Today’s book and film review: The film Capote, David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and Bruno Schulz’ The Street of Crocodiles. This week off the “secong rung” of my self-improvement schedule, I will be working on my Spanish and my voice, spending four hours on each.
When You Are Engulfed in Flames-David Sedaris. On writing about the differences of the Japanese language in the essay “The Smoking Section”, David Sedaris reports that in Japanese there is “‘No need to begin with I, as it is clear that you are the one talking’” (289). If only Sedaris had adapted this in his writing. Most every sentence includes “I” “mine” or “my”. From Woody Allen to Ben Stiller, there is now an established cultural trend of glorifying the self-obsessed neurotic man-child. The problem with this is that is all the insight there is to offer: self-revelation and self-deprecation. Sedaris’ collection of essays is well written, charmingly funny, and at points arrestingly recognizable and poignantbut his self-focus gets claustrophobic. The character sketches are detailed and memorable. The best of his characters is a vicious, vulgar old lady named Helen in “That’s Amore”.
Unfortunately, they are just sketches, foils for his own self-exploration all leading up to uniformly neat, facilely wrapped up conclusions. These essays hit the same note over and over and feature only one complex character: himself. He is a fine writer, but one best in small doses.
The Street of CrocodilesT-Bruno Schulz. Schulz’s writing here establishes him as the son of Kafka, father of Kundera, and uncle of Márquez. Considered the best Polish writer between the wars, his prowess as an artist found him a protector in the Gestapo, but when he was given a day pass to leave the ghetto, a rival Gestapo member recognized and shot him dead in 1942.
This collection is deeply weird, centering around a powerful, insane, and genius father that permeates with the same mythic status of Márquez’ José Aureliano Buendía.
To his (and his translator’s) credit, the humor is both exuberant and subtle. At times hard to follow, requiring multiple rereads, the book could still be read in a day. Schulz mixes autobiography with fiction with the metaphysical irony that would later be fit in with magical realism. It is a mixture that offers a perspective with which to trace the western literary movement from 19th century realism to the early 20th centuries avant-garde movement to the modern short story and novel. For that alone it is worth reading. A great look into the mechanics and preoccupations of today’s fiction.
Capote-The film—which follows Truman Capote’s writing of In Cold Blood and his relationship with the two men sentenced to death for the brutal murder of a family in rural Kansas– is an intense meditation on the narcissistic cloud in which genius forms, and how writing is frequently the love-child of a torrid affair of “Author loving author”. Capote—played by Philip Seymour Hoffman—is self-obsessed, anxious to prove himself, and exploitative. No emotion is real to him unless he can map it on to his own experience (but who isn’t like this?).
The film’s best part is his relationship with one of the murderers, where his genuine care for them cannot be distinguished from his willingness to do anything for the sake of his book, which he recognizes will be great. Hoffman does a wonderful job embodying Capote without it being distracting, and playing the author’s almost unbelievably contradictory parts with equal sincerity.
An intense, disturbing meditation on the emotional destruction that often accompanies an individual striving for genius.