Monday, March 4, 2013

H. M. Pulham, Esquire - John P. Marquand
If taken on a superficial level, this fictional autobiography is a pleasant read, in a lulling sort of way. Yet I finished it with misgivings. For beginners, is that “Esquire” meant to be mocking? Though Henry Pulham has the outward trappings of success, his personal life is devoid of pleasure or purpose. He’s alone in his family, unable to relate to his wife and two children. He can cope with things, but not with emotions. When his wife has an affair Marquand provides information so that the reader is fully aware of it, but Henry remains clueless. His youthful romance with Marvin Myles stands out as the brightest episode in a humdrum existence, but in this depiction of first love Marquand (like his protagonist) isn’t able to connect; not helping matters was my persistent doubt that a vibrant woman like Marvin could feel strongly about someone as bland as Henry. His relationship with his wife is more convincing. Kate is a discontented woman; she doesn’t love Henry and it shows in her constant carping. Though he has bouts of irritation (which he immediately chides himself for), he never becomes bitter or despairing; such feelings are not options for a person brought up to put the best face on whatever life hands you. So there it is, the story of Henry Pulham, told in his own guileless words, and what am I to make of it? Marquand’s light-handed approach gives it a humorous aspect, but I think the author had a darker agenda in mind. On the final pages Henry writes the “Class life” that he’s been putting off for the entire novel (his class at Harvard is having its twenty-fifth reunion). The closing sentences: “We spend our winters in town and our summers in North Harbor, Maine. In either place the latchstring is always open for any member of our Class.” What struck me was that only one member of his Class has remained a friend, and he’s the man with whom Henry’s wife had an affair. I think that J. P. Marquand was not unaware of this sad irony.

On Overgrown Paths - Knut Hamsun (Norwegian)
This book was written during the three years when the author – nearly ninety years old – was held in custody by the Norwegian government, facing charges of collaboration with the Nazis. Hamsun gives a defense of his wartime actions; you can accept it or not, though I can vouch for the truth of his claim that there’s no anti-Semitism in his many novels. In my readings of ten of them I recall a Jewish watch-seller who would cheat anyone gullible enough to let him, but he’s a benign rascal, not a Fagin. Hamsun faces most of his incarceration with resignation; the exception is a four month confinement in a Psychiatric Clinic. He doesn’t provide details of this stay, but it seems that the constant probing into his mental faculties was, for him, unbearable. He writes that when he went into the Clinic he was in good health; when they released him he was “turned into jelly.” Age, physical infirmity (he was deaf and partially blind), and his situation make this book a sad farewell. In the first part a buoyant spirit sometimes shines through, but as time passes his capacity to find pleasure in the simple things of life wanes. Paths is mainly made up of “trifles” that include routines, observations, encounters, memories. Near the end he recounts events that took place when he was a young man in America; he is, for the last time, a storyteller. Shortly thereafter the court verdict comes down; the final words in the book are: “I end my writing.” I’ll end this review with a quote in which Hamsun encapsulates his special gift: “ . . . I was no stranger to the field of psychology . . . during a very long career of writing I had created several hundred figures – created them inwardly and externally like living people, in every condition and aspect, in dreams and in action.”

The Government Inspector - Nikolai Gogol (Russian)
The director of a play must be faithful to the author’s intent. This rendition, directed by Peter Raby, didn’t ring true. Most jarring was the use of vulgar language, which I haven’t come across in any of Gogol’s other works. Later, reading Raby’s “Adaptor’s Note,” my suspicions were confirmed. He talks of “cuts, amalgamations, modifications” (one of these cuts is the omission of an entire scene). So this is an adulterated version of the real thing and should be avoided. I’d like to see (for a play should be seen) a faithful production. Despite Raby’s tinkering, Gogol launches into his story of mistaken identity with a madcap exuberance. Every character is a villain of one stripe or another, but they’re too grotesque and foolish to condemn. One can simply gape at them in wonder and amusement.

The Easter Party - V. Sackville-West
I assume that Miss Sackville-West was acquainted with real people. Possibly, in her fiction, she allowed herself the indulgence of dreaming up unreal characters. Even the dog in the story – the noble Svend – is unlike any dog that ever existed. The plot involves a group of people who gather at a country estate. One of the guests, Lady Juliet Quarles, a woman notorious for her love affairs, sweeps onto center stage: “Dar-lings! Oh, my sweets, I do apologize, I grovel.” (She’s outrageously late, you see.) I have to admit, somewhat guiltily, that for a while I was curious as to why cold, controlled Walter never consummated his decades long marriage. But I soon recovered my senses and abandoned this contrived bit of nonsense. I’ll let the inside dust jacket summary take over; it captures the novel’s tone of feverish extravagance so well that Miss Sackville-West could have written it. Regarding the characters: “Delicately, and with the supreme perception which has distinguished the author’s previous works, she sets their dormant, ruling passions in motion, probes their secrets, catalyzes their problems.” About the author: “Few writers can match the quiet dignity of Miss Sackville-West’s prose or the maturity of her understanding. In The Easter Party the rare technical adroitness with which she fashions her characters into contrapuntal patterns, renders their conversations into brilliant fugues, and . . .” Well, Dar-lings, enough of that.

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