Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. - William Makepaece Thackeray
Very readable, entertaining, funny – and much more. At first I thought Barry was simply a rogue, but about halfway through I realized he was a monster. He’s revealed to be what he is through his own words; the degree that Thackeray succeeds is more than admirable – it’s a feat. Barry boasts and lies, but we see the ugly truth. I felt the terrible wreckage left in one man’s wake. Barry’s values are mercenary, and in his pursuit of them he tramples on anything in his path. This is a moral tale and, in its powerful ending, a cautionary one. *

Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
A great novel, rich and expansive, with a vibrant cast of major and minor players. That one mind created such a treasure-trove is amazing. Thackeray observes the human panorama from a lofty height, but with a benevolent shrug (“This, dear reader, is how people are”). The two main characters, Becky and Amelia, are opposites in all ways; it’s strange how Becky, amoral, grasping, even evil, gained some small measure of sympathy from me. What a resourceful and tenacious little battler! At the surprising (and sad) ending all Amelia’s virtues are revealed to be empty. A word about the “minor” characters; they don’t seem minor, each has a distinct role to play on life’s stage. *

The Driver’s Seat - Muriel Spark
Though we’re not aware of it until deep into this short novel, the events could not happen. So Spark is not writing in a realistic mode. I think she’s exploring the depths of someone’s despair – Lise’s lonely grief. The last words are “fear and pity, pity and fear,” and I felt both. I read that Spark checked herself into a hospital after she completed the book, and I can believe it. I have often found her to be a cold writer. Not here. *

The Warden - Anthony Trollope
I like his writing. Placid, stately. His plots are interesting, not full of action but with psychological and moral complexity. He creates great villains, both on the grand and petty scale. The one thing I find annoying is that sometimes his complexity vanishes: his good characters are too good and their romantic relationships are cloying. Trollope is not at his full-blown best in this book; it’s dwarfed by major works like Barchester Towers and The Way We Live Now.

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