Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Iron Candlestick - Dimiter Talev (Bulgarian)
On the second page of this epic folktale a hunting dog attacks Stoyan; he kills it with his bare hands. But the dog belongs to Mahmoud Bey, a Turk who holds dictatorial power over the Bulgarians; Stoyan must immediately flee his native village, lest he pay with his life. The young man walks to the town of Prespa where, in the following days, he picks up odd jobs. As he passes a ramshackle house a woman calls out to him; Sultana wants firewood chopped. Since he has nowhere to stay, she allows him to sleep in the barn. Eventually she takes Stoyan as her husband, hoping they will produce children that combine his immense physical strength with her intelligence and determination. He gets work as a coppersmith; after he learns the trade Sultana spurs him on to open his own shop, which becomes successful. My interest flagged when the novel skipped to the next generation and a political angle emerged (in the 1800s the Christian Slavs are controlled by Muslim Turks and the Greek Catholic hierarchy). But their son, Lazar, re-engaged me; most crucial was that I came to believe in his idealism. Though there’s a social protest element (about Slavic independence), Talev never abandons the realm of emotions. His people are exotic yet comprehensible. The most imposing figure is Sultana; near the end, when this imperious woman asserts her aberrant will (with the iron candlestick as the only witness), I read for long stretches with a sense of impending doom. Yet the last chapter is given to two secondary characters; in an unexpected way Talev makes a final statement about art and love. *

The Constant Nymph - Margaret Kennedy
This novel was a bestseller in England and the USA (I consulted our list; it was number two in 1925). A stage play and four (4!) film versions were made of it. Though I could go into its flaws at length, I’d have to say that it deserves the acclaim it received. At age twenty-eight Kennedy came up with a romance that connects in an odd way. It begins when Lewis Dodd visits Albert Sanger at his chalet in the Austrian Alps. Both men – gifted composers and longtime friends – have disdain for the conventions of polite society. Sanger has his “Circus” – seven children and his latest wife – living with him. Nonconformity isn’t glamorized, nor is it condemned. There’s freedom, though it can be messy and mean. The person who emerges as the “constant nymph” of the title is Sanger’s daughter, Teresa, fourteen when we first meet her. What’s constant is her love for Lewis, who’s in his early thirties. Because of her youth, he doesn’t recognize the affection he feels for her as more than brotherly. But Tessa will wait, believing that Lewis will, in time, realize that they share a deeper bond. Kennedy is both assured and haphazard in telling this story. We see those qualities most clearly in the marriage of Lewis and Florence. Neither person would have made the mistake of marrying one another; but they do, and Florence, with her upper class values, could have been stereotyped. Instead the reader is made to sympathize with a good woman who finds herself (to her horror) becoming a shrew. The marriage turns out to be the spark that ignites Lewis and Tessa’s love. But the purity of that love is shadowed by something dark and destructive. Or that’s what I felt; others may not agree. I don’t think Kennedy planned out this novel but wrote it intuitively, and her intuitions pulled her in opposing directions. Since rationality isn’t the guiding force, people will get different impressions from The Constant Nymph. The strength of those impressions is what make it unique.

Theophilus North - Thornton Wilder
Wilder wrote this four years before his death, at age seventy-eight. It’s remarkable that he could be so buoyant at the end of his life. He takes as his subject a young man who moves to Newport, Rhode Island and gets work as a tutor and tennis instructor (at $2 an hour). Though Theophilus’s background mirrors Wilder’s (attended school in China, went to Yale, etc.), this isn’t autobiographical. Wilder couldn’t have played the role his main character does (nobody could). The book is a kind of wish piece; who wouldn’t want to be like the perceptive, resourceful, many-talented Theophilus? Wilder did, so, in fiction, he became him. However much enjoyment he got in writing this (and I believe he got a lot), I lost interest at the halfway point. In each chapter someone has a problem that Theophilus solves, but the dilemmas were simplistic and the solutions too smoothly achieved. Still, there’s an engaging boyishness about this novel. Wilder looked back and indulged in a pleasant fantasy about life. There are worse ways to say goodbye.

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