Crying for Ivan

So, after my sojourn into the world of a German book club, we regathered for our January meeting with me suffering from a bout of jet-lag. I finished our first pick, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, in a hazy 24 hour period after getting off the plane. Ordinarily reading under such conditions would be a hindrance but with this complex tale it may have been a help…

It is almost impossible to know where to begin with this postmodern novella, such is its chaotic nature. It’s a week since I finished it and I still think of it with confusion and disorientation. The plot as I understand it is about a woman, Oedipa Mass, who may or may not have unearthed a vast global conspiracy between two mail distribution networks after being named executor of her ex-boyfriend’s estate after his death. If this sounds utterly bizarre, you’d be right. This is merely a jumping-off point for a series of loosely linked subplots, mostly involving alcohol, hard drugs and soaked in paranoia.

The point I guess is the reader is completely unsure if he is reading the truth, a fabrication, or simply the ramblings of a drunk, hallucinating mind. The cast of characters runs long, and all are eccentric to say the least – the one that sticks in the memory is Oedipa’s therapist, who we are told undertook his internship in a Jewish concentration camp, inducing madness into his patients. All of this leads to Oedipa believing she has discovered evidence of a shadowy underground postal service called the Trystero. Or it is a hoax designed by her ex. Or a figment of her imagination.

If you’ve got this far you are probably scratching your head, and I don’t blame you, it’s that kind of book. As a postmodern text it also contains a number of cultural references that may go unnoticed which adds to the frustration. I’d recommend this book without hesitation mind – I’ve certainly never read anything like it. It’s very challenging and probably requires a number of readings to peel back the layers, but I feel that taking on the task will give rich rewards.

Back on terra firma, our second choice was a brutal portrayal of a single day in a 1950s Russian gulag. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an extraordinary account based on the real experiences of the author, who was sentenced to eight years hard labour after World War 2 for supposed ‘political’ crimes after criticising Stalin in his writings.

That the book was published at all was a major surprise, because never before had an account of Stalinist repression been openly distributed. It was a huge success and sold out immediately on publication – it must have been a huge shock to read for a repressed society at the time.

The plot as it is focuses on 24 hours in the life of Ivan Denisovich. The matter-of -fact authoritative oppression of the prisoners winds through the narrative on every page, as does the sheer bitterness of the cold winter and the desperate attempts to keep warm. The longing for small pleasures such as a piece of bread or a cigarette really encapsulate the desperate conditions these men lived and worked under. Our protagonist hides a small piece of bread in his mattress and this small crumb of comfort, if you will, sustains him through a back-breaking day of hard labour. The men snatch brief moments of free time whenever they can and savour every moment when they aren’t under the watchful gaze of the guards. Time really is precious here.

Despite the harsh conditions Solzhenitsyn injects the prose with a dry wit and an optimistic outlook which comes across as very inspiring. His dismissall of the regime as ‘one man works, the other watches’ is not only amusing but a sharp analysis of the almost nonsensical bureaucracy and hierarchy of the coommunist system. Indeed, a similar line springs to mind when seeing the hordes of construction workers seemingly doing nothing on building sites most days.

There is no positive conclusion or final judgement and I guess that’s the point – every day a relentless struggle, finding comfort when you can, and counting the days as the drift slowly by.

Adventures in a German Wonderland

I’ve recently returned from a trip to the UK for Christmas and one of the highlights of my trip was spending a weekend visitng my sister in the German city of Cologne. Best of all was recieving an invitation to participate in her January book club, which I accepted without hesitation.

I was interested in attending for a number of reasons. Most of all was my curiosity about how this book club would differ in dynamic from my own, particularly as about half the group are native German speakers reading a book in their second language, which poses extra difficulties that we do not have to deal with. Because of this, the book club has a rule that every choice has to be written by a native English speaker, which rules out a vast swathe of European and African authors. This is a shame, but the reasoning behind it is to keep anything which may be too challenging from being chosen. I can understand this, but it still seems a shame.

The other main difference is that my sister’s group are much more organised than our ramshackle group. They already have the dates and choices made for the whole of 2016, which is a far cry from us, who generally only work a month or two in advance. My sister put this down to the usual German efficiency, which raised a smile. I guess it is good to know choices ahead of schedule for planning purposes, but I’d be surprised if this level of organisation ever becomes a trait of my book club!

The friendship of the German group is something that I envied as the evening wore on. The group was started about three years ago when the organiser put an ad in his local paper, and after early teething problems they have had the same core of regulars for a long period. This is something that we have struggled to overcome – this is partly because our club was set up on the Meetup platform, which allows anyone to join and attend meetings. We have a large number of people who turn up for one meeting and then never attend again, or come once a year. This is perfectly fine, and allows for fresh perspectives every month which keeps us on our toes. We do have a group of four or five regulars who turn up every month and are active socially outside of the meetings as well, and that’s great. Familar faces allow a club to have a stable nucleus and make meetings more comfortable, and I wish we had more of them. The German book club is currently closed for new members and so they have the same people every month, and they have a really nice rapport with each other. And this familiarity hasn’t lessened the strength of debate, judging by my visit.

This comforting feel is exacerbated because the group meets in a member’s flat, rather than the pub. And everyone brings a bottle of something or some food (exceptional food going on what I ate that night!) which is rather lovely.

The book that was chosen for this month, my sister’s choice in fact, was the famous children’s classic Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I was sure that I had read this novel as a child, but after completing it this time I’m not so sure. The book has become a large part of the public’s consciousness, with numerous adaptations, films, plays, and of course the famous illustrations that accompany the prose and have been drawn by some of the great illustrators of the age. My memories of it are more likely drawn from some of these sources rather than the original text.

What to say about it? Well the novel is a blend of literary nonsense containing puzzles, wordplay, riddles, parody, logic problems, you name it. Most of these puzzles seem to have no clear solutions as Alice negotiates Wonderland, most famously the Mad Hatter’s riddle and the Queen’s croquet game. Logic, or the lack of it, is the theme. Anything is possible, and Carroll plays with language to express this point. Many words have multiple meanings and interpretations, and nothing is ever what it seems. Alice uses the word ‘curious’ throughout to describe her experiences.

Of course, at the novel’s conclusion we find out that Alice was having a dream the whole time, so the characters of the world of Wonderland are mixed in with aspects of Alice’s subconscious. This adds to the slightly hallucinatory feel of the novel, as does the Caterpillar’s mushroom, which Alice nibbles on to control her fluctuations in size. These changes in size and her confusion with them may have been used by Carroll as a metaphor for puberty and the fears of growing into adulthood.

These word games and riddles caused frustration in some of the group. I think this novel must have been very difficult to translate and as such some of the puzzles either lost their meaning or, because they are steeped in 19th century Victorian culture, made little sense. I found some of the wordplay a little hard to grasp, so someone reading this book in their second language must have found it very tough.

This is not to say that the English speaking of the group was basic. I was staggered by the quaity of the English of all the group, which was probably better than my own. I have enormous respect for anyone who can speak another language and am in awe of it to be honest. My sister speaks two languages fluently and it still amazes me when she conducts a conversation in German. I frankly feel inadequate and a little rude not being able to have the ability to speak to a German in their own language, particularly when they were such welcoming hosts. It is something I would like to address.

So it was a novel that I enjoyed, a playful, somewhat anarchic read. And the warmth shown to me by my German friends will linger long in the memory. Wunderbar!