I’m home after a week in Sicily. The place was an oven forcing me to keep cool in doors all week, and I had enough mozzarella to drive anyone mad. But the absence of non-stop internet access helped my productivity. I read more over the past week than over the last eight combined. I stormed through Confessions in four days, Catch-22 in two and Fear and Loathing in one, and all three were marvellous.
Confessions was exhausting. Having only read his political works, Rousseau remained shrouded in so much mystery for me. But now, as he wished, I feel like I know his soul.
I’ve blogged on the early parts of the book before. Towards the end there’s around two hundred pages of childish bickering and pure paranoia, mainly surrounding the intentions of Diderot. Rousseau seems to have convinced himself retrospectively, after his surprise and painful persecution, that it had all been a long term plot hatched by his Parisian enemies. Recall that the conspiracy even ended up capturing Hume, who worked at length to leave Rousseau safe in England.
That section makes for draining reading. The man was clearly miserable and tortured by his fame, and longed for a return to the simplicity and innocence and peace of the first half of his life. The description of his fleeing Montmorency, which I visited last month, were especially horrid. He couldn’t go home to Geneva because they were burning Émile there, so he travelled to Switzerland, but they stoned his bedroom in a night ambush. He was way too fragile and sensitive to hack the life on the run.
And he was insanely romantic and emotional about every friend he ever made. The work of his that he dwells on for longest is Julie, an outpouring of the sentiments he felt born to give, but which he never got to openly express and share with another woman.
I’m still in awe. It’s outrageous how brutally honest he manages to be, and how detailed his depictions of his own mistakes and vices are. Obviously, as a human, he looks so flawed now. But it would have taken some saint to stand the scrutiny of a microscope as rigorous as this. And that it was Rousseau himself that dug up his own dirt for us all to see – that sort of commitment to truth and transparency is something we would all do well to ponder. Love or hate him, the details are there in abundance to leave you fairly feeling either.
Catch-22, meanwhile, felt like a book that needed to be read quickly if it was to have the intended effect, and that strategy worked wonders. Heller really does weave and wrap you in a whirlwind of farce and anger that’s far too clever for it’s own good. There’s wordplay galore to make you openly and happily howl. There’s a level of absurdity to make Kafka proud. How else to describe a novel that captures the inanity of bureaucracy, and the dire experience of having a ‘duty’ to die for your country drilled into you by colonels who only wish to serve themselves. Some of the dialogue is so sharp that it feels destined to fit into a 40s screwball film, but the bitter and biting tone would never have happened without the decade of Dylan that was the 60s. My favourite line? In response to his apathy, someone poses to Yossarian the Kantian thought, ‘suppose everyone tried to avoid service like you’. Yossarian replies by noting ‘I’d be a damn fool to act any other way then, wouldn’t I?’
And then Fear and Loathing. Well, I’ve been put off acid for life. And I’m not sure I ‘get’ how as a novella it plays on the theme of the American Dream. Maybe that’s just standard generic blurb-talk to get literary types to buy it, but a quick Google suggests it is a recurring theme in criticism of the book. The way Cronkite and Nixon keep popping up on television, punctuating the drug-fuelled rampages with doses of info from Vietnam, was enormously potent. It just felt like – this is the land and liberty you’re fighting for? The prose was suitably nuts, though. I heard the film sucks, which is surprising. I could imagine quite clearly a few auteurs doing a damn fine job with it. What could be more cinematic than a psychedelic road trip to and through Vegas?
Ah well. That will do for now. Now I’m home and fresh I’ll post some new stuff soon.