Archives for category: Reading Journal

516PPi-kpBLOne of my writing teachers said that readers of fiction secretly like to read about process, any kind of process — the process of cross-examining a witness or landing a plane or making cupcakes. When a process is well-described, with expertise, and an integral role in the story, readers love it, because they feel they are learning something along the way.

Butcher’s Crossing puts this idea to the test with big swathes of the book dedicated to process — but what a heart-rending and utterly American process it is, of the destruction of the great buffalo herds. The novel describes in meticulous detail the processes of boundless slaughter and skinning and sale, but also of how to keep oxen moving when they are dying of thirst, and of how to survive a winter when snowbound in the high country of the Rockies. (Another way of putting this is, as the Guardian says, “this book very nicely fits into the contemporary vogue for survival-manual entertainment as exemplified by films such as Gravity and All Is Lost.”)

The writing flows clear and elegant:

Without waiting for a reply, he turned again and walked toward the spring that trickled down some seventy-five yards beyond their camp. At the spring he removed his shirt; the blood from the buffalo was beginning to stiffen on his undershirt. As quickly as he could, he removed the rest of his clothing and stood in the late afternoon shadow, shivering in the cool air. From his chest to below his navel was the brownish red stain of buffalo blood; and in removing his clothing, his arms and hands had brushed against other parts of his body so that they was blotched with stains hued from a pale vermilion to a deep brownish crimson. He thrust his hands into the icy pool formed by the spring. The cold water clotted the blood, and for a moment he feared thathe could not remove it from his skin. Then it floated away in solid tendrils…

Another quote:

The horse was reluctant to go in; it advanced a few steps into the graveled bed of a shallow eddy and halted, lifting its feet, one by one, and shaking them delicately just above the surface. Miller patted the animal on its shoulder, and ran his fingers through its mane, leaning forward to speak soothingly in its ear. The horse went forward; the water flowed and parted whitely around its fetlocks, and as it advanced the water rose upward, until it flowed around the shanks and then around the knees. Miller led the horse in a zigzag path across the river; when it slipped on the smooth underwater rocks, Miller let it stand still for a moment and soothed it with small pats, speaking softly. In the middle of the river, the water rose above Miller’s stirruped feet and submerged the belly of the horse, parting on its shoulder and though. Very slowly, Miller zigzagged to shallower water; in a few minutes, he was across the river and on dry land. He waved, and the pushed his horse back into the water, zigzagging again so that the lines of his return intersected the lines of his going.

The novel is also a coming of age story for a young Easterner, Will Andrews, who has traveled west to find himself and his place in the world. He falls in with a crew of marvelous characters, especially the hunter Miller — we watch, horrified, as Miller obsessively works to destroy the creatures that form the core of the world that he loves. It is a great novel, a national tragedy of the commons dramatized as individual catastrophe.

Butcher’s Crossing was published in 1960. The author, John Williams, is probably best known for his novel Stoner. (Which isn’t about what you think it’s about if all you know is the title. It is the story of an academic, William Stoner and his life of quiet desperation — not a promising premise for a novel, but so beautifully wrought that writers have been recommending to one another for years, and it became a surprise best seller in Europe last year. I liked Stoner, but I liked Butcher’s Crossing even more.) Williams’s novel Augustus won the 1973 National Book Award.

Things it is like:

The NYRB edition of Butcher’s Crossing includes an introduction by Michelle Latiolais that describes Butcher’s Crossing as one of a trio of great demythologizing Westerns, alongside Blood Meridian and Warlock. (Whether Butcher’s Crossing is properly considered a “Western” when it doesn’t include cowboys or shootouts is a debate left to the reader.) All three are great books.

Warlock

Things it is not like:

DownloadedFile

DownloadedFile

 

Fun fact:

Butcher’s Crossing describes how the large-scale slaughter and sale of buffalo hides was driven by an Eastern fad for buffalo robes. One character comments, “Why they wanted them in the first place, I don’t know; you never can really get the stink out of them.”

That sound you hear is the Earth Bull:

There was a mighty crashing and roaring, shrieking voices, crashing wood. My fingers grasped an edge of paving that worked to and fro like a living thing; I was rocked and tossed about as the strong-laid floor of Daidalos broke like water and surged in waves. And deep below, the Earth Bull boomed and bellowed, louder than the shouts of terror, louder than the thunder of falling column and floor and wall.

93941Published in 1958, The King Must Die is a version of the Theseus myth, cast as realist historical fiction. You might recall that Theseus is the guy who killed the minotaur in the labyrinth in Crete. He is also known for unifying many kingdoms under the rule of Athens.

This is a wonderful book, and I hope you will go read it. I can’t speak to its historical accuracy, but it feels well researched and deeply imagined. There are no monsters or sandaled gods, but Renault presents villains who might have turned into monsters as stories are retold, and Theseus is continually considering which gods he should honor or fear in a given situation. He also believes he can hear the voice of Neptune in a profound way, not unlike a Christian might hear the voice of God from time to time.

Renault recasts the minotaur’s labyrinth as a grand palace where youth from kingdoms subservient to Crete train to “bull dance,” which is a little like bull fighting, but without any weapons, and also involving attempting to leap onto the bull’s back. No one lives long doing this. The novel beautifully develops a subcultural world of bull dancers and their training and prejudices and squabbles.

Theseus, in the novel, is a credible, fascinating character, a natural leader who finds himself in impossible situations and then sets his mind to finding the opportunities and alliances that will help him to escape. He is fearless, but in the mode of the mystic who is willing to put his life in the hands of his god. At moments when Theseus explains how he learned certain lessons, he sounds delightfully like he is writing an ancient Greek guide to leadership.

As presented in the novel, some of the kingdoms around Athens adhered to Earth Mother religions in which a man was made king for only a limited time, perhaps a year, after which he would be killed. Even in kingdoms that had moved away from the Earth Mother, it was expected that a king should sacrifice his life when he knew the time to do so had come. Hence, the title. (And, indeed, several kings perish violently in the course of the novel.)

If you do pick up the book, be warned: the first chapter is the weakest material in the book, laboring too hard to plant events in Theseus’s youth to explain his character. But then Theseus leaves home, begins his adventures, and the book lifts off.

Things it is like: The Long ShipsD’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.

500px-Kylix_Theseus_Aison_MNA_Inv11365_n1

Things it is not like: The Virgin’s Lustful Breeding by the Minotaur, maple blueberry scones, a St. Patrick’s Day wookie.

minotaurvirginbreeding-are-bookstrand130413_1048

0312111144-001

Bonus fact: Word origin — a “clue” was a ball of thread, such as Theseus used to find his way out of the minotaur’s labyrinth.

milkweed-book-covers-068

This book, which came out in 2008, never got the attention it deserves. I read it awhile ago, and recently I came back to it, and I found myself moved by it all over again. It is beautifully written, wise, and highly original. It draws its inspiration from Moby Dick, and so perhaps readers assume that one needs to be a scholar of Moby Dick to get into this book. I will tell you that is not so. Even if you’ve never read Moby Dick, you will find much to love in this book (although it may well make you want to go read Moby Dick).

It is a difficult book to describe, and I fear that attempting to do so will only reduce it. But, generally, it takes as its form the “cetological dictionary” that Ishmael begins in Moby Dick. A Whaler’s Dictionary is organized into sections under a variety of headings, such as “Omen,” “Line,” and “Hands.” Each section is a sort of short, lyric essay, defining its subject heading with inspiration from Moby Dick. The book actively encourages you to read it non-linearly. Each entry ends with a short list of other, tangentially related entries that you might want to read next.

But what makes the book work is the quality of the writing. The excerpt below is from the section on “Faith,” which examines and expands on the chapter in Moby Dick in which Mapple delivers a sermon about Jonah and the whale:

Before Mapple begins his sermon on Jonah, he kneels “in the pulpit’s bows” and offers “a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed to be kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea.” Such is the impossible difficulty genuine faith demands. As Mapple soon says, “all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do.” That difficulty, as this “pilot-prophet” puts it before us, is to pray in two locations at once, from the prow of the ship rolling on the ocean’s surface and from the still, silent, dark depths of the ocean. Mapple’s actions, the manifestation of his faith, suggest that when we send our prayers heavenward from surface to sky, we mistake the abysmal depths our faith must first cross. When we pray we must kneel on the ocean’s bed and look upward toward that heaven that is but the limit of the water in which we’ve already drowned. Then there is the sky to cross, and then infinity. Our faith exists, if faith can be said to “exist,” as a plumb line extending from the surface to our bottommost life. Faith does not measure height but sounds down into depths. A prayer is but a vibration along faith’s taut plumb line, so that the self on the surface knows when the self in depth is kneeling down to speak upward, and so returns voice to the vibration. There is no heaven for us but the deep.

Things it is like: The works of W. G. Sebald and Geoff Dyer. A neural network.

600px-Forest_of_synthetic_pyramidal_dendrites_grown_using_Cajal's_laws_of_neuronal_branching

Things it is not like: Non-dairy creamer.

DownloadedFile

silence

Christian missionaries to 17th century Japan moved in that gray area between bravery and foolhardiness. Early efforts at conversion in Japan had been remarkably successful, leading to colleges, seminaries, hospitals, churches, and a Christian community of about 300,000 people. But by the 17th century, the rulers of Japan had turned against the new religion. The European missionaries were ordered out, many Christians were martyred, and other were tortured until they apostatized.

This is the scene that Endo explores in Silence, published in 1966.

Father Rodrigues, the protagonist of Endo’s novel, is a Portuguese Jesuit who sneaks into Japan, to service the underground Christian community, and to seek news of another Jesuit, Ferreira, who is rumored to have renounced his faith under torture. Rodrigues knew Ferriera as a mentor and cannot believe that the rumors are true.

The tools of fear and torture that the authorities deploy against the Christians are terrible and relentless, and things do not go well for Rodrigues. I read with a sunken heart and the feeling that I could see where things were going while the net closed around Rodrigues and the authorities took him into their power. I did not enjoy this dismal predictability, and I found the sketch of Rodrigues’ character to be thin. He wavers between hopefulness and despair in a believable way, and his increasing despair at God’s silence in the face of tragedy is credible enough, but beyond this there isn’t much to give the man shape.

And yet…I found all of that to be redeemed in the last quarter of the book. Things go much as I would have expected — there is no escape for Rodrigues — and yet the shape of the final dilemma and resolution surprised me. Christ finally breaks the silence to Rodrigues, and in a way that turns out to be worse than the silence. And change that is wrought in Rodrigues’ character is terrible and magnificent.

Things it is like: One of those salsas that don’t taste like much at first, and then punch you in the face. The questions that Silence examines around the nature of God’s presence or absence that are also explored in Barrabas, by Par Lagerkvist, which I wrote about here. The subject of Catholic missionaries in a hostile land is also the core of The Voyage of the Short Serpent, by Bernard du Boucheron (which I also wrote about), although Endo’s feel for and handling of the subject is much more intimate.

ghostpeppersalsa_lg_large

Things it is not like: A lollipop. The potential apostasy of Christian children due to the occult conditioning of Pokemon.

PIKACHU-pikachu-29274386-861-927

productimage-picture-the-long-ships-89

The epic adventures of a bold but hypochondriac Viking across the length and breadth of 11th century Europe in a tale written with great verve, spirit, and humor — if that sounds like a good book to you (and if it doesn’t, what the hell is wrong with you?), then The Long Ships should be on your list of must-reads. Written in the 1940s by Frans Bengtsson, a Swede, it has been revived in a New York Review of Books edition. To sell the book to potential readers, it would be hard to beat the NYRB edition’s short introductory essay by Michael Chabon. You should go read it here. I will only add that one of the joys of this book is its immersion in the particular prejudices and logic of the Viking mind.  The characters hold an idiosyncratic and adaptable sense of honor, and they are all obsessed with luck. They discuss and analyze many varieties and gradations of luck, and they judge the various religions competing in Europe in terms of the luck that that they bring. The result is both high social commentary and hilarious, and if you pick up this book I am sure that it will also bring you only good luck.

Things it is like: The Odyssey, Don Quixote (Book Two; w/r/t Don Quixote, my advice, skip Book One), and the Up Helly Aa Festival.

up-helly-aa-festival-2009-1-27-17-3-20

Things it is not like: The Very Virile Viking. (Admittedly, I haven’t read this book. I am judging it by its cover.) And this guy and his cat.

9780062019202_p0_v1_s260x420

Vikings love cats

Bonus fact: There’s little-to-no evidence that actual Vikings wore horned helmets.

And while you’re reading about Vikings, it’s interesting to compare The Long Ships with The Voyage of the Short Serpent, which I wrote about here.

220px-True_GritCharles Portis and his novel True Grit have been heaped with praise, and the book has been adapted into two movie versions, in 1969 (with John Wayne) and 2010 (by the Coen Brothers). I have little to add to the praise, which is entirely deserved. This is a short, tight Western, hard-eyed but funny, centering on the gunslinging adventures of two very tough characters. The fact that one of the toughs is a 14 year old girl, and believably so, is what makes the book unusually compelling. Reviewers have compared the writing and themes to Cormac McCarthy and the humor to Mark Twain, which, yes, I agree.

Katiniss Everdeen in Hunger Games

Katniss

MV5BMTM4NTU4Mjg5MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDYxOTcxNA@@._V1._CR0,0,1365,1365_SS100_

Mattie

I’ll only add that until now I had the vague idea that the story about a teenage girl who embarks on a series of violent adventures is a phenomenon of the last decade or so (for example, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, Merida in the movie Brave, various others not springing to mind at the moment, help me in comments?). I was happy to have my vague idea gut-shot by True Grit, published in 1968, and featuring Mattie Ross, the grittiest 14 year old I’ve seen in the pages of a book. In a cagefight of grit, I’d put money on Mattie Ross against Katniss Everdeen any day. And if you’re looking for a book to hand to your high schooler, I’d suggest True Grit over The Hunger Games any day, too.

Like this, but with cannibalism, incest, and worse.

Horror and noir writers should note this book and steal from it. “The Voyage of the Short Serpent” offers a thousand horrors, perversities, and abominations, any one of which another writer might put at the center of an entire novel. Cannibalism and incest are only the tip of the iceberg, and in this book the icebergs kill people, too.

I was talking with a friend recently about a type of fiction that could be called the “genre of unremittingly bleak,” i.e., books like Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” or Nelson Algren’s “The Man with the Golden Arm,” books that relentlessly present a world without hope or redemption. “The Voyage of the Short Serpent” may be the world champion in the genre of unremittingly bleak.

It is the story of a medieval expedition sent by the Catholic church to make contact with the colonies on Greenland, who no one had heard from in many decades. The tone is set by the orders from the church to the leader of the expedition, which include this litany:

For every offence you will determine the proper manner of death: the stake, the wheel, the head vise, drawing and quartering, the slow hanging, suspension from the feet or carnal parts (only for men, since the female constitution does not lend itself to it), immersion in oil, or stoning… You will disdain, as too expeditious or indeed too gentle, the use of poison, fit only for politics; the sword, which turns the criminal into a gentleman; drowning, which, in those climes, will cause the condemned to expire of the cold ere he can experience the suffocation; or the beer funnel, for not only will intoxication muffle the pain, but it is also a waste of a scarce commodity and abases the executioner to the vile office of a common inn keeper.

The journey to Greenland is terrible. When the voyagers arrive they find, and become part of, a tiny group of people driven by famine, disease, and unremitting cold into a sordid condition where unthinkable acts have become commonplace. All of it is described in a quick style, with exceedingly elegant prose.

You also can see in the section quoted above the book’s dark humor, which many reviewers have commented on in glowing terms and is the book’s saving grace. Is the saving grace enough to save the book? My feelings about this are…mixed. The Voyage of the Short Serpent offers no light of decency or love amid the darkness, as in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and not even much attempt is made to develop characters. But if you accept the book on its own terms, it is fairly extraordinary. Arguably, the book’s main character and interest is its own relentless expression of a certain tone and voice of horror and black (like, black hole black) humor. The first encounter with Greenland’s native people goes like this:

It was on the fifth day of Lent that, in the freezing cold, we caught sight of two gnomes clad in oilskins which seemed somehow to attach them to small skiffs, which they maneuvered with paddles through the labyrinths of ice. They were clearly not our Christians, and we killed them with a couple of well-aimed arrows.

No more is said of the two unfortunate gnomes. You might need night vision goggles to detect the humor in this. The humor it has arises from the narrator’s breezy tone, which contrasts uncomfortably with the grand treatment we might expect to be granted to the first encounter with an alien culture. And also from the narrator’s (most of the book is written in the form of a letter from the expedition leader) medieval Catholic morality. It’s a kind of morality that doesn’t sit well with modern expectations anyway (the flippant murder of the native people is only the beginning), and then it becomes increasingly twisted and convoluted in the extreme circumstances of the Greenland colonies. (Accustomed to burning sinners at the stake, the book’s narrator finds there’s no wood available on Greenland, and so he has to “employ a mixture of peat and seal-oil to burn the accused.”)

I wasn’t able to find much comment on the historical accuracy of the book; maybe someone with better French and/or Googling skills can help. But I’d guess that a great deal of the book is taken directly from history, because so much of what happens is so ludicrously awful that it’s hard to imagine anyone making it up whole cloth. It’s a powerful reminder that human life and human pain were, by necessity, measured differently in medieval times. And also that you don’t have to imagine a sci-fi post-apocalyptic end-of-the-world scenario to find conditions where society will degenerate abominably.

“The Voyage of the Short Serpent” won the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Academie Francaise. It was Bernard du Boucheron’s first novel. He is described as “a major figure in French and international aeronautics and engineering.”

Cave paintings at Chauvet

Werner Herzog in his beautiful documentary film “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” shows two Neolithic cave paintings that are located just feet apart on the same cave wall. They have been painted in identical style and appear as if they might have been painted by the same artist. But carbon dating has shown that they were created 5,000 years apart. From a modern perspective where paintings styles go from Modern to Postmodern in 50 years, this is difficult to grok. Herzog, in voiceover, suggests that the cave paintings show a people who lived “outside of history,” oblivious to the requirements of constant progress that drive modern civilization.

In “Waiting for the Barbarians,” J.M.Coetzee approaches a similar idea from the opposite direction. The book’s narrator writes:

Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.

The narrator is the aging magistrate of a frontier town on the remote edge of an unnamed empire. It has been a peaceful place for many years, but the secret police have now come to investigate the activities of the barbarians that live beyond the town, in the desert and mountains. The magistrate observes, “Once in every generation, without fail, there is an episode of hysteria about the barbarians.” The secret police treat the barbarians with brutality and torture, generating a cycle of conflict. The magistrate feels morally compelled to resist and eventually is accused of aiding the barbarians and subjected to torture himself.

The strength of the narrative is in the consciousness and conscience of the magistrate. The magistrate is physical (many writers tend to ignore the needs of the body, but Coetzee’s characters — in this book and others — are often dealing with physical urges and pains, aches and needs) and impetuous, but also self-aware, and even as he proceeds down the righteous path of resisting the secret police and enduring terrible pain for doing so, he is doubtful of his own motives. He suspects that he is acting from vanity, and although he despises the secret police, he worries that they and their methods may be necessary to the life of the empire that is his home and represents civilization.

The book poses questions as relevant to the American empire as any other: How does one live in an empire that engages in brutality and torture at the fringes in order to sustain itself? What is your culpability? If you feel you must resist, what is the moral way to do so? These are questions often raised by war novels, but they take a different shape here, where we can see the war itself being manufactured and the action takes place in a curious margin between the battlefield and the home front. “Waiting for the Barbarians” finally suggests no simple answers; it suggests only that no simple answers exist. And by the end of the novel the magistrate achieves something like the wisdom of the open-hearted fool who has no answers, only questions.

Coetzee was born in South Africa, and now lives in Australia. “Waiting for the Barbarians” was published in 1980. Coetzee won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

Due to my catastrophic lack of knowledge of Biblical studies and Biblical history, I’m not qualified to say much about how this novel plays against the Biblical story on which it is based. Or how accurately it portrays the Biblical times in which it is set. It is one of the strengths of this book that it is very Biblical, but my own lack of Biblical background doesn’t much mar my appreciation of it. It springboards off the Biblical story of Barabbas, a prisoner who had been convicted to a death sentence, but was then acquitted in order to free up a crucifix for Jesus of Nazareth. (I think the book’s account of how this happens differs from the Biblical account, but I’ll leave that to others to discuss.) Barabbas first sees Jesus briefly when he is freed, and then he sees Jesus die on the cross. For a moment, as Jesus dies, Barabbas sees a darkness descend.

Afterward, for the rest of his life, Barabbas struggles with his relationship to this man Jesus and the strange religion that he left behind. It is, to my mind, a drama of agnosticism. Agnosticism would seem to be a difficult topic to dramatize, but the circumstances of Barabbas’ life make it vivid. He saw the darkness as Jesus died, but no other miracles, so he is doubtful of Jesus’ divinity. The circumstances of his life have been cruel, so Jesus’ message (distilled in the novel as “love one another”) is puzzling to him. He’s drawn to Jesus’ message and his followers, but can never quite understand or embrace them. And he lives in a time when the difference between wanting to believe and actually believing matters a great deal — in the course of the novel Barabbas watches as two different followers of Jesus who Barabbas has grown close with are martyred for their belief. Barabbas, because he does not believe, lives, but with guilt.

The novel is short and written in starkly simple language, but it raises a great number of complicated questions and troubling feelings. You should read it.

It contains things like this:

–And you? Do you also believe in this loving god?
Barabbas made no reply.
–Tell me. Do you?
Barabbas shook his head.
–You don’t? Why do you bear his name on your disk then?
Barabbas was silent as before.
–Is he not your god? Isn’t that what the inscription means?
–I have no god, Barabbas answered at last, so softly that it could barely be heard. But Sahak and the Roman both heard it. And Sahak gave him a look so full of despair, pain and amazement at his incredible words that Barabbas felt it pass right through him, right into his inmost being, even though he did not meet the other’s eyes.
The Roman too was surprised.
–But I don’t understand, he said. Why then do you bear this “Christos Iesus” carved on your disk?
–Because I want to believe, Barabbas said, without looking up at either of them.

Barabbas was published in 1950. Lagerkvist won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1951.

See this on Lagerkvist’s The Dwarf. See also the Instant Librarian on Barabbas.

The Dwarf was published in 1945 (the author, Pär Lagerkvist, a Swede, went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1951), and it is the story of — you guessed it — a dwarf. He is a court dwarf for a prince in medieval Italy, and he’s one of the most unique characters I’ve ever found in the pages of a book.

As a dwarf he considers himself to be of a race separate from and much older than the human race. He watches the human goings-on with a certain detachment and a great deal of disgust. He professes to hate humans generally, with the exception of the Prince who employs him. He admires the Prince, though he is often baffled by him. One way to interpret the book is to see the Dwarf as a symbol for the ruthless and bellicose spirit that a medieval prince would be required to possess at times, but to do so would be to deny the full humanity of the Dwarf himself (a humanity that the Dwarf, in turn, would deny).

The Dwarf is a prideful and fundamentally evil character. His mother sold him to the Prince, and since then he has been literally spit upon and kicked all of his life. As a consequence he does not have any direct experience of love or sympathy — these feeling move in him in a subterranean way that he can hardly access, much less understand. The book is written in the form of Dwarf’s journal or diary entries, and much of the power of the book comes in the form of his idiosyncratic observations and commentary. He writes things like this:

It is difficult to understand those whom one does not hate, for then one is unarmed, and one has nothing with which to penetrate into their being.

And this:

I have noticed that sometimes I frighten people; what they really fear is themselves. They think it is I who scare them, but it is the dwarf within them, the ape-faced manlike being who sticks up its head from the depths of their souls.

And this:

What would life be like if it were not futile? Futility is the foundation upon which it rests. On what other foundation could it have been based which would have held and never given way?

“Mexican dwarf in his hotel room in N.Y.C.
1970,” by Diane Arbus

The Dwarf is a short novel, but it moves swiftly and deeply. It flirts with allegory; it deals explicitly in religious and Christian themes; and it progresses by an inevitable logic toward terrible destruction and a kind of apocalypse.  The Dwarf plays his role in encouraging the downward spiral. At times I had the instinct to fling the book away, as if it were a photo making me look at something I didn’t want to look at. But, having come to the end of the book, I found the feeling that great literature sometimes creates, of having gone through a change, as if the book could reach inside and alter the reader’s very DNA. (I think of the complicated feelings created by the photography of Diane Arbus, who often worked with circus performers.) It is a strange, spiritually demanding book, and undeniably a work of art.

By the end of the book the Dwarf himself has achieved an almost mystical power of spiritual violence, similar in ways to the character of the Judge in Cormac McCarthy’s great novel, “Blood Meridian.” But, for my money, the Dwarf is the more interesting character of the two. The Judge offers a pure, inexplicable expression of the spirit of war and chaos. The Dwarf comes to the same place, but comes to it by a process of human tragedy. And the power he achieves arises, paradoxically, directly, from his dwarfish weakness and impotence.

P.S.-ish thing: “The Dwarf” is one of four novels included in my reading class, “Housewives and Evildoers,” this fall at the Lighthouse.

P.P.S. bonus lit nerd thing!: Readers of Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections” will find it alludes to “The Dwarf” with this line, “Upstairs in the Lagerkvist Taproom [Edith] and Sylvia were served by a dwarf in a horned helmet and leather jerkin…”