Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Double Life of Alfred Buber by David Schmahmann (2011)

The latest pick for me from the algorithms of the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program was The Double Life of Alfred Buber by David Schmahmann (2011).

Alfred Buber does indeed live a double life, but he lives each half of his life at such a distance from himself, that even his double life doesn't seem to equal a whole person. Buber was born in Rhodesia, the son of a Jewish Communist and a British woman. He was sent to the U.S. for college, first living with his uncle, then in a boarding house while he completed law school. He never wanted to be a lawyer, but found that he was pretty good at it, and got a position with a prestigious firm. He spent almost no money on anything except the dream house that he was building in a commuter town outside of the city. He fills the house with artwork, and has the grounds impeccably landscaped. Then he moves into it alone.

Buber is a lonely guy. He had a brief fling in law school, but the only other time he spends with members of the opposite sex are the lawyers and secretaries at work, who mostly respect but ignore him, and the prostitutes that he visits habitually. It is that second interest that leads Buber to tell his boss and uncle that he is going on a trip to Paris while he really boards a plane for an un-named city in Southeast Asia, well known for its prostitutes. Once he is there, however, he is disgusted with the whole procedure, locks himself in his hotel room, and books a flight for home. But not before venturing down an ally off the main street and making his way into a small bar filled with beautiful young women in open robes. There he "meets" Nok, a young girl from the country, as she gives him a perfunctory blow job. He buys her a book to help her learn English and promises he will come back to her. Then he heads back home, but he can't stop thinking about Nok.

Buber is a liar. He lies when it is important that no one find out the truth about his secret life, and he lies when it is of no importance at all. He lies to himself, and he lies quite a bit to his reader (who is us, obviously, but also someone quite specific in Buber's life). Many reviews have called The Double Life of Alfred Buber Nabakovian, and the combination of self-delusion, self-awareness, and isolation definitely owe a debt to Humbert Humbert. But where Humbert's obsession has a strength and power to it, Buber's seems to result in half-hearted actions, eternal doubt, and more inconsequential lies. Schmahmann brings it all together in a well-earned exhale of an ending that is satisfying for its utter Buberness. This slim character study is worth reading if you like you unreliable narrators mixed with a little humor and a lot of discomfort.

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