Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Way We Live Now - Anthony Trollope
Trollope is true to his title. He depicts the world of upper class Londoners in the1870s. There are at least ten major characters and as many secondary ones. All are drawn with intelligence and insight; the women play roles as significant as those of the men. I especially admire how people are not one-dimensional; they have good and bad qualities, strengths and weaknesses. Trollope embraces complexity and ambiguity; it took an extraordinary mind to create this novel. Many Londoners objected to the book because of the greed, decadence, false values, hypocrisy, prejudice (and a variety of other vices) to be found in its pages. But every country, in every stage of its history, needs a Trollope. The author provides a happy ending for most of his characters (in the form of marriages that will, ostensibly, be of lasting contentment). Well, happiness is to be found at one’s hearth. But the driving force behind this work is a cynicism about society and human nature. No single person dominates; what we get is a sprawling panorama of lives. I mentioned the complexity and ambiguity. Those qualities aren’t in the prose, which is simple and direct; they’re in the characters and situations, which are engrossing to a high degree. Trollope was so accurate an observer that he was able to bridge the barrier of time; remarkably, this novel has relevance for us, today. *

A Single Pebble - John Hersey
A thought-provoking short novel. It concerns a trip on the Yangtze River aboard a huge yak in the 1920s; the narrator is an American engineer who’s there to direct the building of a dam. The people he meets and the experiences he has during the grueling journey deeply affect him – and I could understand why. He’s immersed in a different sensibility, one which is embodied most vividly in Old Pebble; this character is no less than an elemental force of nature. The faceless trackers, the lowest of the low, emerge with a bit of the universal about them. Hersey uses too many words to describe the narrator’s feelings (which are vague and shifting). Also, people are one thing on one page and something else on another. It’s hard to anchor one’s feet; but that, in retrospect, is one of the novel’s strengths. In the last pages the author refuses to tidy everything up and put a bow around it. He leaves it messy and confused – which, in its way, is a statement about life. *

The Sleeping Beauty - Elizabeth Taylor
For the first forty pages I thought I was reading a well-written woman’s novel. Then, quite suddenly, everything shifts, becomes sinister, twisted, dark – becomes strong stuff. But in the last forty pages Taylor retreats; the ending is pat. Before this disappointing drop off, I was impressed by the depiction of the transforming power of passion; the selfishness of people (and how far they’ll go to protect their structured worlds); the tenaciousness with which a mother can hold onto a child; the way we face loneliness and aging. All very good. As for that ending, maybe the task of reconciling these complex matters proved too much for the author.

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