Sunday, June 15, 2008

Disgrace - J. M. Coetzee
I respect this book, though it failed to reach the heights to which it aspired. For over a third I thought it was a great novel. Then it weakened, before recovering some of its power at the close. The lapse occurred after the attack on David and his daughter (a brutal, frightening scene); the action of the plot ceased and the two characters simply circled their situation. When things became static the book exposed itself to scrutiny. The bare style started to seem affected, with its suggestion of great depths of meaning. Also, people began to behave unbelievably – most notable was the daughter’s refusal to act sensibly (and not explaining her actions in any way I could relate to). Coetzee lost my sympathies to a degree, never to fully regain them.

Of Human Bondage - Somerset Maugham
I never finished this. The overblown writing (the word “agony” is used again and again) and the phoniness of emotions alienated me. There was no valid psychological reason for the relationship between Philip and Mildred – so much so that I became suspicious of the author. (What’s really going on?) Beware of novels with titles like this one’s.

So Long, See You Tomorrow - William Maxwell
As stated by the author, this book was an effort to expunge an ancient guilt. (Fiction as therapy?) It was effective in the first half, when the story was about the boy (Maxwell) and his close friend Cletus. Then comes a wonderful scene when the two, now estranged, pass in a high school hall as if they were strangers. At that point Maxwell takes the wrong path. He delves into the lives of Cletus’s parents, whose actions will be so disastrous to his friend. This exploration of adultery is a gloomy and repetitive stretch. The book becomes a conceit – the author presumes to be absolving guilt by giving Cletus understanding on the pages of this novel (he even presumes to go into the mind of a dog). This should have been a short story about a failed friendship. The ending should have been in that high school hall.

The Sound of the Mountain - Yasunari Kawabata (Japanese)
This is a study of a man contemplating the meaning of his life. Shingo is going through a lot in his old age, and he responds in a troubled, puzzled way. He’s afflicted by disturbing thoughts and dreams. What concerns him most is the relationship of his son with his wife (and his, Shingo’s, attraction to her). Kawabata stays firmly in the quotidian; much attention is given to nature – animals, what’s growing in the ground. The book has a fragmented feel, like a painting composed of many small strokes that, when one steps back, make up a whole picture. And yet the picture is not whole in the sense of being resolved. Kawabata presents the possibility of a resolution on the last page, but turns away from it. Life is not that simple, nor that pleasant. *

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