Sunday, September 14, 2008

Two for the Road - Wright Morris
Wright Morris was a prose stylist. In his books that’s what matters. It’s an interesting prose, but twisty and demanding. If your mind wanders you miss the connections that move the plot along. It’s like working a difficult but accessible crossword puzzle, and there’s pleasure in seeing the blanks fill in, the crossing words combine. But it can also get tiresome. In the final analysis, are the plot and characters worth the labor of grappling with the prose? Often not. Morris seems to write from compulsion, addicted to his puzzle. I think creating the pages of words gave him much pleasure, and he wrote when there was no purpose to do so. Characters come across as fleshed-out props, plots are spindly. The first of the novellas (Man and Boy) adds up to less than the second (In Orbit).

Futility - William Gerhardie (Russian)
Like in a Chekhov play, nothing much happens in this novel, but amusingly. Also, as with Chekhov, behind the charm is melancholy. Life is there, sparkling and vital, but the main character can only sense it, just outside his grasp, with an ache of loss. The problem with an excellent book like this is that it’s faithful to its title. Gerhardie tries to put activity, color, movement into the plot, but sometimes the effort flags, and we’re in a deep limbo where sadness is pervasive.

Liars in Love - Richard Yates
I couldn’t read these stories in the morning because the characters’ unhappiness was too much to start the day with. This is, in a way, a tribute to Yates. He presses on the spot where hollowness and insecurity and illusions and loneliness are. He does this repeatedly, in various guises; in a Yates’ story we know what the outcome of a relationship will be. Still . . . These stories literally ache. We poor humans! The collection has two masterpieces, “Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired” and “Regards at Home.” They’re clearly autobiographical, as are, I suspect, all the stories (which are good to very good). A lacerating honesty like his is rare and therefore valuable. *

Sleep It Off, Lady - Jean Rhys
This collection follows Rhys’ life, and the early, childhood stories, when the girl hungers for sensual experience, are strong. The closing stories, with Rhys old and alone, are very powerful – frighteningly so. However, the middle stories are flat, evasive, lacking personality (as was the case with Quartet). Rhys cannot put down on paper who she was as a young woman. Throughout all the stages of her life there’s a fear of age, of losing the power to attract. When she faces it, it is terrible. This aspect gives the collection a cumulative power. The last three stories are unflinching – “Who Knows What’s Up in the Attic,” “Sleep It Off, Lady” and a two page story called “I Used to Live Here Once,” in which Rhys transforms herself, in the last sentence, into a ghost.

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