Monday, July 28, 2014

The House by the Medlar Tree - Giovanni Verga (Italian)
The reader is transported to a Sicilian fishing village in the late 1800s. In his Introduction William Dean Howells writes of Verga, “He seems to have no more sense of authority or supremacy concerning the personages than any one of them would have in telling the story.” This approach attains a universality because the personages, despite their primitive circumstances, are not unlike people today. It seems as if all the villagers try to elbow their way into the frame of Verga’s canvas, but the main focus is the Malavoglia family. In the beginning they’re doing well; Padron ’Ntoni has his own boat, and his son and daughter-in-law and five grandchildren live contentedly in the house by the medlar tree. But a business deal gone wrong precipitates a series of disasters. At the end a broken, sickly Padron ’Ntoni asks, “But will Death never come?” Some respond to his words with laughter, asking him where he thought Death had gone. Trezza is not a benevolent place. Many villagers live together as rivals, traitors, enemies. Most manifest their ill will in gossip, while others (Howells describes them as “the children of disorder”) are ruled by a predatory greediness; money plays as large a role in Trezza as it does on Wall Street. Padron ’Ntoni leads his life by old sayings and proverbs (“his own nest every bird likes best”); but his nest is snatched away in payment for a debt. His son dies, as do two of his grandsons; another grandson takes the wrong path in life. The good – and there are good people – make simple choices: they choose to do the honorable thing. But their simplicity makes them ready victims. It would be too easy to say that virtue is its own reward, and Verga, with his tragic view of life, never takes the easy path; he even lets the love two people have for one another wither away, unconsummated. Though I have great respect for this novel, I felt close to only one character: the wayward grandson. Others, despite their vigor, are archetypes, but with young ’Ntoni we’re given access to his intimate thoughts and emotions. On the last page he takes a farewell look at the awakening village. It could have been a sentimental scene, but Verga emphatically rejects that ending. Instead, the last person ’Ntoni sees is a spitting Rocco Spatu.

The Hard Life - Flann O’Brien
O’Brien was probably an entertaining fellow to have a few (or more than a few) drinks with. I spun my way through this short novel, even though it wasn’t a novel but a series of set pieces. The majority of pages have Mr. Collopy and the Jesuit priest, Father Fahrt, discussing theology and politics; though neither subject holds any interest for me, O’Brien’s ability to write rambunctious dialogue kept me engaged and amused. The narrator – a boy/young man with the fine Irish name of Finbarr – is passive, though his older brother (referred to as The Brother) is a go-getter, and what he goes and gets is money. He moves to London where he starts a correspondence academy that offers courses in everything under the sun (tightrope walking, elocution, care of the teeth, Egyptology, etcetera); he also sells medicinal cures. When Mr. Collopy becomes ill, The Brother has Finbarr give him Gravid Water; but, instead of teaspoons, Finbarr doles out tablespoons, which causes the old fellow to become extraordinarily heavy (well over four hundred pounds, though his slight frame doesn’t change). Preposterous? Yes. But O’Brien is having fun, wandering wherever his imagination takes him. There are various other characters, various lines of plot; none add up to much or go anywhere special. Which brings me to a problem, one I think O’Brien recognized and which may explain the book’s odd ending. Over drinks at a pub The Brother suggests that Finbarr marry Collopy’s daughter (who has inherited a large portion of the old man’s estate). When The Brother takes his leave, Finbarr drains his glass. “Then I walked quickly but did not run to the lavatory. There, everything inside me came up in a tidal surge of vomit.” Since there’s no reason for such a response, those last four words are puzzling. Could the author have found a way to express disgust for his own enterprise? O’Brien knew he was capable of more than idle frivolity. For a writer with his talents, The Hard Life was far too easy.

Elephants Can Remember - Agatha Christie
I decided I should read something by an author whose books have sold in the billions. This Hercule Poirot mystery was published four years before Christie’s death (at age eighty-six), but it doesn’t show any signs of fatigue. The no-frills prose achieves its utilitarian purpose of moving things along at a nice pace. There’s not much to Poirot – he’s courtly and a good questioner (which is pretty much all he does). Another character – Mrs. Oliver, an elderly lady who writes detective stories – is more lively. The plot gets a bit muddled in the middle – too many facts, too many leads – but things sort themselves out, and I was able to figure out who did what to whom before Poirot explains it all at the end. As for logic (where most mysteries flounder), we never learn where the bullet wounds were located. Head, heart? This matters, and so is a glaring omission. Also, we’re asked to believe that two sane people would allow a homicidal maniac (someone who kills children!) to carry on for a lifetime. Despite such missteps, this was a pleasant diversion. Pleasant? Though death by violence is the subject, it happens well offstage (a type of mystery deemed a “cozy,” probably linking it to the knitted covering put over teapots). Dame Christie may be summarizing her own career when she has Mrs. Oliver think: “She was a lucky woman who had established a happy knack of writing what quite a lot of people wanted to read.” After I finished this book I tried a Miss Marple (The 4:50 from Paddington); I hoped it would be better than Elephants, but it was worse. So I won’t be one of the billions.

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