Tuesday, May 02, 2017


Arabia Felix is an extraordinary story of endurance on an 18th Century Danish expedition to the Yemen, known in antiquity as “Arabia Felix”.  I noticed recently that New York Review Books was reprinting this book, and was reminded that I had the 1964 Harper and Row edition on my shelf.  I knew nothing of this work, but NYRB has a good record of reissuing excellent older titles, so I thought it would be worth a look.  I’m glad I did, because from the beginning I was pulled into a masterfully told narrative of exploration, rivalry, hardship and adventure.  Hansen tells the story so remarkably that I hesitate to reveal too much, other than to say that he breathes real life into the six men who set out to undertake the expedition under the aegis of the King of Denmark for the purpose of describing the manuscripts, monuments, and natural history of far southern Arabia.  The idea was that in this land, fabled in antiquity for its riches, an uncorrupted way of life harkening back to biblical times persisted, and that the discovery of those treasures would bring glory to the Danish kingdom and important scientific and historical knowledge to Europe.

The undertaking turned into a six year endeavor, the challenges of which most members of the expedition rose to heroically.  The success of the endeavor turned doubtful when one of the members, the thoroughly unlikable von Haven, purchases packages of arsenic in an Istanbul apothecary shop.  This creates a tension that underlies the expedition for quite some time, until the charms of their destination (which would soon enough turn sour) envelope them.  This country, which contains both scorching desert and idyllic mountain palaces, holds within it a sickness that will overtake the expedition and imperil its success.

Thorkild Hansen obviously did painstaking research for this book, and the genuine feeling of compassion and humanity that runs through it reveals that it must have been a labor of love.  If you enjoy a captivating tale of true adventure, I hope you’ll take a chance on this one.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Hunger by Knut Hamsun


Not an obscure book at all, a consideration of Hunger within its late 19th century context makes clear why it is considered an early modern classic, echoing through the literature of the century that followed.  Knut Hamsun’s novel stands in sharp contrast to much that had come before: it is a plotless narrative of a destitute writer’s mental state as he pits his personal vision against the harsh realities of the outer world.  Hunger and poverty weigh heavily upon him.  We don’t know exactly how he arrived at this state, although there are enough hints dropped for us to know that it hasn’t been a perpetual situation. 

We meet the author (clearly Hamsun’s surrogate) in the midst of his troubles, but at least with a roof over his head.  He is on the street soon enough, but holds optimism that a turn of fortune is at hand.  He does have a tendency, if not a determination, to subvert himself – no sooner does he come into a pittance than he impulsively gives it away, or rejects offered assistance through a misplaced pride.  He is prone to bouts of self-aggrandizement, alternating with periods of hopeless despair.  He further swings between touching sentimentality and fierce rancor.  In the streets of 21st century America, he would simply be counted among the homeless mentally ill, but the narrative is sustained by his internal dialog, and clearly there is a degree of intelligence and self-awareness being portrayed.

In narrative terms, the arc of the story is a rather shallow one, and one can’t imagine too many realistic scenarios (short of violence or death) by which Hamsun could bring the tale to an end, but there is enough of a narrative to pull the reader forward.  It’s considered that this story is largely autobiographical, with incidents from the author’s own years of desperation.  Aside from some unsavory opinions and associations during the years of Nazi occupation of Norway, I know little of Hamsun’s life and work.  I suppose Hunger serves as a proper introduction, and I’d be curious to investigate the perspectives of his other writings.

Monday, April 03, 2017

The Ice Trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin


The Ice Trilogy (Bro/Ice/23,000), published by New York Review Books in 2011, is by turns intriguing and exhausting.  The overarching story, of pure celestial essences, the 23,000 creators of the physical universe, who have become trapped in their own material creation is, of course, gnostic in its essence (as was Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth), but the massive (694 pages) length of the combined trilogy and the numbing repetition of essential actions – which, I suppose, are illustrative of life itself – serve to dull both the mind and soul.

It is a conspiracy novel par excellence, as the liberated essences search out and awaken their companions, entrapped within impermanent human shells, by means of bone-crushing blows to the sternum with heavy ice hammers. The origin of this curious practice goes back to a scientific expedition to Siberia  to investigate the site of the Tunguska event. Alexander Snegirev, born June 30, 1908, the son of a wealthy Russian sugar producer whose family had been scattered and destroyed by the Revolution (the early pages, told as a first person narrative, carry the dim echo of Nabokov’s Speak, Memory) signs up for the expedition at the urging of a girl he meets at university.  A lost, drifting sort of youth, Alexander becomes mysteriously invigorated as he approaches the site.  He discovers - or rather is led to - a huge mass of ice embedded in the swampy permafrost, and undergoes a radical change when he slams his naked chest into the ice and his true essence surfaces.  As unremitting as any biological impulse, the ice “speaks” to him, awakening his heart (in the words of the novel), and his humanity falls away.  The narrative grows more alien and single-minded, as the human race becomes more and more inconsequential to the young man, now known by his true (and unfortunate) name of “Bro”.  He sets fire to the expedition encampment before he sets out, still naked, across the tundra.  He eventually finds, out on the desolate steppe, a girl who will share his mission.  After Bro liberates her, she is known as “Fer” and together they embark on a widening scheme of seeking out, by psychic means, and building a secret society of liberated beings. As the society grows, human beings come to be known to them simply as meat machines, to be despised for their gross and perishable natures, hidden from, and manipulated towards the higher end. 
The Brotherhood, in a course of history intertwined with that of 20th century Russia, grows in numbers, harvests their brethren (under cover of the Holocaust, at one point), and establish a shady multinational corporation - again mirroring Tevis - by means of which they manufacture and deploy the ice hammers, which must be assembled and used under strictly proscribed procedures.  The symbol of the hammer in relation to Soviet Russia cannot be mistaken. 
As the Second World War transitions to the Stalinist twilight, the Kruschev era, and gradually on to post-Glasnost Russia, the Brotherhood becomes less discriminating in their methods:  blond and blue-eyed humans, the apparently preferred host for the celestial entities, are abducted and battered with the ice hammers in the hopes of liberating a few more of the 23,000.  The narrative begins to focus more on the stories of individual humans, with an emphasis on the seedy and criminal, as they become awakened to their higher selves.  The trappings of the Brotherhood become more cultish, with expensive surroundings, evoking on one hand the higher echelons of Scientology and on the other the sordidness of the Jonestown massacre.  There is also a growing group of former victims, seeming paranoiacs who swap stories and piece together a picture of a vast conspiracy.
As the final ascension, by necessity, must involve each and every one of the 23,000, there is a frenzy of activity as the magic number is approached.  There are secret Chinese slave labor facilities manufacturing the hammers from the original Tunguska ice, emphasizing the divide between the Brotherhood, their accomplices, and the downtrodden workers.  One moves towards the end of the book wondering if the great event will even take place, or if the comforts of power and wealth, even in the material realm, will be too much of a temptation, but the organization appears to remain steadfast in its determination to gain escape velocity and leave the shackles of Earth, their most deficient creation, behind. 
In the end, there are perplexities remaining.  One of the necessary consequences of the ascension appears not to have occurred, casting doubt on the reality and effectiveness of the enterprise as a whole.  I’d have to say the finale, while unexpected, is a bit of a letdown after such a long and challenging read.  It’s up to the individual reader to determine if it was worth the effort.


Thursday, March 30, 2017

Auto da Fe by Elias Canetti

I first read this novel – Canetti’s sole work of extended fiction – close to thirty years ago. I put it down perhaps ¾ of the way into it, turning away, I imagine because of the unremitting bleakness.  The outward plot concerns a reclusive and meticulous scholar, completely absorbed in his studies of the philosophies of the Orient who, in a spontaneous act of gratitude, marries his scheming and overbearing housekeeper, who proceeds to make his life (with a degree of collusion on his part) a living hell.

 The scholar, Peter Kien, escapes his apartment after a particularly bad episode of violence, which allows the story to move on to present a cast of largely grotesque characters, each entrenched in their own psychotic realities.  Each, in his or her own way, sees other human beings as objects to exploit or ignore, as the situation demands.  The emaciated, ascetic Sinologist Kien is a “living skeleton”, becoming more haggard as the tale moves on.  Therese, his housekeeper, is physically intimidating and abusive towards him.  She finds, for a time, in Kien’s absence an ally in Benedikt Pfaff, the caretaker of Kien’s modest apartment building.  He is a red-haired ape of a brute, an ex-policeman who has already abused his wife and daughter to death, and who obsessively spies on all who pass or enter the building.  He relies on a monthly stipend that Kien had established some time before in gratitude for chasing off unwanted visitors (Kien’s acts of gratitude tend to come back to haunt him).  Next, there is the hunchback dwarf (it’s German literature after all) Fischerle, a miserable creature who encounters Kien after he wanders into a low-life dive.  Kien has, unbeknown to his new wife, who is tearing the apartment apart looking for his bank book, cashed out his remaining funds and is ill-advisedly carrying it around in a thick wad in his breast pocket, a fact which does not escape Fischerle, who, having the wiles of a chess player rather than the strength of an out-and-out thug, immediately schemes to defraud Kien of his rapidly dwindling inheritance so that he may emigrate to America and fulfill his delusion of becoming the world chess grandmaster.  A generous cast largely composed of other misfits and freaks round out the personae dramatis.

Turned out of his library, Kien is a wispy shell of a man, catatonic and easily manipulated as the reality of a world outside his library edges him closer towards madness.  Bleak as the novel is, in the grotesque Germanic tradition that gave us Georg Letham, Steppenwolf, Professor Unrat, and the novels of Paul Leppin, amongst other dark masterpieces, it is underscored with a cruelly comic quality that I most likely missed on my first reading, and which might have propelled me towards finishing it on the first go-round had I been a bit more receptive to it.  Kien’s descent is never in doubt, the only question being when, and by what violent means he will hit bottom.  There exists, however, another character, a potential savior armed with psychological insight who just might salvage - if not redeem- Kien’s existence.  One must, however, read the novel to assess the success of that venture.

My old Penguin Modern Classics edition (published 1965) uses C.V. Wedgwood’s 1946 translation, as does my 1984 Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition.  Among his other works, I would highly recommend his 1960 study, Crowds and Power.