Thursday, September 18, 2014

Good Behaviour - Molly Keane
In the opening chapter Aroon serves a mousse made with rabbit to her mother (who can’t stand rabbit), and the old lady promptly dies. The servant, Rose, accuses Aroon of murder and a variety of other despicable acts that go back many years. Aroon, who claims that “All my life I have done everything for the best reasons and for the most unselfish motives,” decides to review her life; perhaps, she thinks, “I shall understand more about what became of us.” Her remembrances make up the entirety of the novel. The Aroon who emerges isn’t the person she believes herself to be. Unable to face dismal reality, she becomes adept at self-delusion (“I know how to build the truth”). Unloved and unvalued, she needs to be needed; she even wants people to suffer so they will rely on her for sympathy. Despite such warped self-centeredness, Aroon isn’t a hateful character. We see how emotional deprivation twists her into what she becomes. The most guilty party is the mother, with her elegant, poised cruelty. The other characters are also captured with wonderful accuracy, as is the setting (the horse-obsessed world of the Irish gentry in the 1920s). The section that deals with Aroon’s One Great Love is handled perfectly. Her brother Hubert’s friend, Richard, comes for an extended stay at the family estate. The young men include Aroon in most of their activities, and she comes to believe that Richard has romantic feelings for her. One night he creeps into her room (and then into her virginal bed); this is a painful scene, for Richard has no intention (or desire) to do anything sexual. He’s just trying to get the family off the scent of the truth: that he and Hubert are lovers. Aroon is being used, but she rejects that ugly fact; all her life she holds onto the belief that she and Richard shared a deep bond. Despite all the sadness and cruelty in this book, it has an abundance of color and verve. I sometimes wondered, “Can Keane keep it up?” She couldn’t. The disasters which ensue when Aroon attends a Hunt Ball are depicted in prose that goes way over the top. Extravagance works, but not a jumble of overwrought emotions. What also suffers is logic; in the closing pages improbable events and loose ends abound. It’s as if Keane let the reins fall slack in her hands and the horse went plunging along. But even with these missteps, the pleasures to be found in Good Behaviour are unique ones. And to think that Keane wrote it when she was in her late seventies, after a literary silence of over two decades. Maybe this dark, rich brew was percolating all that time.

Ada - Vladimir Nabokov
In trying to account for the flaws in this novel – flaws born of self-indulgence and excess – I concluded that the financial success of Lolita freed Nabokov from having to please anybody but himself. He subjects the reader to his dalliances and digressions, his overly-fecund imagination, his obsession with words and wordplay. His premise – that a fourteen-year-old boy and a twelve-year-old girl fall in passionate love (and have passionate sex, constantly) – is unconvincing; that the children are (he would have us believe) brilliant and sophisticated and precocious doesn’t justify giving them adult emotions. Despite the posh trappings (everybody is fabulously wealthy), the book has a grubby quality; the use of elegant prose to describe gross carnality turns out to be the literary equivalent of dressing a toad in lace. The plot is both extremely complicated and irrelevant. Language is what matters in Ada, and it’s with language that Vlad impales the poor reader. Not only are sentences long and circuitous, but pretty much every page has a sprinkling (sometimes a cascade) of French and Russian; many English words were unknown to me. So why did I get four hundred pages into this six hundred page book? Because I respect the author and thought I should read what he considered his magnus opus. Also, there are brilliant scenes and stretches when the fog lifts and we’re in the hands of Nabokov the Genius. But there was much too much of Nabokov the Bore. A gluttonous bore to boot; when he adds a sci-fi angle I knew that his appetite for complexities had no bounds. At one point Van asks Ada what her IQ is and she answers, “Two hundred and something. A sensational figure.” Maybe this book is meant for people with sensational IQs (or pretenders). Nabokov’s failure is such that, when I called it quits, I had absolutely no interest in his two protagonists, and the grande amour he tried so hard to evoke had fallen flat on its puss (face, American slang). I didn’t even bother to skim what remained, though I did check out the ending and was surprised at what I found. For a full page Nabokov – in plain English, finally – extols the virtues of Ada. One sample: “Nothing in world literature, save maybe Count Tolstoy’s reminiscences, can vie in pure joyousness and Arcadian innocence with the ‘Ardis’ part of this book.” Seems His Arrogance had doubts and felt the need to defend his work. But, sad to say, this turgid and bloated novel is indefensible.

No comments: