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Summer of travel, DH edition

[Cross-posted at the Scholars’ Lab]

This spring and summer has been the busiest travel season I have ever had. While I won’t deny that I’m happy to be rounding the corner on my last two trips this summer, I’ve learned a tremendous amount as I’ve bounced from city to city, and feel lucky to have had so many outstanding opportunities.
Continue Reading Summer of travel, DH edition


Christian Oster, Rouler

Rouler put me face to face with a character that I couldn’t stand, and yet Oster’s writing is so enjoyable that I couldn’t stop reading. The premise is not uncommon: a man suffers a difficult emotional experience, gets in his car, gets on the road, and starts driving with no destination in mind. The problem, in this case, is that Jean, the narrator who has taken to the road, can’t really tolerate the uncertainties of what he’s doing, and makes himself and his various companions miserable throughout the entire journey.

In many ways the novel reads like an exploration of masculinity, and the glimpse that it provides is unflattering. Jean seeks to be impulsive, spontaneous, and irresponsible, but he constantly slips into small-minded worrying, scolding, and and self-doubt. Even his actions that look free-spirited are actually signs that he has worked himself into an inner turmoil of feeling obligated to do something that he finds utterly distasteful. At a gas station, for instance, he offers to drop a couple of hitchhikers at a nearby town–not because he wants to help them, but because he’s afraid they’ll ask him to take them much further, and he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to refuse. He immediately begrudges their carefree mentality, becoming a scolding father-type figure rather than opening himself up to any new experiences. When the hitchhikers convince him to stop near a stream so that they can swim, he stubbornly refuses to go with them–even though he is hot, uncomfortable, and wants nothing more than to jump in the water. Throughout his travels, Jean puts himself into situations like this, hurting nobody but himself and for no reason other than a vague distaste for his own decision-making.

An encounter with an old high school friend of his perfectly illustrates Jean’s entrapment within himself. After encountering the friend, Fred, while approaching a hotel in Arles, Jean wants only to avoid having to spend time with him; rather than politely decline an invitation, though, he launches into a needless sequence of lies that don’t even maintain an internal logic. Unable to properly turn down the offer, Jean ends up following Fred and intentionally losing him–but then regrets it, and can’t stand either the thought of going back to Arles or arriving already in Marseille, and spends the night in his car before arriving at Fred’s bed and breakfast in a terribly awkward scene the next morning. This kind of things happens throughout the book: Jean traps himself in sequences that he could easily stop or change, but instead he ends up playing them out to their uncomfortable conclusions.

It’s not the road itself that seems to draw Jean, as he doesn’t especially like being there. He does, however, value the idea of it, and he hangs onto a rough goal of reaching Marseille–as long as he doesn’t arrive there too quickly. He wants to have everything before him and nothing behind him, and it’s clear that this desire has to do with his constant regret over decisions made. Once he reaches Marseilles, then, even that goal will be behind him, and he will have nothing to do but look back on his experiences, and return to his life in Paris.

Eventually and surprisingly, Jean is able to escape from the cycle of obligation and regret that he puts himself through, and the end of the book reads like a sort of redemption.  At the bed and breakfast that he never wanted to visit in the first place, and where he oversteps his welcome with the host couple, Jean manages to make a genuine connection with a fellow guest. The guest, elderly André Ségustat, is gruff and distant with most of the others at the bed and breakfast, yet mysteriously allows himself to be vulnerable with Jean.  Ségustat makes it possible for Jean to be useful in a small but meaningful way, which is enough for Jean to shed his self-protective stance that does him so little good.

I didn’t expect the turnaround, and while I was relieved to see Jean finally stop making himself and everyone around him miserable, the change happened a little too quickly to feel natural. Still, Oster’s insightful look into a difficult character is wonderfully written, and while it may not be my favorite of Oster’s novels (I still prefer both Mon grand appartement and Une femme de ménage), Rouler is well worth a read.


On another note…

Somewhere between whale watching in Nova Scotia and discovering how much I love Montreal, I finished reading Infinite Jest. I can hardly believe how much I loved it, and am puzzling over what made it finally click. I’m not ready to write about it yet, but I hope that I will be soon.


The Free World by David Bezmozgis

My favorite thing about this novel, which was a travel read for me, was its setting. The Rome of the story is a liminal city for the Jewish emigrants fleeing the Soviet Union; their final destinations vary from the U.S. and Canada to Israel or Australia, but all of them face an undetermined amount of time in Italy while they await visas for their departures. They stay too long to be considered travelers, but not long enough to adapt to the culture (or really to rebel against it). It’s neither a destination nor a place of exile.

I like grey areas. I think you learn very interesting things about people when they’re on the move between two places, whether physical or metaphorical. While on a journey, people are vulnerable–they are outside of their comfortable ways of being in the world, as any travelers are. At the same time, though, they’re often a little more open than they may be once they start to establish themselves in a new circumstance. For the duration of the journey, identity doesn’t seem quite as fixed, consequences don’t seem quite as real, and everything has a temporary tang.

We see some of this in The Free World, especially in Polina. Of the three generations of Krasnansky family members passing through Italy, she is in the middle. She has joined the family by marriage, and has strong emotional ties to the sister that she left in Latvia (not to mention a guilty conscience because of the way that she left her parents). Her marriage is new and a little tumultuous, which leaves her in a position of instability relative to the family. Her decision to leave Latvia was a very serious one, and it’s clear that both home and her future abroad are equally weighty prospects. And yet, in the interim, Bezmozgis paints her with levity. She’s able to embrace her temporary life in Rome without worrying too much about what comes next, and we see her as a character that takes pleasure in finding her place the world. I liked that her impatience with being a tourist and a bystander passed as she found (and excelled at) a job, and that as she did, she began to absorb the beautiful and odd things that crossed her path. I don’t think that we could have seen Polina in quite the same way either in Latvia or in her future homeland.

While I enjoyed the circumstances of transition and vulnerability that Rome provided, I still wasn’t as enthusiastic about the book as many reviewers were. I’m still trying to put my finger on exactly what they saw that I didn’t see. The best I can come up with is that there may be a resonance with Soviet culture (and language) that’s just totally foreign to me. Where many enjoyed the book for its humor, I found it dry; the tone felt so straightforward as to be almost plodding at times. I also had the strong impression that I was reading translated text. As it turns out, there was good reason that I felt this way. In an interview in The Paris Review with Irina Aleksander, Bezmozgis discusses the “translated” nature of the writing:

[Aleksander] My mother—who, for the most part, refuses books in English—recently read The Free World and said that the writing felt very familiar and very Russian. How did you approach the language in the book?

[Bezmozgis] I usually thought about what the conversation would be like in Russian and then would translate it into English. If there was something ungainly about it, then I’d try to correct for it. There are certain words where, if I had a choice between that and some other English synonym, I’d consciously use the one that’s more Russian. My belief is that it will be transparent enough for an English speaker, but if you’re a Russian–speaking reader and you can translate backwards, there are certain nuances that will come through.

Bezmozgis clearly created this effect deliberately, but it didn’t work for me. The language felt stilted, and rather than drawing me into a world that was new to me, I felt like it shut the door in many ways.

Would I have felt differently about this book if I had a personal connection to the cultures depicted? Maybe. But why couldn’t Bezmozgis transport someone who hadn’t shared that experience? In the end, while I liked certain elements of the book–especially the setting and parts of the storyline–I didn’t find it to be especially rich or compelling. I seem to be in the minority on this, though, so if anyone has read it, I’d love to hear other thoughts.