Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Laughable Loves – Milan Kundera (Czech)
Kundera’s characters and the situations he puts them in are a means by which he can explore ideas about human nature. Sex plays a prominent role in these seven stories, but this isn’t a sensuous book; sex is treated clinically and is most often a means by which people wield power over one another. As for the title of the collection, love is nowhere to be found, and the laughter is often contemptuous. Kundera’s thoroughness in pursuing emotional maneuvering can become laborious, and the sex distasteful (“Symposium” made me yearn for simplicity and virtue). Kundera is at his cruelest in “Dr. Havel After Ten Years.” He presents us with a man who is “legendary” as a womanizer; but, while staying at a spa, Havel finds that anonymity and age have negated his power to get any woman he snaps his fingers at. His ego is somewhat revived when an editor recognizes him as the famous libertine; to this naive young man the doctor imparts sage advice about sensuality. I found the premise to be foolish and juvenile – until I realized that I was reading a farce about shallowness. When the young man introduces his girlfriend to the doctor (who’s in a foul mood at the time) Havel dismisses her: “Yes, that girl is really nice, but a dog, a canary, or a duckling waddling about in a farmyard can also be nice.” He then maliciously promotes his secretary – an unattractive older woman – as someone who (to an epicure in these matters) possesses a “genuine erotic beauty.” So the editor dumps his girlfriend and has sex with the secretary. The story makes a point about how people are swayed by appearances and reputation and celebrity. When Havel’s beautiful actress wife visits him for a day, he shows her off, making sure that the women who rejected his advances will see how she adores him. After the wife leaves these women are all too eager to get in bed with Havel, and, of course, he accommodates them. In other stories Kundera is softer, more realistic and even, in “Let the Old Dead Make Room for the New Dead,” a bit compassionate. Not much – just a bit.

The Lost Girl – D. H. Lawrence
I found this little-known work by Lawrence to be more engaging than his message-laden major novels. In The Lost Girl he’s lost. The plot lurches about, and his main character can’t feel one way without having a contradictory response. But when you accept Alvina as a person unable to find her way in life, you accept the confusion. Her need to belong – to be a part of something or somebody but failing again and again to achieve this – mattered to me. As she turns thirty, still a virgin, she becomes reckless (though she always had a reckless streak that she let loose in small ways). She joins a traveling music troupe (she plays the piano as actors put on a show). Ciccio, one of the troupe members, overwhelms her both physically and emotionally; she finds him beautiful and compelling. Yet some inner core in her resists him, and she often sees him as no more than a stupid animal. To me Ciccio was the weakest character in the book; by making him uncommunicative Lawrence also makes him unbelievable. Alvina continues to separate herself from her privileged upbringing by marrying Ciccio and moving to a remote and primitive village in Italy (which both enchants and repels her). At the end she’s pregnant and Ciccio is about to leave to serve in the Italian army (WWI has broken out). Lawrence has created a muddle, and the abrupt and simplistic hopeful ending he comes up with is a cop out. But, still . . . What matters in this odd, over-the-top and somewhat preposterous book is Lawrence’s exuberance: he feels his power to write, and this was infectious. Throughout are descriptions of people and places that are brilliant. Alvina is tumultuously alive, as are many others in the large cast: her wayward father, whose dissolution we follow; the imperious Madame who rules over the troupe; the prancing Mr. May. Ciccio’s brother is a third tier character, but Lawrence captures his essence in a few sentences: “There would sometimes be a strange passivity on his worn face, an impassive, almost Red Indian look. And then again he would stir into a curious, arch, malevolent laugh, for all the world like a debauched old tom-cat.”

Brooklyn – Colm Toibin
I like quiet characters and a simple prose style, so I wanted to like this book, and for a good stretch I did. First we’re with Eilis in Ireland just after WWII; though she’s fairly content with her life, she leaves home when she gets a chance to better her situation in America. She lives in a boarding house and works as a salesgirl at a department store; she takes night classes in bookkeeping at Brooklyn College. All was okay so far, though there was no discernible direction forming out of the scattered events. We get a Jewish professor Eilis seems interested in, and her lady boss makes unwanted lesbian advances, but neither of these characters turn out to play any role. Gradually I began to be bothered by Eilis’s emotional tepidness. I expected her to show some spirit when a love interest arrives, but Tony is a bland, middle-of-the-road Nice Guy and her response to him is flat. At this point, halfway through the book, my reading became as plodding and dutiful as Toibin’s writing. When Eilis’s sister dies it seemed like a weak contrivance to advance a stagnant plot. Before she returns to Ireland for the funeral Eilis loses her virginity to Tony (an excruciating scene) and the two secretly marry. Back home she gets interested in Jim; she decides that Tony’s Nice Guy love is just a burden. She wants to stay in Ireland, but she’s forced (by way of another contrivance) to go back to Brooklyn and give up Jim. I could care less. Tony, Jim, Tom, Dick, Harry – none of them matter. Quiet characters interest me only when they reveal their depth, and depth is what Eilis lacks. This is a shallow book posing as a deep book, and therefore it’s a phoney book. Yet – and here we come to a few side issues that contributed to my resentment – the Scribner paperback is saturated with forty-two (42!) blurbs. Have Scribner and Toibin no shame, and has the literary world lost all discrimination? But there’s more. After the end of Brooklyn there’s a sixteen page preview of Toibin’s upcoming novel, Nora Webster. So they’ve finally found a way to insert a crummy commercial in a book that you can hold in your hands.

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