Source: Paperback

Crash by J.G. Ballard

Posted August 9, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 0 Comments

Crash by J.G. BallardTitle: Crash (Goodreads)
Author: J.G. Ballard
Published: Harper Perennial, 1973
Pages: 185
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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I have always enjoyed transgressive fiction, not because it is controversial and it breaks free from the expectations of society, but because of its satirical nature. When exploring the darker side of humanity, you are always going to get some attention and let’s face it, controversy sells. I am drawn to transgressive fiction because it defies conventional literature. Where else do you get to explore addiction and antisocial behaviours in a safe environment? It is a philosophy in its self, a way to strip away everything and look at the act itself. In the essay “Preface to Transgression”, Michel Foucault described it as a place where, “…God is absent, and where all of our actions are addressed to his absence in a profanation which at once identifies it, dissipates it, exhausts itself in it, and restores it to the empty purity of its transgression.” To me, it sums it up more intelligently than I could, it is a place where morality and laws are stripped away, allowing us to explore the nature of the transgressive in detail.

The nature of transgressive fiction did mean that these novels got a lot of attention and many were banned or the subject of obscenity trials. Yet some of the classics in this genre helped explore the ideas found in psychoanalysis (a psychological theory dedicated to treating mental disorders by investigating the interaction of the unconscious and conscious mind) and psychosexual development (psychoanalytical field dedicated to sexual behaviour, in particular the Freudian theory of the five stages of sexual development). Behind all the controversy, I think of the underlying themes to be found in transgressive fiction is one of self-discovery in an unaccepting world. The term ‘counterculture’ comes to mind when thinking about transgressive fiction, but even before that term was penned, we had D.H. Lawrence exploring a love affair between two different classes in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Georges Bataille taking an unconventional look at his relationship with his father in Story of the Eye.

When thinking about J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash, I was having a difficult time working out how it fit into the genre. When thinking of it in relation to psychosexual development, Crash does explore symphorophilia (coined in 1984 to refer to a paraphilia in which sexual arousal involves staging and watching tragedies like car accidents), autassassinophilia (a paraphilia where an individual derives sexual arousal by the thought and/or risk of dying), and/or car crash fetishism. It is certainly controversial, one publisher famously said, “This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!” about Crash, but what did this novel have to say about society? Just to give you some background about this novel, it originally was a short story in the 1970 book The Atrocity Exhibition. Written shortly after his wife’s sudden death, the book is a series of interconnecting stories that explores the idea of how mass media inadvertently invades and splinters the mind of an individual. Suffering a mental breakdown, the protagonist (a doctor in a psychiatric hospital) surrenders to the world of psychosis.

Knowing this, I was beginning to understand what J.G. Ballard was trying to explore in Crash. If you look at cinema and the impact the Hays Code had on movies you might better understand the drastic change to films in the 1970s. In 1968, the code was officially replaced with the MPAA film rating system, which lead to an influx of controversial movies full of sex and violence. I think some of the darkest and grittiest movies come from this era. So does that mean Ballard is exploring mass media sensationalising sex and violence?

The automobile has become a huge part of our lives, we rely and depend on it to get us around but the amount of car accidents that lead to death is extremely high. According to the Association for Safe International Travel (ASIRT), nearly 1.3 million people die in road crashes each year, on average 3,287 deaths a day, while an additional 20-50 million people suffer injuries from car accidents. Globally, a car crash is the 9th leading cause of death, but in the 1970s this statistic would be much worse. This means, a car accident will be one of the most devastating experiences in some people’s lives. So what is Ballard trying to say when he explores this idea of sexual pleasure from a crash? That, I will leave to the reader.

Another thing that stood out to me in Crash was the narrator was named James Ballard. Naming the protagonist after himself means that the reader has to ask some very confronting questions, because we cannot rely on the author to give us the answers. I think it was a brilliant move by J.G. Ballard, automatically we might think that this is a fetish of the author but this allows him to explore the “empty purity of [this] transgression”. We are confronted we a completely different perspective and in the words of Ballard about this novel “[he] wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit. I wanted to force it to look in the mirror.”

In the end, like all good transgressive novels, Crash did leave me with plenty to think about. I had a lot of issues with this novel, I think the repetitive nature really hindered my enjoyment. I am not going to write off J.G. Ballard completely, but I am unsure which novel to try next; I was thinking High Rise. I love when a book leaves me thinking, and even writing this essay, I think I have gained a great appreciation of this controversial novel. Maybe I will return to it in the distant future and see what I think.

 


No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel

Posted July 28, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Non-Fiction / 4 Comments

No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise FrenkelTitle: No Place to Lay One's Head (Goodreads)
Author: Françoise Frenkel
Translator: Stephanie Smee
Published: Vintage, 1945
Pages: 286
Genres: Non-Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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I have seen a lot of comparisons between Françoise Frenkel’s memoir and Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky. They both depict the struggles of living in Nazi occupied France for a Jewish woman and both were works that were found by chance and published. I am yet to read Suite Française, although it sits on my shelf quietly waiting, so I am unable to speak to any more similarities. No Place to Lay One’s Head (Rien où poser sa tête) was originally published in 1945 with a limited run by the now defunct publishing house Verlag Jehebe. Thirty years later it was rediscovered in an attic in the south of France and republished in 2015. Thanks to the efforts of Australian translator Stephanie Smee, an English translation of this book was released this year.

This memoir gives an account of part of her life, from opening Berlin’s first specialist French bookstore in 1921 to her experience with the rise of the Nazi party. Françoise Frenkel, like many other Jewish people, suffered greatly, but what fascinated me about No Place to Lay One’s Head is what she left out of the book. There is no mention of her husband in Rien où poser sa tête at all. The only reason I know about his existence is because of the timeline in the back of the book.

Grief is a powerful emotion and people find their own ways to deal with the pain. Looking at this timeline I know that Frenkel and her husband Simon Raichenstein opened Maison du Livre français (which means House of the French Books) together. He was deported (due to the fact he was a Belarusian) and lived in France from 1933, until he was arrested in 1942 and sent to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. Françoise Frenkel ran the bookstore alone until she escaped Germany in 1939. I do not know if the two spent reunited in France, but I suspect that they may have. My suspicions are based on this idea of grief; Frenkel started writing No Place to Lay One’s Head in 1943 after she was able to so escape to Switzerland, and I get the feeling that the anger and sadness that comes through in the book might have been related to the one person she cannot bare to talk about.

I picked up this book in the hopes to explore the life of a specialist book seller in a rapidly changing political climate but I got something different. I would have loved more chapters on her time learning the trade in a second hand bookstore in the Rue Gay-Lussac. Or even exploring the idea of opening a specialist French bookshop in Germany and the impact it had. Maybe even something that compared the idea to Sylvia Beach opening Shakespeare and Company (a specialty book store dedicated to English language books) in France two years earlier. I love books about books and thought these would be some interesting topics to explore. However I got something completely different; something so devastating and yet full of beauty.

I am partial to a book that is able to deliver cruelty and shock in such an elegant way and I think No Place to Lay One’s Head was able to do just that. It is a weird feeling to go into a book hoping for one thing but finding something unexpected. This memoir is heartbreaking and to try and understand everything she was not saying, just made this book even more affecting. In the back of the book there is one picture of a dedication she wrote to a priest. “…I would be so grateful for your prayers – I seek inner peace; I am grieving for so many and know not where my family have been laid to rest.” I think that sums up the feeling Françoise Frenkel must have had when writing No Place to Lay One’s Head.


The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Posted July 27, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 6 Comments

The Savage Detectives by Roberto BolañoTitle: The Savage Detectives (Goodreads)
Author: Roberto Bolaño
Translator: Natasha Wimmer
Published: Picador, 2007
Pages: 577
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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Chilean author Roberto Bolaño may have only gained traction in the English-speaking world shortly after his death in 2003 but he quickly cemented his legacy as a great South American author. In fact, Chris Andrews’ translation of By Night in Chile was the first English translation of Bolaño and it was released in December 2003. Between Chris Andrews and Natasha Wimmer, all but two of his novels were translated into English, not to mention his short story collections, poetry and essays. That is twelve novels translated in which two Roberto Bolaño novels get the most attention, The Savage Detectives and 2666.

The first Roberto Bolaño novel I read was By Night in Chile, a novella that managed to make a big impression on me. The book saw Jesuit priest Father Urrutia reflect on his life while in a feverish daze and open with the brilliant line “I am dying now, but I still have many things to say”. The fever seems to allow Bolaño to explore an idea of the reliability of memory because you could help wondering if it was an unreliable narrator or he just lived an unorthodox life. By Night in Chile is a novel that I still think about and even though I feel like I read it recently, I am keen to return to it.

Because of this novella, I was keen to pick up more Roberto Bolaño and I recently joined in with a group of people to read The Savage Detectives. My experience was different than what I initially expected. First, it is difficult to compare The Savage Detectives with By Night in Chile, they are very different in style and themes. Also, out of the eight-people reading this, five of them never finished, while I think I was the only one that really enjoyed it. At times it was struggle to read, but I think getting to the end gave me a real sense of accomplishment and the novel will stick in my head for a very long time.

To get an idea of what Roberto Bolaño is trying to achieve in this novel you really need to understand a little about his life. He was born in Chile but his family moved to Mexico while he was a teenager. He never finished school because he dropped out to work as a journalist. He left Mexico to return to Chile to help the socialist regime of Salvador Allende but was thrown in prison after Augusto Pinochet’s coup. On his return to Mexico, he started living as a bohemian poet and saw himself as an enfant terrible of literature, his own editor Jorge Herralde recalls him saying that he was “a professional provocateur feared at all the publishing houses even though he was a nobody”. He was a young ambitious poet, what was he to do? Naturally he tried to start a literary movement which was called Infrarrealismo.

What makes The Savage Detectives so interesting is that it is a parody of Roberto Bolaño’s own life. His alter ego is one of the principal characters, and every other character is based off someone in his life. While By Night in Chile reflects on life from the deathbed, The Savage Detectives takes a similar but drastically different approach. It was like Bolaño wanted to reflect on his ambitious ideals and just how cocky he was. It felt like he was never afraid to poke fun of himself and I think if I knew more about his life, I would have gotten a lot more out of this novel.

I do not know enough of Mexican literature (especially the poetry) but I found The Savage Detectives to be a very approachable novel. You get a sense right away that the Visceral Realist are a parody, the name itself conjures up an image of trying hard and failing. I was so glad I finally got to this novel and I know that I will have to pick up more Roberto Bolaño in the future. In fact, I think he is an author that deserves to be read completely (well everything translated into English at least). I will admit that my knowledge in South American authors is lacking but the more I read, the more I appreciate their style. Next up… Jorge Luis Borges.


The Lover by Marguerite Duras

Posted March 20, 2017 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 2 Comments

The Lover by Marguerite DurasTitle: The Lover (Goodreads)
Author: Marguerite Duras
Translator: Barbara Bray
Published: Pantheon, 1984
Pages: 117
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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Marguerite Duras is best known for her novel L’Amant (The Lover), which was published in 1984 and won the Prix Goncourt for that year. Set in the colony of French Indochina (now known as Vietnam) during the 1920s, the novel explores the salacious love affair between a fifteen-and-a-half year-old French girl and a wealthy Chinese man. What makes this a literary masterpiece is the exploration into desire (and colonialism) and the experimental style that Duras adopted for this novel.

The narrative devices adopted in L’Amant allows Marguerite Duras to tell an autobiographical story while offering a form of self-reflection and way to analyse her own feelings. To do this Duras often switches perspective from first person to third person as well as switching from a current point in the story to a flashback. For me the effects of these literary devices offered an ideal contemplation into the emotions Marguerite must have been going through and also providing a meditation into the art of writing.

The Lover was published when Marguerite Duras was seventy, fifty-five years after she met Léo while traveling by ferry across the Mekong Delta from her home in the town of Sa Đéc, to her boarding school in Saigon. The depiction of love was so masterfully done in the novel, I knew exactly how Duras was feeling. The whole idea of a first love and then reflecting back on it many years later only to find that what you thought was a great love was merely an infatuation. I think this was what brought The Lover together and what stuck with me the most.

Since it is a love affair between a young French girl and an older Chinese man in Saigon, I think we need to talk about colonialism when reflecting on L’Amant. You can see the disapproving opinions playing out from her widowed mother but it was the wealthy father who had the biggest impact on the Chinese businessman’s relationship. I had thought that class struggle and colonialism would have played a bigger part in a book like this but I feel that Marguerite Duras handled the idea well with just how the characters interacted with each other.

I was thrilled by The Lover and the passionate love affair in this novel. Though I have to say it was Marguerite Duras skilful use of narrative devices that really made this a new favourite. I want to dip in and out of this book and I have only just finished it. I was even tempted to carry this novel around, just so I can read a passage or two while I had a spare moment. You may notice that I have been reading a decent amount of French literature lately and it is because of novels like this that I am currently obsessed. I hope to one day have the necessary skills to read L’Amant in French; I have been practising the language just for novels like this.


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.


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

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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.


The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

Posted September 12, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 2 Comments

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel DaoudTitle: The Meursault Investigation (Goodreads)
Author: Kamel Daoud
Translator: John Cullen
Published: Oneworld Publications, 2013
Pages: 143
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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One of the key components to philosophy is the ability to argue your point, this is done in many different ways and Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger does exactly that. Kamel Daoud took the same approach for his counterargument, with his novel The Meursault Investigation. This novel seemed to have taken the world by storm, winning the Goncourt du Premier Roman, the Prix des Cinq Continents, the Prix François Mauriac and shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt. It follows Harum seventy years after his brother Musa (the Arab) was killed by Meursault. Harum is reflecting back on his life and the impact Meursault’s story has had on himself, his family and Algeria.

Kamel Daoud’s response to The Stranger is basically saying that life is not absurd, it has meaning. Taking a life has consequences and execution is not simply a life for a life. Meursault killing the Arab had a big impact, and never referring to him by name allowed Camus to focus his story but at the risk of missing the bigger picture. So seventy years later, well after Algeria has declared their independence from France, the story of Meursault is still a topic of discussion.

First of all, the death of Musa has an impact on the life of Harum and his family. The Meursault Investigation starts off exploring the life of Harum and his mother and how the death of Musa effected them. The novel spirals out, first looking at the effect it had on Harum, then his mother and family and then finally Algeria. This may come across as repetitive but I think it was important to understand the impact.

I watched a lecture by Daoud that talks about The Stranger and comparing it to Robinson Crusoe. This is an exploration into post-colonialism; Meursault meets someone who was different to him and kills him. Robinson Crusoe did the same thing to Friday, just not physically; he forced him to convert to his idea of civilisation. That meant changing the way his acted, dressed and most of all his religious beliefs. The fact that Meursault killed an Arab on the beach could be symbolic of the island. If you follow this train of thought, The Meursault Investigation turns into a very complex philosophical argument, not only against The Stranger but the opinions of Western society (especially France) towards the raise of Islam.

The Meursault Investigation is an angry novel with some very deep philosophical ideas embedded into the pages. Published originally in French (translated by John Cullen) this novel evoked similar reactions for me as Submission by Michel Houellebecq in the way it explores France’s reaction to Islam. I understand people’s criticism about repetitive in The Meursault Investigation but I feel like it was necessary as Daoud needs to keep circling back to the death of the Arab and exploring how it affected everyone. This is the butterfly effect and I enjoyed every moment of this novel.


The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov

Posted September 8, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Literary Fiction / 0 Comments

The Dead Lake by Hamid IsmailovTitle: The Dead Lake (Goodreads)
Author: Hamid Ismailov
Translator: Andrew Bromfield
Published: Peirene Press, 2014
Pages: 128
Genres: Literary Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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While I actively avoid a novel that is described as a modern fairy-tale, it is a good term to use while talking about The Dead Lake. The novella tells the story of Yerzhan growing up in the remote parts of Kazakhstan, in an area that the Soviets used for atomic weapons testing. As a young boy he tried to impress the neighbour’s daughter by diving into a forbidden lake. The lake was radioactive and diving into the water changed Yerzhan forever.

Diving into the dead lake means that Yerzhan will now never grow into a man, he is doomed to watch his love grow into a beautiful woman while he will forever be a prepubescent boy. The plot is very fairy-tale like and the reader has a front row seat into a struggle in masculinity. While never growing old may seem like a dream for some people, never reaching puberty would not be desirable. While re-reading Interview with the Vampire, I wanted this exact issue explored with Claudia. The idea that while Yerzhan may never physically age, time and experience means he grows and matures. His inner self is not reflected physically and he is doomed to be always treated like a child.

While the plot tells a fairy-tale like story, underneath all this there is something different happening. The Dead Lake is an exploration into the environmental impact of the cold war. Not just exploring the effects the Soviets had on Karakhstan but rather the impact both American and the USSR had on the world to demonstrate their power. I believe this novella was based on Lake Chagan, which the Soviets conducted nuclear tests on in 1965 and is still radioactive today. Around about 100 times more than the permitted level of radionuclides in drinking water.

This grim book deals with some hard hitting topics but credit to Hamid Ismailov for producing a beautiful novella. The writing in The Dead Lake is so lyrical and poetic it just flows off the page. I found myself captivated by the writing and completely sucked into the story. While it is no secret that I am a fan of Soviet and post-Soviet literature, there is something special about this novella. I love the idea of a bildungsroman where the protagonist is physically unable to truly come of age, I would like to read more novels like this.


Treading Air by Ariella van Luyn

Posted September 6, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Historical Fiction / 0 Comments

Treading Air by Ariella van LuynTitle: Treading Air (Goodreads)
Author: Ariella van Luyn
Published: Affirm Press, 2016
Pages: 304
Genres: Historical Fiction
My Copy: Paperback

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There is a certain sense of glee to be had when you read a novel set in a familiar location. That moment when you recognise a street or the author accurately describes a location; that feeling is comforting and is what drove me through Ariella van Luyn’s debut novel Treading Air. The story takes place in two locations, in Townsville and Brisbane during the 1920s and 1940s, following the life of Lizze O’Dea. From an attraction and eventual marriage to battle scared Joe, to the new life in an unfamiliar town, Treading Air is a cinematic portrayal of independence, love and sex.

I often felt like there was something very familiar with the plot of Treading Air; a sense that I have read this novel before. Which I had, it was from French author Joseph Kessel, and the novel that was turned into the surrealist classic film of the same name, Belle de Jour. I could not unsee the similarities, a lonely housewife discovering her sexuality as a sex worker. There are more similarities to be explored but I do not want to give away anything.

Once I discovered this connection, I had a hard time really enjoying Treading Air, to the point where I considered abandoning the book once or twice. I merely kept going due to the fact that this was the selection for book club and I wanted to give it as much attention as possible. Treading Air is based on a real woman, the author found some information about her while looking through historical archives and thought that the story was too good not to write. They say truth is stranger than fiction, yet it was fiction where I found this story previously.

In the end I ended with two major issues with this novel. Firstly I think there could have been some interesting insights into the motivation and mindset of a sex worker that could have been explored. I feel that because the novel was written in third person we were never really in the mind of Lizzie and there could have been value to be had there. Secondly one piece of advice I hear about writing it ‘show don’t tell’ which is not always true (there are some great authors that tell rather than show) but in the case of this debut by Ariella van Luyn, it would have made for a better novel.

Do not get me wrong, this is not a bad book and I am curious to see what Ariella van Luyn does next. I personally felt it lacked some of the key components that I am interested in, especially in a novel about sex workers. Rather than pick Treading Air apart any further, I would simply say I was disappointed. I know others have enjoyed this novel but it just was not for me. If the synopsis does interest you, do not be afraid to give it a go.


Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Posted July 5, 2016 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 8 Comments

Don Quixote by Miguel de CervantesTitle: Don Quixote (Goodreads)
Author: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Translator: Edith Grossman
Published: Harper Perennial, 1615
Pages: 940
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Paperback

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Don Quixote is a staple in western literature, it ushered in the golden age of Spanish literature and it is also is one of the earliest examples of the modern (canonical) novel. The novel tells the story of a Spanish nobleman (Hidalgo) obsessed with the chivalric romance literature of the middle ages, who sets out to try and revive chivalry. With his trusty squire Sancho Panza, he sets out on an adventure to undo all the wrongs and injustices he encounters in the world. Claiming to be a knight. he gives himself the name Don Quixote of La Mancha.

From the very start, we get a sense that maybe Don Quixote is crazy. In psychology the term Quixotism relates to “over-idealism” and is often used in reference to someone with a naïve romanticism towards utopianism. The term “tilting at windmills” refers to a scene near the beginning of the novel where Don Quixote races off to fight giants that were actually windmills. If you consider that Don Quixote went mad from all the books he was reading and set off to try and fix the world, then this could be used as a metaphor towards Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra own feeling toward the same books, but rather than fixing the world he wrote Don Quixote. This brings to mind the quote from Toni Morrison “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Don Quixote, like many books of the time, was read to children; this is a novel I could never imagine being read to any child now. However one thing that makes this novel so great is that there are so many interpretations to be taken from the text. Harold Bloom (who wrote the introduction to my copy of the book) calls this a work of radical nihilism and anarchy, in the way it glorifies fantasy over reality. Calling him the Sorrowful Knight whose objective is that “He is at war with Freud’s reality principle, which accepts the necessity of dying.” The translator of the edition I read, Edith Grossman, has said, “When I first started reading the Quixote I thought it was the most tragic book in the world, and I would read it and weep”. However when she worked on the translation she remembered “sitting at my computer and laughing out loud.”

After the French Revolution a popular interpretation of the novel was that it was about ethics and righting the wrongs of society.  While later on it was a social commentary which always lead to the discussion of whose side Cervantes was on. You could even pull some religious or feminist themes out of this novel but for me, I read this as a Marxist text. The relationship between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza was a good representation of the class struggle. It is evident that Quixote needed Sancho Panza more than Panza needed him. Sancho Panza was there to rise the ranks of society while Don Quixote was be completely lost without his squire.

I cannot talk about Don Quixote without mentioning the way that Miguel de Cervantes played with intertextuality. This novel is split into two parts; the first part was originally published in 1605. In 1614 a second volume was released by an anonymous author. It is believed that Miguel de Cervantes started writing his second part after this and in 1615 it was released. While part one was a spoof of the literature that annoyed him, part two was more an attack on this unauthorised story of Don Quixote. It even made references to this scandal as Don Quixote explores the concept of someone writing about him.

This is the type of novel that deserves to be read again and again. Every reading will probably offer something different and this review is a reference point of what I got out of reading this book the first time around. If you get the chance, I recommend reading this with someone. I read this with Hilary from Yrrobotfriend and the discussions were the best part of this reading experience. While reading this novel I enjoyed part one the most but on reflection, I think part two offers more.