Literary Lessons: What I learned from the axe-wielding murderer, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov

The End

In a recent post, I reviewed Graham Green’s The End of the Affair, which I added to my list of “profoundly impacting novels“. A commenter on this post, one Peter Galen Massey, remarked my inclination toward rather, uhm, “unstable” characters. One such character is Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment. This got me thinking—navel gazing, of course, of which I am want to do while whistling away at work—and my thoughts lingered first on why am I attracted to these more reckless characters? and, furthermore, what does this reveal about my own character?

Once I came to the conclusion that I don’t revere Raskolnikov for his axe-wielding abilities, I set out to undertake an explanation as to why nearly every other year I come back to such a large and engrossing novel, such as Crime and Punishment. But to explain this phenomenon, I have to quickly summarize C & P. Alright, here it goes.

The novel is a reverse crime novel, i.e. we know who dunnit. In fact, we are privy to the murderer’s thoughts and actions both before and after the deed is done. There are six parts of the novel, and the first part is the murder. The rest is how Raskolnikov atones for this murder. Along the way there are some amazingly beautiful characters (including the Marmeladov family—who were actually the basis for the original novel of C & P, entitled The Drunkards—, Raskolnikov’s buddy Dmitri Razumikhin, and Porfiry Petrovich, to name just a few). Raskolnikov is a poor law student, and happens to follow a bit of Nihlism that is popping up around St. Petersburg at the time—Russian Nihlism, German Nihlism‘s uglier, angrier, and drunker sibling. Raskolnikov murders a pawn broker, Alyona Ivanovna, whom he has convinced himself, after hearing a conversation in a bar, is worthless and that the world would be better without her in it.

The first portion is Rodya not only plotting the murder, but convincing himself that it is okay. Now, here’s where the book becomes something more than just a run-of-the-mill, mystery-thriller-dime-store-novel stuff. CSI does this stuff to death, right? (excuse the pun): someone is murdered, and they have to find not only the killer, but his/her motive as well. Well, here’s the deal with Dostoevsky: we get to actually watch and imagine Rodya justifying murder—an act no normal individual can reasonably justify. Yes, murders are everywhere. Go ahead, turn on CNN, I’ll wait… but being inside the thoughts of someone who is convincing himself that murder is permissible is absolutely insane. It is raw, ugly existentialism.

Stuttgart StrasseSo, what I learned from Raskolnikov is that one must justify ones actions to two sets of peoples. First there is yourself. You simply must justify yourself each and every day you exist. And most of you, and me, have a preexisting justification for our daily lives. For example, why we eat bacon, why we wear jeans, why we take 10 minute showers, etc. The next set of peoples are the society in which you live. There are laws, both subtle and pronounced, for which each of is responsible for the sake of a peaceful existence. Such as, Thou shalt not steal, murder, worship false idols, and stopping at red lights, paying taxes for wars we protest, pirating music, etc. The weird (and beautiful) part is that both of these conditional clauses are dependent upon environment. In example, let’s say, in Germany, jaywalking is a huge no-no, but it is mostly enforced by social conditions. Whereas in New York, jaywalking is a part of the environment and one can and will justify their right to jaywalk with the proverbial, “Hey! I’m walkin’ here!” This response would not fly in Deutschland.

What is unique about Raskolnikov is that he overcame the most important person who kept telling him no: himself. Once he overcame that… well, that’s only the first part.

The rest of the novel is whether this “overcoming of self” is justifiable within societal norms, laws, and customs. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Rodya confesses in a populated square in the middle of St. Petersburg after an interesting scene where Sonya Marmeladov reads the story of Lazarus to him. And another scene where he confesses to the police, but they don’t believe him! (Ugh, that is a tough one to read). It should be no surprise that Christianity is impetus for Raskolnikov’s confession. It is personal guilt that eventually overcomes him, and guilt is the driving force behind Roman Catholicism, not to mention Christianity as a whole. Suffering is purposeful and personal for Raskolnikov. But atonement is not only personal, it is societal—which is why his confession is performed in a public square. Raskolnikov has overcome personal guilt to become this übermensch, or so at least he thinks (what is ultimately played out in C & P, is that the übermensch is an impossibility, if not a strict rarity, because of civilized norms).

The point is that all of this, all of this life, needs justification. It needs, nay requires, a reason. Not just breaking the law, but adhering to it as well. And it is not only oneself that one must reason into submission, it is also you and everyone reading this blog. And everyone driving on the road. And everyone on the subway staring into their new iPhone 5s. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to explain to people that each of us justifies our lives and actions in some way, shape, or form. Most people do NOT want to hear that their actions are conditional responses based upon profound and unfathomably numerous cultural signals and cues. Most people want to hear that each and every time they do something, it is a result of a choice. A rational choice plucked from the blooming flower of infallible logic. But that was Dostoevsky’s point! He thought that man was irrational! Such was the basis for existentialism. In fact, Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky’s 1864 novella, is a philosophical response in favor of irrationality against Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel, What is to be Done?

Boston CrowdI read Crime and Punishment and understand millionaires. I understand their wanting more. I understand crooked criminals. I understand the bribers and the bribed. I understand the takers and the givers, the makers and the destroyers. Because each and every one of them has justified their existence and their actions. Whether it be purchasing sliced bread or a new bed, each and every single one of us justifies our actions so that we can sleep at night—with full stomachs and on soft sheets.

I hope that I am not misunderstood in this post. And I hope that we can all learn something “good” from Raskolnikov. What we should learn is that we are all here for one another. No one exists alone. Not even Raskolnikov, not even the übermensch, not even the genius or the tyrant, the hero or the villain, the thief or the prosecutor. We are all responsible for the well being of one another. So, thank you for my well being, dear readers. I am truly thankful for yours.

The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene

The End of the AffairThe End of the Affair by Graham Greene

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There have been two novels I have read over the past decade that have significantly impacted my life. The first was Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s Crime and Punishment, and the second was Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road. These two novels affected me more than many of the people I have met in my life because they, in the case of Dostoevsky, illuminated a grand and immeasurable philosophical quandary, or, in the case of Kerouac, identified a lasting inspiration within me. Now, I add Graham Greene‘s The End of the Affair to that list of profoundly impacting novels.

And for now, a ‘why’ is in order.

I was searching for this novel. And, perhaps, I’d like to think, it was searching for me. In that regard, I was looking for something to solve a mystery in my life; to, perhaps, better explain my feelings than I was able. And I drew it near me. To be clear: I was searching for a way to explain the end of a personal affair. I was searching for a work of art to explain an emotion that I could not yet apprehend due to broken ties across an ocean, and this novel did more than explain. It inspired.

The opening lines took me by surprise: “A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead” (7). This line expresses a notion that I had been considering for some time, after I decidedly picked up Friedrich Nietzsche and read his words: “There is no such thing as moral phenomena, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena”. Greene echoes this in literary form, and thus begins a much more writerly text than I first supposed.

What I mean by writerly (a term used by Roland Barthes)is that Greene is not providing mere entertainment. One can feel his working of the novel’s breadth before him. The fact that the narrator injects musings on his daily writing habits and his nagging inability to bring to life a character or two, inform the reader that he or she is reading a book by an author. Also these notions hint to the reader that these characters may or may not be fictional, and that there is a thin line dividing the realm of fiction and fact when one relies on one’s “chosen” memories and “moral” interpretations. A writerly text seeks to elucidate this discrepancy. Writerly is Literature for writers, with writers in mind who want to demystify the artifice that is superficial entertainment. Writerly announces that this is Literature, this is a story you are reading, I am an author and a narrator, which is one reason why I often found this text so inspiring.

All stories are constructed to help us get through the day. To help us live. To help us wake up and go to work. To help us get through an emotion. This is the inevitable notion forever stimulating Art and Literature. Great Art is supposed to be cathartic. It is supposed to help you construct a social understanding when the your limited social world cannot aid you. There was no person, no friend, no relative, to empathize with me at the end of my affair (I use the term purposefully, even though there was no love triangle). What Art does is it gives you time to ruminate on a moment. Art provides a space for you to take the time to construct your personal empathetic understanding, when all life wants you to do is shut up and move on. Wake up. Get over it. Although, inevitably, it helps you do just that.

I can’t imagine this review does Greene’s novel justice. Inevitably, I waxed philosophical during my review and omitted much of the content of the novel, which is what initially forged my personal connection to it. Well, such is life. It is a novel I will be reading again soon with a pencil by my side to underline passages and quotations. And, so I hope it is one that I will revisit and possibly review again. After all, the most justice I think I can do for this novel is to mimic it, and with that, secure it the highest compliment of all.

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Daisy Miller, by Henry James

Daisy Miller (Penguin Popular Classics)Daisy Miller by Henry James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Flirting is a purely American custom; it doesn’t exist here” (69).

I thoroughly enjoyed Henry James’ novella. My previous exposure to James’ work was through The Bostonians, another text that I enjoyed, and I was not at all hesitant to pick up this quick read from my gf’s bookshelf.

I won’t summarize the length of the story, but will remark that it concerns a rich, American family traveling through Switzerland and Italy—sans Father, which should, psychoanalytically, speak for the uncouth behavior of the protagonist, Miss Daisy Miller. What I most enjoyed were the brief witticisms used by James to depict Miss Miller, and, thus, this uniquely American behavior of flirtation and childish, light of air quality of person. While Daisy often refers to the narrator, Mr. Winterbourne, as “stiff,” he is, up until the end, mystified by Daisy’ and while regarding her as “uncultured” he is absolutely fascinated by her ‘devil-may-care’ attitude. It is for Mr. Winterbourne her very, to borrow the phrase, The Unbearable Lightness of Being that makes her so attractive.

As an American who frequents month long visits to Germany, and is in a relationship with a European, I can understand this relation quite well. It still rings true today, albeit often in far more vulgar behavior, that Americans are, well, “childish” (in a positive light) and “uncultured” (in a negative light). And, from this American’s perspective, the adjective “stiff” used by Daisy Miller could not more resemble the truth when regarding the European standard of behavior (68). (No offense to all those good, up-standing Europeans eating  with their tines down; or those hearty Germans organizing party games in order to coerce socialization out of their fellow “stiff” citizens.)

This little novella also spoke to the romance of Rome. After having lived in Rome for some six months, albeit over ten years ago, the propensity for Italian men to both attract and relentlessly court American girls has survived these 100 years. In other words, the myth of Giovanelli and Miss Daisy Miller is still alive for the American girl studying abroad. I recall many a fond night sitting on the Spanish Steps watching helpless, young, blonde American girls attract flocks of Italian men & boys—but it is unfair to pronounce them helpless, no?

So, yes, as you might have guessed, I sympathize with Miss Miller’s behavior—even her obstinate hold upon her cultural norms. And I think the greatest revelation of her and many—although they may not want to admit it—American characters & personages is contained in the following exclamation: “‘That’s all I want — a little fuss!’ and the young girl began to laugh again” (38).
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Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi

Reading Lolita in TehranReading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was surprised that I enjoyed this book. It was recommended to me by a reader of an essay I am writing, and after reading a few Goodreads reviews, I had my doubts. But I found the writing to be articulate, emotional, and intelligent; and it was an enjoyable read.

Azar Nafisi’s memoir is structured as a memory, with the beginning and ending containing a framing structure of a present tense private course she is teaching out of her home for seven promising female students. The middle two chapters (“Gatsby” and “James”) contain past memories leading up to Nafisi’s leaving her academic position in 1995, and, thus, teaching this literature course from the sanctity of her home. I felt that the structure of the story is quite engaging, and Nafisi’s oft-pedantic nature concerning various literature to be quite refreshing against the critical discourse of women’s rights, freedom, tyranny, and such. I think it would be too easy to make this a story only about the antipathy between Iran and “the West,” and the lacing of literatures and literary criticism offers a layered approach to these contentious themes.

As you might presume, my criticism does not contend with the story, its structure, or its popularity. Instead my criticism considers something close to my own sensibility: this content regarding the innumerable influences upon the Iranian government and its revolutionary subjects: namely, who and how those individuals are represented by Nafisi throughout her story.

The difficulty is clear: when criticizing a non-fictional memoir, whom, or what, is one criticizing? Usually it is the author and that author’s real life experiences. It is illogical to criticize any individual’s real life experience, because they will retort with the infallible, “but you weren’t there,” “you didn’t experience it” rejoinder. And, they are verily right to do so. So, as I have no position on these things regarding Iran or Dr. Nafisi’s personal experiences with Iran, I will assume my criticism of a representation. That of the various revolutionary groups in the story, and the students who are given the most prominent voices for these groups: Mr. Nyazi, from Chapter 2; Mr. Ghomi, from Chapter 3; and Mr. Nahvi, in Chapter 4. These are the classroom voices (all male) denouncing Western literature as “decadent, vile, corrupt, imperial” and therefore un-Islamic and a decrepit influence upon Iran’s holy culture, politics, people, etc. (290). I want to promote a shocking argument with these representations in mind: they are correct.

Let me explain.

Dr. Nafisi is writing a book in English for an English audience about reading Western literature in a country that is attempting to eradicate, through criticism and more obvious and violent means, the influence of said literature and culture. Against this argument, a few in the story articulate that literature is innocuous in its ability to cause change, revolution, or independence. It is first voiced against Mr. Nyazi, who possess the fault that he “‘can no longer distinguish fiction from reality’,” and must be reminded that “Gatsby was a work of fiction and not a how-to manual” (128, 120). The presumption is that Mr. Nyazi, et al are taking literature to literally and bestowing it too much power. The counterargument is that literature has little or no power, or is rather, not a “how-to manual,” as voiced by a student of Dr. Nafisi’s, Zarrin, who argues, “Did people all go on strike or head west after reading Steinbeck? Did they they go whaling after reading Melville? Are people not a little more complex than that?” (135). No. But they did commit suicide in droves after the publication of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s The Sorrows of Young Werther and Selected Writings. To this extent, the social purpose of literature is to communicate, reflect, and inspire. And to this even Zarrin concedes that Gatsby is “an amazing book… It teaches you to value your dreams…” something the Islamic Republic cannot afford (ibid, my emphasis).

In order to consider this argument, one must accede that literature is influential; it’s form, language, illustrations, chapters, structure, everything; all of this informs and mirrors a culture. Whether you read or not, reading influences our culture in the very form of the solipsistic and silently contemplated novel. Mr. Nyazi knows this when he argues that the West and its literature is a “‘sinister assault on the very roots of our culture'” (126). The problem, the very sincere issue here, is where a person departs from knowing how important literature is to a culture and uses violent means to annihilate its influence. Mr. Nyazi, et al, are far to busy criticizing and violently eliminating a supposedly antithetical literature to be busy doing what he should be doing to combat this “sinister” culture he depicts: creating his own literature. In fact, this is voiced by a student during Dr. Nafisi’s class who states to Mr. Nyazi: “‘Why don’t you write your own novel?'” (133). But that’s the point: how could he? where would he begin?

Art is not created in a bubble. It is not created without the appreciation and understanding of art that comes before or beside it. When eliminating Western literature, Mr. Nyazi has eliminated his people’s own ability to truly triumph over Western literature: with “Eastern” literature. The problem would be for Mr. Nyazi that he would have to engage with the literature itself before overcoming and creating his own works. Hmmm… for example. Nikolai Gogol is considered the first “Russian novelist”. But before him, Russia had a great poet and producer of written art: Alexander Pushkin. The difference between the two? Pushkin imitated and mimicked French style and art, which was necessary to gain influence at the time due to the French influence in Russia’s aristocracy, and Gogol wrote Russian stories with his own Russian style. In other words, Gogol used Russian folk tales to create his stories, where Pushkin used French novels and poems to create his. The point is that Mr. Nyazi is so busy destroying and condemning an influential Western literature that he is unable to become Gogol—in fact, he can’t even be Pushkin! And it is made apparent by a conversation between Mrs. Rezvan and Dr. Nafisi that a national literature is needed because “[t]he state of literature in this country could not be any worse, and the state of English literature is most hopeless of all” (179, my italics).

I wrote earlier that Dr. Nafisi agrees with me that literature and reality often intertwine and heavily influence one another, although many of her characters and her own statements contradict this statement. In the final chapter, Nafisi writes that “Fiction was not a panacea, but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world—not just our world but that other that had become the object of our desires” (282). Yes. This is the pursuit and love of fiction: that other world. And when Mr. Nyazi, et al, destroy and burn all books that hold those other worlds, then he will finally have incinerated the desire to see and experience a world other than the one he has created. His war against literature is not against Western decadence, etc., but against outside influences in general. Because Power, unlike Art, can exist and flourish inside a bubble.

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Praise of Folly, by Erasmus

Praise of FollyPraise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For the layreader, I would recommend skipping the introduction to this text, which comprises the first fifty pages of this edition, and continuing on to Erasmus’ essay, Praise of Folly. The essay itself is quite an easy ready, if one approaches it in a superficial manner excluding historical, metaphorical, or personal references. Without those things considered, this essay reads something like our modern bestsellers that reveal some secret way of living that eludes anxiety, stress and worry, e.g. The Secret, or author, Sylvia Browne. Approaching Erasmus’ philosophical treaty as a popular self-help book is problematic, but I think reveals more about our culture then we would like.

Structurally, Erasmus’ essay is organized in “chapters,” or small sections that cover a certain topic, e.g. marriage, play, common sense, fools, science, etc. The “plot,” if there is one, is limited to a speech or oration by the goddess, Folly, who is speaking on her own behalf—and defense. The reader can extract at the very least one aphorism from each chapter, and perhaps find themselves enlightened by a banal truism—although it may confront the very thing they perform on a regular basis.

I don’t believe I can do justice to this review without quotations and examples—I will now flip through the text at random… einen Moment, bitte. Folly states, “But it’s sad, people say, to be deceived. Not at all, it’s far sadder not to be deceived” (135). Is this not the precursor to Friedrich Nietzsche and his Dionysian man? Is not the absolution of facts for the beautiful complexity of opinion a mode that informs our postmodern, interrogative culture? Folly continues, “For human affairs are so complex and obscure that nothing can be known of them for certain…” (ibid). There are no facts, only opinions. Quite the statement in 1509 for a religious scholar—even if he is highly critical of theologians and the church.

To return to my earlier assertion that Praise of Folly is obscurely related to our self-help books. One of the gods who follow in Folly’s leadership is Self-Love. Self-Love is continually and highly praised by Folly—even so more than the other followers, e.g. Pleasure, Flattery, Idleness, etc. (73). Folly states in a glorious rhetorical aphorism, “Now tell me: can a man love anyone who hates himself?” (94). And later on states that “happiness consists in being willing to be what you are [and] Self-Love [ensures] that no one is dissatisfied with his own looks, character, race, position and way of life” (95). Beautiful. One can extract quotes continually, but they add up to our culture’s way of selling self-recognition and self-affirmations through quick guides to better living. Of course this is only one aspect of Erasmus’ essay, but the usefulness of Folly’s instruction and observations are reflected in our culture of self-denial and overwhelming desire to treat Self-Love as a mortal sin.

Folly Steps Down from the Pulpit

Folly Steps Down from the Pulpit (Wikipedia)

Folly is in direct conflict with the pretensions of knowledge. Her skewer cleaves itself in the wise man—the very man who escapes Plato’s cave—and, as I read it, neither Folly nor Erasmus, is expounding this theory in jest. The wise man, according to Folly, does not lead a happy life—and this is THE goal of Folly’s mortal tutelage. The wise man does not admit himself a beast, nor does he admit himself to the absurdity of the basic elements of man. For example, Folly takes complete responsibility for the propagation of the entire human race (75). Why, you may ask? Well, ahem, excuse my vulgarity, but it is basic biology. Folly states that the part of the body that reproduces men is unspeakable do to its humors and that “it can’t be named without raising a laugh” (76). And that even philosophers, if they want to reproduce, must come to Folly. For, Folly asks, what woman does not praise a man for his humor, his pleasure, his love, his wit? Rather then his ability to expound numerous theses. And since Pleasure is a follower of Folly, it is but that emotion to bridge the necessary gap of reproduction…

But, I digress.

I caught myself underlining text, laughing out loud, and sharing my thoughts with my friend while reading Erasmus’ essay. I think it shall be a text I refer to from time-to-time, and look for when my “adulthood” is called into question, or when I am considered childish or immature. For the pretension of man stands upon the annulling of the very nature of Folly, and the absurdity of man a far too beautiful a thing to bear without Folly.

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Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen

Sense and SensibilitySense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Ugh, what a dreadfully boring novel. Now that I’ve written that bold statement, allow me to continue.

This is my third Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice and Emma being the first two novels many years ago, and I trudged through the last 50 pages of Sense and Sensibility. So, I’ll begin at that point of the exegesis with a spoiler: after the elder Dashwood sisters retreat to Cleveland estate before going home to Barton Cottage, Marianne becomes deathly ill, and Austen writes in five chapters what could have been written in two sentences. (I can hear the drum of Philistinism being beaten outside my door at this very moment!). I do realize the point of a novel is to do just that: explain in five chapters what could have been rendered the same in two sentences, but it is painfully obvious with this novel, and, perhaps, with Austen in general. But more on that later…

For the plot: this portion of the novel is always my least favorite of Austen’s and the “comedy of errors” genre—save for William Shakespeare. Specifically the portion of the plot where there is a lulling dramatic moment to induce fervent sympathy and regard for the romantic character, e.g. Marianne’s sickness. It is then that a character or characters is given the ability—through some turn of events, e.g. John Willoughby’s surprising nocturnal arrival—to explain their previous actions and thus redeem themselves. For sure this is a hackneyed, yet sincere, way to create well-rounded, believable characters; but it does not follow for my reading.

Austen is heavy, at least in Sense and Sensibility, with deus ex machina; which, when rendered absurd, is entertainable, but when used and treated as exegesis and a sincere moral motive for a character feels completely false due to its conspicuous nature. In other words, when used within the realm of realism, the deus ex machina appears out of place; discordant with my expectations as a reader. If other character absurdities and plot oddities are present, then the machina seems natural; but when used as a device to surprise the reader—again, e.g., Willoughby’s nocturnal arrival, or even Colonel Brandon’s  announcing in London against Marianne’s expectations (Chapter XXVII), which is nearly entirely forgivable as a plot device—it seems unnatural.

As per a discussion that followed the reading of this novel, I made the all too obvious sexist remark that Austen’s writing is noticeably feminine. I even hated to make the remark due its cliché nature, but it had to be done. (I backtracked and stated that women rave about Austen the way men rave about Hemingway.) So, why is this remark true for me? Why is it even a cliché, i.e. an oft-repeated cultural observation? This interests me a great deal. I think it is rightly attributed to the very nature of the elongated exegesis, and the way Austen can pinpoint emotions. Austen’s use of emotions is sacrosanct. Her study of human character and human folly in general is immaculate; and here it seems as though I am contradicting myself, but I am not.

I will argue here that her precision of human emotion does not oft-align with the necessary absurd plot intervention of the comedy of errors. The gossiping Mrs. Jennings, the Palmer’s, the Steele’s, these characters are gorgeous; but the comedy of errors requires them, not the sincerity of Colonel Brandon, Edward Ferrars, or even Miss Elinor Dashwood. I was informed that Austen’s early novels revolve around this comedy of errors plot device, which is easy enough to notice in the three novels I have read, but that a later novel of hers, like Mansfield Park, is much richer; and lacks the deus ex machina of the “comedy of errors” genre.

Finally, we watched the 1995 film of Sense and Sensibility, and I must add that I thoroughly enjoyed each character. Perhaps it is my own sensibility that is lacking, but I prefer a comedy on stage or on film, and a tragedy, history, historo-tragedy, etc. in solitude. I even enjoyed the stuttering ineptitude of, ugh, the ineffectual Hugh Grant as Edward Ferrars. Alan Rickman, “Snape, Snape, Severus Snape…“, as Colonel Brandon is phenomenal in his solemn love of Marianne; and Emma Thompson is wonderful in her quiet expressions as Elinor Dashwood.

I do not quite think I am done with Jane Austen, or does my critique of Sense and Sensibility keep me from reading her other novels. But, I think I shall approach her under new auspices. One that seeks her writing instead of picking a novel up at random—for that was my position for this reading.

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Ham on Rye, by Charles Bukowski

Ham on RyeHam on Rye by Charles Bukowski

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is something about reading a novel within 48 hours: you fully inhabit another person’s life for a very brief period of time. It is also quite intense. 200 pages in one afternoon. That is often intense. But this seems to be the way I approach Charles Bukowski’s writing. The last of his stories that I read, and my first, was Hot Water Music. I found it on a shelf while working at a hostel in Rome, Italy over ten years ago; and I read it within 48 hours. This is not to note that I couldn’t put it down; oh no, I put it down. A few times, in fact. But I picked the book back up soon after it hit the floor.

Bukowski’s writing possesses a strange allure for me. I can’t quite decide what it is that attracts me to his writing, but I do know that my liking is only for a brief period. And while I do not think one should imbibe too much Bukowski—it is like being drunk on 150-proof misanthrope—a little from time to time is good. He creates well-reasoned and well-observed notions about America’s class system. And there is not a fear about his masculinity. I like that. I think that particular trait of an author or protagonist is hard to find in our postmodern writing.

Many of our (American) male authors find it difficult to write about sex, love, or basic attraction from a patriarchal, masculine, what-have-you standpoint. It is an understandable fear. But it seems that one must smoke Marlboro’s, possess numerous acne scars, and have an abusive childhood in order to make such patriarchal observations. Without these boorishly virile traits in an author, quite often, reading a male protagonist’s coming of age novel that does not include allusions to a burgeoning interest in masturbation in all its illusions, fears and fantasies is false at its very core.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not incredibly interested in reading about Holden Caulfield‘s discovery of his erect penis, but after reading Bukowski, all those existential fantasies Caulfield imagines seem so false and pretentious. But, again, too much of either seems dangerous to me.

There is a lot of hate in this novel. And this is why I strongly recommend not reading a lot of Bukowski’s work. Too much of that can turn one’s outlook. I only write that because of something unique in Bukowski’s writing: I do not feel any pity for his protagonist, Henry Chinaski. And that profoundly bemuses me. Why is that? He is beaten severely—of which we are given great detail. He is ostracized by all his classmates and on a daily basis is forced to fight or be beaten. He is beaten at home, in school, by the kids, by the teachers; his friends are beaten at home, in school, etc. and yet, I end up feeling very little sympathy for him. Is it because it is not real enough? I don’t think so. I think because it is too real. And mostly because the reader gets the feeling that Chinaski (and Bukowski, if I may extend myself) doesn’t need or want your sympathy.

So then, why write?

I think it is because Bukowski is so unflinchingly honest in his writing—even in his fiction, even in his lies. Maybe because that is where he can finally tell an honest story in an audaciously bold and benevolently destructive manner. And people listen to him. Maybe that is the only place people do listen to him. Yeah, maybe.

I always picture Bukowski as the guy at the end of the bar whose loud and lewd stories possess grit, danger, and a bit of magic; only, you don’t want to get to close to him because you are afraid you could smell the years of whiskey on his breath and in his sweat. The difficult part is that you will never be him, but you want to be that tough, that gritty, that courageous, that ballsy. And the other difficult part is that you hate him for being that way in the first place; for surviving that punishing life for so long.

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