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“Mourning, thought Albert, is nothing but a word. People contrived it to make things simpler. But what you actually feel for the dead isn’t sorrow, isn’t pity either—what hurts so [effing] bad when someone disappears forever is nothing more than the realization that you’ve been alone from your very first day in this world, and that you’ll stay that way till the end.”

In his third book, the first coverto be published in English, German author Christopher Kloeble creates a thematically complex novel in which he examines the most crucial aspects of everyday life for several families over several generations as they try to figure out who they are and what their roles are within their own family histories and in the histories of others close to them. Though most thoughtful people reflect on their parents and siblings and their own roles within their families as part of their growing-up process, the relationships in this novel are not as clear-cut as they are in most readers’ lives. Even the question of who is your father or who is your mother does not inspire an automatic answer for some of the characters here. As Kloeble examines three generations of characters in two story lines, from the aftermath of World War I  to the present, the exact nature of their connections is often hidden, not only from the reader but also from the characters themselves.


Author photo by Stephan Rohl.

In simple, clear language which befits the two main characters as the novel opens, Kloeble introduces Albert, an orphan who is now nineteen years old.   Every year since he was three, Albert has traveled from the orphanage where he grew up, far from the town where he was born, to visit a man named Fred from his “home town.” As the novel opens, he has just arrived once again, after a seventeen-hour bus ride to the small community in the Bavarian uplands where the now-sixty-year-old Fred lives. From his earliest years of visiting, Albert has understood that when they are together, he is responsible for Fred’s well-being: Fred is a “kloble,” a person who is “clumsy” and limited in intellect. On his present trip, however, Albert feels as if he has come “home” for the last time to the place where his only family – still a mystery – once lived. He will watch over Fred, whom he believes to be his father, through Fred’s final illness. Fred has only five months left to live.

"Mint green" BMW 3-series from 1936. A dilapidated version of a car like this keeps Fred amused outside his house.

“Mint green” BMW 3-series from 1936. A dilapidated version of a car like this keeps Fred amused outside his house.

Gradually, Fred’s life becomes clearer. He is a hero in the town, having saved a woman and her baby on “The Day the Bus Attacked the Bus Stop,” a time when a runaway bus almost killed them, and the town honors him for that. He has always loved reading the Silver Encyclopedia though he does not comprehend what it means, and he delights in sitting beside the road counting cars, especially mint green cars like his favorite model, a BMW from the 1930s, one of which, now a dilapidated wreck, sits beside his house. During these hours of counting, Fred regards his life as “ambrosial.”

Every year the town’s the most important celebration is the Sacrificial Festival in which each resident submits his/her “Most Beloved Possession” to be burned, and on his visits, Albert always searches Fred’s house and attic for any little piece of information which might provide a clue as to who his own mother might be. Anything he can find, no matter how small, would be Albert’s Most Beloved Possession; Fred’s Most Beloved Possession, one which he treasures, is a gold nugget so large it has the value of a new house, one he says he received from his father.

Fred explores the sewers where he claims he finds magical treasures from his father.

Fred explores the sewers where he claims he finds a series of magical treasures left in a box by his father.

Through flashbacks, a second point of view appears at the beginning of Part II, illustrated visually by italicized print whenever this speaker confides in the reader. This character, a male, has memories and family history which go back to the early twentieth century, and the reader soon learns that this speaker, Julius Habom, is the grandson of Anne Marie Habom and Nick Habom, and the son of their son Josfer. The two story lines, that of Fred and Albert, as they try to deal with Fred’s imminent death, and that of Julius and his offspring, are told in parallel, and the changes in story, time period, and focus keep the reader busy noting and tracking the hints and clues regarding Albert’s mysterious origins, and the Habom family’s relationships over time. Some story elements, such as Fred’s interest in exploring the local sewer system in search of his father, whom he believes puts wonderful surprises inside a box which Fred keeps in the sewer, add to the mysteries and suggest symbols, though they do sometimes create confusion for the reader with their complications and suggestions of the supernatural.

Pristine woods of Segendorf into which Julius escapes after witnessing a family horror.

Pristine woods of Segendorf into which Julius escapes after witnessing a family horror.

During this novel, the author explores some of mankind’s most important themes in unique ways. Who are we as individuals (a question raised by Albert and sometimes Fred) exists alongside questions about who we are within our families and what is the role of love in our lives. What obligations, if any, do we have toward a new generation, and to what information is that new generation entitled by their elders? How, if at all, is the present a direct outgrowth of the past? As Albert begins to grow up and feel the stirrings of love and sex, he also experiences three serious loves, another complex theme well developed through the action, in addition to more platonic loves which teach him about humanity. And slowly, as Fred weakens, death becomes a major theme, making Albert increasingly determined to find out who his parents are before it is too late. No matter what he discovers, however, Albert knows he will always regard Fred as his father, despite Fred’s limitations.

hansel gretelNear the end of the novel, a “shape-shifter” appears, adding to the hints of supernatural elements, and a villain enters the novel for the first time, focused on hurting Fred. The novel continues inexorably forward through the generations until all questions regarding mothers and fathers and children and their heritage are finally resolved. Carefully constructed in terms of the parallel story lines and the detailed and unusual chronological shifts, the novel contains many diversions and sidetracks, which often add to the themes while reducing the reader’s identification with the characters and their ability to share their emotional worlds. Life, as one character believes, “was a heap of puzzle pieces that never added up to one great whole…merely filled you with false hope…let you believe that the Truth existed out there…puzzle pieces…Hansel and Gretel crumbs.” A patient reader will consider that as Kloeble expertly guides his novel to its final resolution.

Photos, in order:  Author photo by Stephan Rohl on https://commons.wikimedia.org

Fred’s favorite car, a mint-green 3-series from the 1930s, is shown on this site:  http://www.prewarcar.com/classifieds/ad177815.html

Fred enjoys escaping into the town sewers where he sometimes finds seemingly magical presents left in a box, he believes, by his father.  http://www.gizmodo.com.au/

The lovely woods of rural Segendorf are featured on this tour site:  http://trip-suggest.com

The drawing of Hansel and Gretel and their crumbs is shown on https://www.seowerkz.com

ARC: Graywolf

REVIEW. Germany, Literary, Psychological study, Coming-of-age.
Written by: Christopher Kloeble
Published by: Graywolf
Date Published: 02/02/2016
ISBN: 978-1555977290
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note: In 2008 Herman Wouk became the first WINNER of the Library of Congress Lifetime Achievement Award for the writing of fiction. He was then ninety-three. His first novel, The Man in the Trench Coat, written in 1941, was followed over the next seventy-five years by twenty-two more books, most of them carefully composed and well characterized historical fiction. This new book, his twenty-fourth, a memoir about writing, has been published just after his 100th birthday.

“Literature, I tell aspiring writers, is a mug’s game. The author of Moby Dick died in his seventies utterly forgotten…Not one newspaper obituary noted his passing. Some thirty years after he died…the academic field of American literature was swamped by a tsunami of second thoughts about Melville…[who now is] right up there with Aristotle, Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Tolstoy in the University of Chicago’s Great Books of the Western World, #48 out of 54….A mug’s game, I say, a crapshoot, the stakes one’s heart’s blood.”

cover sailor fiddler woukAlthough author Herman Wouk talks about writing as a crapshoot, he himself also had a talent for being in the right place at the right time, recognizing new opportunities and new avenues of communication (such as television) as they have arisen. This talent, combined with his incredible dedication to long-range goals and seemingly unlimited energy – several times spending seven or eight years on a single book – led to popular success as well as literary recognition. Though many people over the years have suggested he write an autobiography, he has always been reticent about his private life, and his wife even told him, “Dear, you’re not that interesting a person.” This book, which he has declared will be his last, is a memoir, but in it, Wouk limits its scope to his work and the people and events which influenced it. About the author, one learns only as much as he deems necessary to understand how and why he wrote what he did.

wouk photo

Readers who grew up with City Boy (1948), The Caine Mutiny (1951), the play of The Caine Mutiny Courtmartial (1953), Marjorie Morningstar (1955), Youngblood Hawke (1962), The Winds of War (1971) War and Remembrance (1978), and the 25-hour miniseries of The Winds of War and War and Remembrance in 1983, may be surprised at Wouk’s early background. Describing himself as a “short, fat, baby-faced clown” in school, he attended college at Columbia, where “I found my feet as a funnyman.” Struck by the talent shown in the 1932 Columbia Varsity Show by Arnold Auerbach,* the Big Man on Campus, he joined his Jewish fraternity, where the talented Auerbach became a mentor. After graduation, Wouk joined Auerbach as a “radio gagman” in New York, working for David Freedman, “the Gag Czar,” who supplied material to three or four different radio programs for different comedians, including Eddie Cantor. Wouk and Auerbach left Freedman when they heard that comedian Fred Allen, a Boston Irishman whom they both admired, was looking for writers. They applied as a team and were hired, working in comedy with Allen, “the national Number One Funnyman” for the next five years.

Jack Benny and Fred Allen in LOVE THY NEIGHBOR, 1937. Their on-air "feud" provided fodder for both comedians throughout their careers.

Jack Benny and Fred Allen in LOVE THY NEIGHBOR, 1937. Their on-air “feud” provided fodder for both comedians throughout their careers.

Despite the rise of Hitler, the attack on Poland, and the declarations of war by England and France, “[Auerbach and I] remained as oblivious…as well-fed apes in the zoo…Draft boards formed all over the country, but not in or near Radio City.” Then the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Wouk, who had previously expressed an interest in joining the Navy, though he was over twenty-six, was drafted by the Army, and it was a letter from Fred Allen which paved the way for him to be released from his Army obligation so that he could join the Navy, which features so strongly in much of his later writing, beginning with his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Caine Mutiny, published in 1951. Partly autobiographical, it remained the number one listing on the New York Times bestseller list for thirty-two weeks and inspired the author to write the play of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial (1953), starring Henry Fonda and directed by Charles Laughton (about whom Wouk’s wife has some choice words), which opened in 1954. Five months later, the film version opened with Captain Queeg, played by Humphrey Bogart, winning an Academy Award nomination for Bogart and for the film itself.

1951 film of THE CAINE MUTINY

1951 film of THE CAINE MUTINY

The Caine Mutiny forms the basis for much of Wouk’s first section of the memoir, the “Sailor” section. Moving to the Caribbean in 1957, building a house, and staying there with his family for seven years, Wouk takes with him all the research material he needs for The Winds of War (1971), a book about the forces which led up to World War II, a book which took seven years to write, an experience the author descries as akin to being in a “seven-year creative trance.” A second novel, War and Remembrance (1978), which begins with the attack on Pearl Harbor, also takes seven years.   These two books are regarded by Wouk as his “Main Task” in this memoir. “Winds of War was the pedestal, War and Remembrance was the memorial.”

Wouk's own favorite book, INSIDE, OUTSIDE, 1985.

Wouk’s own favorite book, INSIDE, OUTSIDE, 1985.

Wouk has always been an observant Jew, keeping kosher throughout his life, and his interest and commitment to Israel are huge. The latter half of the memoir is his “Fiddler” section, named as an homage to Sholem Aleichem’s character. This is My God (1959), a book about his faith, was one of his first philosophical books, with The Will to Live On (2001), and The Language God Talks (2011) coming much later. In between the first and the second philosophical studies, Wouk wrote several novels about Israel. Inside, Outside (1985), the book he describes as “closest to his heart,” takes place during the Nixon White House and Watergate investigation and describes how the Israelis were able to gain American materiel from an embattled President. Two later novels, which again started out as one book, The Hope (1993) and The Glory (1994) provide a continuous focus on the first thirty years of Israeli history, up to the Yom Kippur War. The “lackluster sales” of The Glory,  “into which I had put my heart and soul…and special pride,” however, and the lack of major interest in the book reminded the author of a line from Samuel Johnson: “Superfluous lags the veteran on the stage.”

Jimmy Buffett's DON'T STOP THE CARNIVAL, a musical based on Wouk's novel of the same name.

Jimmy Buffett’s DON’T STOP THE CARNIVAL, a musical based on Wouk’s novel of the same name.

His discouragement was not permanent, however. In 1996, Jimmy Buffett came to meet him in Palm Springs to talk about acquiring stage rights to one of his lighter early novels (1965), Don’t Stop the Carnival, about the problems he faced when he and his wife decided to build a house in St. Thomas back in 1965, as he was working on his “Main Task” of Winds of War and War and Remembrance. “In his easy-going fashion, [Buffett] blew “superfluous” right out of the water.” His musical version of this book, opened in 1997.

Herman Wouk, one of the most ambitious and principled writers of the past century, has said that this book is his last.  With a career which has spanned comedy, serious historical fiction, popular fiction, philosophy, and religion, Wouk has sold hundreds of thousands of books and had a major impact on the people and the culture of this country. He will be one-hundred-one years old on May 27, 2016, but with his energy, I would not bet anything on this book being his last.

*Note: Arnold Auerbach, Wouk’s friend from college, and with whom he works with Fred Allen, has no connection which I could find to the Boston Celtics coach of the same name, who was only five years younger.

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo, when he was in his nineties, is from http://www.rte.ie

Jack Benny and Fred Allen maintained a fake “feud” on the air throughout their careers. http://www.radiospirits.info/

The Caine Mutiny film poster appears on http://subscene.com/subtitles/the-caine-mutiny

Jimmy Buffett’s recording of his musical version of DON’T STOP THE CARNIVAL is from http://torrentcd.pw/

SAILOR AND FIDDLER: Reflections of a 100-year-old Author
REVIEW. Autobiography/Memoir, Historical, Israel, Non-fiction, Social and Political Issues, United States
Written by: Herman Wouk
Published by: Simon and Schuster
Date Published: 01/05/2016
ISBN: 978-1501128547
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

“Our vicious little group was so competitive, always arguing over who was the first to coin a phrase or invent a joke. But does it even matter? Maybe Groucho said it first. Or maybe George Kaufman wrote it and Groucho just read it. Or perhaps Mr. Benchley said it first and I repeated it and Kaufman wrote it and Groucho made it famous. But who really cares? In the end, does any of it matter?” Dorothy Parker to Violet Epps, about the Algonguin Round Table group.

cover Farewell, Dorothy ParkerIn this first of two “Dorothy Parker novels” by Ellen Meister, Violet Epps, a thirty-seven-year-old movie critic with a major magazine, is waiting for the maître d’ in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel in New York City to seat her. When a “Dr. Walker” pushes her aside, claiming in a loud voice that he has a reservation, the best Violet can summon up in outrage is the silent wish that she could channel Dorothy Parker’s caustic wit to put this man in his place. Though she can be astute and clever in her reviews, Violet, in her personal life, constantly shrinks from confrontation, “held captive by her own timidity.” Poet and critic Dorothy Parker (1893 – 1967), who eventually materializes to help Violet, held court at the Algonquin’s Round Table throughout the 1920s and became famous among New York’s literary elite for her ability to puncture the pretensions of the arrogant with ascerbic remarks, puns, and bons mots. The Round Table members, consisting of Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, George S. Kaufman, Robert Sherwood, Percy Coates, and others, were so pointed in their comments that they were once described by fellow member, Edna Ferber, as “The Poison Squad,” adding that “They were actually merciless if they disapproved. I have never encountered a more hard-bitten crew.”

Ellen Meister back-up pic

Author Ellen Meister

Violet has not had much luck in her personal life. Her first marriage fell apart, and now she is about to allow her current boyfriend Carl to move in with her – it is easier than telling him that the relationship is over because of his childishness and his drinking. She also has partial (weekend) custody of her niece Delaney, the orphaned child of her sister and brother-in-law who were killed in an automobile accident. She would have had full custody, which she and Delaney both wanted, if the child’s grandparents had not blind-sided her in court with a ferocious lawyer who so intimidated her that she could not speak. She knows that the grandparents and their lawyer will use the same tactic again when the permanent custody hearing comes up in order to gain full custody. Obviously, Violet needs help in all aspects of her personal life, the kind of help which only someone like Dorothy Parker can give.

Dorothy Parker in the 1920s.

Dorothy Parker in the 1920s.

Dorothy Parker has been living a ghostly life in the Algonquin Hotel for the past forty-five years, dependent upon a quirk of time and a kind of magic for her current “life.”  Parker once signed an old guest book on display in the Algonquin’s Blue Bar.  Her signature, like those of other Round Table members, guarantees that her spirit will not leave the earth until it has decided it wants to go.  If the guest book remains open to the page on which she has signed, Parker’s spirit, like those of other signers, may appear and reappear at will, even to the point of completely taking over the spirit of someone else, if she wants.  If the book is closed, the spirit disappears, and if the book is moved, her spirit, with all its other-worldly talents, goes with it.

Dorothy Parker with Round Table friends (L - R): Art Samuels, Charles MacArthur, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker, and Alexander Woollcott

Dorothy Parker with Round Table friends (L – R): Art Samuels, Charles MacArthur, Harpo Marx, Dorothy Parker, and Alexander Woollcott

While Violet is at the Algonquin, the manager, recognizing her reviewing talent and fame, asks her to sign the guest book, and when the opportunity unexpectedly appears, Violet cannot resist taking the guest book with her when she leaves. The spirit of Dorothy Parker happily leaves the Algonquin to go to the house where Violet’s niece Delaney grew up and where Violet is now living. Materializing whenever the book is open, Dorothy Parker delights in taking over the spirit of the weak Violet and creating much-needed havoc in her life. As Dorothy Parker tells her, “You owe Delaney a sincere effort to bring your inner bitch into the light where she belongs.”

The Round Table at the Algonquin where the group had lunch. The iconic painting of the group is in the background.

The Algonquin Round Table where the group had lunch. The iconic painting of the group is in the background.

Ellen Meister creates innumerable scenes in which Dorothy Parker shows Violet how to become a stronger person, more like the person she is in her critical writing, and less like the person she really is inside. Why Violet is so timid is suggested through Parker’s psychological analysis of Violet’s background, though Parker still has to take over her body and spirit and make decisions for her, on occasion, so that Violet’s life (and the outcome of the novel) will have the right ending. The novel contains many scenes which, individually, provide a great deal of entertainment, show Dorothy Parker as Meister believes her to be, allow for the nearly one-hundred year difference in time frame (as Dorothy Parker learns how to use the internet, for example), and allow Violet enough freedom to practice what she is learning from Parker in her own life. When Violet falls in love with someone new, the novel becomes more romantic, and when she has problems with her job, it becomes more realistic, creating differences in tone which make it more interesting for the reader.

In this painting in the dining room of the Algonquin, Dorothy Parker is on the far left, with Robert Benchley above her, and Mathilde, the Algonquin's resident cat, seen upside down in Benchley's smoke.

In this painting in the dining room of the Algonquin, Dorothy Parker is on the far left, with Robert Benchley above her, and Mathilde, the Algonquin’s resident cat, seen upside down in Benchley’s smoke.

Unfortunately, it sometimes feels as if Meister does not know when to stop with the complications and the reliance on Dorothy Parker to bail out Violet. A section in which Parker herself confides in Violet about her own problems, while interesting for those who want to know more about Parker, is so contrary to what we know about Parker’s personality that it feels unrealistic.  Violet’s own character – a brilliant and caustic wit in her reviews and a person so lacking in confidence that she cannot even fight for the custody of her niece against two grandparents whom Delaney refers to as Lord Sunkist and Lady Munchausen – is too weak and inconsistent to make us believe that Dorothy Parker would care much about her, and though the book is often clever, it is implausible, even considering that it is a ghost story with supernatural overtones.

cover dorothy parker drank here

Fortunately, the second book in the series, Dorothy Parker Drank Here, shows far more confidence on the part of author Ellen Meister, far more attention to the aura surrounding Dorothy Parker, and far more care with the clever repartee one expects of Parker. Though I found this first book, Farewell Dorothy Parker, to be somewhat problematic, I thoroughly enjoyed Dorothy Parker Drank Here, the second book, and it is not necessary to have read this first book in order to understand and appreciate the fun of the second book in the series, which I highly recommend.

Photos, in order:  The author’s photo is from http://girlfriendbooks.blogspot.com/

A young Dorothy Parker (in the 1920s) is shown on https://cocktailcalendar.wordpress.com/

Parker and some of her Round Table friends, including Art Samuels, Charles MacArthur, Harpo Marx, and Alexander Woollcott are shown on https://en.wikipedia.org

The Round Table at the Algonquin Hotel, where the group had lunch, is seen on http://www.oyster.com/

The iconic Round Table painting, which appears behind the Round Table, shows Parker on the far left, Robert Benchley behind her, the smoke from his pipe recreating Mathilde, the Algonquin’s resident cat, and Alexander Woollcott in the green jacket:  http://www.pbs.org

REVIEW. Humor, Satire, Absurdity, Algonquin Hotel, New York, United States.
Written by: Ellen Meister
Published by: Putnam Adult
Date Published: 03/05/2013
ISBN: 978-0399159077
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Magda Szabo–THE DOOR

Note: Magda Szabo (1917 – 2007) was WINNER of the Attila Jozsef Prize in 1959 and 1972 and WINNER of the Kossuth Prize, Hungary’s top award for literature, in 1978. Translator Len Rix was WINNER won the 2006 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize for this novel, the reprint of which has been SELECTED one of the New York Times Ten Best Novels of 2015.

cover, the door

“Just once in my life…a door did stand before me. That door opened. It was opened by someone who defended her solitude and impotent misery so fiercely that she would have kept that door shut though a flaming roof crackled over her head. I alone had the power to make her open that lock. In turning the key she put more trust in me than she ever did in God, and in that fateful moment I believed I was godlike…We were both wrong: she who put her faith in me, and I who thought too well of myself.”—Magdushka, speaking of her servant Emerence.

Magda Szabo and her husband, Tibor Szobotka, writer (1913 – 1982) in garden of their home. (Photo from private collection),

Magda Szabo and her husband, Tibor Szobotka, writer (1913 – 1982) in the garden of their home. (Photo from private collection)

Magda Szabo (1917 – 2007), one of Hungary’s most celebrated authors, lays bare her own values and her soul in The Door, a rich and intensely intimate examination of the relationship between a character named Magdushka, a writer whose point of view controls this novel, and Emerence, her housekeeper-servant. As suggested by the choice of the main character’s name and occupation, much of the story here parallels aspects obvious from the author’s own biography, and she has admitted in an interview that much of the content here is based on similar experiences from her own life. How much is actually true and how much is an elaboration becomes irrelevant once the book gets underway, though it is difficult to imagine the author recreating Magdushka’s unwavering commitment to the temperamental and prideful Emerence, her affecting sense of responsibility, and her overwhelming guilt regarding her betrayal of a secret, if she herself had never experienced similar feelings under very similar conditions.

At one point Emerence brings a used boot with a spur as a gift to Magdushka. When she does not display it prominently, Emerence angrily takes it back but leavesthe spur with the garnet.

At one point Emerence brings a used boot with a spur as a gift to Magdushka. When she does not display it prominently, Emerence angrily takes it back but leaves the spur with the garnet.

Author Szabo, born in 1914, lived through World War II, the Soviet Hungarian People’s Republic, and the Stalinist Era in the early 1950s, during which time she and her husband were writing but not publishing their books. After the revolution in 1956, censorship declined, and she published her first novel, Fresco, to great acclaim in 1958, winning the Attila Jozsef Prize in 1959. The excitement of this achievement is duplicated in The Door when Magdushka also wins her first prize, and it is this event, one of the climactic moments of the book, which allows the reader to get a sense of the late 1950s, the time period in which the action takes place.   Throughout the book, Emerence is regarded as much older than Magdushka, though the real Magda Szabo, born in 1917, was only twelve years younger than the fictional Emerence, described as having been age nine in 1914. By playing with time and compressing it, however, the author achieves a greater flexibility with the action, removes it from the real chronology of Hungarian history, and focuses completely on the universal human qualities of the characters, especially Magdushka and Emerence.

Laika, the first animal to go into space.

Laika, the first animal to go into space. Emerence was furious at the cruelty to animals this represented but consoled herself that the “heartbeat” that was broadcast was really just an alarm clock.

In a brief opening chapter, Magdushka, now in old age, describes the continuing nightmare which has loomed over her adult life. In it she is behind the front door of her own house, unable to open it for rescuers and unable to call for help. Magdushka sees parallels between this nightmare and her experiences with Emerence at the climax of their relationship many years earlier. Since what happened then is now in the past, she knows that “none of that matters, because what happened is beyond remedy.” Magdushka has always been a religious person, even through many years of communist rule, and the absolution granted by a priest to a sinner is much too easy, she feels, considering her own abhorrence of her “crime” and her still active need to atone. She has tried to live her life “with courage, and I hope to die that way, bravely, and without lies. But for that to be, I must speak out. I killed Emerence. The fact that I was trying to save her rather than destroy her changes nothing.”

When Yuri Gagarin died in an accident in 1968, "she felt no more sorry for the young man who burned up like a star than she would have for Kenned or Martin Luther King."

When Yuri Gagarin died in an accident in 1968, Emerence “felt no more sorry for the young man who burned up like a star than she would have for Kennedy or Martin Luther King.”

Flashing back many years to when Magdushka is in her forties, the reader shares her excitement when she publishes her first book, and with her husband is able to move to a bigger apartment. Suddenly busy with public appearances and talks, she is often gone from home, and for the first time, she must find someone to help clean the house, sweep snow from the walks in the winter, and occasionally prepare meals. When Emerence is recommended to her, she immediately contacts her, but Magdushka is unprepared when she discovers that it is not she who is interviewing Emerence, but Emerence who is interviewing her: “I don’t wash just anyone’s dirty linen,” Magdushka is informed. Full of pride and an energy which is stupefying, the complex and temperamental Emerence shares nothing about her personal life or her background. She will act thoughtfully and perform extra kindnesses for some people – if they do not specifically ask for them – as long as they do not come to her house. No one is ever allowed beyond her porch. The reader gradually learns that a man named Mr. Szloka has been buried in her garden, that she never lies down to sleep, that she is virulently anti-church, and that she has a past that is so sad that it is a wonder that she can function at all.

Magduska had saved enough money to have a crypt built for all her relatives and herself at Farkasreti Cemetery in Budapest, the place where Bela Bartok was buried.

Emerence saved enough money to have a crypt built for all her relatives and herself at Farkasreti Cemetery in Budapest, the place where Bela Bartok is buried.

Through all the ups and downs of everyday life, Magdushka and Emerence forge a relationship which varies from feelings of genuine friendship to Magdushka’s occasional belief that Emerence is related to Mephisto in her perversity.  As Magda Szabo, the author, drops hints throughout the novel of some of the horrors that Emerence has faced, the reader becomes sympathetic toward her even as Emerence herself scorns that kind of sympathy. Eventually, however, as the relationship between Magdushka and Emerence becomes closer and less volatile, primarily because Magdushka learns her “place,” an event occurs which challenges the very basis of friendship and trust: Emerence becomes ill but still refuses to answer the door. Magdushka, occupied with her first awards ceremony, followed by her appointment to represent the country at an international peace conference, does not realize how ill Emerence is until she returns home and goes to Emerence’s house. Only by giving many promises to obey Emerence’s directives is she able to gain admittance. What she sees breaks her heart, and she makes a decision which haunts her for the rest of her own life.

Helen Mirren as Emerence in the 2012 film of THE DOOR.

Helen Mirren as Emerence in the 2012 film of THE DOOR.

Therein lies the essence of this novel, which communicates directly with the reader because most readers would also have acted as Magdushka does. Her horrified awareness that nothing can fix the damage when actions made with the best intentions have disastrous results, brings home universal truths to the reader. The conflicts raised about the nature of promises and trust, about how much autonomy any individual should be granted to make decisions about her life, and about the nature of guilt and how and whether one must atone, come powerfully to life. The book, which repeats much of the opening chapter in its conclusion, is a brilliant commentary on the circle of life and its complexities.

Photos, in order:  The photo of Magda Szabo and her husband, Tibor Szobotka, writer (1913 – 1982)  is taken in garden of their home. (Photo from private collection): http://www.literarycharacters.eu

A garnet decorates the “jinglebob” of a spur, like the one Emerence gave to Magdushka on a used boot found at a junk sale.  Furious that the boot was not on display, she angrily took it back but left the spur.  http://whiplashdesigns.com/

Laika, the space dog, the first animal in space.  Emerence declared this to be animal cruelty and insisted that the heartbeat broadcast to the nation was really just an alarm clock.  http://io9.gizmodo.com

When Yuri Gagarin died in an accident, Emerence “felt no more sorry for the young man who burned up like a star than she would have for Kennedy or Martin Luther King.” http://www.fastcompany.com

Furious that her relatives and acquaintances in her home town had not taken care of the burial site for the family, Emerence saved money to be able to build a family crypt for them and herself in the Farkasreti Cemetery in Budapest, where Bela Bartok is buried.  https://commons.wikimedia.org

Helen Mirren, as Emerence, in the 2012 film of The Door is from  http://www.hollywoodreporter.com

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Classic Novel, Hungary, Literary, Psychological study
Written by: Magda Szabo
Published by: New York Review Books
Date Published: 01/27/2015
Edition: Translation, Len Rix
ISBN: 978-1590177716
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover


Note: Kevin Barry was WINNER of the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award, and the European Union Prize for Literature for his previous novel City of Bohane. He is also WINNER of the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature for his stories and overall body of work.

“Sometimes you [can] walk across a field and a sense of elation [will] come over you….That patch of happiness could be floating around the field for the last ten years or the last three hundred and fifty years. Out of love that was had there or a child that was playing or an old friend that was found…Whatever it was, caused a great happy feeling and it was left there in the field. You’re after walking into it. And for half a minute you’re lifted and soaring but then you’re out the far side again… “–Cornelius O’Grady, John Lennon’s driver in Ireland.

cover beatlebone

On his way to Dorinish, the tiny Irish island which he bought ten years before, John Lennon, now thirty-seven, is in the midst of a personal crisis. It is 1978, and the Beatles have not been together for eight years. Lennon has watched his first marriage crumble and his son Julian disappear from his life. Married in 1969 to Yoko Ono, he separated from her for eighteen months, shortly after their marriage. Later reunited, they had a baby, Sean, with whom he now spends most of his time at home in New York, but he is otherwise at loose ends. He has not written any music since 1975, and he feels as if he has lost his way, both musically and personally. Famous, at this point, for his counterculture points of view, he has actively courted attention to publicize his anti-government agenda, and has become involved with drugs, Marxism, the Black Panthers, and behavior which has put him under the surveillance of the FBI, though he has otherwise tried to avoid publicity in his personal life. He now feels that if he can get away and spend time alone for only three days on Dorinish, that he might come to some new conclusions about his life and how to live it.

AUTHOR_kevin-barryAuthor Kevin Barry, who has shared some of Lennon’s own experiences, from living in Liverpool for two years (“one of the most sentimental cities on earth,”) to traveling to Lennon’s island, and, like Lennon, experimenting with Primal Scream therapy, comes as close to illustrating the idea of “channeling” as it may be possible for an author to get in recreating and providing perceptive insights into a famous real person. In his hands, Lennon comes to life on all levels – his hopes, dreams, insecurities, frustrations, and even his arrogance as he returns to Ireland from New York, wondering “How many more times are they going to ask me to come on the f…ing Muppet Show?” For his arrival on the west coast of Ireland, Lennon has hired a car and driver, Cornelius O’Grady, whose primary job is to get Lennon to the island while avoiding the press, and in O’Grady, Barry has also created one of the great literary characters, endowed with consummate charm, humor, a sense of irony, and an appreciation of nature’s “magic,” the perfect foil for Lennon with his intense self-analysis.

Lennon with son Sean, with whom he has been spending most of his days in New York.

Lennon with son Sean, with whom he has been spending most of his days in New York.

Part II of the novel, “Lady Narcosis,” recreates what many readers will regard as the essence of Ireland, from the bleak but nevertheless lyrical descriptions of the weather and atmosphere to hilarious characters and dialogue. Delayed by the weather, Cornelius persuades Lennon to wear Cornelius’s father’s old suit and thick glasses, slick back his hair, change his shoes, and appear at a small, strictly local pub, the Highwood, where the “party” begins at 1:15 a.m. There Lennon meets characters like the man who has lost an ear to a badger, talks with an elderly patron who is eighty-seven but who says he “looked worse at seventy-three,” and listens a girl sing a perennial song of young love. Later Lennon, masquerading as “Kenny,” Cornelius’s cousin, sings to patrons but is also accused of stealing one smoker’s expensive Gitane cigarettes, something the man particularly resents because Kenny is “only a stoaty c…”   Waking up the next morning in a field, Lennon remembers nothing but learns a lesson from Cornelius, symbolic on many levels, about leaning into the wind during a great storm to remain upright.

The Amethyst Hotel in Achill, where Lennon stays and is exposed to a guru whose ideas he finds artificial.

The Amethyst Hotel in Achill, where Lennon stays and is exposed to a guru whose ideas he finds artificial.

In Parts III and IV, the weather still prevents Lennon and Cornelius from getting to the island, and afraid of running afoul of the press, they drive to Achill and stay at the Amethyst Hotel which has attracted a different crowd. Run by Sweet Joe, sometimes called Joe Director, “a beast with auburn hair,” and “the look of a forest hog,” the hotel has attracted self-analytical patrons who have gone beyond the California Screaming of Dr. Arthur Janov and have now begun sessions of “ranting” run by Joe, who sees himself as a guru. In the surreal Part V, Lennon occupies a cave overnight and talks with a seal, who tells him that he has “deathhauntedness,” though Lennon begins to imagine that he has finally traced out the ideas for nine pieces, none of which will be what we know as songs.

primal scream janov

Having already experienced primal scream therapy, Lennon is less than enchanted when patrons of the Amethyst Hotel try to persuade him to Scream with them.

Part VI, an interruption in the narrative, is author Kevin Barry’s own section, as he describes standing at the entrance of the Dakota, where Lennon lived, with other “hunched pilgrims,” a section which becomes autobiographical and journalistic, as Barry also tells how he, as an author, also went about learning Lennon’s intonations and speech patterns.  These also include the shockingly poor grammar which Lennon apparently used himself, and which the author includes in his speech here, speech patterns which the author believes now sound old-fashioned.  Barry, who describes himself as “a man who has never known an underfed adjective,” has no interest in reading biographies of Lennon for background, he says.  He would rather see videos and listen to Lennon’s music, but he, personally, also feels some of the same influences that Lennon did regarding Liverpool, with its universal acceptance of the mysteries of life and its supernatural elements. He ponders the question of “How do you bring up the fact of ghosts in reasonable company, especially the reasonable company of one’s readers?”

Dorinish is made up of two small islands, Dorinish Beg and Dorinish More, joined by a natural stone causeway and measures 19 acres approximately.

Dorinish is made up of two small islands, Dorinish Beg and Dorinish More, joined by a natural stone causeway, and measures 19 acres approximately.

The conclusion, which is a bit weaker than the rest of the novel, suggests that despite the opportunities opened to Lennon by this trip, and despite the new understandings which Barry suggests Lennon has come to, that his hopes of soon creating something new and exciting may be dashed. His biographical record of not ever producing the “Beatlebone” album which he had dreamed about on the islands suggests that Lennon’s own conclusions that he might be ahead of his time are neither real nor realistic. Insightful, atmospheric, and filled with some of the most lyrical, vibrantly descriptive, and often vulgar language I have read in long time, Beatlebone will warm the hearts of those who love Irish novels while also intriguing those who have always been fans of the Beatles.


Photos, in order:  The author’s photo appears on http://blogs.chi.ac.uk

John Lennon with infant son Sean is from https://www.pinterest.com/

The Amethyst Hotel in Achill, where Lennon finds the guru Joe Director to be a phony, is seen on http://www.noelscanlonnovelist.com/

The Janov book about Primal Scream therapy may be found on Amazon.

Dorinish Island, formerly owned by John Lennon, is described here, as a potential resale:  http://www.extravaganzi.com/

REVIEW. Book Club Suggestions, Ireland, Experimental, Humor, Satire, Absurdity, Literary
Written by: Kevin Barry
Published by: Doubleday
Date Published: 11/17/2015
ISBN: 978-0385540292
Available in: Ebook Hardcover



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