This is a peculiar fish. The first person narrator, Harry Karp, suffers from “vagueing”; his attachment to the world is so tenuous that he sometimes slips out of it (in one of these episodes he’s involved in a serious car accident). The story is an account of how he becomes engaged in life, mainly with Gretta and her ailing son Michael. There’s a meandering quality to much of the book, which may be appropriate to the meandering, unfocused mind of Fish. And in places it was hard to follow the intricate sentences, though maybe these Henry James-like sequences reflect Fish’s vagueing. Still, most of what he sees he sees well, and his observations – the substance of the novel – are refreshingly unique. The boy, Michael, is an odd kid (odd characters populate this odd book), but likable. I could understand why Gretta appealed to Fish, but their affair struck me as a mistake. Her extreme ambivalence and inexplicable mood swings made her seem somewhat deranged (with the possibility of getting worse). I’m glad I strolled around with Fish, but I wish, for his sake, that he had picked a more stable companion for his new life.
Monday, April 6, 2009
Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
Subtitled “An Autobiography,” this book has passion and intelligence. It opens when Jane is ten. We follow her through hardships, and along her rocky road in life we come to know and care for her. The bulk of the novel is taken up with her romance. Rochester is a compelling presence, mysterious and forceful. But we believe that Jane, in her quiet, unintimidated way, is his equal. As he comes to value her we believe in that too, because she’s worthy of respect. We see his good qualities slowly, grudgingly emerge under her influence. So the love story works. But the novel goes astray in the last hundred pages. Previously it had been solidly grounded. Then, in the chapter about the aborted marriage, Rochester first goes into a long explanation of how the madwoman came to be in the attic; I didn’t buy it, didn’t believe that this woman was such a total monster and he such a benevolent dupe (Jean Rhys didn’t either, and thus the idea for Wide Sargasso Sea was born). Rochester heaps adoring praise on Jane, detailing her virtues; he rhapsodizes about his love for her and his inability to live without her. And I thought: Too much. No longer are we on solid ground. What we’re getting – this is an autobiography, after all – is Bronte indulging in a fantasy about her worth. Despite his pleas, Jane decides to flee from Rochester; she’s rescued from death’s door by “fairy people.” In her life that follows we see more of Jane’s prideful and judgmental side. The character of St. John is a puzzlement. He’s a cold-hearted, iron-willed prig, but to Bronte he’s someone of great value; she even gives him (and his self-sacrificing, censorious religiosity) the last page of this long book. As for Rochester, when Jane returns to him he’s blind, maimed and broken in spirit. This once-powerful man has been emasculated – a fact that casts a shadow over Jane’s closing words: “Reader, I married him.”
Fish - Maurice Engel