Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker - Tobias Smollett
An epistolatory novel has built-in obstacles. The plot happens offstage, so the reader gets secondhand emotions. Still, I was impressed with Smollett’s intelligence in initially sidestepping these obstacles; characters and plot were there, in a limited form, and the book was fairly entertaining, amusing and colorful. But Smollett seemed to grow weary. As did I, when I found myself reading a travelogue made up of long descriptions of Scotland.

I Am a Memory Come Alive - Franz Kafka (German)
This “autobiography” is assembled from Kafka’s letters and journals and diary entries. It’s interlaced by the observations of people who knew him. What is one to make of Franz Kafka? I can only say that I became oppressed by the man. His tortured correspondence with Felice is wearying (poor girl!). He recognized that she was a poor girl, being emotionally involved with someone as conflicted as he was. His writing was primary in his life, yet his job in an office left him with little time for it. He was racked by physical problems – frailty, insomnia, headaches. Finally TB set in (he died at age 41). It’s a wonder that he produced so much work, especially since he was very hard on himself as a writer and found little that he did satisfying. He was also hard on himself as a person. Kafka existed in an introspective world of great intensity and complexity; nothing, for him, was simple. I finally reached the point where his convoluted thinking and misery were just too much for me.

The Horseman on the Roof - Jean Giono (Italian)
Early on the strangeness of this book impressed me. The writing is lucid, but the reader is plunged into a cholera-ridden world where the normal rules of conduct don’t apply. People have lost their humanity; they act in bestial ways. I thought of the Black Plague in Europe; the novel’s setting seemed medieval, rife with superstition and fear. The descriptions, in gruesome detail, of every aspect of cholera are unrelenting. Each new encounter is eery, filled with threat and wariness; even the landscape is unearthly. The main character, Angelo, is something of a cipher. He acts, thinks, but he remains shadowy. When he meets his friend Giuseppe there’s a sudden emergence of his personality – and he turns out to be a swaggering fool. The two friends talk on and on, but it’s mostly juvenile nonsense. A political angle arises, and I have no interest in the movement for Italian independence. Anyway, I had enough of cholera. I opted for no more horrible deaths, no more wild-eyed crowds, no more corpses being eaten by rats and nightingales.

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