Hello and happy Tuesday. We’re almost at the end of 2020, thankfully. I hope we have a better 2021. In the meantime, here are the last 3 books I’ve read this year. I wouldn’t recommend them as a hopeful way to cap off 2020, though, unless your idea of hopefully capping off a year somehow consists of reading a bunch of very sad books.
A King Alone, by Jean Giono
“We stayed like that for a short time, face-to-face across fifty meters. Then Langlois moved toward the man, step by step, until he was three steps away. Then, once again, they seemed to come to an unspoken agreement. And then, truly, at the moment we could no longer bear to be there, when we were about to shout, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ there was a loud detonation. The man fell. Langlois had shot him, twice, in the stomach; a gun in each hand, at the same time. ‘It was an accident,’ he said. When Langlois got back to our town, he’d found the resignation letter he’d begun to write; he added: ‘Regrettable lack of sangfroid on the job…worn down pistol triggers, which should have been detected by a careful examination of the weapons, occasioned this terrible accident for which I have no excuse.'”
I don’t even know what A King Alone was about. It was set in the French countryside and seemed to be about a murderer on the loose, but then it got to telling about a wolf-hunt, and then about how one character wanted to get married. The ending was really good, though, and it reminded me a bit of Thomas Bernhard.
Let me talk a bit about what this book had to offer. It was well-written in terms of its sober but subtly-moving style, and its characters were interesting and sometimes funny. There are parts of the book where you don’t know what’s going on (why is Character X suddenly trying to get married when the book is supposed to be about a murderer?) but for some reason it all worked in the end. I don’t really know what else to say about this book. Sometimes it felt a bit drawn-out because of all the description of things. I’m not sure why it was called “A King Alone,” either. Somehow it feels like there was a big meaning to this book I never figured out.
Maybe read it yourself and figure out that meaning for yourself.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz, by Heather Morris
“Lale thinks about the date, April 4, 1944. When he’d seen it on his work sheets that week, ‘April’ had jarred with him. April, what was it about April? Then he realized. In three weeks’ time, he will have been here for two years. Two years. How has he done it? How is he still breathing, when so many aren’t? He thinks back to the vow he made at the beginning. To survive and see those responsible pay. Maybe, just maybe, those in the plane had understood what was going on, and rescue was on the way. It would be too late for those who died today, but maybe their deaths would not be entirely in vain. Hold that thought. Use it to get out of bed tomorrow morning, and the next morning, and the next.“
This book is about a tattooist in Auschwitz, named Lale, who falls in love with a fellow prisoner, named Gita. He promises her he will marry her after they leave Auschwitz, but first they have to survive Auschwitz.
What’s most interesting about this book is that it’s based on a true story. A man named Lale who’d survived the Holocaust went to the author Heather Morris and told her his story for it to be remembered, and she went on to write a book about it.
This background is interesting because it seems to have informed how the story was told. Some parts of it felt like Morris was reporting/paraphrasing things Lale had probably told her– “Lale was born in X town on Y date, and he worked at job Z before the Nazi invasion,” or “Lale tried to deal with his troubles by thinking ABC, because he knew that QRS would happen which would mean LMNOP.” Then there were other parts where it felt like Morris was trying to guess what it was like to be in Lale’s situation, but for some reason that guessing mostly involved peoples’ hearts beating in their throats, peoples’ knees going weak, and other such clichés. They made me feel less like I was reading something based on a true story and more like I was reading someone’s idea of what it might have been like to be in a situation like Lale’s.
I don’t mean to sound harsh. There were several very good and surprising parts of the book. These parts felt like the author was able to get at something real and meaningful rather than trying to paraphrase thoughts or go for uninteresting descriptions. This happened more in the middle to end of the book instead of at the beginning. This variation gave the book an uneven quality. One minute I felt like I was reading an engrossing story. The next I felt like I was reading a soap opera, and the minute after that I felt like I was reading a piece of journalism.
I would say that if you’re interested in history and the Holocaust that this is a good book to read. Another book that I would recommend more strongly is Livia-Bitton Jackson’s I Have Lived a Thousand Years. That book stayed with me, and continues to haunt me to this day.
In the end though, everyone is different. You might enjoy the Tattooist of Auschwitz more than I did, and it does tell an important story.
Selected Letters of Eugene O’Neill,
Edited by Travis Bogard and Jackson R. Bryer
“There’s nothing like having a real good ailment. It’s one thing that never bores you, or leaves you at a loss for a word. I’m sure if one of the Knitting Women had called to Louis XVI as he ascended the guillotine, ‘Well, Capet, how’re the old kidneys lately?’, he would have waved the headsman aside and begun a serious conversation as follows: ‘Well, not so good, Sister [….] I never get a wink of sleep any more. I don’t know how I stand it.’ At this point the headsman would have interrupted with a little anecdote about his arthritis, and all the veins, flatulence, flat feet and what not. Danton would have muscled in with a long harangue on the horrible hangover he had yesterday morning. Robespierre would have addressed the mob for two hours on the new pills he was taking to get rid of his pimples. The Revolution would have been forgotten. Louis would have become the Well Beloved again–a Royal Pal. The Bourbon dynasty would have been saved.”
This book contains a bunch of letters written by Eugene O’Neill from his youth to his old age. It’s interesting to see how he develops over time, and what he thinks about his plays and other people. In the end, the letters are very sad because O’Neill spent his whole life seemingly searching for the meaning of life without having found it. In the end, he does seem to have found something, though–friendship, writing, and love, but it’s never clear if he ever found solace from that. Also, by the time he realized the value of these things to him, his friends were dying, Parkinson’s had robbed him of the ability to write, and his beloved wife was going insane. That’s a horrible way to go, and so the end of the letter collection had me crying some.
Still, there was lots of wisdom in the letters. The wisdom came in two flavors: writerly wisdom and life wisdom. Writerly wisdom consisted of things along the lines of “set your manuscript aside for a few months if you’re not sure yet what you’re trying to say with it” and “experimental works usually fail because they’re done just for the sake of experimentation instead of for the sake of having something to say,” and the life wisdom had things like “stop relying on others to figure out your life, figure it out yourself.” I was surprised by how wise O’Neill turned out to be (though he also seemed to be somewhat racist and sexist, which is absolutely not wise).
Basically, if you’re interested in O’Neill’s plays, these letters are insightful, but they are also likely to be sadder than his super-sad and super-tragic play, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Read at your own risk.
Now, because I don’t want to end the year with such a pessimistic note, I want to end by recommending a more inspirational poem, and that is William Ernest Henley’s Invictus:
Wishing you all a terrific 2021.