Friday, December 10, 2010

The Delicate Prey and Other Stories - Paul Bowles
This collection contains Bowles’ first published fiction. I had previously read (and didn’t reread) “A Distant Episode.” The cruelty in that story left a lasting – and disturbing – impression on me. “The Delicate Prey” is almost as bad (castration, live burial of a man so only his head is exposed). These acts are described in an offhand manner, as if the perpetrators found them as pleasurable and inconsequential as having a good meal. But it’s the author who conveys that attitude, which makes me think there was something warped in Bowles’ nature. Despite my feelings of aversion, I have to acknowledge his talent; the stories cited above are effective because they’re done with skill. But in this collection we mostly get the warped sensibility minus the skill; some stories offer up their aberrations in a slipshod way. Of the ones I read (half I didn’t) only “You Are Not I” and “Pages from Cold Point” were interesting. “Pages” deals with homosexuality, a subject the author usually avoided (or dodged). Any relationship between people in Bowles’ work is devoid of a positive form of intimacy; cruelty, not love, was his specialty  He almost always used a foreign setting. Bowles lived most of his life in Morocco – a place where, I suspect, he was free to indulge his questionable tastes to the fullest.

The Bitter Box - Eleanor Clark
The extreme oddity of this novel kept me off balance. At first I thought it was badly written. But I kept reading because there was something compelling in the story of Mr. Temple. Eventually it dawned on me that Clark knew exactly what she was doing. She puts us in the mind of a very odd man and makes us see and feel things as he does. Mr. Temple is isolated, socially inept, repressed, emotionally unstable. This instability is precariously close to insanity (of the dangerous sort; rage is one of the emotions he has long repressed). On the first page he impulsively leaves the bank where he worked as a teller for over a decade; he’s driven from his cage onto the city streets by an urge inexplicable to him. Much is inexplicable to him. His mind latches onto images (some blossom into the ominous or the beautiful), his conversations are disjointed, his responses to people and events come in fits and starts. This is confusing (too confusing for me at times, even though confusion is what Mr. Temple feels). His flight from the bank – he’ll return the next day – is an interruption of a regimented life which he can no longer tolerate. His experiences in the following months are especially intense because, at age thirty-one, he has experienced very little. Mr. Temple is on a journey into the murky depths of himself; the journey doesn’t end up any place good. A dismal death seems imminent for him, and his inability to comprehend his nature persists – though on the last page there’s a suggestion that he may have achieved some insight. Maybe. I was never on solid footing with this novel, but I was caught up in the emotions. That’s Eleanor Clark’s accomplishment: to make me care about the strange Mr. Temple.

The Comforters - Muriel Spark
When I began this novel I knew it was Spark’s first, but after I finished it I discovered that she wrote it when she was thirty-nine. Thirty-nine! I thought she was in her early twenties; this isn’t a mature work. She relies on characters that range from peculiar to extravagantly bizarre (there’s a witch, folks, a real witch). The three main threads of plot are never woven together. One character hears voices that repeat her thoughts and words; we’re to believe that the book we’re reading is being produced by this disembodied source. Spark can’t make sense of what she proposes, so it’s total nonsense. Then there’s a sweet old grandmother who’s head of a ring of diamond smugglers; I felt I was back sleuthing with the Hardy Boys. The relationship between a young man and woman is chaste; Spark avoids a subject that was always a problem for her: love and sex (after reading enough of an author’s work you get to know them). Also in the mix is Catholicism, though the emphasis is on diabolism. The prose has a nice sparkle and the book moves along in a pleasant way – if, like the author, you ignore the improbabilities (which extend to the title; I have no idea what it’s referring to). I was blessed by starting out with two excellent books by Spark (Momento Mori and The Bachelors); the string of novels I read after those were either diverting or disappointing. This was interrupted by the lightning stroke of The Driver’s Seat, which may reveal more about Ms. Spark than anything else she wrote.

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