Sunday, June 14, 2009

W. G. Sebald

I've just read The Emigrants (1992), one of W. G. Sebald's earliest writings and probably his best-known work (I read the English translation by Michael Hulse). It's easy to see why the cognoscenti have embraced this book, which is not a large novel at a fast-reading 237 pages with black-and-white photographs scattered through the text. It is written in a clear, elegant and very urbane style; stylistically it could have been written anytime in the 20th century. The author conveys both landscapes and characters in a deft and persuasive manner that is made to appear effortless, although a great deal of thought as well as research certainly must have gone into its composition. Regarding the quality of the prose one could read it all day long and never tire of either the tone or the sensibility. It is the epitome of cosmopolitanism and sobriety.

But the superb quality of Sebald's technique is not what makes The Emigrants a book that will, I predict, be read and cited for many years to come. Sebald has taken the topic of literally thousands of books - European antisemitism and the ongoing destruction of Mitteleuropa Jewish culture throughout the early 20th century, culminating of course in the rise of Nazism and the Holocaust - and given it a treatment so subtle, so gentle, so personal and yet so indirect as to cause the reader to gain further appreciation of the human cost of events and movements that have been at the center of discussion for half a century.

Four sections present reminiscences (a nameless first-person narrator is different people and yet the same person in all four) of four different displaced European Jews. Some left before the rise of Nazism (but still to escape antisemitism). Others are survivors of families that perished in the camps. They come from disparate parts of Europe, although Switzerland figures most prominently throughout the book. Some have gone to England, some to America, some are still on the Continent. They all live, superficially, more or less ordinary lives. They are not necessarily poor, although certainly several are now in greatly reduced circumstances. They remember their school days. They remember earlier lives as proper people in the proper German-speaking world. They remember a world that is gone.

It is one thing to reflect on the violent deaths of millions (six million Jews, twenty million Russians, who knows how many millions of Asian people), but there is another dimension to the human cost of war and genocide: the people who are scattered, like dust, to the four winds, left to live out their lives as displaced persons, with no choice but to carry on, as people who have lost loved ones must also simply continue. Suicide is an option. Silence is unavoidable. One must get on. Memories persist. There is a long, impressive passage in the last section of detailed memories of growing up in a respectable Jewish family in rural Germany. It is an ordinary, traditional, conservative life. It is neither luxurious nor deprived. It is strict but comfortable. Pleasures are simple. This is normal human life, and it is very beautiful.

The narrator is given these written memoirs by a relative of the now-deceased woman who wrote them. He feels he must go to these towns (Kissingen and Steinach), and he makes a pilgrimage there (one of several such trips of return in the book). He manages to find an old, overgrown Jewish cemetery. Otherwise nothing remains. There is nothing to go back to, and these journeys of return are unsatisfying if not disturbing. All that remains are human flotsam, now far away. That, and something else.

This is not a great masterpiece, but it is a minor masterpiece, and I certainly recommend reading it. I will read another.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Ken Bruen's The Guards

Last year for St. Patrick's Day I posted about "hard-boiled Irish," the distinctly noirish atmospherics that come blowing in in no time at all when one starts reading contemporary Irish fiction. In days gone by, before I started this blog, I also spent many's the long evening enjoying detective stories, scores and scores of them, working out (like everybody else) from the masters Chandler and Hammett. The "hard-boiled" (promise not to use the phrase again) detective novel is a highly formalized, almost ritualistic genre, with a strict set of criteria for the protagonist: he must be tough, dogged, honest and loyal, indifferent to money, unafraid of a fight, and on a knightly quest to save or avenge an innocent, preferably a comely woman of the fallen variety.

The basic rows for post-Chandler novelists to hoe are: working variations on the form without going too far (larcenous antiheroes for example); applying the form to some geographical region, profession other than shamus, or some other target-demographic niche; and working the borderlines between the detective novel and close genres such as the murder mystery, a kind of puzzle book, or the thriller, which is usually a military or espionage fantasy, or the western, where heroic virtues are also stressed. It is optional to aspire to high literary quality (some of the best, like Elmore Leonard or Donald Westlake, couldn't care less), but it is not optional to write well: detective novelists must "write for story," that is they must keep the action moving along, they must hide the machinery (like good television hosts, they make something that is hard to do look effortless), and they must find some way to make the narrative emotionally compelling. I've tried it, it's a lot harder than it looks. (My characters always seemed to end up standing around in a circle on the lawn. Raymond Chandler claimed that he would write the phrase "A man came through the door with a gun" when he was blocked, and that did the trick.)

So seeing strong literary notices of Ken Bruen's The Guards, a tough-guy novel set in Galway, where my mother's family comes from and where I've traveled a bit, it was a natural for the Stack. It is as advertised very tough indeed and aficionados of the genre will come away satisfied. It also provides much local color including even Kenny's Books, a great store that has helped me long-distance since my visit, as well of course of other environs too subterranean for the average tourist. It reads, as tough-guy novels should, very fast, almost too fast as Bruen empties his pages with terse dialogue and lists and just empty space. But what I found most entertaining was the way Bruen bent the rules of the genre around.

First there is Bruen's fine conceit, and one to which perhaps only an Irishman is entitled, that every character and certainly the protagonist/narrator is highly literate, concerned with grammar, and widely familiar with popular culture. There are many asides about the merits or lack thereof of various American, English, and Irish locutions; no matter what the circumstances Jack Taylor finds time to grouse about the careless or cliched way someone is speaking. Very many allusions to music and to books are welcome to an exploratory reader who likes to take suggestions. It is a nice joke that the most erudite speaker of all is Padraig, a kind of lordly wino amongst the shoals of drunks.

As to that, there is the alcohol issue. Philip Marlowe used to drink water glasses filled with rye whiskey (can you even find a bottle of rye any more?) before he went to bed, and Nick and Nora Charles would gleefully line up eight martinis on the bar to unwind. These days there is a revisionist line on the booze issue. In terms of the popular detective novel, I would mention James Lee Burke's very good (and at this point very prolific) series set mostly in the bayou country of Louisiana with his AA 12-stepping hero Dave Robicheaux. Jack Taylor is very much "in his disease," as we say, but Bruen also talks the Big Book talk. In terms of recent Irish fiction, I'm an advocate of Eamonn Sweeney's Waiting for the Healer, a novel that traverses some of the same territory that Bruen is developing here. Another recent Irish novel that can fairly be put up against this one is Dermot Bolger's The Journey Home, although if it's entertainment you're after I'd recommend The Guards.

Jack Taylor's alcoholism is a central theme of the book. It bends, as I said, the conventions of the genre. Jack isn't much of a detective. He doesn't bring the bad guys to justice. He doesn't, at the end of the day, do much of anything, because his own basic struggle is with The Bender. He blacks out for days. The pretty mother of the (maybe) murdered girl gives up on him and moves on, and she's right. The bad guys are dealt with, as much as for any other reason, because one of Jack's friends is one of the local psychopaths. He rejects the police (the garda, the Irish term universally used in Ireland), the church, and his own mother, but the reader can see that they're not all bad (just bad enough). He's got the Chandlerian virtues, but that's pretty much it, because the truth is he can't hold his liquor.

So in the end, the book is what I would call a "pure noir": a damaged character just barely does anything virtuous, and what he does do he is able to do solely because the other people he is dealing with are themselves so morally compromised that any action grounded in any sense of justice is relatively good. Another master of this form is James Crumley, whose protagonist C. W. Sughrue is also an alcoholic; as in a western, he might just be checking in to a motel and run into some bad guys - he just can't help himself.

There are now a number of Jack Taylor novels, and if I ever go back to reading tough-guy genre novels I'll check them out. If that's what turns you on, you could do worse. But I can't go on recommending, because really this is a thriving genre, and there are just too many good examples to mention. This one's Irish: that's a good thing.