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The Dream Life of Balso Snell

The Dream Life of Balso Snell - Nathanael West Warning: this is a review of a sophomoric book you're unlikely to read. It also contains a hint of insult about some Goodreads readers.

I once kept a stack of recycled printouts at university, for keeping notes on the back. On turning a printout over, I discovered a short, really hilarious paragraph spewed out one night, probably by a bored engineer with nothing better to do, about his old dog, somewhere in a gothic south, and the lump it developed on its back. For some reason I remember that passage better than a lot of passages I've read.

Of some authors it's said that they've written the book we're glad we didn't write in our youths. In total contradiction to that, I wish more youthful works were published or introduced in schools. I think works like Silas Marner are inflicted on children who don't need or want a few brutally obvious messages drummed into them again and again, slow as a python's swallow. Nathanael West, in this, his first novel, his only apparent production after living 1920s expat life in Paris, says as much about the middle class novel, if only as an excuse for this scatological mess he's cobbled together instead.

True, almost no details from the story stayed with me a few days later, but in the first reading, my mind was alive with concepts. It's probably because the book is thick with a young man's scattershot insights, probably picked out from any source he found amusing, confusing, and nonthreatening, the most evident source being some Dostoevsky.

It's hard to imagine more insulting biographies than ones dedicated to Nathanael West. He's even blamed for dying young because he was such a bad driver. Some of the biographical details seem to be disturbingly true. In this book, he lists a diagnosis of gonorrhoea as being one of life's worst possible fates. In his book A Cool Million, he spends altogether too much time describing the decor of each room of a brothel in loving detail. He appears to have been sort of Russian (a Jew from Lithuania, possibly like some of my great grandparents, and definitely like The Three Stooges), the rich, prodigal son, who stayed immature quite a lot longer than some of us. His insulting hagiography of a sainted flea on the body of Christ is quite funny. He copies and parodies Dostoevsky quite effectively. Maybe if he'd known how to invent flash fiction, his scattershot approach wouldn't have wreaked such havoc with this reader's memory.

Having just spent time in Greece, I found myself nodding at his mix of half understood Greek myths and, more importantly, his contempt of balanced rhetoric, so fascinating and maddening in parts of modern Greece. A people who see all sides and take the long view, like a well-read, patient reader, don't always make for exciting or responsive human beings at just the right moment.

This is a book that nearly any intelligent young man could write better, so I'll be looking for a better standard bearer of the genre, possibly David Foster Wallace or your suggestion, confused reader of a strange man's review.