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.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Householder – Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
Simplicity – in the prose, in the naive main character, in the everyday dilemmas he faces. Prem is newly married (an arranged marriage) and is soon to be a father. He doesn’t find his wife attractive (except sexually), nor does he think she’s intelligent and refined. He’s a very constricted person, an introspective worrier, while Indu is neither of those things. He can’t figure out how to relate to her (and to her sulky moods). He teaches Hindi at a preparatory college, but he’s a poor teacher who can’t keep discipline in his class. He feels that he’s a failure in all aspects of life. He tries to find someone – anyone! – with whom he can unburden himself, but in vain. He doesn’t turn to his wife because he feels he must be someone she respects and looks up to; she reinforces this stereotypical role by not having much sympathy with weakness. One of Prem’s major worries is money: he wants his rent lowered and his salary increased. With these matters weighing on him, he’s drawn to the idea of renouncing all worldly things and giving himself to God. So there we have poor, doubting, dissatisfied Prem – and I liked and cared about him. I could even see how he got he way he is; his father (deceased) was an overbearing presence and his mother (she pays him and Indu an extended visit) is possessive and selfish and manipulative. These two kept him a boy; now, as a man and a husband, he’s struggling. There are comic elements in the book, mainly arising from the secondary characters. One of these, a German named Hans, is a one-dimensional parody of the type of Westerner who spouts platitudes about Indian wisdom. In the real world of Delhi, people don’t live in accordance with high-minded precepts. Prem’s landlord is gross and unfeeling, the principal at his school is pompous and unsympathetic. Prem has a boyhood friend he tries to get close to, but Raj is a married man with one child and another on the way; he’s stuck in a job and in living quarters that he dislikes; he has no interest in keeping the relationship alive. In the course of the book Prem slowly loses his reserve with Indu and comes to appreciate her. They will learn to love one another, and this is a precious thing. But, in looking at the other characters – particularly Raj and his overweight, coarse wife – one sees intimations of Prem’s future. Romantic love fades; Prem will be a householder, with all its responsibilities, and, like Raj, he will be dissatisfied. The charm of this lively, entertaining book doesn’t quite hide the dark undertones. The Householder was Jhabvala’s fourth novel; two years before it she wrote Esmond in India and two years after Get Ready for Battle. A cluster of excellence.

The Street – Ann Petry
The street is 116th in Harlem in the 1940s. It’s where Lutie and her eight-year-old son are forced to live. Their tiny apartment is dismal, the people around them are either brutish or uncaring. Jones, the super, is a sexual predator; Mrs. Hedges, who constantly looks out the window from her first floor apartment, runs a brothel where white “gentlemen” pay for the use of hapless young black girls. Lutie feels that she’s stuck in this ugly environment because of her race and poverty. The word “hate” appears often on these pages, and the hate is directed toward whites (though the blacks do the most damage to one another). Petry has a grudge, and she expresses it fully; The Street can be read as a social document, but it’s also an engrossing novel. We go into the minds and life histories of a variety of characters. Of these, an unlikely standout is Mim; she’s past middle age, with painful bunions and no teeth; she daily plods off to her job as (what else?) a housekeeper for white people. To avoid paying rent, she lives with Jones, who hates her for all she isn’t. In an effort to protect herself from his violent moods she goes to a “root doctor” named the Prophet David. This quiet, submissive person comes across so effectively because she’s down-to-earth, while most others tend to be extreme cases or grotesques. Petry keeps things under control until the last eight pages, when she severely damages her credibility. She sets everything up for what is inevitable, then backs away from having it happen. Instead of the true ending – one which would make a point powerfully – she substitutes a series of actions that are crazy, melodramatic and stupid. Surely Lutie – who is depicted throughout the book as a sexual magnet – would know exactly what she’d be asked to give in exchange for the two hundred dollars she needs to help her son. But, instead of what she would do, she murders a man and flees to Chicago, thus abandoning Bub. He’s an appealing little boy, and I thought about what awaits him. Will he wind up in an institution (possibly a reform school)? Will he be sent to live with his drunken grandfather? Or with a foster family? At the end Lutie “tried to figure out by what twists and turns of fate she had landed on this train. Her mind balked at the task. All she could think was, It was that street. It was that god-damned street.” No, Lutie, it wasn’t the street. It was Ann Petry who stuck you on that train. Take it up with her.

The Wedding – Grace Lumpkin
Though the novel spans two days, it presents a wide-ranging picture of life in white society in Lexington, Kentucky in the early 1900s. In doing so it raises issues relevant today. The wedding is to be a confederate one, with the bridesmaids carrying small confederate flags; the whites think of blacks as servants and little else. Lumpkin doesn’t seem to take sides; she lets people feel and act according to their natures and upbringing. The first chapter ends with this sentence: “But unexpectedly, on the very evening before the wedding, the bride and groom have a bitter quarrel.” It’s more than pre-marriage jitters. They were attracted to each other for superficial reasons; suddenly they realize that they’re quite unalike and, since both are strong-willed, neither is willing to give ground. They decide to call off the marriage, but – of course – there are great pressures against doing this. The last third of the novel resolves the dilemma in a roundabout fashion. When the newlyweds leave on a train one character thinks, “Perhaps it will be right.” Perhaps not. I found the fate of these two rather unappetizing characters to be less compelling than other issues. Susan, the bride’s twelve-year-old sister, is an exception to the statement above, regarding the way whites feel about blacks. She likes the servants, especially Louisa and Ed, and so she feels empathy for blacks in general. When a silver punch bowl is found missing, Ed is accused of stealing it; Susan knows that Ed had buried it at the orders of Saint John. Susan eventually stands up to the dictatorial boy and his imperious mother and tells the truth about what happened. Meanwhile, Ed has fled. Louisa says, “Nobody knows where he’s gone. He was scared of the police. And he run away. I don’t know what his Mama will do. And Lord knows how he’ll ever live.” At the end of the book we still don’t know what becomes of Ed. One wonders why Lumpkin left this unresolved. To most of her white characters, Ed’s predicament doesn’t matter a whole lot; but Susan (the most sympathetic of the lot) does care about him. The author presents both mind sets, and maybe that was her sole purpose. What I do know for sure after completing this novel is that a large-scale church wedding is utter foolishness and a colossal waste of money.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Thin Man – Dashiell Hammett
This thin book bears only an incidental similarity to the “Thin Man” movies with William Powell and Myrna Loy. There’s not much wise-cracking repartee between Nora and Nick because she’s mostly relegated to the sidelines. They do drink a lot (especially Nick), but this tapers off when he gets on a case. As for Asta, he’s just a dog. What counts with Hammett is his prose; it’s a model of conciseness – no fat – and at least five characters come across vividly. He was especially good with dangerous, amoral women – in this case Mimi. The mystery to be solved was fairly interesting until my bugaboo with who-dun-its raised its ugly head. The plot got way too complicated, and when Nick unraveled things (it takes him seven pages) my mood soured. Here’s my gripe with this genre: there’s no possible way for a reader to figure out who the villain is because the author purposefully conceals it. I guess many people aren’t bothered by this form of manipulation, but I am. One wishes that, with his talent, Hammett had written straight novels. But I think he drank too much, wore himself out, and took the easy and lucrative path. He dedicates this book to Lillian (that would be Lillian Hellman). I don’t know if anybody (including Dashiell and Lillian) understood the dynamics of their long relationship, but from all I’ve read it was a destructive one. Maybe she was one of those appalling females he was so good at depicting.

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
This is no love story. There was some sort of bond between Cathy and Heathcliff, and the vagueness of that bond is one of many areas in this novel that remain obscure. The story is related by the housekeeper, Ellen Dean, so we never see Cathy and Heathcliff alone together. We aren’t privy to their relationship in the years they grew up, when they roamed wild and when the bond was first formed. There’s no sense that they were lovers in a conventional sense. Though Cathy declares “I am Heathcliff,” she marries Edgar. I couldn’t understand this act, and neither could Heathcliff; he feels deeply betrayed. Cathy, when accused, strikes back. She tells Heathcliff “You left me too.” Meaning that they could remain together despite her commitment to another man – if only he would allow this. Maybe, to her, there was no physical side to their bond, but to him there was (or he wanted there to be one). Heathcliff always had a hard, defiant side, but Cathy’s marriage sets him off on a path of destruction. He’s referred to (with justification) as an evil beast, a madman, a Satan. He wants to destroy the Lintons and the Earnshaws, the owners of the two estates, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Of the victims of his virulence he says, “I have no pity! I have no pity! . . . I grind with greater energy, in proportion to the increase of pain.” The contagion of a “blackness of spirit” extends over generations; its oppressiveness is moderated only by the voice of Ellen Dean, who is good, compassionate, reasonable – and unable to alter events. When Cathy dies in childbirth her daughter, Catherine, takes center stage. She’s a refreshing presence, inheriting a softer aspect of her mother’s recklessness (she was the first character I felt close to). But Heathcliff negotiates her marriage to his son (whom he despises). Here the novel takes on an icky perversity. If Heathcliff is monstrous in his destructive strength, Hinton is a repellent combination of sniveling fear and malignity. When Hinton dies it seems that Catherine, living with Heathcliff and his coarse nephew Hareton, will sink to their level. What occurs is surprising: Catherine and Hareton fall in love. Their love evolves slowly, starting out as abusive dislike (first on Catherine’s part, then reciprocated by Hareton). I accepted this unlikely match probably because I needed something positive to occur. Their relationship causes a precipitous change in Heathcliff. He comes across them sitting side by side – Catherine is teaching Hareton to read. They look up at him and he sees two pairs of eyes that are “precisely similar” to Cathy’s. When they leave the room a shaken Heathcliff speaks to Ellen: “It is a poor conclusion, is it not. An absurd conclusion to my violent exertions? I get levers and mattocks to demolish the two houses, and train myself to be capable of working like Hercules, and when everything is ready, and in my power, I find the will to lift a slate off either roof has vanished!” He has seen his younger self in Hareton and a young Cathy in Catherine. But his Cathy is under the ground, and to her side he must hurry. This other-worldly drama deals in extremes – the book is as wild as the windswept moors. What makes it succeed is Bronte’s conviction. But it succeeded only for the duration of the book; after I was done I found myself feeling that her world had nothing to do with me.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Nemesis – Philip Roth
After the publication of Nemesis Roth stated that he would write no more novels. Did the timing of his decision have anything to do with this book? Did he labor over it? Did he see signs of failing powers? Or did he feel it constituted a final statement? His last work has none of the wildness, humor, vulgarity and verbal inventiveness of Portnoy’s Complaint. But Portnoy was a warped arrow on an extended rant, while Mr. Cantor (Bucky) is a very straight arrow; morally, he always tries to do that which is honorable. He and his fiancee have sex; but, since love is motivating them, it’s treated with respect and restraint. On a few occasions minor characters spout some bad language, but never Bucky. The stilted, formal quality of the prose reflects Mr. Cantor’s personality (the same could be said for the absence of humor in the book). That he’s a plodder, and predictable, doesn’t make Bucky uninteresting. About those two names – he’s Mr. Cantor in the opening section, entitled “Equatorial Newark.” In the second section, “Indian Hill” (a children’s summer camp in the Poconos), Mr. Cantor becomes Bucky. The plot revolves around the polio epidemic that ravaged parts of our country in the summer of 1944. Though powerless, Bucky tries to do the right thing. He wavers once – in choosing to leave the hard-hit Jewish section of Newark for the safety of Indian Hill (and the arms of Marcia). The peacefulness of life in the summer camp left me unprepared when Roth shifts into another gear, and we’re propelled along by an urgent rush of events. Things end abruptly, and suddenly we’re in the closing section – “Reunion.” The reunion takes place twenty-seven years later and is between a first person narrator and Mr. Cantor. I found this section to be moving. I won’t go into why, or what had become of Bucky (and Marcia). In this expertly-constructed novel an emotional reevaluation occurred for me; it wasn’t until the last sixty pages that I knew how much I cared about Bucky. Going back to my opening questions: maybe Nemesis does contain a closing statement. At the playground where Bucky taught phys ed the boys saw him as “easygoing, kind, fair-minded, thoughtful, stable, gentle, vigorous, muscular.” To them he was both exemplary and revered. They also saw him as invincible, and in this they were wrong. The two nemeses Bucky cannot defeat are the fiend which inflicts suffering (he calls it God) and his own uncompromising sense of justice.

The Mosquito Coast – Paul Theroux
Theroux created a great character in Allie Fox. On the first page, as Allie drives along with his thirteen-year-old son (who narrates the story), he talks constantly about the awfulness of America. His emphatic opinions cover the whole spectrum of modern life. When in the town of Hatfield, he spots a woman: “Look at Tugboat Annie over there, the size of her. She’s so big that it would only take eleven of her kind to make a dozen. But that’s fat – that’s not health. That’s cheeseburgers.” He leans out the window and hollers, “That’s cheeseburgers!” That’s Allie. He often calls himself “the last man” because only he can see clearly. He talks constantly, but he’s more than talk. He can do just about anything of a practical nature: fix an engine, build a house, set up an irrigation system. He’s also an inventor, and the first invention we learn about is something he calls the Worm Tub; it can make ice without electricity. Because he’s convinced that the so-called “civilized” world is headed for extinction, he decides to take his family (wife, two boys, twin girls) to some wild outpost where he can build his own civilization from scratch. And so we wind up in Honduras. For a good stretch I found this interesting, though some nagging doubts began to surface. The rapid transformation of a raw piece of jungle into a smoothly-functioning community with all the amenities (including flush toilets) didn’t hold up to scrutiny. Allie builds a huge version of the Worm Tub, called Big Boy, and too much importance is assigned to this contraption. As disasters piled up and a murky, apocalyptic tone set in, I began to wish that the book had been a hundred pages shorter and that we had never left Hatfield. I got tired of Allie’s growing insanity, I got tired of jungles, I got tired of people talking in patois: “It were puppysho. Them people jump everyways and we ain’t get a dum bit of peace.” My disaffection was capped off by a melodramatic ending (gunplay, a getaway car). Allie had always detested and feared vultures – “Scavengers!” – but the last we see of him a vulture is ripping out his tongue. I had come to dislike the man, but obviously not as much as the author did. Theroux is a good writer who lacks good judgment; this includes the restraint to know when enough is enough. As a result that which started out so well winds up getting buried in puppyshoo.

Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It – Maile Meloy
I checked this collection from the library because its lead off story was one I had liked when I read it in The New Yorker. But “Travis, B.” turned out to be the only good piece in the collection. The loneliness of the main character came across; his need for love from someone who has nothing to give him was sad; at the end he looks at her telephone number he had jotted down, then “he did what he knew he should do, and rolled it in a ball, and threw it away.” Though the tone is muted, we get inside Chet, and so we care about his predicament and his feelings. Meloy deals mostly in understatement and small events, but this works only when an undercurrent of some emotion emerges. Except for that one story, this doesn’t happen. Here’s a sampling of the comments I jotted down after finishing the others: “Goes nowhere,” “No kick,” “I don’t care about these people,” “Inconclusive,” “Pointless.” In “The Girlfriend” she amps up the level of intensity, but gaping holes in logic render the whole thing silly. With three stories unread, I decided to give “Nine” a last chance. (BTW, I think that Meloy needs to hire a title coach.) It’s told from the point of view of a young girl observing her divorced mother’s relationship with her “new lover.” He seems OK; he has a son the girl likes; the mother and boyfriend have some undefined problems; they separate; while mother and daughter are gone the man breaks into their house to retrieve a necklace and some photographs; he also destroys her vegetable garden. In this synopsis of events I haven’t left much out; you don’t need to read the story to get more because there’s not much more there. Meloy is, of course, a MFA product (she dedicates the book to Geoffrey Wolff, her teacher and mentor at UC Irvine; before Wolff she studied under Richard Ford at Harvard). She gets encouragement – fistfuls of awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship – so she will write on. According to the Boston Globe she “may be the first great realist of the twenty-first century.” I find those words ominous. Going back to “Travis, B.,” part of the reason I originally liked it was due to shock: I had actually found a good story on the pages of The New Yorker. Imagine that!

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Way Home – Henry Handel Richardson
In this second installment of Richardson’s trilogy there’s less of the sprawl found in Australia Felix. Richard Mahoney and his wife Mary (previously Polly) are the main focus. As for what befalls them, they move to England (despite Mary’s protests); Richard hates it there, so they return to Australia; some stock he has in a mine takes off and overnight he becomes a wealthy man; he stops practicing medicine and builds his dream house, which he calls Ultima Thule; Mary gives birth to a son and twin girls. It all sounds wonderful, right? Wrong, and this is due to Richard’s congenitally dissatisfied and restless nature. Mary, no longer the seventeen-year-old girl who idolized Richard, begins to openly rebel at having to deal with his “unreckonable impulses.” Richard feels that she’s a narrow person with whom he doesn’t share one single interest, liking or point of view. Arguments occur with growing frequency; when Richard begins attending seances (in which, among tilting tables, the dead speak through a medium), Mary expresses her exasperation: “. . . if these really are spirits who came back, it doesn’t make me think much of heaven. That the dead can still take an interest in such silly, footling things!” Despite the rift in their relationship, Richard never loses sight of Mary’s inherent goodness, and she’s bound to a man who has been the central figure in her life. On the closing page, as matters start on a downward plunge, Mary feels a “fierce uprush of pity for him, so solitary, so self-centered, so self-tormented. Oh, that he might be spared the worst!” I don’t think the author will spare Richard anything. I’ll soon find out, for I’m going directly to Ultima Thule. *

Ultima Thule – Henry Handel Richardson
Richard entrusts the investment of his money to a crook, and as a result he and Mary are left in greatly reduced circumstances. He begins practicing medicine again. He moves here and there; his initial enthusiasm for a new place blinds him to practicalities; when he becomes disillusioned (and he always does), he plunges into the depths of despair. This recurring sequence wears thin for Mary; she feels bitterness as she hears him waxing eloquent about some half-baked scheme; no matter what she says, he will do as he pleases, and she and the children will suffer the consequences. She begins to tell him the truth about himself, to put into heavy words that which he doesn’t want to hear. This flawed man is under great stress; he suffers one disappointment after another, one step down the social ladder after another; he feels the debilitating inroads of age. But all that doesn’t support the abrupt mental disintegration that takes place. When he’s with Mary he’s either argumentative or contrite, but he’s a coherent human being. Alone he’s tormented, fear-racked. When things finally descend to the point where he loses touch with reality, he became inexplicable to me. It’s here that Mary fills the void. She’s no saint (her no-nonsense attitude toward life has a harsh side), but what’s impressive is her loyalty to husband and children and her determination to make the best of things. There’s a third character who plays an important role. Cuffy, their son, observes his parents, and through his reactions we can feel the enormous emotional toll their problems are having on him. At the end Mary takes the lowly job of postmistress at a desolate township. She rescues Richard from an insane asylum, but there’s nothing left of this once-prideful man. Mentally and physically he’s in a near-vegetative state. Yet, on his death bed, he rouses himself to utter his last words: “Dear wife!” These words, to Mary, are like “balsam on her heart. All his love for her, his gratitude for her, were in them: they were her reward, and a full and ample one, for a lifetime of unwearied sacrifice.” On one level I didn’t believe that this broken man would be capable of uttering those words. At the end of the last novel of the trilogy Richardson lets her intense feelings take over. But those feelings were ones I had come to share, so I accepted a last affirmation. *

The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney – Henry Handel Richardson
Ethel Florence Lindesey Richardson was born into an affluent family in Melbourne. Her father was a doctor (as was Richard Mahoney); he was committed to an mental asylum (as was Richard); he died of syphilis. At the time of his death Ethel was nine (as was Cuffy; and, like Cuffy, she was a musical prodigy). Her mother took up work as a postmistress (as did Mary). This novel clearly drew from the author’s personal experiences. There’s one element missing from the fictional story: syphilis. And it is exactly that disease which would account for Richard’s rapid mental deterioration. But, in the context of the story, there was no way it could play a role. Peter Craven, in his lively Introduction to the Text Classics edition of the trilogy, describes Richardson’s use of the skeletons in her closet as “gargantuan and unbalanced.” These words are not to be taken in a negative sense; they convey the book’s bursting-at-the-seams quality. He also notes that the author “chose to embrace naturalism at precisely the moment when those conventions died.” The novels that make up Fortunes were published between 1917 and 1929, a time when a different sensibility – that of Proust and Joyce – was changing the literary landscape. Craven characterizes the author’s style as “stately, rhythmical, visually precise and full of the points of view and idioms of the characters it wrestles with.” It is also “high, nearly stiff” and “incorporates a good deal of European polish.” (Think of Mann’s Buddenbrooks.) “It’s a workmanlike technique but the cumulative effect, through every detail of the articulation, is one of truth.” The truth includes a picture of Australian life that is exceedingly bleak. (Richardson left her native country when she was eighteen and came back only once, to do research for Fortunes; the Great Australian Novel was written by an exile.) Craven describes Richardson’s accomplishment as a “big, blind stumbling block of a novel, this love letter written in blood and bile to a vanished Australia and the father whose ghost would always be heard.” *

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Hero of Our Time – Mikhail Lermontov (Russian)
A young man wrote this book. A talented young man who would surely outgrow the juvenile posing that mars his portrayal of the reckless, handsome, world-weary hero. Pechorin is highly critical of his many faults, but in a romanticized way. As a result, the probing into his character merely reveals one devil of a dangerous fellow (especially to women). In a long letter from an ex-lover, we see Lermontov’s conceit in full bloom (for he, not Vera, wrote the letter to Pechorin): “One who has loved you once cannot look at other men without a certain disdain, not because you are better than they – oh no! But there is some singular quality in your nature, something particular to you, something proud and mysterious.” In “Princess Mary” (the story which makes up more than half of the book) Pechorin engages in a prolonged and calculated seduction, but when he achieves his goal he kills the love that Mary has for him with the words, “Princess, did you know that I have been laughing at you?” He also kills a rival in a duel. He seems somewhat upset by his destructive actions, but accepts them as inexplicable aspects of his complex nature. Lermotov is credited with introducing psychological insight into fiction (though the novel came out in 1840, it has a modern feel; the prose, in particular, is not at all dated). He may have introduced psychological issues, but others would have to provide the insights. Pechorin is said to be the prototype of the existential man, but I’ve never figured out what that was. This author’s fame rests partly on his early death. Being killed in a duel at age twenty-six is a romantic way to go, and tends to create a legend.

The Touchstone – Edith Wharton
Since Wharton’s was thirty-eight when she wrote her first novel (Touchstone is a mere eighty-two pages long), youth can’t be blamed for how bad it is. The influence of Austen and Henry James is evident in the wordy and convoluted prose: “He had never been more impressed by the kind of absoluteness that lifted her beauty above the transient effects of other women, making the most harmonious face seem an accidental collocation of features.” But the main fault lies in the premise and its repercussions. Glennard has in his possession letters written by Margaret Aubyn, a now-deceased Famous Woman Author. In order to get money to marry Alexa, he sells the letters; they’re published without his identity being revealed; they cause a sensation. I reread the pages that allude to the content of these “shocking” letters; though Wharton keeps it vague, it’s clear they aren’t passionate love letters, nor do they put the woman’s soul on display. But after Glennard marries Alexa, he begin to suffer from guilt about what he’s done. It grows until he’s “tortured” and “anguished.” Initially he tries to conceal his act from Alexa; then he begins to do things to reveal to her the “damnable, accursed” sin he has committed. In the course of this agonizing his feelings toward his wife change: love turns into indifference, then abhorrence sets in. At the same time he begins to moon about the dead author (he sits by her grave, feeling close to her). The ending is full of impassioned verbiage and makes no more sense than any of the nonsense that precedes it. If Wharton had written a comic novel about a madman, she wouldn’t have had to change much. One last note: two references are made to a child. I hunted down these pages. Yes, a nursery and a baby are mentioned. Apparently, in all the hubbub about the letters, the baby got lost.

No Fond Return of Love – Barbara Pym
If you haven’t read any Pym, don’t start with this novel, for you won’t find her virtues on display here. It’s a meandering and purposeless effort, with too many characters and too many strands of plot. Worse, I didn’t believe in the people nor what they did. Since I found reading the book a bit depressing, I wondered about Pym’s state of mind when she wrote it. At times – and this is atypical of her – there are glimmers of cynicism and malice (which, actually, constitute the only interesting moments, because the rest is plodding). In a tacked-on “happy” ending Pym asks us to accept one of the most unconvincing love matches in fiction. I think she knew how lame it was, for she adds a short addenda in which we’re in the mind of a minor character. He hears a taxi but is not quick enough to get to his window to see Aylwin emerge with a bunch of flowers and Dulcie open the door for him. Last lines of the novel: “He took a mauve sugared almond out of a bag and sucked it thoughtfully, wondering what, if anything, he had missed.” He didn’t miss a thing.

Father and Son – Edmund Gosse
In this book, subtitled “A Study of Two Temperaments,” Gosse examines his relationship with his father, beginning with his earliest memories and ending when he leaves home at seventeen. In the mid-1800s Philip Gosse was a noted biologist, but his thoughts and emotions were dominated by his zealous religiosity. He tried to instill his beliefs in his only son; moreover, he convinced himself that the boy was one of the anointed. Initially Edmund tries to fulfill the role his father has in mind for him, but as he matures he begins to harbor doubts about religion; he goes so far as to engage in private acts which test his father’s dogma (he worships a chair and then awaits God’s punishment; none comes). Edmund will go on to lead a worldly life in London; the father is disappointed, but grants him his freedom. The author of the Introduction claims that Father and Son “describes the horrors of a Puritan upbringing.” I wonder if he read the same book I did. We all grow up affected by our parents’ flaws and limitations. Edmund had an odd upbringing, with demands and repressiveness, but he was never mistreated, nor was he unhappy. Though his father was a reserved man not given to displays of affection, Edmund always knew that he was loved. I found much that is almost idyllic in his childhood. Edmund’s mother shared her husband’s religious fervor; but what struck me forcefully was how perfectly matched these two were; the boy grew up in a house where there was contentment based on a deep, quiet affection. His mother dies (cancer); years later Philip remarries, and Edmund’s stepmother is another beneficent presence. This isn’t a lugubrious book; on the contrary, Gosse presents many events in a humorous light. At age ten Edmund is baptized (which, in the sect of the Brethren, is only done to adults who experience a momentous religious awakening). He’s made an exception because, his father reasons to the congregation, in early infancy his son already had “knowledge of the Lord” and had “possessed an insight into the plan of salvation.” After little Edmund’s baptizement, the boy immediately becomes “puffed out with a sense of my own holiness.” He begins to lecture his father, to treat the servants haughtily, and to mock his young friends. In other words, he becomes an insufferable prig.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Miss Peabody’s Inheritance – Elizabeth Jolley
In all of Jolley’s work the characters, plot, structure, and grammar are idiosyncratic. In this novel she blurs the line separating reality from fiction. In the domain of reality we have Dorothy Peabody reading parts of a novel by an author to whom she wrote a fan letter. Miss Peabody is a spinster caring for a bedridden, demanding mother; she works as a clerk in an office in London. Actually, she has no life, whereas the fictional characters she reads about – Arabella Thorne, the headmistress of a girls’ school, and her assorted companions and students – are quite lively. Diana Hopewell, the creator of Arabella, sends letters with installments of the novel to her fan, but she remains in the shadows. Dorothy, in her letters to Hopewell, tries to establish some sort of relationship; but this won’t happen. Sadly (and I did feel the sadness) Miss Peabody is unable to make contact with others; when she tries (with the help of too many drinks) she makes a fool of herself. As a reader, she’s limited by her inexperience; she doesn’t understand that Miss Thorne is a lesbian. A confident, unabashed lesbian; the matter-of-fact way this is presented is refreshing. The book’s opening line is “The night belongs to the novelist.” Not only does Miss Peabody need to enter the life of Arabella each night, but the author must (it’s also clearly a need) create this life. Lastly, in order to exist, Arabella must be created. On the first page Jolley offers a quote from Samuel Johnson (via Boswell): “The flesh of animals who feed excursively is allowed to have a higher flavour than that who are cooped up. May there not be the same difference between men who read as their taste prompts, and men who are confined in cells and colleges to stated tasks . . .” My spell checker is claiming that Johnson meant “exclusively” rather than “excursively.” No – Johnson is referring to wandering far and wide in one’s reading. Jolley must believe this to be true, and so do I. If you read excursively, every so often you come across unique books like this one.

Lost Horizon – James Hilton
Shangri-La. That evocative name first appeared in this novel, which was published in 1933. The date may be significant. England was in the throes of the Great Depression and another war loomed on the horizon; people (including the author) may have felt the need to escape to a place of peace and serenity. Such a place – which is really a state of mind – can be reached (according the book’s message) only when one gives up all passions. This is something that the main character is quite ready to do. Conway has experienced the peaks and abysses of life, and when he arrives at Shangri-La he’s a depleted man. He finds an enclave where culture is preserved (against the threat of an imminent holocaust) and where people live for over a century (enabling them to engage in intellectual or artistic pursuits at their leisure). Unfortunately, Hilton didn’t get me to believe in or accept his utopia. One problem involves logic and logistics. We never know why Conway and three others are selected to be additions to Shangri-La, and the manner in which they arrive (a wild plane ride ending in a crash-landing) is preposterous. The lamasery is extremely inaccessible, yet it has bathtubs (made in Akron), a piano, central heating, etcetera. We get the vaguest of explanations as to how these items were transported there; the same could be said for why people are able to live long lives. A vagueness – or call it skimpiness – runs throughout the novel. No character has much presence, and Hilton doesn’t go into basics, such as what the sleeping arrangements are or what foods are eaten. From the little I did get, the prospect of living a century in this passionless place seemed like a colossal bore; when Conway isn’t dealing with his three companions he spends his time conversing with wise old llamas or gazing at the scenery. Last niggling complaint: the portrayal of the one American is farcical; the man is supposed to be a financier, yet he talks like a yokel (“figgered, “gotter”). All in all, this is a tepid work written by a man who seems not inspired but resigned and tired.

Bob the Gambler – Frederick Barthelme
Bob and his wife Jewel are people I came to know and like. RV, Jewel’s daughter, manages to avoid being a stereotype (no easy accomplishment for a fourteen-year-old who’s testing limits), and Bob’s mother is a plucky old gal. I stayed unflaggingly involved in and concerned about their problems – the main one being an addiction to gambling. From what I (a non-gambler) could see, Bob and Jewel lead lives that offer little stimulation (they have no interest in their jobs, they watch a lot of TV and videos). So losing huge sums of money (and they do, in every case, come out losers) provides a kind of thrill. Also, the casinos are worlds unto themselves, with a peculiar sense of comradery. Jewel starts gambling first, then Bob joins in with a vengeance. Their marriage is a good one; they’re a companionable pair who talk the same quirky language. When Bob begins to squander their life savings, Jewel remains calm, understanding and forgiving. I thought she should have thrown a fit, but she’s not me. At heart they seem to be irresponsible, devil-may-care souls. When they wind up moving into Bob’s mother’s house, they don’t get bent out of shape. Barthelme ends the novel on a prolonged upbeat note; Bob stops gambling, he starts doing some architecturally-related work, he grows closer to RV (who’s evolving into a human being). Not much going on, but I had no complaints. Jewel does, at the end, produce a big wad of cash and makes this proposal: “Ka-boom! We are back in the danger zone, on the red-hot wire high above the city of Biloxi, Mississippi, swaying in the wind. I say we stop at the Paradise and go for the big one.” She wants to play one hand for all they’ve got and then, win or lose, walk. Do they win or lose? The scene in the casino is skipped over. Afterwards Jewel says, “We won. They didn’t lay a glove on us. We just had to clean out that little bit that was left over, and now we’re set.” She may mean that they lost it all but they don’t care. The uncertainty as to what happened works, as does so much in this well-written, fast-moving book. Even the dog, Frank, is given his rightful place in an oddly endearing family.