I have read ALOT of books recently, and I wanted to get back into doing that thing where I write capsule book reviews, so let’s start:
Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad – The only bad thing about this Norwegian novel is its uninspired title, which I assume comes from its place in the author’s ouevre. Otherwise it’s a beautifully told story about a man who’s four years divorced from his second wife, living in a small city, working as the treasurer of that city, and wondering how he ended up in this place, with this job, these friends, and this life. He feels so put-out by the randomness, feels so much as if this life has lived him, and he has not made any choices. Beautiful character portraits, particularly of his second wife and of the son from his first marriage. Dag Solstad has a cold, calculating voice that at times seems distant from his characters, but is actually very close to them and very deeply felt. Absolutely bonkers ending: won’t spoil it, but it’s so strange. Here’s a quote:
But no sooner had the Society’s members left the house than he blew his top, allowing all his jealousy to emerge. Turid Lammers thought so anyway. In reality it was nothing but a pretence on his part. He did it for her sake.
he did not dare entertain the thought that Turid might display all of her feminine charm vis-à-vis the evening’s chosen member of the Society without her partner becoming beside himself with jealousy. He could not bear the thought of causing her so much pain
He knew what he was doing. He had made up his mind to live with Turid Lammers at Kongsberg. As the Kongsberg town treasurer. In his leisure time he was involved in amateur theater. His love for her was so great that he could have gone mad out of jealousy. Had he not renounced everything in order to cultivate the temptation in all its intensity, for what was left, after all, except this intensity? But he was in the know. He knew what he was doing. He fully realized that, after living with Turid for seven years, his chief contribution to preserving their relationship consisted in these outbursts of fake jealousy. He had seen through her. He had no illusions about her.
Shyness and Dignity by Dag Solstad– Got really into old Dag and read one of his other books, about a high school teacher who, after twenty-five years, has a breakdown while trying to explicate Ibsen’s play The Wild Duck to his uncaring class. Another beautiful book–it’s roughly divided into third. The first is at the high school. The second is him reminiscing about his college friend, a genius philosopher who became a New York ad-man, and the last third about his increasing fury at the lack of intellect in his life, and at how the world seemingly has no use for his mind. Definitely white male rage, but so subtle and well-drawn. Here’s a little quote that I loved:
There they sat with their soft, puppyish, youthful faces, their—as they thought—horrible pimples, and with a confused and inadequate inner life filled as likely as not with the most soapy daydreams, actually feeling offended because they were bored, and he was the one they were offended by because it was he, the teacher, who was boring them.
Treason of the Intellectuals by Julien Benda– The most important thing to realize about this book is that in the late 19th and early 20th century, a whole wave of intellectuals, largely in sociology and history and other social sciences, started developing the idea that nations and civilizations were real things, with real durable characteristics. Julien Benda did not like this! He thought it was a betrayal of everything an intellectual (what he calls a ‘clerk’) ought to stand for. He thought that a clerk ought to champion universality and the idea that there was a commonality to all men. To him, the idea of clerks using their knowledge to advance narrow, political aims–the aims of nations–was abhorrent. As he put it, there’ve always been kings and statesmen who advanced the cause of states and who preached war and conflict. And there’ve always been priests and scholars who have opposed them. Thus, "For two thousand years, mankind did evil, but it honored the good." In his view, the modern crop of clerk had demolished this history, by using the tools of an clerk to do evil. An incredibly powerful polemic.
From all this it follows that the “clerk” is only strong if he is clearly conscious of his essential qualities and his true function, and shows mankind that he is clearly conscious of them. In other words he declares to them that his kingdom is not of this world, that the grandeur of his teaching lies precisely in this absence of practical value, and that the right morality for the prosperity of the kingdoms which are of this world, is not his, but Caesar’s. When he takes up this position, the “clerk” is crucified, but he is respected, and his words haunt the memory of mankind
Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft – I’m gonna be frank, I didn’t really love it. Reading the book, I realized it only made sense in the context of a world where every woman capable of reading this book would probably have hired help to do her domestic labor. Upper-class women were freed from the necessity of taking care of (or even nursing) their own children, but they weren’t allowed to do anything else. As such a cult of beauty and sentimentality had grown up: women’s only role was to be pleasing to men. And it’s this idea that women are meant to be decorous and pleasing–purely ornamental–that Wollstonecraft inveighs against. But in the modern world, there’s an easy response to her critiques. One could easily say, "Women aren’t purposeless; women are supposed to care for the domestic sphere." That’s not something for which Wollstonecraft has an easy response. Indeed, in her rants against seeking love, against flirtation, against fancy dress and ornament, and against reading novels, she often ends up sounding like a modern conservative. Which she wasn’t, obviously (she herself had a child out of wedlock and was deeply sentimental in her personal life). The book just seemed very rooted in its own time and place. At times it almost seemed like a personal argument she was having with Rousseau (a writer who deeply influenced Wollstonecraft, but who obviously deeply offended her with his extreme, even for the time, misogyny). The Benda book, described above, actually felt similarly rooted in a given time and place, but it was much shorter, and it provided a much clearer description of the problem.