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Paul Bowes (Wales, United Kingdom)
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The White Cities: Reports from France 1925-1939
The White Cities: Reports from France 1925-1939
by Joseph Roth
Edition: Paperback

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Joseph Roth's France and the threat of Nazism, 25 Dec. 2012
"The White Cities" collects pieces written between 1925 and 1939 by Joseph Roth. They are for the most part brief newspaper articles composed at first for German newspapers and after 1933 for émigré papers based in Paris.

The earlier material deals mainly with aspects of French life, particularly in the 'white cities' of the Midi. There are memorable evocations of Lyons, Vienne, Tournon, Marseilles, Nice, Avignon and others. Roth evidently felt that this material was powerful enough to be worth reworking and extending: so the reader is given both the original brief articles and the longer versions which with additions made up the manuscript 'The White Cities', unpublished in Roth's lifetime. Taken as a whole, they form a paean to a style of living for which Roth evidently had much sympathy.

An extended section from roughly 1927 to 1931 covers a wider range of subjects, including assessments of literary figures. Here the insouciant style of the earlier material begins to darken as Roth takes the measure of the French and their capacity for resistance. There is, for example, a notably scornful piece on the Catholic writer Georges Bernanos, whose Christianity doesn't prevent him from admiring the anti-Semite Edouard Drumont.

Although as a Jew Roth had been aware of the fascist threat very early, here the Nazis themselves are at first in the background. Roth was a widely-travelled, cosmopolitan man who was an early advocate of European identity as an alternative to the toxic nationalism that was about to devastate the continent. (As an Austrian he was also nostalgic for the lost Empire: which results in one odd little piece in defence of the emperor-in-exile.)

After 1933, it is a different matter. Roth effectively sabotaged his own very successful journalistic career by cutting all ties with Hitler's Germany, urging that the country should be quarantined within a united Europe while the Hitlerian barbarism ran its course. The tone of these later pieces, which document the period in which most of Europe tried desperately to close its eyes to the nature of Nazism, is more strident and bitter in tone, with an edge of desperation as Roth's personal circumstances worsened and the European political scene darkened almost in lockstep. The last few pieces are full of anticipations of what was to come.

Roth died in May 1939. He was known for many years in the Anglophone world primarily as a writer of fiction; particularly the novel 'The Radetzky March' (1932). However, this volume is one of a number that have appeared recently that give us a view of Roth the journalist and commentator on contemporary politics. It is a mixed bag - unsurprising given the circumstances of its composition - but I found enough here to be able to recommend it to anyone interested in a contemporary account of life in a largely vanished interwar Europe, written as it was lived rather than in retrospect, by a sensitive and humane man who could see it that it was standing in the shadow of an existential threat. The translation, by Michael Hofmann, is typically readable.

On Suicide: A Disclosure on Voluntary Death
On Suicide: A Disclosure on Voluntary Death
by Jean Amery
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Highly personal meditation on voluntary death by a survivor of torture, 21 Dec. 2012
'On Suicide' is the third - after 'At the Mind's Limits' and 'On Aging' - of the three books in which in which Jean Améry attempted to make sense of his life's experience, which by the time of writing (1976) had included torture, the concentration camps, exile from his native Austria, and a certain celebrity as a survivor and commentator on these things. In failing health, he had already attempted suicide on more than one occasion, including a very serious attempt in 1974 from which he was 'rescued' only by unusual medical skill - a fact to which he refers in passing with considerable bitterness.

Améry was educated in the traditions of German phenomenology and Sartrean existentialism. However, his use of ideas drawn from those areas of thinking, here as in his other books, is always grounded in direct experience; which saves his writing from the potential aridity of the theoretical.

In writing 'On Suicide' in his early sixties, one of the author's objects was to explore his own change of heart concerning suicide since the publication of 'On Aging' eight years earlier, in which he had referred to voluntary death as a "fool's story". For the later Améry, the human capacity deliberately to seek a voluntary death (in German 'Freitod', rather than the more usual 'Selbstmord' - 'self-murder') is proof of human freedom from both the brute facticity of nature and the imperial claims of human society and its gods. It is not a sin, as many Christians continue to insist: nor a crime, as the state so often believes; nor is it, as the Freudians would have it, a mere 'narcissistic crisis'. For Améry, the self belongs ultimately to the self alone.

The book was originally conceived as a series of linked radio broadcasts. The five chapters of thirty pages each are probably best read as they were presented, since Améry's argument is sometimes dense, sometimes conversational, always tentative and exploratory, and deserves careful consideration.

This is not an academic discussion of suicide. Neither is it a polemic in favour of voluntary death. As a whole, the book represents a serious attempt to offer a secular, existentialist view of suicide, rooted in but going beyond the author's personal experience, and free from dogmatism. It includes an intelligent and judicious introduction by the translator, John D. Barlow, which gives Améry and the book their due without disguising the faults of each.

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking
The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking
by Oliver Burkeman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The pursuit of happiness reconceived, 16 Dec. 2012
Oliver Burkeman has written this book out of dissatisfaction with the self-help industry, with its mantras of empowerment, its cult of 'positive thinking' and its inveterate habit of treating success and happiness as a right for all. 'The Antidote' draws together strands from a variety of philosophical and spiritual traditions that share a common attitude towards the active pursuit of happiness: they believe it to be a mistaken strategy, self-defeating because grounded in ignorance - sometimes willed ignorance - of the facts of human existence.

Burkeman takes his reader through the basic tenets of classical stoicism and a discussion of the Buddhist principle of non-attachment. He looks at the growth of 'positive thinking' as a secular cure-all, and argues that many of its ideas and much of its language can be located in the worldview of commerce and the businessman. Burkeman argues that this style of thinking is both incoherent in itself and in any case inappropriate as a guide to life, which in the nature of things offers many more instances of repeated failure and disappointment than of success and continuous happiness. A visit to the 'Museum of Failure' reinforces the fact that even in commerce far more products fail than succeed. Excessive goal-orientation may even turn mere failure into disaster.

A journalist by profession, Burkeman is writing for the intelligent general reader who - like the author - may be assumed to be at least mildly sceptical about the positive thinkers. However, he has avoided the easy path of feeding the reader's complacency by holding these people up to easy mockery; preferring instead to speak to a number of figures - Eckhart Tolle among them - who have argued for a 'negative way' through life and the renunciation of goal-oriented, achievement-oriented philosophies. There is a seriousness here that emerges repeatedly: for example, in the discussion of Ernest Becker's 'The Denial of Death', which ascribes much of human unhappiness to our inability to look steadily at the fact of personal and collective extinction.

This is probably not the book for a reader already extensively read in the Stoics or the Buddhist tradition. It is neither a rigorous work of philosophy nor a detailed plan for life. There were a couple of instances in which I felt that a more secure grounding in the sciences might have helped the author see flaws in the arguments of some of his interviewees; and he is more enthusiastic about the late Alan Watts than I can bring myself to be. But these are minor points and do not affect my judgement that this is a sane, readable, equable, persuasive guide to an admirable philosophical tradition. Given the subject matter, it helps considerably that Burkeman has a wry sense of humour that is never overplayed.

Isle of the Dead (Swiss Literature) (Swiss Literature Series)
Isle of the Dead (Swiss Literature) (Swiss Literature Series)
by Gerhard Meier
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.50

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars First English translation of an important Swiss novel, 11 Dec. 2012
Given his reputation as a writer's writer, Gerhard Meier is one of the least well-known contemporary German-language writers in the Anglophone world. A Swiss, Meier came to prominence in 1979 with the novel 'Toteninsel', the first of what was eventually to be a series of four separate but linked books. 'Isle of the Dead' is the first English translation of what is now regarded as a milestone in modern Swiss literature.

It's one of those books in which by design almost nothing happens. Two men in their early sixties take an uneventful walk through the Swiss town of Amrein. They are locals who have known each other for years and did their military service together. One talks, disconnectedly, about details and incidents from family and local history: the other listens, muses, responds, records. The book is short - a hundred pages - but so densely woven from repeated motifs that slow reading - and a second reading - are advised to savour the patterns that Meier has woven out of unremarkable memories and anecdotes and the banal facts of light and weather.

Like its author, who in spite of winning major prizes and the admiration of Peter Handke kept a studiedly low profile, 'Isle of the Dead' is deliberately provincial in subject matter and low key in style. At first the title seems an odd one: but it slowly becomes apparent that the world that Baur the talker reveals in scraps and anecdotes and on which Bindschadler the thinker reflects is death-haunted as well as vital. Meier has the phenomenologist's habit of giving equal attention to everything, without particular emphasis or exaggeration. The result has more in common with the texture of music or tapestry than the linear motion and clear narrative arc of the conventional novel.

Readers of Handke, Sebald, Stifter, and Proust should find Meier congenial. This translation by Burton Pike is a service to English-speaking readers.

On Aging: Revolt and Resignation
On Aging: Revolt and Resignation
by Jean Amery
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An uncompromising study of aging as existential combat, 9 Dec. 2012
Jean Améry was the pseudonym of Hanns Mayer, an Austrian Jew whose intellectual formation took place in pre-war Vienna, but who was profoundly affected by his wartime experiences of torture and imprisonment. 'On Aging' (published in German in 1968) translates the second of the three books that made the author's name in the German-speaking world as a respected writer on the extremes of human experience. The first, and best-known, deals with torture and the life of the camps: the third looks at suicide as the definitive guarantor of human freedom.

Améry emerged from the war a displaced and in some ways broken man who nonetheless made a living as a journalist and essayist. The essays that comprise 'On Aging' were originally delivered as radio broadcasts. The result is a relatively short book divided into five dense, compressed chapters of roughly twenty-five pages each.

As in his other writings, Améry pulls no punches in his consideration of the experience of aging. He refuses to sugar-coat the pill of steady physical and mental deterioration, and expands his view to encompass the disconcerting ways in which we find our aging mirrored in the gaze of the other as well as our own. Améry is remorseless in his logical dissection of our evasive thinking about aging, illness and death. For him, aging is an outrage: there is nothing 'natural' about it; he experiences it as a form of assault from within that threatens to alienate him from himself.

Améry was an admirer of the young Jean-Paul Sartre, and although these essays were written in German they bear the mark of French existentialist thinking as well as the earlier phenomenology of Husserl and Bergson on the subjective experience of time. As a result they are not always easy reading. Readers familiar with the Continental tradition in philosophy will have fewer difficulties; others should persist. Améry was as serious a thinker as Primo Lévi, and in this book he never leaves the ordinary reader thinking "this has nothing to do with me: I have no point of contact with these matters". The experience of aging is the common lot, and Améry has much to say about it, particularly for readers without the consolation of religious belief. As literature and as a guide to Améry's intellectual world, 'On Aging' is independent of, but profits from being read alongside, 'At The Mind's Limits' and 'On Suicide' by the same author.

[Introduction and Prefaces, xxiii pages; text, 128 pages. Endnotes, 4 pages. No index.]

by Laurent Binet
Edition: Hardcover

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A work of dramatised history with fictional pretensions, 6 Dec. 2012
This review is from: HHhH (Hardcover)
'HHhH' is a retelling of the story of the assassination of Reinhold Heydrich by members of the Czech resistance in 1942, and of the infamous massacre of the inhabitants of the village of Lidice as a consequence. The author describes it as a novel. In fact, there is little to distinguish the book's form from that of any other recreation of the same events beyond the author's insistence on interpellating details of the circumstances of the book's composition and his musings on the relationship between historical fact and 'recreated' fact in the absence of evidence.

The result is a thin postmodern veneer - intellectually, Binet is not exactly Foucault or Barthes - over an otherwise unremarkable book. The reader's patience with this will depend on how far he or she finds the author's narratorial personality agreeable and his remarks about fiction and history interesting, rather than banal and distracting. Binet seems to believe his audience will find it a novelty that historians are forced to give shape to their narratives in ways that resemble the tactics of writers of fiction.

When Binet sticks to dramatising the story he tells it well, and the reader who comes to 'HHhH' for the story alone will find this book very readable. No novelist could improve on the cast of characters, or the drama of the events around the assassination and the climactic siege.

I enjoyed the book without ever feeling that it was a transformative experience. Nothing is to be gained by describing it as a work of fiction: it is simply a work of dramatised history embroidered - and in my view weakened - by the author's insistence on drawing attention to himself. On this showing Binet is a competent but rather self-regarding writer with ambitions beyond his undoubted abilities and little new to say.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 5, 2014 7:16 PM GMT

The Philosopher of Auschwitz: Jean Amery and Living with the Holocaust
The Philosopher of Auschwitz: Jean Amery and Living with the Holocaust
by Irene Heidelberger-Leonard
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £22.50

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A useful biographical introduction to Jean Améry, 2 Dec. 2012
Jean Améry was the literary pseudonym of Hanns Mayer, an Austrian Jew who suffered exile, torture and finally imprisonment in Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen during the Second World War. Surviving the war but permanently damaged by these events, he established a career as a journalist, but made a wider reputation in German-speaking Europe with the publication from 1966 of three separate book-length studies that dealt with the moral, psychological and philosophical implications of his experiences: on the experience of torture; on the experience of aging; and finally on the possibility of suicide as the ultimate guarantor of freedom. These books, particularly the first - translated only in 1980 as 'At the Mind's Limits' - made him as familiar a figure in the Holocaust debates of the late '60s and early '70s as Primo Levi. Something of a prisoner of success and the post-war mood of reconciliation, he found himself increasingly typecast as an Auschwitz survivor, struggling with a melancholic temperament worsened by ill-health and an enduring sense of exile. In 1978 he ended his own life. Much of his work has still to be translated into English, though the three studies mentioned above are now all available.

This biography is a useful introduction to Améry that places him in the context of his time but refuses to limit his significance. As well as recounting the external details of the author's life, Irène Heidelberger-Leonard restores a sense of perspective that allows us to see Améry as an individual and not as a stereotype. His post-war views are situated culturally both in relation to his pre-war self-education in advanced intellectual circles in Austria, and to the influence of Sartrean existentialism. The writings that made him famous are seen as a continuation of his life's literary work, rather than as a complete break with it. Heidelberger-Leonard doesn't play down the significance of the work on torture and the camps, but insists that the books - and journalism - that precede and follow are important, and in particular that Améry's fiction has been unjustly neglected. She has made sense of Améry's life as a whole.

'The Philosopher of Auschwitz' first appeared in German in 2004, and the translation into English reads easily. The text is enlivened by around fifty black and white photographs, and supplemented by end-notes and an index of names.

On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe
On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe
by Andrzej Stasiuk
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Polish writer explores his region, 19 Nov. 2012
Andrzej Stasiuk is a highly-regarded Polish writer, much of whose work falls between genres. 'On the Road to Babadag', published in Polish in 2004, might be described as literary travel writing, or autobiography-by-way-of-itinerary. Stasiuk wanders around Eastern Europe, avoiding major centres of population, and writing about whatever happens to claim his attention. As a result, the book is at least as much about Stasiuk's personality - melancholic, elegiac, attracted instinctively to the fringes of life - as about the places he visits. He has a particular affinity for borders and margins: backwaters in which decay is the dominant motif, or the passage of time has slowed to imperceptibility.

This is not the book for someone looking for a simple travelogue. Stasiuk leaps about in time and space without much concern for continuity of anything other than mood and his own preoccupations. One map is provided, but the reader without detailed knowledge of the region will struggle to keep up amid the torrent of unfamiliar names: this is a book to be read with access to an atlas - or Google - to hand. On the other hand, the essence of an East European temperament that is far older than fascism or communism is powerfully conveyed. Stasiuk is a masterful stylist, and the excellent, idiomatic translation does him justice. At one point, he visits Răşinari, the village birthplace of Emil Cioran. I think that Cioran would have appreciated what he writes, and the spirit in which he writes it.

Highly recommended to anyone interested in the literature of the region, or contemporary writing in general. The same author's 'Dukla', another hard-to-classify blend of fiction and autobiography, is even better.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 6, 2012 7:54 AM GMT

How to Get Into the Twin Palms
How to Get Into the Twin Palms
by Karolina Waclawiak
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.18

3.0 out of 5 stars An interesting debut novel of identity and desperation, 6 Nov. 2012
'How To Get Into the Twin Palms' has been described by Gary Shteyngart as an example of '1.5 generation' literature: writing that draws on the experiences of young Americans who immigrated as children, and find themselves positioned uneasily between cultures - neither 'first generation' products of the old culture, like their parents, nor completely assimilated, 'second-generation' immigrants, speaking English as a first language. This generic pigeonholing might seem to make Katerina Waclawiak's debut novel of limited interest. But the central character's rootlessness and sense of displacement resonates more widely; perhaps because it is increasingly the common experience of urban youth, growing up in a world in which rapid, disorientating change mimics the older disruptive role of geographical displacement.

It is also about Los Angeles. As such, it takes its place in a long line of attempts to grapple with the marginal and transitory nature of life in the paradigmatic city of the modern, where identity is provisional by design. Waclawiack's Los Angeles is at once a city of arbitrary ethnic concentrations - much of the novel is set in the Russian section of West Hollywood - and an edgeless, centreless, fluid territory, transected by freeways that facilitate rapid but somehow meaningless spatial transitions. Ultimately, 'Twin Palms' is about identity: not just immigrant identity, but personal, existential identity in a city that seems indifferent to notions of stability, history and continuity.

The novel's protagonist is a young Polish-American woman - unusual in a genre dominated by males - living alone in LA (Waclawiak, now based in New York, lived in LA for ten years at about the same age). Like the city, 'Anya' - not her real name - has identity problems: in her case, an unsatisfactory and rebellious relationship with her Polish inheritance that has stalled her attempts to forge a new, more viable identity in the sainted Reagan-land of freedom and opportunity. Street-watching from the balcony of her flat, she finds herself fascinated by people entering a private club: the Twin Palms, patronised exclusively by Russians of a glamorous and potentially dangerous kind.

As a Pole, she is excluded from the mysteries of the Twin Palms: here in the New World, in theory a blank canvas of desire, Old World prejudices and mutual suspicion still operate. Piqued, she pursues what is less a considered plan than a spur-of-the-moment gamble: she will try, as 'Anya', to shuck off her unsatisfactory Polish identity, to pass for Russian, to seduce a man who can get her into the Twin Palms, where...what?

Waclawiak uses this story, with its California noir-ish flavour - the indifferent, soiled city, the reckless, self-doubting heroine, the ill-advised and morally ambiguous quest - to explore the bases of identity, which to Anya's dismay prove more deep-rooted than a change of name and colour of hair. Russian or Polish? 'Good girl' or kept woman? Career person or nihilist? These binary choices fail to describe her world or resolve Anya's ambivalence.

Waclawiak's protagonist, with her personal carelessness, obsession with smells and tastes and small details of appearance, her barely suppressed desperation, seems to have strayed from the pages of Joan Didion - if one can imagine a Didion deprived of her insider status and guilt-tripped over the phone by her devout Catholic mother - but Waclawiak is still learning to handle language with Didion's surgical precision: apparent banalities that in Didion would be pregnant with unstated dread in 'Twin Palms' too often fall flat. Anya is marooned in the banal, timeless interval between a shallow-rooted past that supplies no sustenance and a future that she can neither believe in nor bring into being. But can the author make us care?

Working part-time as a bingo caller, Anya is bullied and mothered by the octogenarian Mary, who treasures the memory of her dead husband and her youthful beauty, is still avid for life, and is adamant that even in old age Anya will never be free of sexual desire - another element of identity that suddenly seems non-negotiable, more of an imposed burden than an expression of free choice. That Mary seems so much more alive than the younger woman is the first intimation that Anya's whimsical project may be masking a greater lack.

As Anya's half-conscious determination to make something - anything - happen sees her life begin to crumble at the edges, the reader may be haunted by echoes of other California fictions: by John Fante and Charles Bukowski, Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald, in whose writing glamour is rarely more than a false promise, a deceiving skin over a more essential seediness, and the presumed void of a life without direction, centre or foundation, governed only by amoral impulse and irrational desire. But Waclawiak - oddly, for an author who trained as a screenwriter - lacks the strong visual sense and the irrepressible vernacular energy of those earlier writers. Nor is this a thriller: the motor of plot runs in fits and starts towards no obvious goal. Just as Mary's presence erases Anya, so 'Twin Palms'' low-key retelling of disaster stubbornly refuses to drive its more vivid precursors out of the reader's mind.

An interesting book with some promise for the future.

Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010
Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010
by Damien Broderick
Edition: Paperback
Price: £13.01

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good overview of recent Anglo-American SF in English, 17 Oct. 2012
This book was conceived as a successor to David Pringle's well-known 'Science Fiction: the Best 100 Novels 1949-84', which is now approaching thirty years old and in need of supplementation. The American authors are respected figures in the field; Pringle contributes a brief foreword.

Any selection of a hundred titles from a given twenty-five years will have something of the arbitrary about it, no matter what the criteria. But here the authors have avoided the obvious traps. Some British readers will inevitably find a few of the American writers mentioned unfamiliar; but if the book is to be a basis for exploration, that is all to the good. The good big names of the genre are here as well as the less well-known, and Di Filippo and Broderick have included the most obvious examples of writers better known for literary fiction who have worked in the genre: Jonathan Lethem, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Chabon rub shoulders with Hannu Rajaniemi, Vernor Vinge and Robert Charles Wilson. This is, of course, very firmly an overview of English-language, and particularly Anglo-American SF: the enthusiast for SF in translation will have to look elsewhere.

Each book is given an average of three pages of lively, intelligent, often dense and surprisingly wide-ranging discussion that opens out into a view of the author's wider achievement. There is a lot of information here, and in that sense the book is excellent value for money and a good basis for further reading. The authors are enthusiastic without being silly. I could have spared the small black-and-white cover illustrations which head each chapter, most taken from American popular paperback editions, which simply don't work well without colour, and in general serve only to remind the reader of the low standard of commercial SF cover art.

The book lists its contents by title and in chronological order. It would have been useful if a list by author name could have been included as well: particularly as there is no index (in a book of nearly 300 pages), and this is a book that positively invites the reader to dip in and out rather than to read every entry from first to last. It does look as though the book may have been conceived with the e-book format, with its easy searchability, first in mind.

Recommended for anybody who wants to investigate science fiction from the last twenty-five years and is seeking an overview and suggestions for starting points; or who is very familiar with the field and enjoys arguing with the judgements of others. Very much a book for use rather than reference. [The keenly-priced Kindle version may make more sense for readers with less than perfect eyesight: a small font is used throughout the printed version.]
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 21, 2013 1:58 PM GMT

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