Paul Auster – 4 3 2 1

Paul Auster’s4 3 2 1” starts off by defining the preamble of it’s protagonist, Archie Ferguson. Presenting his parents, how they met, and the very beginnings of Ferguson’s existence. Then it forks off into four separate trajectories, based on different turn of events affecting life’s direction and the young man’s perception of it.

The four stories of Ferguson is an exploration of predisposition. The inclinations we have based on heritage. Directions we take through experiences that push us to choose and develop certain talents over others, and how the same talent can be expressed in many ways.

On the surface this is just another book obsessing over writing and writers, as Ferguson is drawn to literature and writing in every incarnation. That would however be a superficial conclusion. This is a story of seized opportunity and of untapped potential. The randomness of life and death. Of success and happiness and how the two might not be coherent or at all related.

It explores different types of love and relationships. Love of parents, love of soulmates. Those who we are instinctively and immediately drawn to and those we might come to love as a result of friendship or by prolonged exposure to their person. Sexual awakening and sexual specifics and sex in general.

If the book had truly obsessed over writers, Ferguson would probably have been presented as a much more interesting character – something which he is not. Ferguson is the centre of the story, but is in himself only a small part of the book as a whole. 4 3 2 1 demands attention and reflection. You need to jam the whole thing into your head, then let your intuition mull it over for a while to fully grasp it’s depths and multitudes.

Because Auster is an amazing writer, able to sneakily plant life’s complexity into the readers subconscious, but he is also a massive show off. He really wants everyone to know how good and clever he is, with sometimes tedious results. I can’t help thinking this book could’ve been written using fewer words – maybe even by dropping an entire life arch – because at almost 1100 packed pages this book is definitely an undertaking. If nothing else, surely the incessant name dropping of authors, poets, writers, and artists that go on for full pages could’ve been shorter?

But, with that said, I am not Paul Auster and thus not qualified to tell Paul Auster how Paul Auster should write. The book was not as rewarding a read as I’d hoped, but nonetheless an achievement for the author. Few could pull off the plurality and cheer volume of this venture.

Sir David Tang – Rules for Modern Life

Rules for Modern Life is comprised of questions, sent by readers to Sir David Tang’s column in Financial Times. The subjects range from fashion to relationships to good conduct in various situations and the authors opinion on a number of issues.

At its best, this book is funny, witty, and entertaining. Memorable even. Sadly, most of it is tedious, snobby, and lazy, often avoiding the subjects with self-important drivel, making the author come off as obnoxious and contrived rather than urbane and deadpan – which I assume was the aim.

I was disappointed as it came recommended in more than one list of “must read” books. Overrated and insipid.

Hjalmar Söderberg – Den allvarsamma leken

[For some reason I wrote this in English, though I read the book in Swedish.]

We follow the life of Arvid Stjärnblom, a young, intelligent young man of lower middle-class origin. Not an educated man, but intellectual nonetheless. He becomes a journalist after passing on the opportunity to study to become a teacher.

He falls in love with a young girl, Lydia Stille, the daughter of a once famed Swedish painter. But their love can never quite be. Arvid feels he cannot offer marriage, as he’s not in a financial position to provide a comfortable life for her. And though the two lust for each other, he does not want to persuade her into lewdness, because “should he succeed he’d lose respect for her, and should he fail he’d lose respect for himself.” Ultimately Lydia marries an older, well-to-do historian and author, and moves from Stockholm to live with her husband in the countryside.

Arvid often uses his and Lydia’s unrealised love as a springboard for philosophies on moral and duty. However, he does not always live by high moral principles, as he has flings and love interests, and fathers an illegitimate child. (A child that he acknowledges and “does right by” by securing adoption into a good home and by paying support.)

He becomes secretly engaged to Dagmar Randel, the daughter of a semi-successful businessman. After a while she tricks him into outing their involvement and he finds himself in an involuntary marriage. Though he’d rather remain “free”, the marriage is not without happiness and mutual respect.

With age, perhaps corrupted by his peers, who seemingly more often than not keep mistresses, Arvid becomes less occupied by moral qualms, and feels less obliged to his wife. When Lydia gets in touch with him, after a decade of no contact, they promptly engage in a love affair.

Set in Stockholm during the late 19th and early 20th century, this book appeals to those fascinated by life during this period. It gives us an insight into the, many times unhappy lives of the middle class. Where marriage is more of a financial agreement than the result of passion, and family life becomes a prison.

There are parallels between Hjalmar Söderberg’s own life and that of Arvid Stjärnblom. It’s no secret that Lydia Stille is based on Maria von Platen, who for a time was Söderberg’s mistress. That said, Söderberg tries to deny the links between the story and his own past by having the character Rissler, an author and playwright, explain how everything in his salacious writing is made up, and not self experienced. He goes on to blame August Strindberg for leading the public to think everything an author puts on paper is autobiographical.

The book still feels relevant a hundred years after it was written. The prose is beautifully crafted. Flowing easy, though dated in some expressions and the formality with which the characters converse.

On its release in 1912, it must have been seen as quite risqué, especially Lydia Stille. After divorcing her husband she lives a “free life” mainly reserved for the male sex back then. As the story unfolds, she keeps several lovers, and vows to never marry again.

In the end Arvid’s life falls apart. Dagmar finds out about his infidelity, but refuses to divorce, and he cannot accept that Lydia is involved with other men, ending their relationship.

Categorising The Serious Game as a love story would not be incorrect, but there are several morals to this story. One that keeps popping up is formulated by a colleague of Arvid’s, regarding love and family: “You don’t get to choose.” Your fate is sealed. You don’t get to choose your parents, your wife, your children. You get them, have them, and perhaps lose them. But you don’t get to choose.

At the same time, I feel that Söderberg argues against this fatalist notion, between the lines.

Arvid’s life is largely formed by his own inability to choose and decide. He does not choose to study to become a teacher, he sticks with journalism, a job he gets largely by coincidence.

He chooses not to pursue the love of Lydia, under the pretence that he cannot give her the life she deserves, though he simply does not want to settle just yet. He does not want to marry Dagmar, because he does not want to get stuck with her, as he seems to think he can do better. Even when offered a second chance with Lydia, he finds reasons not to marry her. And though he eventually feels great remorse in doing Dagmar wrong, he never acts on these feelings. Never tries to do right until his hand is forced, by which time it is too late.

Perhaps Söderberg is telling us that one can’t let haphazardness run life, and then thinks of it as fate. That a man is not judged and rewarded by his thoughts and philosophies alone, but by his actions and decisions.

It’s tempting to view Arvid as the victim of circumstance, while in fact he’s a victim of his own cowardice and fear of commitment.

Steve Jones – Lonely Boy

One – the number of paragraphs before Steve Jones calls someone a c*nt in his autobiography Lonely Boy. I don’t think I expected it any other way.

I’ve always thought that cockney crudeness entertaining. No banter is quite like cockney banter, and I find myself reading the words in Steve Jones voice in my head. Jones seems to have retained his English working-class vocabulary despite living in the US of A for quite some time now. I don’t know why, but I find that strangely gratifying.

Growing up, the Sex Pistols were never my favourite among the British punk bands. Come to think of it, I was more drawn to the American punk revival and the surge of Swedish bands of the early to mid 1990s. However, as time has passed I’ve become more drawn to the British punk, ska and mod movement of the late 70s.

With Johnny Rotten being the loudest and Glen Matlock perhaps being the reasonable one in the band, it’s easy to think they also were the brains. But I realise that’s a deception, especially in the case of Johnny Rotten, whose eloquence can’t be denied, but overall he’s more ego than anything else – even a raving drunk at times. Paul Cook and Steve Jones were very much the backbone, without whom it would all have been quite a different band.

And of course, nothing would’ve happened were it not for Malcolm McLaren, despite what Rotten might claim.

Lonely Boy is very honest and to the point. The book is well written, worded in the same vein in which Jones speaks. Being a dyslexic, he left the actual writing to a ghostwriter, which means the text is probably based on extensive interviews with the subject. Jones is the first to admit his memory is a bit dodgy after being addicted to every debauchery and ill behaviour known to man. So there’s been additional interviews with friends and family to fill in the gaps.

Jones tells about his lonely upbringing (hence the title), neglected by his mother, abused by his stepfather, estranged from much of his relatives and biological father. He tells of how sexual and psychological abuse, and an early inclination for heavy drinking and kleptomania, made their mark on his everyday life. It might not sound like much fun, but the stories revolving Jones stealing stuff from celebrities is quite entertaining. Especially the one involving the Rolling Stones coat.

He also sets a few records straight regarding his views the punk ethos.

Like how he never thought making money was something atrocious, or that record labels shouldn’t capitalise on their investments – i.e. on record contracts.

How D.I.Y. doesn’t mean things have to be sloppy or botched through laziness or incompetence. How it’s all fine and dandy to get drunk and stoned, but do your job and do it properly.

How the mindless violence of some punks (Sid Vicious included) made him distance himself from the whole punk culture.

He candidly and humorously recounts the downfall of the Pistols, sometimes with a little resentment but without bitterness. This makes Jones version of the story more compelling and believable than what Johnny Rotten has to say, and most certainly more believable than anything that ever came out of Malcolm McLaren!

An interesting read for anyone who likes biographies, but some basic knowledge of what happened in the London music scene in the 70s definitely adds extra flavour.

Ministry of Space

I’ve always had a soft spot for tales of alternative courses of history, and Ministry of Space has been on my To Read-list for years. Dealing in elements of World War II, the British empire, science fiction, and space travel, plus being written by Warren Ellis to boot, this book ticks off too many of my boxes to ignore. The collected edition being back in print, finally made it possible for me to get my hands on it.

ministry-of-space-ellis-weston-image-coverMinistry of Space starts off at the conclusion of the second world war. Britain manages to capture the top German rocket scientists and set them to work on their newly created space programme. Backed by a massive black budget, the programme makes constant leaps in technology, effectively making Britain the only power to truly enter the space age.

As a sci-fi short story, Ministry of Space works well. All the elements of a good sci-fi story are there – heroism, futuristic technology, ventures into the unknown, new frontiers – but I can’t help but feel that this story could and should be much more.

I understand that a longer story would’ve greatly increased the work effort, especially if turned into a comic. But I think there’s plenty of stuff and possible story lines in there for an entire novel, or indeed an arch of novels. Not to sound disrespectful, but I think the idea is too good and contains too many aspects for a mere, lonesome comic book.

Ellis chooses to focus on the British space programme alone, while I would’ve loved to see the story greatly expanded. What about world politics? Economy? Or what about other space programmes? The American space programme being the only other briefly mentioned. In this version of history there is no real space race, but surely the US and USSR wouldn’t have let the UK dominate space like this? And if they would, and did, at least explain why! And what about throwing China or Japan into the mix?

In the end, the only source of tension in the story is the question of where the money in the black budget came from. This would’ve worked great as one of many story lines in a greater context, but as it stands, the build up and conclusion simply isn’t strong enough.

Ministry of Space is a great idea, but doesn’t feel like a finished product.