I listened to “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen, beautifully read by Francois Chau, and found it intense, gripping, bitterly funny, heartbreaking and brutal. The character, who I believe is never named, but often called Captain for his rank in the secret police of South Vietnam, is nuanced, flawed, complex and conflicted; his fatal flaw being the ability to see both sides of a question. As a spy for the Viet Cong, embedded within the ranks of South Vietnamese army and recruited into the military police, he has to interrogate captives from the North with whom he sympathizes and is secretly working; he also has to report to his superiors on the movements of the South Vietnamese with whom he lives and works. This duality is present in his origins as the son of a Vietnamese maid and a French priest who never outwardly acknowledged him. The book begins and ends in southeast Asia, with the hero on the last plane out of Saigon and at the end, preparing to embark on a perilous journey as one of the ‘boat people’ to escape the oppressive regime of the conquerors. The long, middle portion is a fantastic tale like something out of Dostoeyvsky as the Captain continues in his dual role, spying on the South Vietnamese refugees living in California and plotting their return. His convoluted, even horrifying, maneuverings to avoid arousing suspicion in the General and Madame, his wife, while wooing their wayward daughter; the incredible interlude where he advises a movie director and is present at the making of a movie about the Vietnamese war, almost getting killed in the process; and his disastrous return to Vietnam, make for a suspenseful read (or listen). Best of all is the lush prose sprinkled with double entendres and near puns, that make for a fresh, distinctive style, sometimes airy and delightful, at others clinical and disturbing. The last part of the book is less humorous, more brutal (extremely difficult at times) and even a little tedious (as being a prisoner in a concentration camp probably is in reality), and the resolution of the plot threads is slightly less than plausible, but these are quibbles. The plotting is mostly superb, the characters are realistic and the situation is compelling to say the least.
I read Crime & Punishment without effort some years ago, but I had a lot of trouble getting back to this book after starting it in 2013. Thanks to Audible.com, I spent 36 of my commuting hours listening to the whole thing, and enjoyed it immensely (the Constance Garnet version, read by Frederick Davidson, who did an excellent job with most of the voices). The first thing I noticed was the digressive style, as the narrator would often pause in what seemed to be the main thread of the novel and divert our attention to some other incident or person that we needed to know about and fill us in with all the relevant details. It all came together in the end and this style of writing resulted in a broad study of Russian characters and of the changing times. The Karamazovs (Father and sons) seemed to illustrate certain Russian ‘types,’ and Smerdiakov (also one of the brothers, it seems) was a brilliant study of the resentful peasant on the rise. The account of the trial where the lawyers for both the prosecution and defense built up their edifices of conjecture was handled masterfully, although I had a growing sense of dread as to the outcome. The reader knows the truth, but facts seem irrelevant as each person believes what they want to believe.
So, it’s been a couple of years.
Sometimes, it seems that everything has been said, everything written, but then you realize that it doesn’t matter. If writing matters to you, then writing matters. I woke up so early this morning and realized that blogging was missing in my life, and that social media can’t replace what I get from blogging – a chance to ponder deeply about something, without caring if anyone else reads it. Of course, I could just journal, but the fact of writing something public, however unnoticed, adds a certain frisson to the process, a certain feeling of risk, even excitement, that takes the writing up a level, or so I hope.
A few or maybe 10 years ago, I was trying to get myself into grad school for English and met with admissions people at a University. When I mentioned that I blogged, I noticed right away their disdain. Blogging didn’t count, not being informed by research or deep thinking, I guess. I can understand that. It is a long time since I wrote lengthy, well-researched papers and maybe blogging seems amateurish and self-indulgent, but then again, it matters to me and gives me a sense of peace in my heart. That is worth something.
I was trying to remember a certain quote about writing, and thought it was by Gertrude Stein, so spent an enjoyable 20 minutes reading clever quotes by Stein; finally, a new google search led me to the correct author of the quote, Gloria Steinem (pretty close, right?) and it is a quote that rings true for me: “Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.” (Well, I have to add cooking and exercising as the other only things, but often they just seem like calming activities between attempts at writing.)
and now, let’s hear from Gertrude: “An audience is always warming, but it must never be necessary to your work.”
I was recently thinking about Turgenev. Why, you ask? It started with a great story, The District Doctor, sent out by Short Story Thursdays some time last summer. I think I’ve only read one work by Turgenev, “A Month in the Country,” which I liked a lot. There is something about the Russian summers in literature, something like redemption. In any case, the moderator/dictator/passionate advocate for reading who runs SST, mentioned “The Torrents of Spring” as a great novel by Turgenev. I added that to my must-read list and questioned why I hadn’t thought to look into other works by this Russian Great – SST’s favorite Russian by the way. To get to the point, I finally got around to reading this and it is a great novella with a very natural tone and wonderful characters. The surprising twist it takes in the middle which sets everyone on a different path than what was expected is quite thought-provoking, especially as you get older and start evaluating choices and consequences and roads not taken and the like…
Sarah Vowell, author of, among others, Assasination Vacation and The Partly-Cloudy Patriot, both funny and thought-provoking looks at history and politics, once said, “I think about the Civil War every day.” I often think about her thinking about the Civil War when I contemplate my own fascination with the subject, and what better time to have such thoughts than during the sesquicentennial years of those epic events (the most recent being the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” originally delivered on November 19, 1863).
I think my favorite book about the Civil War(along with McPherson’s epic “Battle Cry of Freedom”) has to be “Confederates in the Attic,” by Tony Horwitz. The intrepid author explores the new South in search of the old – and his findings are instructive, amusing, at times horrifying, but always engaging. He marches with Civil War re-enactors, bushwhacks through snake-infested undergrowth in search of forgotten monuments, dares small-town biker bars to interview locals, and attends Sons of Confederate Veteran’s meetings, along with traipsing through battlefields from Manassas to the Wilderness. It is a great read.
Currently, I am listening to an excellent Teaching Company Course entitled “The American Civil War,” taught by Professor Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia. I admit, I thought I had very little of substance (there is always more detail to absorb) to learn on the topic, but very quickly learned otherwise. The approach takes one from the intensely battle-focused approach of McPherson to a more comprehensive overview of the context of the war. Despite this, I was still surprised to find a mere 30 minutes devoted to Gettysburg, but Gallagher makes the point that, at the time, Gettysburg was not perceived with anything like the importance we assign to it today. Still, I have an urge to re-read The Killer Angels (another favorite Civil war book).
I still remember the first George Saunders story I read, “Sea View.” I still remember how strange, how surprising and disorienting, I found his writing style. It was as if something brand new had come into the world, maybe the way Keats felt “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,”
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken
In a now familiar set-up, the reader is drawn into a dystopian, slightly surreal (sometimes more than slightly) world of ordinary people who struggle to get through a day where the deck is stacked against them, often at the mercy of petty bureaucrats or corporate tyrants, just trying to hang onto pointless, humiliating jobs, often in what seem to be a cross between amusement parks and reality TV shows. Now, I’ve read most, if not all, of his stories (frequently in The New Yorker and most recently reread them in The Tenth of December. I enjoyed revisiting some of these, the brilliant and poignant Puppy, the moving, redemptive title story and some others. They have very different writing styles, but I rank George Saunders right up there with Alice Munro for his mastery of the form and for his generous view of humanity: while describing evil actions, no-win situations, sad losers, he can bring you to another level where your perspective is not the only one, where you can glimpse more than what your circumstances dictate. As Jennifer Egan wrote, his work is “emotionally piercing.” As Kafka said, “Art should be an axe to the frozen sea within.” Saunders does that.
The Writer’s Almanac recently featured some biographical details about Harold Pinter. Of particular interest was Pinter’s memory of the opening night, in 1967, of The Homecoming as “one of the greatest theatrical nights of his life.” The audience hated the play, but as Pinter said, the actors “hated the audience back even more….By the end of the evening, the audience was defeated…There’s no question that the play won on that occasion.”
Given our experience with this play, I can vouch for the hatred we felt; however, I have since reconsidered, as in this post from 2006: