Monthly Archives: January 2008

What I’m reading now

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

This story of a young girl in Nazi Germany during World War II was the other great historical novel that I read at the end of last year, cover to cover in one go on a transatlantic flight. The most important thing I can tell you about it may be that even though the narrator tells you how the book will end on page 22, and reminds you a couple more times during the course of the book, I still had no power to stop tears streaming down my face at the end.

There are two big ideas in this book. The first is about the dangerous and beautiful power of story telling, and the way story shapes action, for better or for worse. The second, and more interesting, is about the consequences of these actions. The heroes of this book perform with the best of intentions acts which sometimes have very good ends, and sometimes very tragic. It struck me today as a result of a conversation about something quite different, that Zusak’s attention to this problem of our actions and their results may be derived from the way Hannah Arendt connects freedom to action. The characters are only free when they act, when Eric Vandenburg protects Hans Huberman from battle, when Hans gives bread to a prisoner from Dachau, when Leisel Meminger writes a book in the basement.

This book commands us to do good even in the worst circumstances, not because doing good will change the world and make it good, but because doing good and not just thinking good, knowing good, and believing good, is the only way to be free. In a culture that believes anything is possible if you only try hard enough, this message may resound as pessimistic, but I found it intensely hopeful.

What I’m reading now

Sarah Dunant, In the Company of the Courtesan.

I read a fair amount of rather middling historical fiction in 2007, trying to figure out what worked for me, why, and why not, but two wonderful novels I read at the end of the year made up for all the previous suffering I did for my Art. The second, I’ll write about in my next post (which will be soon, I promise) but the first is Sarah Dunant’s tale of the dwarf Bucino, and his life as companion to the talented courtesan, Fiammetta, in sixteenth-century Rome and Venice.
Why did this work? First of all, I felt that Dunant has an excellent period sense which is beautifully conveyed through her writing. I found the world she created entirely satisfying and convincing. I know just enough about the period to be tiresomely opinionated, but Dunant won me over from the first page. The mood she created reminded me very much of novels like Helle Hasse’s The Scarlet City or Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion.
The other great strength of this novel is Dunant’s main character, Bucino. He is a sidekick in the drama that is Fiammetta’s life, and he knows and accepts he’s a sidekick, but Dunant pulls him out of his ancillary role into the spotlight. The story is about his development as a human being, how he comes to term with the fact he is a dwarf, how he learns to love and to live for himself and not always through others, the sacrifices he makes, and the price he pays. The dramatic and exciting events that happen over the course of the novel serve as catalysts for the development of this memorable and appealing character.