MetropolisI read some books. I review some books. But I think this will be among the most difficult of reviews to write.  Metropolis – the novel and the movie – is no simple thing to be just dismissed.  Also, it is difficult to explain any part of the plot without giving away the whole thing.  Metropolis was published (I think) in 1926.  Its author is Thea von Harbou (1888 – 1954), one time wife of Fritz Lang (1890 – 1976), the very famous German filmmaker.  In a lot of ways, Thea’s life is just as fascinating as the author whom I read before this novel (Ernst Jünger) and I feel like reading that novel and then Metropolis was a good one-two punch.

I have decided to write this review as if I have never seen the film.  As I was reading the novel, it did make me want to watch the movie again. Beyond that I kept comparing the two and it got slightly messy. So I think it best to just focus on the novel.  However, if you have seen the movie, you should definitely still read the novel as it explains and fleshes out a lot of the movie.  Let’s face it, the movie is not the most straight-forward and watchable movie ever made.

Anyway, I do not know if this is science fiction, romance (traditionally used), or propaganda.  I also do not know if it fits in the category of “dystopia.”  I have seen it referred to as “expressionist” and “fantastic.”  I mention all of this to share with the reader that this is, from the start, a difficult novel to read and/or describe.

A lot of reviewers/critics have said that this is a futuristic story.  An early science fiction dystopia, as it were. Something along the lines of 1984.  I do not really agree with any of this.  Sure, there are some “fantastic science” elements, but I would not classify this novel along those lines.  I think that to do so really misunderstands the author and the story itself.  I maintain that the author is very much a product of her times and as such is very connected with the political, social, and economic sensations rippling through the continent in these years.  I believe, also, that she was an intuitive and creative person.  Finally, reading this novel I got the feeling that Thea von Harbou was a “strong German woman.”  This woman was ensnared in her country and in her times.  And she made decisive movements within them.

I do not have a command of German, but there are sections in which I wished I could hear it in German – audio.  Not written-English.  Particularly the times in which von Harbou uses the technique of repetition and reiteration.  I’ll be honest – the first time it occurred I just assumed it was because in vintage things, there is often poor editing and type-work.  But after awhile, I was able to recognize how this repetition really drills home the concepts von Harbou is working with.

The novel is thoroughly saturated with a lofty Christianity; sometimes appearing as symbols, sometimes as apocalyptic themes, sometimes as blatant points (e.g. Maria, Paternoster).  Some of this is a little tedious and it gets a little bizarre at times.  And the level of saturation makes me wonder if von Harbou did not impose a “romance” onto the structure of Christianity?  In other words, did she start with a foundation of Christianity and then tack various fiction story bits onto it?  Well, most of this makes the story somewhat cumbersome and not as accessible as it would be otherwise.

Metropolis is very much a story of redemption.  But the author tries to pack a lot of other heavyweight concepts into the novel.  And for this reason, mainly, I give it only four stars.  There’s too much and the author does lose the reins several times.  Is this a romance? A story of redemption? A novel of revolution? A vindication of the authority or a condemnation of the technocrat?  Are we supporting revolution or denouncing it?  Is this a warning? A call-to-arms?  In other words, all these “themes” are expected in such a novel from that time period – but there’s a little too much going on here.  At times, von Harbou steps back or does a 180°.

However, there are chapters and scenes of breathtaking awesome brilliance.  In fact, I want to ask the author if she went back in time and actually witnessed nights of terror and the storming of the Bastille.  She writes a scary, dark night in which Metropolis falls.  She does not wimp out when she gets to this part.  However, my favorite parts of the novel are chapters 12 and 13.  In these chapters, we see the opposite of a militant, strong German revolutionary.  In these chapters, the author writes love and emotion and loss and sorrow.  Very emotive chapters – but without all the drippyness of current-day writers.  Somehow the massive emotion and understanding of the human condition is transmitted without floppy words or annoying prose.  These two chapters are exceedingly well done.  [Chap. 12:  Joh goes to his mother, Chap. 13: Rotwang implores Maria]

Overall, this is a very weird read.  And it is not very accessible.  It is not a perfect, lovely read – it has plenty of issues. Nevertheless, I think really, really well-rounded readers will want to take a look at this.  And, of course, people who want to understand the film.

4 stars

The Glass Bees

Glass BeesThe Glass Bees is the first and only work I have read, so far, by Ernst Jünger (1895 – 1998).  Did you just skip over those dates?  Yes, E.J. lived for 102 years.  And no matter what else is said about this author, it must be admitted his long life was full of all sorts of adventures and interesting things.  In 1916, he was awarded the Iron Cross II and I. Class.  In 1959 he was given:  Grand Merit Cross.  In 1982, he was awarded the Goethe Prize of Frankfurt.  A year before his death Jünger converted to Catholicism. He was the last living bearer of the military version of the order of the Pour le Mérite.  Jünger was a friend of Martin Heidegger.  He met several times with LSD inventor Albert Hofmann and they took LSD together.  Like I said:  Ernst is definitely not boring!

The Glass Bees is a short novel; in this edition it is only 24 chapters in 209 pages.  It was published in 1957. I enjoyed reading it in the evenings and there are plenty of “good stopping points” where you can leave and pick up again the next evening.  Some literary folk have dubbed this work “science fiction,” but that really would be a misnomer.  The narrator is Captain Richard.  He is an ex-soldier and former tank inspector.  As a soldier he was trained and served as a cavalryman.  This is significant throughout the novel and reminded me a lot of some of the Isaac Babel short stories that I have read.

The skeleton for this story is that Richard is an unemployed and rather impoverished ex-soldier who turns to a fellow ex-soldier with whom he trained for assistance.  In many ways, the man he turns to, Twinnings, operates as a sort of fixer.  He has sufficient means of his own and generally maintains a sort of “network” of former associates.  In many ways, Twinnings is like the original one-man Linked In.  Richard seeks Twinnings help mainly because Richard’s wife, Teresa, has become saddened about their current struggles.  She sees Richard through rose-colored glasses, so to speak, and therefore blames herself for Richard’s unemployment and financial miseries.  Twinnings, partly through old friendship and mainly because it is his “job,” sends Richard out to meet one of the most famous entrepreneurs in the country:  Giacomo Zapparoni.

Zapparoni is exceedingly wealthy.  He is also a Tony Stark-like character.  He’s definitely a forward-thinker; deeply involved with innovation, technology, and industry.  Even his hobbies are expensive.  However, Zapparoni is also an enigma, preferring to seem cryptic and elusive.  In many ways, he is seen as a technocrat and a representation of an economy driven by military technology.

However, the reader does not actually learn much about Zapparoni.  In fact, every line in this book is precisely from the blatant viewpoint of the narrator.  There are no impartial statements here.  Each page is from the perspective of Richard and every word is colored by his opinion, viewpoint, worldview, and personality.  So when Zapparoni is mentioned, we are not presented with Zapparoni qua Zapparoni, but Zapparoni filtered through the view of Richard.  This novel is how Richard views things.   Now, in most cases, I would find this sort of style of novel to be arrogant and tedious beyond tolerability.   Jünger somehow pulls off this style, though, without annoying the reader.  He is able to write this narrator so that the reader is really listening to Richard’s thoughts, as opposed to just blowing through them page after page.

Are Richard’s thoughts really fascinating?  Well, not really.  He uses his “job interview” with Zapparoni in order to “mentally process” the events of his life.  From small events, to bigger ones.  He reflects on the people who have most influenced him.  He examines what events he has experienced and what lessons he has learned from them.  But this is not to say that Richard is a passive receptacle for events that happen around him.  He is not a puppet.  Richard is probably an expert in his fields (cavalry, tank inspector).  He also has strong and stubborn views regarding the military, modernism, chivalry, technology, and morality.  Described in a word, Richard is “old school.”  And he is unemployed partially because he cannot figure out how to meld and adapt in the rapidly-changing, technologically-advancing modern world.

The intellectual Elliot Yale Neaman suggests that this novel is not really about anything:  “it has nothing to say.”  I both wholeheartedly agree and disagree with this comment.  This is not a novel with a standard novel-paradigm.  There is no heavy-handed message that the reader is to take away from it.  And, more than anything, this semi-autobiographical work is filled with memories and opinions and insights, but very little plot, suspense, or action.  So is this really a novel? Of course.  It just isn’t one the contemporary reader may be comfortable with.

It’s interesting that Jünger writes this as, basically, Richard’s job interview.  Because this is really what is presented. Rather than a list of a job candidate’s qualities (e.g. multi-tasking, diligent, hard-working, etc.), we learn who Richard is by all of the anecdotes and memories he shares with us.  Thus, we actually get a more complete understanding of the person than we would if he had simply rattled off his resume.  This is an interesting and rather classy style for a novel.  And while some of the memories are interesting but not impressive, every so often Jünger gives us an insightful commentary and it just makes this whole enterprise totally worth a five star rating.

Early on, we get a feel for Richard’s nostalgia and fondness for honor and chivalry, in short “the good old days.”

Today, naturally, there are still people one is afraid of; but his kind of authority no longer exists.  Today one is simply afraid; in those days one had, in addition, a guilty conscience. – pg. 17, chap. 2

However, while Richard seems old-fashioned to a fault, he also seems to have very sensible and deep understandings:

A work of art wastes away and becomes lusterless in surroundings where it has a price but not a value.  It radiates only when surrounded by love.  It is bound to wilt in a world where the rich have no time and the cultivated no money.  But it never harmonizes with borrowed greatness. pg. 50, chap. 3

I really like that quote because it carries this insight of distinction between the cultured and facade.  The difference between the wealthy and the nouveau-riche.  The genuine/authentic and the facsimile/fake.  That Jünger applies this to art is really great and I want to immediately sit down and discuss this with him.  You know he’s been reading Heidegger (all the technology stuff) and he’s been influenced by Adorno (crazy, wild, un-understandable Adorno).  This is good stuff and intelligent readers should appreciate the insights throughout this novel.

Finally, in a masterful analysis:

Considered as organization, this activity could be interpreted in several ways.  One could hardly assume the existence of a central control panel:  such a device would not be in the Zapparoni style because for him the quality of an automaton depended on its independent action.  His international success rested on the fact that he had made possible in a small area – his house, his garden – a closed economic project, he had declared war on wires, circuits, pipes, rails, connections.  It was a far cry from the hideous aspects of nineteenth-century industrial style. pg. 144, chap. 14

Well, I could probably write a long thesis just on this quote and the philosophical/historical ideas contained within.  Needless to say, this is good stuff and the intelligent reader will appreciate it.  Thus, readers of Calvino, Nabokov, and Pushkin should appreciate this novel.  Particularly if they do not mind the first-person, semi-autobiographical narrator-style.  Richard (Jünger) is a thinker.  He ponders history, military, technology, art, networks, etc.  He has staunch opinions sometimes.  At other times, he is extremely self-aware.  Still, at other times, he projects his views and understanding onto other subjects.  Regardless, I really enjoyed this novel and am thrilled to have read it.

5 stars

Darkness at Noon

Darkness At NoonI finished reading Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, which is a novel that I had somehow managed to avoid throughout all of my years of college.  Nevertheless, I am thrilled I finally got to read it – I bought it as a clean used copy for $1.  It was first published in 1940.  It is the second book in a row that I have read by an author who committed suicide.  Not that that has much relevance, but I am starting to want to read something by an author who does not end that way.  This was once Koestler’s most famous book, however I think his book The Thirteenth Tribe may have surpassed Darkness at Noon – because the former became such a controversy among scholars as well as general readers.  I have no desire to read that book.

Wikipedia has this information, which I have truncated:

In 1931 Koestler joined the Communist Party of Germany but, disillusioned by Stalinist atrocities, he resigned in 1938. In 1940 he published his novel Darkness at Noon, an anti-totalitarian work, which gained him international fame. The novel is set in 1938 during the Stalinist purges and Moscow show trials. It reflects the author’s personal disillusionment with Communism. Although the characters have Russian names, neither Russia nor the Soviet Union are named as the setting of the book. Joseph Stalin is alluded to as “No. 1”, a barely seen menacing dictator.

My overall general impression of the novel qua novel is that it is what we would get if Kafka’s Trial and Orwell’s 1984 mated.  The short novel is written in the plain, but revealing tone that seems to somehow pull the reader in – even if the topic is really not to their liking.  This does not really apply to me, since I have leanings toward historical scholarship.  But honestly, I can understand why the novel might seem quite uninteresting to most readers.  It’s not a mystery or a thriller and it’s certainly not science fiction.  Who would read this book?  People who love dystopian novels, who loved 1984, and who are fascinated with the Russian Revolution, etc.  There is something about the prisons and political inmates that lends itself to novels.  And it seems readers will love and hate the characters in such novels – particularly readers who are attune to political history.  The writing style is actually quite good – but I think the translator is as much to credit for that as the author.

The main character is Rubashov, a high-ranking Party member who is arrested and imprisoned for counter-revolutionary activity.  Of course, many times throughout the novel the reader realizes that the Party can adjust “historical fact” however it wishes (Cp. 1984).  In fact, throughout the novel, the main character keeps a diary while in his cell.  I was at first concerned that much of the novel would consist of Rubashov’s entries, but this didn’t happen. Only occasionally does Koestler utilize Rubashov’s diary – and in relevant places. One of the entries in the diary:

It is necessary  to hammer every sentence into the masses by repetition and simplification.  What is presented as right must shine like gold; what is presented as wrong must be black as pitch.

The eerie feeling of a Party/State controlled history really ought to affect readers in 2012.  However, it seems from 1900 – 1944, these sentiments were almost commonplace in the world.  And so they are with Rubashov, who is unsurprised by attempts to rewrite or revise his actions in the Party.  In fact, he has committed such revisions himself.  As Rubashov reflects on his life while in his cell and while being interrogated, he has a few trips down memory lane where he recalls instances where tables were turned and he was interrogating or ferreting out counter-revolutionaries.  The reader learns that “logic” is used in a loose sense when the Party is judging a case.  Even if history isn’t rewritten, per se, certain thoughts and actions can be reinterpreted to condemn the accused.  A major theme in the book is that Rubashov is a member of the old regime, and has spent forty years working for the Party, but his accuser is a “younger generation” Party member who reinterprets the thoughts and actions of the old regime. At no point does Rubashov think he will be released or acquitted; from the start Rubashov knows the ending.

Another part of Rubashov’s diary:

History has taught us that often lies serve her better than the truth; for man is sluggish and has to be led through the desert for forty years before each step in his development. And he has to be driven through the desert with threats and promises, by imaginary terrors and imaginary consolations, so that he should not sit down prematurely to rest and divert himself by worshipping golden calves. – pg 79, Part 2, chapter 1

In the final analysis, Rubashov’s ideas are more liberal and free than those of his accuser.  Rubashov feels himself turn toward a more open and gentle mindset as compared with his accuser’s who takes the “hard method” of torture, punishment, and simplifying reasoning for party members.  Rubashov’s entire imprisonment and “trial” is almost a study of using the “hard method” and yet letting Rubashov have the freedom to “logic out” his problems.  Some of Rubashov’s ideas are actually quite interesting and worthwhile.  For example, the concept of a scapegoat is played on – which, in the end, Rubashov is and thereby serves the Party even as he is condemned by the Party.  Also, he has a neat theory of the “maturity of the masses” and uses two very cool metaphors to explain it. The first is that of a swing – with its pendulum motion.  The second is that of a ship rising through locks, which demonstrates the relative level of the ship. This chunk of the book is pretty good stuff to read through.

Overall, I doubt everyone will love this book.  The topic is at once very relevant and yet also a bit distant from the contemporary political sphere. Nevertheless, as I have said, it makes a neat pairing with 1984 and it contains plenty of food for thought.

4 stars