Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Strindberg, Gombrowicz, and Ibsen

In Which I Review Two Mortal Enemies (Ibsen and Strindberg) and One Writer Who Laughs at It All (Gombrowicz).

Hello! Happy October! Here are three more books I’ve read. One is too short, but the other two are just right.

Inferno, by August Strindberg, Translated by Mary Sandbach

Willy's Guide: HOW TO GET MORE INFERNO | KaW Forum

“A strange thing happened yesterday evening at supper. My little daughter cannot help herself to her food; so, wanting to assist her, I touched her hand, quite gently and with the kindest intentions. The child gave a shriek, snatched away her hand, and darted at me a look that was full of horror. When her grandmother asked her what was the matter she replied: ‘He hurt me.’ I sat there quite taken aback and unable to utter a word. I had done much harm intentionally; could I now have come to do it without wishing it? That night I dreamt that an eagle was pecking my hand to punish me for some crime. I knew not what.”

After reading this book I’ve come to the inevitable conclusion that I need more Strindberg in my life.

This was such an interesting psychological portrait of a man who was kind of mad and kind of not mad at the same time. It also had a strange plotline about metaphorically going into hell and coming back out. Parts of it also reminded me of Notes From the Underground, and interestingly, these two books were published in the same time-period.

In any case, even though you may never have heard of Strindberg’s Inferno, you have heard of it now, and you would be doing yourself a great service by reading it.

Ferdydurke, by Witold Gombrowicz,
Translated by Danuta Borchardt

Preposterous - A short about absurdity - GIF on Imgur

“Therefore, after a moment’s profound reflection, I managed to translate the substance of the following stanza that into comprehensive language:
THE POEM
Horizons burst like flasks
a green blotch swells high in the clouds
I move back to the shadow of the pine–
and there:
with greedy gulps I drink
my diurnal springtime

MY TRANSLATION
Calves of legs, calves, calves
Calves of legs, calves, calves, calves
Calves of legs, calves, calves, calves, calves–
The calf of my leg:
the calf of my leg, calf, calf,
calves, calves, calves.”

This funny book was entertaining to read, but at the same time, it was insightful.

It’s about a 30-year-old who is mistaken for a younger kid and is forced to attend elementary school. No matter how much he wants to protest, he can’t, and no matter how obvious it might be that he’s a 30-year-old, nobody acknowledges this fact. Thus begins this satire of education, infantilization, and class relations.

The book had a lot of great things to say about how, just because everybody else seems to like a boring piece of literature doesn’t mean that that piece of literature is actually any good. The people may be liking it just to come off as sophisticated. In fact, that’s probably the only reason they pretend to like it to begin with. Also, creators who make art just to look good or to imitate other artists without adding anything new are not creating true art because they’re not expressing themselves and their true values.

Obviously art is subjective and anyone’s free to disagree with these statements, but for me they resonated strongly. They (and the book’s humor) made Ferdydurke a very worthwhile read.

“When We Dead Awaken,” by Henrik Ibsen,
Adapted by Robert Brustein

Dancing skeleton GIFs - Get the best gif on GIFER

“Although absolutely nothing happened,
I knew that we had crossed the border,
That we were really home again,

Because it stopped at every little station.
No one got off and no one got on,
But the train stood there silently,
For what seemed like hours.
At every station I heard two railmen
Walking along the platform – –
And they mumbled quietly to each other
In the night, without expression or meaning.
There are always two men talking
About nothing at all.”

Apparently this quote wasn’t even included in in Brustein’s version of “When We Dead Awaken,” and somehow it was the best part of this adaptation of the play. That tells you everything you may need to know about it.

In other words, this book shows the dangers of cutting too much away from a story. Yes the play’s bones were intact, but its substance and emotional impact were not. This adaptation of the play felt flimsy, like it was being starved to death.

Basically, I would not recommend this version of Ibsen’s classic play. I would recommend another version that wasn’t cut. In fact, I may even try to read a longer version at some point in the future. Maybe then I’ll be able to write a review that does the actual play (and the plot I haven’t summarized here) justice.

To sum up: Whatever you do, don’t read this version of the play.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Ibsen, Markandaya, and De Lint

In Which I Review Henrik Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck,” Kamala Markandaya’s “Nectar in a Sieve,” and Charles De Lint’s “The Onion Girl.”

Hello! Happy Tuesday. There are so many books and so little time (until the end of the summer!) Hopefully I can get in a few more to review before that point. Here’s three, at any rate…

“The Wild Duck,” by Henrik Ibsen,
Translated by Una Ellis-Fermor

Courtesy of The Duck Song

“RELLING: Well, I’ll tell you Mrs. Ekdal. He’s suffering from acute inflammation of the conscience.”

“The Wild Duck” is not about a duck. It’s about a happily-married family…or so it seems. There’s a huge secret at the heart of the marriage, and the husband’s friend is trying to expose it. Frankness will make everything better, right? Ibsen thinks otherwise…

The first few acts felt very confusing. It wasn’t clear to me what was going on until the last few acts. With that being said, the rest of the play was good. Ibsen was great at dramatically revealing characters’ secrets and ulterior motives.

However, he wasn’t so great at making sure the play’s theme was actually supported by the story’s events. Ibsen seemed to want to say that idealism was destructive. But in the play, things seemed to be destroyed not because of idealism, but because of unyielding self-delusion. Or at least, idealism wasn’t the only culprit. That disconnect between the stated theme and the illustrated theme made for a very interesting reading-experience.

Also, parts of this play reminded me a lot of plays written later. A lampshade symbolized concealment in “The Wild Duck,” and a paper lantern symbolized concealment in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Aside from that, the two plays were very different, but it was cool to see how influential Ibsen was.

Anyway, I’d definitely recommend this play.

Nectar in a Sieve, by Kamala Markandaya

Nowness india inde GIF - Find on GIFER

“Then as happens even in the brightest moment, I remembered Janaki. Last year she had come with us, she and her children. This year who knew– or cared? The black thought momentarily doused the glow within me; then, angered and indignant, I thrust the Intruder away, chasing it, banishing it… tired of gloom, reaching desperately for perfection of delight, which can surely never be.”

This is a story about Rukmani, a child-bride in a changing India. She and her husband live in a village, cultivate the land, endure hardship, and experience joy.

Reading this book made me realize how rare it was to read about a sympathetic husband in literature. It felt very refreshing.

Also, the story itself was very engaging. The author clearly cared a lot about her characters, and the story’s ending was beautiful. When rereading its beginning, the story’s ending became even better.

What’s also impressive is that Markandaya wrote this book based on research rather than on any experience of poverty (she came from a wealthy family), but it still felt very realistic. It read a little like Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, only better, since Markandaya’s characters were more engaging.

So this book has great characters and a great story. It’s also very short. Definitely read it.

The Onion Girl, by Charles De Lint

Onion Crying GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

“‘I suppose the other thing too many forget is that we were all stories once, each and every one of us. And we remain stories. But too often we allow those stories to grow banal, or cruel, or unconnected to each other. We allow the stories to continue, but they no longer have a heart. They no longer sustain us.”

This is a book about Jilly Coppercorn, a woman in her thirties who likes to paint magical beings. She gets into a car-accident, figures out how to enter a magical land called the Dreamworld, and has to confront the trauma of her past to heal from the trauma in her present.

The story was very psychological, which was cool to read about, especially in a fantasy book. A warning: it does contain very dark themes. Even so, the dark themes were handled well, and the book felt more hopeful than nihilistic.

The world-building was also very interesting. The Dreamworld felt fresh and immersive. It didn’t outweigh the characters, though, which made the story even more enjoyable.

Even so, parts of The Onion Girl‘s plot felt formulaic and predictable, which took away a little from its overall impact. Same with some of the descriptions of places and characters. I’d find myself guessing how sentences would end (“The room looked dark… but cozy anyway?”) and then read something very close to that guess. This is probably subjective, though.

The book also could have been much shorter than its actual length of 600ish pages. A lot of the sentences in the book just repeated what previous sentences said, which reminded me of a similar thing that once happened to Dostoyevsky. Finally, entire chapters of The Onion Girl were devoted to explaining the moral of the story. This was entertaining up to a point. Then it felt a little preachy.

Overall, this book had very interesting psychology and world-building, but it was also formulaic and repetitive. If you’re looking for the greatest speculative fiction ever, you might want to consider reading other books (like Anna Kavan’s Ice or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast), but if you’re looking for something that’s still pretty good, you might enjoy this.

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Jacques, Ibsen, and Wright

In Which I Review “Outcast of Redwall” by Brian Jacques, “The Pillars of the Community” by Henrik Ibsen, and “The Man Who Lived Underground” by Richard Wright.

Hello! I just turned twenty yesterday (which is exciting and scary). As promised, I’ve reviewed three books for you this week.

Outcast of Redwall, by Brian Jacques

Honeybadger Running Backwards GIF - Honeybadger Badger RunningBackwards -  Discover & Share GIFs | Badger, Cool gifs, Honey badger

“Bryony got down from the arm of the chair. ‘No, Bella, I don’t know anybeast who is evil. A little naughty maybe, but not bad or evil. I think that others can drive a creature to naughtiness, always accusing and blaming them. After a while it must make the creature unhappy and drive him–or her–to be naughty because nobody expects them to be good. That’s what I think.'”

This is supposed to be a book about the kid of a evil ferret warlord who is abandoned and is taken in by the good beasts of Redwall, and has to choose between redemption and betrayal. Except the whole book is basically about a badger instead, who is the evil ferret warlord’s sworn enemy.

The ferret kid didn’t even get any real development as a character, whereas the badger’s story turned out to be much more interesting (and better-written). This is sad because the story could have been stronger had Jacques elaborated more on the ferret kid’s interiority. Also, the badger and the ferret kid had similar life-situations (being separated/estranged from their parents), which would’ve made such character-development even more interesting.

Since the ferret kid didn’t get any interiority, the ending didn’t make any logical sense. Also, characters suddenly went from being die-hard believers in XYZ to suddenly thinking ABC even though events would logically have caused them to exclaim “Aha! I knew XYZ was correct all this time!”

I won’t spoil what happens, but it made the good abbey of Redwall feel more like a dystopia than the utopia Brian Jacques seemed keen for it to be.

Overall, I would not recommend this book. I’d recommend Jacques’s Taggerung instead– it has a similar plot about the kid of an evil warlord, but it’s much better-focused, much better-told, and much more logical.

“The Pillars of the Community,” by Henrik Ibsen

Columns GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY


“MISS HESSEL: And you call yourselves the pillars of the community.
BERNICK: The community has nothing better to support it.
MISS HESSEL: Then what does it matter whether such a community is supported or not? what is it that counts here? The sham and the lie, nothing else. Here are you, the first man in the town, living in splendour and happiness, in power and honor– you, who have branded an innocent man a criminal.”

This Ibsen play is about a man who runs a shipbuilding business. He has dark secrets from his past that he tries to keep, even if it might mean betraying the people he loves.

It was very entertaining due to its character-portrayals– Character A saw himself as upright, even as Ibsen showed why that character was not really so upright within the very dialogue that the character was saying to prove his uprightness.

The story was also unexpectedly suspenseful. Ibsen was great at raising stakes. He wasn’t afraid to let crazy things happen to his characters, which surprised me after reading the relatively-tame “A Doll’s House.”

However, the ending felt a little anticlimactic. Even so, I’d recommend reading it.

The Man Who Lived Underground, by Richard Wright

Underground GIFs | Tenor

“Outside of time and space, he looked down upon the earth and saw that each fleeting day was a day of dying, that men died slowly with each passing moment as much as they did in war, that human grief and sorrow were utterly insufficient to this vast, dreary spectacle.”

This is a book about a Black man who gets accused for a crime he didn’t commit. He hides in the sewers where he discovers he could chip away at brick walls to secretly enter bank-vaults and other such places. He’s able to rob people without any consequences, but then he winds up seeing others being accused of the crimes he committed…

Wright’s a genius. His book reminded me of Kavan’s Ice in its near-allegorical nature. Even so, Underground had much more meaning than an allegory– objects could be symbols of ABC, but they could just as easily be symbols of XYZ, and the ability to interpret the story in many different ways gave it a lot of power.

The protagonist’s psychology was also fascinating. It’s easy to compare him to Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, but Wright’s protagonist was somehow more interesting. I can’t explain why. Maybe because Dostoyevsky was portraying a stagnant protagonist– he was a mean man with a liver problem, and the whole story was just to explain that he was a mean man with a liver problem. In contrast, Wright’s character developed, and the whole story portrayed that development.

Anyway, definitely read this book. Then reread it. Then rereread it. Then read some more Wright. Then reread…

Until next week!

Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Kavan, Wooding, and Ibsen

In Which I Review Anna Kavan’s “Ice,” Chris Wooding’s “Storm Thief,” and Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.”

Hello! I hope you’re all healthy and safe (and hopefully getting vaccinated). I’ve reviewed three books for you this week.

Ice, by Anna Kavan

Ice Park GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

“I was more interested in closer details. Piles of stones, coils of wire, concrete blocks and other materials for dealing with the coming emergency. Hoping to see something that would provide a clue to the nature of the expected crisis, I went nearer the edge, looked down at the unprotected drop at my feet. ‘Take care!’ he warned, laughing. ‘You could easily slip here, or lose your balance. The perfect spot for a murder, I always think.’ His laugh sounded so peculiar that I turned to look at him. He came up to me saying, ‘Suppose I give you a little push, like this.'”

Will the protagonist survive? Won’t he? Read the book to find out.

The book itself is about a guy who’s going around the world in search of a girl. The Girl is being confined by an abusive dictator-like figure called the Warden (yes they names are capitalized). Meanwhile, the world is slowly becoming covered by ice (like it does whenever Earth becomes a snowball). Also, during this whole book, the protagonist is on medications that make him hallucinate entire scenes. But it gets better. Even though the protagonist is trying to save the Girl from the Warden, the protagonist might turn out to be just as cruel as the Warden…

This is a very underrated book. Basically, Kavan’s a genius.

What makes her a genius is that in spite of the sometimes-confusing hallucinations, she was still able to develop the book’s intellectual ideas very clearly. Also, unlike some other great writers like Joseph Roth, Anna Kavan was actually able to pace her narrative and her ideas in a way that allowed them to develop throughout the book instead of shoving a thesis at us right away and using the rest of the book to repeat that same point without developing it further. So for instance, it’s clear that lemurs are a symbol for salvation, but it’s not explicitly clear what that salvation entails until the protagonist encounters lemurs later on and has to make a decision about them.

This lack of thematic dogmatism also meant that instead of the protagonist being shoehorned into thematically-convenient coincidences (as in Roth), Kavan let him figure things out for himself, which made for a more human (and actually a more thematically-powerful) ending.

So considering that aspects of Kavan’s book are arguably better-written than Roth’s classic (since it achieves something even he couldn’t do), shouldn’t Kavan’s book also be considered a classic?

It should be. It has intellectual depth, it’s told with compassion, and it’s written extremely well. Obviously this is just my subjective take on Kavan’s book, and Roth may not be the best comparison to make, but hopefully it gives a general sense of how good Kavan was, and why you should read her book for yourself.

(More on Kavan, and Ice).

Storm Thief, by Chris Wooding

Best Before The Storm GIFs | Gfycat

“The golem gazed at her for a time. ‘I think I was made to be a killer,’ he said. Moa put her hand on the back of his. It was cold. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘I saw you. It’s okay.’ Vago was shocked, not only at her reaction, but at the fact that she was voluntarily touching him. ‘Aren’t you scared?’ he asked. ‘Of you?’ she said, and laughed softly. ‘I’m not scared of you, Vago. We’re both outcasts, you and I. We should stick together.'”

This book was one of the best books I read in middle school and it still holds up pretty well now. It’s about a boy named Rail and a girl named Moa who live in the island city of Orokos, stealing in exchange for protection from their boss. Upon filching a mysterious artifact, they realize its powers could help them finally leave criminal life behind, so they betray their boss and run away. With the help of a golem, they have to escape probability storms (storms which could rearrange whole streets, turn people into glass, etc.), a totalitarian government, and (least importantly) their boss’s wrath.

Anyway, so this book was pretty good. Yes, some minor plot-twists were just rip-offs of popular tropes, but most of the story felt original enough for that to not matter as much. Also, some of the non-tropey twists were actually still surprising.

Yes, some characters weren’t developed as much as they could have been (Rail’s whole mission in life was to protect Moa, but surely people are more complicated than that). Even so, the characters felt developed enough for parts of the book to have emotional impact.

And yes, sometimes the dialogue was too on-the-nose about themes (along the lines of “the power of friendship never works!”). The good news is that Wooding was very good at integrating setting and all the other aspects of his book into substantiating the themes he was expressing. Details about the world weren’t just scattered in to make the setting seem exotic– they’d go on to be developed to have some thematic resonance. Also, since the setting informed the themes, the story’s ideas went deeper than “two kids discover XYZ” to “society itself is this way partly because of XYZ.”

So in spite of its flaws, I’d still recommend this book because it has something to say and it says it in an entertaining and powerful way.

“A Doll’s House,” by Henrik Ibsen,
Translated by R. Farquharson Sharp

Best Mv Dollhouse GIFs | Gfycat

“HELMER: I’d gladly work night and day for you, Nora, and endure sorrow and poverty for your sake. But no man would sacrifice his honor for the one he loves.
NORA: Hundreds of thousands of women have done it.”

This play is about a man named Torvald and his wife Nora. They’re happily married, except for the fact that Torvald bases his sense of self on the idea that his wife is a helpless little “songbird” who he has to always take care of. Meanwhile, Nora has gone into debt for the sake of secretly paying for Torvald’s tuberculosis treatment. Now she has to figure out how to secretly get herself out of debt without ruining Torvald’s sense of self.

I read this play back in high school and I liked it. Rereading it was more interesting. I was better able to appreciate just how much strength Nora had and how much Torvald underestimated her.

I also thought that the side-characters were well-drawn. Krogstad (the man Nora was in debt to) could’ve just been portrayed as the antagonist. However, since Torvald was the one really causing all the problems in the play, Ibsen’s decision to portray Krogstad sympathetically helped show how much of a jerk Torvald was by contrast.

Chekhov said the characters in Ibsen don’t talk like real people. I agree. But what made Ibsen’s dialogue good anyway was the fact that the characters all kept secrets from each other. A lot of the play was just Nora trying hard to keep her husband from learning she was in debt. With other characters either trying to help her keep the secret or reveal it to her husband, the dialogue basically had no choice but to be good as a result.

Also, the dialogue helped a lot to keep the plot moving. If the main problem seemed like it was at risk of being sidelined by irrelevant conversation, another character would burst in and say something like, “Nora! Now that you’ve refused to pay me, I wrote a letter about your debt!” to bring it back into focus.

This was probably what Ibsen was best at. He kept the tension up and moved the plot along through character dialogue, and that dialogue flowed wonderfully because it was a consequence of previous choices made by the characters.

Finally, considering the fact that Ibsen was a man writing this in 1879, he wrote a pretty good piece of feminism, too.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Comment below!