Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Road - Cormac McCarthy
The main problem with this post-apocalyptic novel is that it’s monotonous. Regarding the action and the feelings of the two characters, what happens on page one is happening (with little variation) on page seventeen, and on page 84, and on page 116 – which is when I suddenly found myself flipping through the remainder of the book. In his depiction of love between a father and son, McCarthy spreads it on too thick; he’s in his true element with menace and cruelty. But since I’m not a fan of horror flicks, I couldn’t appreciate the atrocities committed by the cannibalistic monsters he has roaming the land. Nor was his style of writing to my liking; I’ll close with three examples. The opening sentences: “When he awoke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some glaucoma dimming the world.”  From page 31: “He woke toward the morning with the fire down to coals and walked out to the road. Everything was alight. As if the lost sun was returning at last. The snow orange and quivering.” And here’s a conversation between father and son (each person’s words occupy their own little paragraph): “Is it cold?” “Yes. It’s freezing.” “Do you want to go in?” “I dont know.” “Sure you do.” “Is it okay?” “Come on.” As was the case with Hemingway, McCarthy calls attention to his prose under the guise of simplicity, and I find this annoying and false. 

Sons and Lovers - D. H. Lawrence
Reading Lawrence’s short stories – notably, “The Odour of Chrysanthemums” and “The Rocking-Horse Winner” – made me aware of how good he could be. So I returned to a book that I had abandoned many years ago; I thought that this time around I’d be more sympathetic and patient – and I was. I also found that my preconceptions (garnered from commentary I had read) were baseless. In the first third of this autobiographical novel Lawrence examines the dissolution of his parents’ marriage. To place all the blame on Walter Morel doesn’t do justice to Lawrence’s insight; the Morels were a tragically mismatched couple. But the major misinterpretation is the characterization of Mrs. Morel as a suffocating mother. Though she does look to her children as her reason for being, believing that in their lives hers would find purpose, she isn’t selfish; she wants her sons and daughter to be happy and fulfilled. As for Paul (who is Lawrence), she has no desire to possess him; her hope is that he’ll find a woman who will be good for him. That the two women he’s attracted to are not right for him isn’t something she dreams up; it’s a fact that he’s aware of. His devotion to his mother is not coerced; he gives it of his own free will. The novel weakens considerably in the last third, when Paul is an adult. The intense scrutiny Lawrence devotes to him turns into emotional nitpicking. A law should be passed decreeing that nobody under the age of thirty-five can write anything autobiographical. They don’t have enough separation from their youth to see that what they went through wasn’t that momentous. Lawrence compounds the problem by presuming to enter the minds of the women Paul is involved with, so we not only get too much of conflicted Paul, but the conflicts of others too. It’s convoluted and ponderous; the prose (which in the first part has an unadorned beauty) gets overripe with abstract ideas that must be conveyed. To put it simply, Lawrence thought too much. When he detached himself from himself and didn’t attempt to express inexpressible states of being he could write with an immediacy and power that few authors have been gifted with.

First Snow on Fuji - Yasunari Kawabata (Japanese)
The inconclusiveness of these stories (or at least the five I read) left me asking “What was that about?” and “Why did the author bother to write this?” Only “Nature” was fairly interesting, but it too wanders about in search of a narrative. It’s as if Kawabata lays out pieces of a jigsaw puzzle for the reader; though each piece has a discernible image, they don’t fit together to create an entire picture; not even a clearly defined character or emotion emerges. The author’s preoccupation with sex (wife swapping, gender change, etc.) puts him in step with modern Western sensibilities. As does his dialogue (“Yeah, your nerves are really worn down. Divorce is a tough thing for anyone to have to go through.”). I wondered if that dialogue, which stands in awkward contrast with the rest of the prose, was an accurate rendering into English of what Kawabata wrote. But it doesn’t matter – these glum, constricted stories have little to offer. I was amused only once, and this came in the Introduction, when the translator thanked Joyce Carol Oates for her help. That woman is everywhere.

2 comments:

kmoomo said...

I was hoping to have a totally different experience with the collection of short short stories by Kawabata that I read, aptly named Palm-of-the-Hand Stories. I had read many great things about the first Japanese Nobel Prize for literature and this collection was supposedly his favorite, the essence of his art. I had hoped the flaws you mentioned would be missing from these. The issues would have been "fixed". I went into them with an open mind, treating them each as a prose haiku (a comparison made in the introduction). Sadly, I have to say I found all the faults you did in your reviews. In each story there are various, well presented pieces of the puzzle, often beautiful, often quite sad, but they do not all fit together and in the end the puzzle is left with gaping holes. I felt bewildered much more than satisfied. I felt melancholy more often than uplifted. No more short stories by Kawabata for me. I think I will, however, give The Sound of the Mountain a chance. I'll report back!

Phillip Routh said...

Beware when people use terms like "essence of his art."
The old conundrum: authors write books that differ in quality. Sometimes it's an extreme difference; one book you can love, another you can hate.
I always worry that the first book I read by an author was one of his rare bad ones, and therefore I missed all the wonderful ones he wrote (because I passed judgment on him based on that first one).
I was lucky with Evelyn Waugh, because I happened to start with a few of his best; later I was to come across some I didn't care for at all. What if the reverse were true? I would never have read A Handful of Dust or Decline and Fall, and that would be a great loss.