Friday, September 12, 2014

Jewish books: The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis

The Betrayers book cover
 “The Betrayers succeeds by combining thought provoking ethical dilemmas with dramatic tension in an engaging prose style and is enthusiastically recommended.” - from my New York Journal of Books review (which includes spoilers). For additional remarks, excerpts, and an exploration of the novel as a roman a clef see my examiner article, which begins with the next paragraph.

Jewish books: David Bezmozgis' roman a clef second novel The Betrayers succeeds

Encyclopaedia Britannica defines "roman à clef, ( French: 'novel with a key')" as a "novel that has the extraliterary interest of portraying well-known real people more or less thinly disguised as fictional characters." In my New York Journal of Books review (which includes spoilers) of David Bezmozgis' second novel The Betrayers (which will be published by Little Brown on September 23, 2014) I describe its protagonist Baruch Kotler as combining "some aspects of Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman and even more of those of Soviet dissident turned Israeli politician turned NGO executive Natan Sharansky."

Let's explore the similarities and differences between these fictional and real life men. Like Sharansky, Kotler is short and bald, was a human rights activist in the USSR who sought the right to emigrate to Israel, was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment in the Soviet Gulag (Kotler serves all 13 years but Sharansky was released after nine years in a prisoner swap) which separated him from his wife who had already emigrated, upon his release emigrated to Israel and became a successful politician leading a political party representing a voting bloc of fellow Russian immigrants. Kotler remains in politics in 2014 while in real life Sharansky left politics in 2006. Avigdor Lieberman filled the vacuum created by Sharansky's exit from politics and created his own political party which won the allegiance of the same Russian immigrant voters who had previously supported Sharansky. Like Sharansky, Kotler is a saintly idealist, but unlike Sharansky (as far as we know) the fictional Kotler is also an adulterer. Unlike Sharansky, and like Lieberman, Kotler stood trial in Israel and was exonerated. Kotler is six years younger than Sharansky and four years older than Lieberman.

In my NYJB review I advise liberal readers to "ignore or overlook the protagonist’s right-wing Zionist politics; the correctness of his principles matters less than his steadfastness in standing by them." It is interesting to note how in a swing of the political pendulum many post-Communist Russian gentiles have become conservative Christians and likewise many Russian Jews (both in the diaspora and in Israel) have become right-wing Zionists.

Bezmozgis uses a Russian television game show to represent the vacuousness of contemporary Russian popular culture: "This is what they had raised from the scraps of communism. This was what the struggle for freedom and democracy had delivered. Bread and circuses. Mostly circuses. From one grand deception to another was their lot. First the Soviet sham, then the capitalist. For the ordinary citizen, these were just two different varieties of poison. The current variety served in a nicer bottle."

The novel's title refers not only to Kotler's adultery but also to the supposed friend who decades earlier had denounced Kotler to the KGB. In this book about moral choices Kotler, who refuses to be politcally blackmailed, advises his son who contemplates disobeying a military order he considers immoral, "If you think you have no choice, look harder. There is always a choice. A third way, if not a fourth. Whether we have the strength to make those choices is another matter. Of which I am no less guilty than anyone else."

The advance uncorrected proof of The Betrayers refers to the novel's venue as “Yalta, Crimea, Ukraine” and the date as summer 2014, but in the real world Crimea was invaded and annexed by Russia in March 2014. In an afterward Bezmozgis acknowledges “Clearly setting my novel in the summer of 2014, as I intended, is no longer feasible. I will have to find another solution.” It will be interesting to see what that solution looks like in the published edition.

For a fuller discussion of the novel see my NYJB review, which concludes, "The Betrayers succeeds by combining thought provoking ethical dilemmas with dramatic tension in an engaging prose style and is enthusiastically recommended." 
  David Bezmozgis David Bezmozgis

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Book review: 10:04 by Ben Lerner

1004bookcover “. . . the pleasure this novel provides is found less in what happens to the characters than in the language Lerner commands to relate that and his various cogitations, as well as in time spent in the company of a first rate mind.” -- from my New York Journal of Books review. For additional remarks and excerpts from the novel also see my examiner article, which begins with the next paragraph.

Books: Ben Lerner's 10:04 fulfills and surpasses the promise of his 2011 debut

Ben Lerner’s second self-referential novel 10:04, which is published this week by New York publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s Faber and Faber imprint, fulfills and surpasses the promise of his 2011 debut novel Leaving Atocha Station. His best writing, however, is found in his poetry. In my New York Journal of Books review of 10:04 I write, “the pleasure this novel provides is found less in what happens to the characters than in the language Lerner commands to relate that and his various cogitations, as well as in time spent in the company of a first rate mind.”

One of the plot elements in 10:04 is how Lerner’s conception of the work we are reading evolves. When at the outset his agent conveys the news that a handsome advance for the as yet unwritten book is forthcoming and asks what he plans to write, the fictional Lerner answers to himself “‘I’ll project myself into several futures simultaneously,’ I should have said, ‘a minor tremor in my hand; I’ll work my way from irony to sincerity in the sinking city, a would be Whitman of the vulnerable grid.’” His conception of the book will continue to evolve at different points in the narrative until he replaces the earlier concept with the book we are reading.

Lerner like his fellow New Yorkers has a heightened awareness of the electrical grid’s vulnerability because the action of the novel takes place between Hurricane Irene (which was disastrous for upstate and parts of New England but a big nothing here in the Big Apple) and Super Storm Sandy (which destroyed shorefront homes and blacked out parts of the city and left other parts unaffected other than rerouted transit lines).

10:04 also includes other bits of recent history such as Occupy Wall Street one of whose out of town protestors Lerner provides a shower and home cooked meal. An inexperienced cook, as Lerner cooks for a stranger he chastises himself for not reciprocating the meals his friends have cooked for him, “but I could dodge or dampen that contradiction via my hatred of Brooklyn’s boutique biopolitics, in which spending obscene sums and endless hours on stylized food preparation somehow enabled the conflation of self-care and political radicalism.” The novel also includes a description of a work shift at the Park Slope Food Co-op.

The novel’s title 10:04 comes from Christian Marclay’s 24 hour video The Clock which the fictional Lerner watches and critiques. “When I looked at my watch to see a unit of measure identical to the one on the screen, I was indicating that a distance remained between art and the mundane.” And that reminds us of the distance and presumed difference between Lerner’s fictional narrative and the life he actually lived at that time.

In his previous novel Leaving The Atocha Station the fictional Lerner is a self-described bipolar compulsive liar, but in10:04 he appears comparatively even tempered. As I point out in my NYJB review, in 10:04 “the fictional Lerner has a real potentially life threatening medical condition, a minuscule perforation in his aorta, that must be monitored.” And having something real to worry about turns out to be emotionally healthy, as the fictional Lerner remarks, “the irony of my recent cardiac diagnosis was that it gave me an objective reason for my emotional turbulences and so was, in that sense, stabilizing: now I was reckoning with a specific existential threat, not just the vacuum of existence.”

So how do things turn out for Lerner? To learn that you’ll have to read the book, a fuller discussion of which is found in my NYJB review.
Ben Lerner Ben Lerner