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The Island: Three Tales by Gustaw…
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The Island: Three Tales

by Gustaw Herling-Grudziński

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It is not easy to say what it is that awakens the inexpressible reveries and nostalgia that slowly rise within the soul like birds in flight: a fragment of a landscape, a single lighted window in a darkened house front, a glimmer on a distant shore, the smell of the earth, a heavy rain, or the murmur of the wind. Such thoughts seem to have their source in something concrete, yet they elude the tongue and never show themselves in full light; they slip through fingers too clumsy to catch and hold them. They seem to evoke the sensation of a continuous but vain approach to something unattainable - the very root of consciousness, overgrown with sterile and emotionless years - as if they sprang forth in those regions (near the dreams of delirium perhaps) where everything is somehow known but condemned to indistinct existence. And examined in detail they still do not reveal all of their secret nature, yet sometimes they can suddenly drive a man to an act that no one can understand.

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Tremendous. Took this from the shelf at the used bookstore on a whim, because (sigh, I must admit to my fondness for them) there were jacket quotes "genius" and "one of the greatest European writers, " and the price was right, and I had never heard of this Gustaw Herling, Polish resistance fighter, prisoner of the Soviet slave labour camps (which produced a book that some say is the masterpiece of that experience, A World Apart), and unpublished exile in Sicily. The three loosely connected tales here are all set in Italy, and I kept having to remember that they were not, in fact, written by an Italian, so vivid are they in their ability to conjure the country.

The first, the title story, evokes the community, the history, and the landscape of its isolated island in novella length, and slowly, in precise, controlled prose, its central tragedy and its repercussions. The third is a historical piece, in which the slow, agonizing physical decay of Pope Urban IV during the plague years prompts his hallucinations of the earlier torture and burning of a heretic in the town square. The standout for me, however brilliant the other two were, was the achingly beautiful and moving central piece, the story of a leper doomed to an existence of total isolation who is unable to stifle his desire for human contact. It's up there with the great short stories of world literature.
  liehtzu1 | Dec 19, 2008 |
Gustaw Herling was a Polish writer who was relatively unknown in the U.S., but it could be easy to make an argument that his book of three novellas, The Island, should be included among the other great works of literature. I first read it ages ago and it has not lost it’s ability to shock after a second reading.

The Tower is told in the first person by a Polish officer who borrows a friend’s house to rest after the end of the Italian campaign in World War II, and then brilliantly shifts and centers the story around an 18th century leper. My favorite of the three;

In The Island, the rich, selfish Carthusians living on Capri in their fortress-monastery in the 17th century bar the monastery doors when the plague ravages the island, that is, until the islanders begin to throw corpses over the wall. There’s also a sub plot involving a romance between a stone mason who has lost his sight and a beautiful young woman. The writing is so gorgeous that it literally brought a tear to my eye;

The Second Coming depicts the painful last years of Pope Urban IV, and involves a brilliant sub plot whereby a parish priest is condemned for an act of heresy after having confessed doubts as to Christ’s physical presence in the Eucharist, and is exposed to the July sun and starved to death in a cage. And while the plague rages, the faithful await the Second Coming, and Jews and heretics accused of profaning the Holy Host are burned, hanged or beheaded.

Amazing stories, beautiful writing.
1 vote SeanLong | Oct 31, 2006 |
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One of the New York Times Books Review's Best Books of 1993 "A writer of stylistic mastery and moral depth, who deserves to be placed among the best in any language." -Jaroslaw Anders, The Boston Sunday Globe Best known for the unforgettable account of his experiences in a Russian slave-labor camp, A World Apart, Gustaw Herling was regarded by many as one of Poland's greatest prose writers of the 20th century. These three tales, all set in Italy, are intensely dramatic depictions of suffering, solitude, and mindless violence done to the spirit. The author's command of language is matched by an unblinking observation of his characters' stumbling progress toward salvation and a compassion that is limitless but never sentimental. "Reading The Island . . . I felt an exhilaration that was like the exhilaration of that first moment of being touched and in some way shattered by great prose." - Edna O'Brien

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