Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Getting of Wisdom – Henry Handel Richardson
Henry Handel was actually Ethel Florence, and she went to a girls’ school in Melbourne, Australia similar to the one Laura attends in this novel. But, according to Germaine Greer’s Introduction, the author’s career at school was one of multiple successes, whereas Laura blunders from one social disaster to another. Upon this intense, impetuous twelve-year-old newcomer the girls wield their double-barbed cruelties of ridicule and exclusion. Laura isn’t presented in the protective garb of a sympathetic character; she’s replete with flaws and weaknesses, among which self-centeredness and neediness stand out. Her efforts to conform and to impress lead her into her worst transgression. It occurs when she stays for a few days at a minister’s house and returns to tell the girls about her romantic involvement with the handsome, married Mr. Robertson (something that has absolutely no basis in fact). This is libel, but it makes her admired, so she feels impelled to embellish her story with additional “spicy happenings.” She is “as little able as a comic actor to resist pandering to the taste of the public . . .” When her lies are uncovered she becomes even more of a pariah (mainly because the other girls feel duped). Though Laura suffers during her years at the school, there’s a light, comic touch to the way Richardson depicts her experiences. But there’s empathy too – Laura is real and relatable, and I was relieved at the exuberant ending, which shows her with spirit intact. This is a very entertaining book, and an oddly instructive one. Young girls who find themselves in a situation in which they feel like square pegs should read The Getting of Wisdom. I think it would offer them some solace and some hope. *

Concluding – Henry Green
I’ll begin with a spoiler: the missing girl is never found, nor is she accounted for. In fact, none of the issues presented (e.g., will Mr. Rock get to remain in his cottage?) are settled in any way. Green creates people and scenes with a remarkable vibrancy; that was his thing, and there it ended for him. His two successes (Loving and Living) are amorphous mood pieces in which people talk; in those books his weakness at plotting was not a factor. But this novel is made up of multiple dilemmas involving at least a dozen characters. Near the end he continues to pile on new complexities, as if he were unable to curb his imagination. Long before the last page of Concluding I had concluded that nothing would be resolved. Though I felt a bit gypped about Mary (the missing girl), I should have known better than to expect Green to play by the conventional rules of narrative. Even his quirky style of prose is something the reader has to adapt to. He wrote for himself, not for the reader.

The Professor and the Madman – Simon Winchester
If you have an interest in how the Oxford English Dictionary came into existence, this is the book for you. If you have little or no interest you may still find Winchester’s account to be an engrossing read. He focuses on two men: one a scholar in charge of the project, the other a man who, for twenty years, contributed mightily from his cells at the Broadmoor Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Dr. William Minor, an American surgeon who served in the Civil War (where, possibly, the horrendous events at the Battle of the Wilderness set off his mental decline), was undoubtedly insane. But he was also brilliant – extremely well-read, an accomplished flutist and painter – and when the call for contributions came from Oxford, he leapt to the task. No doubt it gave purpose to his days, a feeling of being a part of a grand enterprise. I felt, in a sense, that the scope of this enterprise (which took seventy years to complete) was driven by the obsessions of all parties involved. The book is short for such a vast topic – a little over two hundred pages – and moves along at a nice clip, mixing scholarship with the sometimes sad, sometimes lurid story of Dr. Minor. The Professor of the title, James Murray, gets much less attention than the Madman, for whom Winchester obviously has a great deal of sympathy. The last word in the OED, which was completed in 1927, was zyxt. In my American Heritage Dictionary (which I’ll stick to, thank you very much) the last entry is xyster. As for the meanings of these words, you can always look them up.

Small Town – Sloan Wilson
What does it say about me that I read all five hundred pages of what is, literary-wise, a mess? I was aware of the book’s many deficiencies, yet I kept going, and was entertained rather than displeased. Or, rather, my displeasure had entertainment value – often I’d think, You don’t mean Wilson is going to go there? Yes, indeed, whenever he moved into love and sex (which he did a lot), he was actually going straight into the flagrantly improbable. His awkward depiction of women – their words and actions – was cringe-worthy, but it was also amusing. So, like an afternoon soap opera addict, I kept reading, carried along on the smooth flow of the prose. As for plot, our hero (a famous photographer) returns to the small town where he grew up and instantaneously falls in love with thirty-year-old Rose. But their bliss of total commitment runs into a snag when, during their first sexual act, she has a heart attack; then, at their wedding reception, another heart attack kills her (I had never believed in her, and so was uninvolved). Her seventeen-year-old sister Ann comes to Ben’s rescue, making sexual advances which he nobly (though wavering at times) resists. Ben, by the way, is forty-five, and his son is the boyfriend of Ann, so there’s a sort of triangle going on. A bunch of other plot lines are introduced as major ones and then allowed to wither and die. They die because Wilson was interested only in Ben Winslow’s emotional travails. Ben is initially forceful and competent, but by the end he’s a hapless soul, clinging to a few hopes. I think this book was very personal to Wilson, and was written with great sincerity. Despite all the sappiness of Small Town, it still manages to impart a sense of loss and longing.

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