Tag Archives: Gorky

Pessimism’s Cynosure

He no longer slept. His days were filled with aimless haste. In the evenings he would consider his pointless activity.
-Joseph Roth, The Spider’s Web (60)

DSCI0022In The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa there is a line that stuck itself in my memory: I’m not a pessimist, I’m sad. The German author, Joseph Roth on the other hand, at least based on the books I have read of his, is very much a pessimist. And never was pessimism so thoroughly justified as in the novella The Spider’s Web.

Theodore let them into the courtyard. Once in, they started shouting. They pushed against the walls, window panes tinkled pathetically. (49)

I found that sentence arresting. Here is one of the pinnacle moments of the story, when Theodore enjoys his act of “heroism” that his career publicly rests upon, and the window panes tinkle pathetically. The fragility of his persona, the silliness of ambition, and the depressing disgust of confronting such an odious man as Theodore is so completely expressed in those four words- it quite awes me.

He must not think too long. Reflection weakens decision. There is no time. (62)

I couldn’t help comparing Theodore to other contemptible men of literature while reading this book. Like Dosoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, Theodore is smart, but not so smart as to risk the reflection and contemplative philosophizing that is central to Crime and Punishment as well as to Raskolnikov’s final redemption. Yet, he is smarter and more power-hungry than Gorky’s protagonist in Life of a Useless Man, which makes him a lot scarier. The chilling combination of the historical time period of Germany, in the upward climb of Nazism, with a half-clever, ambitious sociopath is disturbing. The political atmosphere simply makes a riper ground for sprouting the ubiquitous depravity of human beings- speaking pessimistically, of course.

There are evenings, thought Theodore, when people must perforce be good, as if under a spell. (68)

Published in 1923, between wars, this book is a frightening bit of divination of the answer to- not so much:why, but, what?- what is the thought process of the truly hateful?

Roth creates the story with the rhythm and punctuation of the segments of a spider’s web. The sentences are short, concise, and well organized. The spider unthinkingly weaves his web, forgetting how vulnerable he really is, forgetting that there are one thousand and one more spiders ready to build on top of his stupid web at a moment’s opportunity. But Theodore won’t, can’t really, think about it. There’s no time.

Horribly awake, he saw all the events of the night before. He fought against them in vain. He tried to erase them. They simply had not taken place. He began to think of all sorts of unrelated matters. He conjugated a Greek verb. (13)

In this novel of betrayal, even one’s own mind is suspect.

read what you eat

They stared at eachother without the slightest enthusiasm. “Maybe we won’t have to work together,” Kollberg said. ” We can always hope,” said Grunwald Larrson.

The Abominable Man

gjetost on knacke (crisp bread)

Ah yes, these are my people. My grandfather was Swedish: I like to account for my unapproachable reserve by referencing his DNA. The nice thing about being an American is that there are myriad genes coursing through most of us to spread the blame. A fellow blogger themofman suggest that I look for the book The Abominable Man which I did, and then read, for three reasons:

The title: (it kind of reminded me of Life of a Useless Man by Gorky,  I just like the spirit of titles such as these!)
The country of origin: Sweden
And the fact that it had two authors: Maj Sjöwak and Per Wahlöö which I found interesting. I wonder what the process was like?

I went ahead and read it even though it is of the “Mystery” genre which I do not normally seek out.  I recall the moment at my local library a few years back after I had come to the conclusion that I needed to stop buying books, I was navigating my way amongst the shelves when I noticed that all the walls encircling the rows were sorted separately. They were ALL mystery books. I had no idea this was such a popular genre. There is one inimitable  mystery writer I always read, but he deserves his own post, ode, sticky bun, something…

Not only do I not read a lot of mystery but Swedish mystery? I’ve seen an episode of Wallander and I even watched the movie Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (the Swedish version which made me really glad I didn’t read the book). I really do not need serial killers afloat in my mind damaging my already weary pathways. At least watching the movie I could fast forward (which I did) and close my eyes. Yes. I’m a coward. So what?

The abominable man is the victim not the murderer, which is always satisfying. Or maybe the abominable man is everyone- protagonist, antagonist, you , me. There was a dry sense of humor throughout the story that I loved, it seemed to me a combination of a Swedish sensibility and also the fact that the book was published in the 70’s. The one quibble I had was this: even though I understand they were really busy – what with a hot on the trail murder investigation, would it have killed them to get something to eat? I really  love to read about food consumption/preparation especially in foreign books. Never mind- I compensated by eating copious amounts of gjetost while I read (for you non-Swedes gjetost [pronounced kind of like YAY-toast] is a peculiar goat cheese that apparently only a Scandinavian can love, at least that’s what I’m told by the people who meanly reject my beautiful offer of a perfectly shaved slice of heaven).