grist

 

Saturday, September 10, 2005
August Reading #3 and #4

I picked up Gustaf Sobin's The Fly-Truffler after reading his obit in the Times. Judging by the fact that my order was delayed by several weeks, I was not the only one; perhaps there is someone toiling in the bowels of the obit section whose skills would be better suited to book publicity. This book was, once again, a book that seemed like I should love it--the center of the book is a professor of the rapidly waning Provencal language (dying languages! score 1); he discovers that eating truffles causes him to dream of his beloved, now dead wife, in a sequence that leads toward the birth of their child. He loses sense of the boundaries between the real world (his crumbling ancestral estate, job, life) and this truffle-driven world of his dreams. He wanders the remains of his property, rousing pockets of golden flies that point to the presence of truffles. Sobin is a poet, and his language is frequently lovely and rich, but he is a sloppy novelist (or perhaps in need of a better editor). He reminds us of cutesy facts, often in exactly the same language he has previously used. The effect of this is to make his poetic language cloying at times, and to create some mistrust of his grasp of the narrative as a whole. There are some marvelous passages in this book, and it is almost a book I found amazing. But failing that, it was a disappointment. 2 stars:
He'd take the same path, now, nearly every morning.

A Woman in Berlin is the newly republished diary of a 30-year-old German female journalist, written during the two months that Berlin fell to the Russians. It is a remarkable book--remarkable to understand the detail of the rending of the fabric of a civil society--first the water is turned off, then the gas. People huddle in basements, forage for food--eat nettles growing in the sidewalks. Buildings become small communities, and then these break down as the Russians advance. There is a chaotic period of frequent rape and abject hunger, then an economy of rape and sets of moralities emerge--when is taking stealing? Who owns what now that everyone has lost nearly everything? There are moments of shocking generousity and painful constricted selfishness. The German men are either absent or utterly ineffectual; the women shape this new order. Gradually some measure of civic order returns, and the book abruptly ends.

The author's voice is remarkably clear and thoughtful throughout--unsparing of the choices she is making, and must make, to survive. Her eye for the groups that emerge and breakdown is very sharp, as is her unsentimental but not cold presentation of both sides--the germans in defeat and the russians in triumph. The city degenerates into a few spare blocks, and then just theirs, and then builds back up into a vast ruin with odd pockets of life and its past persisting. She writes beautifully (at times so much so that I found it inauthentic--there is the eye of a fiction writer). It's an excellent read, provoking, especially in the wake of Katrina. 4 stars:

It's true. War is rolling towards Berlin.



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