Friday, April 24, 2009

My Brother - Jamaica Kincaid
Kincaid must be praised for her honesty; she expresses feelings that are “unacceptable” (most notably, hatred for her mother). She returns to the island of Antigua to try to help her brother, who’s dying from AIDS; it’s an unpleasant task, an unpleasant reunion with people and a place that she wanted no part of. She presents her complex and conflicted emotions in an incantatory prose style, a cross between Gertrude Stein (simple and repetitive) and Henry James (she follows a thought through its many convolutions). I originally listened to the book read on tape by the author, and the style worked quite well – better than it did when I read it. In my review of the autobiographical Lucy I was left with questions about what would become of the young protagonist; some of those questions were answered in this book. The answers aren’t pleasant or easy ones. Unlike her brother, Kincaid escaped her mother and the stifling world of Antigua, but only physically. Her life in the United States has the trappings of happiness, but she’s aware of how hard it is to shake off past influences; she worries about the effects her old destructive feelings will have on her present-day relationships. It turns out that her misgivings were well-founded. A look at her biography reveals that she and the man she was married to in My Brother subsequently divorced.

Penhally - Caroline Gordon
This book has strong virtues and stronger flaws. The main virtue is the author’s ability to write well: the narrative voice is smooth and scenes come to life. But taken as a whole – as a chronicle of the fall of the house of Penhally – the novel lacks structure. After an excellent beginning Gordon seems hellbent for a conclusion (one generation is covered in about five pages). The irascible Nicholas, present in the opening section, is a forceful character, but many who follow are indistinguishable from one another. Relationships (cousins, great-grandfathers, slaves belonging to this and that person) got so complicated that I gave up trying to sort everybody out; my reading became inattentive. The ending to this multi-generational saga rings decidedly false; a bullet in the heart is dramatic, but the man Gordon created would never have fired that shot. Last word . . . About the author’s use of ellipses . . . Was she trying to set a world record?

The Incomparable Max - Max Beerbohm
Beerbohm’s writing is the epitome of elegance, carried off effortlessly (though such finely-crafted prose surely took great effort). I don’t read for an author’s style, but this book was an exception. My only quibbles are that the prose occasionally turned from elegant to ornate and some pieces were too learned – way over my head. Also, Beerbohm’s ideal audience is upper-class Brits familiar with the post-Victorian era. I skipped a few essays involving people and matters I knew little or nothing about, and I couldn’t stomach more than five pages of the foolishness in the long last story, “The Happy Hypocrite” (which should be expunged from the record). Yet much is outstanding, particularly the pieces on his brother and on King George the Fourth. In “Diminuendo” he gives the reason why his literary efforts were limited, and all writers will find his thoughts of interest. If you haven’t read the two stories from Seven Men – “Enoch Soames” and “A. V. Laider” – you have a unique treat awaiting you. Max is bracing company, intelligent, original, entertaining and eminently likeable. One feels better after spending time with him, and I can understand why his contemporaries considered him to be “Incomparable.”

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