Thursday, June 23, 2011
Pure, Andrew Miller’s sixth novel, takes place in 1785, in Paris, as Normandy engineer Jean-Baptiste Baratte is summoned to the Palace of Versailles. There, Baratte, who is a graduate of the Ecole Royale des Ponts et Chaussées, is commissioned by the State to demolish the ancient cemetery beneath the church of “Les Innocents” in central Paris, and dispose of the thousands of bodies buried there.
The cemetery is far too close to the famous markets of Les Halles. The many bodies, whose fat refuses to decompose “properly” and saturates the ground instead, are causing the entire area to smell horribly. Even the food is being affected. “Les Innocents” – both the church and the cemetery – are now closed after human remains broke through a wall into the cellar of a neighboring tenement. Baratte will oversee the year long moving of the graves and charnel pits as well as the transportation of the remains to a quarry outside of Paris, an act that is supposed to “cleanse” or “purify” the church and the surrounding land.
Baratte, of course, can’t do all of this alone, so he calls on a friend, Lecoeur, who brings a group of sturdy and stoic Belgian miners to help get the job done. As the project gets underway, Baratte is both sickened and humiliated, but he’s accepted an advance from the State, and he’s also a forward looking man of reason, not of emotion or superstition. He tells himself he is only sweeping away the “poisonous influence of the past” and that he and his team will be “the men who will purify Paris!”
Although Baratte tries to console himself with thoughts of the good he’s doing, his task seems destined to failure from the very beginning, a failure that’s symbolized in the part of France that Baratte calls home. Baratte and Lecoeur have invented what they consider to be an ideal society and have named it Valenciana, derived not from Valencia, Spain, but from Valenciennes, France, the terrible, and terribly dirty, coal mining town in Normandy from which Baratte and Lecoeur both hail.
One would think the Parisian residents in the immediate vicinity of “Les Innocents” would welcome the purification Baratte and his miners are undertaking, however, surprisingly, some of them oppose it, among them the family – the Monnards – with whom Baratte lodges. Ziguette, the unmarried daughter of the house, is so incensed that she attacks Baratte in the middle of the night with a hammer.
Ziguette isn’t the only local with whom Baratte forms a difficult relationship during his year of digging and purification. Besides the somber Monnards and their beautiful but strange daughter, and Lecoeur, of course, there’s Jeanne, the sexton’s fourteen-year-old granddaughter, a sensitive and gentle girl who’s lived her entire life to date among the dead. By helping Baratte identify the graves, Jeanne tells him she is forced “to assist in the destruction of her little paradise.” There’s the mad priest of “Les Innocents,” Père Colbert, the stylish organist, Armand, who takes Baratte in hand and shows him how to dress in the latest fashion. And of course there’s Dr. Guillotin, the levelheaded and very humane man who becomes a part of the demolition and purification for research purposes only, and whose name will forever be linked to a terrible invention used in the coming revolution.
Héloise, however, is the person Baratte grows closest to. She’s the “hooker with a heart of gold,” who manages to retain an air of mystery and who isn’t at all stereotypical despite the way I described her.
All of the above characters and more bring Baratte’s story to life, and all of them are needed by Miller. In this story, everyone has a necessary part to play that can’t be played by anyone else.
Pure is a book filled with action. There’s murder, suicide (and you’ll never guess which character), madness, fire, and sex with a mummified corpse. And why not? Digging up the graves of children who’ve died of plague or young women preserved by embalming day after weary day is enough to drive even the strongest man witless. And the book is, of course, deeply political, though if you don’t like politics, you probably won’t even notice because Pure is, first and foremost, a wonderful, and wonderfully told, story. Still, how could Pure not be political? This is a book that centers on a repressive past that’s making way for the enlightenment of the future. Like most things consigned to the past, however, “Les Innocents” doesn’t give way easily or without a fight. Change is, more often than not, a very painful process.
The mood of Pure is, of course, bleak. And despite all the action in the book, the story often feels ponderous and claustrophobic, but ponderous and claustrophobic in a very good way. The characters may be vivid and colorful, but the atmosphere of Pure is heavy with anticipation and dread. At times, it’s downright creepy. I could see the fog off the Seine shrouding the graves of “Les Innocents” and hear the rain dripping down through the leaves on the stones. We know that a dark cloud is hanging over France, and Miller has succeeded is conveying this dark cloud in his novel. With every page the reader turns, he or she feels that something terrible, something really horrible, is waiting just around the corner.
The writing is flawless, and for me, it was vintage Andrew Miller, reminiscent of his glorious debut novel, Ingenious Pain, also set in the eighteenth century, an age Miller seems especially adept at calling forth in all it’s filth and forward thinking. In Pure, for example, as Baratte waits in the anteroom in Versailles, a small dog fouls the floor, causing Baratte to ponder “the way even a dog's piss is subject to unalterable physical laws.” While Pure is filled with the stench of the Paris streets, threaded through the book is an air of modernity. There are nods to both Voltaire and the importance of public health.
Miller’s descriptive powers have never been better. He writes of eyes as “two black nails hammered into a skull,” and coffins opened “like oysters” and my favorite, “the liquorice shimmer of a human eye.”
This is prose that shimmers and soars. It’s a book one could read for the prose alone, but Miller is far too good a writer not to unsettle us as well. In Pure, he gives us much to think about while we’re marveling at his way with words, thoughts that will linger long after we’ve read the book’s final page.
As Baratte tackles the technical difficulties of his commission, he begins to wonder how to live his own life with purity, and how best to achieve the happiness he so desires. Fittingly, it’s a dog that shows him the way, just as it’s a dog that introduces him to the filth of Paris near the book’s beginning.
I thought this book was flawless. Miller is such an extraordinary writer that I expected much from him, but not this much. Pure is one of those books you only come across three or four times in a lifetime. It’s vivid, it’s elegant, it’s earthy, it’s depressing, it’s vibrant. I can’t say enough good things about the book or Miller, himself. For me, Pure is definitely a work of art (and the cover, a retelling of Goya’s etching titled “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters” is both gorgeous and perfect). The only other book I’ve read as brilliant as Pure is Hilary Mantel’s glorious Wolf Hall.
Miller’s novel Oxygen was shortlisted for the Booker in 2001. I expect Pure to at least be shortlisted. If there’s any fairness in life, it should capture the win.
If you’re looking for a highly literary novel that’s as perfect as a book can be, you can’t go wrong with Pure. And if you haven’t yet read Miller’s debut novel, Ingenious Pain, now’s the time to do so. Both books are brilliance distilled in its purest form, guaranteed to please even the most discriminating of readers.
Recommended: Definitely, and especially for those who enjoy highly literary novels. This is a beautiful book that’s beautifully written. I can’t praise it highly enough.
Saturday, June 18, 2011
I’m more than a little late in reading Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a book that “Le Figaro” described as “the publishing phenomenon of the decade.” Though the book might have been the “publishing phenomenon of the decade” in France, where it sold more than one million copies and won numerous awards, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it the “publishing phenomenon of the decade” in the US. Nor were the comparisons to Proust on target. This is a good book, a very good book, and it’s a book that sometimes concerns itself with the elongation of time, but it’s definitely not Proust. No one writing today is Proust. I just want to make that perfectly clear.
The story, almost all of which is set inside an upscale Paris apartment building, is told in alternating chapters belonging to Renée Michel, the fifty-four-year-old bunion ridden concierge of the above mentioned apartment building, who is secretly passionate about literature and philosophy, and twelve-year-old Paloma Josse, the precocious daughter of a bourgeois family, who has decided to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. Renée reads Tolstoy and Husserl in her spare time, and Paloma is determined to burn the apartment building down prior to her death. Renée and Paloma rarely speak to each other, and unbeknownst to them, the two share many things in common, among them a love of Japan, art, beauty, and philosophy.
Renée, it should be pointed out, has reasons for remaining a closet intellectual. The inhabitants of 7 Rue de Grenelle include a celebrated restaurant critic, high government officials, and several members of the old nobility. For these haughty residents, Renée Michel only exists if and when they want or need something from her. As incomprehensible as it might seem, actual scandal would ensue should these inhabitants discover their dowdy concierge enjoyed such “high falutin’” things as Mahler and Japanese cinema. And Renée prefers it that way. She has no desire to be the object of everyone’s curiosity and ridicule. “To be poor, ugly and, moreover, intelligent,” says Renée, “condemns one, in our society, to a dark and disillusioned life, a condition one ought to adopt at an early age.” And even if the above weren’t true, Renée needs to maintain her low status in order to keep her job, a job she sorely needs.
While Renée’s chapters consist of standard literary narrative, Paloma’s take the form of “Profound Thoughts,” written in haiku and crammed into a looseleaf notebook. Paloma writes wonderfully of beauty. The beauty of movement, such as a petal falling from a rose, is something that fascinates her (though it’s still not, by any stretch of the imagination, Proust), and she intends for these collected “Profound Thoughts” to be her legacy to the world after she is gone:
The main thing isn’t about dying or how old you are when you die, it’s what you are doing the moment you die. In Taniguchi the heroes die while climbing Mount Everest. Since I haven’t the slightest chance of taking a stab at K2 or the Grandes Jorasses before June sixteenth, my own personal Everest will be an intellectual endeavor. I have set my goal to have the greatest number possible of profound thoughts, and to write them down in this notebook: even if nothing has any meaning, the mind, at least, can give it a shot, don’t you think?
While Paloma’s “Profound Thoughts” may very well be profound, especially for a girl of almost thirteen, the language is reminiscent of a young teenager. Renée’s, however, are written in more formal language:
When of a sudden Old Japan intervenes: from one of the apartments wafts a melody, clearly, joyfully distinct. Someone is playing a classical piece on the piano. Ah, sweet, impromptu moment, lifting the veil of melancholy…In a split second of eternity, everything is changed, transfigured. A few bars of music, rising from an unfamiliar piece, a touch of perfection in the flow of human dealings – I lean my head slowly to one side, reflect on the camellia on the moss of the temple, reflect on a cup of tea, while outside the wind is rustling the foliage, the forward rush of life is crystallized in a brilliant jewel of a moment that knows neither projects nor future, human destiny is rescued from the pale succession of days, glows with the light at last and, surpassing time, warms my tranquil heart.
The reader knows, of course, that something is going to upset the apple cart, change the status quo. In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the apple cart is upset when one of the celebrated residents of the apartment building dies, and a mysterious and cultured Japanese man, Kakura Ozu, moves in. Kakura Ozu is a quiet man, but this doesn’t stop him from befriending both Paloma and Renée, and the balance of the book will revolve around these three characters.
With Monsieur Ozu, Paloma comes to the conclusion that Renée’s outward appearance belies an inner elegance, the “elegance of the hedgehog”:
Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary – and terribly elegant.
There’s not a lot of action in this book, and it’s very “talky.” Some might even call it didactic, especially those who don’t like the novel. It’s a character study of Renée, Paloma, and Monsieur Ozu as Barbery explores her favorite themes – the application of philosophy to everyday life, and the skewering of class-consciousness. And skewer they do. Paloma can’t stand her life of wealth and privilege; she despises her older sister, Colombe, as well as her politician father and her plant obsessed, Flaubert quoting mother. For her part, Renée knows people like Paloma’s parents never see much beyond their own creature comforts, and she pities them for it.
There’s no doubt that the beginning of the book is slow. Much of the early pages of the novel are dedicated to the day-to-day routine of life in 7 Rue de Grenelle, as seen through the eyes of Renée or Paloma. The short, alternating chapters can get a bit wearisome with so much philosophizing going on, and Renée and Paloma mirror each other so perfectly that the contrivance of the book begins to lose its charm. That’s why I was happy when Monsieur Ozu made his entrance. He’s the one who really kicks this book into high gear.
Kakura Ozu sees something in both Renée and Paloma that both have failed to see, in themselves or in each other. (Really, as good as both Renée and Paloma are at analyzing everything around them, neither is good at self-analysis.) Paloma, Monsieru Ozu knows, though she talks like an adult, is still a child. Even her vow to kill herself is filled with childish melodrama, though most readers will find this sort of childishness more charming than anything else. Renée finds that it’s impossible to wear a mask of intellectualism under the penetrating gaze of Monsieur Ozu. For perhaps the first time in her life, Renée’s caught off-guard, she loses her balance – just a little. Maybe she really does need more than books and music and the cinema. Maybe she needs more than beauty. Maybe she needs other people. Little-by-little, Renée’s inner longings are made clear, and as they are, we learn, for all her love of Mozart and Mahler and Tolstoy and the Japanese cinema, this lovely woman is certainly no snob. If one wants to be a storyteller, a superb storyteller, Renée tells us, one need look no further than “The Hunt for Red October”:
One wonders why universities persist in teaching narrative principles on the basis of Propp, Greimas or other such punishing curricula, instead of investing in a projection room. Premise, plot, protagonists, adventures, quest, heroes and other stimulants: all you need is Sean Connery in the uniform of a Russian submarine officer and a few well-placed aircraft carriers.
Though most of the story belongs to Renée, Paloma, too, has her moments to shine, though for me, some of those moments rang as false as a foghorn on a clear, sunny day. The worst occurred when Madame Josse takes her daughter, who she’s convinced is being “too secretive,” to an icy Parisian therapist. Paloma, not one to be maneuvered into a situation not of her making decides she’s capable of “taking on” the therapist on her own:
Listen carefully, Mr. Permafrost Psychologist, you and I are going to strike a little bargain. You're going to leave me alone and in exchange I won't wreck your little trade in human suffering by spreading nasty rumors about you among the Parisian political and business elite. And believe me – at least if you say you can tell just how intelligent I am – I am fully capable of doing this.
That was so bad, I actually found it embarrassing. It was painful to read and painful to write in this review. It didn’t work. Thankfully, the therapist is the only person Paloma attempts to best with her childish threats.
All in all, despite the intellectual monologues and treatises on obscure subjects, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a very sentimental book, so reminiscent of the film, “Amélie of Montmartre,” though lacking that film’s originality. This sentimentality, though, is made bearable by the genuine sweetness of the characters. Renée really is genuine and sincere; Paloma, underneath her high IQ, really is an innocent child; and Monsieur Ozu really is the most charming of men and possessed of the most generous of spirits.
Thankfully, Barbery eschewed sentimentality when writing her ending, and The Elegance of the Hedgehog is definitely not a “feel good” novel. In fact, by the time you reach this book’s dénouement, you’re more likely to have tears in your eyes than a smile on your face.
No, I didn’t think the book was perfect. Not by any means. It has its faults. But I liked it very much. I really enjoyed reading it. I loved spending time with its characters. I won’t soon forget Renée, Paloma, and Monsieur Ozu. Renée, especially, won a place in my heart. She’s exactly the type of person I love getting to know.
Recommended: Yes, if you can stand the book’s early interior monologues and like Renée’s formal language. And the book is sentimental, despite the intellectualism of its characters, however the loveliness of the characters offsets most of the saccharine sweetness. It’s not a perfect book, but it is one that’s rewarding to read.
Note to Muriel Barbery: Where is Isaiah Berlin’s essay on Tolstoy titled “The Hedgehog and the Fox?” With Renée’s love of the great Russian Realist, I thought this was one reference you wouldn’t miss.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
The tale herein is all my mama's endeavor.
So says Thomas Kinsman, a Jamaican publisher, who learned his trade in Britain after his mother abandoned him, newborn, on the doorstep of a Baptist missionary. Thomas intends to publish his mother’s book – a memoir – very nicely bound, complete with sugar cane on the cover. However, he and his mother, an octogenarian Jamaican woman named July, who was once a slave on the Amity Plantation, definitely do not see eye-to-eye. Thomas tells us in his Introduction, “Although shy of the task at first, after several months she soon became quite puffed up, emboldened to the point where my advice often fell on to ears that remained deaf to it.” For her part, July says she will not waste her time or her readers’ time with descriptions of trees and grass, and that her memoir – The Long Song – will not keep company with books filled with the “puff and twaddle of some white lady’s mind.”
Slavery is a subject that has inspired the writing of some truly extraordinary books, including two of my all time favorites – Toni Morrison’s magnificent Beloved and Edward P. Jones’ elegant The Known World, both winners of the Pulitzer Prize. The predominating mood of both those books is tragic and melancholic. So I was skeptical when I learned Andrea Levy’s fifth book, The Long Song, was set against the backdrop of Jamaican slavery. After all, Andrea Levy is known for her comedic look at life, and slavery is something so serious that taking a comedic look at it would be akin to blasphemy. However, I didn’t have to read many pages of this life-affirming novel before I knew I need not have worried. And The Long Song really isn’t a “book about slavery.” It’s a book about July.
The Long Song is set in the Jamaica of the 1831 slave rebellion known as the Baptist War and revolves around the then ebullient July. July was born the daughter of an elegant looking slave named Kitty and the plantation’s white overseer, Tam Dewar, a Scotsman, who was more interested in enjoying his strawberry preserves than in his daughter’s birth.
July, as she tells us, was a pretty child, possessing that “whiff of English white,” and it isn’t long before she caught the eye of the plantation owner’s sister, Caroline Mortimer, who renamed July “Marguerite” and takes her into the “big house” to be trained as a lady’s maid. Every day, July hoped and prayed her mother will come to visit her, and every night, Kitty peered through the windows of the big house, hoping to catch a glimpse of her daughter. Each one never realized that the other is looking for her.
One would think Caroline Mortimer would be a very unsympathetic character, but Levy succeeds in making her just the opposite. Caroline arrived in Jamaica a young, childless widow and one who was definitely not enamored by the harsh household of Amity. When her sister-in-law, the wife of plantation owner, John Howarth, dies in childbirth, Caroline, as John’s sister, becomes the new mistress of Amity. In fact, it’s Caroline who is at the center of, perhaps, the book’s best and most memorable set piece, one that revolves around a lavish Christmas dinner.
Seeking to rouse her brother from the depression that engulfs him after the death of his wife and child, Caroline, with the help of her servants/slaves, and of course, July/Marguerite, who by this time is a young woman, seeks to make the Christmas feast one of unmatched beauty and style. Incongruously, the whole thing falls apart initially because of the price of candles. “It is not that things be expensive,” the diplomatic slave Godfrey tells Caroline, “it is just that you cannot afford them.” Godfrey then proceeds to cover the table, not with the fine linen tablecloths Caroline hoped for, but with an old bed sheet, instead. As things turn out, no one minds the bed sheet. People have more important things to think about when Christmas dinner is interrupted by the first volleys of the Baptist War, and the men leave to fight, while the woman are left cowering amid their finery.
The Long Song, however, is no historical drama, and though Levy has certainly done extensive research on the rebellion, our narrator, July, is more concerned with life at Amity than with politics. During the Christmas feast, July cares little for the rebellion raging outside and is more concerned with sneaking forbidden liquor to the butler’s boy and trading stories about their respective mistresses with the snobbish “quadroon” maid, Clara, over from a neighboring plantation.
We do learn enough about the horrors of the uprising to understand when John Howarth subsequently takes leave of his senses, and July does allow herself to describe the symbolic funeral that marks the end of Jamaican slavery on July 31, 1838. However, our unreliable narrator goes on to inform us that she wasn’t actually present at this symbolic funeral. She was still closeted in Amity with Caroline, the plantation’s new owner, and the story July really wishes to tell is a more personal one – her own.
Though July’s pleased at being emancipated, she’s also upset that she’s been “assigned” a value of only thirty-one pounds, the same value as the “useless, one-eyed” cook who “could kill you with her custard.” It’s not right, July tells us.
After the uprising, it’s July who becomes the intermediary between Robert Goodwin, Caroline’s new husband, and the freed slaves, who want to work, but want to work on their terms, not Robert’s. July’s relationship with both Robert and Caroline forms this novel’s center.
A good looking clergyman’s son who smells of wood smoke, Robert Goodwin has dreams of an agrarian utopia in which the freed slaves can work their own farms and still earn a living working Amity’s fields. It sounds perfect, and maybe it’s too perfect because it never comes to pass. The problem with Robert Goodwin is that his personality, which is quite self-serving, doesn’t allow him to incorporate his lofty ideals into reality, and most of the freed slaves of Amity end up “between a rock and a hard place” in the most literal of ways.
Although Caroline adores her new husband, her new husband only has eyes for July, and it comes as no surprise when July, never one to deny herself something she’d really like to have, refuses to deny herself Robert.
More than once, when working with Thomas, July declares her story told. She wants to concentrate on the good things and avoid remembering the bad. Thomas, however, has other ideas and lets his mother know she needs to tell more. “But reader,” says July, “if your storyteller were to tell of life with July through those times, you would hear no sweet melody but a forbidding discord. You would turn your head away. You would cry lies! You would pass over those pages and beg me lead you to better days.” Thomas, though, exhorts July to make an accurate record of her life, not just a pleasant one.
The Long Song is a cleverly constructed book, and it’s beautifully written. July’s narrative switches between the third person past and the first person present, and there’s a wonderful mix of the Jamaican patois and the more formal English spoken in the Victorian period.
July’s tendency to remember only the good times and her delightful fallibility as a narrator are, for the most part, charming and irresistible, but in some ways, it’s July, herself, who hinders the telling of this tale. Levy can and does stop the action when she wants to insert Thomas’ exhortations of seriousness to July. Most of the time this works very well, though at times, it seems rather strained, and the contrivance of the book becomes all too clear. It’s also something of a problem to see everything through July’s eyes, especially the other characters. We wonder how much the irrepressible July is telling us, and how much she’s not. We wonder if she’s giving some characters credit she shouldn’t be giving and selling others short.
As I said near the beginning of this review, there’s little here of Toni Morrison or Edward P. Jones, and that’s exactly how it should be, at least in this story. Levy’s comedy, which made me skeptical at first since the book’s backdrop is very serious subject matter, works quite well in the telling of July’s story for July is a protagonist possessed of much joie de vivre. In the end, we care greatly about these characters. We lose ourselves in their vivid story, a story that’s as vivid and bold as the Jamaican landscape. In the end, I found The Long Song to be both powerful and playful, and that’s a very rare - and welcome - combination in any book.
Recommended: Definitely, unless the reader finds a light, comedic tone too much of a turn-off is a book whose backdrop is slavery in Jamaica. Remember, though, this isn’t a book about slavery; it’s a book about July.
Monday, June 13, 2011
I’ve been summoned. Thursday, ten sharp.
So begins Herta Mueller’s novel of one woman’s life in Romania under the reign of Nicolae Ceauşescu, and we soon learn that this is not the first time our unnamed narrator has been summoned to the office of a man known only as Major Albu for the purpose of interrogation. This isn’t the first time, but for some reason, our narrator believes this interrogation will be worse than any of the interrogations that have gone before.
And what is our narrator’s crime? Sewing notes into the lining of ten white linen suits bound for Italy. “Marry me,” the notes say, along with the narrator’s name and address. To her supervisor, Nelu, these notes are the same thing as prostitution while on the job, and our narrator is “turned over” to Major Albu. Then notes proclaiming “Best Wishes from the Dictatorship” are found in the lining of suits bound for Sweden, and then more notes in suits bound for yet a third country, and our narrator is fired from her job, though she tells us she didn’t write the second and third batch. But that, of course, is irrelevant to Major Albu.
The entire novel – my paperback copy was 214 pages – takes place during the unnamed narrator’s tram ride to her appointment. The tram ride from the seventh floor apartment she shares with her second husband, the alcoholic Paul, until she misses her stop and gets off on the wrong street; a tram ride that takes about ninety minutes and for which she’s risen particularly early.
The tram ride to her appointment with Major Albu seems to trigger thoughts of just about everything in our narrator, expressed as a jumbled interior monologue, and the reader is privy to what seems to be her entire life. She remembers her father’s indiscretions with a person Mueller calls “the woman with the braid” and how our narrator wished to take that woman’s place; she remembers her good friend, Lilli, who was shot and killed while trying to escape across the border to Hungary with her lover, a sixty-six year old military officer; she remembers her own indiscretions with Nelu, the garment factory supervisor with whom she had a brief affair, then rebuffed, leading him to betray her; she remembers how she met her current husband, Paul, at a flea market where she sold the wedding ring her first husband had given her; she remembers her first husband, who betrayed her grandparents; she remembers her former father-in-law, a man she refers to as “the Perfumed Commissar,” who dispatched her grandparents to a forced labor camp while sitting astride the same white horse he rode when he confiscated the property of others.
You’ve probably guessed by now, but this is a book without a hero, a novel without a plot. That was fine with me. I love Ulysses. And as I was reading, I remembered that I loved another book with an antihero that took place entirely on a tram/train – Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow to the End of the Line. It’s also reminiscent of Kafka’s The Castle and The Trial in that it tells the story of someone who is summoned repeatedly for interrogations. The above books, however, are much better books than The Appointment.
Rather than plot, this book’s narrative consists of a jumbled, fragmented, and elliptical narrative. While it reads smoothly enough, and it’s not at all difficult to keep track of the many jumps into the past and returns to the present, eventually, one begins to wonder if any of it is worth the trouble. The narrator isn’t a sympathetic character at all. It’s very difficult to empathize or sympathize with her, and not because she was living in Romania. The character of Lilli, I thought, who had quite a bit of spunk, would have made a much better protagonist than the numb-to-life narrator, but I feel Mueller used several autobiographical elements in building her unnamed narrator and really wouldn’t have written her any other way.
Another problem for me revolved around the interrogations that took place in Central Europe. Though I certainly don’t mean to diminish them and know they were frightening for those who had to endure them, they just aren’t the stuff that makes us want to sit up at night turning pages. We’re too used to more brutal interrogation tactics and more brutal consequences. The serious Western reader is familiar with the works of Solzhenitsyn and has read about Stalin’s Soviet Union at its very cruelest. With all due respect, what Mueller portrays in The Appointment can’t begin to compare.
Worse yet, there are no real scenes and set pieces in The Appointment. For me, this made it a dry book to read, one I plodded through and didn’t enjoy at all. At one point, regarding her life in Romania, the unnamed narrator says, “Instead of these thoughts we're constantly mulling over, it would be better to have the actual things inside your head, so you could reach in and touch them.” I would have to answer, “Yes, infinitely better.” This goes for novels, too. The reader can only take so much “telling” as opposed to “showing” before he or she grows weary enough to cast the book – and the author – aside. Being privy to the narrator’s thoughts is one thing; reading a 200 plus interior monologue is quite another. There’s some reward for the first, while the second is rarely, if ever, rewarded.
The Nobel Committee got it right when they described Mueller’s work as having “no epic line, no plot with beginning and end.” However, they were praising her books. I can’t.
At times, it seems as though the narrator is so worn down, she’s given up. She says:
Whenever I hear the elevator descending to fetch Albu’s henchmen, I can hear his voice quietly in my head: Tuesday at ten sharp, Saturday at ten sharp, Thursday at ten sharp. How often, after closing the door, have I said to Paul: I’m not going there anymore. Paul would hold me in his arms and say: If you don’t go, they’ll come and fetch you, and then they’ll have you for good.
I suppose that could be the point of the whole book – that life under Ceauşescu was so taxing that many people simply gave up. I can believe that. I can and do have much sympathy for those who had to live under that grueling regime. However, “giving up” doesn’t make for good literature. And I suppose Mueller chose not to name her narrator as a way of identifying her as an “Everyman” in Romania, but for me, the practice of not naming a main character is just annoying and amounts to misplaced conceit.
In some ways, though, the narrator, far from giving up, has herself become a mini Major Albu. She’s very forceful when it comes to her attempts to get Paul to stop drinking even though she admits to herself and to the reader that those attempts are more than likely to come to naught. She complains that “drinkers never admit anything, not even silently to themselves – and they're not about to let anyone else squeeze it out of them, especially somebody who's waiting to hear the admission.'’ Still, she tries.
For me, sexual gratification played far too large a role in this novel. Just about everyone in the book seems to indulge in affairs with anyone and everyone they encounter. Pointless affairs that revolve around neither love nor lust. I thought, for the most part, these characters were far too worn down to indulge in affairs, which ultimately compounded their problems while bringing no relief from the boredom and drudgery that made up their days. The sex struck a very false note to me. I felt like it was inserted arbitrarily.
The Appointment is a book in translation (it was originally written in German; I read it in English), and even allowing for that translation, some of the author’s word choices are strange, to say the least. For example, at one point, the narrator likens the effect the interrogations have on her to “the way the roof of your mouth rises up and glues itself onto your brain.” For me, at least, that was just odd, and it lacked power because it was so bizarre.
Although Paul has been fired from the engine plaint where he worked (he was making contraband TV antennas that would pick up stations in Bucharest and Budapest), our narrator still thinks about the showers he took at the plant and the way the other workers would steal his clothes. Thinking of this, and comparing it to her appointments with Albu, the narrator says, “It's humiliating, there's no other word for it, when your whole body feels like it's barefoot. But what if there aren't any words at all, what if even the best word isn't enough.”
For me, “…your whole body feels like it’s barefoot” is also bizarre. Does Mueller mean she feels ashamed, as though she’s without clothes in public? If so, I think she would have been better off to simply write that rather than compare the feeling to an entire body feeling as though it’s barefoot.
And then there are the run-on sentences: “A breeze was rustling in the ash trees, I listened to the leaves, perhaps Paul was listening to the water.” Or “The giant blue mailbox is in front of the post office, how many letters can it take.” And why did the author dispense with question marks at the end of questions? I have to put this down to conceit, like the nameless narrator, because dispensing with question marks at the end of a question is not standard practice in German.
There were times, however, when I found the description in this novel to be lovely. One of those times occurs when the narrator is describing her widowed mother’s lack of affect:
When she dried herself she became like the towel, when she cleared the dishes she became like the table, and she became like the chair when she sat down.
I still prefer “showing” to “telling” but if one has to “tell” then telling like the above is both graceful and effective.
The prevailing mood of The Appointment is one of tremendous ennui. The narrator is far too worn down to feel any hate, bitterness, or antipathy. She’s reached a stage where resistance is no longer possible. I’ve heard some people say The Appointment is too bleak and hopeless for American readers. I disagree. While many Americans do love their happy endings, readers of highly literary novels love bleakness. They embrace it. I liked the subject matter around which the novel revolved. I just didn’t like that way the author wrote about it.
In the end, I think the book can be summed up in this short paragraph, one of the best paragraphs in the entire novel:
Each shoreline was marked by wooden crosses set in the rocks, bearing the dates on which people had drowned. Cemeteries underwater and crosses all around – portents of dangerous times to come. As if all those round lakes were hungry and needed their yearly ration of meat delivered on the dates inscribed. Here no one dived for the dead: the water would snuff out life in an instant, chilling you to the bone in a matter of seconds.
In The Appointment, the energy it took to monitor one’s thoughts, words, and actions 24/7 was enough to “snuff out life in an instant,” and I think, at times, the narrator, herself, would have preferred being chilled to the bone in one of those watery graves.
Recommended: No. The book is too pointless and burdensome to read. The interior monologue is exhausting. The reader is left with no lasting image, no reward for having read. However, this is the impression the book left on me; I know people who loved it, so always keep the subjective component of literature in mind.
Note: Herta Mueller was both in 1953 in a German-speaking village in Romania. In 1987, two years before the Ceauşescu regime was overthrown, she immigrated to Germany. She writes almost exclusively about life in Romania under Ceauşescu. Herta Mueller won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009. She lives in Berlin and writes in German.