The Circle

The CircleThe Circle, Dave Eggers

It is interesting that no word yet seems to exist relating specifically to distaste for or distrust of social media. The word ‘technophobe’ is unsatisfactory, carrying with it as it does connotations of fear and outright rejection of technology generally, and taking no account of the simple distaste one might feel for the tyranny of the unsolicited advance so often wielded by tweeters and pokers. I have decided to style myself a ‘technowarian’ until such time as something more Greek can be tracked down.  But, I hear you cry, were it not for social media, your review would not be broadcast to the universe. Yes, yes, dear reader, but in that case, I would be nailing these reviews to the door of one of our fine local Ranelagh coffee houses (#ErBuchetto), eateries (#TheWildGoose), or hostelries (#Humphreys), and probably to more advantage.

But to th’effect, as a chap who wrote with a quill and still managed to reach millions, once said.

The Circle by Dave Eggers is a terrifying book. I knew it would be as soon as I read the blurb on the back: ‘The Cirlcle [the world’s most powerful internet company], run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency.’ What’s wrong with that?, I hear you ask. Nothing, of course, nothing at all.

As the story opens, it’s Mae Holland’s first day at work for the Circle, and the novel effectively tracks her life and progress from that point. The campus is perfection itself (‘heaven’, the opening line tells us); free this, that and the other on offer to employees, delicious food, countless social activities. (Every customer to whom I have described the premise of the book comes up at this stage with the same corporate name, which already means that the tale has a chance of being convincing.)

The first thing that strikes one on reading the book is how bald the prose is. There is no adornment, and on occasion the writing borders on bad (‘Mae turned to find a beautiful young head floating atop a scarlet scarf and white silk blouse’). If you like your prose sophisticated and your arguments teasingly subtle, this will initially disappoint. For the first few pages it reads like a teen novel (almost as if Mae is the narrator, though she is not), but after a short time you forget the medium and begin to concentrate on the message. And that, indeed, is part of the point: in a culture where assent or disapproval is conveyed by means of a simple icon – a smile or a frown – allowing for no subtlety of expression or argument, there is no need, or indeed opportunity, to pause and craft your communication. And so the book in one way might be said to mimic this mode of hackneyed expression, which may well be part of its cleverness: it’s perfectly designed for the principal target it needs to reach, the wide-eyed Maes of the world who are happy to respond by reflex. If the thought of unsophisticated style is offputting to you, then the best way to approach the tale is with the idea that it is a parable, upon which the issue becomes largely redundant.

This is one of those books where to give a detailed plot synopsis would be to detract from the reading experience. This technowarian (yes, thank you, Windows, for the red underlining to tell me that there is something wrong with that word) – anyway, this technowarian was gasping in horror very early on in the book at the notion that Mae ends up having to deal instantaneously with varying business and social communications on four different worktop screens, so you can imagine the strangled noises that were being emitted four hundred pages later as the technological advances proceeded apace.

One of the cleverest things about the book is that none of the technological innovations seems beyond the bounds of possibility. There is no feeling that any of this is so far off as to be of no real concern. On the contrary, one reads with the increasing certainty that much of it is already well under way. The other clever thing is that for almost every unsettling proposal a benefit is posited (install cameras in the home of your elderly parents so that you can always be sure that they’re safe and well; tag your children and know where they are at all times, etc. – this gives nothing away; these are just the early ideas). There are so many issues raised by this book that it should almost be required reading. In fact, it’s a book that when you’ve read it, you’ll want to hand it to someone else and urge them to read it quickly so that you can discuss the ideas it sets up.

By the end of the book, the arguments and metaphors are signposted, highlighted, and hammered home in the most blunt fashion. A particular event is described as “natural in a way seeing a plane falling from the sky can seem natural, too. The horror comes later.”

Leaden, but laden.

The Kraus Project

The Kraus ProjectThe Kraus Project Jonathan Franzen

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose might be the overall feeling on reading this latest Franzen foray into the public arena. Though it would be the German equivalent, which I dare not attempt. The word ‘Project’ in the title gives a hint that there might be a mission of some sort in operation here, and indeed there is.  Franzen has taken some pieces written by the Austrian critic/satirist Karl Kraus in the early decades of the twentieth century and translated them, pointing out with a frank lack of modesty that “much of Kraus’s best work has hitherto frightened off English translators”. As it turns out, he can be forgiven this trumpet-blowing for he does a great job; the original German is extremely densely packed, deliberately so; Kraus was writing only for people who were willing to take the time to understand him. And this is where the sense of familiarity begins to creep in. Though his specific theme is the ’Frenchification’ (for which read ornamentation and a tendency towards superficiality) of Austrian/German intellectual life, with the German poet Heine his particular target, much of what Kraus is railing against in his work (and he is a railer), strikes a chord today; for example, his utter distaste for throwaway journalism – tabloidism, as we might now call it. If you’ve ever despaired at the juxtaposition of a report of a major catastrophe with the ‘news’ on some so-called celebrity’s latest diet, then you will find an answering hundred-year-old chime in Kraus.

The book is helpfully laid out. The German text is on the left page, the corresponding English on the right, with relevant footnotes – of which there are many, since this is as much a Franzen treatise as it is a Kraus one.  Franzen appears to antagonise as many people as he attracts, and in this way Kraus is an ideal partner for him. There are off-putting moments of self-absorption scattered throughout the notes (though nothing like the off-putting self-absorption of his tedious The Corrections, which along with Donna Tartt’s equally tedious The Secret History rings alarm bells for the future of the Man Booker – but I digress) – anyway, the moments of self-absorption in this context are forgiveable, given that the overall argument from both authors is fundamentally a personal one.

The tone and the flavour of the whole enterprise is set early on in a nicely thought-provoking and highly relevant observation:

“In Kulturen, in denen jeder Trottel Individualität besitzt, vertrotteln die Individualitäten.

In cultures where every blockhead has individuality, individuality becomes a thing for blockheads.

Franzen note: You’re not allowed to say things like this in America nowadays, no matter how much the billion (or is it two billion now?) ‘individualized’ Facebook pages may make you want to say them.”

Let the games begin.

Hanns and Rudolf

Hanns and RudolfHanns and Rudolf Thomas Harding

I had a small problem with this book. Or to be more precise, with the marketing strategy employed in its promotion. The book tells the true story of how Hanns Alexander, a German Jew who worked for the British Army during the war, tracked down Rudolf Höss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz, who was trying to find himself a ratline to freedom after the war ended. Alternate chapters bring us through the lives of each of the two men from their childhoods, until three quarters of the way through the book when the hunt begins and they share chapters, their lives now directly linked by the chase. The problem I have is with the fact that, given that this is a work of non-fiction, dealing with someone who by his own admission was directly responsible for the deaths of two and a half million people, the marketing blurb on the front (it seems we must have them) comes, not from an eminent historian or even biographer, but from that eminent spinner of spy yarns, John le Carré: ‘A gripping thriller’ is his first reaction, though he continues, ‘an unspeakable crime, an essential history’. On the back cover other reviewers have been blurbed using the words ‘thrilling’, ‘electrifying’, and ‘exhilarating’. And ultimately the problem really is that it is all of these things, and I could not help feeling a twinge of guilt for enjoying the book so much for its pure entertainment value.

Thomas Harding, the author, is a grand-nephew of Hanns Alexander. Given that his family suffered at the hands of the Nazis, he has done a laudable job of maintaining a balanced tone throughout. Both Hanns and Rudolf are given equal consideration – though Harding is at pains to point out at the start that he sees no moral equivalence between them – and there seems to be a genuine attempt to understand how Rudolf Höss became what he did. The style in which the book is written is direct and unfussy, possibly the result of the fact that Harding is a journalist, though possibly too in order to maintain that objectivity and balance. Ultimately, however, and through no fault of Harding, there really is no adequate explanation for why someone who wanted to be a farmer ultimately became one of the most prolific murderers of all time.

There are several photographs in the book. The most startling is not, as we might expect, the photographs of selection, or execution, or burial; it is rather the 1943 Höss family group photograph of Rudolf, his wife and their five children, the youngest of which is a two- or three-month-old baby. The mother sits looking at the baby on her lap, the others form a semicircle behind her and have obviously been told to look at the baby likewise. The two girls do so, their heads bowed timidly; the younger son looks directly at the camera from behind his mother’s shoulder, his gaze almost fearful; the older boy, standing beside his father looks warily at him or at something beyond him; Höss himself looks down at his wife and baby but there is nothing of the pride of a paterfamilias in his face; more a sort of discomfort. Here truly is a picture that paints a thousand words. And when we find ourselves slipping into the mode of reading this book as if it was a fiction thriller, this photograph pulls us up and reminds us that, as Harding himself says in the Author’s Note, we are dealing here with human beings. Perhaps not all the victims were inside the fence.

Harvest

HarvestHarvest, Jim Crace

Harvest, Jim Crace has stated, is to be his last novel. If that is the case, what a way to go out. Harvest tells the tale of the events of seven days in an unnamed village at an unspecified date some centuries in the past, told by a narrator, Walter Thirsk, a townsman who “tumbled into love” with the countryside and then with one of its womenfolk twelve years previously. As the novel opens, three strangers have set up a shelter in one of the village fields and have lit a fire, which, custom dictates, gives them the right to stay. But there is another fire, this time in the dovecote of the local manor, and by tacit agreement of the villagers, the three strangers are held to be responsible for that blaze also. From that point on, consequence upon consequence unfolds, and with each inevitable consequence comes a further unravelling of a whole way of life that to that point has been measured only by the rhythm of the seasons.

There is a wonderful marriage in the novel between form and content. Like the simple ear of barley which is described at one moment in the book as containing “barley pearls”, the unassuming narrative style produces a deceptive richness of imagery throughout. The ostensible simplicity echoes perfectly the way of life it describes. The short sentences create a natural forward momentum; there is a soft pulsing rhythm to the prose, which almost invites reading aloud.

The simplicity of the telling, however, belies the many and weighty themes raised by this tale. The setting in the past allows for the initial establishment of an innocent, Eden-like world; beyond that the period matters not. The questions are eternal: justice and natural justice, revenge, loyalty, loneliness, courage, the irreversible march of ‘progress’, the fracturing of society. Many of the characters, like the village, remain unnamed; responsibility for several of the pivotal incidents remains largely unconfirmed. This openness means that although the novel is very definitely set in the past, it also achieves a timelessness.

A beautiful and thought-provoking book, and a fitting end, if end it is, to a distinguished career.

Footnote:

At the time of writing, Harvest is vying for the position of favourite to win the Man Booker with Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, a novel three times its length. While the latter is undoubtedly extremely well written and intricately plotted, there is nothing in the first 150 pages at least to rival the depth of Crace’s work.

As you sow so shall you reap. We shall see.

The Cuckoo’s Calling

The Cuckoo's CallingThe Cuckoo’s Calling, Robert Galbraith

Whether strategically planned or not, J. K. Rowling’s ‘outing’ as the pen behind the name Robert Galbraith has netted her three different categories of reader: Harry Potter/Rowling fans; crime fans; and the downright curious. From someone in this last category comes the news that The Cuckoo’s Calling is a perfectly enjoyable way of whiling away some summer hours. The characters lift nicely off the page, there is detail enough to set any given scene colourfully before you, and now and again a line gives the impression that Rowling might have a satisfyingly sly sense of humour.  As to the plot – model dies in fall from balcony: suicide or murder? – well, think Monday evening ITV Drama rather than Saturday night BBC Nordic Noir and you’ve got it. It’s giving nothing away to say that the last line of the book is a quote from Tennyson: ‘I am become a name’. If Rowling really did intend to try to forge a new success for herself anonymously, what better line to offer up to an unsuspecting public as her own private joke. The line still works following the big reveal, but if she was in on the plan, it now becomes quite cynical. Here at The Company of Books, we prefer to think that she wasn’t. Sit back and and listen to the cuckoo; you’re in capable hands.

1913: The Year Before The Storm

19131913: The Year before the Storm, Florian Illies

Here at The Company of Books we don’t recommend something until we have read every last line. As the previous recommendation was back in March, it might appear as though we have been slacking off, but no, it’s simply that while many were read, none were chosen. These include at least one tome that made it to the top summer reads list of a respected British Sunday newspaper. However, the despair is at an end. We don’t recommend something until every last line has been read – until now.

In the midst of the current tide of books about the period immediately before the First World War, Florian Illies’ 1913: The Year before the Storm is an informative and highly engaging addition to the flow. Taking the year month by month it offers snippets, from a single line to a couple of pages, with little details about the people or events that made up the tapestry of 1913. The big names from politics and the arts are there, of course. So too are the seeds of future impacts:

“Two national myths are founded: in New York the first edition of Vanity Fair is published. In Essen, Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother opens the prototype of the first Aldi supermarket.”

“The drug ‘ecstasy’ has been synthesised for the first time; the patent application drags on through 1913. Then it’s completely forgotten about for several decades.”

There have been one or two other books in the past couple of years that attempted this type of thing about other pivotal years in European history, but there was something a little lifeless about them. Illies’ book avoids becoming mere catalogue both by his clever mix of details large and lesser, and his infusion of a quirky speculative vein. In January of 1913, for example, according to their separate friends, two young men liked to walk in the park at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. One, we already know from previous references, is Stalin. He

“walks through the park, thinking . . . Another walker comes towards him . . . a failed painter who’s been turned down by the Academy . . . He is waiting, like Stalin, for his big break. His name is Adolf Hitler . . . The two men may have greeted one another politely and tipped their hats as they made their way through the boundless park . . . Even when Hitler and Stalin sealed their fatal ‘pact’ in 1939, they never met. So they were never closer than they were on one of those bitterly cold January afternoons in the park of Schönbrunn Palace.”

A book to dip into, to read from cover to cover, to re-read (since you won’t remember it all the first time around, so fizzy is it with little nuggets), a book for anyone interested in that particular period, or in history generally, a book for people who like collecting bits and pieces of information useful to varying degrees (and, remember, anything might be useful in a pub quiz). In short – and though the last line has not yet been gained – the most diverting book of the year so far.

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