Tag Archives: Michael Chabon

Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 10

And so on to weightier matters, literally. Paul Auster‘s door-stopping novel weighs in at 1200 grams and 886 pages, a mere bagatelle when compared with David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest which is on my TBR for post Booker reading.

42314321 is the title of this massive book and is the story of Archie Ferguson, grandson of newly arrived Russian immigrant Ichabod Ferguson. Family legend having it that Isaac Reznikoff was told  that he would get on better with a more American sounding name, and that Rockefeller was a good name to choose, but on being asked his name, he said in his own tongue Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten).

I have gone into quite a lot of detail to demonstrate here the complexity of the characters and their relationships, so if this seems to be a spoiler to you, rather than an exposition, stop reading where the text colour changes. This novel is a work of philosophy, an exploration of nurture versus nature, of the ‘what ifs’ of life. Ferguson is a thoughtful, observant and rather lonely little boy, in the section where he learns to read he ponders on the accident that has caused his immobility, unwinding the actions and causes and giving some thought to the vagaries of cause and effect, at this point he is only six…

This is an unashamedly American novel, rooted in place and time, rooted in fact, very much, in Paul Auster’s own place and time. Various key world events lock us into when this is all taking place: the ending of the war in Europe, the execution of the Rosenbergs, the Korean War and other similar. Baseball features, teams that in Europe may have little meaning, take on importance, at some level and probably mirror actual games and players, I have no idea.

Like Michael Chabon and Howard Jacobson it is also decidedly Jewish, though not in an synagogue attending way, but in family gatherings, food and culture. Auster uses the novel form to address existential issues and questions of identity, space, language, and literature, creating his own distinctively postmodern (and critique of postmodernist) form in the process. Identity, Ferguson’s, being the key ingredient here.

It may take a while to read, but it is worth the effort. As with several other longlisted titles it is stylistically unusual, but do not let that put you off. Like going to France with a smattering of French in your memory, you get used to hearing it, and your ear becomes attuned – in this case you will find your “ear” and eye quickly pick up the familiar patterns.

There are constants in this book. Archie’s relationships with his parents, their parents and siblings remain the same, as does the date of his birth. On his father’s (Stanley Ferguson) side he has two uncles Lew (Louis) and Arnold (Aaron), whose wives are respectively Millie and Joan. Lew and Millie have two children, Andrew and Alice; Arnold and Joan have three, Jack, Francie and Ruth. His mother, Rose Adler has one sister Mildred, her parents Benjy and Emma live in New York. Ike and Fanny live in New Jersey and then there are inconstants!

But at this point is becomes complicated. In 1.1 Stanley, the youngest Ferguson is ambitious and driven, he starts with a leather goods store which eventually expands into the 3 Brothers Home Store, and sells everything from furniture to white goods. It would do better if the two elder brothers, layabouts both, were not constantly helping themselves to takings from the till; Lew is a gambler and has borrowed money off Stanley to cover mounting debts, however his gambling has become more serious, he then suddenly has a huge win, but far from repaying his brother, he buys mink for Millie and a Cadillac for himself and then throws a big champagne party, he eventually has a fatal crash in the Cadillac; the store is doing well until there is a huge warehouse burglary, which it eventually turns out is an inside job, and since he does not want to bring down his brother Arnold, Stanley endures the loss in silence, sending his brothers away; by 1.2 Stanley’s store has burnt to ashes, Ferguson is six and is learning to read, having broken his leg falling from tree; 1.3 fills in some of the more lurid details of the store fire. Archie’s cousin Andrew is killed in the Korean War, Lew goes off the rails and his debts become insurmountable, with his book-maker he conceives of an insurance scam that includes burning down the store, with fatal results and Lew ends up in prison; 1.4 finds Stanley with three prosperous stores, with two more due to be opened, he sees very little of his son Archie [who, by the way is known as Ferguson throughout]. Rose, his mother, is a professional studio photographer in all these sections, but in various guises. In 1.4 she spends quite a lot of time looking for a suitable studio/shop space which she eventually finds. 

The absolute inconstant is Ferguson’s aunt Mildred, in each section she is sometimes unmarried and does meet and marry, or remains a spinster. But each time she does marry it is to somebody completely different. And in different ways this affects Ferguson, especially the last husband, Donald Lomax a divorced man with a son, Noah.

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Knitting, not reading (pace Stevie Smith)

Typical, nothing for weeks then three come along at once! I have been on a long knitting jag, with jerseys, blankets and cardigans flying off the needles, it becomes compulsive after a while, but impedes the reading, AudioBooks become the order of the day (& night)…

So what have we in mind today. Two books about World War II, a non-fiction treatment and a semi-fiction treatment and one book about the “Indian Wars”, that is to say the European Americans and what they then called Red Indians, now spoken of as Native Americans.

So I shall start with that one. Paulette Jiles has written many books about this period of American history, that is to say the Civil War and the Indian Wars.

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It was while writing a previous book, Enemy Women, that she came across the story of Britt Johnson. Moses Johnson with fifteen white women and  five black including children left the war torn areas and moved to North Texas. Britt Johnson was a manumitted African American (called negro, black or nigger at the time depending on the speaker), he took the family and settled in North Texas. Britt had a wife and three children. The Colour of Lightning is their story. How the Comanche and Kiowa descended on the settlement, killed one child and captured Mary and the remaining two children, went on to capture another woman, Elizabeth Fitzgerald, and her two grandchildren.

None of this was written down at the time, 1865-1870s or thereabouts, and was only recorded after Britt Johnson’s death by people who knew him, or had heard about him, in 1900. So Paulette Jiles has pieced together the myth and the historical facts as known and created a story that brings all the characters to life, most of the people in this book are real, one or two are like people that existed, like the Indian Agent, a pacifist Quaker named Samuel Hammond, sent for purposes that only God knew, to control and negotiate with the most war-like tribes: the Comanche, the Kiowa and the Kiowa-Apache.

Britt Johnson is real, he was away when his family were attacked, he determined to recover his family, and other captives and having accomplished that to set up as a freight-driver. This is the story of how this ambition was realised.

Samuel Hammond, however, is based, but lightly, upon a real Indian Agent called Lawrie Tatum and Samuel is in the novel in order to explore the dilemma facing the Quaker settlers from Philadelphia, who took no part in the Civil War (though Samuel drove an ambulance), and therefore were little regarded by many European (white) Americans, and were now part of the great re-settlement (in reservations) of the Native (Reds, as they were known) Americans. How does a pacifist deal with a tribal custom that includes killing, raping and mutilating victims, taking of captives and a nomadic life that cannot be contained in a reservation, no matter how big?
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This map shows the territory as it was in 1864-65.

The other two books are rather different. Hemingway at War by Terry Mort, rather speaks for itself. Much has been written, not least by Ernest Hemingway himself, about his escapades, much has been exaggerated, mostly by EH and much has been denigrated by others. Moonglow, on the other hand, is a fictionalised account of a grandfather’s experience in Europe, principally Germany, towards the end of World War II. In this book, Michael Chabon recounts the stories told him by his grandfather towards the end of his life, while in a hospital and dying, suddenly and for the first time, he began to describe incidents in his past life, especially those dealing with his experiences in Germany. The novel is an amalgam of things that Michael knew about his grandfather and also these revelations made almost when it was too late to press for details.

Both books in their own ways give us an account of that cataclysm which cannot but broaden our view of the conflict.

Hemingway, though a non-combatant, saw quite a lot of fighting at first hand as he attached himself to the American 22nd Regiment and went with them from Normandy right through to the liberation of Paris and on to Germany, until they were decimated at the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, this small but intense part of the war was the bloodiest, most deadly encounter that the 22nd had experienced. Not unlike the Battle of the Bulge, it was fought in dense forest, with little or no room for deep trench defenses, and splinters of wood from blasted trees inflicting as many casualties and fatalities as ordinary shrapnel.PhotoScan (6)

Hemingway himself, claims to have killed at least 100 Germans, which as a journalist he was not entitled to do, but at the same time it was known that for him “enough was never enough” and he was inclined to dress it up a bit. Strangely, the one engagement about which he wrote not one sentence was Hürtgen, perhaps finally, “enough” was way too much. In any event, he left the combat zones for good and returned to Paris, a privilege not afforded to what remained of the 22nd, who fought on to Berlin.

Moonglow was, in many ways, a more satisfactory book. Maybe novels are always better at presenting messy, complicated lives in a digestible fashion. Chabon’s grandfather was also in Europe towards the end of World War II, but on a quite different mission. As a noted chemist and engineer himself, he was tasked with seeking out as many German engineers and chemist, especially those involved with the V1 and V2 Rocket programme, to find them, capture them and extradite them to America, preferably before the Russians.PhotoScan (4)

The other parts of the book present a wonderful eccentric, a talented engineer engaged in rocketry, even before the war. Passionate about space exploration, but also with a haunted and difficult married life. This is a truly remarkable book, by a wonderfully talented and inventive writer.

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