Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Ten Thousand Things - Maria Dermout (Dutch)
This is a strange novel in many ways: prose, construction, setting (an island of the Indonesia archipelago). Also, in its view of life. Dermout depicts the world as a dreamland of sensations, yet those who populate it are made of flesh and blood, and at times real blood is shed. There’s an islander’s lament in which the newly-dead are reminded of the hundred things they’re leaving: people, possessions, “and also: hear, how the wind blows! – how white-crested the waves come running from the high sea!” A hundred times a hundred things, Felicia thinks in her old age. She has experienced losses – most significantly a son who was murdered (or was it “killed in action”?). Felicia sees murder as a violation of life in that it’s an unnatural form of death; in a yearly ritual she pays homage to those who had been murdered, both people she had known or only known of. For the first eighteen pages I thought I was reading a nebulous mood piece, and I considered abandoning it; but the beginning of Part Two engaged me: “The girl was born at the Small Island and her mother wanted her to be called Felicia. The father agreed, he always agreed to everything. The grandmother did not agree at all. ‘Happy! You dare to call your little child happy! How do you know in advance?’ ” How indeed, I thought, and kept going. The novel includes three self-contained stories. In “The Professor” a young Javanese nobleman becomes the assistant to a Dutch professor. The two differ in every way, but most important is that one is life-denying, one is life-affirming. What’s remarkable is that I felt I was communing with the inner selves of both men. Dermout treads a shadowy boundary line, intertwining life and death, the beautiful and the grim, the tangible and the intangible.

Out Stealing Horses - Per Petterson (Norwegian)
I made it halfway through this exercise in prose styling. The opening sentences: “Early November. It’s nine o’clock. The titmice are banging against the window.” Other sentences are long; one came to 169 words. Does it flow nicely? Yes, but why should I be aware of that (and why should I be counting words)? Far too many sentences are descriptive. No twig in the forest is neglected by Petterson, and if a character puts on a jacket he must first tell you that it was taken off a peg. Mowing hay, sharpening a chainsaw – all are described at length; this sort of thing is supposed to establish authenticity, but it gets tedious when done dutifully. Regarding the human element, we switch from the perspective of a 67-year-old man living in isolation to his memories of events in his youth. The tone of the book is lugubrious; hints of a variety of life-altering problems are strewn about, but when I quit reading they were still shapeless. As for that sought-after authenticity, let’s take a look at the horse stealing episode. That two corralled horses could be spooked into stampeding is believable; but it’s flat-out ridiculous that one would head right where our fifteen-year-old narrator is perched on the limb of a tree and that this boy could drop onto its back as it passes under him. A stuntman on a Lone Ranger movie wouldn’t be asked to try it (a stationary horse, yes; a running one, no way). Later it turns out that, after fifty-some years of separation, the two involved in the horse stealing exploit find themselves living near each other. Petterson writes of this coincidence: “ . . . if this were something in a novel it would just have been irritating.” But it is in a novel, Per, and it is irritating.

Twenty Years A-Growing - Maurice O’Sullivan (Gaelic)
In his introduction E. M. Forster claims that this book is “an account of a neolithic civilization from the inside.” The translators use the word “medieval,” which is more accurate. The small community on the Blasket Islands (located in the southwest corner of Ireland) subsist off the bounty of the sea and land; their world is an insular, pre-industrial one. O’Sullivan intended for his book to be read only by the Islanders, so his audience knew things that I didn’t. What were their homes like? How did they survive the winters? What did a typical dinner consist of? Rather than drawing a full-dimensioned picture of life, the book consists of a series of incidents (“Ventry Races,” “The Wake,” etc.). O’Sullivan was a Dublin policeman with little schooling, and there’s a naive charm in these memories of his early years. But the charm waned for me. By the end of the book I could fully understand why so many young people left the Blaskets.

The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
Franklin wrote the first section when he was in his mid-sixties. It begins “Dear Son” and is a fairly lively account of his early years. But this isn’t an intimate look into his life (he devotes only a few sentences to his wife). Nor does he have a novelist’s flare; not one scene comes alive. His objective is to trace his rise in the world, and in doing so to instruct. In the colonies of the 1700s an intelligent and industrious young man could succeed; though Franklin didn’t start out with advantages, he impressed important people who gave him a helping hand. He was clear-eyed about himself, learning from his mistakes and working to rid himself of flaws in his character (such as a tendency to enter into disputes). A remarkably practical and focused individual emerges. After abandoning the autobiography for over ten years, he wrote a second section, which was intended for public consumption and lacks that portion of liveliness present in the first part. He continues to instruct, detailing how he improved himself (“I conceived the bold and arduous project of moral perfection”); he kept a notebook in which he had a list of thirteen virtues, and at day’s end he scored himself as to whether he had achieved them. This is a study of a thinking man gifted with enormous energy, and it’s interesting on that level. Though not interesting enough to keep me reading when he turned to his political endeavors.

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