Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Unspeakable Skipton - Pamela Hansford Johnson
In an opening note Johnson states that she had “always wanted to write a study about an artist’s paranoia.” Skipton is a writer. I didn’t see a paranoid individual, though he’s certainly deranged. He has delusions of grandeur (he believes he’s a genius of the highest order); he’s arrogant – abusively so – and his heart festers with an overabundance of hatred. Since his writing isn’t appreciated by a world of fools, most of the novel concerns his machinations to get money. He’s an artist starving in the garret – literally. People (for whom he has extreme distaste) interest him only as potential sources of income, and he resorts to pimping, blackmail and thievery so he can buy food and pay his rent. This sounds grim, but it’s not. Not as Johnson presents it; she even manages to sustain a comic tone. The writing is topnotch – lively, sometimes moving with headlong impetuosity. The characters Skipton interacts with are a colorful group and Bruges, Belgium is a wondrous setting. By the end – even though I was in the mind of a warped and unsavory person – I felt pity for Skipton. In order to convey pity I suppose Johnson also felt it. I hope she did; poor souls such as Skipton meet with enough derision in their lives. *

King Solomon’s Mines - H. Rider Haggard
A rip-roaring yarn. Close escapes from the jaws of death, monstrous villains, an epic battle that rages over several chapters, a fabulous treasure. Throughout the exotic and gory events Allan Quartermain, the narrator, remains down-to-earth and unheroic (he even admits that he’s a bit of a coward). His solid presence provides a needed balance to the high drama. Haggard knew Africa and its people well. I was interested in how a Victorian colonialist would depict the natives. He grants them a condescending respect, sometimes even admiration, but they’re not the equal of an Englishman. Good as it is, the book’s ideal audience is the young; if I had read it when I was twelve it would have knocked my socks off.

The Eye - Vladimir Nabokov (Russian)
This long short story was fated to fail; its premise is too unwieldy. Yet Nabokov uses smoke and mirrors to fashion a rickety plausibility. He plays with the idea of a person viewing himself from outside himself – being merely a disembodied eye. The eye constantly sees the contempt and indifference the world has for him. In this outing Nabokov’s cruelty is tempered; in his Foreword he refers to his character as “poor” Smurov, and I wonder if he could relate to him; the parade of indignities he subjects Smurov to have a masochistic quality (was young Nabokov rankled by the lack of recognition for his writing?). At the end Smurov retreats into the realm of the imagination. He insists that he has found happiness there; in dreams he can possess the woman he loves. His last (and pitiable) words: “What more can I do to prove it, to proclaim that I am happy? Oh, to shout it so that all of you believe me at last, you cruel, smug people . . .”

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