Wayfarers - Knut Hamsun (Norwegian)
This long novel begins when Edevart is in his mid-teens, ready to strike out on his own. He’s not regarded highly in his village, mainly because he hadn’t done well in school. But there are varieties of intelligence, and Edevart is quite capable. He’s strong and good-looking, virtuous and honest. We follow his journey to manhood. A major influence is August, a wayfarer by nature (homeless, never settled, never content); August creates change wherever he goes with his restless inventiveness. But it’s Edevart’s first love, Lovise, who alters the course of his life. The idyllic weeks they spend together prove indelible, even though, as time passes, he becomes disenchanted with her. She’s basically a good, caring person, but she’s not the simple and pure soul he thought her to be. She, like August, becomes restless – another wayfarer. By the end of the book Edevart’s character has hardened considerably; the naive boy is gone. Back in his home village, idle and restless (that word again), he receives a letter from Lovise; she has moved to America. The book ends with Edevart disappearing, but we know that he’s gone to join her. I was left with the conviction that happiness does not await him. Happiness (or at least contentment) lies in being satisfied with where you’ve been set down in the world and accepting traditional values. Hamsun was in his late sixties when he wrote this book; these are an old man’s conclusions. What’s so impressive is the freshness and vigor with which he depicts the feelings of a young man. *
Joe the Engineer - Chuck Wachtel
After starting (and quickly discarding) a string of literary novels that were done in carefully-wrought prose, full of deep thoughts and feelings, Wachtel’s fast-moving novel was a welcome change. Joe is a strong character, as are the secondary ones (particularly his wife and his co-worker, Joe Flushing Avenue); the authenticity of the gritty Queens locale is an added plus. Joe is a dissatisfied soul, unhappy with his marriage and job; his negative outlook on life is bolstered by a deeply-ingrained cynicism. I found this story of a flawed man on the wrong track to be interesting, though I was put off by the novel’s vulgarity, which sometimes descends to the level of bathroom humor. In the closing pages Wachtel seems to give up on his material. A fight at a funeral parlor comes across as Keystone Cops foolishness. And at the end the reader is left with no idea what the future holds for Joe; the author simply abandons him.
Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly - John Franklin Bardin
I liked the premise (woman released from mental hospital after two years; reason for her hospitalization unstated) and the precision of the writing. But then the prose took on an overheated tone and elements that had been initially intriguing – the whereabouts of the harpsichord key, the question of Basil’s involvement with another woman – were fixated on but not developed. The person’s mind we’re in was murky with mysteries. I’m sure that if I had read further (and I would have, twenty years ago), her dark problem would have been revealed. But now, when annoyance sets in, I stop reading.
Gimpel the Fool - Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yiddish)
A mixed bag. Sometimes you pull out a pearl (“Gimpel the Fool”) and sometimes a slimy maggot (“The Mirror”). The problem with the latter story – and others like it – is its extreme cruelty. When Singer delves into the supernatural his imagination conjures up elaborate horrors. Still, even these repugnant stories have a perverse power. Singer was a complex man; he could convincingly show a gentle and compassionate side, as in “The Little Shoemakers,” “By the Light of the Memorial Candles” and “Joy.” He explored basic questions, and he mostly concluded that life is an inexplicable mystery. He ends “Joy” with a character saying “One should be joyous.” Considering the darkness of so many stories, one has to wonder how successful Singer was in finding simple joy. *