Sunday, July 12, 2009

My Father and Myself - J. R. Ackerley
One problem with this book is that it doesn’t have a subject to focus on. Ackerley admits that he knew little about his father. They were on amiable but emotionally distant terms. What intrigues Ackerley is the possibility that his father, a world-class womanizer, was involved in homosexual relationships as a young man. This can’t be proven, so the question, though raised, is never resolved. As for the “myself” part of the book, Ackerley mostly writes about his unsatisfying homosexual life. In doing so he’s unsparing in detailing his intimate faults. Is such honesty to be lauded? I guess it is, but I wound up having no empathy or sympathy for him. I didn’t want to know about his bad breathe, impotence, etc. I found the vulgarity, presented in an elegant prose, distasteful. Ackerley worked at the BBC for many years, but we have nary a word about that job; instead he tells about cruising bars to pick up sailors. As for his family, we get researched snippets about his father, and some attention is given to his brother and mother (almost nothing about his sister). He doesn’t seem to have much feeling for any of them; his prevailing attitude is one of aversion. What emerges is an unsavory, unhappy man, and I didn’t find the time I spent with J. R. to be pleasant or profitable. Notably, his one true love is a dog.

Mother Night - Kurt Vonnegut
For Vonnegut an idea was as important as character or plot. This novel raises the question of whether racist views lie latent in all of us. The protagonist is a man who isn’t an anti-Semite but acts like one – and does a great job of it. During WWII, in radio broadcasts from Germany, he inspires hatred for Jews. That he’s actually an agent for the USA was, for me, a false turn in the plot; it provides a justification for Howard’s actions and thus absolves him of guilt. Beyond the thought-provoking idea (which the author backs away from), the book was okay. It weakens at the end: Resi arrives and brings out Vonnegut’s maudlin side (her suicide for love) and Howard’s angst is overdone.

The Marquis of O — - Heinrich von Kleist (German)
Kleist wrote these stories in the early 1800s, and many are set in medieval times. We get romanticism, brutality, swooning, manly tears, frothing at the mouth, fanatical religiosity, the supernatural. Despite these aspects there’s something clinical about Kleist’s writing; this acts as an antidote to the overwrought emotionality. The stories are good, but most are far too long. Length hurts the intriguing premise of “The Marquis of O — .” “Michael Kohlhaas,” in particular, would have been better if cut by a fourth – it could have been a masterpiece. It’s about a need for revenge that sweeps aside any other consideration; this need becomes madness, fueled by the exhilaration of madness.

A Modern Instance - William Dean Howells
Howells had something good going, and then he blew it. I stopped reading the last fifty pages of this four hundred page novel; I didn’t care about the characters anymore. And I had cared a lot about Bartley and Marcia. Though mismatched, they had a symbiotic relationship, and love was one of the elements binding them together. I wanted to know where their differences and dependencies would take them. But Howells introduces problems that cause them to separate; he gives center stage to two prigs who moralize about Right and Wrong (and find Bartley to be a despicable cad). If Howells wanted me to respect these noble pontificators, he failed; I sided with Bartley. He was no more than a flawed human being like you and me and Marcia. Without the anchor of Bartley and Marcia’s relationship, the novel lost its vitality and purpose. Questions arise: Howells had done an excellent job of depicting the bond between these two people, so why did he let it dissolve so easily? And why did he turn the once-handsome Bartley into someone grotesquely fat? He seemed to hate the man.

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