Thursday, April 17, 2014

Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
Mr. Darcy was a problem for me, one that never went away. For most of the book Austen presents him as a man whose sense of superiority is such that he has open disdain for those who don’t meet his lofty standards. He’s also a meddler; he uses every resource to separate his friend from a woman who he, Darcy, considers an inappropriate match. Since he displays little feeling for Elizabeth, when his proposal of marriage comes it’s a surprise (her “astonishment was beyond expression”); she rejects him and catalogues her reasons for actively disliking him. Yet they will marry, and this is due to nothing short of a metamorphosis in Darcy. Suddenly he engages in all sorts of kind, generous acts. We’re to take this as an indication of his feelings for Elizabeth, but to me it wasn’t Darcy doing these things; it was Austen stacking the deck in his favor. Does she succeed at making the two credible as lovers? I saw no warmth on either side. Darcy remains wooden, and though the same cannot be said of Elizabeth, her most passionate moment takes place when she first sees his estate; the splendor of the house and grounds is such that she feels “to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” When her sister asks her how long she has loved Darcy, she answers, “I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.” Her mother is enraptured by the marriage: “Oh! my sweetest Lizzie! how rich and how great you will be!” Her sentiments are not just those of a small-minded and greedy woman. In the society of the idle rich depicted in this book (no main character does a lick of work) people maneuver to be in the good graces of those who rank higher in wealth and status. The two worst toadies – Elizabeth’s mother and the fatuous Mr. Collins – are one-dimensional objects of Austen’s ridicule and disdain. Yet Elizabeth’s friend marries Mr. Collins for the financial security he can provide. And Elizabeth? After her marriage she plans to protect Darcy from the “mortification” of having to interact with “vulgar” people. She “looked forward with delight to the time when they should be removed from society so little pleasing to either, to all the comfort and elegance of their family party at Pemberley.”

Growing Up - Russell Baker
For half the book Baker focuses not on himself but on his family. His father dies at the onset of the Great Depression, and he and his mother are forced to live with various uncles and aunts. The child/young boy’s growing up is depicted in terms of a growth in his understanding of the people around him. Though his indomitable but thwarted mother is the most vivid character, others – such as the hugely generous Uncle Allen and Aunt Pat – are strong presences. Then there’s Oluf, who carried on a courtship with Russell’s mother. In letters he wrote to her we see this lively, enterprising, optimistic man being broken in his struggle to find work. He ends his correspondence with Elizabeth (and disappears from her life) with the words “I am lost and going and not interested in anything anymore.” Baker’s use of these excerpts show him at his unobtrusive best. Unfortunately, the book weakens as he reaches his mid-teens and takes center stage. Teenagers and young men are not very likable creatures, nor are their crises of much interest. Baker assumes an attitude of humorous indulgence (in the case of his difficulty in losing his virginity, he portrays himself as a fumbling rube). But it’s a lumbering type of humor, and the prose – which once could deftly evoke emotions – is no more than what would be expected of a competent journalist.

The Patriot - Evan S. Connell
In The Patriot Connell proves himself adept at writing a long, straightforward novel. One of his major accomplishments is to make clear what a life-altering experience military service is, and why so many veterans hold dear the memory of their war years and the relationships they formed during that time. The most important person for Melvin Isaacs is swaggering Sam Horne, who takes Melvin under his wing. Melvin’s name is one indication that this is an autobiographical work: with the change of a vowel and the omission of two consonants we get Evan. Melvin is presented as a fragmented person in whom the parts do not function together. He’s alive and real, but, like the perplexed Horne, we’re constantly asking, “Why the hell did you do that?” Embedded in the mostly realistic narrative are scenes that skew into the surreal. Melvin has a nightmarish interview with a Lieutenant Caravaggio, who is either insane or has some unfathomable agenda. In a doomed flight in a dilapidated plane, during which Melvin announces to the tower that he’s The Green Hornet, he seems insane. Throughout the novel there’s an underlying disjointedness, but when it moves into civilian life it becomes a shambles as Connell unsympathetically assigns Melvin to various roles (college student, abstract artist, husband). But even in this last section I never lost interest, and the final scene, with the father urgently talking about how to survive a nuclear attack, again shows how forceful and original a writer Connell can be. The Patriot should ultimately be judged by the ways it succeeds, because those successes are so distinctive. In the descriptions of flight we get it all: the smell of oil, the coughing, barking engine as the plane labors upward; then a bleak and gaseous silence, the miniature world as seen from the solarium of the cockpit. And there’s a seemingly innocuous visit to a Confederate museum in which an old lady who smells of vinegar and beer and has a bath towel around her head (“Washin’ my hair, men”) gives a tour of a house where a horrific battle had been fought. She closes her four page monologue by asking her guests to look down a stairwell where the bloodstains are still “as dark as midnight, men, and fearsome as ever.” *

No comments: