Thursday, January 13, 2011

My books: November 2010

Okay … I know. November 2010 – this is already long ago. I could have just skipped this posting, because I did not have the time and energy to prepare it earlier. I just think that it would have been too much of a pity, because the books I read in November were great and I really want to share my thoughts.

So let’s go – better late than never:

Philip Roth – "The Humbling"
You know that for the last couple of months I am on a journey zickzacking through the classics of modern American literature - a journey which is far away from being anywhere close to the end. This month’s stop was Philip Roth.

Reading myself through his voluminous bibliography I picked 2009th novel "The Humbling" because the short description made me curious – a good choice.

"The Humbling" is a short novel of only 140 quick-to-read paperback pages and tells the story of Simon Axler – a successful New York stage actor in his 60s -, who loses his ability to act and drifts into a major life crisis, which is shortly lifted, when love stops by one last time in a quite extraordinary way.
I loved the story because the message - the way I understood it - is very strong and very universal:

Simon Axler is not losing his ability to act because he cannot memorize the words or cannot stand a long play on stage physically anymore. He is unable to act, because he lost the most essential thing for an actor:

The power of imagination

His whole professional life he had no problem to pick up an imaginary tea pot, pour carefully the imaginary hot tea in an imaginary mug and enjoy it imaginary sip by imaginary sip. But suddenly he cannot make the voice of his ratio shut up anymore and it keeps yelling at him "THERE IS NO TEA!"

It may be more obvious for an actor that this loss is life threatening, but I have the strong opinion that it is the same for all of us. The moment we cannot make the ratio shut up anymore, the moment we lose ability to dream, the moment we cannot sense anymore that there is so much more than the so called reality we are practically dead.
This is not really a new perception (at least for me), but I can barely remember that somebody made it as clear as Philip Roth did in "The Humbling".

Although the book is short there is more to explore like Axler’s short love story with the practically lesbian 40something daughter of friends, who stops by for a visit and stays as a temporary lover, or the powerful story-within-the-story about a young mother Axler meets in the clinic, where he gets treatment for his depressions. 

And finally – I loved the end of the story. I am absolutely not a fan of the regular happy endings and so this one is perfect for me. At one hand it is the most tragic one, but on the other hand it is also the happiest ending possible.
Aleksandar  Hemon – "Nowhere Man"


You already know that I love Hemon’s writing; that I adore the way he works with the English language; that I admire the magic in his choice of words and still wonder how his way of writing found this very direct way to my soul. But that story I already told a couple of times before – so let’s focus directly on the book.

The title is exactly what you might guess first – a reference to the Beatles song – and at the same time the perfect two-word-description of the book’s main character Jozef Pronek.

We already met Pronek in one of the short stories in "The Question of Bruno", when he arrived from the besieged Sarajevo in Chicago and tried to restart his life.
It would be easy to say a typical phrase like "and with a whole novel dedicated to this character we learn much more about Jozef Pronek", but I am not so sure if we really do.

Let me explain: The novel recalls different parts of Pronek’s life from his childhood years and his student life in Sarajevo, the time he spent in the Ukraine to explore the roots of his family up to Chicago, where he is struggling to settle down and built a new life.

But Aleksandar Hemon makes it not easy to catch his main character, because his stories are told from different perspectives - from the point of view of another Bosnian in the USA who recognizes his childhood neighbor in an English class in Chicago or from the perspective of an American student, who shares a room with him in the Ukraine.

The diverse outside views on the person plus the very different stages of life plus the very different locations and cultural and political situations impacting his life make it hard to get a clear picture of Pronek.

That leads to the very complex question of identity. Who are we? Of course everybody we know sees us with his own eyes – there are no two people who would know the "same person". But does that mean, that we are just the person we ourselves see in us and the others just know something like fake version or at least fractional versions? Or is our identity a compilation of both - the inside and outside view - (which I tend to believe)?

Very distracting … let’s go back to the book.

I marked some scenes in the book I liked – all for very different reasons:

- "The dining car is a generous description of a few tables adorned with tablecloths that looked like a canvas of the local Jackson Pollockovich." - AWESOME, I just had to laugh out loud about this funny american-jugo art reference.

- The American narrator in the part of the story that takes place in the Ukraine has the habit to take a nap, when he finds himself in a serious crisis. Of course the others around him think he is strange, but I am happy to find evidence, that I am not alone with it. When I am really in trouble – anyway if I caused the trouble myself or if I am blown away by the deep hits of life – I get really tired and want to sleep. It’s like the body shuts down and when the situations allows it, I really sleep. That looks weird to outsiders - just like you are super cool and you don’t let yourself get worked up. But believe me – it’s the opposite.

- There is a whole chapter about how Pronek is hired by a private investigator because of his language skills to deliver some unpleasant post to an undefined fellow countryman (in the end the guy is a Serb).
The whole situation turns out to be tough and dangerous for Pronek and although it takes place thousands of miles away from Sarajevo I barely read another story which told the whole drama in so few words so precisely. Go and check it out.

- Do not miss the final 7th chapter called "Nowhere Man" like the book. It surprisingly offers a whole new perspective and story.

Tragically enough I am now done with all books by Aleksandar Hemon and left alone with the still burning sadness about the cancelled reading together with Marica Bodrožić (accompanied of course by my best well wishes for Aleksandar Hemon and his family) and waiting for some new works of him hopefully released sometimes later in 2011.

But there is remedy around the corner: I will soon get my hands on Jonathan Safran Foer’s "Tree of Codes" (not yet released in Germany). I can’t wait and you’ll of course hear about it right here at "SLOPING IN THE SKY".

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