Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Teju Cole, _Open City_

I THINK SOMEONE has already compared this to Rilke's Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge--if no one has, it's high time someone did, because both give us an extensively educated young man of rarified sensibility adrift in the modern metropolis, oscillating between self-absorption and minute observation of his environment, without much in the way of commitment or connection to the world or even his own future.

I guess that describes a lot of novels, doesn't? Rilke's Malte And Cole's Julius seem especially kindred, somehow, nonetheless. Both soak up high culture like a sponge; both are drawn from elsewhere to a world-city; both are prone to flights of lyrical prose; both seem adrift, even though Julius apparently has a vocation (psychiatry). Open City begins and ends by discussing migratory birds, and Malte and Julius both seem likely to wind up somewhere else, but for now ils se promènent, principalement ils se promènent, situationists without portfolio.

For a brief moment, after he is the victim of an urban outrage, I feared that Julius was about to turn out less Rilke's Malte than Bellow's Sammler, old world culture and decency roughed up by new world brutality--but he's young, and he shakes it off.

We don't know what's to become of him, really--the novel is essentially plotless, but in a good way.  An old teacher of mine explained that it is important that Notebooks begins when Malte is 28, for 28 is the age at which the hero of the classical bildungsroman attained clarity, found a calling, married, and became the good burger he was meant to be. Malte is 28, but still at sea. So is Julius, even as he approaches completion of his psychiatry residency, and that seems to suit this novel perfectly.

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