Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Naked Madonna by Jan Wiese

The cover is a painting of a naked woman, with a little side boob, circa 16th century. Tag line on the cover reads: "...God has not forgotten us...he just lets us go to the devil..." It is a Norwegian novel, translated from the original by Tom Geddes and written in 1990. The story is set in 1989.

I purchased the book at a flea market in Tel Aviv, from a book booth surrounded by vintage clothing. The books were mostly Hebrew, although there were a few German and French novels. I scanned the titles of the English novels and I looked through a few. I bought one novel, which I have already read, called No Retreat. It is a clever British novel about a false future in which Nazi Germany had beaten the Allies and a government had been set up in America, bed its time and 35 years later, sent trained reconnaissance soldiers to take England back from the Germans. It was interesting. I didn't read the back of The Naked Madonna, but I did flip open the cover. There was an inscription, which I love. It read:
For Dear Susana, With love, (name unreadable). September 2000.

I had to buy it.

Before writing my review of the novel, I searched the Internet to find what others thought. Apparently, I am insecure in my own judgment. I found Damien Kelleher, who does roughly what I do, or am attempting to do. In the outset, he rejects the novel as anything remotely worth reading. Naturally, I was taken aback, considering I really enjoyed the book, liked the ending and had basically prepared a package to ship it off to a friend who I knew would feel the same. I continued reading his rather scathing review.

My British inner voice said, "By Jove, I understand why he's hated it. He completely got the plot wrong."

He writes that a painting is discovered in the rubble of a building collapse. On the contrary, the painting is destroyed and the novel is the telling of the narrator's discovery of the painting, it's history and how it led him to be imprisoned. Very captivating introduction, I might add.

The writer uses three voices, the man who rediscovers the painting because he has been reading uncatalogued papers from the depths of the Vatican, a storyteller from the 16th Century and the painter of the painting. Damien Kelleher skips over the storyteller's role, although he is integral to the plot's movement. Upon reading further, Kelleher has diagnosed the novel as one of obsession, whereas I read a theme of forgiveness(for oneself, and others) as a main topic. In fact, were I to write a theme for this novel, it might go something like..."You must first look upon yourself to see you are innocent of all error, before you can accuse and judge another of a mistake." Hubris got many a character into a poor position and the theme is reiterated through each voice in novel, as well as secondary characters. The end, without giving away anything, does not follow the typical pattern of a man learning from this mistakes and everything ends up hunky-dory in the end. The story's original narrator is, after all, imprisoned.

I like books where the author takes liberties with the standard formula of a novel. I like when there is something worth underlining, something I want to go back to read again.

I thought the book was about the philosophy of Catholicism. By the time I got to the third page, I realized it was a novel. Already on the first page, something had caught my eye:

"Yet, I would rather believe that God does exist, but that He has become weary. He no longer wants to hold His hand over the people that He once created in His own image."

Sit for a moment and think about that. It's frightening to those of us who are religious and function based on the idea that some omnipotent being is watching over us, protecting us, listening to us, hurting for us, working for us. On the other hand, it surely explains why the world looks the way it does and how supposedly righteous and godly people can be successful in the world, but be so utterly evil on the inside. Or why truly righteous and godly people are poor and suffer.

Not much has changed, though, in this vein throughout the course of time. So then what are the signs that God is weary of us? I would be weary of this world and what my people had done with it. But I'm not God, and therefore I don't think he becomes weary. He is not suffering time the way we do and he gets to see all the miracles that happen on earth, all of his creation and enjoy it. He's not merely plagued with FOX News, CNN and MSNBC discussing Sarah Palin's latest malfunction, or how another body was found mutilated or some other horrific tale of crime or injustice. He sees the whole picture, and maybe for him, it balances out. Maybe, even, good tips the scales. I like to think they might. Later, Wiese writes, "Faith cannot be explained. It disappears into the light of reason." And so it does.

By the 11th page, I am sucked in. I want to stay up and finish reading it in one night, but I worked early the next day. Nonetheless, I read over half of the book in one sitting.

This line struck me as particularly thoughtful: "I had arrived here after fleeing from myself."
I, too, arrived here because I was fleeing from something, although not myself. Originally, it was my job, a boss I detested. In reflection, I can see that I was fleeing from a life I didn't really want and running toward the life I did. If I ever truly wanted to be Jewish, I had to come to Israel. Although I complain that I feel less Jewish here, I have been forced to redefine who I am as a Jew, and that includes my love and passion for Israel. I was fleeing routine. I was fleeing common. I was fleeing 27 years of exactly the same.

"A man was overwhelmed by desire. He confused it with love." We do this often. We see something(someone) we want and we must possess it. We think we cannot be whole without. Rarely is that true. Often we give up the thing that was making us whole in the first place for a pathetic substitute. I believe this was also expressed in another fashion: The grass is always greener on the other side. In Wiese's novel, this line is the beginning of one fable the storyteller shares which is set in the marketplace of a small town in the mountains of Italy. An idyllic setting, with timeless characters, but told in a way I've never heard before. "I didn't tell him that feelings of love are linked to the moment." His storyteller has much to learn, but is aware of his disconnect with the world. He is aware of his judgment against it, when he, in fact, is the one so deserving of judgment. He's akin to a 16th Century Aesop. Aesop "the Romantic" was, purportedly and according to legend, an ugly slave. But he was kind to a priestess and was given the gift of clever storytelling, which he used to embarrass his master and seduce his wife. Much like the storyteller who easily hands out the morals, but struggles to make right himself.

Another one of the storyteller's morals? "Only things that are freely available become a habit."

A third moral to a different story: "Miracles can happen when you give yourself unreservedly." I think Wiese is convincing the narrator(and perhaps the reader) that there is a God after all, and he is gregariously involved in our lives.

I think Wiese crafts a different kind of novel, one the reader must work a little for to achieve ultimate understanding and the reader must also use his or her reflective skills, because Wiese did not write the tale to entertain. On the contrary, he wrote it to provoke. The painter writes the stories of the storyteller. The storyteller finds his own stories and those of the painter written. He puts them together. The narrator(the imprisoned man) reads the tale, which affects his life and creates a third stream to the tale. Now, the reader is reading the tale of the narrator who read the tale of the storyteller and the painter. What is the reader's part in the text?

That...you can only find out for yourself.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

January 14th: What Have I Read So Far?

So far, I've only read one thing: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I was planning on moving on to a classic, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway. I like to vary my reading: something old, something new, something easy and something non-fiction. But, a colleague from work gave me the rest of the Dragon series and I figured, why not? Usually I like to string a series along so I can enjoy it. That would have been a good idea considering Stieg Larsson will never be giving us a new book although, the mystery of his death could be the subject of another book. I also read that the heroine of his novel, Lisbeth Salander, has just been cast, which means a movie will be shooting soon, which means that people who have not read the series will know what happens before I do. I can't have this, so I must read the novels. It's not exactly bothersome. Larsson has a fantastic imagination. When I write fiction, I use my experiences(many do) as a basis for the plots. If Larsson was using his experiences, he had a wild life. Either way, the plot is compelling. Unfortunately, the English readers are reading a translation.

Unless a translation has been done carefully, there are often grammar and spelling mistakes that go beyond the British spelling of favourite or colour. Sometimes the unfamiliar Swedish names are difficult to follow: Nieminen is a detective, but Niedermann is the bad guy. Modig is a woman, not the name of a troll under a bridge. Figuerola is a tall, blond, muscular and sexy-in-her-own-way kind of a woman. Figuerola should be a fat old man. The hero, a man who should be mid-forties, very attractive with salt and pepper hair, a man you'd be proud to have a fling with, is named Blomkvist. I can't imagine how he got out of elementary school unscarred with that last name. I guess what I'm saying is that sounds of words conjure images for me, and my real complaint is that the sounds of the names do not match with the image presented to me. Anyways, it might just be completely ethnocentric of me because I don't understand the pronunciation of certain combinations of letters. Wadensjoo with two dots over the o's comes out in my head: "Wad-ens-jew". I think of a Japanese man.

Other than that dissonance, and the translation errors, I think it's a fantastic work and a shame that a writer with so much success was never able to enjoy it. I wouldn't and couldn't give anything away dealing with the plot, but he does achieve some fantastic solutions in a short period of time that are easy enough to believe in the cinematic world, but for a plain mystery novel...well, I'd enjoy it a lot less if I stopped to consider how unrealistic it sort of is. I'm not taking notes on writing style; I'm enjoying being swept up in a mystery that stretches over 3 long books.

Ideally, throughout the writing of this blog, there will be passages or phrases that will strike me, cause me to ponder and reflect. The Dragon Girl series will not do that for me. If I can, in fact, make my way through For Whom the Bell Tolls, I imagine I'd be able to do that quite often.

Outstanding books I read in 2010:
The Catcher in the Rye(first time, believe it or not) by J.D. Salinger
The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott
The World to Come by Dana Horn
The Diary of Anais Nin(volumes 1 and 2) by Anais Nin
Beaufort by Ron Leshem
The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

There were other books that entertained me, but could not be put in that separate category. I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. I enjoyed a book by Cynthia Ahern, There's No Place Like Home, and two of the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. I put down a book about facism and the fall of a family; I couldn't stomach it. I randomly read a selection out of The Passionate Torah, a collection of articles about the Torah and sex.

I have about fifty novels lining my shelves, some of which have been around a long time, waiting to be read: When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip, a remnant of a college class I took(Vietnam Lit) in 2004. We didn't make it in time to read the book and I bought it, so I should read it. Plus the instructor, Professor Johnson, introduced me to The Quiet American by Graham Greene(a book I brought to re-read), Indian Country by Phil Caputo and In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien. Those were three of the best books I read during the pre-requisite stage of my Master's in Literature. So, I feel like I should read Hayslip's book. But a book must call out to me. It must be this book's time. I've had to put down a book when I knew I needed to read it, but not yet. I've had The Winds of War by Herman Wouk and A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens for a long time. Wouk because my mother's father, Popper, loved him and Dickens because it's a classic and I should read it. I just realized I have, in my possession, a book that was recommended to me when I worked at Barnes and Noble bookstores, over ten years ago. A girl, whose name I do not remember, Erin maybe?, suggested The Fountainhead and lent it to me. I never read it, nor did I return it, even though I promised I would. It, too, should be at the top of my list, but it needs to call to me. I must feel the need, be provoked, to read it. Sometimes the provocation is as simple as someone else reading the book and I want to discuss it with them, so I pick it up. That's how I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, which should probably be on my favorite 2010 book list.

I'm feeling a little guilty about not returning the book to a girl whose name I can't recall. Also, I'm remembering something that happened once. It still makes me feel bad although I'm not really sure how I was at fault for what happened.

I was at a dinner party and the host was telling me about a great novel he'd just finished: Suite Francois by Irene Nemirovsky. He said I must read it and showed me the book. I understood that he meant to loan it to me. He was a little surprised when I said I'd love to read it and put my hand out. He said he'd just write his name in it and to give it back soon because other people in his family wanted to read it.

I didn't think anything of it until later when a niggling feeling told me he didn't want to lend the book to me. Why? I love books. I'm a literature teacher for godssake. I don't let kids bend the covers or throw them or put them on the floor. What kind of person did he think I was?

Well, I was reading the book in the bathtub and naturally, I dropped it. I've probably done this twice in my life and it was with this precious book, which by the way was not signed by the author, nor was it special or hard to find.

I went to Borders and ordered another in hardback. It had arrived and I was going to return the new one, when he called me on the same morning and asked for it back. It was less than two weeks later and I had continued to read the waterlogged book, but was only halfway through. It's rather dense and a little hard to read. I explained what had happened and said that I would give the book to his son.

He said, "This is why I didn't want to lend you the book in the first place." Obviously, the words stung. I choked back tears, feeling very offended and sorry I had ever asked to borrow the stupid book in the first place. I apologized again, reminded him that he now had a brand new copy and hung up the phone.

Naturally, I couldn't finish reading the book. I had to give it away and even when I see it in a bookstore I feel bad.

I made a small mistake and I corrected it. No one died; no one was even hurt. I have no idea why he needed to make me feel like such an asshole. Someone who knew him told me that he is a jackass in general and not to take it personally. But anyone who knows me, knows that I'm overly-sensitive and it still bothers me 3 years after it happened.

Maybe I should try to find out who I borrowed Fountainhead from.

Or at least read it.