Miss Gomez and the Brethren - William Trevor
Another gathering of lost souls from Trevor. The problem with this novel involves the central character. Miss Gomez remains inaccessible throughout; she makes radical changes in her thinking and behavior, but the groundwork to support these shifts isn’t there – things just happen. The corporeality she lacks is fully present in Mrs. Tuke; much of the book is concerned with her, which is its saving grace. In many ways she’s a horrid person, but always comprehensible; she tries to escape from what she is and what she does by self-deception, romance novels and gin. Mr. Tuke is another fully-realized character, sad and muted, beaten down by life (and his wife). Mr. Batt, the aged and deaf boarder at the Thistle Downs, moves through a world that he can no longer relate to. These three people mattered to me. The same can’t be said for the ethereal young lovers, Alban and Penelope; they suffer from the same insubstantiality I found in Miss Gomez. The setting – a street in London that’s being demolished – imparts an apocalyptic air to the dramas being played out.
Suite Francaise - Irene Nemirovsky (French)
Nemirovsky experienced firsthand the 1941 German invasion and occupation of France. In this novel she assembles a large cast of characters, from wealthy Parisians to village farmers, and shows them living under conditions of great stress and upheaval. The first section, “Storm in June,” is fast-moving and kaleidoscopic, effectively capturing the chaos and terror as people flee Paris. In the slower-paced second section, “Dolce,” she explores the varied responses of villagers to an established occupation. Both sections are successful, though there’s an unavoidable – and tragic – flaw to this novel: it wasn’t finished, nor was it fully revised. The author, being Jewish, was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where she died at age forty. She had resided in France since she was sixteen; when the Nazis invaded she wrote with the shadow of the Final Solution hanging over her head and those of her husband and two small children. At the end of the book are appendices with her letters and a notebook, and they make clear that she was aware of the likelihood of her death. Writing this ambitious novel (she projected it, when finished, to be a thousand pages long) may have provided her with an intellectual and emotional respite from her plight and a purpose – beyond survival – to her days. She recognized the faults of her work-in-progress; she even lists them at one point, and closes with the words “In general, not enough simplicity!” She was right; but circumstances prevented her from solving the problems. What she did accomplish is remarkable and, considering its provenance, important. The novel almost went unpublished. Her daughters, ages four and twelve when their mother died, made it through the war (their father was also put to death). They had in their possession the manuscript, written in pencil, the words tiny to conserve paper. When they were adults their attempts to read it failed; too many painful memories were rekindled. But, as old age approached, they knew they must take on the project. So, sixty-four years after Irene Nemirovsky wrote the words that make up Suite Francaise, the world and the people she created come to life.
The Catfish Man - Jerome Charyn
Jerome Charyn (which is the name of both the author and the novel’s first person narrator) wore me out. I made it two-thirds of the way into this quirky and rambunctious trek through Jerome’s life, but I rebelled when I started a chapter that began: “I didn’t have to dream of that blond boy. The image of Marcos holding him by his ears, that’s what stuck to me. I thought of killing the Phantom, beating him on the head with a shovel while we were out on the bayou, getting the mayor his frogs.” No more, I decided, and the feeling I had was relief. An author gifted with a fertile imagination can’t let it run wild; an author gifted with a mastery of the language can’t let glibness take over. In the long run – if there’s nothing else – the results of such prodigality become trivial and tiresome. What’s most telling is that I never cared about Jerome. When I quit reading I hadn’t an iota of curiosity about what happened to him; he wasn’t a person, just a crazily-colored pinata for Charyn to bang away at.
Selected Stories - V. S. Pritchett
I read only half of the stories; I became convinced that mild enjoyment was all Pritchett had to offer. He’s a prose stylist of note, but most of his effort went into creating sentences that are dense and rich. The stories themselves have limited scope and don’t tackle subjects that matter much. I finished too many with a “So what?” feeling. Only “The Key to My Heart” truly engaged me, mainly because of the appalling and appealing Mrs. Brackett. To experience Pritchett’s talent at its peak, go straight to his memoirs, A Cab at the Door and Midnight Oil.