Thursday, 17 January 2013

Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

One of the benefits of being in a book club (The Broadway Book Club, to be precise) is that you are encouraged to read books that you would never normally have read.  I rarely read anything be people that are still alive, let alone debut novelists.  It's a mixed bag, really.  I'm not saying that you have to be dead to be good, but comparitively few contemporaty authors have set my world on fire.

Shalom Auslander is no different, really.  I enjoyed the book, it raised the odd titter, but I'd never make an effort to seek out any of his future work.  It's just not the sort of thing that I usually go for.  The essayist/short story writer sort of comes through- it's conceptual, kinda like an essay, but the feel of the book has more than a sense of a funny short story that's been expanded to novel length.

Auslander raises some interesting points about the nature of hope, dissappointment and expectation, perceptions about how society interprets the behaviour of certain social groups towards one another,  the errrm flexability of history, the nature of martyrdom in various forms and the constant presence of death, and people's way of dealing with mortality.  Solomon Kugel, opetmistic nihilist, is someone who handles mortality in pretty unusual ways.  Not particularly helpful ways, really.

It's an unusual book, written from an intensely Jewish perspective, which is something I've not really expereinced before.  Not being of any religion myself, I found it weird how much being Jewish appears to affect every single aspect of narrator Sol's life.  It's almost like he's a Jew, first and foremost, and a person, husband, father, son next. So he can't possibly evict the decrepit, intensely disgusting Anne Frank who's been living in his attic for the last few decades.  Can you imagine what the papers would say?  And his martyr of a mother?  After all she falsely claims to have experienced in German death camps? As the concept for a novel, you can't fault it for its outrageous originality.  Or its capacity for accusations of 'offence' or 'poor taste'.  Personally I've never been offended by the concept of offenciveness.  In imaginitive works, anything goes really.  If you don't like it, put it down and walk away.

Moving on to mamma Kugel, who definitely steals many of the novel's scenes.  Fraudulently claiming to have survived horrific ordeals at the hands of the Nazis (but actually enjoying an idyllic upbringing in the more suburban part of Brooklyn), Kugle's cantankerous, given-two-weeks-to-live-a-year-ago mother is initially a very funny character, who becomes sort of tragic for inexplicable reasosns.  She must behave like she does for a reason that's never really explored.  She appears to be unhappy, but nobody seems to be bothered.  She's frustrating, invasive and hard work, but the reasons for her behaviour are only ever hinted at, as Sol's so wrapped up in his own problems.  He's a Jewish Basil Fawlty, or a fictional Woody Allen.

In conclusion, Hope: A Tragedy is unusual.  It has a strong, consistent life philosophy of "Don't worry too much about what you can't change, see what happens, it probably won't be too bad."  It's a tragical farce, which won't be to everyone's taste.  I still can't tell if it was to my taste or not!  It's not supposed to be realistic, but I'm not sure what it is supposed to's not that it's dull, or badly written, or just didn't produce much of a reaction from me really.

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