Monday, September 14, 2015

The Thin Man – Dashiell Hammett
This thin book bears only an incidental similarity to the “Thin Man” movies with William Powell and Myrna Loy. There’s not much wise-cracking repartee between Nora and Nick because she’s mostly relegated to the sidelines. They do drink a lot (especially Nick), but this tapers off when he gets on a case. As for Asta, he’s just a dog. What counts with Hammett is his prose; it’s a model of conciseness – no fat – and at least five characters come across vividly. He was especially good with dangerous, amoral women – in this case Mimi. The mystery to be solved was fairly interesting until my bugaboo with who-dun-its raised its ugly head. The plot got way too complicated, and when Nick unraveled things (it takes him seven pages) my mood soured. Here’s my gripe with this genre: there’s no possible way for a reader to figure out who the villain is because the author purposefully conceals it. I guess many people aren’t bothered by this form of manipulation, but I am. One wishes that, with his talent, Hammett had written straight novels. But I think he drank too much, wore himself out, and took the easy and lucrative path. He dedicates this book to Lillian (that would be Lillian Hellman). I don’t know if anybody (including Dashiell and Lillian) understood the dynamics of their long relationship, but from all I’ve read it was a destructive one. Maybe she was one of those appalling females he was so good at depicting.

Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
This is no love story. There was some sort of bond between Cathy and Heathcliff, and the vagueness of that bond is one of many areas in this novel that remain obscure. The story is related by the housekeeper, Ellen Dean, so we never see Cathy and Heathcliff alone together. We aren’t privy to their relationship in the years they grew up, when they roamed wild and when the bond was first formed. There’s no sense that they were lovers in a conventional sense. Though Cathy declares “I am Heathcliff,” she marries Edgar. I couldn’t understand this act, and neither could Heathcliff; he feels deeply betrayed. Cathy, when accused, strikes back. She tells Heathcliff “You left me too.” Meaning that they could remain together despite her commitment to another man – if only he would allow this. Maybe, to her, there was no physical side to their bond, but to him there was (or he wanted there to be one). Heathcliff always had a hard, defiant side, but Cathy’s marriage sets him off on a path of destruction. He’s referred to (with justification) as an evil beast, a madman, a Satan. He wants to destroy the Lintons and the Earnshaws, the owners of the two estates, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Of the victims of his virulence he says, “I have no pity! I have no pity! . . . I grind with greater energy, in proportion to the increase of pain.” The contagion of a “blackness of spirit” extends over generations; its oppressiveness is moderated only by the voice of Ellen Dean, who is good, compassionate, reasonable – and unable to alter events. When Cathy dies in childbirth her daughter, Catherine, takes center stage. She’s a refreshing presence, inheriting a softer aspect of her mother’s recklessness (she was the first character I felt close to). But Heathcliff negotiates her marriage to his son (whom he despises). Here the novel takes on an icky perversity. If Heathcliff is monstrous in his destructive strength, Hinton is a repellent combination of sniveling fear and malignity. When Hinton dies it seems that Catherine, living with Heathcliff and his coarse nephew Hareton, will sink to their level. What occurs is surprising: Catherine and Hareton fall in love. Their love evolves slowly, starting out as abusive dislike (first on Catherine’s part, then reciprocated by Hareton). I accepted this unlikely match probably because I needed something positive to occur. Their relationship causes a precipitous change in Heathcliff. He comes across them sitting side by side – Catherine is teaching Hareton to read. They look up at him and he sees two pairs of eyes that are “precisely similar” to Cathy’s. When they leave the room a shaken Heathcliff speaks to Ellen: “It is a poor conclusion, is it not. An absurd conclusion to my violent exertions? I get levers and mattocks to demolish the two houses, and train myself to be capable of working like Hercules, and when everything is ready, and in my power, I find the will to lift a slate off either roof has vanished!” He has seen his younger self in Hareton and a young Cathy in Catherine. But his Cathy is under the ground, and to her side he must hurry. This other-worldly drama deals in extremes – the book is as wild as the windswept moors. What makes it succeed is Bronte’s conviction. But it succeeded only for the duration of the book; after I was done I found myself feeling that her world had nothing to do with me.

1 comment:

Phillip Routh said...

I recently saw – out of curiosity – the 1939 film version of WH. It accounts for the common misconception of a mystical romance existing between Heathcliff and Cathy. I wrote in my review of the book that we never see them alone together; in the movie they’re alone together a lot, clasped in each other’s arms. Cathy’s daughter, Catherine, doesn’t exist in the film; because how, considering Cathy’s consuming love for Heathcliff, could she have a child by another man? The screenplay tried to make the book’s emotional crosscurrents acceptable to a general audience. But Bronte’s characters don’t act in a logical or acceptable way. The director was William Wyler, and I consider his “The Heiress” and “The Best Years of Our Lives” to be great films; “WH” reeks of falsity and bathos. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote the screenplay; they also collaborated on “Twentieth Century,” a screwball comedy about theatrical types. That’s the world they knew; when they got out on the moors they were hopelessly lost. Maybe they decided to play it for laughs. That would account for my reaction. I was appalled for a long stretch, but at the cotillion scene I started laughing. As for the schmaltzy ending, anyone who cries should be forced to read the novel.