Jakob Von Gunten - Robert Walser (German)
The book doesn’t have a plot. The detailed scrutiny of people adds up to nothing because they aren’t doing anything, going anywhere; it’s navel-gazing. Also, the main character was too elusive to pin down – he’s this, he’s that, he’s nothing at all. This aimless ambiguity is not true to life, and so it comes across as youthful affectation.
McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon - Joseph Mitchell
The author is a good writer of prose, but these sketches were originally published as pieces for The New Yorker, and some are better than others. When he’s in top form Mitchell is observant and entertaining and able to capture a person and a place in depth. I also liked his feeling for the downtrodden – that they have a story worth telling. Possibly “Hit on the Head with a Cow” is my favorite. The problem is that many of the pieces are uninspired; Mitchell is writing to get something out for the next issue of the magazine. So is it worth reading the whole book? I decided not to continue. Too often Mitchell comes across as disinterested and tired – which may be why he stopped writing altogether.
Marcel Proust - Edmund White
One of those pleasantly short Penguin Lives. I stopped reading halfway through. Proust displayed no qualities or values of interest to me. Just another social climbing little fop whose chief ambition was to be part of the French aristocracy. Also, White (predictably) lays the homosexuality on heavy, in a gossipy way. Maybe Proust’s existence was redeemed by Remembrance. But I’ve dipped into that book and found it to reflect his faults as a man.
Unless - Carol Shields
Shields wrote this with a death sentence hanging over her (cancer). I sometimes detected her pushing words along, creating nice, orderly scenes; a workmanlike but mechanical pushing. Which is sad; she was trying to go on when other thoughts, worries impinged. Yet she does write about what matters to her. The trouble for me is that I couldn’t sympathize with her idea of what matters; she’s saying that woman are powerless. But, as a writer, Carol Shields’ success came easily to her. And woman, today, simply are not powerless. It’s an issue without relevance.