Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Tomorrow-Tamer - Margaret Laurence
These stories take place in Africa. In some the main character is British, in others African; in all the cultures interact. But Laurence is a writer of fiction – a good one – so we experience this troubled interaction through people and the situations they’re in. She presents very different ways of seeing the world, but she does it with the non-judgmental attitude of an anthropologist: one way is not right, the other wrong. Laurence is a Canadian, white, but the white characters are no more fully-realized than the black ones. She lived for many years in Somalia and Ghana. You can live in a place and not understand it; Laurence understood. I may have given the wrong impression by using the words “anthropologist” and “culture.” Human feelings are at the core of every story. My favorite is “The Perfumed Sea,” about two highly unusual lovers.

Akenfield - Ronald Blythe
Blythe was a novelist who wrote this sociological study of a small farming village in England, circa the late 1960s. He gives us the words of fifty residents; that’s what the book is, people talking. I’m sure the phrasing of the monologues was altered somewhat, though the minds that emerge are those of distinct individuals. We have insight into a variety of personalities, we get various (and varied) world views. A farm-worker, a wheelwright, a schoolmaster, a blacksmith, a thatcher, a magistrate, a sheep farmer – these are some who come forward to tell their stories. In the older folks there’s a remarkable depth of knowledge about their craft (the jobs involving manual labor are far more complex than I had imagined); also, they have intense pride in their skills. In the young, growing up in a time of mechanization, those qualities – depth of knowledge and pride – are disappearing. Though this is a sociological study, Blythe captures the complexity and scope of life in its two forms – that of the community and that of each of the fifty individuals. He does so in an absorbing and unobtrusive way. But, like so many skilled craftsmen, writers of his caliber are disappearing. It’s sad to think of that; but every bit as sad to think that there’s no one to whom I can give this book – no one is interested in Akenfield or Akenfield. So I’ll close (in resignation) with the last words from the last person to speak – the gravedigger: “I want to be cremated and my ashes thrown in the air. Straight from the flame to the wind, and let that be that.” *

Apartment in Athens - Glenway Wescott
Written in 1945, this is anti-Nazi propaganda. Which is no criticism; we need propaganda in time of war. My gut reaction shows how well Wescott succeeded: I hated Kalter, the German who confiscates the home of a Greek family and ultimately destroys their lives. But the book is more than propaganda. It’s primarily an exploration of the thoughts and emotions of the four member of the Helianos family, particularly the husband and wife. In many ways the marriage of this mismatched couple has been rocky; but, partly due to the stress of their German visitor, the bond between them deepens. Who writes about lovers approaching old age, long-married, aware of the faults of the other, no longer physically attractive, no longer feeling sexual desire? Mr. and Mrs. Helianos are not heroic in a conventional sense, but Wescott has written a book of heroism. What triumphs is simple love. *

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Odd Women - George Gissing
Gissing’s “odd women” are the unmarried ones. What’s their plight in Victorian England? And what’s the plight of women who marry only to escape spinsterhood? Written in 1893, by a man, this is a feminist novel. I don’t think any modern feminist can fault him – unless they want simplistic black and white scenarios. The cast of characters is large and varied; some people act badly, but even the deeply flawed are comprehensible. The prose has a straightforward clarity; it plods along at a comfortable pace. What matters when reading Gissing is the quality of his mind; he was a complex thinker who went deep into a subject. This quality is evident in how he was able to surprise me. On important occasions I expected something to happen, but it didn’t happen the way I had foreseen. This was no trick; what does happen is exactly what would happen; I was (shame on me) expecting the formulaic version. Gissing wrote at the close of the Victorian period, and he questions the still-prevailing values of that time; what’s remarkable is how his honesty and incisiveness make him relevant today. He doesn’t allow his plot or characters to wander far from the subject he’s tackling, so he’s an issue-oriented author. As for the issue of concern here – the relationship between the sexes – he sees it as inherently fraught with difficulties.

The Sea of Grass - Conrad Richter
This would be a long short story if you took away the repetition and the over-abundance of adjectives. What would the story be about? A cattle baron – the imperious Colonel – holding sway over his empire of grass (about to be invaded by hordes of nesters) and his marriage to the beautiful and fascinating Lutie. Both characters are depicted as larger than life; Richter is trying for a legendary, elegiac quality. He fails. To be true to its subject, this novel should have been lean and mean and much less adoring of the Colonel and Lutie. They don’t deserve adoration. Lutie abandons her husband and three small children (one fathered by a man other than her husband), but she’s still a “lady.” The Colonel is supposed to be tremendously imposing, but he’s unable to impose his will in any instance. These two are treated with hushed awe by Hal, the Colonel’s nephew. But Hal, for all his wordiness, doesn’t get into the gritty matters I wanted to know about: the relationship between the Colonel and Lutie, the dynamics of the infidelity, Lutie’s whereabouts for twenty years. One could say that Hal wasn’t privy to these intimate matters. True – but why use him as the narrator? Because the result is a novel about a cattle empire that has no beef in it.

The Red Box - Rex Stout
Entertaining, though not up to the level of the previous two Nero Wolfe mysteries I read. In this one Archie plays a minor role, and I missed his liveliness. Also, the plot was too complex for me to unravel its many intricacies. But I figured out some, and that made me feel good; when Wolfe connected the dots I didn’t feel cheated (I’m not as smart as he is and I know it). A point of interest: in all three books the murderers commit suicide; in two cases Wolfe provides him/her with the means to do so, and in the other he knows that the man intends to kill himself and does nothing to stop him. Dr. Kevorkian would approve.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Famished Road - Ben Okri
This long novel is written with passion, but undisciplined passion has its drawbacks. Okri’s prose is often overwrought, his characters flounder in inconsistencies, he prolongs scenes beyond their effectiveness. Though modern Africa is fertile ground for the excesses of magic realism, the lushest imagery is devoted to the dubious world of spirits. These were problems for me, but not huge ones. I stayed engaged from the opening declaration of the first person narrator: “One of the reasons I didn’t want to be born became clear to me after I had come into the world.” Azaro and his parents live in a laborers’ compound (the center of which is a bar run by the hugely imposing Madame Koto); his father is a beast of burden, his mother hawks goods at the market. The father isn’t a bad man, but dissatisfaction causes him to succumb to alcohol (or to wild dreams, such as finding fame and fortune as a boxer known as Black Tyger). The mother copes and the boy takes it all in. Okri presents us with a Nigeria beset by crooked politicians who make no attempt to alleviate the suffering of the impoverished masses. The hard life in the compound and the relationship between the members of the family are what mattered to me, and these aspects of the novel prevail. Crude and inchoate, colorful and teeming, The Famished Road is a rich feast. That’s a virtue which passion can impart. *

Sagarana - Guimaraes Rosa (Portuguese)
Rosa takes us to the fecund backlands of Brazil and the larger-than-life characters who inhabit it. His prose is like an exotic plant growing wild. The stories, too, are allowed to grow wild. As a result they lack focus; this is most evident in the endings, which simply trail off. Only “Duel” holds the line it sets out on, with the conclusion being the deadly outcome of the beginning. I wouldn’t want Rosa to harness his prodigious talent, only rein it in a bit. Based on these stories, I’ve been trying (unsuccessfully) to get this author’s novel, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands. I believe it will be imposing, difficult and, possibly, astounding.

The Native - David Plante
The psychological complexities in this book are conveyed in a prose that’s economical yet highly atmospheric. Plante concentrates on his four main characters’ dark sides; some cope with it, some welcome it, some resist it, some resign themselves to it. The darkness is a force emanating from the brooding heritage of French Catholicism, which exists alongside the bright modernity of Providence, Rhode Island. The book opens with a daughter (Antoinette/Toinette) half-heartedly trying to commit suicide; her father pulls her from the bathtub, and his feelings are rage. We’re immediately immersed in intense emotions without knowing any of the dynamics. Slowly these dynamics emerge, and they’re convincing. Plante artfully compressed much density into this novella. He doesn’t waste a word. *