Monday, November 24, 2008

Confidence Africaine - Roger Martin du Gard (French)
Very strange, beginning with the fact that this hardbound novel is an 8000 word story. And is it fiction? The author/narrator frames it as a true story told to him. Then there’s the subject matter: incest. Pains are made to present it in an ordinary light, as something understandable, almost inevitable. No censure or guilt. Passions are involved, but they’re related in a detached, clinical way, as mere facts leading to sexual relations between a brother and sister. We aren’t in the event but observing it from outside. The author is like a doctor describing a case of interest. But Martin du Gard is a novelist; he made choices, and they were sound ones. The oddity of the story and the way it’s told create an uneasiness in the reader. The inner story is hidden, but we sense it lurking in the shadows. On the last page, in the last paragraph, the author goes into those shadows; in this powerful (and artful, passionate) moment I felt, forcefully, the ugliness coiled at the heart of the matter. *

Good-bye Wisconsin - Glenway Wescott
This book illustrates the perils of over-writing, over-thinking. Wescott worked so hard at creating gorgeous and complex prose, finding the original and striking metaphor or simile, that it becomes a burden to read him. As for the deep thinking – emotions are followed through their intricacies, profound matters are explored. It’s fine to do this, but it should be embedded in a plot and characters, not imposed on them. The only story that succeeds completely is about people who are stupid – “The Runaways.” Since they’re stupid, Wescott was limited; and, despite his talent, he needed limitations.

Selected Tales of Ivan Turgenev (Russian)
Some of these tales are from A Hunter’s Sketches, and I won’t be reading that book. They are indeed sketches, with an overabundance of description (right down to the smallest mole on a person’s face) but no plot – someone does something, the story ends. The three novellas, on the other hand, are fully fleshed out works. In “First Love” and “Clara Milich” Turgenev tried to capture the dawn of love and the emptiness at its loss. A difficult task, and for me he didn’t quite succeed; I understood the feelings being experienced by the characters but I wasn’t emotionally involved. I thought “Mumu” might be the best of the lot until Gerasim kills his dog – which wasn’t part of the true story that Turgenev based the work on; in his alternate version the act is motiveless and thus alienating.

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