Monday, August 6, 2012

And Even Now - Max Beerbohm
In these essays Max offers a unique perspective on life, and he does it with intelligence and wit. He also establishes a familiarity with the reader; I got the sense that he was speaking to me as a friend. I hope, in the following samples, that I do him justice. In “How Should I Word It” Max skims a book that provides models for people to use in writing letters for a variety of occasions (including romantic breakups). They’re perfect in their tactfulness, generosity, etc. Max begins to “crave some little outburst of wrath, of hatred, of malice.” So he comes up with his own array of letters (one, in response to a “small, cheap, hideous” wedding present: “Perhaps you were guided in your choice by a definite wish to insult me. I am sure, on reflection, that this was so. I shall not forget.”). In “Hosts and Guests” he gives convincing arguments that all of humanity can be classified as one or the other. He puts himself firmly in the “Guest” category; on those occasions when he must be a host, he fulfills this role only passably well (he tries hard to avoid a “frozen look” when he first glances at a restaurant bill set before him). “William and Mary” is a love story. After his friend’s marriage, Max visited him and his wife; he found her to be delightful. He came often to their home and observed their relationship with a sense of wonder; they were blessed. But Mary died in childbirth (as did the baby); afterwards William volunteered to go to a war zone as a reporter; he was killed. Many years later Max finds himself in the vicinity of where they had lived; with some trepidation he takes a detour, half hoping that the house will no longer be there; but it is, in decay. What follows, as Max stands at the door, is an evocation of loss that is surprising and moving.

Stories - Elizabeth Jolley
A strange mishmash. The first six stories are interconnected, though they skip huge gaps in time. They depict a family – a mother, son, daughter – existing precariously on the fringes of society. The daughter serves as narrator and is the most sensible of the three. She’s likeable, and there’s pathos in her efforts to fend off chaos (though she often succumbs to the antics of the others). Despite the setbacks they face, the Morgans have an unquenchable ability to enjoy whatever comes their way. Their love for one another is interlaced with verbal abuse (when the mother calls her son a “son of a bitch” he answers, “Well if I’m the son of a bitch dear lady you must be the bitch”; after this routine comeback there’s wild laughter all around). But the last of the Morgan stories was so fragmented and impressionistic that I had no idea what was happening. It was also devoid of liveliness, which turned out to be a harbinger; the shapeless mood pieces that follow are about life’s outcasts, but unhappiness can’t be served up in such a drab, plodding, muddled way. I skipped to the self portrait at the end called “A Child Went Forth.” It starts out well, then it too loses coherency and focus. I found myself wondering whether Jolley’s undisciplined wandering was an artistic choice or a symptom.

Can You Forgive Her? - Anthony Trollope
I do forgive Alice. I’m also grateful to Trollope for entertaining me for 800 pages. That said, the first volume of this double-decker is better than the second. More care was taken in the characterizations and the prose, and in the second half the predicaments developed in the beginning simply go through a process of resolution. The knotty twists and turns and changes in thinking are unraveled and things begin moving in a straight line. Alice’s initial dilemma has to do with her reluctance to marry the man she loves. What holds her back is that he’s perfect – steady in his love for her, always composed and sensible and kind. Alice, who is flawed and knows it, has the uncomfortable feeling that life with such a paragon of virtue will place her at a disadvantage; this feeling leads her to make some foolhardy decisions, the worst of which is getting involved with the far from virtuous George Vavasor; his evolution into a monster borders on the unbelievable – but not quite. Trollope’s understanding of human psychology turns what could have been a soap opera into literature. He was even adept at high comedy. A side story involves Alice’s widowed aunt and the two suitors clumsily pursuing her. Neither man is a match for the cunning, manipulative and eminently practical Aunt Greenow. This is the first in a series of Palliser novels, but I won’t be reading the others; politics loomed ahead, and the conflicts that initially engaged me have been put to rest.

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