Alfred and Guinevere - James Schuyler
Unique, beautiful. Childhood captured with a deft touch. Economy of words – Schuyler relies mostly on conversation to achieve his ends. Humorous, appealing. (I love those kids, especially Guinevere.) Light as a frothy cloud, the sun sparkling through. Just plain wonderful. *
Heart of a Dog - Mikhail Bulgakov (Russian)
Dark science fiction, done with bravado. The first part, when the dog is a dog (but we share his thoughts) is better, partly because of the amazing fact that this, indeed, seems to be how a dog would think. The man/dog creation doesn’t have the vigor of the dog alone. As if to compensate for this, the author turns to societal issues. The book holds up to the end – dense, imaginative, strong and brutal – but ultimately it’s a curiosity by an author with plenty of talent.
No Longer at Ease - Chinua Achebe
I thought Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was excellent, and this is as good, though dealing with a totally different world. The book takes place in modern Africa and is about money, obligations, relationships, morality. At no point did I find it less than convincing and absorbing – all was right: characters, scenes, motivations. Achebe writes with directness and economy; no wasted words. The book is deserving of respect for its intelligence and maturity. *
Dead Souls - Nikolai Gogol (Russian)
The Guerney translation was recommended, so I reread the book. This time around it remained vital, teeming, funny, alive. It’s mostly composed of set pieces in which Chichikov is at someone’s house, trying to buy dead souls. In this way we get a diverse view of Russian types, and they come across as gargantuan eccentrics. Gogol the writer (and person) is the most eccentric of all, quirky and undisciplined; his mind pops about, describing in loving detail the food at a meal, or smells, or the interior of a room. Primarily, though, his world is dense with human emotions – mostly greed and suspicion and dishonesty (though sex in any form – love or lust – are conspicuously absent). All this takes place in a dreary but imposingly vast Russian landscape. The problems began near the end (a section which wasn’t – wisely, I believe – included in the first version I read). Gogol dropped the framing device (buying dead souls) and Chichikov is placed off stage. There’s a loss of focus and momentum; Gogol makes asides, clowns around, assumes a grandiose language, but a context for his antics is missing. Confusion and aimlessness set in. What had sparkled and leaped ends in a long drawn out morass. But the bulk of the book has great exuberance and is wonderful in a way that only Gogol can be wonderful. I understand why Nabokov admired him so much. *