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Recently Read…March 14, 2012

Robert Walser, Berlin Stories.  New York Review of Books, 2012.  Many of these brief prose texts, done between 1907 and 1917, were written for the feuilleton sections of various newspapers.  Walser moved to Berlin in 1905 eager to soak in the city’s energy and diversity.  It was almost like a strange and wonderful zoo for him, populated with characters that stimulated his imagination.  But ultimately, as the later pieces show, Walser came to see that this competitive, venal, egocentric world was not his preferred milieu.

Venture into that savage metropolis, dear reader, and you will see for yourself how abruptly glamour and good fortune alternate there with deprivation and worry, and how people undermine each other’s subsistence, as each does his best to cast down the other’s successes and tread upon them so as to make success his own.

Albert Cossery, A Splendid Conspiracy.  New Directions, 2010.  Translated from the French novel Un Complot de Saltimbanques, originally published in 1975.  (New Directions erroneously states on the copyright page that Complot was “originally published” in 2000.)  At first glance, Cossery (1913-2008) seems charming and quaint, a bit like a distinguished, worldly uncle who settles in to tell a story of a backwater Egyptian town surprisingly laced with debauchery and treachery.  Written thirty-six years before the Arab Spring, everyone and everything still seems pleasant and forgiveable, including the local chief of police, who mistakes the amorous adventures of several young men for a conspiracy against the government.  By the end of the book, the gentle rhythms of Cossery’s prose won me over.

His myopia, growing worse every year, was the bane of his acting career because Imtaz, not wanting to disappoint all those women who admired his tremendous good looks, refused to wear glasses.  Wearing glasses on stage seemed unbefitting given the virile, womanizing roles that ordinarily fell to him.  He did not even wear them in town, and so people took him to be haughty and distant, an attitude completely foreign to his nature.  And indeed, his short-sightedness gave his gaze the impenetrable and secretive air that lay at the very heart of his legend.  All his power over crowds – and especially over women – he owed to the perpetual dim surroundings in which he moved: human beings, with their indistinct outlines, seemed to have absolutely no influence over his fate.  His indifference to the attentions of his enthusiastic public, to feminine smiles and glances – for the simple reason that he could not see them – made him appear to be a charismatic, disdainful idol convinced of his own flawlessness.

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