Sunday, December 2, 2007

Zeno's Conscience + The Trial + Shakespeare + Are Your Lights On?

Reviews of books I've read in the past month ...

1. "Zeno's Conscience" aka "Confessions of Zeno"
   by Italo Svevo (Original Italian title: "La coscienza di Zeno")

Zeno Cosini is a wealthy man, living in Trieste in the late 1800s and
early 1900s.  However, his wealth was inherited rather than earned.  In
his old age he wants to rid himself of his various neuroses, so he
decides to go to a psychiatrist.  The doctor suggests that Zeno writes
his memoirs to help with his treatment, and Zeno obliges.  The novel
consists of key episodes in Zeno's life, as he sees them.

Zeno is a bit of an anti-hero.  He stumbles through life, with no real
plans or ambitions.  He abandons studying chemistry to study business,
then promptly abandons that too.  He's a born quitter, and proud of it.
He has even quit smoking - not once but many times in fact.

When his father dies, Zeno inherits the family business.  But he lacks
the necessary skill (or desire), so he leaves the day-to-day running of
the business to his father's accountant.  He is taken under the wing of
a successful businessman, who has four daughters.  Zeno is attracted to
the eldest of the daughters (Ada), but, in an amusing tale of courtship
gone horribly wrong, Zeno ends up marrying the wrong sister (Augusta).
Later, he declares he has fallen in love with his wife, despite her
"defect".  He manages to find a mistress too, and while he does feel
guilty at times for this, he manages to rationalise it.

Zeno ends up forming a business partnership with his former rival for
Ada's affections, Guido.  Guido is a more flamboyant character, and Zeno
is quick to point out his flaws.  For example, when Guido also takes
a mistress, Zeno privately condemns him for it.  According to Zeno, when
he was with his mistress, he was conscious of the fact that he was
betraying Augusta, and it bothered him.  In contrast, according to Zeno,
Guido felt no guilt whatsoever about betraying Ada.  So, Zeno thinks,
his betrayal is somehow more noble (or at least, less dishonourable)
than Guido's.

The book opens with a note from Zeno's psychiatrist.  According to the
doctor, Zeno abruptly stops the treatment just as it gets interesting.
Out of spite, the doctor says he has to published the memoirs.  This
short (fictional) preface gives a good sense of what to expect in the
rest of the book.

A reviewer on Amazon compares Zeno to a "turn-of-the-twentieth century"
"proto-George Costanza" (from the TV show Seinfeld).  I think he/she is
onto something.  In some ways the novel appears to be a book "about
nothing".  You like the characters despite their obvious defects.  And
you find yourself smiling or laughing at things you shouldn't be.  A
very enjoyable book.

A note a the author.  Svevo, like Zeno, lived in Trieste in the late
18th and early 19th Centuries.  He had a couple of books published
by his late thirties, but they weren't great successes.  Then, a decade
later, he became a student of James Joyce, who was teaching English in
Trieste.  Joyce read Svevo's earlier novels and encouraged him to take
up writing again.  Eventually he did, and the result was "La coscienza
di Zeno", which was published in 1923 and received critical acclaim.

2. "The Trial" by Franz Kafka

Joseph K wakes up one morning to find he is under arrest.  He is not
told why he is under arrest, and during the trial itself the crime
itself is never mentioned.  But he is free to go about his life while
his trial is in progress.

As the trial proceeds, lots of strange things happen to Joseph K.  The
first session is held on a Sunday (so as to not interfere with his work)
in an unmarked apartment building.  The court proceedings are more like
a circus.  He later gets a big-shot lawyer to defend him, but he is
concerned at the lack of progress.  His best bet seems to get on good
terms with the court painter, who also prepares portraits for the

The legal system described in the novel is extremely arbitrary.  Guilt
or innocence is not determined by the facts and presentation of the
case, but rather by the amount of influence you can bring to bear on
the court officials, either directly or through your lawyer.  Three
"positive" outcomes that an accused person can hope for are: definite
acquittal (extremely difficult to achieve and thus very unlikely),
ostensible acquittal (possible but the accused can be re-arrested and
re-tried on the same charge at the whim of the court) or indefinite
postponement (the final verdict is delayed but the accused remains on

There have been many interpretations of "The Trial".  Is the novel a
metaphor for the arbitrary nature of the world we live in?  The  bureau-
cratic and corrupt legal system described in the novel represent all
instruments of power, and the futility of trying to stand up to them.
Is Kafka warning people to be vigilant against emerging totalitarianism
(the book was published in the 1920s)?  Or is K's "crime" a restatement
of the concept of original sin, and the "trial" is actually a metaphor
for life itself?  All the trials and tribulations experienced culminate
in an "execution".  Maybe it's simply a horrible nightmare with no
specific meaning intended?

Whatever the interpretation, this is not an upbeat story.  I recommend
reading it when the sun is shining and birds are singing, otherwise it
might depress you.

It's not only the the subject that makes this a difficult book to read.
The manuscript was incomplete when the author died.  The edition I read
included an appendix of deleted passages, referenced in the body of the
text by numbered footnotes.  There are also fragments of incomplete
chapters.  The suggested reading order for the chapters has been
disputed by academics, and the edition includes an alternative running
order for the chapters and fragments.

3. "Shakespeare: The World as Stage" by Bill Bryson

Despite William Shakespeare's great success, not a lot about the man
himself is known.  Bill Bryson has put together a brief biography of
the playwright, based on the little hard information available from
public records and the history of the times he lived in.

I'm not really into Shakespearean theatre, but I am interested in some
of the themes and inspirations in his works.  Unfortunately, this book
didn't shed much light on the works themselves.  The chapter on "The
Plays" was too brief and general.  The last chapter, on the speculation
that Shakespeare's play were really written by someone else, was quite
interesting, however.

This book is probably only for fans or students.

4. "Are Your Lights On?: A treatise on the definition of diverse problems"
 by Donald C. Gause and Gerald M. Weinberg

This is a humorous book about how to approach problem-solving.  It uses
anecdotes and illustrations to help teach that, sometimes, part of the
problem is finding the real cause rather than merely identifying the