Thursday, May 31, 2012

Manuscript Found in Saragossa

I finished reading The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, and I wasn't so impressed.  I think Potocki used up his best material in the first third, and the effort of tying the stories together didn't really work for me.  And the ending is a total disaster. 

I'm not if the school that says that the ending of a novel can break the whole thing if it's not good, especially not for such a mosaic novel as this one.  But I was really losing steam by 2/3 of the way through, and I only pushed through to see how Potocki would end it, and was very disappointed.

The Stress of Her Regard

I last read Tim Powers's The Stress of Her Regard some 20 years ago.  I'm re-reading it, fortuitously it turns out, since the sequel just came out last week.

With 20 years under the bridge, it's a bit easier to see this book within the spectrum of Powers's ouevre. For good and for bad, it seems to take many of his usual themes and turn them up to 11.  We have a secret history involving more than 10 real historical figures in major and minor roles (more typically Powers works with only a few, and rarely in major roles).  Both hero and heroine suffer horrendous bodily damage, and more than once.  Powers combines a bunch of disparate mythological references, here as far as apart as vampires, the graiae, the sphinx, and so on.

In all, I think he over-eggs the pudding a bit.  In the excellent Last Call, every new revelation feels somehow inevitable, a feeling of "Aha! I should have guessed that it worked that way."  Here, it sometimes feels forced -- OK, I get that vampires are disrupted by wooden stakes and silver bullets because the one is a non-conductor and the other is too good a conductor.  But why the garlic?

Having said that, this book, while not up to the standards of Last Call, is very good.  A number of the set pieces are as good as anything he's ever written (the whole Alp section, the ending, and the beginning in particular).  His Byron is manages to be alternately sympathetic and horrible while remaining clearly one consistent character.  Even knowing the end, I found the book to be consistently suspenseful, not an easy thing to pull off.

All in all, I'm eagerly looking forward to the new book.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Portrait of a Lady, Manuscript found in Saragossa

I've given up on Portrait of a Lady.  No good reason, but I just wasn't particularly enjoying it.

I'm now in the middle of Jan Potocki's Manuscript found in Saragossa, a very odd novel indeed.  In some ways, it's a fairly modern book, despite being written in the 18th century.  The closest analog I can think of is Catherynne Valente's Orphan's Tales, with its stories-within-stories.

In this novel, we follow a young officer of the Walloon guards as he stays the night in a possibly haunted inn, meets up with a cabbalist and his sister, then some gypsies, and then even the wandering Jew.  As he travels with them, these characters tell him (and each other) their stories, which sometimes involve others' stories, which can even involve other stories still.

One big difference from the Valente book is that there's also a lot of cross-cutting.  There are three outer stories being narrated, and Potocki switches among them quickly.  His characters are also more aware of how dizzying it can all be than are Valente's, as this little excerpt shows (a mathematician is complaining about the Gypsy King's story):
‘Really, this story alarms me. All the gypsy’s stories begin in a simple enough way and you think you can already predict the end. But things turn out quite differently. The first story engenders the second, from which a third is born, and so on, like periodic fractions resulting from certain divisions which can be indefinitely prolonged. In mathematics there are several ways of bringing certain progressions to a conclusion, whereas in this case an inextricable confusion is the only result I can obtain from all the gypsy has related'

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Portrait of a Lady

I've started Henry James's Portrait of a Lady, which many point to as the first of his mature works.  At about 1/3 of the way in, I must confess to not liking it all that much.  The people spend of lot of time talking in epigrams, so that I feel a bit like being in a very long-winded Oscar Wilde story, except that Wilde would have disposed of the events so far in half the space.

For now, though, I'll give James the benefit of the doubt, assuming that he's still maturing his style in these early chapters.  (The novel was originally published serially in a magazine, so that's certainly possible).

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

I've finished Jacob de Zoet and coming to the end of Ghostwritten, so here are some more thoughts on both.

First, Ghostwritten is the more obviously bravura performance.  I loved Jacob deZoet, but parts of Ghostwritten took my breath away.  But Mitchell is playing post-modernist tricks in deZoet as well.  The slave narrative at the beginning of part III and the long poem at the start of chapter 39 are the most obvious examples, but I wonder whether the whole of part II is another.  I think part II is the weakest section, with all of hugger-mugger straight out of a Gothic novel (evil monks, crazy death cults, an inescapable monastery), but I wonder to what extent readers are expected to realize that it's a deliberate borrowing, not necessarily to be taken seriously.  For that matter, I wonder to what extent a reader should take it seriously at all -- it feels pretty intrusive into the otherwise-realistic flow of the novel.

Second, Mitchell has an amazing ability to inhabit his characters and give us their voices.  Again, Ghostwritten is the more obviously virtuosic of the two, but I think that creating a pious man like Jacob without making him a goody-two-shoes is a real achievement, as is the creation of Penhaligon.  To me, this is the major thing connecting the two novels -- Mitchell's amazing array of voices.

Third, I'm now a David Mitchell fanboy, and I'm sure I'll be reading his other books in the near future.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Thoussand Autumns of Jacob deZoet, Ghostwritten

Due to one thing and another, I'm listening to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob deZoet while reading Ghostwritten, both by David Mitchell.  If nothing else, the two books show Mitchell's versatility.  Thousand Autumns is a fairly straightforward historical novel about a Dutch trading outpost in Japan in the late 1700s, while Ghostwritten is a loosely linked collection of narratives (each with a very distinct narrator).

I'm less than halfway through either book, so I'm hesitant to give impressions.  The third story in Ghostwritten, for example, was radically different from what had come before, and more reversals could easily come.  But it's clear that Mitchell has some serious literary chops, and I'm enjoying both books very much.

On a side note, I finished book 23 of the Iliad, coming up now to the big finale.  Woohoo, it's been a long journey.