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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
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Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
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Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
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The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten


Forføreren - Jan Kjærstad I wrote the careful, analytical review below, and then I thought: this is all wrong. I am willfully misunderstanding the book. What makes it unusual, almost unique, is the very personal relationship it establishes with the reader. It is like a teacher, or a lover; it is about how imagination and art and love can change your life. Also, it is about how you can't reduce life to abstract schemas. You have to use fantasy and intuition to find the special detail which illuminates the whole.

Writing an analytical review was completely inappropriate. I mean, read my review by all means, I'm not saying that anything I wrote was incorrect, but I could feel that the book was disappointed in me. So I did something else instead, which was a more appropriate response. I won't say what it was, but if you read Forføreren, then you may also find yourself doing something that surprises you. It's not an ordinary piece of literature.

This is a beautiful, extremely original, magical-realist novel. Thank you, Oriana, for pointing me to it! It's about a Norwegian TV director called Jonas Wergeland, whose masterpiece is a series called Å Tenke Stort ("Thinking Big"). It soon becomes clear that Jonas stands for the author, and the program stands for the book, which does indeed think big; bigger, in fact, than anything else I can recall reading for a long while. Kjærstad is being staggeringly ambitious, and any description risks giving the impression that he's failed. So let me start by saying that he in fact succeeds brilliantly. The novel, at least in the original Norwegian in which I read it, is fantastic: it's lyrical, sensual, beautifully structured, and philosophically provocative. You could hardly ask more from any book.

It combines a bewildering and paradoxical range of influences. Some of the more obvious ones are Hermann Hesse; The Kama Sutra; The Thousand and One Nights; the music of Duke Ellington, Bach and Messaiaen; the philosophy of Derrida; several major figures from Norwegian history, including Henrik Ibsen and Knut Hamsun; the Bergman film Persona; Gödel's incompleteness theorem; and Tombaugh's discovery of Pluto. The narrative structure is also superficially chaotic, consisting of an endless series of flashbacks within flashbacks. You'd be right to wonder how anyone could do all this, and not just create an unholy mess.

The way he keeps control over his material is through a number of recurrent symbols and images, which rather resemble leitmotifs in music, and tie everything together. Three of these are particularly important. The first is the circle: everything goes round until it comes back to where it started, but at any point you can suddenly fly off at a tangent, on some completely new course. He is imaginative at showing both inevitable recurrence, and the wealth of startling, completely unexpected possibilities that exist at every moment.

The second is the turtle. As we all know, the world was once supposed to rest on the back of a giant turtle, and he uses this image as shorthand to refer to hidden, underlying, generally more or less fallacious assumptions. So he'll give you a brief glimpse of people's true motivations, and comment it ironically as "another turtle". This makes a fine running joke.

The third key image is the church organ. The organ, with its many pipes, stands for the huge range of ideas and influences in the book. It also stands for the divided, fragmented nature of modern existence. The music of the organ, which appears in several critical passages, combines the many different voices from its component pipes, and turns them into a single, unified harmony. This is linked to the redemptive power of art, and the intertwining of pain and joy. Often, some terrible event happens, and then there is a shift of perspective, so that it is seen as beautiful and necessary. It becomes part of the ongoing work of art that is the main character's life.

The author seems to know a great deal about the specifics of organs, which is characteristic of the book; details are important, and he takes them extremely seriously. This is another of his major themes. He is fiercely against reductionistic accounts, which seek to transform everything into flat schemas. (I am painfully aware that writing this review is in some important ways contrary to the spirit of the book). Instead, his thesis is that the true way to understand something is to find the detail that will reveal its essense, and completely submerge oneself in that detail. This is what motivates the prose style, which is full of startling sensory images: visual, auditory, tactile, everything. Paradoxically, as he says, the whole can be included in one of its parts. He presents this poetically, in the legend of the flower so perfect that, if you picked it, the whole world would disappear. He also slyly introduces an ironic reference to the Gödel incompleteness proof in one of the episodes where Jonas and his friend are giving their math teacher a hard time.

He explores the relationship between the part and the whole in many ways. Two are particularly important. First, the novel is both completely Norwegian, and also completely universal; as he says early on, all of the world includes something of Norway, and Norway includes all of the world. We see this, among other things, in Jonas's TV series. Second, every person contains many people within them. The way Jonas usually discovers his other, hidden, sides is through sex.

I'm a little surprised that I haven't already mentioned the sex, because there's certainly a lot of it. In keeping with this paradoxical book, it's both extremely explicit, and impeccably tasteful. It's sensuous and erotic, and full of unexpected metaphors. People do strange and beautiful things, which come across as making perfect sense, rather than being weird or perverse. The magical realist dimension of the book is largely concerned with these passages: somehow, when Jonas has sex with a woman, he magically acquires some of his lover's special qualities. In general, the sex has an artistic and mystical dimension that is extremely unusual. And it's funny. In fact, although I've somehow missed saying that too, a lot of the book is funny. He has a wonderfully bizarre sense of humor. Just to pick one random example, I loved the scene in the classroom with the Marxist teacher; the poor guy's brought in his toy steam engine to demonstrate how new means of production transformed 19th century society, and he's then taken apart by Jonas and his snotty friend. It reads like a sequence from The History Boys.

I still don't feel I'm doing the author justice. The experience is so much more direct than anything I have said. You feel personally engaged with him in a most unusual way; sometimes it's like being hit over the head by a Zen master, and sometimes it's like making love with someone who's smarter and more insightful than you are. If you have imagination, and you want to break out of the circle you're stuck in, you should read this book.

About halfway through rereading Forføreren, I found this passage about Jonas's TV series which I liked so much that I just have to try and translate it myself:
For selv om hon ikke klarte å sette ord på det, hadde hun sett noe nytt, noe viktig, noe hun aldri hadde sett før og som fylte henne med positiv energi, og som fikk henne til å se programmenne enda en gang, slik at hun standig oppdaget elementer og detaljer som hadde gått henne hus forbi de foregående gangerne, samtidigt som hun så mer av likheter oh mønstre som gikk igjen og dermed hele tiden utvidet forståelsen for sammenhanget mellom alle programmene. "Det er som smykker inne i et større smykke," sa hun.

For even if she could not put it into words, she had seen something new, something important, something she had never seen before and which filled her with a positive energy and made her watch the different episodes again, so that she constantly discovered elements and details which she had completely missed the previous times, and simultaneously saw more of the echoes and patterns which repeated themselves and endlessly revealed more connections between all the episodes. "It's like jewels inside a larger jewel," she said.
I find it surprisingly difficult to come up with a good translation for the key word smykke, which literally means "ornament". Ornaments are unnecessary things, and to call something "ornamental" is to mildly disparage it. Smykke, in contrast, is related to the adjective smukk, "beautiful", so it conveys the meaning "something beautiful". The various episodes of Jonas's series, and by extension the various sections of Kjærstad's book, are indeed beautiful things that combine to make a greater beauty, and that beauty is in no way ornamental. I chose the word "jewel", but the metaphor isn't quite right: you can't really have jewels inside a jewel. I can't think of anything better though.