A Hero of Our Time – Mikhail Lermontov (Russian)
A young man wrote this book. A talented young man who would surely outgrow the juvenile posing that mars his portrayal of the reckless, handsome, world-weary hero. Pechorin is highly critical of his many faults, but in a romanticized way. As a result, the probing into his character merely reveals one devil of a dangerous fellow (especially to women). In a long letter from an ex-lover, we see Lermontov’s conceit in full bloom (for he, not Vera, wrote the letter to Pechorin): “One who has loved you once cannot look at other men without a certain disdain, not because you are better than they – oh no! But there is some singular quality in your nature, something particular to you, something proud and mysterious.” In “Princess Mary” (the story which makes up more than half of the book) Pechorin engages in a prolonged and calculated seduction, but when he achieves his goal he kills the love that Mary has for him with the words, “Princess, did you know that I have been laughing at you?” He also kills a rival in a duel. He seems somewhat upset by his destructive actions, but accepts them as inexplicable aspects of his complex nature. Lermotov is credited with introducing psychological insight into fiction (though the novel came out in 1840, it has a modern feel; the prose, in particular, is not at all dated). He may have introduced psychological issues, but others would have to provide the insights. Pechorin is said to be the prototype of the existential man, but I’ve never figured out what that was. This author’s fame rests partly on his early death. Being killed in a duel at age twenty-six is a romantic way to go, and tends to create a legend.
The Touchstone – Edith Wharton
Since Wharton’s was thirty-eight when she wrote her first novel (Touchstone is a mere eighty-two pages long), youth can’t be blamed for how bad it is. The influence of Austen and Henry James is evident in the wordy and convoluted prose: “He had never been more impressed by the kind of absoluteness that lifted her beauty above the transient effects of other women, making the most harmonious face seem an accidental collocation of features.” But the main fault lies in the premise and its repercussions. Glennard has in his possession letters written by Margaret Aubyn, a now-deceased Famous Woman Author. In order to get money to marry Alexa, he sells the letters; they’re published without his identity being revealed; they cause a sensation. I reread the pages that allude to the content of these “shocking” letters; though Wharton keeps it vague, it’s clear they aren’t passionate love letters, nor do they put the woman’s soul on display. But after Glennard marries Alexa, he begin to suffer from guilt about what he’s done. It grows until he’s “tortured” and “anguished.” Initially he tries to conceal his act from Alexa; then he begins to do things to reveal to her the “damnable, accursed” sin he has committed. In the course of this agonizing his feelings toward his wife change: love turns into indifference, then abhorrence sets in. At the same time he begins to moon about the dead author (he sits by her grave, feeling close to her). The ending is full of impassioned verbiage and makes no more sense than any of the nonsense that precedes it. If Wharton had written a comic novel about a madman, she wouldn’t have had to change much. One last note: two references are made to a child. I hunted down these pages. Yes, a nursery and a baby are mentioned. Apparently, in all the hubbub about the letters, the baby got lost.
No Fond Return of Love – Barbara Pym
If you haven’t read any Pym, don’t start with this novel, for you won’t find her virtues on display here. It’s a meandering and purposeless effort, with too many characters and too many strands of plot. Worse, I didn’t believe in the people nor what they did. Since I found reading the book a bit depressing, I wondered about Pym’s state of mind when she wrote it. At times – and this is atypical of her – there are glimmers of cynicism and malice (which, actually, constitute the only interesting moments, because the rest is plodding). In a tacked-on “happy” ending Pym asks us to accept one of the most unconvincing love matches in fiction. I think she knew how lame it was, for she adds a short addenda in which we’re in the mind of a minor character. He hears a taxi but is not quick enough to get to his window to see Aylwin emerge with a bunch of flowers and Dulcie open the door for him. Last lines of the novel: “He took a mauve sugared almond out of a bag and sucked it thoughtfully, wondering what, if anything, he had missed.” He didn’t miss a thing.
Father and Son – Edmund Gosse
In this book, subtitled “A Study of Two Temperaments,” Gosse examines his relationship with his father, beginning with his earliest memories and ending when he leaves home at seventeen. In the mid-1800s Philip Gosse was a noted biologist, but his thoughts and emotions were dominated by his zealous religiosity. He tried to instill his beliefs in his only son; moreover, he convinced himself that the boy was one of the anointed. Initially Edmund tries to fulfill the role his father has in mind for him, but as he matures he begins to harbor doubts about religion; he goes so far as to engage in private acts which test his father’s dogma (he worships a chair and then awaits God’s punishment; none comes). Edmund will go on to lead a worldly life in London; the father is disappointed, but grants him his freedom. The author of the Introduction claims that Father and Son “describes the horrors of a Puritan upbringing.” I wonder if he read the same book I did. We all grow up affected by our parents’ flaws and limitations. Edmund had an odd upbringing, with demands and repressiveness, but he was never mistreated, nor was he unhappy. Though his father was a reserved man not given to displays of affection, Edmund always knew that he was loved. I found much that is almost idyllic in his childhood. Edmund’s mother shared her husband’s religious fervor; but what struck me forcefully was how perfectly matched these two were; the boy grew up in a house where there was contentment based on a deep, quiet affection. His mother dies (cancer); years later Philip remarries, and Edmund’s stepmother is another beneficent presence. This isn’t a lugubrious book; on the contrary, Gosse presents many events in a humorous light. At age ten Edmund is baptized (which, in the sect of the Brethren, is only done to adults who experience a momentous religious awakening). He’s made an exception because, his father reasons to the congregation, in early infancy his son already had “knowledge of the Lord” and had “possessed an insight into the plan of salvation.” After little Edmund’s baptizement, the boy immediately becomes “puffed out with a sense of my own holiness.” He begins to lecture his father, to treat the servants haughtily, and to mock his young friends. In other words, he becomes an insufferable prig.