Thursday, February 12, 2009

You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town - Zoe Wicomb
These interconnected autobiographical stories begin when Frieda is a child in South Africa and end when she’s a young woman living in England, soon to have a book published (the one we’re reading). None of the stories have England as a setting, so only her formative years in Cape Town are covered. Race plays a major role because Frieda, who is “mixed,” is growing up during the time of apartheid. In a prose that’s dense and inventive (though not daunting), we get Frieda’s observations of herself, the people she interacts with (mainly family), and the place where she lives. As she matures she acquires an array of negative emotions (anger, obstinacy, etc.). We all have our flaws and demons, and honesty is laudable; still, a groundwork of understanding must be established to create empathy with the reader. It was the waywardness of some of Frieda’s actions that I found hard to accept. I wouldn’t have wanted her to be sugarcoated, but Wicomb seems determined not to win the reader over in this portrayal. I wondered what kind of person the adult Frieda turned out to be; maybe Wicomb’s defiant attitude answers that question.

The Track of the Cat - Walter Van Tilburg Clark
Clark explores big themes in this novel. The cat (not the one that’s killed at the end, but the mythical “black painter”) is a symbol of evil. Evil cannot be killed. It takes many forms. It’s in the implacable blood lust of all predators. It’s in nature’s brutal indifference for life. Most importantly, it’s present in the human heart. A withdrawal from the world (which the almost-saintly Arthur does) or passionate love (as Harold and Gwen have) can possibly counteract it. But, overall, this is a dark novel. The explosive tensions in the snowbound ranch house are the equivalent of savagery; with words people tear at one another. In Part Three, when Curt goes to hunt down the cat, human evil is pitted against animal evil. The description of the hunt is nature writing at its best, for it conveys a powerful sense of the forbidding environment that Curt is struggling to survive in. The novel is unusual in its structure and tone. There’s the early death of a person who seems to be the main character. Interspersed in the narrative are italicized dream sequences that portend the future. An undercurrent of spirituality is present – not in a religious sense, but as if a spirit world exists (one that the old Indian, Sam Joe, knows how to interpret). In the midst of much darkness, a pure light is cast by the love between Harold and Gwen. All these elements work, as does the moving and enigmatic ending. *

The Unvanquished - William Faulkner
I was mildly engaged with the characters and plot, so I made it halfway through this book. Seems the author was also mildly engaged, for this is watered-down Faulkner. For the most part he writes clearly (he published all but the last chapter in popular magazines), and he makes an attempt at humor, particular with the “nigger” boy, Ringo. So he wrote this to appeal to the general public. Though there’s one long riff of prose that’s full-blown Faulkner – a convoluted cascade of words, many of them obscure – and I thought: What bad writing! The scene is supposed to be descriptive, but it describes nothing. It comes off like a parody of Faulkner. But sometimes he’s a parody of himself without trying to be. Was he a genius? Yes, in some of his work, but his genius bordered precariously close to the ridiculous.

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