Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Jewel in the Crown – Paul Scott
On page one Scott writes “This is the story of a rape . . .” In a broad sense, it’s the story of the Indian struggle for independence, and this hugely complex subject is presented in a way that’s intelligent and fair. But a rape is the focal point from which all else spirals out; this makes the final hundred pages, a journal in which Daphne Manners tells what happened in Bibighar Gardens, essential to the book’s success. It’s here that Scott flounders badly. His first person voice is definitely not that of a young woman. And there’s no reason for Daphne to write an overly-detailed narration of events, which is what Scott has her doing. In her lack of substance she stands in stark contrast to the others who preceded her. The intense feelings she expresses – such as her love for Hari Kumar (unsupported by one scene in which the two share emotional intimacy) – don’t emanate from a real person but come across as words written on the page by an author. An author who was clearly struggling. The dramatic approach Scott had utilized throughout – that of telling his story by delving into the inner lives of a variety of characters – worked brilliantly in the opening chapter. He gets Miss Crane right, as he does many others, only to get the last, crucial person all wrong. Because of this I can’t – as I had planned to do – praise a book that has many virtues. This is especially painful since Scott was clearly aiming for greatness; Jewel is the first installment of a two thousand page epic called The Raj Quartet. In an effort to soften this negative review I’ll close by recommending his last novel – a short, two-character piece called Staying On. In that one he got everything right.

On the Beach – Nevil Shute
This book’s message, regarding the danger of proliferation of nuclear weapons, surely had impact in 1957, but time has lessened the relevance of that issue. What still matters are the dual love stories. The feelings that Peter and Mary Holmes and Dwight Towers and Moira Davidson have for one another are more than credible – they’re meaningful. The novel also has aspects that give it a thought-provoking depth. Sensible, sane people exist on two levels: they accept the fact that they will soon die, but they carry on with plans for the future. Captain Towers buys presents to give to his wife and children, who have long ago perished in the dead zone that is the North American continent; Mary begins planting a garden which she will never see; in the last weeks left to her Moira begins taking a secretarial course. The effect of this oft-repeated dichotomy in the characters’ thinking is to give the so-called “little” things in life their rightful significance. These people are ordinary, decent folks, but – like those little things in life – their decency is elevated so that it’s all-important. Also thought-provoking is Dwight’s refusal to give himself to Moira, which is something she wants with all her heart; he chooses to remain faithful to his wife. He rescued Moira from an alcoholic blur – his influence makes her carry on with dignity – and she appreciates what he has done for her. She also knows that she has meant a lot to him, for he tells her so in a beautiful way. But still . . . She dies alone, with a bottle of brandy as her only companion. Is she the tragic figure in all this? On the Beach is not a sophisticated piece of writing, but my total involvement with four people made it a moving experience. Nevil Shute took the subject of impending death to write a novel about life. *

Please Pass the Guilt – Rex Stout
The first Nero Wolfe mystery I read – Fer-de-lance – was the first one Stout wrote. Guilt was next to last in the series, written when the author was eighty-seven. Though there’s a separation of forty years between the two, this outing has one of the strengths present from the beginning: Archie is still jaunty. My problem concerns the murder Wolfe is trying to solve. Two men are vying for the presidency of a corporation; one keeps a bottle of bourbon in the drawer of his desk. Before a crucial meeting his opponent sneaks into his office with some LSD, planning to spike the bourbon; instead a bomb in the drawer blows up, killing him. All this seems ridiculous. Using LSD to disable a person is a hare-brained idea. And where did the bomb come from? Either the culprit who planted it had expertise in bomb-making (highly unlikely, given the suspects) or he/she purchased it (a tricky proposition). Also, since it would take time to rig a bomb in a drawer, they would need prolonged access to the office of a senior executive. Wolfe’s intelligence is the basis of these mysteries, so to offer up a stupid premise (the problems I’ve cited are never addressed) is to undermine the whole enterprise. I was after a simple diversion, but this didn’t fill the bill. The abrupt ending indicates that Rex Stout had run out of patience and just wanted to be done.

The Perfect Stranger – P. J. Kavanagh
This book is well-written and unabashedly autobiographical, but the author never fully animates himself. It’s interesting that Kavanagh, at the halfway point, interjects a piece he wrote when he was twenty: “I give the story now as I wrote it then, because it is true to how I felt at the time, the disconnectedness.” What follows is an account of a war experience. It’s unreadable, but before I quit I came across sentences like this: “Please God make me a human being.” The author notes that, after this segment, “. . . the rest of the book is the story of a rescue; and you can only measure the size of a rescue if you know how badly it is needed.” We’re to believe that a person who lacks something vital will be transformed. I didn’t buy that, nor did I care; a flat character just isn’t interesting. When I checked Stranger out from the library I thought I was getting a novel by the Kavanagh who wrote Tarry Flynn, which was also autobiographical but was brimming with life. My mistake – two different authors altogether.

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