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A little tea, a little chat

I've been a compulsive reader, writer and theatre goer all my life. My book blog is here: http://alittleteaalittlechat.wordpress.com/ Mostly food at the moment but also knitting is here: http://cathyingeneva.wordpress.com/

Currently reading

Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism
Sheldon S. Wolin
The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Gustave Flaubert
Nebula Award Stories 3
Harlan Ellison, Gary Wright, Samuel R. Delany, Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, J.G. Ballard, Anne McCaffrey
Cosmology and Controversy: The Historical Development of Two Theories of the Universe
Helge Kragh
Max Frisch
The Conqueror - Jan Kjaerstad A review in the nature of the book itself: it is all over the shop. Others, including Oriana and Manny have doubtless done a better job...

I want to start off with gripes, big and small.

Big gripe.

As I read volume one of this, I never would have wondered about the identity of the narrator but for Manny asking me what I thought.

The one thing that was clear to me was that the narrator of The Seducer had to be somebody/thing that could be omnipresent. This is evident as there are at least a couple of things that take place in The Seducer which are known only to the perpetrator and no-one else.

Given this, technically speaking, it isn’t possible that the narrator is as identified around p. 350 in the English edition of The Conqueror. Maybe that doesn’t matter, maybe it does.

But the other thing I find very disappointing about the revelation of the narrator of The Seducer is that it makes no emotional sense whatsoever. If you disagree with me, reread the scene that stands out in The Seducer for me – the death scene of Nefertiti – and tell me that this could possibly have been written by the narrator as presented. How could there be this incredibly moving emotional connection between that narrator and that death scene.

I do hope somebody can set me right on this and explain why it is that this narrator is an acceptable device.

Little gripe.

p. 213 ‘It was not until the end of the sixties that Jonas’s Wergeland’s decision finally ripened, the one for which he had been searching for….’

Why is it that modern books can’t employ decent editors/proofreaders? Two howling errors in a sentence is ridiculous. Especially when the second one is straight out of Paul McCartney’s Live and Let Die – remember ‘But in this ever changing world in which we live in’ – groan.

End of gripes.

To business.

This, from the girl who reviewed The Diary of Anne Frank in three words ‘Not enough sex’.

Well, this book, like the first, has too much sex. Like the first book, the sex is irrelevant and heavyhanded…and surely if there is anything that should be light of hand, it is sex. Please don’t tell me, going back to The Seducer, for a moment, that the sex is relevant, it is important that he has a magic penis. It didn’t seem important to me at the time, and obviously, reading The Conqueror this is clarified. He does a bunch of things quite well, and none of them are to do with shagging. Let that last statement refer both to Jonas and Jan.

Hmm. I’ve just had a thought, updating this bit later in the day. In my review of The Seducer I included some sex that I thought was an improvement on the book’s. (How is that for immodest?!) But maybe that’s the point, maybe the fun is in the writing about sex, not the reading of it. I’m generally disappointed by sex I read, unless it is from a lover. And even then, when I think more about that last sentence, I mean one lover. One lover I’d had in my life who writes beautifully about sex.

I suppose that is another gripe. Sorry.

I’m not sure why it is that anybody would have read The Seducer and thought Jonas was anything other than a nasty self-obsessed taker in every one of his relationships, fraternal or sexual, but evidently people did. The Conqueror, then, makes clear that he is anything other than a nice guy. But it does a good job of portraying Jonas as anybody. Anybody might have stolen their best friend’s most valued possession. Aided and abetted a gang rape. Spoiled his mother’s contraception. Broken the church window and then lied through his teeth about it. Everything about Jonas is absolutely ordinary. Not nice, but ordinary.

But perhaps that is not correct either. ‘Not nice’. In our day-to-day lives we have probably all met people who have watched gang rapes while seeing themselves as not involved, watched pornography involving people being hurt and not seen themselves as the perpetrators, watched somebody being abused and, doing nothing, hoped that the victim deserves it. And if we have all met somebody like that, we are also all like that ourselves. ‘All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for good men do nothing.’ I guess Jonas is all of us.

A while ago I asked my sweet 22 year old nephew James, if he saw a man being assaulted on a tram, what would he do? The question was prompted by a terrible scene I’d recently watched, a man was attacking a stranger on the tram, only verbally so far, but he was clearly psychotic and capable of anything. Was I going to step forward if necessary? All those on the tram were surely wondering the same thing. Were we going to be cowards?

James said, even though I’d tried to be plain that these two did not have a relationship, that he would stay cool, do nothing, how did he know what was going on? And a week later on the train home he hears the man in front of him talking to himself in an abusive way about Lebanese. James asks him to stop. The man subsequently follows him off the train and starts beating him up. James gets away, runs towards the car park as the man chases him, throwing a glass bottle at him along the way. James sees a couple getting into a car and asks for shelter. They stay cool. How do they know what is going on? They lock the doors on him. James eventually gets away.

James is nice. I imagine this couple who turned their backs on him were nice. Probably even the man who didn’t like Lebanese was nice.

Having said that, however, I am a little uneasy that I don’t feel empathy with Jonas. Well, maybe a tad now and then, but mostly not. That might be because he has been written inadequately. It might be because he is a sociopath – ie seriously not nice. But then again, read Patricia Highsmith and George Simenon and it is impossible not to empathise with their sociopaths.

Even the scene where Jonas is anally raped left me cold. You might say that this is because he himself was ambivalent towards it, but I don’t think so. It is unmoving in the same way all the sex scenes are unmoving in these books. They do not engage physically engage you and surely a good sex scene should. In the case of the anal rape, the penetration is so brutal that it is not possible for the reader to believe that Jonas would have been having the sorts of thoughts that are supposedly running through his mind. Pain and escape would have been the only reaction in reality. Still, what would I know? I’ve never been anally raped. Maybe I’d take the time to construct a shopping list…

I’ve probably asked this before, but. Does Jan have sex in his books because it is compulsory in modern books with aspirations?

The setting.

I love this aspect of the books. Background geography, politics, who’s who, culture can be a tedious filler; in this series they are anything but. I think I can speak for all people in Wallis and Futuna that we know almost nothing about Scandinavia, even less say, than Australians, since we don’t have the same penchant for Abba. Here in this series, the reading group I’ve set up is really getting to the nitty gritty of the nature of a unfamiliar country.

‘Norway never invented anything but a knife and salted fish’. The tone was rather vitriolic and I took a more careful look at the holder of this opinion. It occurred to me that whenever I see him, I’ve been reading something Scandinavian for months. He’s decided, I suddenly realize, that I have a Scandinavian lover. I mildly reply, ‘What about Aquavit?’ He snorts. ‘Danish.’ Oh, and now, the next day, as I take a look on the web, yes, I can see, it is of Danish origin.

Still, it is very much a part of Norwegian culture, we see in The Conqueror, and the most pleasant scenes in the book, the ones into which the reader might want to wander are those with the Three Wise men as they drink aquavit and eat potatoes. Note to myself as a vodka drinker, must try aquavit. I’d love to come up with a five-aquavit argument. Maybe this review needs one.

I didn’t want to get into an argument about the nature of Norwegian inventiveness, especially since I already felt like I was going to lose, so I don’t say ‘what about the Stressless chair?’

This is the sort of thing that I love in these books, observations like this.

p. 74

One evening in particular was to be of crucial significance. Jonas had been doing his homework and was on his way to the toilet when the usual metallic murmur prompted him to peek into the living room and thus he found himself confronted with a scene which he would never forget, one which stuck to his cerebral cortex like an icon: for there in the living room sat his parents, each in their chair, their eyes fixed on a screen filled with ghastly, heartbreaking reality, and yet they were so silent, so apathetic almost, that they might have been watching the Interlude fish in their aquarium. Although it’s only fair to say that when the first reports from Biafra were screened, Jonas’s parents too were, of course, appalled, they may even have wept, but by this time, six months later, their senses had become strangely blunted, they sat back in their chairs, staring listlessly at the television as if they were actually waiting for something else to come on, and this despite the fact that their eyes rested on one of those images which would be replayed again and again, with only minor variations, in the course of every famine disaster: a little girl with flies crawling over her eyes, weak from hunger, and on the ground right next to her: a vulture. Here, Jonas received an epiphanic vision of the of the true nature of Norway: this sight multiplied thousands upon thousands of times – people sitting in armchairs in front of televisions showing pictures of starving children far away.

Do we need any further comment on the nature of television? I’m flatting with somebody at the moment who has what I imagine to be a Stressless chair placed right in front of the television, just the one, since he is a confirmed bachelor. Somehow this is the worst thing about TV, this sense the Stressless chair gives of the relationship being only between you and the TV, irrespective of whether there is another human being about. If you recall the close connection between Jonas’s parents in The Seducer, presumably prior to the introduction of TV into their lives, where the evening was about talking and making love and being together, idyllic evenings which TV ends forever.

The saving grace.

I won’t say The Conqueror never tugs at the heart strings. Sometimes talking about Viktor and there is the scene where Buddha talks to him, of course. But it isn’t like The Seducer which was regularly moving.

In this book, as in The Seducer, it is scenes with Margrete that supply the emotional currency, but not all of them, by any means. However much we, the reader, love Margrete, the fact is she is mean to Jonas in ways she should not be. There comes to mind in particular his building of the ice castle and her amusement as it meets a catastrophic end.

There is also to consider her lack of sympathy for Jonas’s insecurity. Is this because she has only the truth to tell him, so better to say nothing? Or is it that she doesn’t have it in her to pander to his sense of lack of worth? There are times in life where a loved one needs your reassurance and a moral highhorse is no place to be. It doesn’t mean they don’t believe you, that they need reassurance, it means that something is difficult for them. If you love them, you will have it in your heart to give them the help they need. If you don’t, then of course, you have nothing to give. Margrete’s character is ambiguous on this point. And a feeling of sympathy for Jonas came sneaking in.

It pops into my head, a trip I came back from as a kid. The boyfriend I’d left behind wanted me to say I still loved him, but I didn’t. I loved somebody I met on the trip and, if it comes to that, I still do. Nothing the boyfriend did, trying to avoid becoming an ex, whether mean, manipulative, threatening or pathetic, ever helped him in his cause. He never heard those words from me again. Life was sad for a long time after that because loving somebody the other side of the world back then, as a kid, was impossible (or, I wasn't good enough to manage it), but hey, at least I didn’t get shot in the head and left to die on a bearskin. Things could always be worse.

Still, the climax of this book, his treatment of Axel and then Margrete, again left me unmoved when surely I should not have been. Did other readers feel like that? Maybe…maybe it is because it is not jealousy that motivates Jonas’s behavior. Maybe that is why. We all understand jealousy, but this thing that makes Jonas murderous, well, that is something else again.

Margrete. Would we not all wish for a Margrete in our lives? Like The Seducer, this book ends with the loveliest tales of Margrete.

p. 487-end

One time when he was lying there, fondling her ankle, that exquisite spot, she asked him if he knew how many bones there were in the foot, and when he shook his head she answered herself: twenty-six. ‘That says something about how complex we are,’ she said. ‘And how vulnerable.’

If there was one thing Jonas learned, or ought to have learned, from his very first second with Margrete, it was that love is not blind, but seeing. That love gives you fresh eyes.

It neve ceased to amaze Jonas how Margrete could make him forget old habits, and hence memories too, so that each time they made love it seemed to him – no matter how unlikely this may sound – like the first time, or rather, like something new. And, perhaps an even greater miracle: she taught him, a man, to set greater store by those long interludes when they explored each other’s skins than by the act itself….’Be a vessel, not a sword; learn to take, Jonas.’….

Because what they were doing as they lay there side by side, with their fingers wandering like caravans over the landscapes of their bodies, was telling stories; for hour upon hour they took it in turns, as all lovers do, to tell each other stories from their lives….

She told him, not least, about all that she had read, all the books, and when Jonas asked her why she read so much she replied: ‘Because I’m lonely, and reading helps me learn to live with my loneliness.’ One such evening…Jonas leaned back, his body heavy with contentment: ‘Do you think that one day’s happiness could save a whole life’ he asked.

‘Yes’, said Margrete. And a moment later: ‘Just as a second’s hate can destroy it.’

He didn’t understand why she meant, that she may have been trying to forestall something, make him see that any fruitful transaction can be ruined the minute one of the parties starts to feel dissatisfied and decided they would prefer to be in charge, become a conqueror, have the upper hand….

‘It takes a long time,’ Margrete said…‘It takes a long time to become a person.’….

And that night, on his way to the bathroom, naked, he passed the large mirror in the dim hallway and gave a start. He did not recognise himself. He met his reflection in the dark surface of the mirror and saw that his face had a kind of inner light. He knew what it was. An afterglow. A product of her love.

And you read this and you wonder, how could things go wrong for Jonas, how could he see life the wrong way? Because, just a few words later, this is the realisation that comes to him, this is the lesson he takes from the mirror: ‘Up to this point in my life, he thought, I’ve always been a hairsbreadth away from being a loser. Now I’m sure. I’m going to be a winner.’

Oh Jonas. How could you be so foolish. How could you have been given such as thing as Margrete and so profligately wasted it?????

Maybe The Discoverer has the answers.