Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Housebreaker of Shady Hill - John Cheever
How good was Cheever? Very good as a prose stylist. The problem is that too many stories are infused with yearning. Yearning for beauty, sexual love, youth. The yearning is elusive; it cannot be satisfied. This theme, when repeated, becomes tiresome. In the worst story of the lot, “O Youth and Beauty,” a wife shoots her drunken husband as he sets out to run the hurdles in their living room (he had once been a star athlete). Unfortunately, I wanted a lot of the people in this collection to be put out of their misery. The best story is the shortest and simplest. In “The Worm in the Apple” the residents of Shady Hill closely observe a happy family; they’re waiting (and hoping) to find the worm at the center of their life. It never appears.

Exile and the Kingdom - Albert Camus (French)
Camus was a philosopher who wrote fiction – and did it very well in The Plague and The Fall. But in most of these stories the philosophical aspect takes precedence. The characters and plot (which is what I value in a work of fiction) are of secondary importance to an overriding Idea – one which often remained obscure to me. I was left feeling detached and unsatisfied.

The Psychiatrist and Other Stories - Machado de Assis (Portugese)
Many of these unique stories dwell exclusively in the mind and emotions; some are about people with obsessions. The long title story is an exploration of sanity. Who is sane, who is insane? By framing those questions from an intriguing perspective Machado succeeds in undermining our standard assumptions. The prose (which was translated by different people) is lovely; I felt as if I were being carried along on a strong river current in the night. But because Machado attempted to capture something so elusive, the experience provided by these stories is limited and fragmentary. I can’t categorize this collection – but Machado always defied categorization.

The River - Rummer Godden
Initially I found this book pleasant enough, but I started to get annoyed. Irritated with little Harriet’s contemplating the Big Issues of Life (she’s a budding writer of great talent). Captain John, with his tragic war injuries and his melancholy presence, struck me as right out of a movie (a young Ronald Colman would be good in the role). Then there was the business about Harriet’s brother and the cobra. How could a reader possibly not know, many chapters before it happened, that the boy would be killed by the snake? Not only were Godden’s situations staged in too obvious a way, but her characters were stagy too.

Jane and Prudence - Barbara Pym
Good Pym. She has the ability to involve the reader with her ordinary characters (actually, all people are odd, if one looks at them closely, which this author does). Of the two women, Pym didn’t quite get Prudence; I never believed in her affairs (which weren’t fully explored – how far did she go?). Jane was much more solidly grounded. All the men were vain, selfish and fatuous, and this was unfortunate (come on, Barbara, you can be more fair-minded than that!). Still, no meanness was intended. One of Pym’s strengths was that she knew the sadness and loneliness of life, and how we must cope; she coped by absorbing herself in the harmless occupation of writing quiet, humorous, perceptive novels.

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