Friday, August 6, 2010

Fermina Marquez - Valery Larbaud (French)
Fermina is a beautiful sixteen-year-old girl who, along with her aunt and younger sister, makes daily visits to a boarding school where her little brother is a pupil. Her presence creates a ferment of emotions in the boys. Most view her from afar. The two who get close to her are Santos, a swaggering South American conquistador, very much a man of the world, and Joanny Lenoit, the school’s scholar, a boy younger than Fermina. Larbaud wouldn’t have succeeded if he had concentrated on Fermina and Santos (neither are multi-dimensional) or if he had included anything the least bit smutty. Sex is treated circumspectly, as befits an implicit force. The bulk of the book is given to Joanny, who is extremely complex. His emotions range from feelings of inadequacy to dreams of a triumph on the scale of Caesar’s. Much that happens is unexpected; what amazes is how the unexpected is exactly right. Larbaud is able to convey a sense of the consuming power that a beautiful girl has over the thoughts, passions and imaginations of young men. *

In Search of Love and Beauty - Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
I quit reading at the halfway point. Jhabvala’s characters, both major and secondary, were unappetizing and the plot lacked credibility. Everything revolves around Leo Kellermann, who’s supposed to be an overpowering presence, especially for women. He preys on them, sexually and financially, while successfully promoting himself as a guru with deep insights. But Jhabvala doesn’t provide any convincing evidence to make Leo’s power believable, nor do we get a snippet of wisdom from him, either in words or actions. He’s a selfish tyrant. He may have sexual magnetism – he’s the type of sensuous male who claims women, and they duly succumb. Louise and Regi, who are dominated by Leo, come across as fools (albeit pitiable ones). The title of the book is misleading – there’s no love or beauty, nor is there a search for it. What you’ll find is an abundance of spite, which is what Jhabvala seems to feel for her characters.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Anita Loos
This book’s enormous success is deserved. It’s funny, fast-moving, and the voice of Lorelei Lee is pitch perfect. Loos hit on the right character, the right format (Lorelei’s diary), the right plot (almost none) and – most important – the right tone: innocence. Innocent? Lorelei? If you want to get serious, she’s an amoral gold digger. But who wants to get serious? Loos served up a bit of frothy entertainment. There’s a photo of her when she wrote the book (she’s very pretty, though her expression is challenging). Her introduction to this 1973 edition was done when she was eighty; it’s a smart, funny and lively look back at a book written fifty years ago. Anita Loos is no longer with us. But Lorelei is.

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