Monday, March 29, 2010

"The King of the Fields" by Isaac Bashevis Singer

Singer in his novel The King of the Fields, written in 1988, just three years before his death, examines religions (Christian, pagan, Jewish), myth, male-female relationships, sex, politics, and man, through a purported history of pre-medieval Poland. The novel is basically an existential examination of man and his beliefs positioned in a fairy-tale world. In many ways it shares themes with the Book of Job and possesses slipstream qualities similar to those in William Golding's The Inheritors and Jack London's Before Adam. But even this comparison is not accurate. Perhaps, a better comparison would be to Kafka's The Castle, Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund, Bergman's The Virgin Spring, or Camus' The Plague. All of these books are philosophic texts examining belief and philosophy. Each of these books illustrates how a novelist can write a philosophic text without sacrificing the essential qualities and pleasures inherent in a novel.

The story is set during the emergence of Poland approximately three or four centuries after the death of Christ, a time when the hunter-gatherers are beginning to cultivate the fields and missionaries from Rome are arriving in the Northern woods to convert the pagans to Christianity. In his created world of the forests near the Vistula, Singer demonstrates dramatically the interaction and absurdities of religion as exercised by untutored, unlettered men, struggling for supremacy and survival in a state of nature. Like Hobbes, Singer shows man in this fantastic world as brutish and deadly; with his survival depending upon strength, intelligence, guile, and luck.

Iron men ravage the land, destroying, murdering and raping; however, our protagonist, Cybula, although a skilled hunter, is not a hero or a warrior. Instead, he seems to be a precursor to the Singer nebbish. He assumes control when fate demands it but he is never comfortable with the mantle. Women control his life, although he seems to have an inordinate success with them. He is not comfortable with the change from hunter-gatherer to sower, farmer, villager, although he quickly sees its advantages.

The action begins when a group of Poles take control of a tribe of Lesniks; hunter-gatherers living near the Zakopane mountains. The Poles led by Krol Rudy, the Red King, descend on the Lesniks like wolves on sheep. They murder the men and rape the women. Some of the Lesniks, led by Cybula, flee to the forests and the mountains but most of the survivors--women and children--fall under the control of the Poles. Eventually, Krol Rudy makes peace with the Lesniks because he needs workers to harvest his wheat. He, then, makes Cybula his head-man and marries his daughter to tie the Lesniks and the Poles together through marriage.

On one level Singer uses this story to study the transformation of the Lesniks from hunter-gatherers to town dwellers and farmers. On another level he follows the progression of man's beliefs in the gods. First Ben Dosa, a Jew, arrives in the village, and he brings the message of the one God. Later, a priest arrives and he preaches Christ and accuses Ben Dosa of killing God.

Suddenly, religious prejudice arises and hatred of the other fills the villagers with rage. The women attack a Mongol woman for her slanted eyes and they beat Ben Dosa for trying to protect her. Within the context of the novel, Singer works in the theme of the scape-goat and hatred of the Jew, as other.

We quickly realize that Singer is using the historical novel to comment on the present, on the way the world is now. Although, the Jew, Ben Dosa, is a decent and moral man, Cybula is the protagonist and the one who carries Singer's ultimate message. Cybula worships only one God and that God is death. Singer's conclusion is:life is short and brutish and the only tangible, living God that man can expect to speak or reveal himself is death. For Cybula there are moments of passion and happiness but these moments are short and rare. There is always another Krol Rudy who wishes to take control and dominate.

Ultimately, the novel is existential in theme. Cybula is a loner, who leaves the village and lives in exile in the woods with his young wife, Kora, and waits for death, which he expects to arrive shortly. Ben Dosa seems to experience a bit of happiness in Rome with his people but even his happiness is overshadowed by superstition and emanations of fate.

Although the themes of the novel are dark and man's future bleak, it is an amazing book. Singer translated it from the Yiddish and the prose is precise and lyrical. He carefully describes the society and its inhabitants. Each character is delineated and articulated. And even though it is a complete fabrication, more a fairy-tale, than a realistic rendition of a historical period, it is so well-wrought that you believe in it and its characters.

Singer's novels, like the novels of Kafka, always seem to have a quality of otherness to them. When the villagers talk about the witch god, Baba Yaga, you expect her to appear. Mystery and magic seem to lurk around the edges, although the novel is meant to be realistic. It is this magical realism that raises the book in my esteem.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My Review of Michael Moorcock's "The Jewel in the Skull" in Hub Magazine

Issue 115 of Hub Magazine not only contains an interview with the great Texas writer Joe. R. Lansdale but also my review of Michael Moorcock's The Jewel in the Skull. Please check it out.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's "36 Arguments for the Existence of God"

As a novel of ideas, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God succeeds magnificently but as a novel of manners, a Jewish novel, or just a novel it fails to reach its potential.

There is a story or stories lurking underneath or behind the action of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's new novel that she does not explicitly present but which I think she consciously alludes to: the story of the search for God in the seventeenth century. The players or protagonists of this hidden story are Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Malebranche, Arnauld, and Newton; but Ms Goldstein keeps this story on the low down, even though she has written one of the best books around on Spinoza, a thinker who is emerging as one of the seminal thinkers of the modern age. There is also another story, just as important as the first, which she doesn't explicitly refer to and that is the role that mathematics and logic play in the theories of God and human understanding. Here too her true protagonists--Wittgenstein, Godel and Newton--are also hidden, although she does create several characters who are mathematicians and she has Cass Seltzer, her revealed protagonist, repeat some of the same conclusions as her hidden protagonists.

What she does reveal on the surface is her dependence or I should say Cass Seltzer's dependence on the writings of William James and Sigmund Freud. And even though Cass Seltzer states that he is indebted to James' Varieties of Religious Experience and Freud's The Future of an Illusion, I would argue that it is really Spinoza's Theological-Political Treatise that we should look to understand Cass' position.

But Cass is not just concerned with the arguments for the existence of God but also the psychology of the religious function in man, because he knows that in the long run that it does not matter if we say, like Nietzsche, that God is dead and believe it, the truth of the matter is that man created God and he will resurrect him in one form or another every time that someone buries our God or the current version of our God. The idea of God is immanent in man and cannot be overcome, so we must say, like Rilke, that we are bees producing the honey of god. It is through us that God comes to know himself.

Consequently, I believe that from the standpoint of a book of ideas, Ms Goldstein's book achieves its purpose brilliantly; however, as a novel it fails to achieve its potential. And when I say fails to achieve its potential, I don't mean to say it is uninteresting because it is nor that is not a page-turner because it is. What I mean to say is that it fails as a novel in the sense that it fails to develop its characters and plot fully. There is so much here and yet so much that is undeveloped or ignored.

A story can be illustrated like this: the king dies and the queen dies, while a plot can be illustrated like this: the king dies and the queen dies of grief. I feel that we get a good story filled with fascinating ideas but we don't get a finished and polished plot.

Ms. Goldstein creates several characters, most of whom are full of potential as characters, but then she lets them wander out of the novel without dramatizing their exit. Her most successful character is Roz Margolis, an anthropologist, and ex-lover of Cass Seltzer; her most unsuccessful characters are Lucinda Mandelbaum and Pascal Puissant, who seem to be caricatures. Two characters that should have dominated the book but seem almost, at the end, as add-ons are Azarya, the Rebbe of the Valdeners, and Jonas Klapper, the maniacal professor, who envisions himself as the latest messiah. Interestedly, both Klapper and Azarya are gaons, geniuses who become to their followers and in the case of Klapper to himself, messiahs. This is an interesting idea and as a theme, perhaps one of the most interesting in a book choc-a-block with interesting themes and ideas. However, it is not fully developed, just mentioned.

Cass, in my opinion, is the weakest character in the novel. His motivations and beliefs should have been our main concern. His conflicts arising from his Hasidic heritage should have been the main thrust. Instead, we get a weak-willed man wandering through Boston, manipulated by wives, lovers, and despots.

Nevertheless, in the final analysis, we must judge a novel on how much we think about it after we put it down and how much it disturbs us at night as we try to fall asleep. In the case of Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, I am still thinking about it days after I finished and I am still arguing with Cass Seltzer.