Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools

Loving “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” as much as I do, I’ve been waiting anxiously for years to read Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools. Nothing was stopping me, mind you. I just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. I guess I hoped it was a novel-length work with the same kind of magic as “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” That probably wasn’t fair. In any event, though I liked the book and found it extremely well written, I just didn’t find that magic I was looking.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Patrick McGrath and 4th for Annie Proulx.)

Ship of Fools details the voyage of a motley assortment of people who are citizens different countries and members of different socioeconomic classes from Mexico to Germany shortly before the beginnings of the Second World War. However, for me, it seemed to mainly be a scathing indictment of humanity and our hopes.

I mean, everybody thinks they are better than everyone else. Of course, they aren’t. For example, an American artist named David Scott looks down on just about everyone:

He glanced at Mrs. Treadwell, whose attention had wandered. They were coming into the crowd entering the dining room, and she nodded lightly in several directions – to Freytag, who nodded back without smiling; to the young Cuban pair with their two children; to the bride and groom, who did smile; to the purser, who beamed at her with his broadest smirk; to anybody and everybody, David noticed, without appearing really to see anyone. She behaved in fact like Jenny, except that Jenny was looking for something, a response of some kind, almost any kind at all, always either a little too hard or too soft, with no standards that he could understand or believe in. An intense resentment against Jenny rose in him when he saw her at work trying to undermine him, to break down by any means his whole life of resistance to life itself – to whatever environment or human society he found himself in.

But, he’s just a grumpy and empty young man. He picks apart others, even the girl he supposedly loves (Jenny), but has no reason to feel superior beyond being able to intellectually negate whatever good qualities those people might have.

Really, though this novel is packed with an amazing amount of different characters of all kinds of different classes (German divorcees and widows, Swiss hotel keeper, Spanish dancers, a Jewish merchant of Catholic religious paraphernalia, deported laborers, Cuban medical students, a Swedish communist, and so on), they all come off pretty bad. They all look on everyone else as inferior to them, and then promptly display some horrifying trait.

For example, a number of the German passengers actually advocate getting rid of the Jews and the handicapped, even by extermination and sterilization, foreshadowing the horrors coming in the Second World War:


            “Every day I learn new things about him. Just to think he is a publisher. I had not known that!”

            “How fascinating,” murmured Mrs. Treadwell, from the depths of her pillow.

            “Yes, in Berlin. It is a new weekly devoted to the garment trade, but it has literary and intellectual features besides. One of these is called the New World of Tomorrow, and he engages the very best writers to contribute, all on one topic, to be examined from every point of view. The idea is this: if we can find some means to drive all Jews out of Germany, our national greatness will then assert itself and tomorrow we shall have a free world. Is that not marvelous?”

            Mrs. Treadwell deliberately kept silence.

And, though the Jewish merchant of Catholic paraphernalia is not so extreme in suggesting avenues for his hate, mostly trying to avoid people, he doesn’t seem to regard all these ‘goys’ as even people. He may not be as bad, but I don’t think that necessarily makes him better.

No, Porter seems to treat all of the people on the boat equally. They all have some nice features here and there, but they all are rotten. Every human is a wretched little thing that thinks it is better than everyone else.

To take this further than just the inherently flawed nature of humanity, Porter also has this voyage represent a hope for salvation for each of these flawed characters. The Swiss hotel keeper hopes to go back to Europe to open a hotel where business won’t be as corrupt as Mexico. A German oil company man hopes to retrieve his Jewish wife from the growing danger to Jews in Germany and take her somewhere where she (and thereby he) won’t be persecuted. Everyone hopes for something life-changing out of this voyage. However, we can guess from Porter’s treatment of her characters that these hopes aren’t going to be realized.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not denigrating Ship of Fools in any way. Though depressing, the indictment presented certainly seems accurate. Further, I cannot deny that this is an amazing book in the vast number of different characters that are all vividly and individually portrayed, the intricacy of the political situation represented, and the emotion connection the prose forms with the reader. It is really a marvelously and skillfully executed novel. However, it just didn’t have the same magic for me as “Pale Horse, Pale Rider.” I didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped I would.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer! Happy Almost Friday!

Haha.  I realized for the first time in awhile, I didn’t have a “happy!” to share, so figured it’s almost Friday.  For some people that is reason enough for celebration.  For me, it’s also reason for celebration as Dave & his lovely amazing wife Shannon are coming to town.  If you’ve missed it the couple of times we’ve said it, Dave lives 8 hours away.  So, most of our communication about this blog happens over facebook and text messages.

I read Tom Sawyer this time.  The only author that listed Tom Sawyer in her top ten was Annie Proulx.

I think I would have liked Tom Sawyer better if I had read it first, but Huckleberry Finn is so much better!

Tom Sawyer is in third person narration, Huck is in first.  I always have preferred first, one of my favorite Stephen King books is a first narration one.  I also find I get more absorbed in a story if there is first person narration.

Tom Sawyer is too scattered.  He’s here! He’s there! He’s everywhere!  There isn’t much cohesion with Tom Sawyer.  There are a couple of plots that run the whole way through, like he always likes/loves Becky Thatcher.  He and Huck are always friends.  And he and Huck can count on one another to be there to help each other with the stupid things they do.

And, Huck, I think most people _like_ him.  With Tom Sawyer, it’s a bit harder to pin down whether you like him or not.  On the one hand, he _is_ funny (see my entry on Huck Finn for an example of this).  On the other hand, he can be quite obnoxious. but then he also can be quite contrite (see what I did there?) and loving.

I did like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  A lot.  However, I wish I hadn’t read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn first, because I would have enjoyed it more.

(Short entry, I know.  Have extenuating circumstances.  One of which is my dog sitting a foot away from me, licking her chops and whimpering, then repeating and never taking her eyes off of me.  Which is not the most pleasant thing to try to write while having happen).

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Devil went down to Moscow…he was looking for a soul to steal. He was in a bind ’cause he was way behind and he was looking to make a deal. Okay, maybe not, but I decided to check out The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov for my first actual review here on Eleven and a Half Years of Books (in case you didn’t pick up on that from the title of the post).

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Kathryn Harrison, 5th for David Mitchell, and 5th for Annie Proulx.)

This one is an interestingly layered story. Seemingly at the core is a story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Supposedly, the story is written by a man who calls himself the Master (see the title) and is intensely loved by a woman named Margarita (also see the title). However, his literary efforts were lambasted by the literary establishment and he was even hounded by the Moscow police. All that is in the past though, as the Devil descends upon an unprepared Moscow that has rejected religion.

Of course, Bulgakov’s Jesus isn’t exactly the Jesus you might be thinking of. Consider this portion from the interrogation of Yeshua Ha-Notsri by Pontius Pilate:

            “Well, all right. If you wish to keep it secret, you may do so. It has no direct beating on the case. So you maintain that you did not incite them to tear down…or burn, or in any other manner destroy the temple?”

            “I repeat, Hegemon, I did not incite them to any such actions. Do I look like an imbecile?”

            “Oh, no, you do not look like an imbecile,” replied the procurator softly, breaking out in a fearsome smile. “So swear that you did nothing of the kind.”

            “What would you have me swear by?” asked the unbound prisoner excitedly.

            “Well, by your life,” answered the procurator. “It is most timely that you swear by your life since it is hanging by a thread, understand that.”

Though this reminds me a little of Jesus’s trial before Pilot, it is certainly not how I remember the story.

Also, Bulgakov’s Devil, named Woland, is nothing like any Devil I’ve ever seen before. His antics in Moscow may have a serious edge for a few unlucky people, but he seems more interested in making the arrogant and money-grubbing residents of Moscow look foolish than in endangering their souls or taking their lives:

            “Do I note a touch of surprise, my dearest Stepan Bogdanovich?” Woland inquired of Styopa whose teeth were chattering, “But there is nothing to be surprised about. This is my retinue.”

            At this point the cat drank down the vodka, and Styopa’s hand began to slip down the door frame.

            “Any my retinue needs space,” Woland continued, “which means that one of us in this apartment is superfluous. And I think that someone is—you!”


            And then the bedroom began to spin around Styopa, he hit his head on the door frame, and as he was losing consciousness, he thought, “I’m dying…”

            But he did not die. He opened his eyes slightly and saw that he was sitting on something made of stone. A sound could be heard nearby. When he opened his eyes properly, he realized that it was the sound of the sea and that a wave was, in fact, breaking at his very feet, that, to be brief, he was sitting at the end of a jetty, and that a blue sky was sparkling above him, and behind him was a white city nestled in the hills.


            Then Styopa resorted to the following maneuver: he dropped on his knees in front of the unknown smoker and said, “Please tell me, what city is this?”

            “Are you kidding?!” said the heartless smoker.

            “I’m not drunk,” Styopa replied hoarsely, “Something’s happened to me…I’m sick…Where am I’ What city is this?”

            “Well, Yalta…”

            Styopa sighed softly, fell over on his side and struck his head against the warm stone of the jetty.

Regardless of Jesus or the Devil, or the Master or Margarita (who don’t really seem to be in a lot of danger for being in a novel with the Devil), Bulgakov has to be the strangest Russian writer of his time. I mean, he was only a generation after Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev. This book is set in Moscow in the thirties, if you can believe it from the small chunks I’ve shared. Yet, if I didn’t know better, I’d really think he was writing just a few years ago. There is just something remarkably similar to contemporary prose in the way that Bulgakov wrote. It really makes the book interesting, considering its actual age.

And, all in all, the whole novel is a great deal of fun. Bulgakov may have been an anomaly in his own time, but today I found him delightful. The book is definitely weird, don’t get me wrong on that, but it was a good kind of weird. The Master and Margarita is a strange thing, living and breathing in its own little world.

– David S. Atkinson