Monday, June 25, 2012

Three Novels: Hordubal, Meteor, An Ordinary Life - Karl Capek (Czech)
These very different novels (even the style of writing varies) are supposedly interconnected in that they make a philosophical point. The first of the three succeeds because I understood and felt sympathy for Juraj Hordubal. Poor man! – he returns to his home village after eight years in America (where he worked in the coal mines) hoping that his beloved wife will welcome him with open arms; instead he’s met with coldness and silence. He also finds a man living on the property who’s purported to be just a farmhand, but seems more than that. Juraj is unable to confront his wife about these matters because he fears the truth. He’s like a small animal in a cage, scurrying here and there; the only way for him to be free of the doubts and fears that plague him would be not to care – which he can’t do – or not to exist. Capek’s major accomplishment is to give us an intimate study of a simple man in torment. From that high point things drop off drastically. In Meteor the lone survivor of a plane crash is dying in a hospital bed. Because he has no identity and can’t speak (even his face is swathed in bandages) three people – a nun, a clairvoyant and a writer – conjure up stories about him and his life. I found the nun’s story interesting, but the other two, besides being silly and rambling, were pointless – which is what happens when an author tries to make an abstract philosophical point (one I never got). I became increasingly bored and restless. Shortly after I began An Ordinary Life a feeling of oppression set in. Unlike Juraj, I found a simple way to escape: I stopped reading.

On the Yard – Malcolm Braly
Braly took his personal knowledge of prison life and combined it with insight into the minds of his characters to produce a work that’s both authentic and emotionally involving. He avoids stereotypes; there are good and bad men on both sides of the bars. San Quentin (not named as such in the book) is actually a humane place (at least during the time Braly spent there, in the sixties). But even a humane prison is prison. Besides the pervasive threat of danger from other inmates, there’s a sense of waste; each day is like a scrap of litter tossed idly on the yard. Some try to avoid this demoralizing fact, others are all too aware of it. The absence of women leads to homosexual encounters (or at least constant talk about that subject). The novel is ugly, grim and vulgar, but what else can it be? A lifer named Chilly Willy plays a prominent role; he’s the prison’s King Rat, a man who uses his brains to get his way. But the mechanics of his downfall are too obvious (from the get-go I spotted the trap that was being set for Willy, so why couldn’t he?). Braly’s portrayal of Juleson, on the other hand, is masterful. Juleson is a decent man, determined to hold onto his dignity; we know that about him, but we don’t know until the end of the book what his crime was. In seven devastating pages we find out. But that’s not all: the scene that immediately follows has the impact of a hammer blow. *

Portrait of Max - S. N. Behrman
This is an elegant book, as befits its subject. For the most part it’s made up of conversations between Max Beerbohm and Behrman; it also includes a generous helping of Max’s caricatures. This certainly isn’t a tell-all – it’s a loving portrayal – though a side to Max emerges in which his impishness has a bite; his drawings can be hurtful (a fact that he was ruefully aware of) and he also has a taste for gossip in which people’s faults and foibles are exposed. But it’s a sharp-eyed interest in human nature that seems to be motivating him, not mean-spiritedness. Max was one of those rare souls who have a talent for living. He valued friends, and he was rich in that respect. He chose to lead what some would consider a diminished life. His artistic and literary output was meager; and, though he was a prominent figure in London’s smart set, after his marriage he moved to a tiny villa on the outskirts of an Italian town. In speaking about his retreat from glitter, glamour and fame, he has absolutely no regrets. Behrman made visits to Rapallo over a period of four years (the book ends with Max’s death at age 84). During his stays the two men spent a few hours each day talking (or, rather, with Max talking – it’s his portrait, after all). I was often pleasantly involved, but sometimes I felt excluded because I didn’t know anything about the people being discussed. Also, their encounters don’t provide enough material to fill a 300 page book, so Behrman resorts to describing in detail what Max wrote; since I could read the real thing (and, in many cases, had), I found these sections to be a waste of words. But being with Max was time well spent.

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