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Books November 2005

Paul Auster: Oracle Night (E)

And yet another Auster, sorry for that. This is the master's latest novel and I was slightly disappointed. It is far less polished than The Book of Illusions. I have come to expect a lot from PA, so perhaps this is the reason. It's by no means a bad book but I found it to have two principal flaws: he starts important narrative threads without taking the trouble to finish them (poor Nick). And a lot of the story is way too predictable. And I also found the first half of the book to be much more coherent than the second.

The story deals with a man in his thirties (a writer, of course) who, after surviving an unspecified illness, tries to find back into his old way of life. But this proves to be more difficult than expected: too many things and people have changed (the writer included). And he discovers that not everything in his life is as he thought it was.

John Banville: The Untouchable (E)

The novel deals with the life and times of Victor Maskell, a double agent, who, almost at the end of his life, was finally uncovered and now looks back on his “career”. He is an Irishman and an art historian (funny idea, that) who worked within the British Secret Service before and during WW II and at the same time also for the Soviets. Maskell's voice and account are very believable; as a narrator he succeeds on many fronts: his contempt for the people he worked with and for (on both sides); his world-weariness; his stoic outlook and rather simple philosophy; by contrast his high-brow ideas about art and culture (or, as he would write, Art and Culture); his frankness about his sexuality (he is homo-sexual, but for a good part of his life he didn't even know it). He can be a bit tedious at times; some of his tales ramble on and on, just that bit too much. But there are many small pastiches of the years between 1930 and 1960, almost all well executed and nicely integrated into his narrative.

Piers Morgan: The Insider (E)

Morgan became editor of the News of the World (a British Sunday tabloid) with 28; shortly afterwards he was made editor of the Daily Mirror, a daily tabloid, where he stayed until 2004. This book reports about the time he spent in these two posts. It is indiscreet, funny and a surprisingly good read. I learned lots of things about the Blairs and many other players, some of which I wish I hadn't learned. I find some old prejudices of mine completely confirmed and others completely blown to bits and pieces. Perhaps the most amazing and edifying (no, I am not at all being ironic) part of the book is the way how Morgan succeeds in sharing the excitement, the challenge, the sheer thrill the job of editor of a national daily brings. While I (still) would not normally read any of the papers he edited, I can now see that the process of getting them out, of selling the stuff to the public, day after day, requires much more creativity and cleverness and zeal than I thought. Tabloids may be dumb, but that does not imply that the editors of tabloids are dumb.

Philip Roth: Portnoy's Complaint (E)

A famous book which until now I had ignored, partly because it was written over 35 years ago and partly because I somehow thought it was just a frivolous, comic book about the sexual problems of a Jewish boy. Well, it is of course exactly that… but only on the surface. We learn — on the very first page! — that Portnoy's Complaint is “a disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature…” On the face of it, the text seems to bear that out. But I grow suspicious when an author showers his readers with hints writ so large. I think Portnoy's real complaint has nothing whatsoever to do with sex, or with being Jewish or even with having an overbearing mother and a constipated father. I know exactly what his (and I would assume, by extension, also Roth's) complaint is, but it is not easy to put it in words. Perhaps that is exactly the reason why Roth has chosen to put his complaint into such an infamous and yet tender collection of observations about the life and times of his hero: the intelligent animal's way of coming to grips (well, trying to…) with being intelligent and an animal at the same time. As an aside, the writing itself (as well as some of the more involved scenes:-)) reminded me of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.

Katie Price: Being Jordan (E)

Someone told me that if I liked Piers Morgan's book (see further down), I might also enjoy Jordan's autobiography. (If you're not British: Katie Price aka Jordan is a glamour model, meaning that she is often photographed with relatively few clothes on her.) I had, before I ran into her book, never even heard of Jordan, the model (my British friends will probably not believe that, but it's true). Anyway, the book is over large parts boringly predictable (yet another boyfriend who yet again turns jealous over her job or her success or whatever and so destroys the relationship — I wonder why, after a few times, Price doesn't see that the pattern may have less to do with her choice of boyfriend and more with her way of dealing with them and with men in general). However, there are also nuggets. Some of her tall tales about the many people she met are definitely interesting; she is also quite candid about her job, what's good and what's not so good about it. Ultimately, though, the book is too flat to be a really worthwhile read. A good editor might have been able to extract some more thoughts from Price, some background about the whys and wherefores (eg her reaction after being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer); a good editor might also have cut the whole story by a third and given it more tempo.

John Banville: Athena (E)

A difficult, thought-provoking book. First the pyrotechnics: Banville certainly knows how to write. And he is one of the few authors who have me still reaching for a dictionary, at times even the OED, because the words he emplyos can be pretty… abstruse. And I admit with all that armoury he does produce sentences, sometimes cadences, that are not far away from painting with words. But like all people who love their technique sometimes he simply overdoes the effect. The book itself deals with a middle-aged man who has lost a woman he was deeply, madly in love with. Formally, the text is a long letter written to her (A., like Athena) in which he recapitulates what has happened to him, to them during the last few months. The narrative is mostly linear but with so many holes and allusions that it sometimes turns the whole thing into a sort of puzzle (I learned only later that this book is the third of a loosely connected trilogy). It is clear that the hero will never be whole again, even if he knows that life goes on and he will go with it. The enigmatic melancholy is sometimes punctuated by strange comic interludes: his “Aunt” Corky, the Da… which sit not always easily with the rest of the book.

$updated from: Books November 2005.htxt Sat 18 Jan 2014 13:14:22 thomasl (By Thomas Lauer)$