The Knives Come Out: Three Books About Betrayal

Mar 12, 2012
Originally published on March 12, 2012 9:56 pm

I was in Mrs. Farrell's English class when I first saw the daggers come out. Casca led them, Brutus finished the job, and then there was Julius, a bloody wreck on the floor of the Roman Senate. Not a March 15 passes that I don't hear a faint whisper in the back of my head — Beware the Ides of March -- and I've been hooked on stories of betrayal ever since.

Reading about it offers a vicarious thrill — like peering over a ledge when there's no danger of falling — but it also serves as preparation for those inevitable times when our friends, our families, our politicians or our world let us down. And so here, for fun or for practice, are three excellent books on the subject.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This Thursday, the 15th, is the Ides of March. It's an infamous date, especially for lovers of literature or Roman history, known as a day of betrayal. And that's where writer Myla Goldberg gets her theme for our series Three Books.

MYLA GOLDBERG: I was in Mrs. Farrell's English class when I first saw the daggers come out. Casca led them, Brutus finished the job, and then there was Julius, a bloody wreck on the floor of the Roman Senate. Not a March 15th passes that I don't hear a faint whisper in the back of my head - beware the Ides of March - and I've been hooked on stories of betrayal ever since. And so here are three excellent books on the subject.

Steven Millhauser's brilliant first novel is called "Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright." In the book, Edwin, an artistic genius, dead at the age of 11, is immortalized by his lifelong friend Jeffrey. This satire of biographies also serves as an unerring chronicle of childhood, not just Edwin's, but our own. It's easy to forget, as a grown-up, that there was a time when almost everything about the world felt new, but Millhauser rekindles childhood's mayfly intensity.

Jeffrey's chronicle of the doomed Edwin reminds us of children's passionate, obsessive friendships and cruel heartbreaks, their steely rivalries and - yes - their ultimate, crushing betrayals, often at the hands of the people they love most.

Next, we go to prison. In "Invitation to a Beheading," poor Cincinnatus C has been jailed for gnostical turpitude, a crime he understands no more than you do. His execution date is pending, but unknown; he spends his final days being acted upon by people and forces that are sometimes cruel, sometimes surreal and constantly hilarious, with Vladimir Nabokov misleading you at every turn in a way that will leave you hungry for more. Whatever you do, don't read the book jacket. It gives away the story's best surprise and most breathtaking betrayal of all.

An anonymous Japanese village in an unnamed time of war is the setting for Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe's first novel, "Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids," which he wrote after World War II. A group of juvenile delinquents are evacuated to the countryside, only to be abandoned by the villagers there. What follows is a sort of inverse "Lord of the Flies," in which the boys try to live with honor despite their depravations, only to be betrayed first by a plague sweeping the land and then by the villagers' return.

This spare, affecting story provides a unique window into a time when many Japanese still felt misled and betrayed by their country, posing compelling questions about loyalty, generosity and the simultaneous fragility and strength of the human spirit.

In honor of the ides, let's just come out and admit it: There's nothing like reading about someone in a terrible predicament to make you feel better about your own. Feeling betrayed by book recommendations that have fallen short on their promises? These books will not disappoint. Trust me.

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CORNISH: Myla Goldberg, her latest novel is "The False Friend." You can read this and other Three Books essays at nprbooks.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.