Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Nightingale - Sholom Aleichem (Yiddish) 
In a simple, direct way Aleichem brings to turbulent life the exotic world of a Jewish shtetl, with its foul-smelling mud streets and small, dark houses. There are no pogroms or raids by Cossacks in this novel; the troubles that befall the Jews of Mazepevka come from poverty and the human flaws that their all-pervasive religion cannot eradicate. Love, kindness and generosity are present, but there’s also greed, backbiting, jealousy, and various other destructive feelings and behavior. We’re not in the uplifting world of “Fiddler on the Roof.” But no group of people, if depicted honestly, would emerge pure as the driven snow. Aleichem is honest, and for this he should be commended. He does seem to be denouncing the Jewish practice of arranging marriages. Esther, who embodies the virtues of kindness and generosity, is pressured by her family to marry a detestable – though wealthy – widower. I felt how odious this marriage would be for her. Especially since she loves Yosele, has loved him since they were children. Yosele is the cantor’s son, the nightingale of the title; he can sing with an exquisite sweetness. Though he reciprocates Esther’s love, this is no love story. The fault lies entirely with Yosele. He doesn’t appear to be a complex character, but, near the end of the book, when one looks back, trying to account for his actions, it becomes clear that Yosele has always been mentally unstable. Early on his emotionality seemed part of an imaginative, creative nature; but it darkens. When he returns to Mazepevka, just as Esther is about to marry the widower, we’re presented not with a lover come to rescue her but with a madman. I was surprised at how unobtrusively Aleichem leaves us with nothing. The last words in the novel, before the withering epilogue, come from the coachman: “If you think about it, you come to realize it’s a rotten world.” * 

Therese Raquin - Emile Zola (French) 
Zola wrote this when he was in his mid-twenties, and if I were advising him I would have recommended that he abandon the idea of being a novelist and take up shoemaking. Of course, that would be bad advice, but this is a bad novel. It’s strident and overwrought, both in how the characters carry on and in the prose. Zola may have felt that by presenting a gloomy, grim, ugly world – and doing it unrelentingly – he was being a realist; but the people in this book are too extreme to be real. Zola assaults the reader with a torrent of shrill adjectives; he was obviously writing in a frenzy, carried away by his story of illicit passion, murder and guilt. There’s no artistry, no thoughtful restraint, and the results are as melodramatic as a dime novel. At the time it came out in France its luridness made it a cause celebre. I stuck with it to the halfway point, hoping it might get better, but it just kept getting worse. 

A Long Desire - Evan Connell 
The eleven pieces in this book are about people who embarked on obsessive searches. Most desired wealth (though prestige comes a close second); six of the quests involve discovering a passage to India or finding riches in the New World. The lure of gold can drive man to endure appalling hardships and to commit atrocious acts. The majority of the searchers fail to reach their goals, and the outcome for many is a gory death. I was struck by their determination, brutality, resourcefulness. Also, their gullibility. My gut reaction was often, What folly, what madness! There are boring stretches in which Connell simply presents researched facts; when he enlivens the facts with a novelist’s flare the results are engrossing and even fascinating. My favorite episode was about the crazed search for El Dorado. My favorite character (and, I believe, Connell’s) is the only woman: Mary Kingsley, a proper Victorian lady with an insatiable desire to explore remote places. She wasn’t after gold; she just wanted adventure. Nothing fazed her – she remained unflappable in the face of cannibals and crocodiles. And she always observed tea time.

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