Monday, June 20, 2011

Effi Briest - Theodor Fontane (German)
This novel, written in 1894 by a 75-year-old man, contains elements that I found original and completely successful. What Fontane chooses to omit is critical. An example is the way he presents Effi’s affair; though we’re in her mind for most of the novel, we’re denied access to what transpires between her and Major Crampas. There was intimacy, but of what sort? We’ll never know. Crampas’s last words (which he speaks to Effi’s husband after he’s been mortally wounded by him in a duel) are: “Will you . . .” Will you what? We’re faced with enigmas, but they’re the kind that make you see life as an inexplicable and poignant mystery. Nobody is a villain, nobody is without flaws. No one is consistent. You can question every conclusion or justification any character makes. At the end Effi says that her husband “ . . . was as fine a man as any one can be who doesn’t really love.” But is she mistaken? Did Innstetten, despite his harsh actions after he learned of her infidelity, love Effi? In this tragic story there’s beauty and sentimentality and moments of untrammeled joy. And wisdom too – one doesn’t live to Fontane’s age without coming to some conclusions about life. *

The Big Nickelodeon - Maritta Wolff
In this page turner the author brings together a large cast of characters caught up in a variety of tangled predicaments. Dialogue is one of Wolff’s strengths; each individual comes alive with their own distinct voice. In the first chapter a body is discovered on a California beach; on the last page the identity of the person is revealed. Reading this rich, sprawling novel is more than entertainment. Wolff shows us people striving, often not sure what they’re after, sometimes pursuing the wrong goals. Ultimately they’re hostages to their needs and their natures.

Mockingbird - Walter Tevis
Though reading this book was not at all laborious, the plot and characters are so complex that they defy any tidy summing up. Tevis presents a futuristic world headed toward extinction (not with a bang but a whimper); even biological humans have lost their humanness. Bentley has to slowly discover his; books are the means by which he gains access to feelings which had been drugged and indoctrinated into dormancy. Mary Lou, a rebel who escaped such indoctrination in her youth, is relatively intact. The robot Spofforth was created using the brain of a human as a model; he fleetingly feels – and is disturbed by – random emotions and memories belonging to his donor. In its depiction of a social-engineered world in terminal disarray, the book makes you think. Tevis is less successful in making me feel. He tries to show the evolution of Bentley as he opens up to emotions and learns to love, yet this aspect seemed forced and awkward. In The Man Who Fell to Earth and Queen’s Gambit Tevis convincingly conveyed deep alienation, but in this novel he couldn’t breathe life into scenes of human engagement.

Old Red and Other Stories - Caroline Gordon
There are quite a few successes in this collection. The best are about Aleck Maury. He’s a great character, and I wonder if he was based on Gordon’s father. How else could she have such empathy for an aging sportsman with an elemental need to hunt and fish? In the Maury stories she captures, with a masterful understatement, Aleck’s feelings as the world he loves slips inexorably from his grasp. Her finest achievement is “The Last Day in the Field,” in which she makes this conflict of love and loss palpable. Bittersweet loss is also the theme of “All Lovers Love the Spring”; Gordon follows a woman’s random thoughts, and in doing so a whole life emerges. The weakest – and longest – story is “Emmanuele! Emmanuele!” It’s populated by intellectuals and the plot is intricate; both seem contrived. Gordon was an author with limitations – she had to care deeply about her characters and she had to keep the plot simple. When she stayed in those parameters she was capable of beautiful work.

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