Sunday, May 23, 2021

Back to the Classics Challenge 2021 - Setting Free the Bears

For the Back to the Classics 2021 category “Classic About an Animal or With an Animal in the Title”, I read John Irving’s debut novel, Setting Free the Bears which I have owned for many years... ahem… decades.  I think like a lot of readers, if they have read any Irving at all, the first Irving I read was The World According to Garp, after seeing the movie which came out in 1982. For many years thereafter, up to the late ‘90s I was a huge Irving fan and had read his novels (six) published between 1978 and 1998.  I wouldn’t say I am no longer a fan, but for whatever reason, I stopped reading him in the new millennium; well, until recently. 

Anyone who has read a few Irving novels will notice some of his signature trademark tics across his books: Vienna, bears, wrestling, orphans, bizarre deaths, etc. Not every book has every peculiarity in it, but they all have his special brand of epic tragicomedy I believe, at least the seven that I’ve now read. I didn’t encounter any Charles Dickens until 2005, but after having re-read The Cider House Rules in 2019 and now Setting Free the Bears for the first time, it is clear to me that “Dickensian” is an adjective that can be applied to Irving’s novels. 

Published in 1968, Setting Free the Bears is a frame story narrated by Hanne Graff, a Viennese university student. When Hanne flunks out of university, he takes up with the slightly unhinged Siggy Javotnik, a radish eating, salt stealing maniac, and they decide to take a motorcycle road trip. Their goal is to go all the way to Italy and the coast. The opening and closing of the novel are set during their journey in present day mid-1960s Austria, but the middle section is the life history of Siggy’s parents during World War II interspersed with Siggy’s current day obsessive plans to free the animals from the Vienna zoo (hence the title). Also central to the story is a young woman Hanne meets along the way called Gallen at an alpine hotel. Basically, however, Hanne is the straight man to the farcical Siggy and the real story within the story is the history of the Anschluss in 1938 when Nazi Germany annexed Austria and the politics and betrayals of the partisan guerilla forces in Yugoslavia during and after the war.  

The book has its charms and hit a number of the Irving markers (Vienna, bears, orphans) but on the whole, I found it awkwardly plotted, often stilted and generally it felt overly long. All John Irving books are pretty chunky, but as a reader, I don’t normally feel it; in this one I did. I think this book is maybe best left to Irving completists, though possibly had I read it a few decades ago at the height of my love for Irving I would have liked it more. I suspect some of what made it awkward and long was just the creakiness of a debut novel.  Irving was warming up to hit his later stride starting with Garp. I am glad to have read it, however. I particularly appreciated learning more about the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938 and the political makeup of Yugoslavia under Nazi occupation. I’d never heard of Draža Mihailović and the Chetniks but I think I should have, as should everyone. He was on the cover of Time in 1942, for goodness sake! Google him, I ask you all, if you’ve not heard of him. 


12 comments:

  1. I haven't heard of this Irving book. Thank you for sharing it with us.

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    1. His early stuff gets overlooked I think. Garp is what really put him on the map.

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  2. The first I read was Owen Meany & it probably remains my favorite, though Garp & several others are also very good. But he is uneven, I think, and he's also fallen off my radar. I haven't read this one. I sometimes think I should go back & try some again, but it sounds like to get back into an Irving maybe this isn't the one...

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    1. A Prayer for Owen Meany and The Cider House Rules are my favorites. I think you can safely skip Bears, however. I would like to try some one of the titles he published in the aughts, like maybe The Fourth Hand (2001) and see what I think of it.

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  3. At the mention of the Anschluss, I was really interested, but then your caution about awkward and long, makes me reconsider.

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    1. I suspect there are many better books, fiction and non-fiction, about the Anschluss. I think this one is really best left to Irving hard-core fans. :D

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  4. Hi Ruthiella, I read The World According to Garp many years ago. I remember liking it a great deal but I felt with the one or two subsequent novels I read by Irving that the plot was becoming more eccentric and so I stopped reading him but your review makes me realize that I should go back to him and read at least one more book because I don't know anything about what he may have written in recent years.

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    1. Eccentric is a really good adjective for Irving and his rambling, nutty plots are what I like/liked about his novels. If that's not your cup of tea, then you should probably call it quits at Garp. But I haven't read any of his recent books, so maybe he's changed? As I mentioned above, I need to try one of his books written in this century and see what I think.

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  5. I'm not a huge fan of Irving, but I'm sorry this isn't one of his better books. At least you can check it off your TBR shelf.

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    1. Absolutely, looking on the bright side, it is one book read from my shelves! I can understand not being a fan of Irving. His style and also his worldview comes on quite strong in his books. He's kind of like anchovies or olives (or marmite, though I've never tried it) - one either really loves him or doesn't.

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  6. I've only read Garp forever ago and Cider House Rules recently (which I loved)--I would like to read more of Irving but not sure where to turn next. Probably not this one, though I do like the premise and the title.

    Interesting that you term Irving's work as Dickensian. The tragicomedy is hard to pull off. Now I really want to read some more Irving to see if I can catch a whiff of Dickens.

    Oh, and this:
    << I particularly appreciated learning more about the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938 and the political makeup of Yugoslavia under Nazi occupation. I’d never heard of Draža Mihailović and the Chetniks but I think I should have, as should everyone. He was on the cover of Time in 1942, for goodness sake! Google him, I ask you all, if you’ve not heard of him.

    There is so much about the 1930s and 1940s that I simply don't know.

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    1. I think the Dickens connection really became obvious in The Cider House Rules because of the eternal reading of David Copperfield in that book. Which is something I had completely forgotten since I'd never read any Dickens at all. But Irving and Dickens both often have orphans, grotesque outsized characters, social commentary, crazy plots...

      Yes, there is so much about the 20th century that I feel like I should know better than I do!

      If you liked The Cider House Rules, I suggest you try A Prayer for Owen Meany next or The World According to Garp.

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