” 

It’s hard to say what went wrong, exactly, with Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi’s career. He kept his Jewishness secret as much as possible and yet he does seem to have suffered from a certain amount of anti-Jewish bias. He certainly had some bad luck with management. Sometimes it seems that the people entrusted to handle his bookings didn’t truly appreciate his gifts. Also, there were occasions when he was definitely cheated. After he’d played at a private event to entertain Prince Albert of Monaco, Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi’s agent paid him $100 but it turned out that the agent had kept 80 percent of the $500 fee.

And there always had been nay-sayers when it came to his playing. Critics often said it was too personal, too eccentric, too unfaithful to a composer’s intentions. Following one of his concerts, a representative of Steinway and Sons penned a memo deploring Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi’s pounding of the piano and his idiosyncratic way with tempi. The agent concluded that Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi should never be allowed to perform publicly on a Steinway “...as the instrument sounds disadvantageously under his fingers.”

But there’s also the matter of his personality. He tended towards aristocratic airs, even though his family had no such lineage. It seems his hob-knobbing with the gentry as a young artist gave him the sense that he was entitled to a champagne lifestyle. When, for lack of funds, he was forced to eat in a humble café, he complained: “A titan had to eat with a lot of creeps.” And yet, there could be an idealistic side to him. Regarding his concert at Sing Sing prison in 1925, an event that caused a pandemonium of weeping and cheering among the prisoners, he said that he’d wanted to bring them solace and hope, to strike a blow in “in the unending fight for the cultural progress of the human race and the unending endeavor to help the downtrodden and disadvantaged.” 

One of the things that fuelled that fight, as Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi saw it, was lots of sex – whenever, wherever and with whomever he wanted, either of the professional or volunteer variety. To him, an indomitable sex urge was an ineradicable component of an artist’s passionate embrace of life. And nobody much seems to have tried to discourage him on that score. Although photographs don’t give very convincing evidence of the fact, he could, reportedly, be tremendously attractive to women. With his flowing hair, full lips and large, soulful eyes, there was an ethereal look of the other-worldly artist about him. Maybe a bit like Frédérique Chopin. 

Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi was married ten times but it seems that, in most cases, a marriage had barely been formalized before he was moving on to an affair with a new lover. One marriage was to a woman who responded to a newspaper advertisement in which he’d sought companionship; she turned out to be not much better than a fortune-seeking prostitute. A later marriage was to an old friend whom he wed as a gesture of sympathy, in the deluded expectation that he might be able to protect her from the depredations of her greedy heirs.

Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi’s impetuous, impractical attitude to marriage gives the impression of someone who was simply not able to deal with emotion in an adult way. Something like a child running amok in a man’s body. Maybe his last wife summed it up best: “Ervin is a combination of one of the most sublime intellects and souls there is and one of the most petty and almost subintelligent....” Eventually, booze began to undermine whatever chance there might have been for his achieving some sort of stability. He angrily rejected anybody’s attempts to moderate his intake of alcohol. He said it had become his religion. When his concert career had died, he made a living cranking out piano music for movies, while living mostly in seedy hotels. Sometimes his hands would appear on a shot of the keyboard when a great star was supposed to be playing. He actually appears in at least one movie. But even that work was drying up when the Los Angeles promoter discovered him playing background music for a high society party in the mid 1940s.

That led to something of a re-birth of Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi’s career. For a while, he was all the rage. If that reminds you of the 1996 movie Shine, which told about the re-emergence of the pianist David Helfgott, author Kevin Bazzana says that Mr. Helfgott “was nothing more than a promising piano student when he was lost to mental illness.” But Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi, Mr. Bazzana insists, “really was a lost genius; his talent really was as great as his life and personality were strange.” New recordings were made. Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi travelled to Japan where there was a flurry of interest in him. Documentaries about him were made by both NBC and Canada’s CTV. 

But there were the inevitable quarrels with producers and promoters, even the ones who had painstakingly dedicated themselves to helping him. The quality of the recordings was debatable. On the thumbs-up side, there was the Boston Globe’s 1997 review of an Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi album, which spoke of “the unfailing splendor and beatuy of the sound, the legato, the dynamic range, the sense of grandeur and spaciousness that coexists with something that is abrupt and personal and granitic, and most of all the sense, now so rare, of total identification betwen performer and music.” Some said that Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi forced so much out of the piano that it made Vladimir Horowitz sound as if he were playing a toy instrument. Dean Elder in Clavier summed up the negative side of the argument: “The technique is incredibly slip-shod, the memory poor, the soft playing pulled out of musical flow, the loud ridiculously amateurish.”

Once that brief return to the limelight had fizzled, Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi returned to a life of poverty that mounted almost to squalor, as his health deteriorated. Author Kevin Bazzana, much praised for two earlier books on Glenn Gould, doles out the facts of Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi’s extraordinary life with scrupulous fairness and attention to detail. Almost too much detail. Up to a point, the incidents of this colourful life make for good reading. But nearly 400 pages, including notes and index, get to be too much. A reader begins to tire of Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi’s erratic personality, no matter how great his promise may have been. The collapse of his life is a sorry spectacle. 

In the end, you can’t help thinking that maybe Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi’s life was not the tragic tale of a “lost genius.” To frame his story that way may be a sign of the human penchant for melodrama. After all, it’s not entirely clear that Mr. Nyiregyhŕzi was a genius. He often said that, as a pianist, he was an amateur. If there was any sense in which he thought of himself as a genius, it was as a composer. But his compositions, it would appear, were simplistic, never rising much above the level of novelties of middling value. Certainly, it was his piano playing that the public valued more. And yes, his playing was amazing, in some ways. 

But perhaps we have to accept that he didn’t have the strength of character for a great career. The story of his life, then, might not be so much about lost genius as it is about the sad fate that can befall one very complex member of the human species. 

Books I Couldn't Finish

Some people might question the ethics of writing a review of a book that the reviewer didn't finish reading. But I think it's well within the purview of this website to talk about books that were problematic for me in that way, and to explain why. Think of these remarks, then, not so much as reviews, but as notes on some aspects of one reader's relationships with books.

The Winter Palace (Novel) by Eva Stachniak, 2012

This is another case where the point of my remarks is not to dismiss a book with a scathing critique. I didn’t read enough of the book to give it a fair review. My comments on it, then, are meant as an elaboration on the reasons why some books aren’t for me.

This one looked promising, though. It’s narrated by a woman who worked in the court of Catherine the Great. Knowing almost nothing about that era, I thought it was about time for a visit. But the book quickly began to look as though it was written in a style that wouldn’t appeal to me.

First reason: purple prose, or what might be called over-writing. Here’s the narrator talking about the skulduggery she’s witnessed:

I noticed reddened ears and flushed cheeks. Slips of paper dropped into a musician’s tube. Hands too eager to slide into a pocket. Too many hurried visits of a jeweler or a seamstress. I knew of leather skirts underneath fancy dresses that caught the dripping urine, of maids burying bloodied rags in the garden, of frantic gasps for air that could not frighten death away. 

Come on! The writer’s laying it on a bit thick, don’t you think? Besides, what’s with that dripping urine? What’s it supposed to indicate? And why would anybody think that the process of gasping for air might “frighten” death away?

Later we get: “Poisonous, hushed voices stalked me in the kitchen, the alcove, our garden with its flimsy fence.”

What does it matter whether or not the fence is flimsy? Again, you get the impression not so much that anything real is being reported but that the writer is trying to wind you up.

Maybe the over-enthusiastic narration could be tolerated, if it weren’t for the dialogue. It reaches extremes of banality.

When the narrator’s father has been asked whether he can restore a leather book much treasured by the royal personage, he takes it in his hands and examines it closely. At length, comes this: “‘Yes,’ he told Princess Elizabeth. ‘It can.’”

Here’s the wise dad instructing his daughter: “‘A museum is a temple of knowledge,’ my father told me, ‘a lit lamp that sends its rays into the darkness, the proof of the infinite variety of life.’”

Another of papa’s gems: “‘How can anything on this earth be unnatural, excluded from the laws of creation?’”

Before long, you’re learning that this guy is a font of cliché: “‘It’s nothing but fear,’ Papa kept telling me. ‘We have to be strong, Barbara. This will pass.’”

How about this heart-rendering line: “‘You have no one but me to look after you, my child. I cannot sleep in peace when I think I might die and leave you all alone,’ he whispered.”

But the dad isn’t the only one who suffers from the plague of the commonplace locution. Here’s the Empress herself when the dad has asked her to take his daughter into her household. “‘Very well, then,’ the Empress said to my father. I saw her folded fan touch his shoulder. ‘I’ll take good care of her. You have my promise.’”

Unfortunately, the author’s diligent research on the period and the characters will be lost on me. If these people don’t have anything better to say for themselves, I can’t spend any more time in their company. 

The Other Family (Novel) by Joanna Trollope, 2010

I hadn’t read any of Joanna Trollope’s other fourteen novels. If I’d heard anything about the work of this hugely successful writer, my impression was probably that her books were cozy chats about women’s affairs. But, since this one came very highly recommended by The Globe and Mail, it looked like it might be worth a try.

A middle-aged Brit who has been a very successful pop musician (composer, pianist, singer) has died, leaving behind the woman who was apparently his wife, and the three young women who are their daughters. But he had never officially married this woman, although they’d been living together in London for some twenty-five years. Nor had he divorced his first wife who was still living in the North of England. With her, he had a son who is now on the brink of forty. It comes as a shock to the deceased man’s younger family to find that, in his will, he has made some provisions expressing a certain loyalty to his official wife and their son. The workings out of the implications of this will form the basis of the novel.

The writing is clean, sleek and pleasant to read. For a while, it’s entertaining to follow the lives of these cultured people. But, not very far into my reading, it began to look like this was going to be a novel markedly below the quality of the ones I’m accustomed to. In fact, I’m grateful to this book for making me appreciate that the novels I usually read are very good.

So what’s wrong with this one? 

For one thing, there’s too much long-winded prose explaining things, rather than creating scenes in a way that makes them come off the page. For instance:

Bernie glared ahead of him. He usually had his personal assistant telephone restaurants for him, but he found he did not particularly want Moira to know that he was giving Margaret Rossiter dinner. Moira had been the late Mrs Harrison’s choice of assistant for Bernie – personable without being seductive, middle-aged and capable, with enough of her own family and life to prevent her from becoming needy – and she had been silently but eloquently intolerant of Bernie’s entertaining any woman alone since his wife’s death five years before. Admittedly, Bernie’s taste, in the immediate aftermath of Renée’s death, had run to the extremely obvious, but Margaret Rossiter was of the calibre of lady dinner companion that Moira considered to have the potential to be a real threat. Margaret Rossiter would be a catch, even for a man like Bernie.

It sounds like an author’s lying in a deck chair by the pool, swigging martinis and waving a cigarette in the air, while dictating to a tape recorder.

Which could be why the characters for the most part are shallow and the authorial insights about them are not interesting. Of the three daughters in the new family, only the youngest one emerges with any distinct personality.  On an impulse, she phones the stepbrother in the north of England. He’s just out of the shower and, when he hears her voice on the phone, he tucks his towel more firmly around his waist because it “didn’t feel quite decent, somehow, to be talking to Amy, wearing only a bath towel.” I’m like: Get a life, dude! Of course, what that means is that I’m asking the author to create characters who are not given to such trite responses. 

(And, by the way, how do you tuck a towel more tightly if one of your hands is holding the phone? In the old days you could squeeze the phone’s receiver between your jaw and your shoulder to free both hands. But one of these tiny cell phones? Or is the guy taking the call on a speaker phone? Just wondering.)

The most unbearable of the characters we’re given is the deceased man’s second wife. At his funeral, she has nothing but hostile glares for the first wife and son. She cannot refer to the man’s first family in any way other than spitefully as “those people.” When she hears about her youngest daughter’s phone call to the stepbrother, she goes ballistic about such betrayal and disloyalty. I’m willing to grant that such odious people do exist but, if an author’s going to write about them, the author has to find some way to make them worth reading about. Not cardboard cutouts like these people

A friend of the second wife would be even harder to bear except that she’s a minor character. Still, she meddles in the family’s affairs in such an obnoxious way that her short scenes are almost unreadable. The first wife is a somewhat more tolerable character, except for the fact that she remonstrates with her cat in a cutesy way. As for her son, apart from the shtick with the bath towel, his only major flaw is that, for no discernible reason, he seems aimless and unable to commit to relationships.

All this adds up to a sense of the novel as nothing much more than gossipy soap opera. Being able to stand it only up to page 146, I skimmed the rest, nearly 200 pages, to see if there was any redeeming feature. Not as far as I could tell. 

Specimen Days (Novel) by Michael Cunningham, 2005

A more recent novel by Michael Cunningham wasn’t available at the library, so I decided to try this one, his first after the wildly successful The Hours. Maybe my reaction to the movie based on that book should have served as a warning. To my taste, there wasn’t anything to like about the movie other than Meryl Streep’s acting. Nicole Kidman’s Virginia Woolf was ludicrously coarse and un-British. I couldn’t see what was bothering the neurotic Julianne Moore character. The whole thing struck me as a woolly attempt to make us sympathetic to a bunch of inchoate problems that didn't translate well to the screen. 

Specimen Days opens in a much grubbier world: working class, industrial New York in the late 19th century. In this, the first of the book's three sections, we learn that a young man has been killed in an accident in an iron works. His younger brother, about fourteen, is hired to take on the deceased brother’s job. It’s a gruelling, rigorous process but the boy has quite another side to his life: a relationship with the beautiful young woman who had been engaged to his older brother. The sweet friendship between her and the surviving brother has a somewhat secretive, conspiratorial quality.  

So far so good. The trouble – for me – is that fantastic elements start creeping in. The boy seems to be disabled or disfigured in some way. It’s not clear how, exactly, but people tend to stare at him as though he’s some sort of goblin. Then there’s his speech. Sometimes he responds to people’s queries in a reasonable way. A lot of the time, though, he spouts poetic lines that sound like he’s channelling Walt Whitman. 

I read up to page 62 but it was becoming all too apparent to me that this was one of those books that relies, not so much on representing reality as we know it and experience it, but on an author’s fanciful imaginings. Indeed, I find that the section ends with this: 

He saw the woman cross the sky. He saw above her, above the smoke and the sky, a glittering horse made of stars. He saw Catherine’s face, pained and inspired. She spoke his name. He knew that his heart had stopped. He wanted to say, I am large, I contain multitudes. I am in the grass under your feet. He made as if to speak but did not speak. In the sky, the great celestial horse turned its enormous head. An unspeakable beauty announced itself.

Unquestionably, it’s what many people would call very beautiful writing. And it is, in its own terms. On reading the fly leaf (something I seldom do before reading a book) I find that the two other sections of the book are every bit as dreamy. Definitely not the book for me.  

No One Is Here Except All of Us (Novel) by Ramona Ausubel, 2012

Ramona Ausubel first came to my attention with a New Yorker short story. It was a very contemporary, very realistic piece about a young woman’s chippy relationship with her mother. To me, it captured perfectly the alienation among certain disaffected people nowadays, and their scorn for the seemingly fatuous attitudes of their elders – but not without a hint of human warmth and the possibility of rapprochement. (See comments on the story on DD page dated July 28/11)

So I was eagerly looking forward to this, Ms. Ausubel’s first novel. But it turned out to be not at all the sort of thing I was expected.

It’s set in a small Jewish village in Romania, towards the end of the Second World War. The villagers are barely aware of the war, though. There’s an explosion somewhere nearby and a strange woman washes up on the shore of the river. This woman seems to function as a kind of oracle. Amazing things begin to happen. At the suggestion of a young girl, the villagers decide that they will start everything over again. Life will begin anew. That means that people will be free to pair up with new partners, if they so choose. And so it goes....

It soon became clear that I was going to have much the same trouble with this book as with Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days, noted above. We’re in a world that’s more about the author’s imaginings than about reality. Which is not to say that the author’s thoughts don’t have some valuable applications to the life we know. It’s just that the un-real aspects of the material don’t appeal to me. Again, the writing is beautiful; there’s almost an incantatory quality to it and it seems to be steeped in folklore. Looking towards the ending, I could see that it was going to develop into a saga about one young woman’s very difficult journey towards a new life. I’m guessing that her story would be very touching for readers who could follow her all the way.  

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