Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mourning Becomes Electra - Eugene O’Neill
I don’t read many plays, partly because I believe they’re meant to be seen and heard. But I watched a DVD of the 1960 TV production of The Iceman Cometh (all three and a half hours) and was so impressed that I wanted more of O’Neill. His view of the human condition is dark, even oppressive. People do terrible things for which they’re haunted by guilt. It’s a guilt so remorseless that one can’t live with it. O’Neill is an engrossing writer; even when he frames a play as a Greek tragedy, as he does in Electra, his characters and situations are understandable and relevant. The play has melodramatic moments, which make it somewhat dated. Also, there’s too much in the stew pot; people have rapidly shifting emotions and their motivations aren’t always plausible. Still, the passion of the writing prevails. O’Neill had a deeply-held vision of life, and from that vision comes the power of his work.

The Poorhouse Fair - John Updike
This was Updike’s first novel, and I wish an editor had said, Look, John, this could be good if you’d flesh out the characters and situations in your mind more fully – it’s a spindly construction, this book, if you take away the poetry – which you should do. Write your poetry but don’t, please, write poetic prose. I’m talking about this sort of thing: “Near the eclipsed sun a cirrus cloud like a twisted handkerchief was dyed chartreuse; the phenomenon seemed little less eerie for being explicable, as iridescence.” You indulge in precious writing constantly, and you constantly have characters think too deeply. It makes for slow going, John, and I couldn’t read more than half of this. Don’t try to impress the reader with your stylistic skills, your deep insights into the human heart, your sensitivity. Make your writing grounded, solid. You’re talented – I can see that most clearly in your dialogue, where people are allowed to talk naturally. But you’re on the wrong path here. . . . (And so on.) It seems that Updike was never told these things, so off he went on his career, and it wasn’t until the last two Rabbit books that he took my imaginary editor’s advice and produced a pair of great novels.

Three Tales - Gustave Flaubert (French)
“A Simple Heart” is simply wonderful (the parrot at the end is a great touch), but the other two tales are flat and boring (“Herodias” is impenetrably confusing); they’re uninspired and not worth discussing. The story of Felicite, however, seems heartfelt. Flaubert, a complex man, looks at the life of an uneducated servant and sees significance in it. Maybe happiness comes from simplicity: accepting things as they are, finding purpose in a life full of daily tasks, believing in one’s religion. No questioning, no craving. Flaubert tells Felicite’s story without embellishment; we get only her thoughts, feelings and actions. Though I don’t usually quote authors on their work, I’ll make an exception. In a letter Flaubert gave a synopsis of “A Simple Heart” and closed by writing, of this tender story, “I am tender-hearted myself.” Then he added: “Now, surely, no one will accuse me of being inhuman any more. . . .”

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