- Paperback: 360 pages
- Publisher: THE PROGRESSIVE PRESS (November 29, 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0930852532
- ISBN-13: 978-0930852535
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 7 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #13,699,102 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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THE END OF THE 19TH CENTURY Paperback – November 29, 2008
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A review of Eric Larsen's novel: The End of the 19th Century
Eric Larsen has not written a conventional novel, beginning with a murder, because he's too much of a scholar to fit into the popular crowd. Instead, he's written a family history beginning with his great grandfather, whom he calls Dr. Reiner. In reality, Dr. Reiner is Laur. Larsen, the founder of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Laur. Larsen was a brilliant classical scholar, born in Kristiansand, Norway, on Aug. 10, 1833. There were too many pastors trained in Norway, so Laur. listened to the call to serve the Norwegians who were thinly scattered on the farms in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota. Laur. single handedly went out with missionary zeal to begin new Lutheran congregations throughout the region. He swam swollen rivers and got stuck in the bogs and tramped through The Big Woods to answer the call from these isolated Norwegian farmers.
When the Norwegians wanted their own college, so they wouldn't be dependent on the German seminaries, they called on Laur. Larsen to organize their project from top to bottom, and he held the position of the first President of Luther College for forty-one years. In Eric Larsen's latest fictional book, he modestly writes that his great grandfather established an academy in Archer, Nebraska.
Then, Eric says in his story that one of Dr. Reiner's children, Marie, took a position as professor of history at New College, which is St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. This character, Marie, is obviously Dr. Karen Larsen, author of The History of Norway, (Princeton, 1948) and a biography of her father titled, Laur. Larsen, Pioneer College President, (NAHA, 1936).
Eric Larsen should have pulled out all the stops and written a story about all of the Norwegian-American heroes in his family. There are multiple stars in Laur.'s family, since two of his sons became classical scholars and one taught at the University of Chicago, and another was provost of the University of Indiana. Erik, instead of bragging about his ancestors, chooses to brood like a true Norwegian-American scholar, which he is (BA Carleton College and Ph.D. the University of Iowa). Instead of telling a story on a grand scale, Eric Larsen chooses to write what appears to be a documentary with mostly names and dates of member of his distinguished family, not mentioning their elite status in the world of scholarship and the Lutheran Church.
What he as done is boil down his contemporary story to mainly details about name, date, and places. The reader sees only the surface, not the depth of the family conflict. For example, Malcolm's father in the story is horribly conflicted by his distinguished ancestry and his boring life in a small town. The result is he drowns his anger in alcohol, and this more than anything affects his only son, who is a victim of the pressure his father feel to follow in the footstep of his own distinguish father and grandfather. The youngest male in the Reiner (Larsen) family has to deal with a family that he sees disintegrating on the same prairies to which his treat grandfather had been a pioneer pastor. The safest way for Eric Larsen to tell the story of his own life is to make it a documentary of the boy Malcolm Reiner. Therefore, Eric Larsen has told his story through pictorial diagrams, for example, of Malcolm's great aunt Marie's house and other family houses and various locations. Eric Larsen does not want to sound his own horn about the Larsens who populated Northfield. He uses in effect an innovative diary form. The reader has to connect the dots, which should be fun for the alumni of Luther and St. Olaf Colleges and the other Norwegian-Americans who are interested in their ancestry and survival in America.
It is personal survival that is at stake in this story. If a young boy is the last in a chain of distinguished scholars and ministers, and his father has crashed because of his family and religious pressure, how can that young boy find himself? He runs like the wind to escape his father's wrath. He does strange things because his father does strange things, and he knows that because his great aunt, Marie, is still a staunch, conservative Norwegian scholar, that his own survival is going to be conflicted.
The form of Eric Larsen's latest book is innovative and on the surface appears to be a series of unconnected scenes and memories. If you remember that this young hero is living under tremendous social pressure, you will then appreciate all of his humiliations, at Emerson School, for example, as he watches his world collapse. Finally, his town disappears from the map, caused by his repression.
You can order The End of The 19th Century at Amazon.com or your local bookstore.
Kenneth Nels Hokeness
THE END OF THE 19TH CENTURY:
THE ONTOLOGICAL IMAGINATION RESURRECTS
REALISM FROM THE REALMS OF THE DEAD
Eric Larsen's third novel is marvelous. I don't know how I can say it more simply: I love the book. Like I Am Zoë Handke (1992), it has all the fundamental characteristics that draw me into a book of fiction. I was completely in its universe when I was reading it; I wanted to return to that universe when I was not reading it; and the universe generated by the work lingered and haunted my seeing after I completed reading it.
Again, what struck me first was the writer's profound mix of clarity with poetic evocation. How does Larsen do that? I assume that it is not only a matter of art, or technique, but that it is the expression of an existential accomplishment, or a way of life.
As I moved through the events of the book, there was never any doubt that I was inside reality; that the materiality of things--their densities and their textures--was always present, but at the same time the question of their ultimate values, or of their potential significance, reverberated with depth and possibility. Isn't this the opposite of the hubris found in the bland "realism" we drown in today? That conventional kind of realism believes that somehow it has arrived at the very origin of things, at the one true and fundamental reality of what is. There are many reasons for this, and I'm sure that Eric Larsen is aware of all of them. I'm sure also that he is more intensely aware than most people of how we live now in a world aesthetically both alienating and void--so much so that language itself is drained of its potential for seeking depth, newness, or originality either in thought or emotion. All the "market-driven" oceans of work put out by publishers prides itself that by means of its unquestioning "realism," it has arrived at the very origin of things, at (as I said before) the one true and fundamental reality of what is. This smug attitude is so pervasive, so deeply entrenched, as to have grown nearly totalitarian in its omnipresence and fake authority.
One of the essential things that I have learned in my own efforts as a writer of poetry is that the poetic consciousness is generative of value. And that's why Larsen's books live the way they do. He doesn't appeal to any transcendent, any other-worldly value system, to underpin his own purposes, values, or aims. The boy in The End of the 19th Century experiences the very genesis of meanings, not the imposing of them. In Larsen, as in other writers who knew this same truth about the relation between writing and existing--writers as seemingly unalike as Whitman and Joyce--you become aware, as does the character in Larsen's novel, that Being is infinite, and, as such, is capable of being refracted and viewed from innumerable points, and is even then not fully known.
Furthermore, each of these points isn't simply a geometric location in time and space, but each one is a potential alpha point for new meanings and new revelations.
In a word, what attracts me to Larsen's writing is his use of what I call "the ontological imagination." Of course, in our age of simple polarities, some will say this makes his work irrational or anti-scientific. I have had such accusations directed at me far too often by readers of my own poetry.
If you assert that the Real may be just a bit more possible and dynamic than what the age of literalism says it is, you'll likely be taken as deluded, irrational, anti-scientific, or even worse, mystical. But as this hyper-conventionalized single reality--the false, narrow, obedient, and "understandable" one--becomes ever more dominate and ever more embedded in our economic, cultural, and metaphorical life, the more difficult it becomes for the ontological imagination to survive, let alone be valued. Simply put, I understand the history and evolution of human consciousness as the imaginative function in a dynamic and creative interplay with the brute facts of reality: And these brute facts are death, time, hunger, body. And these same brute facts, no matter how light and unassuming one of Larsen's scenes or passages might be on the surface, are never absent in his work or in his consciousness as he works.
Malcolm Reiner, the boy and central figure in The End of the 19th Century, is more incarnated than Zoë, in I Am Zoë Handke, was. For all her virtues, Zoë was a more ethereal, disembodied creature, more of a pure consciousness. I don't remember her ever meditating on her femininity or her sexuality. She never seemed to encounter her biological life in the way the boy--and her future husband--does.
The young Malcolm, however, during his most explicitly detailed sexual awaking, struggles to incorporate this new-found energy into his main project, the saving of history itself. His desire, toward the end of the book, to save time itself, to stave off the disintegration of his universe, and to return to the wholeness of his "years of perfect seeing" is extraordinarily moving.
Some may say that this is a nostalgic vision. I don't think so. The boy is at war on two fronts. He is experiencing the inevitable and essential coming of age personally, where loss and pain are unavoidable. We look back, and if we don't give in to despair, we attempt to recover what we can and incorporate these truths and energies into our present life. If they are traumatic, we attempt to exorcise them; if they are moments of beauty and generative of goodness, we remember and we love. And if that love becomes generative of action and Being in the present, its meaning duplicates itself. Meaning is built upon meaning like coral.
But, alas, Malcolm is, instead, experiencing a cosmic death. "The End of the Age of Walking"--isn't that what the phrase must mean, at least in part? Something much larger is occurring beyond one child's growth into self awareness. He is experiencing--and if this sounds strong, let it so be--an apocalypse.
Forces are at work that are changing the very foundation of a person's ability to experience meaning. The acceleration of time and the abstraction of space as embodied, for example, in the highway that cuts right through West Tree, are the vanguard of a new and monstrous modernity. The disappearance of West Tree itself is not simply personal death, but it is a cosmic one, the end of an age. The end of an age: Can we even begin to grasp what that means?
As a poet who works in short forms, the broader structure of entire novels is not my natural strength, but I had no problems with structure here. As opposed to I Am Zoë Handke, nothing is in excess, and nothing seemed to be abbreviated--whereas Part V, to my mind, in Zoë was mildly, or arguably, extra. In The End of the 19th Century the weavings, the departures, the returns, all of them make perfect sense, vanishing in a fine clean cloth of sound, image, and sense.
Of course I wonder about the future for a book like this. I wish that anything might be possible. There must still remain large numbers of people capable of being--and eager to be--excited and inspired by this kind of rare, wonderful, essential--and essentially truth-revealing--literary virtues. How to find and reach those readers, I don't know. I myself am lucky to have found the book. I pray that the book may be so lucky as to find many others to read it.
The poet Gregory Marszal is author of the collections, The Chromosomes of Summer, The Book of Transparencies, and Catalogue of Being. He lives in Vallejo, California, with his wife Julie.