Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert (French)
A brutal novel. It gives off no moral light. Emma Bovary’s adulteries are its focus because they – the transitory intoxication of the senses – are the tawdry focus of her life. But unfaithfulness is merely one manifestation of her corrupt nature. She lies, she manipulates; her profligacy drags her husband and daughter into poverty. As for that daughter, Emma can barely tolerate Berthe’s presence. The novel is full of stifling dissatisfaction, cynicism, disillusionment, despair. The one aspect of Emma that makes her an object of pity is her suffering. She suffers, though not as a victim, and in her final imperious rejection of life there’s a heroic dimension. The characters around her are, in Flaubert’s eyes, merely humans – far from admirable. Pettiness, hypocrisy, selfishness, stupidity are on full display, and the greedy Lheureux attains the lofty status of evil. The one good character is Emma’s husband, Charles; on her deathbed she tells him “You are good,” but his goodness does not touch her; she’s making a cold statement of fact. Soon after her marriage she comes to loath him – a dull man, so mediocre. And such a dupe, ridiculously easy to deceive. Partly he’s a dupe because he deludes himself about Emma’s true nature. Emma lives with delusions too: her romantic and unattainable dreams of glamour and romance (which curdle into bitterness and resentment). At the end of the book Flaubert seems to revel in crushing Emma with hammer blow after hammer blow. Not only is she punished, the innocent suffer too. Charles’s cherished memories of Emma are shattered when he finds love letters from Rodolphe and Leon. Berthe – after her father’s death and in the wake of the financial ruin brought on by her mother – is sent to work in a cotton mill. There’s a perversity in Flaubert’s destructiveness. He wrote, famously, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Could Emma embody all the pernicious and corrupt qualities he found in himself? And could his destruction of her be directed, masochistically, upon himself? At any rate, the novel he created is a work of art. It gives off no moral light, but we’re given a vision of life, and it smoulders. *

Fer-de-Lance - Rex Stout
The narrator of this mystery is Archie Goodwin, and he carries the reader along in his jaunty way. His boss, the redoubtable and massively eccentric Nero Wolfe, considers himself a genius, and I wouldn’t dispute that. Wolfe doesn’t waste words; what he says consistently cuts to the heart of a matter. He’s a private detective, so he uses his brilliant mind to solve crimes. The novel is no more than what it’s intended to be: a whodunit. This isn’t a genre that has much appeal for me; often I’m disappointed in the denouement. Here, too, I was pleasantly surprised. I thought I knew who the murderer was far before the end of the book. I was right, but the twist is how justice – Nero Wolfe’s form of justice, for he orchestrates it – is carried out. The Genius takes the role of God. I believe the punishment he doles out is fitting; but, as Archie points out, it also conveniently absolves the reclusive Wolfe from the odious task of leaving his apartment. “Indeed,” murmurs Wolfe.

Leah, New Hampshire - Thomas Williams
I read most of the stories in this collection many years ago, and three made a lasting impression: “Goose Pond,” “The Buck in Trotevale’s” and “Paranoia.” The last one is a stringing together of incidents that are menacing and violent; it’s strong stuff. There’s a lot of killing on these pages, in the form of hunting and fishing, but these are not outdoorsy tales. The killing of an animal is exactly that – a killing. Williams presents us with men who are drawn to kill, and though it fulfills a need they feel revulsion and remorse. They also have difficulty in understanding and dealing with women, who are often seen as dangerous and domineering. In “Voices” this issue is addressed directly. A man visits his dying mother in a nursing home; while there he makes phone calls to his wife. He realizes that the problems he has with both women stem from his relationship with his mother; his upbringing by this willful, selfish, outrageous woman has turned him into a man without courage. “Voices” succeeds in large part because of its understated approach. Williams, who is clearly the protagonist in these stories, too often succumbs to a pitfall of autobiographical fiction: he overdramatizes himself. Still, this collection is deserving of respect.

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