Sunday, January 25, 2009

Nine Stories - J. D. Salinger
I first read this collection in my teens. Fifty years later it still seems freshly-minted. Salinger arrived on the scene as a unique talent. Inventive, funny, entertaining – and always aware that a story should have a higher purpose. My two favorites (this time around) are “The Laughing Man” and “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes.” The first shows Salinger’s skill at entering the mind of a boy; the higher purpose is the boy’s initiation into the dark and painful complexities of adult love. “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” is a tale of adultery – its effect on the victim – presented in an indirect way (Salinger tended to approach things from a odd angle, which is part of the originality of his work). The story consists mainly of a telephone conversation (another Salinger strength was convincing, lively dialogue); the conversation ends, but the man calls back – and we’re given an emotional coup de grace. The two least successful pieces show Salinger’s weaknesses. Too often he tried to get cute, and when it doesn’t come off it falls embarrassingly flat. In “For Esme – with Love and Squalor” he gets cute with the too precious Esme and her brother (thrown in for comic relief, unsuccessfully). The worst story is “Teddy,” and it displays a tendency that would ruin Salinger’s writing. There’s being meaningful (a virtue) and there’s being  profound (a mistake). The precociously intelligent, spiritually advanced, prophetic little Teddy isn’t real or likable (in fact, he comes across as a windbag). Still – there’s much more of the good Salinger than the bad, which makes this a remarkable debut collection. *

Palace Walk - Naguib Mahfouz (Arabic)
This is the first of a trilogy, but I won’t be reading the others. Not that this book doesn’t have virtues. It’s substantial and truthful, the prose flows nicely. It presents the thinking of people who are foreign to me, living in a culture full of contradictions – or, to put it more bluntly, hypocrisy. At the forefront is the father, who professes an extreme religiosity while casually breaking religious rules with his womanizing and drinking. He exerts an imperious (even brutal) control of his household, where he’s feared by wife and children. Subservience rules lives, especially those of women. A large portion of the book concerns the ban on a man and woman even seeing each other before marriage, much less getting to know one another. About two-thirds of the way through I found that there wasn’t one character I liked (was this intentional on Mahfouz’s part?). When the revolt against British occupation became a big factor, I lost more interest. Maybe Mahfouz’s accomplishment was to offer a critique of the culture he lived in; if so, he succeeded.

3 comments:

j. m. said...

Nine Stories - J. D. Salinger...
Finally something I've actually read. Your tastes are leaps & bounds over mine. I might need to go back & read this. I read it in my mid to late 20s - over 20 years ago. All i recall is that i liked it...

Phillip Routh said...

Did you know that J.D. turned 90 on January 1? He's maintained his indomitable silence, published nothing in many decades. The royalty checks keep coming in for Catcher.
Supposedly he writes every day. Does he intend to have his work published after his death?
Don't know what to make of the man. Did he withdraw because he was hurt by criticism? He's an enigma.

kmoomo said...

Have just finished reading Nine Stories for the third time, at least. Strangely upon this re-reading, I realized I did not remember most of them, only A Perfect Day for Bananafish and For Esme'- with Love and Squalor. I agree with almost all that you say, especially regarding Teddy. I do, however, like For Esme' very much. I find it realistic given the characters. I also agree that he is an enigma, even after reading books by his girlfriend (35 years his junior) and his daughter, both of which do not paint him in the best light. And even though I think he would absolutely hate the fact that there is a movie about him that has just been completed, I do plan on seeing it. Maybe some more light will be shed.