Monthly Archives: July 2014

75% done with The Leopard

What I’m enjoying about the novel is the level of complexity in the characters. While there does seem to be an attempt at making a point about society, the characters are well drawn to make those themes and ideas more obscure and open to interpretation.

On the one hand he talks about how nothing changes, but we do see change, mostly religious and towards atheists. A Jesuit defending the rich? Is nothing sacred?

66% done with The Leopard

“… the sin which we Sicilians never forgive is simply that of ‘doing’ at all.”

The Prince is at a very specific age where he’s young enough to be physically imposing, yet old enough to not care anymore about using his energy. He knows what the direction the river is flowing so why bother fighting against it. He sees clearly what a young man can’t and he knows he can’t change anything

Is it cynical or realist?

47% done with The Leopard

So much imagery of violent death and even putrefaction amid beauty. The Prince sees the world as only a man his age can see it: with death and decomposition nibbling about the edges of all life.

And then there is the futility of politics. Even a man of his power (even waning as it is) is at best just one vote and at worse that one vote can be changed by whoever wants it changed

He’s feeling life getting away

30% done with The Leopard

You can feel how hot it is, how dusty the road is, how unrelenting the sun is. It’s oppressive. The hot imagery is contrasted with the Don getting out of the bath, the priest seeing his body, and the water flowing off of him like all the famous European rivers.

From the very beginning I’ve sympathized with the Don who is so conscience of his dwindling power and each day’s loss of prestige. He’s old now.

10% done with The Leopard

If I didn’t know any better I would have assumed the book had been written not long after the events that take place. The novel feels authentic in its setting and time, the main character, Don Fabrizio Corbera, feels genuine, as if he stepped right out of a troubled 19th century.

I love the attention to detail: the dead soldier under the lemon tree, Bendicò, the desert that looks like a castle.

The Painted Bird: Read from July 11 to 22, 2014

For someone to sit down and write a novel they have to have a reason for doing so, be it to explore something in life that has troubled them, for financial gain or political motivations, for entertainment, or any number of reasons. A book does not just happen, at least some thought and effort goes into even the most current, vapid, ghost-written celebrity expose. And so what is the purpose of The Painted Bird? Why was this book written?What is its purpose?

In the afterword, Jerzy Kosiński goes into great detail to explain the point of his book and to defend his writing of it and the contents of its pages. He believes many people have misinterpreted his intentions and his words and that people with political motives have actively tried to harm him. He goes on to say that the terrors he writes about in his book are not even a fraction of the true events that went on in Eastern Europe during WW2. He implies he could have written an even more brutal, horrific, and savage description of what people did during that conflict. He believes he held back and others believe he went to far.

In the mini-series Band Of Brothers there is an episode which focuses on the medic of Easy Company. This medic, during his trip into town for rest and supplies, meets a young nurse who is treating the wounded and with whom he immediately forms a bond. Their relationship, though brief, is obviously deeper than an – infatuation they are two common souls who we can easily believe will spend the rest of their lives together. And she dies. And in that death, amid all the other deaths we have seen, the real tragedy of war is felt, the loss of someone who we cannot replace in our hearts and our lives, the loss of a unique and beautiful and important human being. A loss that is in part noble because of the work she was doing and also part pointless because of the whole reason why she would have to be there in the first place: a war.

I bring up this scene in Band of Brothers because that one scene, I believe, does a better job of showing us the tragedy of war than all the pages of Jerzy Kosiński’s book. No amount of the brutal descriptions of torture, and rape, and cruelty going on for pages and pages and chapters and hours of reading can capture just the single image of a nurse’s headscarf amid the rubble of a bombed church.

And so I have to put this book in the same category as Bastard Out Of Carolina, a disingenuous telling of a real tragedy, a book that explores real pain with dishonesty. Yes, every event Jerzy Kosiński writes about may have actually happened to any number of people during the war – I do not dispute the brutality he writes about, especially during a conflict which ultimately saw the extermination of millions of Jews and millions of others both during and then after the war in other countries. But what is disingenuous is the way he went about telling us this story.

When the book was first published it was believed to be basically a memoir, a true account of the author’s actual experiences. Later it came out the book was a work of fiction whose goal was only to explore the brutality of the war and that the author was only writing about what he had heard or been told or, perhaps, imagined.

Does it matter if the book is true or not? Is that an important distinction?

Jerzy Kosiński goes to great lengths to show cruelty, especially the cruelty done to the main character at the hands of simple and uneducated peasants. They beat him, they torture him, they rape each other, they engage in the most incestuous and animalistic behaviors. To be blunt, he makes them all look like animals. In his afterword he’s on the record as saying it was not his intention to be racist or discriminatory towards Eastern European peasants, that he was only showing what actually happened. And there is no denying that people who are superstitious, ignorant, fearful, oppressed, and uneducated allowed (or turned their backs to) the persecution of Jews and gypsies. History has shown, time and again, people of all races and cultures are more than capable of being tremendously cruel to each other, and the Eastern European peasants are no exception and their simple ignorance does not excuse them from terrible behavior.

But the detail Jerzy Kosiński goes into, the amount of savagery he writes about is so overwhelming, so gory, so awful that after a while it loses its potency and it just turns the very real human beings who are also Eastern European peasants into the most vile, wicked, and most horrible person’s on earth. Every time we meet a new peasant for the boy to interact with we just start to wonder what sort of savagery will be unleashed on the boy and us as a reader. We are so beaten down time after time with how horrible the main character will be treated we no longer see anyone here as human.

In a way, through all this hammering of brutality, we start to understand how people can begin to look on a whole other race of people as animals, as less than humans who can be easily loaded onto trains and sent to concentration camps to be gassed. And if that was what the author was going for then I suppose he succeeded.

But he did so at the expense of turning every Eastern European peasant into the very thing he had been persecuted for. He only turned that hate and fear and ignorance back onto someone else. He solves nothing and he implies his own people have never been guilty of anything, that he belongs to a race of people who are only ever persecuted, but always righteous. Add in the line of the main character remembering his family had servants (class distinction) and it’s easy to believe the author was making a class judgment all around.

Now perhaps had the main character became a murderer, had he engaged in the most heinous evil himself, had he, unlike his fellow mute orphan friend, switched the railroad tracks and committed the crime himself, had he actually descended into the depths of cruelty, then maybe we would have been given at least a semblance of a character study of how all this hate and violence can turn a person to hate an violence.

Yet as a work of fiction (which is what Jerzy Kosiński insists this is), then we have to follow the rules of fiction and ask how much does the character change? Well, he changes very little. He’s been through a lot, but other than being withdrawn and mistrustful, he’s a paper thin character (surrounded by stereotypes) who is a victim from start to finish, a righteous whipping post at the hands of cruel, ignorant savages. His character teaches us nothing and he shows us nothing insightful.

Personally I think Jerzy Kosiński took advantage of many of the horrific true accounts from the war and thought he could turn them into a sensationalist book that would sell a lot of copies because of the sheer tremendous amount of savage brutality he could describe. I could never shake the feeling he reveled in the gory details and that he allowed his imagination to run with a morbid frenzy all the way across Eastern Europe. I never felt like I believed all this cruelty happened to just one little boy. Could it have happened to many different people cumulatively? No doubt, unfortunately. People can be awfully cruel. But for this one boy to have gone through trial after terrible trial, to have been through all he went through is just too much to accept in a work of fiction.

Had the book been true, well, then the book would have been genuine and maybe we would have learned something different because, after all, had it really happened to Jerzy Kosiński, then he would have had something different to say and think about those events because he would have lived through them. But not having lived through them means he can’t actually know how that savage cruelty can actually effect a person.

He can’t know what the real horror the real people who suffered during WW2 actually went through, and it’s those people, the Jews, and the gypsies, and all the others who he does a disservice to. He can’t know their agony and he can’t teach it to us. Only an actual survivor who actually went through those events could know that. And my instinct tells me their stories, though also cruel, would have more moments similar to the nurse in Band Of Brothers: the personal losses, than anything the author here writes about.

And let’s not let him off the hook by saying since it’s just a work of fiction that none of this matters, that he has no responsibility to the truth, that he’s all within his rights to turn an entire race and population of Eastern European peasants into the most base savages just for morbid entertainment sake. Sure, maybe in one hundred years a person could write a book like this and not have it reflect at all on the people in it, but to write this book just 20 years after the war when it is still fresh means he has to have known that even if the book had been called “The Totally Made Up Fictitious Account of Horrible Things That Did In No Way Happen To Me, The Author”, it would still have affected people’s perceptions of the people in the book because there really are Eastern European peasants. You can’t have it both ways. You just can’t write a book that claims to be a tool to show people who horrible the war was and then also say it’s all made up and the bad people in it are not actually bad people.

So, to sum up, the book is disingenuous. It teaches us nothing because it is not true and since it is a work of fiction it has to be held to the standards of fiction. And those standards show us the book is just an endless series of brutalisms over and over and with paper-thin characters who do not change and that gives us hardly any insight into the human character the author hopes to explore.

This is a bad book. The people who committed the crimes against the Jews and gypsies and all the others were human beings, not some vision of Dante’s Infernal Monsters. But the truth is human beings did this to other human beings. The actual brutality Jerzy Kosiński tells us that really happened to people during this period in history is just a set piece for paper monsters and it lets the truly awful people who committed these crimes off the moral hook, so-to-speak, by turning them into something that is not obligated to be moral. We have to accept that human beings are cruel, that the worst crimes in our society are committed by people just like us. To soften the blow, to shift the blame by saying these people are not actually human in some vapid attempt to comfort ourselves, to keep us from looking into the darkness of our hearts, means these crimes will continue to happen because they will never be addressed and understood. If we keep blaming monsters for our own actions, if we refuse to accept responsibility, then we are doomed as a species.

96% done with The Painted Bird

“One wants to live because one lives, because the whole world lives”, “we are here in the company of death”, “everyone gets his number. From that moment on you have lost yourself.”, “we are approaching our new graves, iron discipline reigns here in the camp of death.” “our thoughts are numbered; it is not possible to grasp this new language. ” The language of brutality.

85% done with The Painted Bird

He likes seeing these backward, dirty peasants who hurt him die. But it raises an interesting problem as that it’s revealed his background was of privilege and this killing and not understanding of the peasants is further class distinction and hate. He lived among them and now wants to kill them and he sees them all as less than human. Which I guess is the lesson here.

70% done with The Painted Bird

Handsome Laba is a painted bird. He was already better looking and stood out from the flock and when he came back to the flock, perhaps after selling himself for money(?), and now dressed in fine clothes, the villagers grew jealous and angry and envious. And while they didn’t kill him, the theft of his paint (nice clothes) drove him to kill himself. Message, fit in, don’t be conspicuous. Conform. Difference is hated.

55% done with The Painted Bird

“I knew he possessed powers unattainable by ordinary people.” He envies the German officer with the deaths head emblem and powerful in physicality; he wished he had some sort of power. Like the fuse he used to destroy the barn.

The priest didn’t look nearly as imposing, important, or powerful as the Nazi. The priest is shabby and can only forgive The Nazi is neat and can grant life or take it.

Can’t lift bible

40% done with The Painted Bird

No eye contact. Don’t speak.

“Was such a destitute cruel world worth ruling?”

“… In that place bones were the most valuable item” The dead are more valuable than the living. Which makes a morbid sense when we get to the train track scenes with the Jews – “Disembodied human arms waving tirelessly from the windows” – whose only purpose is the be killed by the Germans.

Everything and everyone is insane.

17% done with They Were Found Wanting

The isolationism many of the Hungarians choose seems to be manifest in Uzdy with his wild ideas of replacing the number system with units of 12. It’s all mad, but then there is nobody to tell him otherwise because he’s also such a wildcard threat.

“The tall elongated figure silhouetted against the butter-yellow building was like an exclamation mark after a cry of menace.”

I like how Baliant felt sad for Uzdy.

30% done with The Painted Bird

“Heavy sagging clouds that sailed obliquely overhead the thatched roofs.”

“I began to think of the many ways of dying.”

Hungarian compose György Ligeti, Russian composer Alfred Schnittke, Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński: all explore themes of disjointed terror and a world broken apart. So much misery in Eastern Europe.

Does it matter if this story is true? Can imagination outdo reality anyway?


20% done with The Painted Bird

Peasants swinging their cencer-like comets as he runs through the marshy reeds, sparks flying up into the ark sky.

“Its light lured scores of odd insects out of the dark.”

How traumatized is he that he thinks dead eyes could help him see twice as well or behind him, or that the old woman at the beginning had not been dead. His 7 year old imagination is naive but twisted, too.

This is brutal. It’s hell.

10% done with The Painted Bird

She had been an evil spirit and she led him to the decayed crucifix with the bird on it and then across the field along the lingering smoke of her hut to the village where he is attacked.

Ghosts always look mournfully eastward. He surrounded by phantoms and is himself possessed by an evil spirit.

Vampires are people drowned before being baptized

“Like an abandoned head of cabbage I became part of the field”

I, Claudius: Read Jul 10, 2014

When the main character of a story has little to no say in the events happening to them – when they are just swept along the with the story – it makes for a boring character. And a boring book.

And this is a very boring book.

Here’s the problem: Claudius can only watch as events unfold around him, he rarely gets to participate in anything that is interesting and when he does it’s usually to beg for mercy or play the fool. The people around him are interesting – or they would be had they been written better, anyway but he is not. He can only watch (and so we too can only watch) as we are told how one thing happened and how another thing happened.

What I don’t get is Graves wanted to write a realistic story of what happened during Claudius’ lifetime, he wanted to explore what life in Rome was really like and try to figure out how events really happened, yet he gives everyone the most wooden and stilted dialogue and has everyone running around making absolute statements. Everyone is certain of their actions and nobody ever stops to think that some issues might not be black or white. Nobody struggles with morality here and how someone could write an entire novel about the beginnings of the Roman Empire without giving us at least one character who spends more than an afterthought wondering if all this is a good idea isn’t just a missed opportunity, it’s just dumb.

I’ll give Graves credit for creativity and for taking the old Roman stories and looking at them in a fresh light. He has some fun ideas here, but it’s just poorly put together.

The biggest problem is a problem almost all stories like this run into : they have the wrong main character. Claudius is unable to really influence the events happening around him and to him so he’s a terrible character to spend an entire book with. I get that he’s a historian and that he’s telling us this story, but you can’t have it both ways, you can’t update the stories of Rome to show modern audiences that people even 2000 years ago were just like us but then write the whole book as if everyone is stiff and antique and mimicking an old Roman history book. If the whole point of this book was to show us how Rome was a vibrant, modern place, then why make everything feel stuffy and have everyone act wooden? The whole purpose of this book is baffling.

Anyway, my biggest problem with stories like this, such as biopics, are that you should never make the character at the center of your interest the main character. In the film Amadeus Mozart isn’t the main character, Salieri is. Salieri is much more interesting because he’s much more like us – he’s filled with rage and jealousy and he doesn’t possess the genius that Mozart does. We can understand Mozart’s brilliance better by looking at him through the flawed Salieri. In the film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford the main character isn’t Jesse James, it’s (the coward) Robert Ford. Ford is far more interesting and we learn about both men by following Ford around. Even The Last King of Scotland gets this right by not making Idi Amin the main character, but making the fictional Nicholas Garrigan our eyes to the brutality of that dictator.

Now to be fair, Claudius isn’t the center of Rome through most of the book; he’s telling the stories of Augustus, his wife Livia, Tiberius, and Caligula, as well as a few other historical figures because he wants us to know how he wound up finally becoming Emperor, but we have to look at the first problem I brought up and that is Claudius is just telling us things he had no control over and played almost no part in.

Maybe it really was dumb luck that Claudius became Emperor, however, that makes for boring fiction. And besides I doubt the real Claudius had no influence and I’m sure he was more political than this book makes him out to be. Nobody is just handed the absolute rule of all of Rome just because a few senators are afraid of a few more Germans. I just don’t buy any of it.

Anyway, like I said, I give Graves credit for undertaking an interesting project, and there are some interesting moments, especially anything with Livia or Caligula, but the overall book is stiff and Claudius is one of the most boring main characters I’ve ever come across. He’s like little kid Anakin Skywalker in the terrible The Phantom Menace where he has no idea what’s going on around him, and no power to do anything about what happening. He’s boring, undeveloped, and the whole thing feels like a waste of time.

Oh, and do I feel like I understand Rome better now than when I started? No. Graves gives us some possible insight into how a few well-to-do Romans lives and some insight into the crimes and lavish festivals of the times, but none of the people here jump off the page as real human beings and Rome just feels like a collection of wooden sheep whose only function is to cheer at the games.

Poor Clau-Clau-Claudius? Poor us.