Monday, June 23, 2008

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark
As I neared the last fourth of this book I lost faith. There was not enough basis in reality to support what was happening – particularly Miss Brodie’s having such a long-lasting influence on the girls; she seemed foolish and nutty, not a charismatic force. Also undermining believability: the artist painting Miss Brodie into all the girls’ portraits; her acting as a kind of procuress; the freedom allowed the girls to visit Miss Brodie at the music teacher’s house and to pose for the artist. Near the end Spark narrows the focus to Sandy and Miss Brodie, abandoning the others. But these two are eminently unattractive people. A dispiriting coldness permeates this book.

The Golden Ass - Apuleius (Latin)
It’s said to be the oldest prose work preserved in its entirety, and also to be written in the mode of the street storytellers of ancient Rome. At first I found its vibrancy and broad humor refreshing, thinking that people have not changed much in what they want from a piece of entertainment. But after the narrator was turned into an ass the story degenerated into one cruelty after another, one distasteful sex encounter after the other. All portrayed with brutal delight. Yes, I suppose people are still the same in what they want from entertainment.

Pere Goriot - Honore Balzac (French)
A bad so-called “great” novel. There are scenes and characters that come alive, and the cynicism seemed bracing – for a while. But it soon became clear that the book was overblown and improbable. Some parts are downright ridiculous. Just before he expires on his deathbed, Old Goriot has the strength to make a six (6!) page speech. Sections read like melodrama from a book for adolescents, such as the whole episode about the master thief Vautrin. Rastignac’s weeping got to be too much for me. I’m not in sympathy with the sensibilities of that period in French cultural life when being in Parisian society was all-important. Balzac seems to be cynically criticizing it, through the eyes of Rastignac, but at the end Rastignac chooses to enter that false and despicable and unhappy world. Why? Did he really need calfskin gloves? Lastly, the book was sloppily written, and I don’t think the translator is to blame.

The Radetzky March - Joseph Roth (German)
Are there more muted characters in fiction than the members of the Trotta family? Their feelings are comprehensible, they can arouse sympathy, but they’re caught in the inexorable cogs of history (the fall of the Hapsburg Empire) and they proceed like dumb animals to their fates. This chronicle of inevitability is told in a glittering prose which, despite its density, has the glittering preciseness of a cut diamond. Some scenes are masterfully done – the duel takes place in a trance. *

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