Everyman - Philip Roth
A novel about the end of life, about illness and death. There’s no stridency, no details about the many medical procedures; the tone is elegiac. It’s not fun reading, but it’s not grueling. And I believe it’s a book that should have been written. It’s about loss – of losing this world (losing it by inches) – and fear at the prospect of becoming Nothing. But life’s bountiful riches are captured beautifully in Everyman’s memories of his youth. There are flashes of the raunchy Roth – sex scenes (memories) and an angry, obscene rant, and these were flat-out mistakes. They jarred with the muted sadness, which is the right tone. Roth, looking at mortality, accomplished something honest and unflinching.
Bleak House - Charles Dickens
Yes, Dickens was a genius. His creative abilities were prodigious. Despite that, I quit this book at page 460. I gave it plenty of time to engage me, but it wasn’t happening. Part of the problem was that I felt bogged down. Dickens over-describes everything. Nobody’s appearance, no encounter, no interior of a room is short-changed. He spreads it all out before us. I also had trouble following the convoluted plot and the huge cast of characters. Most crucial, I didn’t believe in these characters. The ones I was supposed to sympathize with are too, too good. Some human flaws, please! And some restraint. Dickens hits you over the head with emotions; they gush out (as do the tears) to the extent that mawkishness sets in. At his worst, Dickens can be sickly sweet. His excessiveness dates his work; he belongs in Victorian times, when all the aspects that I find alienating were valued.
A Far Cry from Kensington - Muriel Spark
The author, a favorite of mine, died recently. In commemoration I took up this novel. Sadly, it’s the worst one by her I’ve read. Not that it doesn’t yield some pleasures. I liked her cynical insights into the world of publishing (where there are Names and Authors; the first is valued and the other is not; aspiring Authors who submit unsolicited manuscripts are, Spark writes, sending their work “to sea in a sieve”). The problem is that the book is autobiographical and was written to settle an old score. The enemy is skewered again and again (he’s constantly referred to as a “pisser of prose”). This is a hatchet job, but it’s Spark who comes out bloodied. She tries to portray herself as a worthy person, but even the kind acts of Nancy/Muriel don’t convey warmth. The love affair she has with William is also unconvincing; they’re supposed to live happily ever after, but I didn’t buy it. Hate can be a sound basis for good literature, but beware of what you reveal about yourself.