Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dirty Snow - Georges Simenon (French)
The French title translates to The Stain on the Snow, which is better. But this novel is so bad that the word “better” shouldn’t be used when reviewing it. In an interview Simenon stated that he didn’t plot his books – he just let things happen – and he wrote them in one sitting and didn’t revise. I think I’ve read the only gem that came out of such a poor work ethic: Sunday. Since then I’ve been looking for another gem, but I’ve given up the search. In this novel the central character, Frank, does things that he doesn’t understand, and neither did I. To the virgin Sissy he has an irresistible appeal (I have no idea why). I had enough when I got to the scene where he rigs it so that another man can have sex with her (the room will be dark so she’ll think it’s Frank). Stupid, huh? The people in the story are mechanical windup toys. William T. Vollman wrote the Afterword; to him Frank is an enigma, and he finds great significance in this. What balderdash!

Portuguese Irregular Verbs - Alexander McCall Smith
Diverting and mildly funny. Recommended for a quick, light read.

Coming Up for Air - George Orwell
Orwell had no sense of compromise. He depicted the world and its people as he saw them, and what he saw was not pleasant. In this book we’re in the mind of George Bowling, a fat, forty-five-year-old married man with two children and a mortgage. He has false teeth (the book begins, “The idea really came to me the day I got my new false teeth.”). He’s a salesman, barely getting by financially. He doesn’t much like his wife, nor his children, nor his job, nor his life. He doesn’t believe in anything spiritual, thinks that things in the present are much worse than they were in his boyhood, and he foresees the future (Orwell wrote this on the verge of WWII) as even more bleak. He goes back in memory to his early years. Though life for young George was often ugly and emotionally arid, this segment is a beautifully-wrought evocation of the past. Being inside George’s mind does get hard to take – where are his higher feelings? Love, charity, kindness? They only appear in flashes. But – here’s the tough part – it dawned on me that George is the common man; instead of being fed platitudes about human nature, in George we get the unvarnished truth. At the book’s end he visits his boyhood town, and if the reader expects any pretty codas – a reunion with the love of his young manhood, his catching that big carp in the deep, hidden spring – we must remember who we’re dealing with: Mr. No Compromise. The sweetheart is a hag, the deep spring has been drained and is now being used as a dump. Even the simple values people lived by have been undermined by the forces of progress. He returns home; he had lied to his wife to make the trip, and she’s onto the lie; on the last page he’s enduring a tirade of accusations (mainly of unfaithfulness, which is not true); he knows this badgering will go on for months. And that’s it. Orwell leaves us with nothing. Nothing but an unlikely hero of fiction, walking through his life. *

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