Reading Don Quixote—a very long and undisputedly “great” book—sounds like a daunting proposition. That it has gained such an intimidating reputation seems like yet another of the book’s inexhaustible jokes, for reading it is much less like sitting down to watch Andrei Rublev than finding oneself pulled into an Arrested Development Netflix binge. Both take time, but only one is a chore. I began reading the book when I was particularly low and so felt close to the Don in the unending beatings he endures (his tale can be as moving as it is amusing). That it took me multiple lazy months to complete the book meant that I finished it feeling quite differently than when I had started. Still, I remain grateful to the Don and his squire for accompanying me in my distress. They helped me see that mine, like theirs and perhaps like everyone else’s, partakes of the ridiculous.
I’ve also read a couple novellas recently: Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Violins of Saint Jacques and Vladimir Nabokov’s Mary. Both are about lost worlds. The one I fell for was Fermor’s.
I am now reading the Dortmunder novels of Donald Westlake, the expert crime writer of spare prose and sharp dialogue. The series follows a gang of professional thieves through one misbegotten adventure after another, though they rarely resort to violence, devote no time to their egos, and speak only when they have something to say. Westlake doesn’t glamorize them, and his plots contain no explicit or implicit social commentary (as opposed to precursors in the crime scene such as James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler). Instead, a group of middle-aged men and women of diverse talents plan a job and react when things (inevitably) go wrong. It’s their reaction that forms the moral center of the tales, not to mention delivering the subtle pleasures that Freud identified as the key to the popularity of genre fiction. As expectations go unmet, co-conspirators double-cross them, and nature seems to frustrate them deliberately, Dortmunder and his fellows never get over-excited; they judge quietly, but firmly; they do what needs to be done without gab and loitering. They mark an example of how to handle the world when the world doesn’t cooperate.
In his slim novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell’s writing is understated but beautiful. He gently captures the loneliness and pain of multiple lives circling around a murder in a small midwestern town. For me, maybe the most remarkable accomplishment here is the chapter where Maxwell writes in the voice of a dog belonging to the central character, Cletus. This could easily be used as a cheap gimmick but Maxwell pulls it off perfectly. The dog Trixie’s suffering and her ultimate abandonment articulate the overall themes of the novel and moved me to tears.
I’ve just started reading, upon recommendation, Hans Urs von Balthasar’s A Theology of History. So far, von Balthasar has made a distinction which man has made since he first began to philosophize: that is, that there is a “factual, singular, sensible, concrete” element in life but also a “necessary and universal (and, because universal, abstract)” element which has the validity of a law that rises above the individual case and determines it. There is an obvious tension here. And the question becomes: What does this mean for the God-man in his uniqueness, who is by nature the norm of humanity? And what does his coming into the world mean for us, and for how we are to look at history? Sorry to leave you on this sizable cliff-hanger but I’m only on page fourteen.