“Twilight of the Eastern Gods” by Ismail Kadare

twilightThere’s a moment at the end of W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz when the reader is left with a wandering, unfinished feeling — the very emotion the tormented title protagonist experiences. Ismail Kadare’s slim Twilight of the Eastern Gods evokes a similar sensation. By its conclusion, readers are left not with any great insights, but instead with a sense of slow-motion, Kafkaesque torpor.

I suspect that’s the point.

Set in Moscow in 1958, Twilight of the Eastern Gods is a fictionalized first-person account of the Albanian Kadare’s own time at the Gorky Institute for World Literature, a prestigious graduate school where writers from across the Soviet Union are brought together and, ahem, strongly encouraged to produce stories, plays, and poems with a socialist bent. Big Brother isn’t officially the dean of students, but he might as well be.

Opening at a summer writers’ retreat on the Baltic Sea, the novel’s first few pages set the tone for what is to come. Although the days pass pleasantly, if prosaically, enough, nighttime brings nothing but a chill dullness, broken up — or made worse — by endless games of table tennis.

“Only every so often, in short, rebellious bursts, would I manage to break free from my enslavement to the little white sphere,” says the unnamed narrator. In those instances, “I would jerk my head towards the shore, and every time I turned, like a sleepwalker, towards the water’s edge I hoped to spy in the far distance, at long last, something different from what I had seen the day before. But the seashore at dusk was merciless. It had nothing to offer but a view it had probably been rehearsing since the dawn of time.”

Things aren’t much peppier back in Moscow, where the students reassemble after a holiday. Walking the echoing sixth-floor corridor of the institute’s colorless residence hall, the narrator takes silent stock of his comrades, hardly concealing his disdain for the many vodka-pounding, obscure-language-speaking, churlish martinets from every corner of the U.S.S.R.

“Some were chairs of the Writers’ Union in the Autonomous Republic or Region and had been obliged by the burdensome duties of their position or by insidious plots to give up their studies,” the narrator observes.

“At long last, after overcoming their adversaries, having accused them of Stalinism, liberalism, bourgeois nationalism, Russophobia, petty nationalism, Zionism, modernism, folklorism, etc., having crushed their literary careers and banned the publication of their works, having hounded them into alcoholism or suicide, or, more simply, having had them deported, that is to say, having done what had to be done, they had been inspired to come to the Gorky Institute to complete their literary education.”

Ouch.

Although the book’s foreword reveals that Kadare’s years at the institute weren’t all bad — coming from an Albanian backwater to the much more cosmopolitan Moscow was exciting for the ambitious young man — the author never lost his contempt for the Soviet system and the ways in which artists like himself were expected to champion it.

When Albania was expelled from the Warsaw Pact in the 1960s, Kadare’s creativity was effectively unmuzzled. It wasn’t until 1978, though, that Twilight of the Eastern Gods was completed and published (first in Albanian, later in French, and finally, this fall, in English). And while the book hardly provides an exhaustive look at Cold War society, it does offer a spare glimpse of one budding scribe’s attempts to navigate it.

This sparseness leaves the story maddeningly skeletal in places. For every bit of action that piques readers’ interest — from the narrator’s attempts to alternately woo and discard his girlfriend, Lida Snegina, to the real-life furor over Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago winning the Nobel Prize in Literature — there are stretches of inaction and ennui.

Mercifully, these stretches are punctuated by dry wit, such as when the narrator observes two students from far-flung Eastern Bloc countries dissecting a classmate’s disappointing writing style: “‘Stulpanc, you really don’t know what you’re saying,’ Nutfulla Shakenov broke in. ‘You’re trying to tell me about that decadent Procrustes, or whatever his name is, but do you realise that in all the tundra and the taiga put together, in an area of three million square kilometres and then some, there is one, and only one, writer and that’s Kyuzengesh? Do we really need a literary theory just for him?’”

And do we really need this meandering account of a moment in time behind the Iron Curtain? Yes. Despite its shortcomings, readers will come away from Twilight of the Eastern Gods with a better understanding of what it was like for one writer to trudge along under Nikita Khrushchev’s thumb. They may end up feeling unsatisfied and flustered, but then, so does the narrator.

Jacques Austerlitz would understand.

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Share Button

In Defense of Scary Stories

Sometimes an ax murdererscary is just an ax murderer. But you wouldn’t know it by reading many of the titles on “scariest books” lists haunting the internet this time of year.

When asked to name the most frightening tales they’ve ever read, cultural critics inevitably feel compelled to go all highfalutin and throw in a few that illuminate man’s inhumanity toward man, the hollowness of existentialism, or worst of all, the Tea Party.

“Ghost stories are fine,” says Erudite Author X, “but the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read is 18th-century philosopher Gottfried Leibniz’s Monadology. Its positions on the nature of the universe and occasionalism are truly chilling.”

Well.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, just once, the learned among us stopped being so insufferable? Imagine George Will naming his five favorite horror stories and somehow doing it in under 60,000 words. Or Charles Krauthammer rattling off the world’s most fearful monsters without once mentioning President Obama.

There’s a thrill to wrapping up in a blanket, clutching an eerie tale, and tucking your feet in so the thing under the bed can’t get them. It’s primal, and it doesn’t need to be defended.

So this Halloween, don’t renounce your love of unabashedly scary reads. Proclaim it! Life’s too short to keep Pet Sematary hidden inside a Brave New World book jacket, don’t you think?

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Share Button

“Waking Up” by Sam Harris

Sam Harris has finally acknowledged his spiritual side. Now, before you throw down your Darwin fish in disgust — or wave your rosary in triumph — you should know that the name-brand atheist still doesn’t believe in god. What he does believe in is humans’ capacity to achieve the levels of awareness, clarity, and wonder that the faithful so often attribute to a deity.

In his new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Harris, a neuroscientist, explores how meditation can help nonbelievers strive toward enlightenment (or at least a more satisfying state of consciousness), and then offers a somewhat disjointed roadmap for doing just that.0wakingup

Anticipating blowback from all sides, he starts off by defending his use of the term “spiritual”: “The word spirit comes from the Latin spiritus, which is a translation of the Greek pneuma, meaning ‘breath.’ Around the thirteenth century, the term became entangled with beliefs about immaterial souls, supernatural beings, ghosts, and so forth.” In Harris’ hands, it is brought squarely back into the realm of the empirical.

Having set the semantic stage, he moves onto a frequently hard-to-grasp treatise on the principle of “self” and the nature of consciousness. “The feeling that we call ‘I’ is an illusion. There is no discrete self or ego living like a Minotaur in the labyrinth of the brain. And the feeling that there is — the sense of being perched somewhere behind your eyes, looking out at a world that is separate from yourself — can be altered or entirely extinguished.”

Were he a believer, Harris could shorthand 50 pages by dubbing these inner workings “the soul,” but he were not. Instead, he labors to define consciousness and the duality of the brain, occasionally losing me in the process.

The one description that resonates? Imagine a mirror. Now picture an angry reflection and then a happy reflection in it. Those reflections, like feelings, come and go, while the mirror — consciousness — remains constant. Consciousness is irreducible; it’s a state of simply being, one that offers tangible benefits for those able to quiet their minds long enough to experience it.

Harris is among the lucky. A longtime student of meditation, he recounts many seminal moments where he achieved such a state, including during a trip to the Sea of Galilee.

“As I gazed at the surrounding hills, a feeling of peace came over me. It soon grew to a blissful stillness that silenced my thoughts. In an instant, the sense of being a separate self — an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ — vanished…Only the world remained.

“If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms…If I were a Hindu, I might think in terms of Brahman, the eternal Self…If I were a Buddhist, I might talk about the ‘dharmakaya of emptiness,’ in which all apparent things manifest as in a dream. But I am simply someone who is making his best effort to be a rational human being.”

Alas, he doesn’t always make his best effort when focusing the scope of this book. Although its subtitle suggests a secular self-help guide, Waking Up is really more of a memoir-cum-scientific-text-cum-hearty-endorsement-of-meditation. Each of these topics has merit, but strung together, they feel, well, strung together.

For example, along with protracted discourses on Eastern meditative practices — Harris has studied under several teachers — and Western brain physiology, the author throws in a Meditation 101 how-to box. After long stretches devoted to squishy, esoteric topics, he shifts to a nuts-and-bolts look at choosing the proper guru, the fallacy of near-death experiences, and the risks and rewards of seeking enlightenment via LSD and other mind-altering drugs.

Spoiler alert: Bad trips are bad.

Overall, Harris’ book has much to recommend it, but not so much that it should be anyone’s first stop on the road to secular spirituality. Atheists will cringe at his sometimes woo-woo accounts of transcendent states; the churched will bristle at his refusal to credit a god’s hand in those states; and English majors will struggle to keep up. But few will disagree with his assertion that reaching a place of pure consciousness is challenging.

“An ability to examine the contents of one’s own consciousness clearly, dispassionately, and nondiscursively, with sufficient attention to realize that no inner self exists, is a very sophisticated skill,” Harris writes.

By the end of this book, I still didn’t possess that skill, but I understood it a little better. It was kind of enlightening.

This review originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Share Button

“The Serpent of Venice” by Christopher Moore

 

Remember that renowned Shakespearean work where Othello, Desdemona, Jessica, and King Lear’s fool team up to foil Iago, Lorenzo, and Antonio — all with a little input from Shylock, Emilia, Portia, a snarky Greek chorus, and a horny sea monster named Viv? (I know what you’re thinking, but it’s a myth that sea monsters are frigid.)

Probably not, because the Bard never wrote it. Imagine how much more fun AP Lit would’ve been if he had. Instead, this brilliant mash-up of the Merchant of Venice and Othello — with some King Lear and Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” thrown in for giggles — comes courtesy of Christopher Moore, whose The Serpent of Venice reads like something Shakespeare could’ve written, if only he’d had a proper IV-drug habit.

Set in Venice “a long, long time ago,” the story starts with Pocket of Dog Snogging (a.k.a. Lear’s fool and star of Moore’s hysterical earlier novel Fool) being plied with glass upon glass of a wine “which tastes a bit of pitch” by Iago, Antonio, and Montressor Brabantio, a band of villains determined to drag the city into a fabricated holy war while seizing control of its wealth and the Venetian Senate in the process.

The trio sees Pocket, still mourning the loss of his beloved Cordelia, as an irritating speed bump on their road to victory and decide he must be dispatched. Soon knocked out, walled up, and left for dead in the dank dungeon of Brabantio’s palazzo, the fool awakens to discover he’s not alone. Somewhere in the serpent_of_venice_review_314_475blackness, a dagger-clawed undersea minx emerges and proceeds to have her way with him. Repeatedly.

CHORUS: And so, chained in the dark, naked and bedeviled by a hellish creature unknown, after five changings of the tide, the fool went mad.
I am not mad!
CHORUS: Fear did twist the jester’s tiny mind — stretch it past the limits of sanity until it snapped — and shivering and pale, he went mad.
I am not mad!
CHORUS: Stark, raving mad. Bonkers. Drooling, frothing, barking mad.
I am not bloody mad, you berk!
CHORUS: You’re shouting at a disembodied voice in the dark.
Oh, fuckstockings. Good point.

Happily for Pocket, Viv turns out to be a scaly whore with a heart of gold (at least in her dealings with him). And before he can say, “I’ve just been rogered six ways to Sunday by a Gorgon,” Pocket finds himself released from bondage and washed ashore on La Giudecca, a small island separated from Venice by a wide waterway, where Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, takes pity on the half-drowned harlequin and helps him recover.

What follows is an exquisitely raunchy, occasionally bloody series of twists and turns in which Pocket seeks to avenge Cordelia; Jessica plots to sneak off with Lorenzo; Iago conspires to topple Othello; Shylock demands his pound of flesh; Antonio secretly pines for Bassanio (who openly pines for Portia); Marco Polo (Marco Polo?) hopes to escape a Genoan prison cell; and Viv just wants to be held.

(If you’re rolling your eyes at the absurdity of all this and can’t loosen up enough to enjoy the ride, take a moment to consider why nobody ever sits with you at lunch.)

It gives nothing away to reveal that, as in Moore’s other laugh-out-loud-funny novels — the superb Lamb, A Dirty Job, and the aforementioned Fool among them — the good guys in The Serpent of Venice mostly triumph, the bad guys mostly don’t, and almost everyone ends up bedding somebody (or something). The beauty of this latest work is that it doesn’t just throw Shakespeare’s plotlines into the scrum. It throws his characters in, too.

In other words, don’t assume each player will stay true to form. Is Othello still a jealousy-fueled murderer? Is Shylock obsessed with revenge? Does Antonio conduct business honorably? Will Desdemona remain loyal to the Moor? Are Portia and Nerissa still heavy into cross-dressing? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

“Iago rose and went to Bassanio, offered his hand. ‘Then you’re the one we need to speak with.’ He led Bassanio to the table as if leading a lady to the dance floor. Over his shoulder, he said, ‘The rest of you can fuck off now.’”

Okay, so that’s a tiny spoiler. Iago is still a wanker.

 

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Share Button

Are Quality Book Reviews a Dying Breed?

RIP

Is the literary universe rudderless? According to a recent op-ed in the New York Times, it sure seems that way.

Plagued by the usual suspects – decreasing readership, risk-averse (and resource-depleted) publishers, a glut of celebrity-driven titles, etc. – the world of books feels more fragile than ever.

And its decline, says Colin Robinson, author of the Times piece, is only being hastened by a lack of high-quality book reviews, the kind that steer readers to hidden treasures they might otherwise never discover.

“This variety of channels for the expert appraisal of books has been replaced with recommendations thrown up by online retailers’ computers,” writes Robinson. “But as with so much of the Internet, the nuance and enthusiasm of human encounters is poorly replicated by an algorithm.”

Which is where the Washington Independent Review of Books comes in.

Since 2010, we here at the nonprofit Independent have dedicated ourselves to bringing our readers the very appraisals Robinson fears will soon be extinct: intelligent, insightful opinions on everything from bestsellers to mid-list gems.

With no corporate overlords to serve, we’re free to guide readers toward what we feel are the most compelling new books out there. We’re also free to ignore whatever pop-culture-driven Flavor of the Week may be lining the shelves.

Does this devotion to providing comprehensive, well-reasoned book reviews in a world obsessed with all things quicker, shorter, and snarkier make us different? Probably. Is that a bad thing? No.

We’re firm believers that there will always be thoughtful readers out there, and that those readers deserve equally thoughtful and entertaining reviews.

So while we agree with Mr. Robinson that the literary world is growing less hospitable to writers – and readers – by the day, we have to insist that rumors about quality book reviews’ death are greatly exaggerated.

This piece originally appeared in, you guessed it, the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Share Button