Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Usurpers - Francisco Ayala (Spanish)
How do you review a book that you respect but didn’t enjoy? Perhaps recommend it to others who have a taste for what Ayala has done. These stories, rooted in fact, are set during the medieval and Golden Age of Spain; it was a time and place soaked in blood. The characters are captives in the insular worlds of their particular obsessions. All is ponderous, gloomy, barren of human warmth. With a sinuous, exacting prose Ayala weaves ornate baroque tapestries; powerful tableaus emerge, yet they emerge slowly, and I often lost the thread of thought. Still, I read every story because I hoped to find one which I could feel an affinity for; my hope was realized in “The Bewitched.” It takes the form of a critique of an unpublished autobiography written by Gonzalez Lobo, an adventurer who returned from the New World with gold-filled galleons and who sought compensation from the royal court. The anonymous reader of this manuscript often complains of being frustrated, bored, perplexed, but there are sparks of something intriguing which keep him going (I, of course, could relate). In his account Lobo finally gets an audience with the king. This scene’s abruptness confounds the narrator/reader; after so much insignificant detail, the facts he wanted divulged are absent: “Regarding the audience itself, which should have been, precisely, the most memorable thing for him, he sets down only these words, which bring his lengthy manuscript to a close.” The six sentences that follow succeed in expressing, with conciseness and restraint, the need to withdraw in silence from the futility of ambition.

The Asphalt Jungle - W. R. Burnett
An author should be judged by how well he succeeds in what he sets out to do. Burnett set out to write a crime novel; he wrote one that grabs the reader’s attention and doesn’t let go. But it’s in the depth of his characterizations that he excels; nobody is one-dimensional. With Dix and Emmerich the exploration is particularly probing. In the beginning both men are shown in an uncompromisingly harsh light; their considerable flaws loom large. But over the course of the book they take on layers of complexity until, by the end, they’ve become people we can understand and pity. And then there’s Doll Pelky, a seemingly minor character. She clings to Dix: “She was crazy about this big tramp. Why – was no matter. She just was. If only he had a little kindness, a little understanding in his nature; not much, just a little.” This is a woman who has reached the end of the line, and that end is Dix. She had known only the rough side of life for thirty-five years, had been engaged in a “constant, tough, but inconclusive battle against the long, easy slide into the mire.” She had not taken on the “sordid fatalism” of the people around her. Doll has retained a core of decency. I was moved by her, and at the end I was left worrying about her. That feeling may best define Burnett’s accomplishment. *

Born in Exile - George Gissing
A cerebral novel, unsparingly so. Unlike the other two books I’ve read by Gissing, in this one he makes little effort to set scenes or develop well-rounded characters. For over 800 pages we’re immersed in an analysis of ideas, feelings, motivations. When people come together they talk, and whether it’s about religion or relationships, the discourse goes deep; when people are alone they think. The main character is Godwin Peak; though he’s exceptionally intelligent, he feels that his humble origins will forever exile him from the class of people he wants to associate with. The Warricombe family embodies all the virtues he aspires to be part of. To win the love of the daughter he turns to manipulation and hypocrisy. Even the love story operates on a high intellectual plane. Strong emotions are described, but there’s a lack of action to animate the feelings, so they come across as arid and bloodless. I wanted Godwin and Sidwell to simply share some pleasant time with one another, but they’re given no such respite. Gissing demands a level of concentration that I wasn’t up to. The book was published in three volumes, and I had to take breaks between each one to read something lighter. Yet I completed all 800 pages because I wanted to know how Godwin would wind up. As might be expected from a realist like Gissing, the ending is bleak. In Godwin’s last letter this austere and proud man admits to suffering from a crushing loneliness. The words that close the book come from his only friend: “Poor old fellow!” I felt the same way.

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