Thursday, March 1, 2012

That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana – Carlo Emilio Gadda (Italian)
Reading this novel was like being in a traffic jam of words; a side road would occasionally open up and I would be able to move along – only, alas, to soon find myself again stuck in congestion. Sentences like this were constantly barring my path: “In a way, a pseudo-justice assumes a legal course, a pseudo-severity, or the pseudo-habilitation of the finger-pointings whose manifest countersigns seem to be both the arrogance of the ill-considered magistrate’s investigation and the cynobalanic excitement of the anticipated sentence.” Adding to the density are phrases in French, German, Latin and Greek; the translator, William Weaver, saw fit not to render these into English. What results is such laborious going that I could only make it halfway through. Yet I quit with regret. On those side roads, when an accessible story emerged (the “awful mess” is a murder), I was impressed by the psychological intricacies, the atmosphere of festering corruption. If this novel were stripped of its excesses and digressions it would be at least a hundred pages shorter; it might be readable, yet it would be violated. Whatever the book is – and I’m not sure what that is – it’s exactly what it was meant to be. I wouldn’t dispute the claim that Gadda was a genius, but one who made no concessions to the reader. And, to me, such insularity is a failing.

Some Tame Gazelle - Barbara Pym
Pym’s first novel could be her tenth. Spinster church ladies are her subject, her prose is smooth and unruffled, the tone she sets is mildly amusing, mildly sad. Two sisters cope with their single state in very different ways. One’s feelings are deep; for thirty years she has faithfully held onto her undeclared love for a married Archdeacon. The other sister flamboyantly toys with love. This contrast between sincerity and superficiality is initially interesting, yet it isn’t developed. Pym seemed to realize this; she introduces odd characters to liven things up, but they only serve as passing distractions. I got into a state where I was lulled; then, in the last fifty or so pages, the absence of variety and depth sometimes made me wonder why I was still reading. Pym deals with loneliness and lovelessness in her typically light way; when she strikes a plangent note, it’s muted. Gentleness prevails, and many people read Pym for just that quality. Only in Quartet in Autumn did she delve into the dark side of the solitary life, and that novel will stand as her greatest accomplishment.

Charlotte’s Web - E. B. White
In this reread the book retained its freshness and charm. This is due, in large part, to the prose, lovely in its simplicity. The animal characters come alive, and their dialogue is pitch perfect (the geese talk like geese should talk). But it’s the rat, Templeton, who steals the show; his unrepentant greed and cynicism provide an antidote to the naive goodness of Wilbur and the wise goodness of Charlotte. The plot revolves around words written in a web, which folks take to be a miracle. Only by deft sidestepping is the author able to avoid any religious connotation. The precious miracle at the heart of this book is life. White closes by writing of the barn: “It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of the swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.”

And Then - Natsume Soseki (Japanese)
This novel is the second of a trilogy. I read – and liked a lot – the first, Sanshiro, and the last, The Gate. Both stayed grounded in the daily lives of the characters; Soseki presented their personalities and their emotions as they coped with circumstances, other people and themselves. But in And Then he takes a radically different approach. He concentrates on the main character’s angst and ennui, his existential despair. When the novel deals with everyday events, it’s good. But I quit reading because I ran into too many boring and pointless stretches. Boring and pointless – that’s usually what results when an author tackles the big questions of life directly. Those questions can’t be made vital or relevant by having somebody ponder about them.

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