Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Overcoat and Other Tales of Good and Evil - Nikolai Gogol (Russian)
“The Overcoat” stands firm as a masterpiece in world literature. But of the other stories only “Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt” impressed me; it was funny, gentle and insightful. “The Terrible Vengeance,” though it had energy, was over-the-top, full of superstitions and the supernatural; it could have been a tale from the Dark Ages. “The Portrait” and a long section of “Nevsky Avenue” were too fervent; when Gogol got onto the subject of the artist he let his passions boil over, and the results are rather foolish. He was better dealing with common folk. As for “The Nose,” I don’t get its appeal. Kafka had a man turn into a giant beetle, but all was logical. “The Nose” never overcomes its ridiculous and unwieldy premise. A satire? Of what?

Royal Highness - Thomas Mann (German)
A stately, dignified, slow-moving book. All these elements are part of the nature of the main character. From boyhood Prince Klaus’s personality has been stifled by the constricting life of royalty. When he finds a woman he loves there’s a sense of awakening. Imma is unusual, fascinating and formidable; she cares for Klaus, but she finds something missing in him. There’s a fairy tale quality to this love story, with the Prince winning the maiden in a highly unusual way. His nation is in dire financial straits, and tied to his marriage proposal is the stipulation that Imma’s father use his enormous wealth to help pull them out of their plight. This is exactly what she needed: for Klaus to stop being a royal prop, to show initiative and to act with conviction. All the emotional and psychological forces at play are believable. The book is engrossing, in a reserved way, though there are key scenes that stand out vividly. One major moment involves Klaus’s withered left arm; we wonder, for many pages, what Imma’s reaction to his lifelong infirmity will be. We find out, in a scene that is strange and moving. *

They Came Like Swallows - William Maxwell
Maxwell divides the book into three parts, each told from a family member’s point of view. First comes Bunny, the little boy; the expressionistic style of writing in his section conveys the imaginative, emotional way he experiences his mother. But she dies from influenza (the novel takes place after World War I). His father and brother try to cope with the loss of the beloved center of their lives. Twelve-year-old Robert reacts with a muted stoicism; the father moves about numbly, in a daze of grief. Maxwell’s strength – the creating of atmosphere and mood – is used to great effect. We understand how this death is a wound that will never heal for any of the three. *

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