Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Red and the Black - Stendhal (French)
I enjoyed the parts where the author looked at society and the church with unbridled contempt. Stendhal can dissect people with ruthless efficiency. I put up with the excesses of feelings – fainting, weeping, etc. – attributing it to a different culture, a different time. But, for a psychological study, what failed was the character of Jean Sorel. Stendhal was so cynical about motivations, so scathing toward hypocrisy, but at the close of the book he seems unable to see what a phony Sorel was. The ending is a series of unlikely, unmotivated, grossly overblown events.

The Hair of Harold Roux - Thomas Williams
I skimmed the last hundred pages. In the beginning I read with high hopes: a novel about a writer, concerned with the creative process, done by a real craftsman. The problem was preciousness. Williams can’t avoid Deep Thoughts. His protagonist is him, Williams, and he treats himself with hushed regard. Even faults are self-congratulatory ones (so dangerous to the ladies!). Don’t write an autobiographical novel if you think too highly of yourself; you’ll wind up looking ridiculous.

Excellent Women - Barbara Pym
It’s pleasant to enter Pym’s world. Her characters are engaging; there’s an ease in her unobtrusive prose; her plots are calm and sensible. She’s a master of understatement. The third person narrator, a plain spinster lady who is involved with the Church, has a penetrating and humorous eye. Pym mixes in worldly characters with ease. There are no hates being bandied about (although some characters suffer from Pym’s careful scrutiny). There’s a gentle acceptance of human foibles.

Ship of Fools - Katherine Anne Porter
A long novel, in very short sections separated by a skipped space. Porter includes a ship’s roster to help the reader keep the many characters straight. The individuals are varied, and I found them all to be complex, interesting and real. I’ve read criticism saying that most of the people are the same at the end of the voyage as they were at the beginning. This didn’t bother me one bit, for Porter’s view of humanity includes just such a static picture: miserable souls will never be freed from their particular forms of misery. Porter is very good with evil; Rick and Rack are frightening in their innate amorality. She also examines prejudice (the novel takes place just before WWII). Another thing critics objected to was her unflattering portrayal of the one Jew on the ship; yet should he be pure when so many others aren’t? Her prose is worthy of study; it combines the best of the elaborate and the simple. Also, the dog, Bebe, is wonderful. *

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