David Golder - Irene Nemirovsky (French)
Nemirovsky recounts the last days of a man who dedicated his life to the pursuit of money. She doesn’t condemn cold, stony David Golder – he’s the most sympathetic person in a cast of characters composed mostly of leeches, and his physical suffering and fear of death give him a humanity one can relate to. In the grasping world presented here a few people still value simple sensuous pleasures; the chapter that takes us with Joyce and her lover is a needed diversion from the rest of the book, which is dominated by gloom. This gloom eventually becomes monochromatic and overpowering. When the cruelties pile up (such as when Golder’s wife tells him that his daughter, the one bright thing in his life, is not his) the novel loses balance. Negativity (the first word of the book is “No”) is too extreme. And the ending is melodramatic; the author tries to give Golder a hero’s stoicism and to make his last moments evocative. But, whatever its flaws, this is a serious, ambitious novel. That Nemirovsky wrote it when she was twenty-three is beyond impressive.
Mrs. Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel - William Trevor
Most of the people in this book are life’s losers, and many are deluded, but Trevor treats them all with compassion. This is an intricate, strange novel, but it works (e.g., the revelation about the Terrible Thing that happened at the hotel is handled in a way that’s surprising but believable). The characters form a dense tableau of thoughts and spoken words as each pursues his or her way of getting by in the world. They may not be ideal ways, but even the repulsive Morrissey is made comprehensible. And though Ivy Eckdorf is dangerously crazy, her transformation in the last chapter is moving. She finds the only possible way to bring peace and happiness to the suffering residents of O’Neill’s Hotel – and to herself. *
This second novel by Soseki was hugely popular in Japan. Though an easy read, it’s superficial, the humor is juvenile, and the main character is a one-dimensional blowhard. It gives no indication of the darkness and depth that would mark Soseki’s later work.
The Call of the Toad - Gunter Grass (German)
A well-written bore. The widow and widower’s cemetery plan is leeched of any interest it might have had by the oblique way in which it’s framed. An author (Grass, I guess) potters around with reams of material the widower has sent him. He reconstructs their story, but his many interjections and digressions slow everything to a toad’s pace. I stopped short of the halfway mark.