Monday, December 28, 2009


by Ferenc Karinthy

You know, I look at this blog sometimes and think, What the hell have I been reading? Sure, reading crap that's fun is, well, fun. But then I read something like this, and I remember that the world is full of amazing, high-quality, non-crap literature that also is fun to read. I also need to start reading more Russian and Eastern European stuff, and should read some more books from Europa Editions. I do have some Russian books on my to-read list, and at least one that's on my shelf right now, and I have at least two books published by Europa on my to-blog list. There are lots of new books I want to read, but it's so nice to be occasionally blown away by a "classic"; reading this made me feel the way I felt when I read Confessions of a Mask.

Anyway, Metropole is almost sci-fi, and it's about language, whether it's ever truly possible to communicate and/or to understand another person. The protagonist is trapped in an unfamiliar city, unsure how he came to be there, completely baffled by a language that both sounds and looks like gibberish, even to someone such as himself, a linguist fluent in six or seven languages and conversant with a great many more. Unable to have even a simple verbal exchange or to express himself in pantomime, he cycles through rage, despair, acceptance, determination, fear, loathing, ambition... while trying to escape from this city that seems never to end yet is paradoxically, impossibly crowded with unhelpful and indifferent gabbling swarms of people who, one begins to suspect, may not even be able to understand one another.

Words like Babel, Orwellian and Kafka-esque spring to mind too easily to convey the subtlety with which the author — a Hungarian linguist born in 1921 (the book was first published in 1970, I believe) — explores the essential role of language, both in the life of the individual and in the greater cultural milieu, and the aching human need to speak, to listen, to be heard. And the story also manages to be exciting and suspenseful, a mystery and a puzzle that will draw you in and keep you reading.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Discovery of France: a historical geography from the Revolution to the First World War

by Graham Robb

This fascinating gem sat on my shelf for a very long time. Once I started reading, it was a long haul. It's not the sort of nonfiction that keeps one up reading in bed; rather, it's the kind that, while terribly interesting, will make one nod off on the couch. I still recommend highly, but the reader should be prepared and plan accordingly.

While a good hundred of the 450-odd pages are devoted to end notes, indices and such, the remaining 300 pages are dense enough with type and information to make up for it. On the one hand, The Discovery of France is academic in its level of detail and the amount of research it comprises, but it's not textbook-y or dry in its presentation and style. I was sort of reminded, in fact, of Alain de Botton (The Architecture of Happiness), who's so good at making the mundane into the transcendent (or simply revealing that is has been all along) and whose chapters nibble around the edges of his thesis instead of launching a systematic, hierarchical attack. While Robb isn't quite as lyrical as de Botton, he does have a knack for meaningful anecdotes and telling details. His narrative also meanders, eschewing strict chronology in favor of a thematic arrangement, painting a sort of Cubist collage instead of drafting a rigid outline or graph.

Many profundities lurk beneath the surface of this mostly droll-seeming tale of the formation of the nation of France out of so many thousands of regions, dialects and traditions: one can draw inferences about nationalism and colonialism, economic and linguistic hegemony and exploitation, the fragility of identity and the shifting, shimmering thing called "community." But Robb is just telling a story, largely without judgement or prejudice, leaving the debates and politics to others so inclined. The personal is political — by which is meant everything is political — but it's exhausting to be forever strident, righteous and globally aware. Taking time just to enjoy the scenery, to wander and wonder, is cleansing for the soul.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


by Jose Saramago

While I was reading this book, a friend picked it up and started reading one of the back-cover blurbs that compares it to the Bible in scope, magnitude, depth or some crap like that. Now, it's definitely an allegory, or you could call it a parable, but it's also a lot like a zombie movie, or any post-apocalyptic story. But then, I guess the Bible is sort of a zombie story too, or maybe Jesus was a vampire?

Anyway, it's a good book: gripping, entertaining, thoughtful and meaningful, a meditation on what it means to "see", literally and figuratively, to see when others cannot. Because the blindness is contagious, and the stricken are put in internment camps, the book also explores how people form groups, die or survive, and help or oppose or oppress one another in closed environments with limited resources.

I'm very curious about the movie version now, especially about how it portrays the blindness and how faithful it is to the book.