Friday, September 3, 2010

The Wayfarer - Natsume Soseki (Japanese)
I have high regard for three Soseki novels – and then this. The plot makes no sense. Do the characters and events in the first section, “Friend,” exist simply to be dropped? Increasingly the book concerns Ichiro, the narrator’s brother; at first the issue is Ichiro’s unhappy marriage (with his wife playing a major role), but the marriage (and the wife) are dropped too. Supposedly Ichiro’s problem is very, very deep, and involves existential matters. What’s the meaning of life? – that type of thing. Ichiro is supposedly brilliant and as a result he’s unable to live simply, unquestioningly, happily. The book ends (the last section is entitled “Anguish,” and it was, for me) with a long letter which supposedly sheds light on the enigmatic and tortured Ichiro. I’m overusing “supposedly,” right? I didn’t buy any of it. Ichiro is an ugly-tempered, self-centered bore. He wasn’t worth my time. But he was worth Soseki’s time. Why? Could he be the author’s alter ego? I don’t know. But I do know that a major peril in writing about oneself is that you reveal yourself without even knowing it.

The Vicar of Bullhampton - Anthony Trollope
This novel is earthy (who could be more down-to-earth than the miller?). I believe that common people, rendered honestly and without condescension, are of great interest; so did Trollope. The novel’s central issue is “The Woman Question,”and it’s presented through two very different characters. Mary Lowther’s dilemma has to do with whether she should marry a man she doesn’t love. He’s an excellent match and various forces push her towards the marriage. Her struggle in making this decision is depicted with all the doubts and conflicts she feels. Then there’s the miller’s daughter, Carrie Brattle, who’s a “fallen woman.” Her predicament is hard for a modern reader to comprehend. Because of one misstep this unmarried girl becomes an outcast from society; even her father disowns her. I had a problem with how Trollope handled both women. Mary is given an easy way out: she meets a man who stirs real love in her. Okay, but why the Perils of Pauline-type obstacles thrown in her way (and then conveniently removed)? We’re constantly left hanging with the question of “What happens next?” (wait for the next installment to find out). As for Carrie, she clearly had Trollope’s sympathy, and he shows the hypocrisy and insensitivity of the so-called upstanding, moral people who find her soiled beyond redemption. But his portrayal of her is so flat! She’s often referred to as “poor Carrie” and she’s little more than an abjectly sad victim. Still, these problems don’t sink the ship. There’s much about the novel that makes it a success. It’s emotionally rich, engrossing and written in a smooth, reader-friendly style. Trollope shows compassion for all his many characters, even the deeply flawed. The eponymous Vicar is someone of importance: a good man who diligently tries to do the right thing. His efforts sometimes fail to achieve their goals; but he, like all the people of Bullhampton, is merely human.

Hemlock and After - Angus Wilson
I had mixed feelings as I was reading this; admiration was offset by fault-finding. Wilson is intelligent (he makes sure you know it) and his prose is graceful and inventive (though its intricacies serve mainly to impress). Then there were the people he assembles. The book is under 150 pages, but it has a list – one I had to constantly refer to – of twenty-five characters. Many are homosexual; almost all, of whatever sexual persuasion, are distasteful. Some only indulge in backbiting, but one woman is outrageously evil. Wilson has a cultured taste for the kinky, and he displays a cynicism that’s downright acidic. Kinkiness and cynicism can be entertaining – they are entertaining as presented here –but they can turn rancid. Perhaps Wilson realized this was happening to his wicked brew, because near the end he tries to impart a higher purpose to the proceedings; I was unconvinced by the sudden emphasis on self-revelation and compassion. Hemlock is a poison, and this book has a poisonous heart. Though Angus Wilson is surely an artist, is he a person whose work I want to spend more time with?

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