The Vagabond – Colette (French)
It was Colette’s nature to overdramatize emotions; her fiction, which is based on her life experiences, reflects this aspect of her personality, and I can usually accept her on those terms. But the problem that tarnished this novel’s virtues was my persistent feeling that her first-person narrator was misrepresenting matters. We’re to accept that Renee’s first husband was such a monster that he destroyed her ability to give herself to another man, no matter how perfect he may be. Enter Max. Though at first she keeps this rich and handsome admirer at a distance, she slowly sees him for what he is: kind, considerate, sensitive and ready to marry her and thus end forever her money worries. Finally she concedes that she loves him, but she allows nothing beyond passionate kisses (though she ardently wishes for more). Renee goes on tour with the promise that when she returns she’ll marry Max, but in her letters to him she begins to pull away: “Love is so simple, isn’t it? You never supposed it had this ambiguous, tormented face? We love and give ourselves to each other, and there we are, happy for life, isn’t that it? Ah, how young you are . . .” Of course (to the delight of Erica Jong, who considered this to be “the first and best feminist novel”) Renee chooses the shabby life of a vagabond performer; at least she will retain her independence. And though she will experience solitude, she has the proud consolation of enduring it. I simply didn’t buy any of this, starting with the monster (after all, Renee was in her twenties when she married a notorious womanizer; how naive a victim could she be?). And would a worldly thirty-three year old woman who is fearful of aging and losing her physical charms act like a virginal tease toward a man she loves? As for solitude, why does a lesbian with an “indefinable attraction” make an appearance near the end? Colette gave us not the truth but glossy romanticization. This is evident in the overblown prose: “Ah, how long shall I not thirst for you upon my road!” This comes from the final letter Renee writes to Max. Lucky fellow, Max.
A Bell for Adano –John Hersey
It took a while, but my good will toward this novel slowly ebbed, and then turned to animosity. In his Foreword Hersey states that “Major Victor Joppolo, USA, was a good man” and he closes with “We have need of him. He is our future in the world.” Joppolo is in charge of an Italian town recently liberated from Nazi control. The citizens of Adano come to love this just and compassionate man who embodies, in his decisions, the ideals of democracy. The novel is written in a simple, clear style and is cinematic in that scenes are presented with the minimum of words (often in the form of dialogue). I was on board – until some problems began nagging at me. The Italians are persistently portrayed as childish and overly emotional. The worst example comes in a mass panic over a false “gas attack,” when only Joppolo’s calm intervention stops the flight of the fearful mob. Hersey is treating these people – war survivors – as comic figures. And, in a roundabout way, he allows free rein to a contemptuous attitude. Joppolo is always respectful in his speech and actions, but the other American soldiers are a foul-mouthed bunch who consider the young women of Adano to be subjects of lewd speculation, and they routinely refer to the Italians (often in their presence) as “wop” and “dago.” The straw that broke it for me came in the chapter in which we get the story of how Giorgio died. It was so mishandled, so overwrought, so damn false that I abandoned the book in mid-sentence. Bell would win the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. Apparently Hersey gave the judges – and the American public – the stereotypes and platitudes they wanted at the time.
Unaccustomed Earth – Jhumpa Lahiri
The title story of this collection is by far the best (at least of those I read). A recently widowed father visits his married daughter in Seattle. She has one child and is expecting another. She’s quite willing for her father to move in with her (a tradition in Indian households) and her non-Indian husband (who is away on a business trip) is fine with that idea. But the father is satisfied with his life in a condo in Pennsylvania; he enjoys taking package tours to Europe, and on one he met a woman he starts a relationship with (something he doesn’t want to disclose to Ruma). We’re in the minds of daughter and father, switching between them, and it turns out that Ruma is the one who is lost, needy, dissatisfied; there’s no specific reason given for her discontent, but it comes across as real. During his stay her father asserts his independence; he prepares his own meals and he starts a garden; when he leaves he drives himself to the airport in a rental car. Lahiri has presented us with two character studies in which she gets the feelings of both people right, and she doesn’t try to expand the story beyond its natural limits – it’s complete unto itself. These virtues are missing to some degree in the other four I read. “A Choice of Accommodations” was the worst of the lot. Two unappealing and uninteresting characters meander about emotionally and wind up nowhere (actually, on a bed in a vacant dorm room, in a ridiculous scene). The prose in all these long and ambitious pieces is precise and complete in a dutiful way. I think Lahiri tries very hard, in a dutiful way, to be a great writer. But, for me, her problem has to do with conception – knowing her characters and recognizing where they’re going. That accounts for why I left three stories unread.
Stones for Ibarra – Harriet Doerr
It came as no surprise that the events depicted in these interconnected stories closely parallel those of the author and her husband. In a way, this is a book about death: in the second sentence we learn that doctors have given Richard Everton six more years to live. He has decided to spend that time reviving the fortunes of his grandparents, who owned a copper mine in a remote part of Mexico. He and his wife (from whose point of view we get the story) give up their life in San Francisco and head into the unknown. What they find are the ramshackle remains of a once-grand house. They are resourceful and determined and slowly the house is made into a pleasant place and the mine is again producing. So life in Ibarra works out for the Overtons. But the bulk of the book is not devoted to them. What we get is an honest portrayal of a town and its people, especially their way of thinking and their world view. Chapters are devoted to various characters (such as the unscrupulous Chuy Santos and his red taxi). When Doerr turns to personal issues she does so in an understated, muted way. The major emotion Sara deals with is her sense of doom as she watches the deteriorating condition of her husband. When Sara goes to a nearby town and waits her turn to make a phone call to a doctor in the states, her anxiety is effectively conveyed by having her sit, observe others and count off the minutes. The restraint works here because we’re in Sara’s mind, so intimacy is built in. But it extends to Richard, and as a result he seems to be partially in the shadows. Maybe too much in this book is left unrevealed. What we do get is a mood: the hushed stillness of loss.
The Chequer Board – Nevil Shute
Shute was a born storyteller. Despite all sorts of problems with this novel, it held my attention for almost four hundred pages (and there was even a kick at the end). As for those problems: clumsy construction, overly-long episodes, a somewhat saccharine message. The prose is workmanlike, but that’s okay with me as long as an author gets the emotions right, which Shute does. John Turner is beginning to experience neurological problems stemming from a WWII wound (a shard of metal was embedded in his brain). The doctor’s prognosis is grim: he has less than a year to live. Turner, who takes things impassively, says, “It’ll all be the same in a hundred years.” But he does give thought to how to spend his last months; he tells his wife that there are a few things he needs to clean up. He recalls being in a hospital ward with three other men whose plane was strafed by a German Jerry. The copilot was the only one who wasn’t in trouble with the authorities. Turner was wanted for black market dealings, a paratrooper was up for murder outside a London pub, and an American Negro soldier was to be tried for rape. Since Turner’s eyes are bandaged, the other three are told to read to him, or just talk, and a relationship of sorts develops. It’s these three men that Turner sets out to find – to see how they got on. And how they got on makes up the novel. One character is given the lion’s share of attention – Shute can’t seem to let go of any detail of the pilot’s story. That leaves much less space for the other two (the paratrooper gets the short shrift). As for the message, it’s that one’s color doesn’t matter. But Shute’s approach is simplistic in that all the black soldiers stationed in an English town are noble souls while the Southern whites are virulent racists. When a writer stacks the deck, I resist being pushed in one direction. Still, I liked Turner; I liked the other two men (I never got to know the paratrooper); I liked how Turner and his wife renew their feelings for one another. And I liked the ending, which deftly brings it all full circle.