Anti-heroes

The author of "Mistler's Exit" celebrates three deplorable protagonists.

Topics: Readers and Reading, Books,

Anti-heroes

A heretical notion has taken root in the minds of many readers and book reviewers: They believe that the principal character in a novel should be a fundamentally good person. Should the author, on the contrary, endow his principal character with some of the defects of character and the vices he has observed in himself and others, they expect him to arrange, before the last page of the book is turned, a redemptive experience that turns the outrageous or despairing protagonist into a better person. Woe betide the author if he doesn’t comply. It is then said that one cannot like his novel because it is unpleasant.

Gentle reader, there is no such rule. Great novels aren’t required to be pleasant or to have lovable heroes and heroines. As soon as your many occupations permit, please rush to read the three masterpieces referred to below. If their deplorable protagonists find a place in your heart, there are many others with whom I will be happy to acquaint you.

Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
This novel opens with a justly famous sentence: “I am a sick man … I am a wicked man.” We never learn the speaker’s name, but his situation is defined with abrupt efficiency: He is 40, a distant relation left him 6,000 rubles, which is just enough to subsist somewhere at the edge of St. Petersburg in the sort of squalor that 19th century Russian novels have taught us was de rigueur for impoverished intelligentsia, separated from the crass misery of Russia’s masses only by a diploma and rudimentary acquaintance with the French language. The “Notes” are written, he tells us, not for the public, since no one would want to read them, but because “on paper it will somehow come out more solemnly.”

What comes out first is a brilliant tirade — sarcastic and desperate — against the utilitarian delusion that men, if taught to think straight, will strive for the common good. The underground man knows this is rubbish; men love suffering as much or more than their well-being. He illustrates his thesis by a confession, the recollection of events — he has “hundreds of such recollections” — that occurred when he was still a minor official in a government department.



At the core of the anecdote is his visit to a brothel after a drunken dinner with successful and wealthier schoolmates. He wakes up at the side of a girl and idly, to humiliate her and aggrandize himself, catechizes her about the ignominy and dangers of a prostitute’s life. Or perhaps he does it in fact out of genuine compassion. Since he is a “paradoxalist,” caught constantly between contradictory positions, we cannot tell. Both positions are probably true.

Before leaving, he gives the girl his address. Thereupon, he lives in terror of having been taken seriously: The girl may actually arrive at his hovel, see him in his tattered and filthy bathrobe and take measure of his nullity. When the girl does appear, he tells her hysterically the “truth” about his motives. When he again awakens in her embrace, the need to humiliate returns. He presses a banknote into her hand. In a moment, he sees that she is gone, having left his money on the table. He runs after her in the street; she is nowhere to be seen; in fact he never sees her again.

Reflecting on the act of writing the story of this encounter, the underground man comes to see it as “corrective punishment,” no longer literature. He recognizes that “a novel needs a hero, and here are purposely collected all the features for an anti-hero …” The greatness of “Notes from the Underground” lies precisely here: in Dostoevsky’s ability to make wholly convincing, through the intellectual vigor and wit of his writing, the self-contradictory features of his anti-hero, to win us over to the side of a man who does not hesitate to see himself as a monster.

The Trial by Franz Kafka
Kafka thought of “Notes from the Underground” as the true source of all modern literature and a determining influence on his own work. In turn, “The Trial,” the greatest of Kafka’s three unfinished novels, has marked 20th century consciousness more searingly perhaps than any other novel. Because of its impact, the adjective “Kafkaesque” has currency everywhere: not just among readers of Kafka’s oeuvre, but also among people who have learned, by osmosis, to use it as shorthand for the arcane and unchallengeable means through which the modern state dehumanizes us.

“The Trial” is the story of the chief clerk of a bank, Joseph K., about whom someone must have been telling lies because one morning, without having done anything wrong, he is arrested by two men in plain clothes. They offer no explanation, and yet K. accepts their authority. Thereafter, like a man lost in thick fog, he attempts to penetrate the workings of the court before which his case is pending — an omnipotent and omnipresent court that may not even be a part of the constituted state.

K., too, is an anti-hero, his character a mixture of servile cowardice, slyness, opportunism and occasional rebellious optimism. Just like the man from the underground, he is dismally lonely, his solitude relieved only by fleeting sexual contacts. In the end, K. is executed by the court’s envoys, men who look like 10th-rate old actors. In a vacant lot, one of them thrusts a knife into K.’s heart. “‘Like a dog!’ he said; it was as if the shame of it must outlive him.”

Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard
This Austrian author is easily the greatest novelist to have written in German in the second half of the 20th century. His special admiration for Dostoevsky and Kafka is no accident; he shares with them the inability to see any feeling or circumstance other than as a set of contradictions, either one of which should, but in fact cannot, exclude the other.

“Woodcutters” is the story of an “artistic dinner” in Vienna, at which the narrator is present, and unwilling to leave, although there is nothing that he detests more than artistic dinners. He has accepted the invitation because it was extended abruptly by a couple who 30 years earlier had been his best friends and protectors and whom now he loathes. Earlier that day, the hosts and he, and a woman who is also a guest at the dinner, had been at the funeral of another woman, once a friend and probably the narrator’s lover, who had hanged herself. The guest of honor, an actor at Vienna’s Burgtheater, is late. The dinner is served only after midnight, and while they wait and during the meal that drags on as the actor pontificates, the narrator, in a vitriolic and marvelously humorous monologue, dissects the lives of the dead woman, the guests and the hosts, and of course, himself. Bernhard’s narrators are prodigious haters, and yet we love them; they are too brilliant for it to be otherwise.

Louis Begley is the author of five novels, including, most recently, "Mistler's Exit."

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>