Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cluny Brown - Margery Sharp
Twenty-year-old Cluny is described by her uncle, with whom she has lived all her life, as being “plain as a boot.” But when we get to know her she displays a buoyancy that’s engaging (she even bounds when she walks). She’s an original, a free spirit without a hint of artifice. In an early chapter a woman the uncle talks to in the park gives him a piece of advice: “I think your niece sounds exceptionally charming. You mustn’t suppress her, you must help her to develop. She may be a really special personality.” This appraisal is right on target; but rather than be developed, Cluny’s adventurous nature is stifled while she’s living with her stodgy uncle. When she’s sent to work as a servant at a country estate new worlds open for her. Sharp recognized that Cluny alone couldn’t carry the novel, so she introduces a half dozen well-drawn characters (and not a villain among them). Love is in the air, romances bloom, including one for Cluny. But the events at the end, though they have an engaging sprightliness, aren’t convincing. I think the author cared so much about her creation that, like a fairy godmother, she simply waved a magic wand and blessed Cluny with an exciting life. I can’t really blame her.

The Feast of Lupercal - Brian Moore
Moore traces the evisceration of Mr. Devine (Dev), a master at a Catholic boy’s school in Belfast. Thirty-seven years old, he’s still a virgin, though fairly content with his drab, solitary life. That life is soon to be in turmoil. He’s in a stall in the school’s men’s room when he overhears a teacher refer to him as an “old woman” with no knowledge of how a fellow could feel about a girl. Dev is stung by these words; when he meets twenty-year-old Una she seems responsive to his tentative advances, and he’s emboldened to pursue her. This awkward “romance” results in disasters raining down upon Dev; at the end he’s in the same situation he was in the beginning, but inside he’s shattered beyond repair. No longer will he accept his lot in life, but never again will he attempt to make intimate contact with a woman. This is a desolate, relentless, grimy book. Though Dev is someone I understood, I wasn’t moved by his emotional destruction because Moore doesn’t make him an appealing person. At Saint Michan’s School the cane rules (the scenes of beatings are appalling), and Dev wields his with gusto; he sees the boys as ugly, vicious lumps. In other ways he’s a mild man, not a bad sort. He rises up to display defiance at the end, but it’s short-lived and too late. Hanging over the characters (like a cane about to descend) is the harsh and repressive Catholicism prevailing in Belfast in the1950s. Moore condemns a society that twists people’s natures into grotesque shapes. I felt that the only response to such a place would be to violently rebel against it or to leave it (which is what the author chose to do).

Night and Silence Who Is Here? - Pamela Hansford Johnson
This novel’s lugubrious and obscure title is inappropriate and its subtitle, “An American Comedy,” is a misrepresentation. The author brings together a group of over-the-top eccentrics at a New England college. But colorful eccentrics behaving oddly aren’t funny per se, not if they have no substance nor a coherent plot to provide a basis for their actions. Things move along with a dogged joie de vivre as Johnson tries, in prose that sparkles too brightly, to make her characters cavort about, to be funny, funny, funny. Forced zaniness never works. As for Who Is Here?, I wasn’t, not for long; I made a quiet exit from a party that was turning out to be a flop.

Thurber Country - James Thurber
Early on Thurber did some excellent work, but at a point in his career everything he wrote – even if it was bad or indifferent – got published by The New Yorker, where he was employed. He got lazy – or at least I attribute the “tossed off” quality of these twenty-five pieces to laziness. Only nine had any merit. In this collection of prose his idiosyncratic drawings, in which he can capture an expression with a minimum of lines, are the high points.

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