Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Lotte in Weimar - Thomas Mann (German)
The Lotte of this novel is the beloved portrayed fictionally in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Now sixty-three, she visits Weimar with the expectation of again meeting the author she had known in her youth. This premise interested me because of the human element. Unfortunately, the human element got lost in complexities. Mann builds the plot around visitors who come to Lotte’s hotel room. They engage in long monologues (one covers over a hundred pages) that deal with the character of Goethe and the essence of genius. Ideas are presented with a rigorous and austere intelligence. Even the prose is lofty; listening to Goethe’s son, Lotte thinks that he speaks in an old-fashioned, artificial and pedantic way; but, since such language is used throughout the book, she could be commenting on Mann’s own style. His insights are perceptive (Goethe is portrayed as a parasite who, in his relations with young Lotte, laid his emotions like a cuckoo-egg in a nest already made and then flew off). But too much undiluted intelligence becomes tiresome; Mann’s weightiness, his refusal to be direct and simple, wore me down. When a chapter begins with the reader plunged into the mind of Goethe (“Alas, that it should vanish!”), I had enough; I had even lost faith that anything of interest would emerge from the long-delayed meeting of Lotte and the Great Man. Actually, I had lost faith in Thomas Mann. His first novel, Buddenbrooks, appeared in 1901; in it he immerses the reader in the stuff of life – weddings and divorces, births and deaths, money matters and gossip. Lotte was written forty years later, while he was living in the United States (in self-imposed exile from Hitler’s Germany). Unlike the twenty-five-year-old who wrote the early masterpiece, age and insularity must have caused Mann to lose contact with the times and with ordinary people. Instead he turned his attention to grand subjects: biblical figures, the Faust legend, geniuses. He also considered the majestic power of Literature to be a legitimate subject for a novel. I’m one of the few left who value great writing, but only when its primary concern is human nature.

Aleck Maury Sportsman – Caroline Gordon
In old age Aleck Maury recalls an episode that occurs early in the book: “I knew suddenly what it was I had lived by, from the time when, as a mere child, I used to go out into the woods at night with a negro man. I remembered it – it must have been when I was about eight – looking up in the black woods into the deep, glowing eyes of the quarry and experiencing a peculiar, transfiguring excitement.” Ever since he had been seeking and finding that excitement – which is, for him, a sense of being fully alive. His solitary quest demands selfish dedication. Though he has feelings for his family, they make inroads on time – precious time! – that could be spent on the water or in the field. The vast majority of these pages are filled with scenes of hunting and fishing; his dog Gy gets more space than his wife and children, and his job as a teacher matters not at all. Since his story is told from the perspective of old age, it’s permeated by an awareness of loss. When young Aleck sees his uncle, who was always first in the field, unable any longer to mount a horse, a sense of foreboding rushes over him. He will suffer the same fate. First a bum leg prevents him from hunting, then he becomes too heavy to easily get around; worse, he feels a lessening of enthusiasm: “Delight . . . I had lived by it for sixty years and now it was gone and might never come again. . . .” This is something he cannot face, and he has no resources to fall back on. Yet at the end he rallies to make a last assertion of his independence – he will live only by his terms. Caroline Gordon had a personal investment in this portrayal, for Aleck Maury is based on her father. She’s present in the book as Sally; but, until the last pages, there’s not one sustained scene between the two. Is she condemning him for his absence from her life? I didn’t get that impression. Rather, she seems to respect the choice he made: few people know what their passion is and follow it so resolutely. Gordon’s stories about him are more artfully done than this novel; the descriptions of hunting and fishing are too detailed (by the way, how did she get to know as much about those subjects as her father?) and time is covered haphazardly, often in leaps and bounds. But those faults are irrelevant. What matters is the author’s complete and effortless empathy. *

Riceyman Steps - Arnold Bennett
The title refers to a place – a slum in London – where Henry Earlforward lives in a dilapidated building which also houses his used bookstore. His servant Elsie and a woman he marries, Violet, make up what is mostly a three character novel. Henry and Violet are perplexing because who they are and how they act aren’t in conformity. I never understood why this eccentric bachelor – a man in his late forties – decides to marry, and why sensible and independent Violet accepts such an odd duck. Whether love (or sex) plays a role in their relationship is left ambiguous. Elsie, on the other hand, presents no complexities: simplicity and goodness and a desire to work define her. An aspect of Henry’s personality that’s developed convincingly is his “soft obstinacy.” I could comprehend why others are dominated by a will so mild and yet so immovably and inhumanly strong. Though it’s Elsie’s nature to be submissive, Violet loses all but remnants of her once-vigorous self-sufficiency. Also convincing is Henry’s fanatical miserliness; despite the considerable fortune he keeps in a safe, he deprives himself and others in the house of food and heat. In one sense this is pathological, but hoarding money – gazing at it, holding the lovely, crisp new notes and gold sovereigns – is Henry’s passion and, as such, gives him pleasure. When he becomes ill he refuses to go to a hospital. It’s not only the expense; he sees it as a place where individuality is crushed, and this is a dreadful prospect for someone of his nature. I consumed this book, fascinated by its amalgam of commonality and perversity. Bennett’s attitude is godlike; he’s both pitying and amused by the emotions and travails of his three characters. It never occurs to them that they’re insignificant cogs in an enigmatic universe; they’re too busy with their share of working it out. Which is called life.

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