Sunday, July 30, 2006

Stuck in a Book Rut

I display a photo of the book I am currently reading for all of my blog readers to see. Scroll down a bit and you will learn that right now, that book is Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Ligthness of Being. I had heard of the book for awhile now, mainly because it is a fairly frequent favorite on Facebook profiles, but for some reason, I was under the impression that it was a fairly generic Oprah book club title until I saw it listed in the New York Times Book Review's Books of the Century: A Hundred Years of Authors, Ideas, and Literature. Maybe it was the title's explicit stating of its theme that made me look down upon it, not that I cannot appreciate overt grandiosity in literature.

I am somewhat underwhelmed by the book, which is a blend of storytelling and the narrator (presumably Kundera's) own sporadic interjections. Much of the book describes the life of an accomplished doctor who is also a consummate lover. The consummate lover aspect takes over a bit too much of the plot. That the Soviets have just occupied Czechoslovakia is somewhat tangential until towards the end of the book (it is set in Prague and a bit in Switzerland around 1968) which is kind of surprising.

So this brings me to the source of my rut: Why is it that I cannot get into even some of the most acclaimed books? Held above all other books in my mind is, probably unsurprisingly, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. I mark myself as one of the most unoriginal people on the planet when I say it is the perfect book. What about it do I think is perfect? Well, I think Fitzgerald does a uniquely good job developing his narrator, Nick Carraway. In books where a third person omniscient voice narrates, there is an implied sense that an impartial force can give an objective account of the lives of the characters. That Gatsby's narrator subtly undermines himself at points, revealing that he too is flawed and not always trustworthy indicates a wise grasp of people and their tendencies on the part of the author. At the end, Carraway's account of Jay Gatsby comes off as a little too romantic--something I've seen the book criticized for. However, after reading it again a couple of summers ago, I truly did not know whether Fitzgerald thinks Gatsby a tragic figure or a pawn of a mythical American Dream, and we are mistaken if we equate Fitzgerald's point-of-view with Carraway's (though I'm sure Carraway is an outgrowth of F. Scott in many respects).

This leads me to another point of the novel's perfection, which is that it is strongly thematic without being heavy-handed. (Okay, maybe Fitzgerald overdoes the time motif a bit, but I still like it). Put simply, to illustrate themes about the large, conceptual themes like the American Dream, the passing of time, and the effect of place on people, Fitzgerald shows rather than tells. He shows the carelessness of the entitled wealthy class and their reckless automobile crashes and aloof insularity, and he shows the new money consumption of Gatsby that buys shirts of every hue and builds a sprawling mansion to get the girl.

So this is a little bit of what any other novel I try to read is up against. If anyone has any book suggestions, let me know. Just keep in mind that I'm not very original.


Steve said...

I've been reading "Foucault's Pendulum," by Umberto Eco. It's kind of a dense read but has been really rewarding. The book follows a graduate student finishing his dissertation on the Knights Templar in post-'68 France. It's one part satire of academic jargon, one part religious conspiracy theory. Maybe it's your slice, maybe not. I got nothin.

Elaine said...

Cool, thanks ofr the suggestion! Sounds good.

Chris said...

Part of what makes Gatsby so great is also the beauty of the language. I would recommend Alan Hollinghurst's "The Line of Beauty." It won the Booker Prize a couple of years ago or so. It's about the "decadence" of the Thatcher years in Britain - social critique and all that - but whose decadence??? Some of the sex could have been left out, but it was one of the best contemporary novels I've read. Also, anything by J.M Coetzee is great (especially "Disgrace").

Anonymous said...

i didn't think the time motif was overdone in Gatsby ~ i didn't even notice it until pointed out ~ i think it's great ~ enjoyed your analysis

saw the "unbearable lightness" movie when it came out 20-something years ago? hour after hour of daniel day-lewis' sqinty smile got a bit old ~ sorry to be such a low-brow

~ harriet

Elaine said...

Eh, that's okay. I'm kind of amazed the book is thought of as high-brow.