After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie – Jean Rhys
The meager plot has Rhys’ waif-like heroine wandering around Paris and London, trying to scrounge money from former or new lovers. She has no inner resources except a waning survival instinct; she fears the day (not too far off) when age will erode her looks. She’s very cynical about life and bitter about people (I wonder how many times a character is described as “cold-eyed”). Again and again we get observations like this: “People are such beasts, such mean beasts. They’ll let you die for want of a decent word, and then they’ll lick the feet of anybody they can get anything out of.” I must be one of the mean beasts, because I didn’t have much sympathy for Julia. I wondered why men got involved with such a mentally off-balance and rage-filled individual, and why they continued to fork over money (though usually with the caveat that no more will be forthcoming). I suspect that early on Rhys was given bad advice about her writing. In Quartet and Mackenzie (her first and second novels) her prose is clipped to the barren bones, but the minimalism comes across as an affectation. And when Rhys concentrates on her own unhappiness the only mood she conveys is a stifling glumness; that mood remains intact even when she enters the minds of other characters. Her third novel, Voyage in the Dark, was better because it was more expansive, with different locales and a supporting cast that added color and verve. Thirty years later Wide Sargasso Sea came out, and in that work she got it all right. Last word on Mackenzie: it seems pretentious to divide a less than two hundred page book into three parts (Part III is thirteen pages long). That’s another thing Rhys should have been warned about: pretentiousness.
Honey in the Horn – H. L. Davis
After finishing a section of this book I often thought “How did this guy get so good?” By “section” I mean a stretch of one to three pages in which Davis describes a place or person or event. The place is Oregon in the early 1900s, the people are settlers looking for ways to get by, and the events concern the various ways that most fail to reach that goal. It’s a raw and often treacherous country, full of characters of all stripes (most of them nefarious in some way), and it’s rendered with an earthy and unsentimental authenticity. I have great respect for Twain’s Roughing It, and I think Davis was every bit as good a writer of prose as Twain (and as funny). But unlike Twain’s account of his travels, Davis wrote a novel, and plotting and long-term character development weren’t in his arsenal of strengths. We follow the misadventures of a young man named Clay, but he never attains much substance, and his relationship with Luce is so vague that I couldn’t understand how they felt about one another. A weakness that would be fatal to another book doesn’t detract a whole lot from Honey because Clay’s wanderings are a means by which Davis moves to those vigorous and pungent anecdotes he excelled at. He writes about a garrulous people, most of whom are isolated. “Loneliness is supposed to make people reserved and taciturn, but it didn’t work that way with them . . . What solitude had lost them was the habit, not of talking, but of listening.” Take Mrs. Yarbrow, “who raised bees in the fireweed slashings on Upper Thief Creek. She was so enslaved by the habit of unbosoming herself before strangers that she deliberately worked into a lawsuit regularly every year so she could explain to the jury, from the witness stand, what a hard life she led, and how worthless her last four husbands had been, and how much trouble her children had given her to raise, and how her roof leaked and her cow had run off with a stray bull and her bees swarmed when they weren’t supposed to and stung her when she went after them, and how her female disorders (which she described in minute detail) gave her hell all the time and no doctor in the country had been able to do them a lick of good.” When it came out in 1935 the novel was appreciated: it was reviewed by the likes of Mencken and it won the Pulitzer Prize. As for my question regarding how Davis got so good, Honey was his first novel, written when he was forty-two, so he had a store of life experiences and the ability (unlike Mrs. Yarbro) to listen. He also was diligent about staying away from any publishing or literary establishment. He declined to go to New York to pick up the Pulitzer because he didn’t want to be a “subject for exhibit.” Which is exactly what one of his cantankerous and idiosyncratic characters might say.
The Inspector General – Nikolai Gogol (Russian)
After I finished this play (in a translation by Constance Garnett) I read the chapter in Vladimir Nabokov’s biography of Gogol devoted to The Government Inspector. He considers it to be one of Gogol’s three masterpieces (the others being Dead Souls and “The Overcoat”). He goes on and on about how it was misunderstood; he even rejects Gogol’s explanation of his intent. But if you rail about misinterpretations, isn’t it necessary to say what it’s really about? Nabokov buries his point in obscure verbosity (something about “the mimetic capacities of the physical phenomena produced by almost intangible particles of recreated life”). I have a more down-to-earth opinion (for Gogol was a down-to-earth writer). When he wrote Inspector Gogol wasn’t the isolated oddball he may have become later in his life; he was a worldly and very observant man. He sets up a mistake in identity, and then lets the characters (every one of them) display a wide array of commonplace vices and weaknesses. The play is about people acting badly, and Gogol makes it a lively, high-spirited romp. Along the way he ridicules the human tendency to grovel before power. If someone is considered to be of importance he’s treated as (and is considered to be) a noble creature; those who are unimportant are treated like dirt. That’s how the world works, both in Russia in 1836 and here, today. The most revealing moment comes at the end, after it’s learned that the inspector was an imposter. A letter from him is intercepted and is read aloud; in it he mocks each of the assembled townsfolk. The Mayor goes into a frenzy: “It’s not enough to be made a laughingstock – there will come some scribbler, some inkslinger, and will put you in a comedy. That’s what’s mortifying! He won’t spare your rank and your calling, and everyone will laugh and clap.” Then he turns on the audience: “What are you laughing at? You are laughing at yourselves.” *