Friday, January 14, 2011

'My Prizes: An Accounting' : Book review

The late author comically skewers his various literary awards in 'My Prizes,' written in 1980 with an absurd and at times tender tone.

"Love moves me to speak," Beatrice tells Dante as she leads him through Paradise. Loathing moved the late Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard to write. He wrote with unfailing vitriolic scorn and run-on paragraphs of unalleviated length, designed, seemingly, to punish the reader along with his subjects. Yet it is an energized, kinetic loathing.

Bernhard's harsh wartime childhood, forcible membership in a Nazi youth group, a stay in a tuberculosis sanatorium and disgust with the blinkered narrowness of postwar Austrian society were a darkness upon darkness that caused him to despise any use of art's light to depict it, as Kafka and Robert Musil did. Instead, in such novels as "Woodcutters" and "Gargoyles" and a memoir, "Gathering Evidence," Bernhard devised a lantern that shines black.

Now comes a decidedly odd collection, "My Prizes: An Accounting," a deliberate, sardonic absurdity. Written in 1980 but appearing 20 years after his death, the book gathers brief recollections of nine literary prizes Bernhard won. Simultaneously furious and comical, it skewers the pomposity and vanity of such prizes, of those who give them, and those who receive them. Nor does he spare himself. And there is something else: a note here and there of pleasure, even tenderness.

Just the names of some of the prizes declare the absurd. The Prize of the Cultural Circle of the Federal Association of German Industry? The Literary Prize of the Federal Chamber of Commerce?

He makes a mock ceremony of rising to the occasion. Invariably attired in an old red sweater and corduroys, he shops for an expensive "anthracite-colored" suit to attend the awards. He could be buying a silly disguise for a costume party. But he erupts in fury when nobody meets him at the entrance to a celebration of the Grillparzer Prize, and he seats himself far back and refuses to come to the front until the presiding official personally seeks him out. He mocks the prize and the mediocre cultural figures who bestow it; he accepts only because he needs the money. Afterward he finds the new suit is too constricting, in fact as well as symbolically, and he returns it for a larger one. Will the purchaser of the returned suit, he wonders, know that it has won the Grillparzer Prize?

Bernhard writes of getting the news of the German Industry prize during a stay in "a lung hospital" for his tuberculosis. His account has him at his mordant best. All the patients in his ward died except for him and a Catholic theology student whom he argued out of his faith. Another patient, a policeman, came every day to play a game called Pontoon. "For weeks he won and I lost until he died and I didn't." The hospital itself he describes as miserable and squalid, displaying "meanness, hysteria and self-sacrifice in equal measure." An eminent surgeon came regularly to operate, so that "increasing numbers of patients had ever-decreasing numbers of thoraxes and larynxes."

The only-in-it-for-the-money theme is also repeated. Yet when he tells us what the money is for, he shifts unexpectedly away from cynicism. Once, it is to repay a debt to his aunt, whom he loves. She accompanies him to the ceremonies, takes him on vacations and gives him prudent advice. The prudence extends to advising him to refuse a prize he feels demeans him; Bernhard delicately portrays common sense in the service of an uncommon sensibility.

Other prize money goes to buying and gradually rebuilding a decrepit farmhouse in which he finds a much-needed refuge. A third is used for fun: he buys a white roadster with red seats and takes his aunt on trips, one to Yugoslavia where a Croatian driver smashes into him. He hires a pricey lawyer; to his surprise the man recovers not only the car's full value — Bernhard immediately buys a replacement — but also the imaginary cost of the expensive clothes that he was not wearing.

Pleasure has infiltrated; so does sentiment into Bernhard's mood. Besides writing of his aunt, he describes the Julius Campe Prize, honoring the publisher of Heinrich Heine, who was a target of Nazi anti-Semitism. Bernhard likes everything about the ceremony, including the speeches and that it was held in Hamburg, one of the few cities he admits to loving. And the roadster money, of course.

Yet for another, different prize, because it is in honor of one of the loyal friends of his beloved grandfather, Bernhard gives the money to an organization that helps prisoners. And he recalls with indulgent tenderness, another friend of his grandfather, an obscure novelist and bore who talked for hours about novelistic theory, managed to redeem himself, in Bernhard's eyes, with this advice: Never buy shoes before 4 in the afternoon; that way they have time to expand into natural foot shape.

Eder, a former Times book critic, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987.

'My Father at 100: A Memoir' by Ron Reagan: Book Review

"Hinckley had loaded his pistol with a type of exploding bullet charmingly marketed as a Devastator writes Ron Reagan, describing John Hinckley Jr.'s 1981 attempt to assassinate his father, President Ronald Reagan. "It was the sixth and final shot that first hit not Dad but the armor-plated side of the presidential limousine. The armor did its job admirably well, but with disastrous consequences. As it was deflected, the bullet flattened into a dime-sized disk before striking my father, slicing into his chest beneath his left arm and lodging in his left lung, barely an inch from his heart, still unexploded."

The jokes that President Reagan cracked while hovering between life and death have become part of American folklore. "Please tell me you're all Republicans," he muttered through blood-caked lips to an assembled host of somber, green-suited surgeons about to saw open his chest, a majestic line that, Ron Reagan reveals here, his father had already tried out on emergency room personnel. They'd been so busy cutting the clothing from his body that they failed to laugh, but Reagan, the consummate performer who could never resist an audience, went again with the zinger.

"Bleeding to death with a bullet in his chest, and he's doing shtick. That was so Dad," Ron Reagan writes, knowing that jokes, even great jokes, are a way of rejecting embarrassment and intimacy. He recalls finding his father "warm yet remote," "fundamentally inscrutable," "reflexively guarded," and it's in pursuit of this central mystery that he's written a heartfelt book that, though choppy in structure and somewhat uneven in the writing, has many moments of great grace.

"My Father at 100" offers a running account of the journeys its author made, beginning in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library in Simi Valley, and then following the footsteps of his father's early life. We see lineaments of a tale that is now history: the bog Irish ancestry; the birth in a "small second-floor apartment above a bakery in Tampico, Illinois"; the acquisition of the nickname Dutch (his drunkard father said he looked like a Dutchman); the heartland upbringing in Dixon, Ill.; the dashing lifeguard years in Lowell Park; the college career as football player and tyro actor; the seemingly reckless decision to take a shot at Hollywood. These familiar landmarks are glimpsed, however, from a perspective made surprising by intimacy and a sense of often-puzzled filial love. "He was seldom far from our minds, but you couldn't help wondering sometimes whether he remembered you once you were out of his sight," Ron Reagan writes.

One of the lessons here is that no father can be an uncomplicated hero to his own son. Ron Reagan dropped out of Yale to study ballet; he became, first, a dancer, then a left-leaning political commentator, and though he makes it clear that he and his father often failed to see eye to eye, his book is less concerned with ideological differences than the pains and wonders of family entanglement. "You're my son, so I have to love you. But sometimes you make it very hard to like you," his father tells him. Oedipus throws that long shadow, even, or maybe especially, if dad is a figure as large as Ronald Reagan. There were father/son contests of athletic prowess, wrestling bouts and not always jovial swimming races. During Ron's years of counterculture rebellion, the two almost come to blows at the Reagan ranch in Santa Barbara, an ugly moment "soon edited from our family lore."

Ron Reagan gives us funny and measured views of his father's qualities as an antagonist. "Dad never really raised his voice; instead his tone would steadily acquire more gravity, until whatever complaining you might be doing began to sound, in your own ears, like the squeaking of gerbils," he writes.

But memory, and therefore memoir, tends to be a radioactive Pandora's box, and "My Father at 100" lives best in its indelible dramas of hurt, love and loss. Ronald Reagan bravely told the world that he had Alzheimer's, and Ron Reagan shows his father sinking into the sad abyss of memory loss, occasionally snapping out to revisit some pungent memory of youth. The grand old man's final moments are unflinchingly and poignantly evoked: "He lifted his head from his pillow, turning and straining towards the sound of his wife's voice. In his gaze was a fierceness that seemed to reflect the desperate exertion necessary for this final expenditure of life force." Reagan was determined that the last thing he should see on this earth would be Nancy — another mythic beat to add to the saga.

The 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan's birth falls on Feb. 6. His presence still looms large, in part because he seems emblematic of a less compromised and more heroic and honorable America. That perception may or may not be corny and wrongheaded, but it's there. "GOP candidates strenuously compete to see who can invoke his name in the most reverential way," Ron Reagan writes. Yet the character of the 40th president remains opaque to us in ways that make Barack Obama or Bill Clinton or either of the George Bushes seem like open books. Reagan seemed to step off the soundstage and into politics as though it were just another role, A-list this time, and there are those, Gore Vidal for instance, who argue absence was his essence, that he was a nothing, a void of actorly hollowness, an aw-shucks mouthpiece for lines and attitudes that others fed him. Ron Reagan finds something else, something carefully guarded, ice-cold yet unstoppable, fused together with a relentless self-mythologizing tendency: "He was the solitary storyteller whose great opus, religiously tended always, was his own self."

Reagan's Rosebud, as Edmund Morris also suggested in his mad and magnificent official biography/faux memoir "Dutch," was secret yet unstoppable ambition. Ron Reagan nails that, although his purpose is not so much to judge his dad as reclaim him. "If my father was knocked down, it was my business, my privilege, to pick him up," he writes.

Rayner is the author of several books, including "A Bright and Guilty Place: Murder, Corruption and L.A.'s Scandalous Coming of Age."

The Fates Will Find Their Way, by Hannah Pittard

Nobody knows where, exactly, Nora Lindell disappeared to, but the boys from her high school know one thing for sure: She’s not coming back.

The first pages of Hannah Pittard’s exquisite debut novel lay out all of the clues at their disposal. She went missing on Halloween — that much they agree on. But every other memory conflicts with someone else’s, with each boy absolutely positive that his is the correct version. A bus station is mentioned. Then an abortion clinic. Hot dogs. Movie theatres. Pay phones. Two of the boys swear they saw her climb into a stranger’s Pontiac Catalina. Another, feeling excluded, claims to have had sex with Nora the month before.

Before long, the departed 16-year-old has become a cipher, a repository for all of the boys’ repressed desires, feelings and fears. Not so much the sexual ones — they’re pretty upfront about their constantly redlining hormones — as those that run deeper, more elemental. Nora becomes a stand-in for everything that never was, but maybe could have been, had things worked out a little differently.

The Fates Will Find Their Way is narrated by all of the boys at once, in the first-person plural, so the reader is never quite able to ascribe these feelings to any one in particular. Then again, there’s no need to. Because while their specific circumstances may vary, these kids never grow out of the fundamental group mentality that Nora’s disappearance creates; even well into adulthood (and marriage and fatherhood, for that matter) they still get together, late at night, and try in vain to turn their handful of battered jigsaw pieces into a complete puzzle.

Put another way, it’s a book about the particular eerie stillness of the suburbs — where you talk, and talk, and talk, just to fill the space.

Pittard, an American who divides her time between Charlottesville, Va., and Chicago, writes at a pace that’s both restless and completely organic. From this anonymous blob of adolescence emerges nearly a dozen distinct characters, each with his own attendant hang-ups and obsessions. The chapters, in turn, ebb and flow as these memories are re-conjured for what must be the thousandth time — the kinds of stories that are best told, wistfully, from the safety of a bar stool.

Yet it’s in the fine details that Pittard’s judgment rings truest. There’s very little morbidity here, or even that brand of black humour that hurts your throat even as you laugh. She’s a sentimentalist, and Fates is an elegy. Pittard’s particular gift is for brief, telling details that deepen, rather than caricature, her characters. Proof of one boy’s strangeness is the fact that he always took a sip of chocolate milk before taking his pills, instead of the other way around; another names all of his pets after himself. After calling their sons to talk about a shamefully selective obituary in the town newspaper, the mothers hang up, in order to immediately “begin work on their own obituaries, page-long affairs that left nothing out, got everything straight.”

Roughly one quarter of the book is devoted to Nora’s life after disappearing — or, at least, the overlapping potential lives the boys imagine for her. Sometimes she’s fleeing a rapist, hiding under a pile of leaves in the forest. Sometimes she’s living a tranquil domestic life in Arizona with a stoic Mexican cook. And sometimes she’s in Mumbai, falling in love with a female henna artist. (Why make Nora into a lesbian? “Simple. Because we are men” — and since none of them got her, no man will.) In each case, Pittard slyly projects the boys’ inner thoughts onto the grown-up Nora, and, as we eventually discover, each scenario is built off of at least a small nugget of fact.
If there’s a quibble to be had, it’s that the title, as well as the Virgil epigraph from which it’s taken, tries to make the novel seem slightly more grandiose than it really is. It’s unnecessary. Smallness can be a virtue, and The Fates Will Find Their Way is itself excellent proof.

The book’s underlying message is a gentle but insistent indictment of these boys/men. By the time they hit middle age, they’ve been indulging their nostalgia too long, and in the end, for the wrong reasons. When they remember Nora, they don’t see a girl cut down in the prime of her youth. They see a potential wife, someone who might make them look good by proxy. Their children, too — whom they’ve raised with other, lesser women — are smaller versions of themselves. These men are no heroes. Several of them have even committed serious transgressions along the way. Pittard makes their mourning as resonant and aching as she can, but she won’t excuse their narcissism.

So maybe the book’s title really reflects their vanity. That would at least explain why each of the men own swimming pools — after all, what are they but oversized mirrors?

• Michael Hingston is a writer and reviewer based in Edmonton. His blog is Too Many Books in the Kitchen.

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