Monday, August 29, 2016

The Walking Stick – Winston Graham
The walking stick is used by Deborah; when she was eleven she contracted polio and was left with a withered leg. At age twenty-six she holds a respected position in a high-end London auction house. She’s fairly content; romantic love has been denied her, but she’s resigned to that fact. And then, at a party, she meets Leigh. . . . This book has elements of a thriller, but it’s primarily a psychological study in which love plays a dominant role. “I love you, Leigh,” are the last words Deborah speaks to the man who brought her out of her shell, broke down her resistance and insecurities, made her feel wanted and valued, gave her sexual pleasure. And then she walks off and does something that will shatter his life and that of others – including her own. For Leigh had made Deborah vulnerable to pain; the corrosive emotions that surface in her are entirely credible. I found her willful destructiveness both exhilarating and poignant. To generate a visceral response in a reader is a goal most sought by all artists. Art is another subject that Graham addresses, for Leigh’s passionate desire is to be a painter. But when he shows his work to an expert he’s dismissed as no more than an illustrator: “They are – pictures, if you know what I mean. They’re no better and no worse than hundreds of others about. But they’re not really – forgive me – paintings, as I understand the word.” Leigh accepts this evaluation; but his dreams have been crushed. And what’s left? As I felt for Deborah, I also felt for Leigh; they both suffer a devastating loss. The mystery element in the novel involves motivations – why a person does something. The truth of the matter always dawned on me before it was fully revealed on the page. This isn’t a criticism; Graham was writing about real people, so the reader was provided with everything he needed to discern how things would go. I even knew what would be on the last page, but that was because it was the only way to end the book. It had the impact of the inevitable. *

The Memorial – Christopher Isherwood
The book is subtitled “Portrait of a Family,” and the approach is to give characters a section in which we get a stream-of-consciousness view of their thoughts and feelings. It’s done lucidly – the prose is good. But we go from one person to another and then to another, and far into the book I was having trouble figuring out who was related to whom, and how they felt about each other. Someone of no apparent significance would make a brief appearance, but later it would turn out that he or she had an important role. And I’d wonder what this person had said and done on page six. To further muddle things the narrative skips back and forth in time. Book One is set in 1928; Book Two in 1920; Book Three 1925. Isherwood made an ambitious attempt to write a novel that, despite its modest length (it’s under three hundred pages), warranted the use of the word “Book.” That struck me as pretentious, as did the structural intricacies. But the most serious shortcoming was that, at age twenty-eight, the author simply didn’t know enough about people; everybody was walking and with a label. When the scene shifted to College, and sensitive Eric and irresponsible Maurice took center stage, I decided, with a sense of relief, that I had enough of this family.

The Soul of Kindness – Elizabeth Taylor
With simplicity and clarity Taylor goes deep into the emotional lives of nine diverse characters. Flora, the lovely centerpiece, has led an unruffled existence; by nature she’s a happy person who wants everyone else to be happy. None of them are, to varying degrees; a few are enveloped in an incurable state of loneliness. Elinor is married to a man who doesn’t care about her: “He could leave me in the morning lying stretched dead on the floor. And if anyone later in the day asked him how I was, he’d say, ‘Fine. Fine. Thank you’; and then he might suddenly remember and say, ‘Well, no, as a matter of fact, she’s dead.’ ” She tells this to Flora’s husband; Richard finds Elinor interesting, but he withdraws his companionship when he sees that it disturbs his wife; he feels a responsibility to keep her face free of concern: “. . . it would surely be his fault if it was altered, if the Botticelli calm were broken, or the appealing gaze veiled.” That calm is broken when Kit (who, since he was a boy, has been in love with Flora) attempts suicide. Flora receives an anonymous letter (it’s from Liz, the only malicious character in the novel) blaming her for what happened. But how is Flora to blame? She does nothing to encourage Kit’s feelings for her. He has dreams of being an actor, and in this she does encourage him, which is a mistake. When he’s ill with the flu she comes to his apartment to tend to him, and she turns to his dreams, which he has wisely discarded: “I know you have this gift.” He feels euphoria at her words, but after she leaves he sees clearly that he has no gift, no glowing future, and he sinks into a deep depression. Flora had acted out of kindness; her only failing is obliviousness to life’s harsh facts. All the others must face those facts; perhaps that’s why they either resent her or feel obligated to protect her (as one protects a child). This novel moves in a straight line, and it ends with no resolutions – it’s likely that some characters will accept compromises, but for others the problems they face are unsolvable. Even Flora’s continuing insularity is not assured.

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