Tuesday, September 24, 2013

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (1965)

I first read God Bless You, Dr. Rosewater when I was a junior or senior in high school, on the recommendation of a classmate.  I have not read it since.  I do not know why that classmate felt the need to recommend it so strongly, but perhaps it was because we both had something in common with Eliot Rosewater:

"Eliot had unremarkable academic careers at Loomis and Harvard.  He became an expert sailor during summers in Cotuit, on Cape Cod, and an intermediate skier during winter vacations in Switzerland." (15)

This could hardly be the reason, but the fact remains that I have never read another book whose main character went to the same high school as me.  And that high school should have been proud to put this book on its English course syllabuses--or at least assign it for summer reading for incoming freshman students rather than Clan of the Cave Bear.  Because this book has a very positive message, and is much more fun to read.  I'm afraid, however, that it might be considered "too racy" or "adult" even though it is comparatively tame.

But the book was worth reading in 2000 and it is worth reading today.  Oddly enough, I could appreciate it more after going through law school:

"No one ever went out to lunch with Mushari.  He took nourishment alone in cheap cafeterias, and plotted the violent overthrow of the Rosewater Foundation.  He knew no Rosewaters.  What engaged his emotions was the fact that the Rosewater fortune was the largest single money package represented by McAllister, Robjent, Reed and McGee.  He recalled what his favorite professor, Leonard Leech, once told him about getting ahead in law.  Leech said that, just as a good airplane pilot should always be looking for places to land, so should a lawyer be looking for situations where large amounts of money were about to change hands." (4)

This is how the novel opens up: Norman Mushari is a young attorney straight out of Cornell Law School working for a firm that represents an $87 million foundation headed by Eliot Rosewater.  Eliot also went to Harvard Law School but he does not work for anybody.  He oversees the foundation.  His father is a senator, representing Indiana.  Mushari hopes to have Eliot adjudged insane so that he may be removed as an officer of the foundation and that control may pass to Eliot's second cousin, Fred Rosewater.

The action of the book moves to Rosewater, Indiana.  Eliot's ancestors founded the town, and he returns to set up new headquarters for the foundation.  This part of the book details the breakdown of his marriage to Sylvia and the business that he carries out.  He has a black phone and a red phone.  The red phone is for the fire department, where he is a volunteer, and the black phone is for the foundation.  The foundation essentially takes phone calls from anybody that is having any kind of problem.  Eliot is a sort of therapist and philanthropist to everyone in town.  The people of the town are often referred to as idiots.

In my review of Slapstick, I said that book bears a passing resemblance to this book (though Vonnegut self-graded that novel a "D" and gave this one an "A") and that a theme of that book was "extended families."  God Bless You, Dr. Rosewater is a better book largely because its plot is not nearly as unbelievable.  Yes, the plot is sort of ridiculous, but it is not altogether implausible that a person could be impossibly rich and feel that they don't deserve the money and thus go out of their way to help people less fortunate than themselves.  It is a rather heartwarming conceit, and while I might label most of Vonnegut's novels "heartwarming," this might be his "most heartwarming novel."  Eliot Rosewater is also one of the best characters he created.  Rosewater shows up in a few of his other books, though not nearly as often as Kilgore Trout, who also makes an appearance in this novel.  

There is also some clever commentary on obscenity.  The Supreme Court was still trying to define obscenity in 1965, but Vonnegut offers his own parallel reality:

"The Rosewater Law was what the Senator thought of as his legislative masterpiece.  It made the publication or possession of obscene materials a Federal offense, carrying penalties up to fifty thousand dollars and ten years in prison, without hope of parole.  It was a masterpiece because it actually defined obscenity.
Obscenity, it said, is any picture or phonograph record or any written matter calling attention to reproductive organs, bodily discharges, or bodily hair.
'This psychoanalyst,' the Senator complained, 'wanted to know about my childhood.  He wanted to go into my feelings about bodily hair.' The Senator shuddered.  'I asked him to kindly get off the subject, that my revulsions were shared, so far as I knew, by all decent men.'  He pointed to McAllister, simply wanting to point at someone, anyone.  'There's your key to pornography.  Other people say, "Oh, how can you recognize it, how can you tell it from art and all that?" I've written the key into law!  The difference between pornography and art is bodily hair!'" (95-96)

The plot may be described as thus: Eliot gives advice to people who want to kill themselves in Indiana.  This is the heart of the book and as such I don't want to spoil these scenes.  But there is another segment to the book: the Rhode Island part.  The action switches to Pisquontuit, Rhode Island, where Fred Rosewater, the son of a suicide, sells life insurance and is generally sad about his life.  This is a rather strange part of the novel, though I could not quite call it a misstep.  It just seems to get into a lot of detail about all the people in Pisquontuit, while Fred mainly exists as Eliot's potential replacement.  Mushari is the villain of the novel (though sometimes Senator Rosewater seems like a villain, too) but the book is not about the plot.  It's about how society reacts to a modern-day "saint"--is he a lunatic or is he the sanest man in America?

Like any Vonnegut novel, however, this is pretty light reading, and mostly fun for the humor of it.  But it is still just as relevant in 2013 as it was in 1965:

"'Well--' and Trout rubbed his hands, watched the rubbing, 'what you did in Rosewater County was far from insane.  It was quite possibly the most important social experiment of our time, for it dealt on a very small scale with a problem whose queasy horrors will eventually be made world-wide by the sophistication of machines.  The problem is this: How to love people who have no use?
'In time, almost all men and women will become worthless as producers of goods, food, services, and more machines, as sources of practical ideas in the areas of economics, engineering, and probably medicine, too.  So--if we can't find reasons and methods for treasuring human beings because they are human beings, then we might as well, as has so often been suggested, rub them out.'" (264-265)

In short, more people could stand to be like Eliot Rosewater.  If they did so, the world will be a better place.  This is why whenever I receive a phone call from some random person who managed to get my number in some strange way (like, for example, an extraordinary voicemail greeting I left on a phone at the City of Chicago Department of Law in the summer of 2012 that laid out every possible way to contact me) that I listen to them and try to help them as best as I can, rather than saying, "I'm sorry, there is nothing I can do for you."  There is much that can be learned from this book, and even if you didn't go to Loomis, I think you will find it highly worthwhile.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years - Thomas Mann (Transl. Denver Lindley) (1954)

For the past few years I looked forward to the day when I could return to my work here and review the last novel by Thomas Mann that I was truly excited to experience.  Of course, Royal Highness, The Holy Sinner, and The Black Swan remain out there--to say nothing of Joseph and his Brothers--but I believed that The Confessions of Felix Krull was the last work I had yet to read that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the previous classics that had been reviewed on this blog.

Oeuvre Rule: the first-ever review on Flying Houses was Doctor Faustus; Buddenbrooks was reviewed twice (owing to a faulty internet connection and my mistaken belief that phrases from drafts would be intriguing to readers); The Magic Mountain contains no shortage of brilliance; and Death in Venice is every bit as troubling and beautiful as when it was published 101 years ago. Where then, to rank Felix Krull?

[The bottom?] (!)

Of course, Felix Krull is not a bad book.  But it is an unfinished one.  Unfortunately it suffers from the same problem as Fitzgerald's would-be late-era masterpiece The Love of the Last Tycoon--the untimely passing of its author.  Of course Mann lived a much longer life than Fitzgerald.  He died at age 80 rather than 44.  But it is a dangerous thing to begin a novel near the end of one's life when one bears the risk of disappointing the scores of readers that one has worked so hard to cultivate.  And while there are certainly flashes of genius that make the above-mentioned works such absolute pleasures, Felix Krull ultimately is not on their level.  I will submit, however, that had Mann finished this novel (if it were not only "The Early Years"), it would probably be closer to being in that exalted category of "classic."  As such we must mourn for what could have been--like Fitzgerald but in a different guise--and wonder whether some younger writer may "take up" Felix's story and attempt to finish it in a way that Mann would have found pleasing.  That would be no easy task.

Perhaps it is best to read Felix Krull after reading "Felix Krull," the short story from which it was derived.  I have not done that, however, and I can only say that if you happen upon a collection of Mann's stories that you check this one out before moving onto the book.  The book is 375 pages long.  It would probably be about 800 pages long in its proper finished form.

It opens up, as it must in a first-person narrative bearing such a title, with Felix's early childhood.  He grows up in an unnamed town along the Rhine Valley, near Mainz.  His father is a purveyor of champagne.  He has one sister (Olympia) and a godfather (Schimmelpreester) that opens up certain doors for him.  His parents like to have parties.  They often have people over, and apparently for this reason his family is held in low repute in their town.  Or not quite:

"It was mostly these social affairs that provoked the town gossip that called our household disreputable, but I learned early that it was the economic aspect of the situation that was principally in question.  For it was rumoured (and with only too much justification) that my poor father's business was in desperate straits, and that the expensive fireworks and dinners would inevitably furnish the coup de grâce." (15)

There are several fantastic scenes early on in this book that made me feel it was on its way to
greatness.  And truly, the first "book" in it (there are three: Book I is about 50 pages, Book II is about 130 pages, and Book III is about 200 pages) may be close to perfect.  Near the end of Book I, his father suffers an unfortunate end (and if I were Elizabeth Warren, I would include this passage in a casebook to complement a certain passage from A Man in Full):

"Our financial collapse was complete; it became clear why my poor father had put it off so long and involved himself so deeply in the toils of the usurers, for he was aware that when the crash came, it would reduce him to total beggary.  Everything went under the hammer: the warehouses (but who wanted to buy so notoriously bad a product as my father's wine?), the real estate--that is, the cellars and our villa, encumbered as they were with mortgages to two-thirds of their value, mortgages on which the interest had not been paid in years--the dwarfs, the toadstools and earthenware animals in the garden--yes, even the mirrored ball and the aeolian harp went the same sad way.  The inside of the house was stripped of every pleasant luxury: the spinning-wheel, the downy cushions, the glass boxes and smelling salts all went at public auction; not even the halberds over the windows or the portieres were spared; and if the little device over the entrance door that played the Strauss melody as the door closed still jingled unmindful of its desolation, it was only because it had not been noticed by its legal owners." (51)

Felix then moves with his mother to Frankfurt, where the charming second part of the novel takes place.  Schimmelpreester tells each member of the family what they are supposed to do, and they follow his orders.  Felix is supposed to go to Paris to meet with a hotelier, but he also must worry about his military service.  In the meantime, he enjoys his time in Frankfurt, though he is reduced to sleeping on a kitchen bench, and often tries to summon carriages for people leaving the theater, sometimes receiving a tip.

Now, Book One is very good, but it takes 80 pages to get to Chapter V of Book II, which is probably the first "great" scene in the novel: Felix's first attempt at "conning."  He hopes to avoid military service, and his manner of completing this task is unlikely.  He expresses great enthusiasm and tells all of the presiding officers that he considers himself in excellent shape for service.  They find this rather hard to believe, as he makes subtle movements that betray a weaker constitution.  They tell him that the barracks is not a health resort, and laugh at him when he asks if he could just try because he might improve.

After this, we come to Felix's encounter with a prostitute named Rozsa.  While there is a scene in Book One that briefly details an affair he carries on with a housemaid who is perhaps fifteen years older than him, the scene with Rozsa is more remarkable because she seems to love him regardless of the fact that he has no money.  At this point it may be prudent to mention a criticism that I have read of this book: the main character is unsympathetic.  He is extremely good looking and he charms everyone he meets within a few minutes and everything comes much too easy for him.  Well, I hope my review indicates otherwise.  I do not share this criticism with others.  I think there are plenty of signs that most of the other characters find Felix annoying, and it is only through these "love scenes" that certain readers may scoff in disbelief.  However, the scene with Rozsa is practically rated PG compared to what comes later.  Felix also gives a nice defense of his relationship with her, and why he should not be considered a pimp despite the fact that sometimes he shares in what she gets from her customers:

"For my own part I am in agreement with folk wisdom which holds that when two persons do the same thing it is no longer the same; yes, I go further and maintain that labels such as 'drunkard,' gambler,' or even 'wastrel' not only do not embrace and define the actual living case, but in some instances do not even touch it.  This is my point of view; others may judge differently about this confidence--in respect to which it should be remembered that I am making it of my own free will and could quite easily have passed over it in silence." (112)

Finally, then, in Chapter VII of Book II, about 115 pages in, the "action" of the novel seems to pick up, for Felix is taken out of his home element and put on a train destined for Paris.  He has a number of adventures on the train, but he is primarily entertained by acting extremely politely with the commissaire, even going so far as to wish his wife and children well after he takes his ticket.  The language of the book switches, in stretches that are nearly too long to subsist in untranslated form, to French.  I would not be surprised if newer editions of the book translated the French into English, or at least provided footnotes  I could understand most of what was being said, but I think I have a decent "foundation" in French.  Regardless, even if you do not know French, I do not think you will miss all that much if your edition does not translate it.  Also of note during this section is an unlikely event: a woman "dropping" certain valuable jewelry into Felix's bag during a customs check--his second act of "conning."

Felix finds his way to the hotel where he is supposed to work, and to the dormitory where he is to sleep, along with his bunkmate, Stanko.  Stanko finds the jewelry and tells him to go to a certain shopkeeper to trade it in for cash.  Felix does so the next day after speaking to Stürzli, the general director of the Hotel Saint James and Albany, after being told that he will take over for Armand, the elevator operator who is quitting that day.  The scene with the shopkeeper Pierre Jean-Pierre is as memorable as the military service coup, particularly in the way the negotiations are carried on rather disagreeably until the deal is struck, at which point Jean-Pierre turns into a much nicer person.

The last scene worth noting in Book Two is the experience Felix (now Armand--and it is strange the way everyone calls him Armand, not even thinking he has a different name) has with a certain middle-aged woman--the same one that dropped her jewelry into his bag on the train.  She is a novelist who is staying in the hotel, and she takes Felix into her room where she asks him to defile her.  Now this may very well be the most unrealistic scene in the book.  Perhaps it is pure fantasy, or perhaps it is Mann trying to write a "modern 1954 novel" complete with blunt intimations:

"'Perversion!  Love is perversion through and through, it can't be anything else.  Probe it where you will, you will find perversion...But it's admittedly sad and painful for a woman to be able to love a man only when he is quite, quite young, when he is a boy.  C'est un amour tragique, inadmissible, not practical, not for life, not for marriage.  I, I married Houpflé, a rich businessman, so that in the shelter of his riches I could write my books, qui sont énormément intelligents.  My husband can do nothing, as I told you, at least with me.  Il me trompe, as they say, with a theatrical demoiselle.  Perhaps he is some good with her--I should rather doubt it.  It's a matter of indifference to me--this whole world of men and women and marriage and betrayal is a matter of indifference.  I live in my so-called perversion, in the love of my life that lies at the bottom of everything I am, in the happiness and misery of this enthusiasm with its heavy curse that nothing, nothing in the whole visible world equals the enchantment of the youthful male.  I live in my love for all of you, you, you the image of desire, whose beauty I kiss in complete abnegation of spirit.  I kiss your presumptuous lips over the white teeth you show when you smile.  I kiss the tender stars of your breast, the little golden hairs on the dark skin of your armpits.  And how does that happen?  With your blue eyes and blond hair, where do you get this coloring, this tint of light bronze?'"  (172-173)

That final question is a reference to Felix's physical appearance--at once both "light" and "dark."  This scene with Madame Houpflé is somewhat difficult to square with the rest of the novel.  It is certainly unrealistic, but perhaps not so much given that Felix is extremely good-looking (one may wonder about what unlikely events befall those blessed with such looks).  At least it is entertaining and humorous when she asks Felix to beat her and when he confesses that he took her jewelry and that she finds it charming and asks him to steal more from her while she pretends she is asleep.  But there is also question mark #1 that I have about this book:

"She came.  We came.  I had given my best, had in my enjoyment made proper recompense.  But how could I fail to be annoyed that at the very climax she had been stammering about degradation and had called me a stupid little slave?" (170)

Does he mean what I think he means?  It is impossible to think otherwise.  Perhaps question mark #1 is not such a puzzle, but question mark #2, I must admit, is a doozy....

But before we get there there is almost 200 pages of action.  I will cover it shortly.  "Armand" is serviceable as a "lift-man" but soon he moves on to work as a waiter in the hotel.  In the meantime he sells more of the jewelry that he "stole" from his ladyfriend, and he and his colleague Stanko enjoy an evening at the circus.  As a waiter he meets a fair number of interesting characters, but three in particular: Eleanor Twentyman, Lord Strathbogie and the Marquis de Venosta.  

In keeping with a theme of the novel, Twentyman and Strathbogie become entranced by "Armand."  This happens at the same time, roughly.  I would go so far as to say that this little section, from pages 200-217, is the single best part of the entire book.  It is contained like a perfect short story.  Felix needs to tell both that, charmed as he is by their infatuation with him, he cannot do what is asked of him.

Eleanor is 17 or 18, staying at the hotel with her parents. It is humorous to see her fall in love with a waiter, who must be kind and gracious all the while.  She comes down to breakfast by herself when her parents are still asleep and tries to "woo" "Armand" until he is eventually made to deflate her advances:

"'It's abnormal, too, for you not to ignore me, as would be natural and as your Mummy quite properly demands, but instead to come down secretly to breakfast and talk to me about "love" while your parents are prevented by their peaceful slumbers from coming to the defence of the social order.  This "love" of yours is a forbidden love which I cannot approve, and I am forced to reject any pleasure of my own in the fact that you like to see me.  It's all right for me to like to see you, if I keep it to myself, that's quite true.  But for you, Mr. and Mrs. Twentyman's daughter, to like to see me, that's impossible, that's contrary to nature...What you call "love" is something that happens to people on trips and at the sight of tail-coats like mine.  When you have left, as you will very soon, you'll forget it before you get to the next station.'" (205)

This mention of love being something that happens to people on trips may perhaps remind the reader of Death in Venice, and I can only say that the description of what happens with Lord Strathbogie is the ultimate "reverse Death in Venice" and that Mann must have intended it as such.  "Armand's" conversations with the Lord seem to have greater weight, as the man, who is about 50, desires to take him away and make him his personal valet, and maybe even adopt him and make him his heir.  Felix, as a person who is destined to wear many masks throughout life, finds this idea somewhat appealing, but ultimately cannot accept:

"'Please--I don't want to wound you or minimize the honour you have paid me, but if someone precisely like me occurs only once--each of us, of course, occurs only once--there are nevertheless millions of young men of my age and general physique, and except for the tiny bit of uniqueness, one is made very much like the other.  I knew a woman who declared that she was interested in the whole genre without exception--it must be essentially that way with you, too.  The genre is present always and everywhere.'" (216) 

Finally, after the novel reaches its high point (in my opinion), Felix meets the Marquis de Venosta, who is about his age, and whom he finds to be a pleasant person to serve.  The Marquis is from Luxembourg, and he has been staying in Paris and seeing a woman named Zaza.  His parents do not approve of this relationship and they believe that a world tour will do him some good and take his mind off of Zaza.  

On his nights off from the hotel, "Armand" sometimes goes to the theater or has dinner at nice restaurants, and on one of these evenings he runs into the Marquis, who is very garrulous and drinks very much wine and causes "Armand" to miss the theatrical performance that night.  During this dinner scene, it begins to become obvious why the Marquis has become such a major character.  Of course, Felix is plotting his next "con," which will be impersonating the Marquis on this world tour while the real Marquis stays behind in Paris and rents out an apartment with Zaza.  His first stop will be in Lisbon, Portugal.  

And it is here that the novel ends.  This is the longest single portion of the book, and perhaps a bit tiresome.  However, on the train ride to Lisbon, Felix (now "Louis" or "Loulou") meets one Professor Kuckuck, a man with "starry eyes."  The Professor speaks of celestial subject matter and this proves enchanting for "Loulou":

"There was no question, he said, that life on earth was not only an ephemeral episode, but Being itself was also--an interlude between Nothingness and Nothingness.  Being had not always existed and would not always exist.  It had had a beginning and would have an end, and with it space and time; for they existed only through Being and through it were bound to each other.  Space, he said, was nothing but the order of material things and their relationship to one another.  Without things to occupy it, there would be no space and no time either, for time was only the ordering of events made possible by the presence of objects; it was the product of motion, of cause and effect, whose sequence gave time its direction and without which there would be no time.  Absence of time and space, however, was the definition of Nothingness.  This was extensionless in every sense, a changeless eternity, which had only been temporarily interrupted by spatio-temporal Being.  A greater duration, by aeons, had been vouchsafed to Being than to Life; but some time of a certainty it would end, and with equal certainty the end implied a beginning..." (266)

This conversation goes on for about ten pages and is probably the highlight of the "Lisbon" section of the novel.  This is a strange moment in the novel and I can only conjecture that Mann wrote this knowing that he would not complete the rest of the novel, and that he was not very far from meeting Being and Nothingness himself.  As such it is a powerful moment, and probably the most profound single piece of the novel.  

Once "Loulou" settles in town, he goes the Museum of Natural History, where Professor Kuckuck is a director.  Then he meets the Professor's family, which includes a wife and a daughter.  The daughter is named Zouzou, and the irony of "Loulou" meeting his very own Zaza is not lost on the character.  There is also a strange section where "Loulou" meets the King of Portugal and tells raucous stories about his parents' two dogs, and this is all conveyed in a long letter "Loulou" writes to the Marquis de Venosta's actual parents.  

His stay in Portugal is longer than intended by a month, and perhaps predictably, he falls in love with Zouzou, while playing tennis with her often.  Zouzou is a fairly interesting character--she is very "forthright" and believes that "silence is unhealthy" and that "things must be called by their real names."  She is very cynical, in a word, and she does not believe in "love"--she believes that love (in keeping with another theme of the novel) is but a pretext for sexual longing, and this makes it a perversion in a certain sense.  "Loulou" tries very hard to persuade her otherwise in a long speech near the very end.

However, before we get to question mark #2, I must add finally that at a certain point, I became upset that this novel was not going to provide closure.  I was distracted from this final set of events, and did not really care how things turned out.  In fact, if it has not been made clear above, I consider this the weakest section of the novel.  The "Paris" section is certainly the strongest, and this part might only have been better if we saw what became of "Loulou" in Argentina, or the United States--other stops that he was to make on his world tour.  Also we never see Felix go to jail, as he mentions in passing at earlier points in the novel. 

Nor do we find out how the matador that he sees during a bullfight in the penultimate scene of the novel comes back into the story.  All we see is that he gives Zouzou a stack of pictures that he had made--nude sketches of Zaza with Zouzou's curls--and how she is disgusted by them, but how she then kisses him passionately--and then we finally get to question mark #2.

Zouzou's mother sees what happens, and she reproaches "Loulou":

"'You can thus realize what stupidity you were guilty of when, in your need for love, you followed a childish course and formed the capricious notion of turning a child's head.  That was not choosing or acting like a man, but like an infant.  Mature reason had to intervene before it was too late.'" (377)

But then, finally, question mark #2--does she fall under his spell, too?

"'Once when we were conversing you spoke to me about the graciousness of maturity and the graciousness with which it speaks of youth.  To encounter it successfully requires, of course, a man's courage.  If an agreeable youth only showed a man's courage instead of seeking satisfaction in childishness, he would not have to run off like a drenched poodle, uncomforted, into the wide world....'
'Maria!' I cried.

And: Holé! Heho! Ahé' she exclaimed in majestic jubilation.  A whirlwind of primordial forces seized and bore me into the realm of ecstasy.  And high and stormy, under my ardent caresses, stormier than at the Iberian game of blood, I saw the surging of that queenly bosom." (377-378)

Perhaps that is not quite a puzzle either, but it is a very strange way to end this novel.  I have said all I can about The Confessions of Felix Krull.  I recommend it for Mann-obsessives, but there are finer "closure-producing" compositions in his oeuvre if one has not exhausted it.