Friday, September 16, 2016

The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson
Jacobson’s main character is besieged by emotional woes; the second sentence of the novel is, “His life had been one mishap after another.” Unfortunately, Julian Treslove and his mishaps (particularly those involving women) were too doggedly offbeat to be credible. For example, Julian is employed by a theatrical agency as a double for famous people at parties, conferences, etc. “Treslove didn’t look like anybody famous in particular, but looked like many famous people in general, and so was in demand if not by virtue of verisimilitude, at least by virtue of versatility.” (Of course, we never see Treslove plying his trade.) The crucial event comes early, when Treslove is robbed on a London street. The person who mugs him is a woman, and she says something Treslove finds unintelligible. At first he thinks her words were “Your jewels,” but after interminable contemplation he becomes convinced that she said, “You Jew.” This is used as a jumping off point: Treslove (who isn’t Jewish) begins to think of himself as being a Jew. The Finkler Question is really the Jewish Question. When Finkler and his wife argue (which is all they do) it’s over his ASHamed Jews movement; Jacobson even manages to make Treslove’s affair with Finkler’s wife revolve around Jewishness. I’m not interested in that subject per se (and per se was all there was), and what was left? Only one of the characters was appealing (an old fellow named Libor Sevcik, who is relegated to the sidelines); I found nothing humorous in a book that was (I suppose) meant to be a comic romp; the bluntness of the sex scenes made me yearn for women who have a modicum of modesty in words and actions (something mighty hard to find in today’s fiction). After I quit this Booker Prize-winner I did a bit of research on Jacobson and found that through a long and successful career his bread and butter issue has been Jewishness (his latest novel is entitled J). As an experiment I glanced through the half of The Finkler Question that I hadn’t read, opening it twenty times at random, and not once did I come across a page without references to you-know-what. I’ll do it again, right now. Okay, page 220 of the hardback edition: “He doesn’t say, the Jews misleading the world again, but only an uncomplaining fool, happy to be unforeskinned, could miss the implication.” This excerpt conveniently brings up something else that I wasn’t interested in but that gets a lot of attention: the state of penises.

Look at the Harlequins! – Vladimir Nabokov
If you’re not a Nabokov afficionado, don’t bother with this book; I am, and I found it enjoyable. It’s framed as an autobiography of a emigre Russian writer named Vadim; his novels are listed, and all of them are Nabokov’s novels assigned new names (it was fun to figure out which was which). Nabokov is playing a game with the reader; he mixes similarities in his own life with differences. Vadim is married three times before he meets the right woman; Vladimir married the right woman when he was twenty-six. What do these other wives represent? Mistakes he managed to avoid? Vadim states that “madness has been lying in wait for me behind this or that alder or boulder since infancy.” One wonders if Vladimir suffered from the same “incipient insanity.” And then there’s the Lolita connection . . . Coming from an author who some accused of having pederastic tendencies, Nabokov’s assigning that abnormality to Vadim seems like either an admission or an act of defiance. When Vadim’s eleven-year-old daughter Bel comes to live with him after a separation of many years, we get scenes like this: “She could not stop shivering, though, and I had to thrust my hands under her skirt and rub her thin body, till it glowed, so as to ward off ‘pneumonia’ which she said, laughing jerkily, was a ‘new,’ was a ‘moon,’ a ‘new moon’ and a ‘moan,’ a ‘new moan,’ thank you.” Later he claims to see “Nothing wrong or dangerous, or absurd or downright cretinous in my relationship between my daughter and me. Save for a few insignificant lapses – a few hot drops of tenderness, a gasp masked by a cough and that sort of stuff – my relations with her remained essentially innocent.” Yet Bel takes to walking around the house naked; when she appears wearing only slippers and a necklace, the woman who would be Vadim’s third wife is “flabbergasted” and has her sent away to a boarding school. Vera appears late in Vadim’s life, and is referred to only as “you” (Vera was Nabokov’s first reader, and he dedicated all his books to her). For him she represented no-nonsense Reality; I believe that she kept him stable, able to avoid the nightmare world to which he exiled so many of his fictional creations. But I may have given the impression that this is a dark and depressing work when it’s actually rather a lark. I believe that the act of writing well about even deplorable things gave Nabokov pleasure. At any rate, after suffering through half of Ada, I was grateful that my long association with him would end on a bright note; his last sentence has, appropriately, no period: “I had been promised some rum with my tea – Ceylon and Jamaica, the sibling islands (mumbling comfortably, dropping off, mumble dying away) –” Before he died Nabokov asked that the book he was working on (or, rather, doodling around with) be destroyed. But thirty years later his son Dmitri had The Original of Laura published, something which I consider an act of betrayal. I’ll close with a quote from Harlequins that describes what his craft meant to Nabokov; Vadim remembers Paris “merely as the chance setting for the most authentic and faithful joys of my life: the colored phrase in my mind under the drizzle, the white page under the desk lamp awaiting me in my humble home.”

Monday, August 29, 2016

The Walking Stick – Winston Graham
The walking stick is used by Deborah; when she was eleven she contracted polio and was left with a withered leg. At age twenty-six she holds a respected position in a high-end London auction house. She’s fairly content; romantic love has been denied her, but she’s resigned to that fact. And then, at a party, she meets Leigh. . . . This book has elements of a thriller, but it’s primarily a psychological study in which love plays a dominant role. “I love you, Leigh,” are the last words Deborah speaks to the man who brought her out of her shell, broke down her resistance and insecurities, made her feel wanted and valued, gave her sexual pleasure. And then she walks off and does something that will shatter his life and that of others – including her own. For Leigh had made Deborah vulnerable to pain; the corrosive emotions that surface in her are entirely credible. I found her willful destructiveness both exhilarating and poignant. To generate a visceral response in a reader is a goal most sought by all artists. Art is another subject that Graham addresses, for Leigh’s passionate desire is to be a painter. But when he shows his work to an expert he’s dismissed as no more than an illustrator: “They are – pictures, if you know what I mean. They’re no better and no worse than hundreds of others about. But they’re not really – forgive me – paintings, as I understand the word.” Leigh accepts this evaluation; but his dreams have been crushed. And what’s left? As I felt for Deborah, I also felt for Leigh; they both suffer a devastating loss. The mystery element in the novel involves motivations – why a person does something. The truth of the matter always dawned on me before it was fully revealed on the page. This isn’t a criticism; Graham was writing about real people, so the reader was provided with everything he needed to discern how things would go. I even knew what would be on the last page, but that was because it was the only way to end the book. It had the impact of the inevitable. *

The Memorial – Christopher Isherwood
The book is subtitled “Portrait of a Family,” and the approach is to give characters a section in which we get a stream-of-consciousness view of their thoughts and feelings. It’s done lucidly – the prose is good. But we go from one person to another and then to another, and far into the book I was having trouble figuring out who was related to whom, and how they felt about each other. Someone of no apparent significance would make a brief appearance, but later it would turn out that he or she had an important role. And I’d wonder what this person had said and done on page six. To further muddle things the narrative skips back and forth in time. Book One is set in 1928; Book Two in 1920; Book Three 1925. Isherwood made an ambitious attempt to write a novel that, despite its modest length (it’s under three hundred pages), warranted the use of the word “Book.” That struck me as pretentious, as did the structural intricacies. But the most serious shortcoming was that, at age twenty-eight, the author simply didn’t know enough about people; everybody was walking and with a label. When the scene shifted to College, and sensitive Eric and irresponsible Maurice took center stage, I decided, with a sense of relief, that I had enough of this family.

The Soul of Kindness – Elizabeth Taylor
With simplicity and clarity Taylor goes deep into the emotional lives of nine diverse characters. Flora, the lovely centerpiece, has led an unruffled existence; by nature she’s a happy person who wants everyone else to be happy. None of them are, to varying degrees; a few are enveloped in an incurable state of loneliness. Elinor is married to a man who doesn’t care about her: “He could leave me in the morning lying stretched dead on the floor. And if anyone later in the day asked him how I was, he’d say, ‘Fine. Fine. Thank you’; and then he might suddenly remember and say, ‘Well, no, as a matter of fact, she’s dead.’ ” She tells this to Flora’s husband; Richard finds Elinor interesting, but he withdraws his companionship when he sees that it disturbs his wife; he feels a responsibility to keep her face free of concern: “. . . it would surely be his fault if it was altered, if the Botticelli calm were broken, or the appealing gaze veiled.” That calm is broken when Kit (who, since he was a boy, has been in love with Flora) attempts suicide. Flora receives an anonymous letter (it’s from Liz, the only malicious character in the novel) blaming her for what happened. But how is Flora to blame? She does nothing to encourage Kit’s feelings for her. He has dreams of being an actor, and in this she does encourage him, which is a mistake. When he’s ill with the flu she comes to his apartment to tend to him, and she turns to his dreams, which he has wisely discarded: “I know you have this gift.” He feels euphoria at her words, but after she leaves he sees clearly that he has no gift, no glowing future, and he sinks into a deep depression. Flora had acted out of kindness; her only failing is obliviousness to life’s harsh facts. All the others must face those facts; perhaps that’s why they either resent her or feel obligated to protect her (as one protects a child). This novel moves in a straight line, and it ends with no resolutions – it’s likely that some characters will accept compromises, but for others the problems they face are unsolvable. Even Flora’s continuing insularity is not assured.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Nobody Move – Denis Johnson
On the inside flap of the hardback edition is a ridiculous claim that this novel is “touched by echoes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.” And the blurbs on the back compare Johnson to Twain, Whitman and God (the last by Jonathan Franzen). We get a snippet from a Jim Lewis review in The New York Times – “Good morning and please listen to me: Denis Johnson is a true American artist.” This quote is incomplete; it actually continues with “and Tree of Smoke is a tremendous book.” Lewis was referring to the novel that won a National Book Award, not to Nobody Move. If comparisons are to be made, I found Elmore Leonard’s influence in the fast-moving, sassy, street smart dialogue. Then we descend into the dark and twisted territory staked out by Cormac McCarthy. Maybe DJ was aiming for the type of lucrative movie deals garnered by those two authors. Serve up plenty of sex, vulgarity, violence and – this is important if you want to emulate Cormac – creepiness. There’s an ominous Tall Man who, it turns out, is five foot seven; no reason is given for how he got his name, though something is wrong with him: “He stood under the ceiling light with his hat tipped forward and his face in a shadow and a hooked pinky traveling toward one of his nostrils, if he had nostrils.” We never learn more. Yes, I read the whole thing (it’s very short – a novella, at best – and it was serialized in Playboy, that citadel of good taste). For me this became a study revealing how low the literary world has sunk. Because – Please listen to me – no true American artist would sink so low as to produce a smarmy bit of pandering like Nobody Move. I’ll go straight to the text to prove my point. “I didn’t say I’m killing you,” Juarez told him. “What’s happening is I’m about to cut off your balls. If you die of it, that’s your personal decision.” What Juarez and Gambol are going to do, as Jimmy watches, is to eat his balls (they’ve done this with previous victims). Later there’s an encounter with a wheelchair-bound judge who’s wearing a colostomy bag: “With both her hands she grasped the bag under his armpit and jerked it free and struck him across the face with it, putting half a pirouette behind the blow, and Gambol leapt aside as feces erupted down the man’s neck and chest and behind his back, so that he was wearing it and sitting in it.” Actually, Denis Johnson is wearing it and sitting in it. And so are you, if this kind of stuff appeals to you. To conclude my study I checked out what reviewers at the top publications had to say. I couldn’t find one objection to the book’s ugliness; in fact many found much to praise in Nobody Move. Heaven help us.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden – Elizabeth von Arnim
To my surprise (and it was a pleasant one) this is a subversive book. It pricks and deflates conventional beliefs with a light, graceful touch; all is serene, there’s not an iota of stridency. The opening words are “I love my garden.” What Elizabeth doesn’t love are her fellow human beings. On the final page she strolls the green paths and thinks “It makes one very humble to see one’s self surrounded by such a wealth of beauty and perfection anonymously lavished and to think of the infinite meanness of our own grudging charities, and how displeased we are if they are not promptly and properly appreciated.” The word the author chooses to italicize is significant because nature’s beauty is usually attributed to God. And she uses “we” and “our” in referring to meanness; Elizabeth is as selfish as others. She feels no pity or duty toward the poor; entertaining guests is a chore, and when “great friends” depart she wishes “not to see them again for at least ten years.” One of the book’s many virtues is its humor; characters and episodes are gently slanted to show their comic side. Her husband is referred to only as the Man of Wrath. Though mostly silent (or absent altogether) he occasionally launches into long speeches; some express a misogynistic point of view. “Do you suppose that the intellectual husband, wrestling intellectually with the chaotic yearnings of his intellectual wife, ever achieves the result aimed at?” Of those women of the lower class who get a prompt clout, he says, “I consider they are to be envied rather than not since they are early taught, by the impossibility of argument with marital muscle, the impotence of female endeavor and the blessings of content.” An iconoclast herself, Elizabeth seems to respect (and to be amused by) the opinions that the Man of Wrath devilishly advocates; at any rate, she gives him full rein. Garden was a huge success when it came out in 1898; I think it was passed along by its female audience much as a banned book might be. Women probably admired the author’s freedom – not just to say what she pleases, but her escape from the duties and responsibilities of caring for family and household. Though Elizabeth had three children in rapid succession, these “babies” play a mostly decorative role; a governess does the heavy lifting. For many years the identity of the author was a mystery; in the volume I have (which came out in 1900) there’s a Forward in which it’s attributed to Her Highness Princess Henry of Pless. This Forward also describes Garden as a “gem among the world’s prose poems.” I agree with the gem part, but I didn’t find the language to be poetic. So what is the book – a diary, a memoir, a novel, a journal of musings, an idyll in which nature and solitude are the objects of desire? Actually, it can’t be confined to any category. It’s much like the flowers and plants and trees that, in their season of freedom, run rampant, but do it quietly, and are lovely. *

Friday, July 29, 2016

The Secret History – Donna Tartt
Binky Urban. I keep seeing her name in the Acknowledgments section of books by young authors. She’s an agent, a mover and shaker in the literary world (I can hear “Binky darling!” being called out across crowded rooms at a thousand New York parties). But here’s the thing: why didn’t she tell Donna Tartt that her novel was twice as long as it needed to be? Because it is, and after the halfway point I found myself laboring along in desultory fashion until I ground to a halt at page 350 (with over two hundred pages to go). I did read the ending (hysteria, culminating in a suicide) and the Epilogue (Purple Prose). The hysteria and Purple Prose were a surprise, because for the first half things were under control. I diagnosed Tartt as an obsessive-compulsive. She constructed History carefully; part of its length is due to how complete everything is (except the murder of the farmer during the Bacchanalian revel, which is left hazy due to its improbability). I’m okay with OCD writing as long as things don’t get stagnant. A lot of the credit for the book’s readability goes to the first person narrator; I was smoothly persuaded to accept the premise of an assemblage of oddball college geniuses studying Greek under the tutelage of the enigmatic Julian. A few minor glitches. For so careful as writer, there are gaps in logic (which I won’t go into). And the Edenesque world of privilege Tartt creates was marred by the occasional intrusion of Bret Easton Ellis’s brand of ennui (he was her classmate at Bennington and she dedicated the book to him). Part One ends with the murder that was foretold in the Prologue; the scene is done with admirable restraint, so I entered Part Two in a good frame of mind. It’s here that Binky should have intervened: “Donna, girl, is all this necessary? I mean the investigation, the tactics to avoid detection. It goes on and on, and it’s really not that interesting. We just need to know what effects their deed has on the principals. Maybe you could close with a chance meeting between Richard and Camilla years later?” Instead I think Tartt was encouraged to go on and on (maybe Binky saw a blockbuster as more marketable). It also seems as if, in true OCD fashion, Tartt couldn’t let go of characters she had become enraptured with. Indiscriminate encouragement and rapture are a bad combo, especially for a young writer, and would account for the book’s nosedive in the second half. And so it is that yet another meteor in the literary firmament fizzles out in the aboveground backyard pool. In closing, I want to thank Binky Urban for making this review possible.

The House of Mirth – Edith Wharton
For much of this book I didn’t like or sympathize with Lily Bart. Wharton constantly lavishes praise on her social skills, composure and, most of all, her beauty. In a two page stretch she’s described as “tall and noble” and having a “slender majesty.” The words “noble” and “majesty” don’t seem appropriate for a woman who is pursuing marriage to a man she has absolutely no feelings for simply because his wealth can enable her to live in the gilded world she’s accustomed to. It’s a world in which possessions and parties and knowing the right people are what counts; morally, ethically and intellectually it’s a wasteland. Selden tries to convince Lily that there’s a more worthwhile way of life. Lily perceives that he’s right, but that doesn’t sway her. Lily and Selden could be in love; but, for Lily, he doesn’t have money; and, in Selden’s case, he’s always ready to retreat from a true commitment. The convoluted prose in which the story is told shows the pernicious influence of Henry James. Still, it was an active book, with much social maneuvering, and it held my attention. Then, near the end, an emotional sea change took place. Lily descends into the dinginess she had always feared: a boarding house, a job in a workroom making hats. And she can’t do that competently: “Since she was brought up to be ornamental, she could hardly blame herself for failing to serve any practical purpose; but her discovery put an end to her consoling sense of universal efficiency.” There’s a solution to her money woes, but it would involve blackmail; though the victim eminently deserves it, Lily can’t save herself by this means. She finally took shape for me: a flawed person, but not a bad or hurtful one. I felt the sympathy I had long withheld. Felt it fully. I was moved by the paragraphs in which she takes too much chloral; this perfectly-executed presentation of a state of mind is given to us with no convolutions. Just the straight truth of a woman who desires above all the oblivion offered by sleep. She welcomes the sense of subjugation the drug brings to her; before she yields to the warm abyss of unconsciousness she thinks, languidly, “Tomorrow would not be so difficult after all: she felt sure she would have the strength to meet it. She did not quite remember what she had been afraid to meet, but the uncertainty no longer troubled her.”

May Flavin – Myron Brinig
Up to the halfway point this had been a grounded, naturalistic novel about the lives of uneducated slum-dwellers. Then, abruptly, the plot introduces a sultry prostitute, a knife fight, etc. What had been realistic became garishly ludicrous. Maybe Brinig decided that the joys and travails of his characters were lacking in interest and that he needed to spice things up. But there’s drama to be found in any life; what’s needed is an author with the imagination and empathy to see the uniqueness and importance of so-called “common” people. Brinig committed the cardinal sin in fiction: he resorted to melodrama. I quit reading when the knives came out, though I did peek at the ending; and, sure enough, two of May and Mike’s children become world-famous movie stars. Yeah, right, and I’m the Queen of Sheba.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Indignation – Philip Roth
About a quarter of the way through this novel the narrator makes the following statement: “And even dead, as I am and have been for I don’t know how long, I try to reconstruct the mores that reigned over that campus and to recapitulate the troubled efforts to elude those mores that fostered the series of mishaps ending in my death at the age of nineteen.” A few things to note: Is the voice right? Would a boy talk in such a formal, stilted way? As for his declaration, “mores” are not Marcus’s problem. His troubled efforts are directed at coping with people whose actions are hurtful and inexplicable. When he calls out, “If only my father, if only Flusser, if only Elwyn, if only Olivia – !” he’s identifying his real dilemma. It’s a complex one that Roth never addresses; he simply lets characters do their damage and then disposes of them. This seemed especially evasive in the case of Olivia. Instead of dealing with the emotional quandary this appealing and deeply disturbed young woman presents for Marcus, Roth gets rid of Olivia by shipping her off to a mental hospital. What Roth does turn his attention to are unlikely and somewhat ridiculous events (an epic panty raid, etc.). As for those “mores that reigned over that campus,” Marcus chose to go to a conservative, religious college (where he’s one of a handful of Jews), so why would he go into a long rant in the dean’s office espousing his atheistic beliefs? Actually, he wouldn’t; his words come “almost verbatim” from a Bertrand Russell lecture entitled “Why I Am Not a Christian.” Roth acknowledges this source; but a question arises: why would he use his main character as a mere mouthpiece? In the short final chapter, which is told in the third person, we learn that Marcus was expelled from Winesburg College and was drafted; he winds up on Massacre Mountain in Korea, wounded beyond recovery; to put him out of his physical suffering he’s given a heavy dose of morphine; the only thing functioning is his mind, and what we’ve been reading are his last thoughts (as if his last thoughts would be “to reconstruct” and “to recapitulate”). Fact is, by steadily reducing Marcus to a shadow of what he had once been, Roth had killed him off before the Chinese forces do the job. In the closing two page “Historical Note” we learn that in the seventies Winesburg was forced by student protests to change course: “ . . . the chapel requirement was abolished along with virtually all the strictures and parietal rules regulating student conduct . . .” Is this a summing up of Marcus’s story? Was the indignation all about the unfair conservative mores of a Midwestern college? What a copout.

The Humbling – Philip Roth
What gets humbled is Philip Roth. The novel begins with a once-great stage actor, now in his sixties, agonizing over his inability to perform. He becomes suicidal, but he can’t pull the trigger; he checks himself into a mental hospital; there he meets a woman who asks him to kill her husband; he declines. In the second chapter (called “The Transformation”) Pegeen enters his life. Axler had been friends with her parents, and had known her from infancy. He also knew that since age twenty-three she had lived as a lesbian. When her previous lover had decided to undergo a sex change – something which Pegeen considered to be a betrayal – she had left her and taken a job at the university near where Axler lives. There she carried on – and abruptly terminated – an affair with the female dean, who goes bonkers over this. (Don’t we have a lot of people acting oddly?) Anyway, Axler and Pegeen become lovers, and he’s transformed into a happy man. But he has misgivings, mainly about their twenty-five year age difference; his worries are reinforced when Pegeen gives him a verbatim account (in a seven page long paragraph) of a conversation she has with her mother; regarding her affair with Axler she says, “I’ve been very surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed it. But I couldn’t yet declare it’s definitely the permutation I will always want.” (Is this how real people talk?) Up to this point the novel was a bit staid, so I wasn’t prepared when, on the first page of the last chapter (“The Final Act”), Roth abruptly plunged me knee deep in kinky sex. It was both explicit and clinical, a distasteful combination, but I kept reading so that I could witness a famous author flushing himself down the toilet. He achieves this when describing, in ugh-inducing detail, a threesome (“Your turn. Defile her,”orders Pegeen). As things turn out, Pegeen decides it’s over with Axler; she takes her bag of sex toys and moves on to her next permutation (probably with the defiled woman). Axler is again in suicidal despair over the loss of this gem (he wanted her to be the mother of his child). Since everybody in this novel is a robot, I could care less. Roth resurrects the woman in the mental hospital (I knew she had to be in the story for some reason); he learns that she had killed her husband with two shotgun blasts, and in this act Axler finds inspiration: “If she can do that, I can do this.” Still, he hesitates, shotgun in hand, until he gets a great idea: he can “pretend he was committing suicide in a play.” Chekhov, it is, The Seagull. And he brings it off, his final act. Thankfully, this demeaning book wasn’t Roth’s final act – there would be one more before he called it quits.

See Philip Roth's Final Quartet for more.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Little House on the Prairie – Laura Ingalls Wilder
The author writes about her childhood – the experiences and feelings of her six-year-old self – with a simplicity that gives this book its appeal. The story she has to tell is one of a pioneer family’s life. What comes across forcefully is the resourcefulness needed to survive. Pa can build a house from scratch, dig a well, shoot game, plant a crop. When a prairie fire comes sweeping toward them, he knows exactly what he and Ma must do to save themselves. On those occasions when he goes to Independence for supplies, or is late to come home, apprehension sets in; Pa is the linchpin of the family. Ma is the glue; she does her full share of work, but she also imposes orderliness; despite the fact that they have a dirt floor, the house must be clean and tidy, and Laura and her older sister must be well-mannered young ladies. These people are strong in spirit, resilient, upbeat; pioneers must be or they would crumble in the face of the many hardships and dangers they encounter. In one chapter a huge pack of wolves surrounds the house. The entire Wilder family is felled by what they call “fever ’n’ ague” (it’s actually malaria). A neighbor tends to them; though separated by miles, people come to the aid of each other when needed. As for Indians, they’re not seen in today’s politically correct terms; Pa believes that, since he developed the land into a farm, it should be his. The Indians are hostile, sometimes threatening, though never violent. In the end the government orders the settlers off the land, so the Wilder family pack their wagon and leave all they worked so hard to make. They move on to their next home, and many young readers followed. Why the huge success of this series? The overriding feeling this book imparts is one of warmth, and this warmth comes from love. The Wilders loved one another, and therefore Laura’s childhood was idyllic.

One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Ken Kesey
Initially I was impressed by this novel, especially when I learned that the author was in his mid-twenties when he wrote it. Kesey’s two antagonists are archetypes: McMurphy is the unconditioned, untamed male, Nurse Ratched the emasculating female; in the confines of a mental hospital they become engaged in a deadly battle of wills. The narrator is a broom-wielding Indian inmate who relates what he witnesses and also conveys his vision of a world controlled by an inhuman Combine. But when I passed the halfway point an array of nagging problems set in, mostly involving the Chief (McMurphy’s name for the narrator). The accumulation of things he sees and hears becomes unlikely (he’s everywhere). Then he begins to enter the minds of other characters; the switch to third-person omniscient is jarring. The Chief becomes a participator in events, but he was more interesting when he was a shadowy observer. Also, I felt that Kesey inspiration and drive had petered out, and he was groping around for ways to move his story forward; what he comes up with too often are juvenile hijinks. Would the fishing trip, which is to be chaperoned by “two sweet old aunts,” be allowed by the hospital staff, especially when one of the aunts shows up and is young, pretty and scantily clothed? A problem for the novel is that the movie version was better. Being more compact, it eliminated most of the meandering, and the Chief doesn’t carry the burden of narrator. As I read the final pages I realized that I was seeing the closing scenes from the film, and it was those remembered scenes that moved me. Though one thing the book did at the end that the movie didn’t. When the lobotomized McMurphy is returned to the ward – now a vegetable which Nurse Ratched puts on display – the men dismiss him as a fake. “Aaah, what’s the old bitch tryin’ to pull over on us anyhow, for crap sakes. That ain’t him.” In this statement Kesey returns to his original theme: men need the untamed McMurphys to roam the world.

The Wine of Solitude – Irene Nemirovsky (French)
In Helene’s highly dysfunctional family her mother is a selfish, amoral beauty who treats her daughter with aggressive disdain and her father is an amiable absentee, compelled to go out gambling nightly. At age twelve cynical, world-weary Helene wants her father’s love and harbors a hatred for her mother; at age twenty-one cynical, world-weary Helene wants her father’s love and harbors a hatred for her mother (and gloatingly watches the woman’s beauty erode as her own grows). She decides to get revenge by stealing the affections of her mother’s layabout lover. She succeeds, though she never allows him more than kisses; he departs in disgust (can’t blame him). Nemirovsky severely exaggerates emotions while failing to develop the personalities who are feeling those emotions; as a result her characters turn into caricatures striking dramatic poses (the father’s deathbed scene was so overwrought that it became silly). And I started to have practical questions about our heroine. Why, as a grown woman, doesn’t she have a life outside her family? Why hasn’t she developed intellectually or morally? Can’t she do something more constructive with her days than plot? The author obviously recognized this flaw, so in the ending she lets Helene soar, free as the wind: “ ‘I’m not afraid of life,’ she thought. ‘The past has given me the first experiences of the world. They have been exceptionally difficult, but they have forged my courage and my pride. And that immutable treasure is mine, and belongs to me. I may be alone, but my solitude is powerful and intoxicating.’ ” Right, sure. A novel like this has a perverse appeal: its faults are entertaining (“forged my courage” – that kind of thing). And Nemirovsky can write well; the atmospheres of the various places the Karol family flee to in the wake of the Russian Revolution (Kiev, St Petersburg, Finland, Paris) are evoked nicely (though, through Helene’s eyes, all except Finland are grim and joyless). In the beginning I found her negativity to be bracing; as a thirteen-year-old she looks at a picture of a happy family in her textbook and thinks, “Good Lord! What imbeciles . . .” The picture may depict a lie, but the author of this book doesn’t come up with any truths either.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Wager – Machado de Assis (Portuguese)
The novel takes the form of a journal kept by Aires, a sixty-three-year-old widower living in Rio de Janeiro. The wager is whether a young widow will marry again. (She does.) I’m giving away the outcome because it doesn’t matter. With the exception of Aires, no character is developed and the plot has no tension. This is a mood piece by a sixty-eight-year-old author who died months after the book was published. Though thoughts of death are pervasive, the mood isn’t dark. Aires/Assis accepts with calm resignation how life works, and he’s only mildly moved by anything, including his own demise. He still retains an interest in human nature and he can still find people to be a source of humor. But the absence of passion gives the novel a muted quality. To Aires the two young people who marry “have the right to live and to love, and to leave the dead and the aged behind with no regrets.” Fidelia must leave the memories of her dead husband behind, and both she and Tristao must leave their aged foster parents behind. There is no tragedy in this.

A Place in Time – Wendell Berry
These are crafted stories, in the sense that a master carpenter can make joints fit flush. I’m not referring just to the prose. Crafting in fiction is about how characters and situations are developed, and how the ending is handled. In “The Requirement” a man is dying; we go over Big’s life, as seen from the memories of a friend. We get to know Big. At the end he asks, from his bed, for the narrator to get his revolver from the closet. It’s what happens after that request that shows Berry’s gift; the ending is unexpected, perfectly right, and moving. In this story, as in many others, Berry imparts a philosophy about life and values. Mostly it blends in with the fabric of the narrative, but at times the philosophical and contemplative aspects are too overt (and belong, properly, in essays). What does consistently work is Berry’s waggish sense of humor. A woman recalls how she and her husband-to-be woke up a preacher to perform the marriage ceremony: “When he asked Grover to promise all those things ‘to death,’ Grover said, ‘Would you go over that a little slower?’ ” The pace throughout this collection is leisurely, which is appropriate for stories that dwell in the past, before mechanical efficiency sped everything up. I found it pleasurable to go back to a simpler time, when work was physically difficult but the fruits of one’s labor were clear to see. Also, people had an intimate connection with nature and animals and tools. Despite all the virtues to be found in this book – rare ones – I felt I was missing a lot. The setting is a small farming community on the banks of the Kentucky River. Kinship is important, but I couldn’t keep the relationships straight. Characters appear in one story, then reappear in another, and I couldn’t remember them as they had been. These are interconnected stories, but I often didn’t get the connections. What I intend to do is go back to the first novel in the series. Because I want to spend more time with the people of Port William.

The Enchanted April – Elizabeth von Arnim
A woman lunching in her London club reads an ad in The Times addressed “To Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine.” An Italian castle is to be let for the month of April. Mrs. Wilkins (Lottie) notices another woman staring at the same page. Eventually the two – strangers, both unhappily married and dissatisfied with their lives – decide to take the plunge. To defray expenses, they recruit an elderly widow, cranky and stuck in the past, and a young woman who is so gorgeous that men are mesmerized by her. (Caroline yearns to get away from all the “grabbers” in the world.) In Italy the four women are immersed in the stunning natural beauty. For Lottie it’s transforming: she sees life in an altogether different light (a rose-colored one), and the force of her feelings affects the others. Well into this novel I was caught up by an invigorating sense of escapism. But when men (the two husbands and the owner of the castle) enter the picture, reality set in. At least it did for me; the author tries to keep up the fantasy that Lottie Love can induce a radical change in everybody. I couldn’t accept that Mr. Wilkins will cease to be a tyrant, nor that Caroline would warm up to a grabber like Mr. Briggs. Unlikely complications proliferate, and the gentle humor is replaced by slapstick. What had been quietly uplifting becomes doggedly instructive; to assert the primacy of Love makes it seem simplistic and sappy. When you like a book, then it falls apart, one feels betrayed. So I was in a bad mood when I read the introduction by Cathleen Schine. She raises the possibility that some characters are based on real people from the author’s life: “The Enchanted April’s sweetly ardent Mr. Biggs, owner of the castello, is, in his search for a mothering sort of love, based on Frere.” For one thing, the man’s name is Briggs, and he’s so smitten with young Caroline that he’s hardly able to function; he’s certainly not after any mothering.

Friday, May 13, 2016

My Struggle: Book One – Karl Ove Knausgaard (Norwegian)
This is the first of six autobiographical novels. The word “addictive” applies. For over four hundred pages I was absorbed in a narrative that, for the most part, consists of ordinary daily events (the parts where the author goes into deep thinking mode were less engaging). The prose is unadorned and straightforward, the dialogue naturalistic, and the secondary characters strong. Most important, I felt that a sincere effort was being made to tell the truth; Karl presents himself to the reader, warts and all. The main focus in this volume is his relationship with his father. As a boy he senses that the man disapproves of him, so he becomes fearful of any contact. As an adult he watches from a distance as his father’s life deteriorates. After his death (the result of a long bout of suicidal drinking) Karl and his brother clean a house that has descended, over the years, into a disgusting state; that a man could sink so low is appalling. Karl has no answers as to what tormented his father; regarding his own struggles, he’s aware of personal inadequacies but seems unwilling to take steps to resolve them. This isn’t a memoir; it is, as advertised, a novel, and it attains the stature of literature in an unusual way. By an accumulation of events, some showing Knausgaard as a boy and some as an adult, we live segments of a man’s life and feel what he feels. But do I want to read more? Not soon; maybe later I’ll pick up the second volume. At this point, I need a break from being Karl Ove.

Norwood – Charles Portis
Dear Mr. Portis. This is the only time I’ve ever written an author. I don’t read many books. Most are long and complicated and I don’t care about the people. They’re not like me. But your book was short and simple to read, and I knew Norwood. He was a good old boy like me. He has some wild adventures and it was fun going along with him. I’ve never been twenty miles from where I was born and I never met a midget. I wonder if that midget will send him his fifty dollars. I doubt it, not the way he hightailed it after he got the money. Will Norwood marry Rita Lee and will they be happy? I’d say yes, because neither expects a whole lot out of life. And both are goodnatured. Norwood thinks he can play the guitar and sing, but I was glad you didn’t have him wind up on the Louisiana Hayride and be a big hit. Because that kind of stuff doesn’t happen in real life. It’s just stuff we dream about happening. I saw in the back of the book that you wrote this other book called True Grit. Now I seen that as a movie, the one starring John Wayne. I expect you got paid plenty for that. So I was wondering, could you send me $50? It’s for a good cause, to bail Granny out of jail. She’s in for battery on a police officer, but there’s two sides to what happened that night. Anyway, the hoosgow ain’t no place for a 67 year old lady. I think from your book that you got a good heart. I promise I’ll pay you back soon as I get my disability check. I’m not like that midget. Just send the money to me at the Tickfaw, Louisiana post office, general delivery. I get all my mail there. Thanks. And keep writing them good books.

The Lieutenant – Andre Dubus
This is a military novel, but the battles fought are over moral choices. Lieutenant Dan Tierney is in command of a Marine contingent aboard an aircraft carrier. Trouble arises among his men; it emerges, gradually, that some of the soldiers are engaging in homosexual bullying. Ted Freeman is their main victim; the role of victim is one he has endured all his life; it was out of a need to gain self-esteem that he joined the Marines. Lieutenant Tierney, though only twenty-five, believes fervently in the old school values of the Corps (he even carries a swagger stick). He takes action to end what’s going on – which he considers repugnant and shameful – while trying to keep it hidden from his naval superiors; his decisions are irresolute and make matters worse. There’s a saying that’s relevant: “The career of a Marine officer is living the lie and making the lie come true.” Tierney lives the lie – that the Marine Corp is an honorable institution – but he cannot make it come true. In a prose as compact as a bullet Dubus relates a series of events that will ultimately crush Freeman. In trying to help the boy Tierney locks horns with the ship’s captain, and as a result his career is derailed from what he believes is his true calling – to lead men in combat. Tierney’s emotional makeup is an amalgam of passion and stoicism. When he gets a Dear John letter from the woman he loves and needs (she’s the daughter of a Marine Colonel and she doesn’t want to live the life of a Marine wife), he writes her, in block letters: “AS THE SAYING GOES, IF THE MARINE CORPS WANTED ME TO HAVE A WIFE THEY WOULD HAVE ISSUED ME ONE.” Andre Dubus was a Marine for six years; he was thirty-one when this novel (his only one) was published. In 1967 the taboo nature of the subject matter – homosexuality in the military – may have contributed to its lack of recognition. The 1986 edition I have was put out by The Green Street Press; it’s beautifully done, obviously an act of respect. The novel deserves respect. *

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Midaq Alley – Naguib Mahfouz (Arabic)
Reading novels that originate in a different culture teaches us that people are basically the same. A few of  Mahfouz’s characters are virtuous, but only a few. On display are an abundance of quite recognizable vices. Though “If, by God’s will” is a constant refrain, people act according to their needs and weaknesses and desires. We get hashish smoking; we get grave robbing (for the gold teeth in the corpse); we get a man who deforms beggars so that they can be more profitable; we get lust (in one case, homosexual lust). The major story line involves a young woman’s descent into prostitution. Hamida is endowed with beauty, but her inner core is ugly. Still, as I watched Faraj – every inch a predator – patiently manipulate her, I felt her vulnerability. At one point he parts from her with the words, “We will start a wonderful new life. I love you . . . I love you more than life itself.” Then: “He watched her as she walked away, a sardonic smile on his lips. He told himself: ‘Delicious, no doubt about it. I’m quite sure I’m not wrong about her. She has a natural gift for it . . . She’s a whore by instinct.’ ” I was a bit surprised that a novel with such scathing aspects (even a political rally is mocked) would be published in Egypt in 1966. Mahfouz (who won a Nobel Prize) is able to make each of the many characters assert themselves; after Mrs. Afifi is introduced, you never forget who and what she is. But the prose is sometimes overwrought. This may be attributable in part to the difficulties encountered when translating from Arabic; Trevor Le Gassick admits that he could give only an approximation of how Mahfouz might have expressed himself. But I can’t blame the translation for the ending, in which luridness spills over into frenetic emotionality: anger foams, a mad frenzy sets in, and it all ends in murder. It’s melodrama, and it doesn’t work. But the next short closing chapter, while leaving every strand of narrative unresolved, settles back into a life-will-go-on attitude, which is the right tone: “. . . the alley returned to its usual state of indifference and forgetfulness. It continued, as was its custom, to weep in the morning when there was material for tears, and resound with laughter in the evening. And in the time between, doors and windows would creak as they were opened and then creak again as they were closed.”

Miramar – Naguib Mahfouz (Arabic)
This novel is one of three in the same volume as Midaq Alley. I started Miramar idly, then continued because I liked the premise. A man in his eighties moves into a pension and develops feelings for a young and pretty girl who works there. It’s a pure form of love in that it’s without a sexual dimension. Amir Wagdi simply wants what’s best for Zohra, and she responds with trust. But his first person narrative is cluttered with italicized stream-of-consciousness memories, and there’s a lot about political issues which meant nothing to me. As for the next characters whose minds we enter – young men who take up residence in the pension – they’re all shallow fellows beset by angst and confusion. Two have mistresses, one frequents prostitutes, but they all fall in “love” with Zohra. Naturally they lock horns, and this results in a murder. (The extreme emotions that marred Midaq Alley are laid on thick.) These three youngsters weren’t worth my time; and Zohra, by becoming a mere object of their desire, loses her substance. At the end we briefly return to the old man, but this chapter is so flat it could have been omitted. Why didn’t Mahfouz develop the aspect that initially caused me to read the book? I think that task may have been too difficult for him to tackle. Instead he took the easy route.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim – David Sedaris
Around Christmas time National Public Radio plays the piece in which Sedaris recounts his stint as one of Santa’s elves. It’s funny, unique and bracingly acidic; with it he made a name for himself. Although I hadn’t read any of the books which followed, I knew that he delved into dysfunction, both his and his family’s. But the “personal essays” that make up Dress Your Family are more fiction than memoir. “Full House” describes something that never happened; it’s a homosexual teenager’s fantasy. I began to wonder how much else in this book is made up. Are the members of his family that far over the edge? He seems to be milking the premise of “Boy, are we Sedaris’s a weird bunch!” and “Boy, am I gay!” I liked the gently amusing “The Ship Shape” and the sinister “The Girl Next Door.” In the latter piece Sedaris’s mother is bluntly practical and he’s a dope; he likes to portray his weaknesses. Some stories (oh, sorry, personal essays) are ho-hum, but others are distasteful. Really distasteful. In “Blood Work” Sedaris is cleaning the apartment of a sicko gay man who (among other things I didn’t want to know) masturbates while watching porn movies. In “Rooster at the Hitchin’ Post” his brother is an obscene and insensitive macho male; it ends with a dog . . . But I had enough. The characters and situations in these two stories aren’t real; they’re a means by which Sedaris can dispense a calculated dosage of creepy prurience and scatology. Maybe that’s a formula for success: “Rooster” appeared in Esquire, “Blood Work” in The New Yorker.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh – Michael Chabon
Chabon has talent: he uses the language inventively while keeping up a nice narrative flow. But this is a novel written by a twenty-two year old, and it shows. In the first sentence it’s announced that the main character’s father is a gangster. Nobody is your run-of-the-mill human being; everybody Art gets involved with is extravagant; they do outrageous things and their talk is cutting edge smart. If you’re between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four, you may find it enjoyable; but to me it was pretty silly, and I quit reading at the halfway point. At any rate, what Harper Perennial chose to include at the end of the book is worth noting. Under a dreamboat photo of the author is an introduction given by Ben Marcus to an audience at Columbia University in 2009 (Mysteries came out in 1988). Marcus is radiant in his praise; he claims that you have “to read novels like Chabon’s to experience the fullness, the complexity of life.” Then Chabon takes the stage; the text of his talk is engaging; he again shows how good he is with words. But he portrays the genesis of Mysteries with the same extravagance that marred the novel. He was preparing to enter the MFA program at the University of California at Irvine where everybody, it seemed to him, was writing a novel; so he felt it was incumbent on him to also do so. But he fretted about the prospect: “What the hell was a novel, anyway, when you really came down to it? A really, really long short story?” Despite this faux naivety, and guided by the twin inspirations of Gatsby and Goodbye, Columbus, he embarked on writing about summer, as did those other “great American poets of summertime like Ray Bradbury and Bruce Springsteen.” Even the muse lends a hand. The creation of a novel is presented as a mythological act. This may go over well with an audience at Columbia, but from my perspective Chabon left out the nuts and bolts. Perhaps early and easy success leaves one starry-eyed about one’s art. Chabon’s debut effort is not a work of genius; not close. If you want to read what a real genius writes in his early twenties, read Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Dr. Wortle’s School – Anthony Trollope
In this late (and short) novel by Trollope only the title character has depth and dimensions. The plot revolves around the predicament of Mr. and Mrs. Peacocke, but he’s a dry stick – a gentleman who always does the upright thing – and his wife is so vapid that she’s no more than a twig. When it’s found that they’re unmarried, they face the condemnation of Society. The issue at stake has to do with morality; because Dr. Wortle believes the Peacockes to be innocent of any sin, he’s determined to stand by them to the end, even if it means the collapse of his beloved school. In doing so he reveals strengths and weaknesses; it’s his weaknesses that make him interesting. His injured pride provokes him to enter into reckless battle, yet he can often see that he’s acting in a foolhardy way. We follow his struggle not only with public opinion but with his own self. This is a novel filled with religiosity – Wortle is a Reverend – but he sees so-called religious people acting without compassion, and at one point he thinks “It is often a question to me whether the religion of the world is not more odious than its want of religion.” Also, it’s suggested that part of Wortle’s spirited defense of the beleaguered couple is motivated by Mrs. Peacocke’s beauty. Without the bull in the china shop, this would be no more than an insipid Victorian novel. The tacked-on romance involving Wortle’s daughter and Lord Carstairs has only one notable aspect: it shows the obsequious attitude people have toward status and wealth; Mrs. Wortle thinks with ecstasy of “the diamonds her daughter would certainly be called upon to wear before the Queen.”

A Clergyman’s Daughter – George Orwell
Orwell’s intent in this novel was to bring up social and religious issues, and he crudely manipulated events to achieve that goal. Most striking was his having Dorothy lose her memory. In chapter one she’s living in Suffolk with her father, resolutely doing good deeds that go unappreciated; in chapter two she’s on a London street, wearing strange clothes and not knowing her name. She joins a ragtag group and winds up in the fields picking hops. I almost quit reading when this switch occurred. What kept me going was that I got involved with the more muted Dorothy and her new life. Then, abruptly, we’re with Dorothy and a weird assortment of the homeless spending the night in Trafalgar Square; she’s penniless and freezing (this hallucinatory section is constructed like a play of voices). In the next sequence she gets a job as a teacher in a girls’ day school where minds are stunted rather than developed. In the final chapter Dorothy is restored to her life as a clergyman’s daughter; here Orwell introduces his last issue: she’s lost her faith. The question for her is how to go on, because, as she sees it, without faith life is “meaningless, dark and dreadful.” Orwell’s ability to create vivid characters makes the issues he introduces engaging. Mrs. Creevy, the principal of Ringwood Academy, ranks high in fiction’s assemblage of petty monsters. Dorothy’s father, the Rector, is constricted by a selfishness so stifling that he’s unable to love anyone, including his daughter. But Orwell must have loved his creation, because he made me care for Dorothy. She goes through an enormous journey and ends up with nothing; even the possible consolation of marital love is denied her, for at no point does she have the least interest in sex. In the closing scene she’s making costumes for a church play by gluing together sheets of brown paper; she gets caught up in this mindless task and “The problem of faith and no faith had vanished utterly from her mind.” A bleak ending to a bleak but honestly felt book.

The Autobiography of My Mother – Jamaica Kincaid
The novel begins: “My mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity; at my back was always a bleak, black wind.” Later in that opening paragraph she refers to the “black room of the world.” Xuela grows up without love; when that word appears it’s always in the negative sense (in reference to her father, “He could not love me”). She becomes stoically defiant: “Until I was four I did not speak. This did not cause anyone to lose a minute of happiness; there was no one who would have worried about it in any case.” The word “happiness” seems out of place because nobody in this novel is capable of that emotion. When Xuela strikes up a short-lived friendship, she describes it as “something I did not experience with anyone ever again in my life.” So something positive appears in a negative light (and with a warning that things are not going to get better). Xuela’s first sexual encounter is with a man (or, rather, an automaton) who shows her not one grain of affection. She becomes pregnant and has an abortion; she suffers extreme and prolonged pain. Afterwards she becomes hardened to the point of being inhuman: “I would bear children, they would hang from me like fruit from a vine, but I would destroy them with the carelessness of a god . . . I would cover their bodies with diseases, embellish skins with thinly crusted sores, the sores sometimes oozing a thick pus for which they would thirst, a thirst that could never be quenched.” This litany of motherhood goes on, but I could not go on. Kincaid’s world is airless and without light. She indulges in and expands the unhealthy aspects of her psyche. I know anger, hatred, cruelty exist, but it’s the indulgence and the expansion that renders it unreal. Kincaid makes no concession to the reader: we will be immersed in her negative emotions. But the reader also has the choice not to remain in her “black room.”

The Road to Wigan Pier – George Orwell
In the late 1930s Orwell was sent by a socialistic book club to investigate conditions in a coal mining district of England. Being Orwell, he didn’t just observe from the sidelines, he tried to immerse himself in the lives of the people he was writing about. Though no personality (except his own) emerges, Orwell’s rigorous intelligence is (as always) refreshing, and he had the ability to express what he thinks simply but forcefully. He includes some autobiographical material; it seems that the critical event in his life was his five year stint with the Imperial Police in Burma. Being a part of an oppressive system left him with a bad conscience; he did things that went against his nature, and as a result he sided with the oppressed and became opposed to “every form of man’s dominion over man.” With Wigan Pier I have now read every book Orwell wrote. Since I respect him so much, I have always found it distressing when he shows prejudice toward Jews. In A Clergyman’s Daughter Dorothy is treated callously when she moves to London, but it is “The Jew on the corner, the owner of Knockout Trousers Ltd., who was the worst.” Too often, with Orwell, it is the Jew on the corner who is the worst. But I did some research and found that later in life he acknowledged his anti-Semitism and renounced it. Actually, I expected no less of the man.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

I’m reviewing my own books. I believe they’re worthy efforts. Worthy of what? Readers. Like every writer who’s serious about their work, I want to be read.
Due to my bias, I cannot praise them further than I have. But I can give an idea of what they’re about and the approach I took in depicting people and situations.
I don’t write great books, nor am I profound; I want to entertain, and in doing so to make a point. My prose isn’t innovative or dazzling; instead, I try for a reader-friendly simplicity. I won’t confuse you with obscurity of any kind; that said, I often inject ambiguity because, as a reader, I find that quality to be intriguing. I won’t pander, nor will I give you formulaic fiction.

Driving Through the Night – Phillip Routh
Into the lives of Jeanette, Paul, Nancy and Angelo comes an entity named Robert. Robert serves as a catalyst; he possesses exceptional qualities that are exploited by others. Though what a character seeks is achieved, it comes with some form of destruction (it’s at this point that Robert is shipped off to another person). This is an off-kilter book; besides an odd premise and the grotesque (even slightly comic-bookish) events, there’s a grimness intertwined with humor. Though I worked to make these disparate elements coalesce, I realize that some readers will balk; I can only hope that others will go with the flow. At the core of Driving are psychological studies of four flawed people. They were real to me. The novel was written in 1986; I put the manuscript in a box, where it remained for over twenty years. But I sometimes imagined that I could hear faint voices, insisting that they be released to tell their stories. *

The Camellia City – Phillip Routh
A comic novel about the writing life. Morgan Baines had a big success with his first novel; but that was long ago, and since then it’s been all downhill. He has become disgruntled and cynical. In the first chapter he’s on a plane headed for a writer’s conference in Louisiana where he’s due to give a workshop. His ulterior motive is to meet a famous author who will also be attending; he has a plan to get the Great Man’s help in reviving his sagging career. But the journey he’s on takes him in a wholly different direction. Although some chapters are largely devoted to literary matters, they’re alternated with chapters that have nothing to do with writing. I don’t consider this book to be restricted in its readership; that’s because we’re in Morgan’s mind, and what he thinks and feels is relatable to us all. Ambition can be like blinders on a horse. Morgan has the blinders removed forcibly, and he discovers a world beyond that of words on a page. *

A Baker’s Dozen – Phillip Routh
The thirteen stories in Baker’s Dozen have only one aspect in common: they reflect my abiding interest in human nature. If my main characters were brought together in a lineup, they’d present a wildly disparate group. As for tone, the stories range from gritty realism to the fantastical. Often a mystery arises (and, in every case, is solved). Some stories are more ambitious than others, though in all I try to leave the reader with a thought or feeling to mull over. But there’s no need for me to say more, because you can read a synopsis of the plot of each story along with an excerpt. If you decide to give one a try, you can access it with a click. You can then read it off the screen or print it out. Maybe you’ll be moved to read more of my work. *

At Words Without Songs you can access the stories and The Camellia City (Driving is going through a final revision).

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Distant Music – H. L. Davis
I turned to this book because I wanted more of what Davis did so well in his first novel, Honey in the Horn. But instead the one flaw in Horn was the dominant feature of Music. Davis couldn’t depict close relationships, especially those between men and women, and in this generational saga we have a plethora of relationships. Paragraphs describing feelings are an unintelligible jumble, major characters are disposed of in a cursory way, love is absent, even between parent and child. As in Horn, his ability to render full-bodied dialogue and to tell a lively anecdote are major virtues. But the humor so abundant in Horn is absent from Music. This is a much darker novel. Its people are hard, reticent, distrustful; ambitions that begin in defiance invariably end in deterioration. The same can be said of the land; man’s helter-skelter progress destroys all natural beauty. Davis’s point-of-view about life comes across forcibly, but his one inadequacy as a novelist is fully exposed in his ending. He has six characters caught up in an emotional quagmire; he needed to bring about a comprehensible resolution, but instead he flails along for many pages, then abandons all of them. Though the book is a failure, the imprint of Davis’s personalty was so strong that I was motivated to find out more about him. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Music was an end-of-life work by a man whose final years were marked by physical suffering and emotional turmoil. Early on in the novel he writes, “In that country the change from youth to maturity was not a process of enlargement, but of narrowing down from an infinite range of light and transitory interests to a few serious ones, possibly six or eight. The change from maturity to old age narrowed them still further, usually not to more than two or three, and finally to only one or none at all.”

O Pioneers! – Willa Cather
This novel isn’t about the hardships of pioneering in Nebraska in the 1800s; it’s about relationships. In the first chapter the four main characters are introduced. Alexandra is in her late teens, her friend Carl is a few years younger, and her brother Emil is five. Carl rescues a kitten that has fled to the top of a telegraph pole. Later Alexandra and Emil go into a general store where a little girl named Marie is being shown off by her uncle; Marie and Emil begin playing with the kitten. We will follow the lives of these people for the next twenty years. Of Alexandra Cather writes, “Her mind was slow, truthful, steadfast. She had not the least spark of cleverness.” It’s these qualities that make her the solid core of the novel. She’s oblivious of her beauty; in the opening scene, when she removes her veil to put around her brother’s neck, a traveling man emerges from the store: “He took his cigar out of his mouth and held the wet end between the fingers of his woolen glove. ‘My God, girl, what a head of hair!’ he exclaimed, quite innocently and foolishly.” She stabs him with a look of “Amazonian fierceness.” Which brings up another aspect of Alexandra: “Her mind was a white book, with clear writing about weather and beasts and growing things. Not many people would have cared to read it; only a happy few. She had never been in love, she had never indulged in sentimental reveries.” Yet she does have a recurring reverie in which she’s “being lifted up bodily and carried lightly by some one very strong. It was a man, certainly, who carried her, but he was like no man she knew; he was much larger and stronger and swifter, and he carried her as if she were a sheaf of wheat.” Though she’s self-sufficient, she does need friends, and to them she’s reliable and generous. No better friend exists for her than Carl, but he’s restless, unhappy with the difficult life of a farmer on the High Plains, and he departs for the city. Emil grows to young manhood; Marie, who is married, lives nearby; that these two love one another leads to tragedy. One hopes, in a book as good as this one, that the author won’t make a misstep. But Cather lets her emotionality override her restraint; for me the tragedy was overwrought and melodramatic. I wanted the “white book, with the clear writing” to continue on its calm way. I was, for a week, one of the “happy few” who read that book.

The Country of the Pointed Firs – Sarah Orne Jewett
Jewett gives a resolutely positive depiction of life in a small town on the coast of Maine in the late 1800s. In describing Mrs. Blackett she writes, “Those dear old fingers and their loving stitches, that heart that had made the most of everything that needed love!” There are too many frilly adjectives insisting on the qualities of preciousness and charm. People show generosity toward each other because they know the danger of isolation in such an isolated place; interdependency is a necessity, if only as a means for socializing. One character, “poor Joanna,” is disappointed in love and goes to live alone on a small island called Shell-heap; that people respect her decision but still care for and help her is to their credit. Eccentricities are common in Dunnet, and are observed closely. Very closely. If one is alert to undercurrents the human tendencies to be nosy, to engage in gossipy sniping and to hold onto petty grievances are evident. Yet this remains an undercurrent; the surface of the book is placid. What gives it spirit and verve is Jewett’s ability to portray people through their speech; in this case, Maine dialect. And do her people talk! Mrs. Almira Todd, in whose house our observant narrator stays, is an especially vivid creation: “Last time I was up this way that tree was kind of drooping and discouraged. Grown trees act that way sometimes, same’s folks; then they’ll put right to it and strike their roots off into new ground and start all over again with real good courage.” There’s some gentle folk wisdom to be found on these pages. Willa Cather dedicated O Pioneers! to Jewett, “whose beautiful and delicate work there is the perfection that endures.” My reaction was more moderate: I felt I had been on a pleasant vacation, but I was glad that I didn’t stick around for the harsh winter months.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Laughable Loves – Milan Kundera (Czech)
Kundera’s characters and the situations he puts them in are a means by which he can explore ideas about human nature. Sex plays a prominent role in these seven stories, but this isn’t a sensuous book; sex is treated clinically and is most often a means by which people wield power over one another. As for the title of the collection, love is nowhere to be found, and the laughter is often contemptuous. Kundera’s thoroughness in pursuing emotional maneuvering can become laborious, and the sex distasteful (“Symposium” made me yearn for simplicity and virtue). Kundera is at his cruelest in “Dr. Havel After Ten Years.” He presents us with a man who is “legendary” as a womanizer; but, while staying at a spa, Havel finds that anonymity and age have negated his power to get any woman he snaps his fingers at. His ego is somewhat revived when an editor recognizes him as the famous libertine; to this naive young man the doctor imparts sage advice about sensuality. I found the premise to be foolish and juvenile – until I realized that I was reading a farce about shallowness. When the young man introduces his girlfriend to the doctor (who’s in a foul mood at the time) Havel dismisses her: “Yes, that girl is really nice, but a dog, a canary, or a duckling waddling about in a farmyard can also be nice.” He then maliciously promotes his secretary – an unattractive older woman – as someone who (to an epicure in these matters) possesses a “genuine erotic beauty.” So the editor dumps his girlfriend and has sex with the secretary. The story makes a point about how people are swayed by appearances and reputation and celebrity. When Havel’s beautiful actress wife visits him for a day, he shows her off, making sure that the women who rejected his advances will see how she adores him. After the wife leaves these women are all too eager to get in bed with Havel, and, of course, he accommodates them. In other stories Kundera is softer, more realistic and even, in “Let the Old Dead Make Room for the New Dead,” a bit compassionate. Not much – just a bit.

The Lost Girl – D. H. Lawrence
I found this little-known work by Lawrence to be more engaging than his message-laden major novels. In The Lost Girl he’s lost. The plot lurches about, and his main character can’t feel one way without having a contradictory response. But when you accept Alvina as a person unable to find her way in life, you accept the confusion. Her need to belong – to be a part of something or somebody but failing again and again to achieve this – mattered to me. As she turns thirty, still a virgin, she becomes reckless (though she always had a reckless streak that she let loose in small ways). She joins a traveling music troupe (she plays the piano as actors put on a show). Ciccio, one of the troupe members, overwhelms her both physically and emotionally; she finds him beautiful and compelling. Yet some inner core in her resists him, and she often sees him as no more than a stupid animal. To me Ciccio was the weakest character in the book; by making him uncommunicative Lawrence also makes him unbelievable. Alvina continues to separate herself from her privileged upbringing by marrying Ciccio and moving to a remote and primitive village in Italy (which both enchants and repels her). At the end she’s pregnant and Ciccio is about to leave to serve in the Italian army (WWI has broken out). Lawrence has created a muddle, and the abrupt and simplistic hopeful ending he comes up with is a cop out. But, still . . . What matters in this odd, over-the-top and somewhat preposterous book is Lawrence’s exuberance: he feels his power to write, and this was infectious. Throughout are descriptions of people and places that are brilliant. Alvina is tumultuously alive, as are many others in the large cast: her wayward father, whose dissolution we follow; the imperious Madame who rules over the troupe; the prancing Mr. May. Ciccio’s brother is a third tier character, but Lawrence captures his essence in a few sentences: “There would sometimes be a strange passivity on his worn face, an impassive, almost Red Indian look. And then again he would stir into a curious, arch, malevolent laugh, for all the world like a debauched old tom-cat.”

Brooklyn – Colm Toibin
I like quiet characters and a simple prose style, so I wanted to like this book, and for a good stretch I did. First we’re with Eilis in Ireland just after WWII; though she’s fairly content with her life, she leaves home when she gets a chance to better her situation in America. She lives in a boarding house and works as a salesgirl at a department store; she takes night classes in bookkeeping at Brooklyn College. All was okay so far, though there was no discernible direction forming out of the scattered events. We get a Jewish professor Eilis seems interested in, and her lady boss makes unwanted lesbian advances, but neither of these characters turn out to play any role. Gradually I began to be bothered by Eilis’s emotional tepidness. I expected her to show some spirit when a love interest arrives, but Tony is a bland, middle-of-the-road Nice Guy and her response to him is flat. At this point, halfway through the book, my reading became as plodding and dutiful as Toibin’s writing. When Eilis’s sister dies it seemed like a weak contrivance to advance a stagnant plot. Before she returns to Ireland for the funeral Eilis loses her virginity to Tony (an excruciating scene) and the two secretly marry. Back home she gets interested in Jim; she decides that Tony’s Nice Guy love is just a burden. She wants to stay in Ireland, but she’s forced (by way of another contrivance) to go back to Brooklyn and give up Jim. I could care less. Tony, Jim, Tom, Dick, Harry – none of them matter. Quiet characters interest me only when they reveal their depth, and depth is what Eilis lacks. This is a shallow book posing as a deep book, and therefore it’s a phoney book. Yet – and here we come to a few side issues that contributed to my resentment – the Scribner paperback is saturated with forty-two (42!) blurbs. Have Scribner and Toibin no shame, and has the literary world lost all discrimination? But there’s more. After the end of Brooklyn there’s a sixteen page preview of Toibin’s upcoming novel, Nora Webster. So they’ve finally found a way to insert a crummy commercial in a book that you can hold in your hands.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – Robert Tressell
As is the case with Pilgrims Progress, this book can’t be reviewed using conventional criteria. Bunyan wrote a religious tract, Tressell a political one, and both were passionate in their beliefs. Tressell was against Capitalism and in favor of Socialism. Of that issue I won’t concern myself, but how well he handles his characters and plot is something I can address. We follow the lives of men in the building trades in a town in England in the early 1900s. The way they talk, the descriptions of their living conditions and the work they do – all are authentic. In the course of this six hundred page novel at least a dozen characters emerge as full-fledged personalities. So Tressell had raw talent as a writer. A chapter called “The Great Oration” (in which we get a heavy-handed description of how a society based on the precepts of Socialism would function) is followed by “The ‘Sixty-five.’ ” That number refers to the length of a ladder which is to be used in painting the eaves of a building. Scaffolding should have been erected but wasn’t because it would take too much time (all work is hurried, with no consideration of quality or the safety of the workers). The ladder is hauled into position by a frayed rope (which had previously been called to the attention of the supervisor, who declared it to be fine); the rope breaks, crushing Philpot. Though Philpot is a sympathetic character, Tressell doesn’t pause to shed a tear; in “The Ghouls” he moves directly into the underhanded machinations of various undertakers who are trying to get the job of burying Philpot. The clergyman who presides over the slipshod ceremony doesn’t hide his indifference, and one of the men lowering the body into the grave is the same supervisor who declared the rope to be safe. Philpot was well-liked, but his fellow workers don’t attend the funeral because to do so they would have to leave work and thus lose a few hour’s pay. This episode embodies many aspects of the entire novel, which brims with greed, injustice, and callousness. The Masters – those in positions of power – are depicted as monsters, both morally and physically (they range from fat to obese, and a Reverend Belcher is so bloated that he explodes). While the workers and their children live on the brink of starvation, the pet dogs of the Masters feast on chicken and rump steak. The names which Tressell gives the Masters reflect his contempt: Sweater, Slumrent, Starvem, Grinder. This isn’t a fairminded book; hatred drives it along. Among the subjects attacked is religion – or, rather, the clergy and the devoutly religious Masters, none of whom in any way follow Christ’s teachings; their sanctimonious hypocrisy is ridiculed with bitter sarcasm. The largest group Tressell has contempt for are the workers themselves, “imbeciles” who violently oppose doing away with a system that keeps them in dire poverty. They’re the “philanthropists” of the title, giving the charity of their underpaid labor to the wealthy. Since the author’s beliefs are so predominant, a few words need to be devoted to Robert Tressell (a pseudonym). This was his only book, and it grew from his experiences as a housepainter. He completed it in 1910 and sent it to publishers in a handwritten form; it was rejected. Disillusioned, he set out for Canada with his daughter Kathleen. He was suffering from tuberculous and died en route, at age forty; he was buried in a pauper’s grave. Kathleen returned to London with the manuscript, and a publisher bought the sole rights. The version that appeared in 1914 was cut by more than half, eliminating aspects that would offend moral and political sensibilities. It wasn’t until 1955 that Tressell’s work was published in an unabridged form and got the attention it deserved; the BBC dramatized it for television in 1967. Kathleen was still alive, but she was unable to see the show because she couldn’t afford a television set.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon
A fifteen-year-old boy named Christopher finds a dog lying in a neighbor’s yard. The dog has been killed with a garden fork. He decides to solve the mystery of who killed the dog and to write a book about it. This is the book he writes. Christopher goes to a school for kids with disabilities. He is very smart about things like science and math, but not smart about people. His mother is not living at home. His father tells Christopher she had gone into a hospital, and later he says that she has died. Christopher never knew she was sick and he never asks to visit her in the hospital. For me the missing mother was another mystery. A lot of the book was very boring because Christopher writes about things that interest him. These things did not interest me. He gives the entire plot of a Sherlock Holmes book. This was very boring. More boring are the lists and diagrams and equations. I wanted to know about the investigation into the murder of the dog, but there was very little about that. I stopped reading after I learned what happened to the missing mother. Christopher finds letters from her addressed to him. She did sex with a neighbor man and they ran off together to London. Christopher’s father had lied to him about her being dead. I didn’t believe the father would do this because he must have known he would get caught in a lie. Another thing I didn’t like in this book was the use of bad words like f*** and s***. Christopher’s father uses a lot of those words and I didn’t think a father would do that because it sets a Bad Example. When the woman whose dog is killed runs out of the house she says to Christopher “What in f***’s name have you done to my dog?” (he was just looking at the dog). I don’t think she would have used this word. I think the author, Mr. Haddon, was trying to make the book an adult book instead of a YA book by putting in bad words. (YA stands for Young Adult.) Mr. Haddon had a big success with this book. I think people liked it because it made them feel like good people who could appreciate a boy with disabilities. That’s all I have to say about this book.

Monday, November 16, 2015

After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie – Jean Rhys
The meager plot has Rhys’ waif-like heroine wandering around Paris and London, trying to scrounge money from former or new lovers. She has no inner resources except a waning survival instinct; she fears the day (not too far off) when age will erode her looks. She’s very cynical about life and bitter about people (I wonder how many times a character is described as “cold-eyed”). Again and again we get observations like this: “People are such beasts, such mean beasts. They’ll let you die for want of a decent word, and then they’ll lick the feet of anybody they can get anything out of.” I must be one of the mean beasts, because I didn’t have much sympathy for Julia. I wondered why men got involved with such a mentally off-balance and rage-filled individual, and why they continued to fork over money (though usually with the caveat that no more will be forthcoming). I suspect that early on Rhys was given bad advice about her writing. In Quartet and Mackenzie (her first and second novels) her prose is clipped to the barren bones, but the minimalism comes across as an affectation. And when Rhys concentrates on her own unhappiness the only mood she conveys is a stifling glumness; that mood remains intact even when she enters the minds of other characters. Her third novel, Voyage in the Dark, was better because it was more expansive, with different locales and a supporting cast that added color and verve. Thirty years later Wide Sargasso Sea came out, and in that work she got it all right. Last word on Mackenzie: it seems pretentious to divide a less than two hundred page book into three parts (Part III is thirteen pages long). That’s another thing Rhys should have been warned about: pretentiousness.

Honey in the Horn – H. L. Davis
After finishing a section of this book I often thought “How did this guy get so good?” By “section” I mean a stretch of one to three pages in which Davis describes a place or person or event. The place is Oregon in the early 1900s, the people are settlers looking for ways to get by, and the events concern the various ways that most fail to reach that goal. It’s a raw and often treacherous country, full of characters of all stripes (most of them nefarious in some way), and it’s rendered with an earthy and unsentimental authenticity. I have great respect for Twain’s Roughing It, and I think Davis was every bit as good a writer of prose as Twain (and as funny). But unlike Twain’s account of his travels, Davis wrote a novel, and plotting and long-term character development weren’t in his arsenal of strengths. We follow the misadventures of a young man named Clay, but he never attains much substance, and his relationship with Luce is so vague that I couldn’t understand how they felt about one another. A weakness that would be fatal to another book doesn’t detract a whole lot from Honey because Clay’s wanderings are a means by which Davis moves to those vigorous and pungent anecdotes he excelled at. He writes about a garrulous people, most of whom are isolated. “Loneliness is supposed to make people reserved and taciturn, but it didn’t work that way with them . . . What solitude had lost them was the habit, not of talking, but of listening.” Take Mrs. Yarbrow, “who raised bees in the fireweed slashings on Upper Thief Creek. She was so enslaved by the habit of unbosoming herself before strangers that she deliberately worked into a lawsuit regularly every year so she could explain to the jury, from the witness stand, what a hard life she led, and how worthless her last four husbands had been, and how much trouble her children had given her to raise, and how her roof leaked and her cow had run off with a stray bull and her bees swarmed when they weren’t supposed to and stung her when she went after them, and how her female disorders (which she described in minute detail) gave her hell all the time and no doctor in the country had been able to do them a lick of good.” When it came out in 1935 the novel was appreciated: it was reviewed by the likes of Mencken and it won the Pulitzer Prize. As for my question regarding how Davis got so good, Honey was his first novel, written when he was forty-two, so he had a store of life experiences and the ability (unlike Mrs. Yarbro) to listen. He also was diligent about staying away from any publishing or literary establishment. He declined to go to New York to pick up the Pulitzer because he didn’t want to be a “subject for exhibit.” Which is exactly what one of his cantankerous and idiosyncratic characters might say.

The Inspector General – Nikolai Gogol (Russian)
After I finished this play (in a translation by Constance Garnett) I read the chapter in Vladimir Nabokov’s biography of Gogol devoted to The Government Inspector. He considers it to be one of Gogol’s three masterpieces (the others being Dead Souls and “The Overcoat”). He goes on and on about how it was misunderstood; he even rejects Gogol’s explanation of his intent. But if you rail about misinterpretations, isn’t it necessary to say what it’s really about? Nabokov buries his point in obscure verbosity (something about “the mimetic capacities of the physical phenomena produced by almost intangible particles of recreated life”). I have a more down-to-earth opinion (for Gogol was a down-to-earth writer). When he wrote Inspector Gogol wasn’t the isolated oddball he may have become later in his life; he was a worldly and very observant man. He sets up a mistake in identity, and then lets the characters (every one of them) display a wide array of commonplace vices and weaknesses. The play is about people acting badly, and Gogol makes it a lively, high-spirited romp. Along the way he ridicules the human tendency to grovel before power. If someone is considered to be of importance he’s treated as (and is considered to be) a noble creature; those who are unimportant are treated like dirt. That’s how the world works, both in Russia in 1836 and here, today. The most revealing moment comes at the end, after it’s learned that the inspector was an imposter. A letter from him is intercepted and is read aloud; in it he mocks each of the assembled townsfolk. The Mayor goes into a frenzy: “It’s not enough to be made a laughingstock – there will come some scribbler, some inkslinger, and will put you in a comedy. That’s what’s mortifying! He won’t spare your rank and your calling, and everyone will laugh and clap.” Then he turns on the audience: “What are you laughing at? You are laughing at yourselves.”

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Nun – Denis Diderot (French)
Suzanne is sent to a convent as a postulant; though she’s a devout Catholic, she has no religious vocation, so for her the place is a prison. She resists taking her vows, but is forced to do so by her parents. Later she resorts to legal means to be released. Her actions make her a pariah, and the Mother Superior and her minions inflict punishments that would warm the heart of any sadist. Later Suzanne is transferred to a different convent, where the new Mother Superior is a flaming lesbian. Innocent Suzanne doesn’t understand the overtures being made to her, nor the raptures that the Mother Superior goes into during their “petting” sessions. At this point a polemic had shifted into a lurid potboiler, and I quit reading. I had also begun to question Diderot’s motives. The novel is in the form of a letter Suzanne writes to a Marquis (in order to enlist his help). She states in the opening paragraph that she writes “with neither skill nor artifice, but with the naivety of a young person . . .” Actually, she writes like an intelligent and sophisticated man named Diderot; Suzanne is little more than a victim of the deprivations and tortures he inflicts on her. I don’t know of the conditions in convents in the mid-1700s; maybe they did twist women into monsters. Maybe Diderot was passionately opposed to repression. He states that “I do not think a more terrifying satire of convents has ever been written.” But satire uses irony, sarcasm and wit; this novel is devoid of any of those qualities (unless you find the lesbian Mother Superior’s swooning to be funny). It’s interesting to note that in order to avoid trouble with the authorities Diderot didn’t attempt to publish the book in his lifetime. So where’s the dedication to a cause? In the mid-1960s it was made into a film, which was promptly banned by the French government; in the ensuing scandal, those Catholics who found it blasphemous were pitted against free thinkers. I haven’t seen the movie, but I’m sure the sensationalism of Diderot’s novel was fully exploited. Lastly, regarding the “new translation” by Russell Goulbourne. Shouldn’t prose written nearly two hundred years ago retain an archaic tone? Only the overly-pure heroine’s overwrought emotions give the book a dated aspect. That and the gothic cruelties.

A Web of Lace – Pascal Laine (French)
A choppy style: “There was a square in that village. Where the roads crossed. The main road had the right of way. The church was in the square. The war memorial and benches for sitting.” Authorial intrusion: “They can’t surface from that deep silence. And a novel’s shallow, not like them. So, they flit across the page, Pomme and her mother.” The butterfly of elusiveness is what Laine tries to capture. Aimery, a young student, falls in love with Pomme, and she with him; but, like the author, Aimery is unable to comprehend her innermost nature. She’s one of those beings who submit to life without words; since she doesn’t express what she feels, Aimery begins to wonder if she feels at all. When he breaks with her (she’s cleaning the room they share – she’s comfortable with objects, with doing things) she puts down her Ajax and says “Good. I suppose I knew it.” Then he observes as “She squeezed out the sponge and wiped her hands. She didn’t object, she didn’t cry. It wasn’t what he imagined, exactly. He’d hoped to get a bang out of it, sort of. Into the bargain, as it were. Instead, the resentment came back, even greater. The girl was some sort of brute.” Of course, there’s nothing brutish about Pomme, and though they part she will remain a presence that forever stays with Aimery. As for the title of the English edition, I prefer the French one: The Lacemaker. “Pomme’s short hands raced like crazy when she knitted. But the knitting didn’t detach itself from her. It didn’t break that unity she’d got. Whatever she did she was part of it.”

The Rainbow and the Rose – Nevil Shute
Nevil Shute is commonly classified (or dismissed) as a “master storyteller.” He’s that, and more. In this novel, as in others by him that I’ve read, he gets his people right, and the subject that he’s most interested in is the many-faceted concept known as love. His approach is solid, matter-of-fact, but he can be innovative; in Rainbow he pulls off a remarkable switch in first person narrators. Ronnie Clark is trying to fly a doctor to the site where a pilot named Johnnie Pascoe crashed his plane while on a rescue mission. Ronnie’s first attempts to land fail due to the rough terrain and bad weather, but he’s determined to try again the next day. Since there’s no place for him to spend the night, Ronnie stays at Johnnie’s house – he wears Johnnie’s pajamas, sleeps in his bed. And he dreams. In his dreams we morph into a new narrator: Johnnie Pascoe. This switch is not done with a touch of the supernatural, nor is it explained. Nor did I question it (I merely noted how close the two men’s first names were). We’re in Johnnie’s mind, experiencing his relationships with three women when he was twenty, thirty-five and fifty-nine. That lasting love eludes Johnnie makes this the story of a man who never got life’s tender blessings, but whose back was never bowed. Because of its wistful, meditative quality, the book struck me as a kind of summing up. And, indeed, it was written in 1958 (Shute died in 1960, at age sixty). I haven’t yet read his last novel – Trustee from the Toolroom. I have read On the Beach, which came out just before Rainbow; in that book Shute handled intimate relationships with more restraint. Though he knew that it’s better to evoke feelings rather than state them, he sometimes says too much when dealing with Johnnie. He can be forgiven for this misstep, for it arises out of his attachment to the man. If Ronnie becomes Johnnie, Nevil was Johnnie.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Emigrants – W. G. Sebald (German)
Not fiction, not history, not memoir, though all these forms coexist. Sebald tells the stories of four Jews who left Germany during Hitler’s reign: an elementary schoolteacher (the author was one of his students); a doctor from whom Sebald rents a house; Sebald’s great-uncle, who was valet and traveling companion to a wealthy young man; and a painter Sebald strikes up a friendship with. There’s not always a straight narrative; sometimes Sebald writes about himself, and sometimes, in writing about one of these men, another character takes over (such as the mother of the painter, whose memories make up a section of the book). The author and the painter approach their subject matter in ways that are much alike. Sebald watches as Ferber “constantly erases, smudges, overdraws, as if his goal is to reduce his picture to dust.” Sebald covers hundreds of pages with his “scribble,” of which the greater part is crossed out, obliterated by additions or discarded. The results in both cases are also similar. Of a Ferber portrait: “. . . an onlooker might well feel that it had evolved from a long lineage of grey, ancestral faces, rendered unto ash but still there, as ghostly presences, on the harried paper.” What emerges from the disparate events and emotions of The Emigrants is a muted mood of melancholy. Though none of his characters were subjected to life in concentration camps, they were affected psychologically by the holocaust (three commit suicide). Sebald puts forth an overlooked fact: some German Jews believed – before their worlds came tumbling down – that Germany was their homeland; the mother’s account of her youth in the village of Steinach is almost idyllic. The translator, Michael Hulse, deserves praise for giving us prose that is well-nigh perfect in its fluency. The grainy black and white photographs add a documentary touch: these people lived.

A Kid for Two Farthings – Wolf Mankowitz
To write an endearing novel you need a young, appealing main character and a cast of benevolent adults. You must make everything true to real life, but any problems should be offset by a lightness of spirit. Lastly, you can’t be caught trying to be endearing. Mankowitz covers all the bases. Joe is six, and lives in the Jewish section of East London (a colorful, teeming world). The kid of the title is a goat with one underdeveloped horn; Joe buys him thinking he’s a unicorn. He gets his extravagant ideas from an old tailor named Mr. Kandinsky, who owns the house where Joe and his mother live (the father is in Africa, possibly trying to start up a business). Mr. K tells Joe that a unicorn’s horn can grant any wish. Joe has four: that the women at the milliners shop where his mother works will be able to gossip (that one was wasted!); that Mr. K gets the patent presser he needs for his business; that Schmule, Kandinsky’s assistant and a wrestler, will win his match with the dreaded Python; and that Joe and his mother would be reunited with his father. At the end the first three wishes have come true; of the fourth, his mother says that they would never go to Africa, but that his father would come back soon. Then she adds that she needs to see about Joe starting school because he “was growing up knowing nothing about life.” She’s wrong there. Though Joe lives in the imaginative world of a child, he’s perceptive enough to learn much about human nature. Example: When the mother tells Mr. Kandinsky that she’s no longer pretty he clears his throat (which means, to Joe, that he was going to say something important): “You are pretty as long as someone loves you, Rebecca, and so many love you that believe me you are very pretty. Look at me. I am ugly, and old, but even I am pretty when somebody loves me.”

The Cat – Georges Simenon (French)
Simenon was in his mid-sixties when he wrote about two elderly people who marry after their spouses die and soon become engaged in a cat and parrot game of mutual hate. The “master of the psychological novel” (Newsweek) is on shaky ground concerning the motivations of his characters. But when he wanders away from his plot machinations something valuable is to be found. The story is told from the perspective of Emile, a man in his seventies whose existence is aimless and empty. The strife with his wife gives purpose to his days; thus he needs Marguerite and she – for the same reason – needs him. For a short while he leaves her to live as a roomer of an amiable barmaid; this interlude is the most interesting part of the novel, for we’re free of the nonsense about Emile’s cat and Marguerite’s parrot. Yet he returns to his wife, on the same contentious basis as before; hate is as strong a bond as love, though it doesn’t alleviate loneliness. Emile isn’t a thinker, but he’s a feeling man. His memories of his first marriage, which was a happy one, have impact; they quietly evoke a lost world, a lost woman, a lost man. The conflict with Marguerite is ugly and depressing; Emile’s unsolvable predicament is depressing too, but in a moving way. When Simenon gives us this lonely man walking the streets, doing small tasks, drinking too much, trying to fill his days, he had his real subject, which was a grim depiction of aging. I wonder if he knew it.