What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?
Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.
Friday, June 17, 2011
A book to which no review could do justice...
Every so often, a book comes along that is so unique and distinctive - and so good - that it makes me stop and catch my breath; a book worthy of being added to my list of all-time favorites or a hypothetical list of 100 books that I wouldn't want to have missed reading. Rondo is one of these, and it's a crime that it is going overlooked relative to some of the other authors that Europa Editions has introduced to English-language readers, such as Muriel Barbery (The Elegance of the Hedgehog) and Laurence Cosse (A Novel Bookstore) both of whom have generated a lot of buzz in the last year or two. But Brandys casts them into the shade...
In Rondo, Brandys spins a complex narrative, and simply following it is both a challenge and infinitely rewarding. When I picked up the book intending only to skim the first few pages, I was immediately drawn in by the narrator's voice as he begins his tale, and couldn't put it down. From the opening words, in which the anonymous narrator informs his hypothetical reader -- an editor at a journal that has just published what purports to be an account of a part of the Polish resistance movement to the Nazi occupation in World War II, a group named Rondo -- declares his intent to set the record straight, I was gripped. There was no point at which I could bear to put the book down, and before I knew it, I had read 50 pages, following "Tom's" attempt to convince his reader that Rondo was only an invention; indeed, that it was his invention. No, he assures his readers: "I am not a maniac, I do not suffer from hallucinations and I have never sent letters to magazines before."
Thus begins a complex tale that takes some 350 pages to recount in full, even though he often leaps forward, as if assuming that his readers are familiar to some extent with him and his postwar history. So we know he survived, we know that after the war he was interrogated (by unnamed officials) about his involvement in the resistance, and as we turn the pages we learn more and more details, dropped into the narrative almost casually but which dramatically change the way we understand "Tom" (to give him his nom de guerre) and his story. The story is a bit like peeling an onion: you remove one layer of the story, and there's another one, containing deeper truths, just below. There is a new character inserted almost incidentally; a major event referred to in passing; a foreshadowing of some future cataclysm even though we, the readers, don't learn what that is until much later.
The complexity, far from daunting me, actually enriched the experience. I actually found myself reading more slowly - deliberately so - to prolong the experience and fully relish Brandys's writing and the wealth of detail that he provides, all of which ends by conjuring up a vivid sense of Warsaw in the years leading up to and during World War II. I am quite convinced that all of these characters exist somewhere in the world - Tola, the woman with whom "Tom" is obsessed and on whose behalf he invents Rondo (he wants to keep her from becoming dangerously entangled with the "real) resistance; his old friends from college, some of whom end up playing increasingly disturbing roles in his life; the brusque military officer who leads the Home Army underground of which "Tom" is a part; the actors he works with; his father... all of them are vivid and individual. Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly Brandys's style, which is to provide immense levels of detailed description. For instance, when, during the early years of the Nazi rule, a café opens where theater types can gather, Brandys doesn't just mention that it opens and describes it. He tells us how its owner got a backer, and that the backer was a Pomeranian landowner who earned his money from a marmalade factory in Warsaw, and who collected art. Warsaw itself he describes vividly in war and in peace, including during one particularly bleak period as being dark "as if drenched in the winter dusk."
The real suspense in this novel doesn't kick in until about halfway through, when the fictional Rondo falls victim to the internecine squabbling among various resistance factions - a foreshadowing of the postwar conflicts between East and West. "Tom" has made of Rondo something far too convincing, and his creation spins out of his control and turns on him, a bit like a Frankenstein monster. "Tom" becomes cynical as various sides of the conflict seem to him to be formulating political theories and certainties that he finds it increasingly hard to relate to. "I stopped believing in facts - I knew how they were fabricated," he tells his reader(s). After all, hadn't he invented Rondo, only to have a professor, decades later, write a wholly fictional account of the organization and its roots in a tone of the utmost scholarly certainty?
Indeed, one of themes of this novel is the line between fact and fantasy - what is it that is "real" and what is invented is blurred. What, "Tom" wonders, was his real motivation for creating Rondo? "Perhaps I was craving fiction, looking for something higher than everyday life, for a more complete composition and more harmonious rhyme. Existence was not enough for me," he muses. He considers his passion for Tola, the actress who has become famous since he first met her. "Wasn't it, all along, my self-creation? Sometimes it occurs to me that I invented the affair only to measure myself against it." It's a story about emotional growth and maturity, of "Tom" moving slowly but steadily from a rather aimless drifting through life (motivated purely by his love for Tola) to a state where that emotion becomes the catalyst for other kinds of commitment. But above all, this is a novel about memory; rapidly, it becomes clear that "Tom's" reason for writing what turns into a prolonged response to the article about Rondo has less to do with setting the record straight in the public eye, and a lot more with trying to recapture the facts of the matter and set them in order in his own mind. "Perhaps the need to reminisce has been with me for a long time?" And, of course, there are no easy answers - hence the length and complexity of his recollections, and their scattershot nature.
This is a brilliant novel, and one that deserves a wide readership. I first discovered it at the library, and realized that I wasn't going to be satisfied not owning the book and glancing back through it over the years to come, so I ordered a copy for my shelves. It isn't simple or straightforward; the language is rich and complex and following the narrative requires attention. But Brandys never reneges on his side of the deal: he's a storyteller, recounting a compelling and very human tale of several complex characters, "Tom" and Tola chief among them. If you pick one novel to read this year that is slightly off the beaten track, or even out of your comfort zone, make it this one. I wish I had discovered this author long ago, or that I read Polish so I could hunt down any of his other works in print. I also wish Amazon provided an option for a sixth star!