Thomas Murphy: A Novel

thomasmurphy“The park is gray and I am blue, thinking about how long it takes to live a life, and what do you wind up with? Age. People say it’s unseemly to feel sorry for yourself, but I enjoy feeling sorry for myself. Who else would feel sorry for me?”

So ponders poet Thomas “Murph” Murphy in one of the countless rhetorical ramblings that populate Roger Rosenblatt’s disarming Thomas Murphy. The beauty of this novella-slash-character-study-slash-longform-philosophical-musing is that Murph doesn’t really care if you feel sorry for him; he cares that he can make you squirm.

But just a little.

See, under his crotchety exterior, Irish expat Murph is a good guy. Sure he’ll needle into your doubts about God, but then he’ll buy you a slug of Jameson’s to help wash the uncertainty down.

Murph’s own worldview is fairly certain: Life is a long series of struggles and suffering, but at least you get to die at the end. That’s what happened to his wife, Oona, and best friend, Greenberg, both gone in the space of a year.

With his intelligence and wit, Murph is similar to Louis, the circumspect widower in Kent Haruf’s wonderful final novel, Ours Souls at Night. Yet whereas Haruf’s Louis offers spare, resonant insights, Rosenblatt’s Murph glories in full-on Joycean reveries and reminiscences. (Both men would make excellent drinking buddies, but the smart money would be on Louis to get you home by curfew.)

Left with his beloved adult daughter and worthy foil, Máire, and her young son, William, 72-year-old Murph is facing a possible Alzheimer’s diagnosis, eviction from his rent-controlled apartment, and an existential choice of sorts: fling himself headlong into the world of dementia, or keep writing poems, walking in Central Park with his grandson, torturing his long-suffering neurologist, and competing in an endless pissing contest with life.

They’re all so appealing, why choose just one?

DEAR MURPH, writes his daughter in an exchange of notes about his increasingly erratic behavior:

It occurs to me — your brooding mind being what it is — that you may think I’m trying to lock you up in the loony bin. I’m not. You probably ought to be locked up in the loony bin, but that condition long preceded your recent shenanigans. I’m concerned that you’ll harm yourself. It’s that simple.
Your dutiful and loving daughter,
Máire

Dear Dutiful and Loving,
I’m sorry, but I never had a daughter, and I don’t know anyone named Máire. My friend Greenberg used to sing about a table down at Morey’s. Is that you? Or are you the old gray
mare, who ain’t what she used to be? Ah, but who is?

Dear Murph,
Go fuck yourself.

Dear Máire,
Oh! Now I remember you.

And so it goes. You’ll find no scorching plotlines in Thomas Murphy, no sampler-worthy feel-goodisms (except for maybe, “They say that Irishmen drink to forget we’re Irish. I say we drink to remember we’re Irish”), and no stunning denouements.

Instead, what you get is a genuinely funny, likeable protagonist who parries with the Fates, his neighbors, and his no-good landlord while wryly taking measure of the world both real and imagined around him. Murph knows mortality always wins in the end, but there’s no reason you can’t kick it in the balls before the buzzer.

“You never crash if you go full tilt. It takes a kind of courage…my ma’s and da’s courage…and Oona’s, when she was certain she was doomed…The courage to gun it, even though you’re predetermined to fail. Because between that certainty and the attempt to refute it is life, boyo — dreadful, gorgeous life.”

And nobody gets out alive.

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

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“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.

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The Washington Independent Review of Books

 

Since there’s not a chance in hell I’ll ever write a book, I’ve decided to do the next best thing: write about them.

Which is why I joined up with the Washington Independent Review of Books, a DC-based organization devoted to celebrating all things literary.

Rich with insightful reviews, author Q&A’s, and features, the Independent’s website lacked the kind of short, playful pieces that engage readers and encourage feedback. So the all-volunteer staff sought out a creative person to punch up its content without sacrificing its gravitas.

When that person didn’t materialize, they went with me.

I’m thrilled to serve as the Independent’s new Beyond the Book editor (although not quite as thrilled as I’d be if there were a salary involved).

For me, it’s a chance to collaborate with brilliant people on making an already-fantastic product even better.

For my writer friends, it’s a chance to be hit up for free content.

Consider yourselves warned.

And everyone consider checking out the Independent. Let us know which pieces work well, which fall short, and what’s missing. Tell us about your favorite books and authors, and never worry that they’re not highfalutin enough.

Sure, I love John Steinbeck and Charles Dickens as much as the next word nerd, but I also love Stephen King and Christopher Moore.

After all, reading shouldn’t have to hurt to work.

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