The Brothers Carburi, by Petri Harbouri

Three Brothers

Giovanni Battista Carburi (1722-1804)

Marino Carburi (1729-1782)

Marco Carburi (1731-1808)

The Brothers Carburi  (Bloomsbury, 311 pages) tells the story of three brothers who lived in the eighteenth century. Born in the Greek Ionian Islands, which were at the time in possession of the Republic of Venice, “none of the brothers thought of himself as Greek.” The language they most speak and think in is Italian, although many other languages come into play: Greek, Latin, French, and even a smattering of Russian. Oddly enough, in this, a novel written in English, none of the brothers is conversant in that language. Continue reading

A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro, A Pale View of Hills, first published in 1982, Vintage paperback, 1990, 183 pp.

Sometimes I think I’m not a very attentive reader. I didn’t really catch on to the narrative trick of this, Ishiguro’s first published novel, until near the end. Going back for a second reading—all really good fiction deserves, and sometimes demands a second reading—I found all sorts of clues that I missed the first time through. More on the trick later.

I did not discover Ishiguro until recently; the fact that the won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017 makes you stand up and take notice, but plenty of nobelist-writers seem somehow undeserving, while the very best writers are often passed over. Not so Ishiguro; he’s deserving. Continue reading

The Master of Petersburg, by J.M. Coetzee

J.M. Coetzee, The Master of Petersburg (Penguin Books, 1995, 250 pp.). First published in Great Britain in 1994.

Abbreviations used in this article: FM (Fyodor Mikhailovich [Dostoevsky], AG (Anna Grigorievna [Snitkina-Dostoevskaya], his wife), AS (Anna Sergeyevna, character in Coetzee’s novel), Master (The Master of Petersburg)

Note: Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born in 1821; the year 2021 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth. Continue reading

Austerlitz, by W.G. Sebald, trans by Anthea Bell

Doppelgängers

In the early pages of the W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, (Modern Library—Random House, 298 pages), in the year 1967, the narrator visits the Antwerp Nocturama. There he comes upon a woebegone raccoon who “sat beside a little stream with a serious expression on its face, washing the same piece of apple over and over again, as if it hoped that all this washing, which went far beyond any reasonable thoroughness, would help it to escape the unreal world in which it had arrived, so to speak, through no fault of its own.” Continue reading

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by George Saunders

George Saunders, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, Random House paperback edition, 2016, 198 pp. Originally published in 1996.

Two Instances of Prevarication

On a Writer’s Acknowledgements Page

“I often marvel at the persona engendered by the influence of the form. The writer presents himself as one surrounded, cushioned, buoyed up by wonderful friends. He is, he says, ‘blessed,’ ‘in luck,’ ‘serene’ even in his obligations. Not a word on the acknowledgements page about grievances, or about offenses received and inflicted. Who would suspect a curmudgeon behind such handsome avowals? But perhaps this is what they are good for. By their virtue, ill-humor, rancor, resentments are temporarily purged, and the author is given a glimpse of the person he might have become, had he formed the habit of privately closing each day with such notations as are called for by the publishing of acknowledgements.”  Leo Steinberg Continue reading

Libra, by Don DeLillo

WHO ARE YOU?

In an interview that she gave some fifty years after the fact, Marina Oswald Porter is still puzzling over the whole business. What happened, how and why, and by whom was it made to happen? She isn’t sure she knows even the least thing about the man she married in the USSR and lived with, bore two children with. The interviewer asked her what question she would ask Lee, were he to return somehow miraculously from the dead. She said, “I’d ask him, Who are you?”

Scads of books have been published since November 22, 1963, all trying to answer questions that arose on that date. In fact, interlarded with the story of Lee Oswald and the assassination of President Kennedy in Libra  (NAL/Penguin, 1989, 456 pages) is the tale of a researcher, Nicholas Branch. This fictional character is a retired senior analyst of the CIA, “hired on contract to write the secret history of the assassination.” We first meet him on page 15, and already he is overwhelmed by facts, fictions and factions. “Sometimes he looks around him, horrified by the weight of it all, the career of paper. He sits in the data-spew of hundreds of lives. There’s no end in sight.” Continue reading

Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

Freud’s repressed realm of bitter little embryos, spying from their natural nooks, upon the love life of their parents. Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory

There’s the epigraph to my article, and maybe the spark that later ignited in Ian McEwan’s brain; here’s the epigraph (from Hamlet) to Nutshell: “Oh, God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.”

A Teller of the Tale, Who Is Striving To Be

Ian McEwan specializes in great beginnings and great endings to his fictions. Who has ever written a better bravura opening then this one to Nutshell, Random House, 2016, 197 pp: “So here I am, upside down in a woman. Arms patiently crossed, waiting, waiting and wondering who I’m in, what I’m in for. My eyes close nostalgically when I remember how I once drifted in my translucent body bag, floated dreamily in the bubble of my thoughts through my private ocean in slow-motion somersaults, colliding gently against the transparent bounds of my confinement, the confiding membrane that vibrated with, even as muffled, the voices of conspirators in a vile enterprise. That was in my careless youth. Now, fully inverted, not an inch of space to myself, knees crammed against my belly, my thoughts as well as my head are fully engaged. I’ve no choice, my ear is pressed all day and night against the bloody walls. I listen, make mental notes, and I’m troubled. I’m hearing pillow talk of deadly intent and I’m terrified by what awaits me, by what might draw me in.”

Okay, so we have a fetus narrating the story, and this is a fully conscious and articulate fetus, one, furthermore, who has vast knowledge of the world out there before he—if he is a ‘he’—is even in it. His many observations on the twenty-first century realm awaiting his entry are astute, perspicacious, worthy of his creator—who, obviously, has lent his narrator his own perspicacity, education, wit, vocabulary. The fetus is unnamed. For purposes of this review we can call him FN (fetus narrator). FN is very close to full term, about to be born, almost a babe in arms. His parents, father, mother, stepfather (uncle) have apparently given no consideration to what “it” (they call him “it”) will be called. Continue reading

Enduring Love, by Ian McEwan

THE BRAVURA BEGINNING

The beginning of this novel (Random House, 262 pages), pervaded, as one reviewer writes, with “dazzling cinematic bravura,” is worth citing at some length. The protagonist Joe Rose, a science writer, and his wife Clarissa Mellon—a university professor who has just returned to London from the U.S., where she was doing research on the poet John Keats—are about to have a picnic.

“This was the moment, this was the pinprick on the time map: I was stretching out my hand [for the bottle of wine], and as the cool neck and the black foil touched my palm, we heard a man’s shout. We turned to look across the field and saw the danger. Next thing, I was running toward it. The transformation was absolute: I don’t recall dropping the corkscrew, or getting to my feet, or making a decision, or hearing the caution Clarissa called after me. What idiocy, to be racing into this story and its labyrinths, sprinting away from our happiness among the fresh spring grasses by the oak. There was the shout again, and a child’s cry, enfeebled by the wind that roared in the tall trees along the hedgerows. I ran faster. And there, suddenly, from different points around the field, four other men were converging on the scene, running like me. Continue reading

Night, by Edna O’Brien

IN HONOR OF THE 89TH BIRTHDAY OF EDNA O’BRIEN, DECEMBER 15, 2019

THE CULTURE OF THE ABDOMEN

In her memoir, Country Girl, Edna O’Brien mentions a favorite book of her bilious husband, who was obsessed with poisons in the atmosphere and in food: The Culture of the Abdomen, by F.A. Hornibrook. Here is the sample passage she quotes: “One cannot live over a cesspit in good health. How much more difficult to remain well if we carry our cesspit about inside us . . . . Food is taken several times daily, often too frequently and too freely and of unsuitable quality; but, as a rule, one occasion only is permitted for the ejection of its waste materials. And remember that all the time this lagging tenant of the bowel is retained the conditions favoring evil are at work; heat, moisture, nitrogenous refuse, darkness and micro-organisms. The slow poison factory is in full swing, and its output is turned into the highways and byways of the body.” Continue reading

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

IN SURREAL VIETNAM, AND BACK HOME IN THE UNREALITY OF THE U.S.A.

The title story of The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction (Houghton-Mifflin, 246 pages, from the Series: Looking Back at Literary Classics of the Past) comes first in the collection, a story cataloging all the different things that an American foot soldier, or “grunt,” carried during the Vietnam War. This includes not only entrenching tools, Claymore antipersonnel mines, assault rifles, the M-60 machine gun and grenade launchers, but also pictures of girlfriends, an illustrated New Testament (Kiowa, a native American and devout Baptist), tranquilizers (Ted Lavender, “who was scared, until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe”), the medic Rat Kiley (“a canvas satchel filled with morphine and plasma and malaria tablets and surgical tape and comic books”). The grunts also carry lice, ringworm, and other hazards of the humid climate, along with dreams for the future and fear of death or embarrassment. Continue reading