Monday, March 16, 2009

My Mother’s House/Sido - Colette (French)
Colette wrote these books when she was in her seventies. She looks back at her provincial childhood, and most particularly at her mother. It was a happy childhood, and her mother was a unique person who stirs strong feelings of love and admiration in Colette. These feelings are evoked beautifully in My Mother’s House (by far the stronger of the two books). It’s composed of vignettes that don’t tell a story; they aren’t even chronological. They simply capture moments. Notable is her mother’s embracing of all life – plants, insects, animals, people. She’s able to truly see and appreciate, and we see and appreciate how special her gift is. The descriptions of nature are deeply felt and matter to the story. In the background there’s the shadow of loss. The city was calling to Colette; she will leave the world where she experienced pure happiness. But this is merely suggested in a few sentences; what the author is doing is celebrating a life and a time. In the preface she writes “I have come late to this task. But where could I find a better one for my last?”

Snow Country - Yasunari Kawabata (Japanese)
In this novel about love and sex (in their darker aspects) Kawabata concentrates on his main character’s thoughts – to the exclusion of much else. Though the short sentences impart an open, airy feel, reading this is a claustrophobic experience; one is caged in a gloomy and brooding mind. The book lacks a valid ending; there’s no justification for the inconclusive way in which Kawabata drops matters. A big disappointment from the author of The Sound of the Mountain

Go Down, Moses - William Faulkner
Faulkner and I have officially parted company. I hold three of his novels in high esteem – Light in August, The Sound and the Fury and Sanctuary – but I won’t be attempting Absalom, Absalom or anything else by him. “Was” (and why would a story have such a title?) is, with its clothes off, merely a juvenile comedy that falls flat. I had to take its clothes off because Faulkner buries the characters, their situations and the setting in bombast. He works at an intensity level that’s set far too high, and his convoluted prose creates a density that’s almost impenetrable. After abandoning “Was” I turned to “The Bear.” Better, if you place primary value on atmospherics. But that aspect hinders any momentum in the plot, and the slow going had me constantly looking to see how much I had left to read (and it was always more than I hoped for). I finally decided that life is too short to bother with a self-indulgent author who turned what should be pleasurable into a task. With relief and no regrets I put the book aside.

Lanterns and Lances - James Thurber
This was Thurber’s last book. He was in his sixties, almost completely blind (he writes of composing sentences in his mind, so he must have dictated them to someone), and, as he states in one of the pieces, he was a victim of “decreasing inventiveness.” It also seems (from references he makes) that he was drinking a lot. The effects of these factors are evident. The prose is nice, and some of the essays and miscellany are mildly humorous, but there’s a meandering quality, an aimless puttering around. Thurber muses at great length about words, and I can’t believe that many readers would find this of interest. But for me these weaknesses elicited sympathy rather than censure. Thurber was trying to write when there was almost nothing left in the tank. One high spot is “The Wings of Henry James.” Thurber gives his personal responses to James’s work, and in doing so he ranges far and wide. Erudite but not scholarly, this is one of the few literary essay that can be described as entertaining. His review of the stage version of “My Fair Lady” is also outstanding, and I was glad that he got so much pleasure from the show.

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