Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Roth, Hughes, and Nosaka

In Which I Review Joseph Roth’s “The Radetzky March,” Langston Hughes’ “Not Without Laughter” and Akiyuki Nosaka’s “The Cake Tree in the Ruins”

Hello! I hope you had a good weekend and a great start to June.

I’ve read three books. One of them was recommended to me, the other two weren’t. I would definitely recommend all three…

The Radetzky March, by Joseph Roth

Great performance by Ohio State Marching Band - GIF on Imgur

“‘Do you plan to stay in the military?” [asked the Kaiser]. Hartenstein the barber had a wife and child and a prosperous shop in Olomouc and had already tried feigning rheumatism several times in order to get out fairly soon. But he couldn’t say no to the Kaiser. ‘Yes, Your Majesty,’ he said, knowing he had just messed up his entire life. ‘Fine. Now you’re a sergeant. But don’t be so nervous!’ So. The Kaiser had made someone happy. He was glad. He was glad. He had done something wonderful for that Hartenstein. Now the day could begin.”

The Radetzky March is a classic of 20th century European literature.

It starts out with a man whose last name is Trotta who fights at the Battle of Solferino for the Austro-Hungarian empire. He doesn’t do anything really, but somehow everyone winds up believing he saved the Kaiser’s life, so he’s awarded an estate and becomes known as the Hero of Solferino. The rest of the book follows Trotta’s son and grandson as they struggle to live up to his legacy. That made it a very funny read.

In terms of prose, the book was also very well written. Roth was great at avoiding clichés. Even so, he didn’t twist his language into knots in search of the freshest imagery ever. This meant that the writing was poetic without getting into the reader’s face and distracting from the story. The imagery actually contributed to the story. I was very impressed by that.

On the other hand, some parts of the plot felt boring. There were many funny character sketches, and the scenes between the father and the son were the strongest scenes in the book, but there were also a bunch of love affairs that began to feel monotonous. Maybe if Roth had included less love affairs the book would have felt more varied and entertaining.

He also included a lot of musings on how the Austro-Hungarian empire was becoming decrepit. There’s nothing wrong with this, and Roth generally handled it well. Even so, I thought he established the idea too clearly near the beginning which gave him no real room to take it anywhere new by the book’s end. In other words, since he stated that idea up front, the ending’s restatement of it felt redundant.

Another weird effect of this was that the ending felt like it was being contrived to fit the idea instead of the idea fitting into the story and complementing it. Basically, Roth shepherded characters into the path of thematically-convenient coincidences. It felt like he had some sort of thematic checklist– “Character X is a symbol for this idea, and I think this idea winds up like that, so I’ll make it just so happen that Character X will wind up in a similar situation! Check!” The ending’s coincidences basically took away the characters’ agency and made the book seem less powerful as a result.

For all my griping, it’s subjective griping, and I still thought that The Radetzky March was still a very good book. It read like a shorter version of War and Peace–it only focused on two or three characters unlike War and Peace, and its philosophical musings were much better-paced. It also had a freshness and a joy to it that made it a good read. I would recommend it.

Not Without Laughter, by Langston Hughes

Blue Electric Guitar

“But the sled! Home-made by some rough carpenter, with strips of rusty tin nailed along the wooden runners, and a piece of clothes-line to pull it with! ‘It’s fine,’ Sandy lied, as he tried to lift it and place it on the floor as you would in coasting; but it was very heavy, and too wide for a boy to run with in his hands. You could never get a swift start. And a board was warped in the middle. ‘It’s a nice sled, grandma,’ he lied. ‘I like it, mama.’ ‘Mr. Logan made it for you,’ his mother answered proudly, happy that he was pleased. ‘I knew you wanted a sled all the time.’”

This is a book about an African-American boy named Sandy who grows up in Kansas. His father’s always away, his aunt is trying to become a jazz-singer, and his grandmother wants him to make something of himself.

Hughes was a poet, so it was interesting to see how he approached a novel. At first, it felt more like a description of several events without much interiority, but then the story gained momentum and Hughes turned out to be great at showing nuanced characters.

Usually, I’d find myself analyzing books as I read them, but I was enjoying this book so much I actually found myself not analyzing it. I can talk a bit about its emotional effect, though. Not Without Laughter made me feel very happy, then very sad, then very happy again. It also felt empowering.

I would definitely recommend it.

The Cake Tree in the Ruins, by Akiyuki Nosaka

cinemagraph gif water nature cinemagraph tree forest waves gif artist  perfect loop cinemagraphs reflection leafs bark | Nature images,  Cinemagraph, Nature

“‘Enemy attack! Prepare the counter depth charges!’ [….] Convinced that it was under attack, the submarine began to submerge. Taken aback, the whale worried that he was being rejected yet again, and hurriedly began explaining for all he was worth: ‘Please don’t run away! I didn’t mean to wake you up. I don’t want to hurt you, I just want to talk. I think you’re gorgeous!’ and dived down alongside the object of his affections, trying to snuggle up to her.”

The Cake Tree in the Ruins is a collection of short stories about Japan during World War II. They’re autobiographical (Nosaka watched his parents get killed in the Allied firebombing as a boy and then had a sister who died from starvation).

There were some great stories in this collection and then there were some less-great stories. Three great stories from it are, “The Whale That Fell in Love With a Submarine,” “The Parrot and The Boy,” and “My Home Bunker.” If you only have time to read a few stories in the collection, read these three.

Overall, the stories were like a mix between Salinger, Márquez, Kafka, and Aitmatov. They were somewhat surrealistic but also very simply-told. Also, even though many of the stories were about sad subjects, they somehow managed to be both hilarious and tragic at the same time.

I would absolutely recommend it.

3 thoughts on “Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Roth, Hughes, and Nosaka

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