Monday, August 12, 2013

Loving - Henry Green
What strikes one immediately is the quirky rhythm of the prose. I don’t think it can be replicated, for to do so a writer would have to try. I don’t think Green tried; he was transcribing onto the page the way he thought. He wasn’t showing off, nor was he trying to be difficult. Reading him is difficult only if you’re inattentive. If you’re alert you get into the flow, and once there you’re able to savor the humor and pathos. About 70% of the novel is dialogue – brilliant dialogue in which the many diverse personalities reveal their essential natures. As for plot, Green’s subject matter is the mundane (he wrote that “simply everything has supreme importance, if it happens”). The setting is an Irish castle during World War II. We follow the maneuvering among servants and masters (though the servants, being more colorful, are given by far the most space). Throughout Loving there’s an awareness of how conflicted a matter love is. This is most evident in the last words: “ . . . they were married and lived happily ever after.” Those words are an unabashed rejection of the truth; Green knew that life couldn’t be wrapped up with a pretty bow. But he also knew life’s many-faceted richness, and in capturing that richness he produced one of those rare works that makes you see the world in a fresh new way. *

A Bird in the House - Margaret Laurence
This can be read as a novel, but all the chapters were first published as stories. This presents a problem when they’re put together because there’s a repetition of facts that have already been established, and the chronology isn’t consistent (the father dies, but in episodes that follow his death he’s alive). Despite that speed bump, Laurence accomplishes something very basic but at the heart of fiction: we get to know Vanessa as she grows from child to young woman, and we get to know those closest to her. Though virtues are appreciated and flaws accepted, there’s one person Vanessa struggles to come to terms with. Grandfather Connor’s cruelty is especially appalling because he’s incapable of seeing how harmful his words and actions are (in Laurence’s The Stone Angel such a man irrevocably damages his daughter). When, as a young woman, Vanessa views him in his casket she thinks: “I was not sorry that he was dead. I was only surprised. Perhaps I had really imagined that he was immortal. Perhaps he even was immortal, in ways which it would take me half a lifetime to comprehend.” In some stories/chapters Laurence looks beyond herself and her family. “The Loons,” “Horses of the Night” and “The Half-Husky” are insightful studies of outsiders who do not (or cannot) reveal their inner selves to anyone. During Vanessa’s years in Manawaka she learns that the world isn’t a benevolent place, nor can one expect fairness. That said, there’s much to live for, if you’re strong enough to fight for it. *

Sappho - Alphonse Daudet (French)
“Come, look at me. I like the colour of your eyes. What’s your name?” So the novel opens, with Fanny Legrand (who had posed for a statue of Sappho and was known in some circles by that name) approaching a much younger man. This encounter takes place at a masquerade ball held at the studio of a rich Parisian. Fanny spends the night with Jean, and so begins their five year affair. This is no gauzy romance about life in bohemian Paris of the 1800s. Courtesans are not glamorized, a la Dumas’s Camille; Daudet portrays them as nothing more than depraved whores. Fanny, however, is not of their ilk. She has a vulgar side and her past is littered with a long string of lovers, but she has retained a core of decency. Her decency makes her formidable; she can’t be easily dismissed. A clue to what the author is up to is found in his dedication: “For my sons when they are twenty.” What he gives his sons is a withering cautionary tale about the ensnarements of passionate love. I can’t embark on a description of the plot – it’s too full of emotional twists and turns – but all can be summed up in that first night, when Jean brings Fanny to his hotel. His room is on the fourth floor, and he takes her in his arms “with the lovely fierce energy of youth” and carries her up the stairs. The second flight “was longer, less delightful.” When he finally staggers to the fourth floor Fanny had become “some heavy and dreadful thing that was stifling him.” She says, “So soon?” and he thinks, “At last!” Yet he’s never able to come to “At last” in reality. As I followed the course of their relationship I reached the point where even the word “love” had become suspect. Yet the confusion and conflict I felt accurately depict Jean’s state of mind. This is not a novel which offers the reader solace; we can understand Fanny and Jean, but we can’t sympathize with them. They’re both right, they’re both wrong, they both deserve what they get. *


jimmy scoville said...

Delicious as always. Especially the first. I wish you could be on some newspaper/literary site's niche department where you were doing book reviews. One where you wouldn't have to read anything you didn't want to.

Phillip Routh said...

I would like these reviews to motivate someone to actually read a book I praise highly -- such as Loving.