Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Freedom


Remnants of the Berlin Wall
currently being overtaken by graffiti and greenery
(creative and natural freedom run amok)
I was 21 when the Berlin Wall came down – was aggressively pulled down, really. All through my childhood and adolescence it had been the symbol of the Cold War and a physical embodiment of the lack of freedom for all of those on the wrong side. Those poor, trapped victims of Communism; we felt so sorry for them, we were so ecstatic about liberating them. (Even if we participated in spirit, only.)

Last November, during the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall, the BBC interviewed many former East Berliners and I was (perhaps naively) surprised to hear that some of them regretted the scope of their new “freedoms.” Many of them talked about the loss of job security, others lamented the proliferation of crime. Freedom definitely had, and does have, its downside. If nothing else, it comes with its own costs and compromises. Freedom seemed such a black and white concept when I was 21; is it so very middle-aged of me to think of it as greyer territory now? On one hand, we tie ourselves into absurd knots to protect civil liberties; on the other, we surrender all kinds of privacy and autonomy in the hope that it will somehow keep us safe.

Ah, the innocence of being 21. It is an age perfectly poised between adult freedoms (lots of them) and adult responsibilities (not so many, particularly if you are a senior in college). There is really only big question when you are 21 and that is what kind of person am I going to be? (All other questions, like what am I going to do to make a living?, can be collapsed into that one.)

Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel – Freedom -- never explicitly deals with the question of freedom, and yet the idea of it permeates every aspect of the novel. Instead of the Berlin Wall, this novel has the Twin Towers falling down – one destruction so positive, the other so negative. It is a novel that feels more personal than political, but the political circumstances of the past decade are always there in the background – and to this reader, at least, it felt like there was a comprehensive intelligence and understanding at work. I was in awe of the detail and the scope, (no wonder Franzen keeps getting compared to the great 19th century novelists), but the narrative never gets diverted from the relationships which are its core.

There are four main characters: an environmental lawyer/activist, a stay-at-home mother, a musician and a college student. Each of them has to deal with the question what kind of person am I going to be? over and over again. (That old expression “in between a rock and a hard place” comes to mind.) Two of the characters are primarily concerned with being “good,” and two of them are primarily concerned with being autonomous, but in the in-between there is a world of emotional and moral possibility. Surely there is no freer person than a white, well-educated, wealthy, Western man, but in the person of Walter Berglund (arguably the heart of the novel) there could be no one more weighed down by expectations, obligations and compromises.

Before I read this novel, I knew little more about Jonathan Franzen than that he wrote a novel called The Corrections (which sounded rather ominous), and that he declined the “opportunity” to be an Oprah novel. His media reputation is of someone who takes himself rather seriously, and I suppose I expected a novel that was weighty – but in a portentous way. Despite the hype – Time magazine cover, cultural zeitgeist, President Obama’s choice of vacation book – it really was that most satisfying of experiences: just a darn good read.


A Franzenian footnote: On Monday I was in London, and the Tube was mostly shut down due to striking. During my train journey home, I read that Jonathan Franzen had accidentally wandered into the Tube shut-down when his chauffeured car hadn’t shown up. There was something about the congruence of me and Jonathan Franzen – both affected by the strike; both out walking the London streets – that just amused me. Without a doubt, the freedom of workers to strike adversely affects the freedom of commuters to get around the crowded city. And yet, compared to the sardine tin of the Tube, it really did feel liberating to stride down Oxford Street!

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@Barrie Summy

33 comments:

Evening Light Writer said...

What a wonderful review, I've tried to avoid the hype but "Freedom" sounds absolutely interesting. We only have one copy at my library so I will patiently have to wait my turn.

elizabeth said...

Got bogged down in The Corrections but gather everyone is LOVING "Freedom"so must grab it soon. (I always go by your recommendations!)
Yes, far too easy to see things in clear black and white terms when things are so damn subtle and nuanced that one gets quite twisted in knots trying to 'do the right thing'.
So I will take the dog for a walk instead...
Am reading Penelope Mortimer's "Daddy's Gone A Hunting" a very bleak view of British haute suburbia.
Autumn is almost here. Thank heavens the heat is over.

willow said...

Excellent post, Bee. I was actually in Warsaw, Poland the day the wall came down. I will never forget the sense of euphoria in the air, the bustling of happy people. It's sad their hopes weren't all actualized. Sounds like a great book!

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Hello bee
Great review! Will put "Freedom" on my list of books to be read. I learn so much from your blog and the picture does make one think.

Best
Tracy

fairyhedgehog said...

How fascinating that you and Franzen were both wandering around London on the same day.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Anxious to read this one. Corrections was so-so.

Polly said...

I was 13 and in primary school in Poland when the wall came down. At the same time my German cousin was in Berlin watching the events as they happened... my PhD is on post-wall era in Germany, it's such an exciting period of time.

I went to Jonathan Franzen's book reading at Southbank last Thursday. He was reading from Freedom and I was only three rows away from the stage. He is incredibly charismatic (and a little neurotic) and drop dead gorgeous and when I was getting my copy of The Corrections signed I nearly got a heart attack. It was an excellent opportunity to say something interesting to a great man, MY three seconds... and I totally blew it!

I hope you got your copy of Freedom after Monday, apparently the copies that were in bookstores before Monday were first typeset and not the actual book Franzen intended to be read...

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I am glad to read your review because this book is my next one up. Having read The Corrections, I ordered this one immediately. The guy's a genius.

Sarah Laurence said...

I started reading this book in a bookstore, but put it down because it felt too trivial and mundane (and it weighed a ton!) You make me want to give it another chance even if the author’s arrogance is a turn off. I love how you wove your personal experience into the review. Well done!

ArtSparker said...

I enjoyed The Corrections, It's interesting to read your take on this as it was slammed in one review I read (for using a sort of dulling-down kind of language as I recall).

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

Berlin is a city we have longed to visit. I hope we get there one day soon!

And I think I'm sharing your middle-aged view on life right now. It's a strange place.

Tessa said...

Excellent review...thank you. I've just ordered 'Freedom' after having listened to Franzen on Front Row. I found 'The Corrections' slightly self conscious which irritated me a bit. But this book sounds top notch!

Nancy said...

This book is definitely going on my list. Terrific review!

mouse (aka kimy) said...

it was a damned good read!!

had i not read corrections, i might have avoided picking up this book because of the hype. but i loved how i was able to get lost in the world frazen created in corrections and he pulled off similar magic in this new one.

today reya titled her post "mistakes are made" and i thought she was going to go into a review of freedom - which she didn't - and then i wander over here and find your review.

how funny

is

that!!

and in the end, aren't you so glad it all turned out as it did.....

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Lisa said...

I picked this up at the library and then a few days later saw the audio book there and got it, too, so Doug can listen to it in the car.

I'm such a slow reader, I might listen to it, too.

I'm looking forward to diving into it after your review.

Gigi said...

Like others have already said, I love the weaving of memory, Franzen's book, and your Tube experience all into one truly thoughtful review. I have resisted this book, but you've persuaded me to pick it up!

Star said...

Freedom - something to yearn for until you've got it and then?
I'm glad you enjoyed your walk along Oxford Street, where my son works these days. It's always better to see the sky even when it's full of clouds.
Blessings, Star

kristina said...

I'd heard about Freedom but had the same reservations you did. Now putting it on the to-read list!

K x

Barrie said...

How wonderful to read one of your reviews! You've convinced me to read Freedom. And I love the thought of you and Jonathan Franzen both dealing with workers and their right to strike.

Dick said...

When I went to Russia in 1988, the word was Freedom. When I returned in 1991, there were demos in Red Square - banners lamenting the passing of the old order with its patrician certainties. Time, maybe, for a cheap paperback republication of Erich Fromm's 'The Fear Of Freedom'.

rachel said...

Such an interesting post, Bee.

A lovely, amusing little insight into the life of East Berliners is captured in the film 'Goodbye Lenin' should you want to explore further!

Marcheline said...

Because of Polly's comment, I had to google Franzen's picture, and... um... I can only say how glad I am that everyone has different ideas of beauty! Ahem.

This book does sound interesting, however, may have to give it a look.

I just finished "Strangers at the Feast" by Jennifer Vanderbes. It had a similar effect, that of weaving profound truths into a story about people, and balancing it nicely so that you don't feel you're in a lecture hall.

elizabethm said...

I will definitely give this one a go. I was wondering about it but have almost given up fiction, amazingly. You make me want to read it. I so identify with the glorious clarity of life at 21. I was fascinated by politics then and did believe that the answers were clear. Now in middle age I see so many possible answers that I forget the question.

Reya Mellicker said...

This is a wonderful post, Bee. Ah ... freedom. Is there such a thing? When the wall came down, it was common for we western democratic folks (small d) to believe our way was the "right" way.

Not so sure now that the whole world needs to share our cultural values. What do you think?

Alyson (New England Living) said...

Ok, you actually have me salivating to read that book. Very intriguing perspective!

I love that photo of part of the wall. So interesting. I believe I was in junior high when the wall came down and I don't think I was even aware of the wall until it came down. That sounds positively ignorant that someone as old as a junior high student wasn't aware of this symbol of communism, but its existence totally escaped me. I think my only realization that there was a cold war was through Sting's song "Russians". I suppose it was because I was on the tail-end of the cold war, or else I was a sheltered girl from California.

Ok, now to run out and get that book! Thanks for the recommendation.

Meri said...

Good post, Beth. I'll look for the book.

Christina said...

wonderful review! i might have to put this one, on my list.
xo

Lucy said...

Always love your reviews, I may have a go at this...

Anil P said...

Instructive post.

At an operative level, freedom has to mean 'freedom from fear' at the very least.

It's another matter what those fears might be, and I suppose that's where perspectives, and hence 'wants' can change.

Stacy Nyikos said...

I'm a little late to the game. Haven't been able to get into a kids in school/writing groove until about now. Scadalous. I really enjoyed your post. I had just returned from a year abroad in Austria when the wall came down. Ended up going back and going to university in northern Germany with a guy who sold his trabi on the border and walked into Germany the day the wall came down with no more than his welcome money. It was an amazing time. I've got to get "Freedom" now and discover how it "feels" in comparison. As you say, the destruction of the twin towers was the quintessential emotional opposite to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Kristen In London said...

I am really looking forward to that book; it will be my first Franzen. I wonder if he was giving a talk somewhere, and if so I am sorry I missed it. The Sebastian Faulks talk was wonderful if much too short: timed to fit in with the girls' school schedule! I simply love hearing a "real" writer discuss how those ideas get pulled out of his head.

Jeni said...

this is a great post - so real! did you notice the orb in the green at the top of the wall to the right of the arm?