Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Ring Is Closed – Knut Hamsun (Norwegian) 
Hamsun wrote this novel when he was seventy-seven, and it would be his final one. A subsequent book, On Overgrown Paths, was mainly a defense of his wartime actions (he was accused of collaboration with the Nazis). I don’t know if his life had begun to unravel when Ring was published in 1936, though from its tone of resignation I suspect it did. His main character is a strange man, disconnected from those things that others find important. Abel has a deeply ingrained “What does it matter?” attitude. On rare occasions he has strong feelings, but they soon fade. His relationships with people – even the three women who play a role in his life – lack depth. When his father dies he comes into a substantial inheritance, but there’s nothing he wants to spend the money on: his ragged old jacket is fine, he’s satisfied living in a squalid shack. He pays off debts and gives much of the rest away – he’s generous with something that has little value to him. Abel isn’t always on the fringes of life; at one point he’s made captain of a milkboat that carries passengers up and down the river. A respectable job, but he tires of it, and off he goes to a foreign country. When he’s away from his home village the narrative shifts to other characters. This loosely constructed novel is written in a prose stripped to the bare essentials, but Hamsun can still hold one’s interest and is still a master at depicting character. His title suggests that he saw Ring as his last work of fiction, and in it he imparts the somber conclusion that all striving – even for happiness – is futile.

Daughters of the Samurai – Janice Nimura
After Commodore Perry’s fleet forced its entry into Edo Bay in 1853, the Japanese government realized that they could no longer continue living in isolation, clinging to a backward technology. One offshoot of their determination to catch up was to send five girls to the United States, where they would live with American families and attend American schools; their purpose was to absorb Western culture (and, of course, the English language) and – after ten years – return to Japan prepared to impart what they had learned. We follow the lives of three of the girls sent on this odd mission: six year old Ume, eleven year old Shige and twelve year old Sutematsu. They grew up Americanized and thus lost contact with the world to which they returned (this would be especially true for Ume). To tell their story the author had to depend entirely on research; we get a patchwork of excerpts from letters, newspapers and the writings of people who had contact with the girls. But a book so dependent on secondhand sources is limited. The main problem with Daughters is that the girls (later women) don’t come to life. I never got more than an inkling of their feelings. They didn’t keep intimate diaries, and in their letters they were sparing as to what they revealed. In the case of two of the girls, on their return to Japan they married and had children; the demands of family life left them little time for letter writing. As a result Ume, who remained single (and kept up a vigorous correspondence), takes center stage, but her efforts to assert herself as an educator didn’t make for compelling reading. This book is no more than a dutiful, plodding effort, and the prose, both Nimura’s and her quoted sources, is too often either stilted or gushy.

A Permanent Member of the Family – Russell Banks
I read eight of the twelve stories in this collection before I called it quits. Banks has seventeen novels to his credit, and many have achieved acclaim. I read one, Continental Drift, and, though I didn’t care for it, it was a serious, ambitious work. Most of these stories are tired and tepid. The prose is competent – Banks writes in a straightforward, simple way – but if he makes a point (often he doesn’t, as in the piddling “Green Parrot”) it’s a flimsy one. My reaction to “Christmas Story” and “Lost and Found” was, basically, “Huh?” – because they wound up nowhere. “Transplant” does have a purpose; in it a man meets with the wife of the donor of his heart to let her listen to it beat; I should have found this touching, but instead it struck me as gimmicky. “Former Marine” is the best of the lot, but it suffers from a flawed premise: that an old guy could pull off bank robberies with such ease. I’ll close this review with one more observation. Banks is seventy-eight years old. This collection may be his last work of fiction, and he ends it with “The Green Door.” In it a poor soul (drunk and probably mentally ill) is stabbed to death. Though this could have been prevented by the first person narrator, he tells the homeless guys who will commit the murder and robbery, “He’s all yours.” Then, “for reasons I can’t know or name,” he watches the proceedings (which are described in graphic detail); then he drives home, goes to bed, and quickly falls to sleep. What we have is a scene of brutality made worse by the presence of an unfeeling observer. Does Banks want to end his career on such a note?

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