Wednesday, January 23, 2008

the last book I read

Utz by Bruce Chatwin.

The eponymous Kaspar Utz is a descendant of minor middle-European nobility who lives in Prague and is an obsessive collector of porcelain figurines (and Meissen porcelain in particular). The un-named narrator, a British writer and art historian, visits Utz in the late 1960s, initially as part of some research into a book, but soon becomes fascinated by the story of Utz and his collection. We follow Utz's life story back from his childhood, through the German occupation of World War II, and subsequently the Soviet occupation, and we see how Utz, despite being allowed (unusually) to leave Czechoslovakia periodically by the authorities, is unable to leave his collection and so is effectively imprisoned by it. The novel starts and ends with Utz's death and funeral.

The un-named narrator (mirroring the real-life author in a number of ways), the middle-European setting, the discursive nature of the story and the casual displays of erudition regarding art and history are strongly reminiscent of WG Sebald, as is the general tone of fastidiousness and mild disgust with messy matters like sex. In Chatwin's case the obvious assumption is that this is all bound up with his own conflicted sexuality, culminating in what sounds like a particularly miserable decline and death from AIDS in 1989, just a year after Utz was published.

It's beautifully written, very short and, like one of Utz's figurines, it's slightly unclear, beyond the surface gloss, what it's actually for. Chatwin is more famous for his travel writing, which I haven't read any of, but if you want a Chatwin novel, I'd recommend the much meatier and more involving On The Black Hill.

Short novels have a charm all their own, though, and are also excellent source material for films, as they need much less of the original story cut out to translate them onto the screen. Here's a few short novels from my collection that I'd recommend, in no particular order:
  • Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan: 108 pages (filmed in 1958)
  • Silk by Alessandro Baricco: 104 pages (filmed in 2007)
  • The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll:116 pages (filmed in 1975)
  • Who? By Algis Budrys: 159 pages (filmed in 1973)
  • Love by Angela Carter: 120 pages
  • Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald: 140 pages
  • The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway: 109 pages (filmed in 1958)
  • Chronicle Of A Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez: 122 pages (filmed in 1987)
  • The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan: 127 pages (filmed in 1993)
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell: 120 pages (filmed in 1954)
  • Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck: 95 pages (filmed in 1939)
I'm not saying I recommend all the films, as I haven't seen most of them. The books I do recommend without exception, though, and come on, they're only short. It won't hurt.

No comments: