Friday, January 22, 2010

Passing On - Penelope Lively
Another bad parent. The opening scene takes place at the mother’s funeral; the novel is about her two children, both in late middle age, who stayed with her for most of their lives. This mother, Dorothy, is an evil person – if trying to destroy your children by undermining any confidence and positive self-image is evil. She largely succeeds. The son, Edward, is incapable of coping with life (he comes across as near catatonic). Helen, for whom coping is an ingrained reflex, is a 52 year-old spinster (which is what Dorothy wanted her to be; no young romance for Helen!). She’s intelligent, sensitive, perceptive. Why did she stay? She could have done what a third child, Louise, did: fought her mother tooth and nail and flown the coop as soon as possible. Helen realizes that she became reconciled to the role of mediator. Both Helen and Edward, by not being strong-willed, by believing in their inadequacies, let their mother smother their individuality. With Dorothy absent the brother and sister are beset by longing for what they never had – mostly sexual love. Neither finds this kind of fulfillment. Edward makes a suicide attempt after impulsively groping a boy; Helen gives up on a glib widower who will never reciprocate her feelings. At the end the two sit together in the home so long dominated by the virulent presence of Dorothy. What next? “They saw that there is nothing to be done, but that something can be retrieved.” I didn’t see anything to be retrieved. Both will simply accept life as it is for them and trudge along to their deaths. This unashamedly sad novel is marred only by the fact that it has a lot of padding. The same thoughts run on too long (too much about the widower) and Lively introduces plot elements that are contrived (Louise’s problem son moving into their house, and his transformation into a good kid, is the most glaring misstep). Still, this work illustrates how a parent can be intentionally destructive to their child. How should Dorothy’s children spell Mother? “ ‘M’ is for the many ways you hurt me . . .”

The Kingdom of the World - Alejo Carpentier (Spanish)
This snake of a book slithers here and there with power and ornate beauty. It’s one of the deadly species, as befits a story about the brutal history of Haiti. Not that the author intended to give a coherent account of that history. Instead he presents the nature of tyranny: the poor are mistreated by all who dominate them, be they white, black or mulatto. The main character, Ti Noel, is a young slave (sometime in the mid 1700s). To enter the mind of a boy who is one generation removed from Africa is to go into a sensibility with unshakable mystical beliefs. The reader is placed in the position of accepting that way of seeing things – which is difficult. But we’re not only in Ti Noel’s mind; the point of view shifts unpredictably from one person to another. Events begin, then are dropped; we start a chapter to find that things are a certain way but aren’t told how that came to be like that; we’re in Cuba, we’re in Italy. At the end Ti Noel is a mad old man who has escaped into a kingdom of the imagination; he remains inexplicable. Carpentier has not tried to write a novel that’s appealing in human terms. But he does succeed in conjuring up a forbidding and unfathomable world.

The History of Henry Esmond - William Makepeace Thackeray
I was mildly enjoying this despite the use of so much French and Latin (left untranslated for ignorant me) and the fact that it’s a historical novel written in the 1850s (I had no knowledge of the personages and events that form the background action). But Thackeray has a pleasing style and I liked Henry – as a boy. However, the boy didn’t develop into an interesting man. Also, the author began serving up standard Victorian fare. Extreme emotions abound: a woman cannot simply be beautiful, she must be more perfect than a goddess; eternal vows will be upheld to the death; manly tears flow copiously. And so on. Probably villains are refreshing in books of this type because they serve as a contrast to the boring stereotypes of staunch virtue. At any rate, I quit halfway through. I was disappointed in Thackeray, who subverted Victorian values so brilliantly in Vanity Fair and Barry Lyndon.

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