The Dalkey Archive – Flann O’Brien
In the opening chapters the highly fantastical almost bridges into science fiction. We get a stoppage of time; an interview with Saint Augustine; a concoction, which, when released, will exterminate all life on the planet. This weirdness is presented with a rollicking verbal inventiveness. But gradually a change settles in – the prose becomes straightforward and the plot has Mick logically working out a plan to save humanity. We aren’t done with eccentrics – Sergeant Fottrell is addicted to adjectives: “I know the dates and times protuberantly because it was my good self who carried out the punctures with my penknife.” Fottrell has disabled a bicycle tire because, according to his “moly-cule theory,” a man can turn into a bicycle or anything else that he has a long and intimate acquaintance with. (Since the molecules switch places, a bicycle will begin acting like a man.) Mick also has an encounter with James Joyce, who’s living in anonymity in a nearby town (but is he the JJ?). The picture of Mick that emerges is a sad one: he’s a bachelor in his thirties who lives with his mother; his job is so insignificant (and underpaid) that it’s never identified; he has a girlfriend, but their relationship is celibate. And he drinks too much. He decides that, after he’s solved pressing problems (such as saving humanity), he’ll enter one of the more rigorous religious sects. But he solves nothing; instead, in the closing ten spoken words Mick gets a jolt that unravels all his plans. Though the book never becomes dark or heavy, the fading of the initial exuberance is obvious. Near the end O’Brien has Mick think “As an intending Trappist, he would have to turn his back on pleasure but that would not be so easy because he knew of practically nothing which could be called pleasure.” Is the author describing his own frame of mind? Archive was written by a sick man; it was published two years before O’Brien’s death at age fifty-five. His first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, is his most famous work; I find it to be a boring bit of juvenile indulgence. But in The Third Policeman and The Poor Mouth, and in Archive too, O’Brien gave me pleasure.
The Works of Love – Wright Morris
I never could get a handle on what made Will Brady tick. His only act of initiative – this is something he does as a young man – is to propose to a prostitute he visits regularly. She laughs him out of the room. When he leaves the house he finds a group of women sitting on the steps; he asks, “Is there one of you girls who would like to get married?” They too find his proposal to be funny. But after this Will shows no conviction; his jobs and his subsequent marriages are initiated by others. He even has an infant he didn’t father foisted on him. He accepts all that comes his way without resentment or involvement. His life roles are summarized in this way: “A father, one who didn’t know what being a father was like, and a lover, one who didn’t know much about love. More or less hopeless.” Perhaps it was Will’s uniqueness – was there ever such a rudderless person in fiction? – that made reading about him rather fascinating. But what counts in a novel that challenges your credibility is your final opinion about where the author is taking you. As Morris skips years (in unsubstantiated giant strides) Will winds up an old man who, in a faux childish fashion, deals with the Great Questions of Life. A Voice from out of the sky says to him, “There’s no need for great lovers in heaven. Pity is the great lover, and the great lovers are all on earth.” With this turn to profundity I began to plod along inattentively (which may be why I couldn’t understand the ending). Morris violated his own credo about what fiction should deal with; regarding a book about men who visit the moon, he writes, “What the world needed, it seemed, was a traveler who would stay right there in the bedroom, or open a door and walk slowly about his own house.” I agree – there’s value in addressing the ordinary human condition. But in The Works of Love Morris is closer to that condition when he’s describing a man who hasn’t a clue about how to be human.
Scenes from Village Life – Amos Oz (Hebrew)
What these eight stories share is a mysterious, sometimes creepy sense of dislocation, as if something terrible is lurking in the shadows. Everybody in the Israeli village is unhappy in one way or another – lonely, angry, lost – and relationships (when they exist) are troubled. In the final story, “In a Faraway Place at Another Time,” the place Oz takes us to is one where degeneration and degradation reign. Though this is a solid collection, too many stories seem truncated; if a point is being made, it never comes to light. In “Digging” is everyone imagining the digging under a house or is it or is meant to be symbolic? Oz is good at creating atmospherics, but that’s not enough. Only in one story – “Waiting” – do all the elements work. The mayor of the village receives a note from his wife; it reads “Don’t worry about me.” Benny waits for her to come home, then he begins searching for her. What emerges is how empty Benny’s relationship with his wife is, and how flawed he is. He’s all surface, glad-handing his way through life. His search, deep into the night, may be his only act of commitment. He winds up sitting on the bench where his wife had been when she gave someone the note that was delivered to him. “So he settled in the middle of the bench, his bleeding hand wrapped in the scarf, buttoned up his coat because of the light rain that had started to fall, and sat waiting for his wife.”
Scum – Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yiddish)
This novel was published the same year Singer died (at age eighty-seven), so one can’t help but wonder about that blunt title. Who or what does “scum” refer to? To Max Barabander or the world in general? In the opening page Max is at a café in Poland, looking at a Yiddish newspaper. Alongside stories of a world careening toward WWI he reads of three hundred brides being shipped off to prospective grooms in Australia; they have been selected solely on the basis of photographs. Max thinks, “Three hundred girls! Damn their wicked little navels. That’s what I’d like, a ship with live merchandise. Between a yes and a no, I’d make a million rubles.” So he sees this as a business opportunity – sex trafficking. Later in the novel he’s drawn into that exact endeavor. But he doesn’t instigate the plan; he initially goes along with it at another’s urging, then later decides to back out. On the surface this forty-seven-year-old man is forceful and smooth and persuasive, but he’s unable to discriminate in his actions. He’s constantly getting caught up in a tangle of lies, all of them involving women. That’s the book, basically. Singer holds one’s attention, but the abrupt ending suggests that he got tired of dealing with his conflicted character and brought a halt to the proceedings by sticking him in prison. Though Max is despicable in many ways, it’s hard to condemn him. We’re in his mind, so we’re privy to his regrets and confusion and desire to lead a life in which he hurts no one: “to make amends for every sin – with money, with words, with presents. An aversion arose in him against all those who take nothing in account except their own desires.” Despite his good intentions, Max follows his inchoate desires and goes stumbling on the downward path.
Behind the Lines – Jaroslav Hasek (Czech)
These episodes take place in a country that has long been exposed to the conflicts of its more powerful neighbors. Perhaps the Czechs are so well-acquainted with war that they can appreciate an author who makes a cynical joke of it. This book’s “hero,” Gasek (close to Hasek, isn’t it?), is a survivor, resourceful and wily and able to land on his feet in the face of any threat that comes his way. When he’s in charge he never resorts to brutality; he’s deflects it if he can. And when he can’t – when people die – it’s only mentioned as happening. Hasek populates these stories with grotesques and madmen, which lends an element of slapstick to the proceedings. His take on calamity and chaos was probably bracing to a people caught up in the Great War and the communist revolution in Russia. Bitter laughter is better than no laughter at all.