Posts Tagged ‘Vintage International


Book Review: John Berger – The Success and Failure of Picasso

The Success and Failure of PicassoThe Success and Failure of Picasso by John Berger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In an eloquent and insightful book-length essay, John Berger lays out his theories and critiques of Picasso, an artist almost everyone knows of but perhaps few seem to understand as deeply as Berger.

Essentially, Berger lays out how there were a couple periods where Picasso’s art was truly extraordinary and redefined the rules of painting. Conversely, he also explains the times when Picasso’s art was stale and lacking in inspiration. He does so through a deep analysis which ties together everything from Rousseau to anarchist theory to examinations of Picasso against peers like Van Gogh or Velazquez.

Of course, it’s far more than just that. When Berger’s insights are at their deepest, he’s examining the social differences of pre-Franco Spain and western Europe, the way art has been turned into a commodity by the bourgeois and the failings of Soviet artistic theory. But the most penetrating insight is Berger’s examination of success: what it does to people, how it changes them.

For Picasso, Berger explains success wasn’t something he aimed for, but something which profoundly shaped the arc of his work. It came early to the artist, who was so talented as a teenager that his father – also an artist – gave up painting entirely. As a Spaniard living in France, Picasso was an outsider (a “vertical invader,” as Berger writes) who belonged to no school. True, he was part of the Cubists. But they, as a general rule, lasted a short while and after the end of the first world war, their approach to painting was overshadowed by new schools like Dadist, Surrealism and others which reflected the horrors of the trenches.

As Berger writes, success didn’t ruin Picasso, but it kept his art from developing. In isolation, Picasso couldn’t advance as an artist and his best works came only when he had a direct, emotional response to what he painted. Berger lays out a compelling case for Picasso’s paintings of Marie-Therese, of Guernica and – most interestingly – a late series of sketches from late 1953.

Perhaps the observation which stands out the most is when Berger notes how Picasso can own things by drawing the, His fame was such that if he needed something, he could draw and turn the painting into whatever he desired: a house, a car, etc, etc. “There is the implication that his passions, his will, can control things – even against their wishes, and that by means of painting a thing, he possesses it,” writes Berger.

All in all, an engrossing and insightful work of criticism. It’s not a biography and it’s not concerned even a little with the private life of Picasso. There are few new things here to be learned about his life and if you’re seeking a list of events and influences, you’d look elsewhere. But if you want an understanding, a look at what makes a painter succeed or fail and how one person can shape the rules of painting, there’s probably few books as interesting. Recommended for art fans.

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Shah of Shahs – Ryszard Kapuściński

Shah of ShahsShah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuściński

A slim, powerful book on the rise and fall of Mohammad Reza, the last Shah of Iran. Starting in the final days of the revolution, Kapuscinski writes of the propaganda on state television and the barren city of Tehran before looking back at how Reza gained power, gradually turning Iran into a dictatorship with the power of Savak, the secret police (a favorite method of torture: the frying pan, a heated metal sheet an unlucky prisoner would have their hands and feet strapped to) and a military armed with the best weapons Iran’s oil-fuelled fortune could buy. But this is when the seeds of the revolution were laid, and Kapuscinski takes the reader through the early stages through the downfall of the Shah and to the rise of Khomeini.

This is a quick read that’s occasionally a little short on actual details – did the big moments unfold the way Kapuscinski writes them? – but it’s a lucid, fast-moving and colorful history that takes you inside Iran as the revolution unfolds. Recommended.


Crooked Cops and Kangaroos: The True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

True History of the Kelly GangTrue History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

Winner of both the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the Booker Prize in 2001, Peter Carey’s book follows the exploits of Ned Kelly, a notorious bushranger and kind of cowboy Robin Hood. It’s a cruel little history, a harsh country where the peasantry is kept under a British boot.

Told via a series of first person narratives, Carey presents his story as being told by Kelly. The prose is sometimes semi literate but punctuated with striking imagery. More than once it reminded me of Faulkner’s novels, although it’s much more linear than those.

It follows Kelly from his early years, when his parents tried to scratch out a living on a small plot of land, through his brushes with bushrangers and the law and eventually to Kelly’s status as the most-wanted man in the country. And although Kelly’s never much of a sympathetic guy – he’s viciously racist, for one thing – he occasionally comes across as an interesting guy. He’s devoted to his mother and unborn child, pays shopkeepers for booze he drinks when he takes them hostage and has a strong streak of injustice towards the British.

Indeed, that feeling runs right throughout this book. Nearly everyone who wrongs Kelly in some way is connected to the establishment or the Crown. From the school keeper who refuses to teach those with Irish blood to the crooked cops who never stop pestering Kelly’s friends and family, arresting them on the slightest pretense, Carey paints a cruel, intolerant world where people are shoved up against impossible odds and all but expected to fail.

And in this world, Carey turns Kelly into a folk hero of sorts. He’s someone who rails against injustice and mistreatment from the Crown, someone who wants to see those wrongly imprisoned released and use government to expose corrupt officials. He’s something of a revolutionary, although perhaps a naïve one: he writes letters to government officials, sure they’ll believe him if they just read his words. He rails against newspapers but never quite grasps their role in keeping the status quo going.

At times, I was reminded of The Year of the French: both share a sense of injustice leading to a revolt, only to see it crushed by the British, their brutal tactics – fearmongering, bribery and eventually, murder – used to keep them under submission. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Flanagan’s novel, though. Their scopes were wildly different, with Flanagan picturing every side of a complex struggle and Carey keeping his focus solely on Kelly and his associates.
A casual acquaintance of mine lines in Australia and when I was about halfway through this book, I asked her about Ned Kelly. I’d never heard of him before, never even heard the term bushranger but I understood him to be a memorable figure in Australian history. But not really, she said, Kelly was just one of many bushrangers from that era. But she did pass along some photos she had of his suit of armor: they’re at a museum, kept on display in a glass cabinet near his death mask.

Rating: 8/10. One I enjoyed quite a bit. The prose took some getting used to and although it gets more fragmentary as it goes on, the book’s action kept rising and drawing me in. I barely put it down for the final 100 pages or so. Recommended.


Transatlantic Fiction: The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov

The Stories of Vladimir NabokovThe Stories of Vladimir Nabokov by Vladimir Nabokov

As near as complete as possible, Vintage’s collection of Nabokov’s short fiction is a fascinating look at the progression of a novelist, changing not just styles and settings but entire languages.

This single, large volume collects just about all of Nabokov’s short fiction: 68 stories, ranging from the early 1920s to the mid 50s, when he was firmly settled in the United States. They generally run along the same playful lines as his novels, often twisting and toying with reality and often with a surprising sense of humor. A couple of the stories here are laugh-out-loud funny.

Not all the stories worked for me, though. Some of the early ones are clunkers, with Nabokov trying different styles and angles. Gods, for example, is a direct address to the reader (“We go out on the balcony together…”). Others are relatively brief, over in just a couple of pages.

But generally, most of the stories are pretty good. And a few of the better known stories are great: The Visit To the Museum, which juxtaposes the nostalgia of émigré life with a never-ending, twisting museum, comes to mind immediately. So do two related stories: Ultima Thule and Solus Rex, both of which came from an abandoned novel with echoes of later works like Pale Fire and Bend Sinister: totalitarian governments, kings in exile or the relationship between writer and subject. In particular, those two offer a tantalizing look at what could’ve been.

There are some good deep cuts, too. Take La Veneziana, a work newly translated by his son Dmitri for this collection. Set in a remote English estate, this story centres on a never-explored love triangle, a famous painting and an art restorer who claims he can literally disappear into a canvas. It’s a fun, playful story and a little reminiscent of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight at times, but wholly it’s own.

Maybe I shouldn’t namedrop so many books, though. As Dmitri notes in his introduction, this short fiction is rewarding if you know Nabokov’s history, but it’s perfectly enjoyable for the Nabokov newbie, too.

The translation is clear and easy to read, although you can usually tell the stories Vladimir had a hand in, and it’s remarkable how well he wrote in different languages. He wrote most of the stories here in Russian, usually for émigré magazines or newspapers. But as it goes along, he experimented with writing in French before settling on English once he settled in the US. He really was a remarkable talent.

Rating: 8/10. The Stories of… is an all-encompassing collection that’s great for fans of short fiction and of Nabokov’s more famous novels. The size of the book might score off those that are new to him (it’s nearly 700 pages), but I think this is a better collection than the earlier, smaller collections like Details of a Sunset: not only do you get more bang for your buck, but the notes in the back is handy when wanting to learn a little about each story’s history. Recommended!

Related: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight


An American Odyssey: The Reivers by William Faulkner

The ReiversThe Reivers by William Faulkner

The story of a car theft run amok, The Reivers is Faulkner’s final novel. But instead of reading as a capstone to his career, summing up everything he’d written, it’s more of a comic adventure through the rural south. And while it’s not one of his major novels, in its own way, it’s an enjoyable, rewarding read.

Set in the spring of 1905, The Reivers follows 11-year old Lucius Priest, Boon Hogganbeck and Ned McCaslin on a road trip up through Yoknapatawpha County to Memphis. Taking advantage of a family emergency, this trio “borrows” Grandfather Priest’s car and sets off to Memphis. Soon, the car’s gone and they’re mixed up in horse smuggling, knife fights, illegal gambling, prostitution and hiding out from the law. Miss Reba, who had a role in his earlier novel Sanctuary, makes an appearance.

It’s a fun adventure, constantly putting Priest in some sort of danger, but always with a tacit knowledge that everything’s going to work out; after all, the story’s written as a monologue told by a much-older Priest, a story he’s entertaining his grandkids with. As the action shifts from a road trip to a horse race, it slowly pulls back the shades on the characters: Boon, simple but well-meaning, quick to impulse and even quicker to violence; Ned, who plays down his intelligence, letting him outwit everyone and quietly pull the strings in the background.

Then there’s the centre of the book, Priest, who’s 11 and quickly learning the world isn’t as rosy as he believed. He punctuates the story with his commentary, reminding his audience he was only a kid, putting things together as he went along:

“Because I was only eleven; I had not learned yet that no horse ever walked to the post, provided he was still on his feet when he got there, that somebody didn’t bet on.”

The way he tells the story gives it the feel of an oral epic: I kept thinking this felt like The Odyssey set in the American south. His stream-of-consciousness approach here is a good sample of the kind of writing Faulkner uses in his major works, but on a smaller scale (there’s only Lucius, who’s a lot easier to follow than, say Benjy Compson), which makes this a good one to recommend to readers new to Faulkner.

Rating: 7/10. Generally, The Reivers is considered a minor Faulkner novel. And that’s true: it’s not epic on the same scale as Absalom, Absalom! or The Sound and the Fury. But a minor Faulkner is worth a major from most other authors: this is a book brimming with life and color. While it doesn’t have the same spark as his major books, I thought it’s only real drawback was an alarmingly blase attitude to domestic violence. Recommended, especially if you’re just getting interested in him.


Who is Sebastian Knight?

The Real Life of Sebastian KnightThe Real Life of Sebastian Knight by Vladimir Nabokov

A fun, if intentionally confusing book, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a nice slice of vintage Nabokov. On the surface, it’s a farce of a detective story: the half-brother (known only by the last letter of his last name: “V.”) of a famous novelist tries to reconstruct a life and track down a mysterious women Knight had a disastrous affair with. And, of course, it quickly spirals out of control, with V. passing judgement on other writers, breaking down his brother’s prose and supplying lots and lots of conjecture.

With V., Nabokov plays around a lot with the idea of truth. The narrator of this book spends most of it insisting that everyone else got the story of his half-brother wrong, while being just twisted enough to seem like a convincing liar, like when he opens a chapter by saying:

“As the reader may have noticed, I have tried to put into this book as little of my own self as possible. I have tried not to allude (though a hint now and then might have made the background of my research somewhat clearer).

Coming from the narrator of a book, it’s a curious statement. And like so much of what V. says throughout, it’s misleading at best.

By book’s end, it becomes a question of who exactly Knight is? And for that matter, who is his half-brother, who nobody’s ever heard of before? Who is the mysterious plainclothes cop that helps V. for no concrete reason? And why do so many people have names corresponding to chess pieces?

Here, Nabokov spends time poking fun at everything from literary critics to detective novels. It’s obtuseness makes it a little maddening sometimes, but it’s also pretty funny, too: the last scene made me laugh out loud. And like just about everything Nabokov wrote, it’s his language is gorgeous. It’s amazing to realize this was his first novel written entirely in English! Not to mention under stressing circumstances, with World War Two just on the horizon and a sudden flight to the United States shortly before it’s publication.

Rating: 7/10. Although it’s not one of the Big-And-Famous Nabokov novels, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight still a blast and probably makes a good starting place for people who feel daunted by Pale Fire, Lolita or The Gift. It’s clever, funny and will really make you think about what you’re reading. Plus, it’s likely the best novel ever written on the back of a bidet.


Life Behind the Lines: Another Day of Life – Ryszard Kapuściński

Another Day of LifeAnother Day of Life by Ryszard Kapuściński

A slim, spooky account of the Angolan Civil War, Another Day of Life is a dramatic and readable read, but it’s also a little maddening too once you start to really think about it.

In 1975, Ryszard Kapuściński took the last plane flying into Luanda as the Portuguese fled the country and it seemed poised on the brink of civil war. He found himself in a country slowly withering away. He writes of seeing the country slowly packing itself up in wooden crates, of dogs roaming the streets and giant ships looming just off the coast, slowly drifting away to Brazil and Europe. Later, he goes to the chaotic front, narrowly missing ambushes and getting shelled. His book vividly captures life behind the action: the empty city, the paranoid citizens and the taps running out of water. It’s a starker read than, say, The Emperor: here, people pop into the narrative and die just a few pages later. A dark sense of mortality is always present here; as he grimly notes when looking at a map of the ever-changing front, “Death’s account is always open.”

As much as I like Kapuściński’s writing (and I really do, I think his prose here is fantastic) there’s always a nagging feeling like I’m missing part of the picture: he clearly had Communist ties thanks to his employment by the government-controlled Polish Press Agency, and openly admits to spending all his time hanging around people affiliated with the Eastern powers-affiliated MPLA. There’s no way his role was as benign or simple as foreign correspondent, but he gives no context to what else he does, let alone of Soviet intervention in the conflict. I don’t know if I should hold that against him.

The space between these lines is one of the most interesting parts of this book: Kapuściński knows the movers-and-shakers of the MPLA, from the guy who flies ammo to the front and takes wounded troops back, to a group of nocturnal and mysterious Cuban army officers to Agostinho Neto, then-president of Angola. It’s never quite clear how he gets to know all these people (it’s hard to imagine too many reporters getting to hang out with Neto during a civil war), only that he does.

Rating: 7/10. As a piece of reportage, I think it’s maybe a little misleading at best and at it’s worst, outright propaganda, like when he calls the FNLA cannibals. But as a writer, Kapuściński shines, making his experiences in a far-removed civil war come vividly alive in these pages. Read it, but think about the message he’s sending, too.