Back to Moscow by Guillermo Erades

Posted January 25, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

Back to Moscow by Guillermo EradesTitle: Back to Moscow (Goodreads)
Author: Guillermo Erades
Published: Scribner, 2016
Pages: 371
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Library Book

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Martin has just arrived in Moscow, on the advice of an old girlfriend (she thought it would be easier to score a scholarship from a Russian university). He plans to finish his studies and write a thesis on the Russian heroine, exploring the difference between Russian literature and the western world. However, it is the early 2000s and Moscow is changing rapidly, and the appeal of nightclubs, woman and cheap alcohol is distracting him from his study. Guillermo Erades’ debut novel Back to Moscow is a booze soaked exploration of an aspiring writer in a new setting.

Do not get me wrong, I love those novels that are set in New York that follow to wannabe writers that are often difficult men. I cannot get enough of those types of stories but this is so much better, for starters this is about Russian literature. Back to Moscow thrilled me from start to finish because of the setting and the exploration into Russian classics that appeared at the start of every part.

I am normally am hesitant in picking up a book set in Russia by a western author, but I seem to have decent luck with Spanish authors. Granted I have only read Encyclopedia of a Life in Russia by Jose Manuel Prieto and now Back to Moscow but both have impressed me greatly. Maybe my hesitancy should be directed towards American authors rather than the entire western society. I find the lack of knowledge of Russia often reflects poorly on the author.

With Back to Moscow, the whole novel was structured around understanding Russia and its literature and this is a quest that I am personally on as well, so my gushing review is inevitable. I also enjoy reading about terrible people and Martin fits into that category but I never thought of him as an anti-hero. I had some empathy for him, partly because I have made so many of those stupid mistakes. I have put my desire for pleasure over the feelings of others and as result hurt myself and the people I love.

This does not mean I sympathise with Martin; I did get frustrated with every selfish action but I could relate (as much as I hate to admit it). Add that to the mix of an antisocial writer with a passion for Russian literature, and you have someone that closely resembles me (although the bad life choices are over for me, thankfully). I do wonder if Back to Moscow is at all autobiographical, because the way he writes makes me think this is the case.

I like the focus on exploring the differences between Russia and western society. This becomes the focus of the novel. It is this exploration that allows people to try and gain a better understanding of the differences. One of Martin’s friends even said. “You Westerners are always angry because you want to change everything in life. We Russians are always sad because we know that most things cannot be changed.” This quote really stuck with me in really understanding the differences. There is so much more to understand, but I am working on an essay on Russian literature (stay tuned).

“Russia is lost” she continued. “First we had God. Then we had Lenin. Now we have nothing.”

Without giving away much about the plot, I will say that this debut novel impressed me greatly. There is a definite affection for Russia and the classics coming from the author and I think that is the appeal. The novel ends with the perfect metaphor for the entire story and Russia literature itself.

“In Metro systems around the world, a screen about the platform shows the time left until the arrival of the next train. Five minutes. Four minutes. Three minute. Two minutes. One minute. Then the countdown stops and you feel the breeze and you hear the rattle of a new train approaching through the tunnel.

Not in Moscow.

In Moscow’s metro, the electronic counter about the platform shows the time that has passed since the departure of the last train. With unnecessary precision, the seconds keep adding up one by one, informing you not about the train to come, but the one you’ve missed, the train that would be carrying you, if only you arrived earlier. But that train is for ever gone. You don’t know when the next one will arrive.”

The back of the novel compares Guillermo Erades to Ben Lerner and Bret Easton Ellis, while I can see the comparison with Larner, I debate the other. I think the only thing Erades and Ellis have in common is their ability to write a difficult men. Back to Moscow is one of those books that I wanted to turn back to page one and re-read straight away. I cannot say this is a novel that will appeal to everyone, it appealed to me for the reasons I have mentioned. I do not think there is anything profound to get from this book, but the quotes I have added to this review are lines that stuck with me. I find it hard to review this critically because I got so much out of it personally. If you have a love of Russia and its literature then maybe you need to give this book a go as well.


One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Posted January 23, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 0 Comments

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr SolzhenitsynTitle: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Goodreads)
Author: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Translator: Ralph Parker
Published: Penguin, 1962
Pages: 142
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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One of the most important works of fiction to come from the Soviet Union was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It was this novella that informed the world of the harsh realities of the gulag under Stalin’s reign. The reaction from the world even lead to Solzhenitsyn’s most important piece, The Gulag Archipelago, a seven volume exposition into the gulag; it was part oral history, part personal account and a political statement. The Gulag Archipelago has become an important piece of literature, and it is taught in Russian high schools, while One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is sometimes assigned reading in classrooms around the rest of the world.

The novella follows Ivan Denisovich Shukhov for one day in 1951, exploring life as a prisoner in a Stalinist labour camp (known as the gulag). Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was sent to the gulag in 1945 for criticising Joseph Stalin in a private letter. He would have been left there to die but when Nikita Khrushchev became the first secretary of the Communist party after Stalin’s death in 1953, Solzhenitsyn was released in 1956 due to his poor health. Most of his writing is autobiographical in nature, in particular One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (about life in the labour camps) and Cancer Ward (which is about his battle with cancer that lead to his release from the gulag).

The significance of this novel is far reaching, not just on giving the reader an understanding on life in the labour camps but also as a political statement on Stalin. The book looks at the struggle to keep human dignity in such harsh treatment. From constantly being treated inhumanely to the removal of their identity by referring to everyone by a serial number (Shukhov being SHCHA-854). While the guards are constantly trying to discourage camaraderie, we still get a glimpse into the interactions between the prisoners. It is here that we get an idea on just how temperamental Stalin could be. Although getting into the tyrannical reign of Stalin requires more research, you get an idea of unjust punishment while reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

There is a lot to explore in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich ranging from the constant struggle with privacy to the vivid descriptions of the cold weather. However, the one thing that stood out for me is the parcels that Tsezar was selling. Not just tobacco but a range of desirable items. For me he became a symbol of worldly pleasures in a place where everyone had nothing. This turns the novella into something so much deeper. You might notice that the name Tsezar is similar word to Tsar, in fact both are Russian words for Caesar. Keeping this in mind we now have a motif for the events that lead to the Russian revolution and it begins to explore the corruption of power under Stalin. Rather than working towards the socialist utopia that the Bolsheviks dreamt of, Stalin rewarded the people that had his favour while punishing everyone else. This idea stuck with me and I think it transformed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s work into something far greater. Although this is what I have come to expect from this author.

This is only my second Solzhenitsyn book (the other being In the First Circle) but I am constantly surprised with the depth he goes to in order to explore his ideas. His books were often published as samizdat (Russian for self-published but referring to the illegally published and distributed literature of the Soviet era) but he still has a unique ability to hide a deeper idea in his novels to avoid serious repercussions from the government. One of my favourite parts of Soviet literature is the way the authors often use satire, motifs and symbolism to explore their true message. I always get a thrill from these books, as if I am understanding some hidden secret. I do think One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an essential read for anyone interested in Russian literature and I am a little ashamed I put if off for so long.


In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

Posted January 16, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick ModianoTitle: In the Café of Lost Youth (Goodreads)
Author: Patrick Modiano
Translator: Euan Cameron
Published: MacLehose Press, 2007
Pages: 160
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Library Book

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Recently I read my first Patrick Modiano novel, Missing Person which I enjoyed immensely. So much so, that I picked up In the Café of Lost Youth soon after. This book follows three different narrators talking about their memories of a woman named Louki. The four different perspectives (one being Louki herself) paints a detailed portrait of this one woman, Jacqueline ‘Louki’ Delanque. A woman that grew up in poverty, the daughter of a single mother working in the Moulin Rouge, and someone that comes across as well liked and popular.

In the Café of Lost Youth is a wonderful character portrayal, exploring someone that has had a hard life but appears to have it together. However, this novel explores the idea of loneliness while also looking at that perception we put to others. I think Patrick Modiano has this unique ability to capture the feeling of loneliness, especially while surrounded by people. The aggrieved husband, a private investigator hired by said husband and a student in a café all show different sides of this woman and piecing it all together allows you to see the complete picture (or is it?).

I said this in my review of Missing Person as well, Patrick Madiano won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2014. The committee awarded him this prestigious prize “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable of human destinies”. This is also used as a blurb (or a stripped-down version of this quote) for this novel, and with good reason. The way that In the Café of Lost Youth explores the idea of memory is what drew me to Missing Person as well and one of the reasons Modiano is worth exploring.

One major concern I have about reading In the Café of Lost Youth so close to Missing Person is the fact that they do draw on similar themes. While the plot is very different it still felt the same. I am not saying I did not enjoy In the Café of Lost Youth, rather that I will need to allow some time to elapse before dipping into Modiano again. I still think he is an excellent writer and one worth exploring. The way he explores loneliness and memory are worth checking out.


The Good Place and Ethics

Posted January 13, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Film & Television, Philosophy / 2 Comments

I discussed the moral dilemma in the HBO television show Westworld, and I have since discovered a show that looks at ethics. The Good Place is the story of Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) who dies and finds herself in the afterlife, designated into ‘the Good Place’. Only problem is that she is not a good person and does not belong. In fact it is another Eleanor Shellstrop that should be in ‘the Good Place’, but she does not want to end up in ‘the Bad Place’ so she sets out to learn how to be a better person, in essence, to earn her place.

‘The Good Place’ is basically heaven, but the show is written to be as neutral as possible when it comes to religion. To do this, the architect of this ‘Good Place’ neighbourhood Michael (Ted Danson) states that all religions only guessed 10% of what the afterlife is like. Joking some random guy from the 1970’s managed to guess 91% of what happens after you die in a inebriated rant. While this might be considered a mockery towards religion it does allow the show to explore ethics in a stripped back way. Without getting bogged down with the religious aspect, the show explores different schools of thought when it comes to ethics.Beneath the low-brow humour the show is almost like an introduction to moral philosophy, exploring ideas from people like Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, Jeremy Bentham and of course the obvious Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. These ideas are explored thanks to Eleanor’s soulmate Chidi (William Jackson Harper) who was a professor of ethics when he was alive. One of the major ideas that is explored is that of utilitarianism, I expect as a critique to society’s pleasure seeking ways.

The idea of utilitarianism is the idea that an action is considered right if it promotes happiness. The show focuses on the paradoxical nature of utilitarianism, mainly the idea of punishing an innocent person for the greater good. Eleanor’s presence in ‘the Good Place’ has a negative effect on the neighbourhood, where actions that are not inherently good manifest in terrifying ways. There is also the conundrum of Eleanor staying in ‘the Good Place’ may promote her happiness but it is at the cost of the other Eleanor who is suffering in ‘the Bad Place’.

“He who would criticise all human acts, movements, relations, etc., by the principle of utility, must first deal with human nature in general, and then with human nature as modified in each historical epoch.” – Karl Marx (Das Kapital)

While this show does more than name drop philosophical ideas of ethics, but rather try to explain them, I still find the show too simplistic. It is as if The Good Place is attempting to introduce the idea of moral philosophy to the viewers but a show like Westworld wants you to work for it. I do enjoy the philosophy and the way it explores ethics but I much prefer having to work towards understanding; then again, I am just pretentious like that. We started watching this show because my wife and I are big fans of Kristen Bell and I will continue to watch because of the philosophy, even if it is overly simplified.


The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

Posted January 9, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 2 Comments

The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy CasaresTitle: The Invention of Morel (Goodreads)
Author: Adolfo Bioy Casares
Translator: Ruth L.C. Simms
Artist: Norah Borges
Published: NYRB Classics, 1940
Pages: 103
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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Never have I read anything like The Invention of Morel, it is beautiful and yet left me somewhat confused. I have spent more time thinking about this novella than actually reading it. While the plot is straight forward, it is the bizarre and fantastical elements that left me perplexed. The novella tells the story of a man on the run, who hides on a deserted island (the fictional island of Villings which is believed to be part of the Ellice Islands, now known as Tuvalu). When people start to arrive on the island, things become a little more complicated.

This is the book that launched Adolfo Bioy Casares’s career, despite being his seventh book. He remains a little obscure outside of Argentina, even though his friend Jorge Luis Borges is known to sing his praises. While this book is sometimes categorised as science fiction or fantasy, for me it reads like a psychological adventure story. Rather than focusing on a plot which is common in genre fiction, he prides himself in making the book plotless and almost formless. This is a unique style for a novel like this but helps explore the inner psyche of the narrator.

The way the novella is written leaves you constantly questioning the reliability of the narrator. This is done in many different ways, from the disease that is apparently effecting the island (symptoms seems to be similar to radiation poisoning) to the hallucinations the narrator experiences from food poisoning and just the bizarre nature of the novella as a whole. I found this to be an effective way to explore The Invention of Morel and the main protagonist. It was these psychological elements of the book that I ended up appreciating.

The Invention of Morel was written in a time where radiation has a hot topic. I do not know much about the history of radioactivity but I know Marie Curie died in 1934 from aplastic anaemia, which is believed to be brought on by exposure to radiation, then in the 1940s there was a race to perfect the nuclear bomb. This I believe had an effect on Bioy Casares’s novella and helped him explore the idea of dying which leads to the theme of waiting for his soul to pass on.

I have to add that the reason Louise Brooks was put on the cover of the edition I read was because Adolfo Bioy Casares wrote this novella as a reaction to the demise of her film career. Take that to mean what you will, I do not know anything about Brooks to be able to draw any connections between her life and the book. Also the illustrations were provided by Norah Borges, Jorge Luis Borges younger sister. I am so please to have read The Invention of Morel, it was such an enjoyable experience and this novella is something I will contemplate for years to come.


Best Books of 2016 and 2017 Goals

Posted January 5, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in What are you Reading / 4 Comments

I love this time of year where we look back at our reading year and pick our favourites. Although there is a thrill in planning the next reading year, too. I have done a video talking about my reading goals for 2017 and my favourite books for 2016 but I thought it was appropriate to write about the topic as well. One of my goals for this coming year is to focus more on my writing, in particular my essay writing. I wrote two pieces at the end of last year that I was very proud (one on existentialism and the other on Westworld) and I want to improve my craft. My plan is to write at least one piece a month in the hopes to practise and eventually produce high quality essays.

Reading Goals

Starting off with my reading goals for the year, I had to look back at 2016 and see how I went. My major goal was to read at least 30% books in translation and I was very happy with ending the year with 49%. The more I read translations, the more I prefer it and for 2017 I planning to continue my journey and aim for 50%. I am not sure what percentage is my end goal is (maybe 75%), but if I continue to read more books in translation then I will be happy. My ultimate goal would be to read a book from most countries around the world and lower the amount of American literature I read (currently 49% of all books I have read were from American born authors).

Other than my focus on translations, I would like to read some more non-fiction and bigger books, as well as do more re-reading. These are not major goals but I would like to spend more time on this. I do however plan to read the complete Franz Kafka collection. I have a five book collection from Oxford World Classics that features all three novels and two short story collections. So I would like to focus on reading this and then maybe a biography on Kafka (I have been eyeing the Reiner Stach three volume biography on Kafka).  I spend a lot of time reading from authors new to me, I thought it was time to start to focus on some of the authors I have loved. Starting with Kafka as my first choice, I hope to complete the works of many authors.

2016 Favourites

In 2016, I have read 87 books and I have been very happy with my progress for the year, even if I did not love everything I read. I have an infographic of my full reading stats if you are interested but I want to quickly cover my favourite books of the year. In these fifteen books, there are eight books in translation, six non-fiction books, two winners of the Nobel Prize for literature and surprisingly two authors that declined the Nobel Prize.

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Violent Delights: My Thoughts on Westworld

Posted December 12, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Film & Television / 2 Comments

One of the age-old questions that gets asked in science fiction revolves around artificial intelligence (AI). In particular, the existential risk from artificial intelligence that might result in human extinction or some global catastrophe. One of the most noticeable examples of an AI rebellion in pop-culture can be found in The Terminator series with Skynet, when it becomes self-aware and ultimately decides that humans are irrelevant. A more recent example is the HBO show Westworld created by husband and wife combo Jonathan Nolan (Person of Interest) and Lisa Joy (Pushing Daisies). The show is based on a 1973 film of the same name (written and directed by Michael Crichton) set in the future where people can visit this western themed amusement park populated by synthetic android, referred to as hosts.

Westworld is one of the most exciting TV shows I have seen in a very long time, and while at its core it explores the idea of artificial intelligence becoming self-aware, I feel like there is something much more interesting going on. To understand this, you need to be aware of the criticism towards HBO shows (in particular Game of Thrones) which often revolve around the over exposure of nudity and violence, claiming that it is just low-brow entertainment. However, I am of the opinion that this show, Westworld can be seen more as a social criticism.

“These violent delights have violent ends.” Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene VI by William Shakespeare

The patrons come to this amusement park to fully immerse themselves into an adventure without fear of consequences. Whether they are seeking their thrills with sex or violence, the show is questioning if this is healthy behaviour. While there are no physical consequences, what are the moral implications of these violent delights? The hosts in Westworld are so realistic, they have memories, thoughts and feel pain – this brings so many questions to mind. For example; where is the line between harmless fun and dangerous behaviour?

At the beginning of season one, I found myself wondering if it takes a certain type of person to visit Westworld. Are the patrons visiting to act out their more depraved fantasies? However, I slowly began to view Westworld as a highly advanced video game (similar to virtual reality). If you compare this amusement park with popular games like Grand Theft Auto, it opens up a whole different thought process, one of game theory. A player of Grand Theft Auto might shoot up the street, visit a prostitute or something similar to test out the boundaries of the game. Not out of morbid curiosity but rather to see if the game is a really an open world. While some players may take delight in these actions rather than following the narrative, there is no real evidence that these actions have any links to criminal behaviour (although there is evidence of an increase of aggressive behaviour).

White Hats vs. Black Hats

Although when the ‘game’ is so realistic that you cannot tell the difference between host and human, the experience becomes more complicated. This show explores the idea of what happens when realism becomes too real, and while some patrons may test out the boundaries of this world, ultimately they get sucked into a narrative, what about the others? One of the taglines for Westworld is, “the dawn of artificial consciousness and the future of sin”. With this tagline in mind, we know the show wants to pay particular attention to what they call ‘the future of sin’, so it is asking the audience to think about the moral implications of these violent delights.

As you watch through season one of Westworld, you will discover that actions without consequences are just a myth. Starting with the discovery of lasting memories of the hosts and also the wounds. While these hosts are not humans, they show signs of emotions and pain. If they feel pain, do we not have a moral obligation to help them?

There are multiple scenes in the show depicting some close ups of a host’s eye, and if the eyes are the windows to the soul, what are they trying to say? I am inclined to think that this might actually be an exploration into how people treat each other. If you look at the history of the world, in particular colonialism, you will see that the first people are often treated as if they were different. Since this amusement park has a western theme, I would suspect we could make parallels between the treatment of hosts and the treatment of Native Americans.

The use of nudity in Westworld is very different to most TV shows. While nudity on television and movies is often used to sexualise a character, this show takes a very different approach. Often when you see nudity in this show, it is a host sitting in front of a scientist getting reprogrammed. The nudity has the effect of dehumanising the hosts – yet another example of the show trying to show you the difference between artificial intelligence and humans. Yet time and time again in the show it demonstrates that they these host are self-aware and conscious.

I have to say, I was completely immersed in the story being told in season one of Westworld and I really cannot wait for a new season. However, it was the philosophical questions that the show presented that really thrilled me. It was because I spent so much time thinking about what makes us human, the existential risk of artificial intelligence and game theory that I would consider Westworld one of the best TV shows of recent time. I feel like there is so much to say about this series, but I do not think I have the skill set to dive deeper. I wanted to get as many of my thoughts on Westworld down, and who knows I may even do more posts like this in the future.


Voroshilovgrad by Serhiy Zhadan

Posted December 7, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Contemporary / 0 Comments

Voroshilovgrad by Serhiy ZhadanTitle: Voroshilovgrad (Goodreads)
Author: Serhiy Zhadan
Translator: Reilly Costigan-Humes, Isaac Wheeler
Published: Deep Vellum Publishing, 2010
Pages: 445
Genres: Contemporary
My Copy: Paperback

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle
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The novel Voroshilovgrad by Serhiy Zhadan was dubbed “Trainspotting set against a grim post-Soviet backdrop” by Newsweek. Having read this tag and with a recommendations from Agnese from Beyond the Epilogue, I knew I had to read this one. It revolves around Herman, who finds himself managing his brother’s gas station, after he mysteriously disappeared. Though it is a story of a bleak industrial city as it is a story of Herman.

Voroshilovgrad is a fascinating exploration into a post-soviet Ukraine. Not only does it explore the effects of communism to an industrial city, but also the power vacuum left behind when the Soviet Union collapsed. The mystery of what happened to Yuri takes a backseat as the novel explores the lives of Herman and his employees Kocha and Injured as they go head to head with a gangster who wants to control the gas station.

This is an interesting novel that appears to blend elements of post-modernism with the writers of the Beat generation, with a splash of Hunter S. Thompson. Serhiy Zhadan himself is a novelist, a poet and a translator. He mainly translates poetry from German, English, Belarusian and Russian but has translated Charles Bukowski into Ukrainian. This knowledge helps understand his influences, and while I still maintain that Voroshilovgrad reminds me of the Beats, I can see some Bukowski coming through.

While Voroshilovgrad was an entertaining insight into a post-Soviet city, I do not think there is many more themes to pull from this novel. I think it explored this idea really well and while I would have loved something deeper, I cannot fault the novel at all. I typically read books in translation to understand a different time and place, and Voroshilovgrad was able to do this perfectly. I love the dark and gritty nature of this novel, and I plan to re-read Voroshilovgrad in the future.


Existence Precedes Essence: Understanding Existentialism

Posted December 5, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Philosophy / 4 Comments

When thinking about the term existentialism, a quote by Jean-Paul Sartre may come to mind; “existence precedes essence”. 1 This was a relatively new way of thinking within philosophy. The idea criticises the concept that everyone has an essence and our lives tend towards the actualisation of our essence, which dates back to Aristotle. Over the years, this idea of essence evolved into predestines, as philosophers leaned more towards religious ideas. For Sartre, this was an absurd way of thinking and this might have been connected to his atheist beliefs. However, this is not a universal idea in existentialism, many disagreed with Sartre, but it did start a new philosophical movement.

existentialists
Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre

While Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoevsky are all considered existentialists, the term was actually coined by Jean-Paul Sartre. It is widely believed that Kierkegaard may have been the first existentialist philosopher but he used the word ‘individualism’ to refer to his philosophical ideas. When looking as his writing, it is easy to see why it is closely associated to existentialism. In his book The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard wrote “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.” 2

This leads us to ask, ‘What exactly is existentialism?’ which is not an easy question to answer. If you consider historical events that were happening at the start of existentialism (early twentieth century), you notice the world was a confused and complex place. When Sartre started his works, the world had already experienced one World War and was about to head into a second one. The political landscape was very unstable; Marxism, Communism and Fascism were all growing movements. Western ways of thinking were not providing the answers people craved about the meaning of life or at least a way to address the human condition.

Existentialism became a new philosophical way of thinking; a new way of facing a confused world that they could not accept. It was not a doctrine or a philosophical system rather existentialism was a movement. It was an inwards approach to thinking, when Jean-Paul Sartre said “existence precedes essence”, he was stating we exist first, and it is up to us to find what defines us then live our lives accordingly.  Which linked back to Søren Kierkegaard who said, “The most common form of despair is not being who you are.” 3 This was the foundation of existentialism; it did not matter if other philosophers believed existence came before essence, what mattered was living life authentically. To do so, there were three main sides to this form of thinking to consider: individualism, freedom and passion.

Individualism is the ethical idea that we are all responsible for our own actions. Rather than living by the morals set out by our society, religion and our elders, we must seek our own individual self-relevance and liberties. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who once said “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.” 4 Moral individualism should not be confused with selfishness or a desire for anarchy; rather it simply suggests that humanity must be defined by the individual. No two people are alike; thus, having set rules and ideas for everyone imposes restrictions on living authentically.

Freedom was a response to the current social/political situations; without freedom there was no possible way to allow people to be individuals and is considered the primary virtue to authenticity. This is more than the freedom to do whatever one desires. Existentialist often use the term facticity as a term to mean the limitation and a condition to freedom. For example, our birthplace, past choices and so on, may either limit or aid our quest to live our life authentically. If we are born blind, that may take away our freedom to read this text but does not mean we can never read.

Passion is self-evident, the need to find a purpose to life. A primary concern to “existence precedes essence” was simple to find a reason to live – your passion. For me, my passion would include literature, philosophy and writing articles like this. I am motivated in working towards a way to make my passions my career. That is not to say that there are no other reasons to live; such as loved ones or the simple pleasures in life.

meaning-of-lifeOnce you establish these four philosophies as the backbone of existentialism, you may have started on the journey down the rabbit hole into the existentialist way of thinking. Having definitive answers to life maybe be attractive but we realise life is not that simple. When adopting existentialism as your personal philosophy, be warned that many of the great existentialists did abandon their own philosophies. To quote Søren Kierkegaard once more; “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” 5 Existentialism has its appeals; it is often adopted by young adults as permission to be an individual and focus on themselves. However as the quote above stated, it is only in reflection that we understand our lives and where we went wrong and life is not that easy, you cannot simply rely on other people’s ways of thinking.

Essentially, existentialism suggests that we should all live our lives authentically and free. Our goal in life is to find our essence – our reason to live. Albert Camus has been quoted as saying “should I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” 6 which suggests that something as simple as a cup of coffee is enough to continue living. There are two major branches of existentialism that I have not mentioned, nihilism (the belief that life is meaningless) and absurdism (life has no purpose and the universe is chaotic) but I will not be going into details about the differences at the moment.

My goal of this was to give you a better understanding into existentialism but as you might have discovered, it can be complex. I hope you now have a basic understanding, allowing you to go down the rabbit hole of thinking about philosophy and what you believe. For more information about existentialism and the people behind this philosophical movement, I would recommend the book At the Existentialist Café by Sarah Bakewell. 7 This covers the history of existentialism as well as a little about people involved, like Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and so many others. I felt very inspired after reading At the Existentialist Café, that I have gone down a rabbit hole exploring philosophy and hope to write more about it in the near future.


Missing Person by Patrick Modiano

Posted November 29, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 0 Comments

Missing Person by Patrick ModianoTitle: Missing Person (Goodreads)
Author: Patrick Modiano
Translator: Daniel Weissbort
Published: Verba Mundi, 1978
Pages: 192
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Library Book

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I have been wanting to read Patrick Modiano; not only has he won a handful of awards, he is the recipient of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel was “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable of human destinies” but the committee also called him the “Marcel Proust of our time”. Unfortunately, not many of his novels have been translated from the French into English, despite the fact that he is so prolific (I counted six English translations prior to winning the Nobel Prize in Literature and a further eight since winning).

Missing Person appeared to be the perfect starting point for me, as it covered two elements that I am drawn to in literature, noir and philosophy. The novel follows Guy Roland, who was been working for Constantin van Hutte in his detective agency for the past eight years. As Hutte has decided to retire, Roland embarks on one last case, to find out who he really is. Guy Roland (a name given to him by Hutte) lost his memories during the war and is essentially a blank slate.

What drew me into this story was the cinematic style; it feels like a French film noir. The French title of the novel is Rue des Boutiques Obscures, which translates to the Street of Dark Shops. This is not a hard-boiled story, as Roland is not hard-boiled in anyway; this is what I would probably call existentialist noir. A perfect blend of the mysterious setting; dark cafes and plenty of wine and cigarettes. With the enhanced feeling of being completely lost, as Roland tries to find out who he really is.

“The sand holds the traces of our footsteps but a few moments.”

Essentially this is a novel exploring the ideas of identity and memories. I like the way Modiano played with the idea of a blank slate. What defines this person? What makes up this man’s character, and will what defined him in the past return to him? An exploration into the way people remember you and how that shapes your character and personality. Roland tries on different personas; in his investigation he may not discover who he really is but he adopts this ideas of people to see if it feels right or sparks a memory. The way memory plays out in the novel is particularly interesting; in one scene he recalls a love affair with a woman, but fifteen years after the breakup she denies that it ever happened. So you are left wondering if it did happen, or is this a distortion of the truth or maybe even a suppression of her past.

This is the type of novel you do not read for the plot. Missing Person is meant to explore an idea, invoke an emotion and get you thinking about identity and memories. The pulp-ish style to this novel really worked for m., I love the idea of investigating yourself; playing with the idea of self-discovery and identity. I will be exploring more from Patrick Modiano; in particular I want to try his novel Honeymoon. I am glad I read Missing Person and I have not been able to stop thinking about the ideas explored in this novel.