When a psychiatrist who endured the German concentration camps of WWII has something to say about happiness and the meaning of life, you can bet it’s something worth paying attention to. Frankl’s thoughts on the bigger questions in life are woven into the first part of this short book–an account of the author’s experiences and observations in Auschwitz and other concentration camps. An introduction to the foundations of logotherapy (the author’s approach to psychotherapy) comprise the second part of the book, in which Frankl’s ideas really come into focus.
Frankl’s refreshing premise is that “man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life” (121) and that “A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease” (125). The author’s theory of the meaning of life encompasses the complexities of human existence with startling simplicity:
As each situation in life represents a challenge to man and presents a problem for him to solve, the question of the meaning of life may actually be reversed. Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible (131).
I have seldom been moved as this book moved me, right from the preface, which contains this bit of wisdom that alone would make the book worth reading:
Don’t aim at success–the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run–in the long run, I say!–success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it (17).
[Why I read it: it was mentioned in Your Money or Your Life and the title sounded interesting.]
Possessing the writing style of an orphan love child of J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Dickens, Peake sees the world through rotting-salmon colored glasses and creates a gloomy trilogy that is, for all its sprawling imaginativeness, unsettlingly grim and ghastly. Perhaps readers who are less sensitive to words’ connotations, sounds, and tastes would be less disturbed, but I was continually galled by Peake’s preference for off-putting, unpleasant language. The opening paragraph alone contains several good examples: the castle of Gormenghast is surrounded by “mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls” and one of its towers, “patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven.”
So what, you might think, he’s just describing a creepy old castle. But no, almost everything is treated similarly. A candelabrum is “like a vast spider suspended by a metal chord,” a character’s teeth are like “two brand new rows of gravestones,” the morning sky is “awakening air quilled with blood,” and a lone cloud is “like a wing ripped from the body of an eagle.” Almost all of the characters are portrayed repellently and most posses gross names such as Rottcodd, Mr. Flay, Swelter, Steerpike, Nannie Slagg, Doctor Prunesquallor, Lord Sepulchrave Groan, Sourdust…and many more. It is not often that a reader is presented with so many characters and so few of them likeable.
The first two novels are partly redeemed, in my mind, by their vivid portrayal of many memorable characters and an imaginative setting for a plot that contains several exciting episodes and a few moving ones. I think the first two books are much stronger without the third, which was disjointed–almost incomprehensible at times–and ended poorly (it is not surprising to learn that it was cobbled together from the manuscripts of a dying author).
My review would not feel complete without mentioning Peake’s skilled illustrations, which were scattered generously throughout the text. It is so unusual to encounter an author who is capable of drawing what he writes (I always felt sorry for Tolkien in this respect). Also noteworthy is the author’s prodigious vocabulary. Between pages 309 and 793 (the trilogy is almost a thousand pages long, but it took me a while to realize that the strange words were going to keep popping up, then even longer to get tired of writing them down), I encountered no fewer than 23 very unusual words, 16 of which I am almost absolutely sure I’ve never seen in print before. For the curious, here are the 16 words with links to definitions: liana, canalized, spilth’d, daedal, abactina, lacuna, umbrageous, anile, cruddled, gracile, marcid, oriflamme, purdah, titivating, humus and mulcted.
[Why I read it: I enjoyed the BBC miniseries based on the first two books.]