Friday, May 29, 2009

The Boarding-House - William Trevor
Trevor has repeatedly, in his novels and short stories, taken lost souls for his subject. Lonely, odd, sometimes deranged people. Although all are to be pitied, many engage in acts of unkindness (a line from this book: “the solitary man is a bitter man and that bitterness begets cruelty”). Others are vicious, even dangerous. The stage on which their stories are enacted is a circumscribed one; in this novel Mr. Bird, the owner of a boarding house, selects people as tenants precisely because they’re misfits. I see Mr. Bird and William Trevor as one and the same. Both assemble their cast, put them under one roof, and let the eccentricities multiply. Mr Bird’s “Notes on Residents,” with their incisive observations, are part of the narrative; they could be the author’s notes. It’s interesting that Trevor presents Mr. Bird in an ambiguous light. His motives are suspect; there’s something shady in the way he manipulates his residents. I’ve always believed in Trevor’s compassion; I still do, but I wonder if it’s that simple. At any rate, the results are entertaining. The prose is clear and smooth, though it has a dated quality (why would an author, in 1965, constantly use the word “ejaculated” instead of “exclaimed”?). Trevor isn’t the only British novelist who has built excellent (as opposed to gimmicky) novels around weird characters acting weirdly. Other notables are Muriel Spark, Kingsley Amis, Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh. I recently reviewed J. G. Farrell’s Troubles, which is quite like The Boarding-House (Farrell’s eccentrics occupy a hotel). What is it with these Brits? And what is it with me, that I find such books engaging?

Blindness - Jose Saramago (Portuguese)
A visceral novel comes from the guts of an author. This type of book succeeds only if it’s done so artfully that the urgency of emotion is transferred to the reader. Saramago succeeds. I entered the nightmarish world he creates. I experienced the squalor of the asylum where the blind are imprisoned, I felt the elation of the women washing clothes (and themselves) in the downpour on the balcony. But the best example of my involvement is how deeply I wanted the doctor’s wife to commit a murder; when she does, and makes a good (and grisly) job of it, I felt satisfaction. I can’t think of a more heroic female figure in fiction than the doctor’s wife. Saramago delves deep into the sordid and disgusting; but he’s describing the total breakdown of society, and he shows us the results. His scenario made me wonder: How low can man descend, how many trappings of dignity can he lose, and still struggle to survive? In the last chapters the author attempts to find meaning in what he’s created, but he flounders; this is one of those works that defy a summing up. Finally Saramago lets matters trail off in an indeterminate way. Which is the right ending. We get questions, and that’s enough, if the questions are such good ones. *

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