Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Back Reviews Reel: June 2013

In 2013 the month of June had four Fridays to fill with reviews. The four books of my choice were three classics first published between 1929 and 1944 plus one contemporary novel from Germany. The first of the classics was the literary debut of an Austrian writer born under the reign of Emperor Francis Joseph I and temporarily a Czech citizen, i.e. the coming-of-age novel Young Gerber by Friedrich Torberg portraying a student in his final year whom a cruel teacher has sought out to break. As for the other two classics, they are the novellas Passing by Nella Larsen and Red Rose, White Rose by Eileen Chang. While the former deals with Afro-American identity in the USA of the 1920s and the opposite strategies of two relatively light-skinned women to succeed in life, the latter revolves around the love and marriage of a Chinese man between tradition and modernity who expects to be the absolute master of his “little pocket-size world”. I concluded the month with a contemporary novel that reverberates with philosophy as well as Portuguese history and that ranges among my all-time favourites, namely Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

- - - - - Gerber by Friedrich Torberg tells the story of 18-year-old Kurt Gerber, a highly intelligent, though poor and rebellious student. During his final year in school the much feared teacher of Maths and Descriptive Geometry Artur Kupfer (appropriately nicknamed Almighty God Kupfer) makes Kurt Gerber in particular feel his authority with the purpose of breaking him. In the beginning Kurt Gerber still takes things easy, but over time pressure increases. When his father has a heart attack after finding out that his son forged his signature, Kurt Gerber has to carry the burden of his guilt too. Along with troubles in school Kurt Gerber has to deal with his feelings for former class mate Lisa Berwald. Until the end the young man is torn between complying with the demands of Professor Kupfer and revolting against the terror of Almighty God Kupfer. 

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- - - - - her novella Passing Nella Larsen portrays the lives of two African-American women with a similar background who chose very different, even opposite strategies to play the game of life in Chicago during the 1920s. In the beginning Clare and Irene, who haven’t seen each other for years, meet by chance in an elegant restaurant closed to African-Americans. Clare’s life as a white woman leaves Irene with conflicting feelings. She clearly disapproves of Clare’s choice, but at the same time she is fascinated. To reconnect Clare with the black community Irene invites her to a dance. Thereafter Irene sees her identity as an African-American even more challenged and that as a woman, too, when Clare and her husband are beginning an affair later on. At last, Irene is driven to put a violent end to the mess that Clare caused. 

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- - - - - Rose, White Rose by Eileen Chang is set in Shanghai, China, during the 1940s. The novella is about Tong Zhenbao. He is the prototype of a social climber and self-made man who subordinates everything and everyone to his plans, but he also is the product of an education that held traditional Chinese – i.e. strictly patriarchal – values high in esteem while society was already heading into modern times. He worked hard to “create a world that was ‘right’, and to carry it with him wherever he went”, and yet, he isn’t happy. Love is a particularly difficult matter for Zhenbao because for him it means absolute control. Strong women who do as they wish, especially if they trespass the bounds that society sets them, appal and attract him at the same time. So he ends up between his wife and his mistress. 

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- - - - - protagonist of Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon is 57-year-old Raimund Gregorius, a teacher of ancient Greek, Latin and biblical Hebrew in Berne, Switzerland. He is a creature of habit and a model of reliability paired with precision avoiding the imponderables of life best possible. After a chance encounter with a woman about to jump from a bridge, he sets out to chase after a strange Portuguese man whose book he found in a second-hand book shop. He takes the night train to Lisbon not knowing what he will find, nor what he is really looking for. In Lisbon he plunges into the history of Amadeu Inácio de Almeida Prado and that of Portugal during the dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar. At the same time he analyses and questions his own life as a school teacher without ambitions and as a divorced man without passion. 

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  1. Ah,Night Train to Lisbon. Loved it. Now I am going to see what I read in June 2013: Favorites were The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner, Rules of Civility by Amor Towles, The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, and My Education by Susan Choi. Such a pleasure to recall good books!

    1. Yes, it's nice indeed to conjure up the positive experience of a good book - with a tight reading (and review) schedule this isn't always easy to find the time. I don't know any of the books you mentioned, but at least Nikos Kzantzakis has been on my wish list for a while.

      Thanks for your comment!


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