The King of Warsaw: a novel by Szczepan Twardoch

A Polish friend with excellent English recommended this, saying it was the first Polish novel he’d read where the translation was as good as the original. It made me curious and so I ordered it from Imprints here in Adelaide.

It didn’t take long to read, it definitely sucks the reader in. But I put it down, finished, a few weeks ago and I didn’t understand how I felt about it and I still don’t. The proof is where the book sits in our house. It is on a table by the front door, put there on the basis that I would take it down to my local secondhand bookshop, East Ave Books, and let them resell it. If I were sure about that, it would already have made the short trip. So I guess that means I’m not.

It’s gruesomely violent. Never have so many penises been detached from so many men – and that’s just for starters. It feels real, the description of the streets and their characters in their day-to-day life. The politics of Jewish Warsaw v. Polish Catholic Warsaw feels genuine too. But I don’t know anything about the subject matter, so my feeling is no more than that. Another thing: I kept thinking this will be a Netflix series. Sex, violence and political intrigue will fill each episode. And it has some aspect of magic realism in it, which is not my cup of tea, but I thought was probably done well.

I want to find a review of this that might enlighten me: at least to the extent of knowing if it is accurate in what it talks of, the background to the tale. But I have yet to discover such a thing.

Sorry to be so indecisive. I hope that somebody reading this may help me form an opinion, at least to the extent of whether I should put it in the bookshelves or send it out into the world for somebody else to try. At least one way or another it would stop sitting on the hall table, a constant reminder of my indecision. I don’t like not knowing what to think!

The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. by JP Donleavy

Once a darling of the literary world due to his first novel, The Ginger Man, he is now of that period, only old enough to be out of fashion, and I don’t know if he’ll get to be classic. I was put off Donleavy long ago by failing at my attempt to read The Ginger Man and then later by failing also with The Unexpurgated Code: A Complete Manual of Survival & Manners.

Late last year, however, I went to an English booksale in Geneva, which had the following rule: once you had 30CHF of books in your bag,  you could continue to fill your bag with books at no further charge. I have not been buying books at fairs and fetes and sales and op shops since I could walk to no effect. Stuffing books in bags? It is a skill I could put on my CV. Knowing the rules of the game, I bought various books that otherwise would not have made the cut and this was one of them.

Evidently somebody had died and his books had been donated to the sale. He was clearly a man of literary taste and I hated to see so many of his books just sitting right at the end of the sale, not the sort of thing read these days. Hrrrrumph. There I was, therefore, practically obliged to take this book, by a writer with whom I had no affinity. I wanted it to have a home.

Twenty or so pages into the book, my opinion had not wavered, my previous judgement of him more or less confirmed. I might have stopped reading….but I didn’t. And suddenly things turned around. Far from wanting to stop, I couldn’t put it down.

The fact is one might criticise this, and perhaps others of his, since I gather Donleavy tends to write about the same thing, for various 21st century crimes. His hero, a tragic hero no less, is a young rich white male. One feels the misogyny of Donleavy and a patronising of ‘the lower classes’ which goes with his image. He bought a big country house in Ireland and dressed in the outlandish way Balthazar does.

And his comic pieces, which are oddly thrust into the book here and there, once they are set in Ireland, are coarse caricatures. The harridan of a wife, who sets upon her husband and young women, who sees the merest thought of sex as rape. Really? Now we would think like this: that these poor women were divided into those who had to keep becoming pregnant with all the attendant risks and the ones so young they didn’t yet understand those risks.

But then I think of the Irish couple I used to know, the tough woman with her eye fixed on her husband, the fact that it was with good reason, since he had lust perpetually in his face, though he may always have been too scared to act upon it.

And in any case, with the bulk of the book lyrically, if harrowingly sad, perhaps these pieces of silliness were essential to provide some balance.

Here we are, then, expected to laugh at things which are inappropriate to laugh at these days, and expected to feel sorry….for a rich, handsome, young white male? That’s really challenging the reader. It reminds me of a musician I used to go to see in Melbourne. He used to rant at his audience about how hard it was being part of this minority, the rich white male. The ‘rich’ seemed particularly obscene for him to complain about because he performed with a longtime member of the live folk scene in Melbourne, who had not a cent to his name. Errrm. Give all your money to Pete? We’d all be better off?

So here we have the hero of this book, Balthazar, a beautiful soft fearful young filthy-rich white male. Women fall for him like flies, but he is too paralysed with his fearfulness to be able to take advantage of this. In the entire book, over a long period of years, he has almost no sex. And he experiences almost no love.

He has all the get up and go of something small which has been squashed almost to death, perhaps by a copy of this very book. He has even less initiative and when he does, on rare occasion, exercise it, disaster befalls. If you ask me, such a person should make you so jolly irritated that you want to throw the darn book at the wall. And why on earth should you waste one moment of that shrinking number of moments you have left feeling sorry for him?

Ah, but you do. The fact is that there isn’t one moment in the book when you don’t feel for him. Somehow, despite all his natural advantages, despite his almost slothful approach to the world, despite his complete failure at any time to see any point to existence, despite all of that, you don’t want to box him around the ears whilst yelling at him to get real and wise up.

And it seems to me, that there is some aspect of genius at work, affecting the reader in a way where their very digestive system is wreaked havoc upon by the words of Donleavy, the order in which he puts them, and that way he has. Just google ‘Donleavy and ‘staccato’ to see the common observation-come-criticism that his delivery is staccato. But nothing could be further from the truth. The remarkable thing about this way – I wouldn’t want to use such a cold word as technique – of Donleavy is that although many of his sentences are not proper at all, but merely parts of sentences, they have a lilting, lyric quality of – well, one might say poetry there, but in fact it is much more complicated than that. I’ve tried to read this book out loud, thinking that it demanded to be, but no. So far my conclusion is that although it seems like it should be read aloud, in fact that is impossible to do and give justice to the words and their order. I’m fairly sure that this is not my fault for being an inadequate interpreter (though I may be). Rather, it is remarkably hard to read this book except in your head. I wonder if others have thought about this? I’d love to know if my idea about this is right or wrong.

To show what it’s like, this strange hypnotic prose, but at the same time to have this doubt, that to take a passage will reduce the very thing I’m trying to expose. Still. Take this, for instance. There is a context. The war which has ended. His abject loneliness. His constant yearning and complete inability to address that.

Balthazar B sat down on a crimson seat beneath a strained glass window and perused this oriental menu. The black dressed waitress brought a large cup of coffee and plate of glistening brown topped currant buns. A dish of gold balls of butter. A woman with a priest. Two red coated girls with refined small fingers sticking out form their cups of tea. Little clanks of cutlery on the glass. Heaped pots of sugar pieces. Warm fragrant coffee in the mouth. To open an evening newspaper and read that a cow escaped onto a road and gave the garda a wild chase into a village where the beast entered a public house and set the occupants to holding their pints high over their heads so as not to have them spilled. A wondrous simple peace. Without years of lonely grey. And upturned rafters in brick debris. With bombs and cannons chattering up against the night and searchlights waving over a terror torn sky.

To walk back down again this bustling street. The shop lights go on. A sweet smoky air descends. My drop of dew on a blade of grass. Is my gladness. Hovering above the ground.

High and still
Sparkling so
In Dublin

And that thing he does, slipping from third to first person. Marvellous.

The Emigrants by WG Sebald

Those who have this in their libraries will know that it is choicely raved about on the cover. Ondaatje leads the pack ‘This deeply moving book shames most writers with its nerve and tact and wonder’. Nicholas Shakespeare, Anita Brookner, Susan Sontag, Karl Miller all have a stab at bettering that. I might add that the women are both of Jewish background.

But how can I read this, when I picked it up to start, and first saw the words of the dead man who left his library for me to pick through?

In his scathing hand he writes: ‘Empty, silly, meant to appeal to German non-Jews, geographically crippled, useless.’

And under, printed on a laser printer, I think, and tipped into the first page:

Phony postcards and vacuous stories of little relevance (when not totally implausible like that of the compulsive gambler with his ‘visions’ of the winning combinations). I may be wrong, but his stories make me suspect that he is writing as a German-non-Jew for an audience of German-non-Jews – the worst types. I am comforted in my negative judgment by the lyrical comments pasted on the bookcovers by my favourite ass, viz. Mme Sontag.

I don’t know who wrote this. Google search turns up nothing. It can’t be my companion as he would never say anything as circumspect as ‘I may be wrong’.

At any rate, you see why I can’t read it and why I must record the opinion of the now deceased M.F-L.

……Much later after writing the above, I did read a Sebald and liked it a lot. I suppose this means I have to give The Emigrants a fair shot.

Mysteries by Knut Hamsun

I’ve decided I need a new bookshelf. ‘It’s not you, it’s me’. Perhaps all ex-Catholics need one of them, the one for the books they feel guilty about not finishing.

To begin with I hated this in a ‘I hate this but I want to read it’ way. That became ‘I hate this but by God I’m going to finish it’. And a couple of nights ago, up at 3am that in turn became ‘Yeah, nah. Move on’. And sometimes one moves on without the least guilt at all, other times one is tortured by it. Then one adds the inadequacy of looking it up on goodreads and discovering one wasn’t clever enough to stick with it. I suppose that’s the ‘fear of missing out’ on literary social media.

And I still do feel a bit like that. Guilt aside, I also feel like I might be missing out on a whopper of an ending.

Grrrrr. Maybe the shelf should be called ‘I’m moving on but I can’t get you out of my mind.’