The Fire-Dwellers - Margaret Laurence
Laurence immerses us in Stacey MacAindra. In addition to what she does, says, thinks and fantasizes, we also get scenes from her past. She’s thirty-nine years old, married with four children (oldest fourteen, youngest three). Emotionally, she’s conflicted; almost every feeling she has coexists with one in direct opposition. Though she loves her children, they’re a drain on her. Though she loves her husband, she wishes he would communicate with her. But when Mac says, “Just leave me alone,” both the reader and Stacey understand why: she’s exhausting to deal with. She even exhausts herself, and only her sense of humor saves her. Adding to her discontent is the fact that age is taking its toll – Stacey doesn’t like what she sees in the mirror. To say that she’s going through a midlife crisis wouldn’t do justice to this lively and ambitious psychological study. Unfortunately, Laurence goes astray near the end. Possibly she felt (with some justification; the book is too long) that she was getting repetitive and that she needed to add some dramatic events. But the ones she comes up with are poor choices. The novel is like a print on “Antiques Roadshow” whose value is diminished significantly by a tear along one side. The tear in Fire-Dwellers has to do with two male characters. The Stacey I know would have nothing to do with the aggressively vulgar Buckle. As for Luke Venturi, this young man should have been relegated to one of Stacey’s more sappy fantasies (from which she would recover with a laugh: “Get a grip, doll”). Luke’s name for her is “merwoman” – and I cringed. As for the sex scenes – more cringing. The novel recovers when it returns to the trivialities and turmoil of daily life, and Laurence closes on the right note. Lying in bed next to Mac, Stacey makes a inventory of the house and finds that everyone is asleep and all is quiet. She thinks, “Temporarily, they are all more or less okay.”
Theresa - Arthur Schnitzler (German)
In this novel, which is subtitled “The Chronicle of a Woman’s Life,” Schnitzler gives us a portrayal that begins when Theresa is sixteen and ends in her early death. Though attractive and intelligent, her life becomes a series of unsatisfying governess/tutoring jobs, financial difficulties, and love affairs that turn out badly. Theresa will never marry, but she will have one child. With the onset of middle age hope fades and disillusionment sets in; she prays that “passion might never again disturb the quiet current of her life and torment her innermost being.” Yet, except for brief interludes, the current of her life is never quiet, nor is her innermost being at peace. What begins to dominate her thoughts is the world’s indifference; she feels acutely that she is of no importance to anyone. And this is true – she doesn’t matter. As a key event in this chronicle, she shouldn’t have had the illegitimate child. But what she lacked was foresight and calculation, and that is no crime. Though not a paragon of virtue, Theresa isn’t a bad person, nor does she ever act maliciously. I began to ask myself what was lacking in her. Why is her life such a struggle? Did it all unfold from the fact that she was born to parents who were unable to love her (as she would be unable to love her own son)? At one point Theresa considers herself of another species from those to whom happiness is granted. Others seem to instinctively know how to preserve themselves and take what they desire, while her efforts to be coldly resourceful are destined to fail. Of her entire existence she decides that “she had not come into this world to be happy.” Perhaps that’s the final summing up. Though this book is a grueling experience, Schnitzler’s unique achievement is to make Theresa matter to the reader; on these pages she is of importance. Her last dreams, from which she awakens feeling an “unfulfillable tenderness and the apprehension of endless solitude,” are moving. What more can an author do?
Time and Time Again - James Hilton
The dominant figure in Charles Anderson’s life – and in the book – is his father. Havelock’s eccentricities are a manifestation of his disregard for others – he will do what he damn well pleases – and his charm is merely a vain display of his brilliant tail feathers. Charles sees the truth about this selfish and destructive man, but it’s not in his nature to condemn him. The son is the opposite of the father; his reserve and sense of propriety earn him the nickname of “Stuffy.” But he’s not reserved in his romance with Lily; Hilton captures the passion of first love beautifully. Since Lily is working class and so beneath the Anderson level in British society, Havelock swoops down to end the affair. This is a life-changing event, for Charles and Lily had planned to move to France, where he would pursue his painting. (Hmm . . . A youthful pipe dream?) Instead Charles becomes a diplomat, and the woman he eventually marries is eminently suited to aid him in that role. Though it’s a happy union, it seems that they are mainly a compatible team. Except for the drama of the bombing of London, the book begins to slow down in the post-Lily second half. It unravels in the concluding section, in which Charles, at age fifty-two, tries to connect with his son. Charles comes across as fussy and foolish, the son is nondescript, and the defection of a Russian spy is a dull sideshow. Hilton has Charles start up a relationship with a much younger woman, but there’s not enough going on between the two to make it credible. The prose never weakens – it’s exceptionally smooth and inviting – but what does weaken is Hilton’s resolve to explore Charles’s dilemma. Feelings of loneliness and regret are hinted at, but then are sidestepped. In trying to account for this evasiveness, some facts stand out. Hilton died at age fifty-four, a year before the novel was published; the cause of death was liver cancer, so he must have been aware of his imminent mortality. That he has Charles being born in 1900, the same year he was, may indicate that he put something of himself in a character whose nature it was to always keep a stiff upper lip. As for the hopeful ending, Hilton may have chosen to open the door to life and love for his fictional self as it was closing for him.