Friday, March 15, 2013

The Simpleton - Aleksei Pisemskii (Russian)
In this depiction of human nature we get a heavy dose of vices, among them greed, selfishness, malice, callousness, hypocrisy and envy. Pisemskii’s characters are either unable to see their faults or they righteously justify their errant behavior. In the opening scene a woman proclaims that she’s no gossip; after getting the scoop on a family’s misfortunes she hurries to another house to pass on all that she had heard. In an attempt to ease his financial difficulties a father bullies his daughter into agreeing to marry a man she loathes. When the father talks to the suitor he says, “A bride used to be brought to the altar by force. We could never allow ourselves to do such a thing.” The suitor is the simpleton of the title; this marriage will bring Pavel nothing but suffering. He isn’t lacking in intellect. What he does lack is worldliness; he’s a babe in a woods full of vipers, and in this sense he is a simpleton. The reader can’t sympathize with the miseries Pavel experiences because to be innocent is to be contemptible. This is a subversive book; Pisemskii’s artful cynicism turns what could have been a tragedy into an excoriating comedy of manners.

Three Continents - Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
I shouldn’t be reviewing this novel because I never got halfway through it; but 145 pages constitutes a substantial investment of my time. Initially I was carried along by the prose, which flows without a ripple. The first stirring of my critical faculties came when characters have experiences that should elicit strong emotions; but their feelings, as expressed in that unruffled flow of words, lacked impact. Next to come under scrutiny was the plot. Rawul, the leader of a movement aimed at establishing a Seventh World, takes up residence at the estate of the narrator and her twin brother; accompanying him are his two assistants, Rani and Crishi, and a crew of anonymous followers. Soon they’re in complete control of the place. How they’re able to exert such power isn’t made credible (the twins come across as dopes and dupes); nor does Jhabvala make any attempt to explain the Seventh World philosophy (probably because there’s nothing to explain); nor are the relationships that develop out of this premise believable (the repellent Crishi easily gains sexual dominance over both twins). A host of secondary characters are added to the mix, all carrying a lot of baggage, but I saw no purpose for their being in the book (twenty-five pages are devoted to the grandfather, who does little more than die). After I quit reading I began to wonder whether I had been a dope and dupe in admiring Jhabvala’s earlier work. Or had she gone astray as a writer? Supporting the latter theory is her dedication of Three Continents to James Ivory and Ismail Merchant; this glossy novel may be the natural outgrowth of doing too many screenplays for glossy movies.

One Thousand Souls - Aleksei Pisemskii (Russian)
Seldom does an author create such an impressive work; seldom does it crumble so completely. For almost four hundred pages Pisemskii was writing what had the makings of a great novel. The portrayal of Kalinovich is remarkable for its thoroughness. This severe young man covets wealth and status; yet, when he moves to a town to take up the lowly post of School Inspector, he gradually comes to appreciate the generosity extended to him by his predecessor in that job, Godnev; more important, he responds to the pure love that Godnev’s daughter, Nastenka, feels for him. Despite these factors, he’s persuaded by an odious Count to marry the wealthy Paulina. In forsaking love for an advancement of his station in life, Kalinovich is aware of the cost to himself and its effect on the woman he betrays, but his good instincts are not strong enough to govern his actions. Up to the point of Kalinovich’s decision to marry, the characters and their interactions were authentic and vital. But the novel’s final Part Four, which takes up events a decade later, constitutes a repudiation of what went before. People we had come to know are replaced by imposters; changes in relationships defy logic; the prose gets strident; far too much attention is devoted to the impenetrable intricacies of Russian politics. It seems that Pisemskii, like his main character, couldn’t see the value in what he had in his grasp and thus let it all slip away.

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