Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Living - Henry Green
In my review of Green’s Loving I wrote, regarding the prose, “I don’t think Green tried; he was transcribing onto the page the way he thought.” This novel, written sixteen years before Loving, shows that it took effort to develop his style; Living is not as polished a work as the later book. The stretches in which nebulous states are described don’t quite come off, nor does the dropping of articles (“This girl Lily Gates went shopping with basket and by fruiterer’s she met Mrs. Eames who stood to watch potatoes on trestle table there”). What is present in both books is an ability to use dialogue so successfully that characters attain a palpability. Another quality that was fully developed – a quality that was Green’s gift – was his empathy. It’s interesting that though he was born into a wealthy family, he chose to focus on the working class. I think he felt (without a trace of condescension) that they were closer to life’s vital essence. In Living there are many characters, many voices, and for a long while the novel doesn’t settle on any particular individual; it seems to wander about. Which was fine in that we get a sense of diversity. But gradually most of the attention is given to Mr Craigan and Lily Gates. Mr Craigan is elderly; his being sacked from the foundry because of age marks the beginning of his decline. To work – something he had done for fifty-seven years, since he was eight – was an essential part of his being. Lily Gates is a young woman who feels an inchoate need to live, which to her means to care for a child of her own and to keep house for a man she loves. We have two intertwined lives at opposite stages; it’s the intertwining that presents a conflict for both. In a sudden and wondrous ending it’s clear that life must have its way. *

Too Much Happiness - Alice Munro
I was glad that Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize. Over the decades she’s been a chronicler of life whose work often rose to the level of four star excellence. But in this collection, which came out in 2009, only three stories can be called good; most of the others were fair, some were bad. How could Munro write something as awkward and foolish as “Wenlock Edge”? “Child’s Play” is another mistake; it’s revealed on the last pages that a murder had been committed, but instead of having force – something which Munro was uniquely capable of – this ending seemed contrived and lame. As for the title story, I read only five pages; it had too many characters, too many locations, too much research cluttering things up; and by the time I got to it I had lost faith. Munro, who was in her late seventies when Happiness came out, recently announced that she had given up writing. Could she be aware of a decline in her abilities? It’s hard to relinquish something that has been an integral part of your life for so long, but what’s the alternative? To just go through the motions? The last story I read by Munro (before the ones in this collection) was a stunner called “Silence.” That, and a dozen others like it, are what I’ll remember her for.

Flatland - Edwin A. Abbott
An oddity, a diversion. In the beginning Abbott describes how life is structured in the world of Flatland, where people exist without the dimension of height. They are two-dimensional shapes: Lines, Triangles, Squares (which is what the narrator is), Hexagons, etc. Their status in society is defined by the number and the degree of pointedness of their angles. Polygonals, which can hardly be distinguished from circles, are the highest class. All Lines are female; they’re stupid, very emotional and dangerous (the sharp point of their lines can inflict a mortal wound when they start thrashing about). Abbott is making a humorous commentary on class discrimination, the status of women in Victorian England, and – since the punishments for nonconformity in Flatland are extremely harsh – he depicts a brutish totalitarian state. In the second part of the book (which I found less engaging), the narrator discovers, to his amazement, a three-dimensional world like ours, and he contemplates the possibility of there being even more dimensions. Abbott’s message is that we need to keep our minds open to possibilities; what we know, based on our perceptions and what we’re taught, may not be the whole story. This book itself was flat – eighty pages long – which was about the right size.


Phillip Routh said...

Today I read another Alice Munro story in the 2012 Best American -- "Axis." It wandered aimlessly and ended up nowhere special.
So she continues to write stories that do nothing for her reputation. And they still get published, still get praised.

Phillip Routh said...

Party Going was a huge disappointment.
In Loving Green wrote about servants, in Living about factory workers. In PG a group of rich young things prattle away. The vitality -- the magic -- of the other two novels is missing.
It took Green seven years to produce this very short book; I wonder why.