Now In November – Josephine Johnson
Johnson wrote this novel when she was twenty-four, and it won the 1935 Pulitzer Prize. Its passion and sincerity probably contributed to its receiving the award. Yet that seriousness of intent is too often expressed in a stilted way. The first person narrator, Marget, is introspective and analyzes emotions – hers and others – and the meaning of their lives: “I like to pretend that the years alter and revalue, but begin to see that time does nothing but enlarge without mutation.” There’s a lot of this type of deep thinking (which I couldn’t fathom), and it encumbered my reading. But when Johnson deals with people and events, the novel moves along with assurance. She offers up yet another fictional lesson on the theme of Don’t Be a Farmer. It’s too difficult a life, especially if you’re working mortgaged land (which is the equivalent of being a sharecropper). Add to that a devastating drought, and you have the ingredients of a tragedy. Which is what this book is – Johnson is unrelenting in her depiction of the destruction of a family. The only bright spots are Marget’s appreciation of the beauty of nature (before all beauty shrivels up), and the coming of a man who helps with the farmwork in exchange for room and board. Grant is kind, intelligent, a lively yet stabilizing presence, and all three of the daughters fall in love with him. But Marget considers herself too homely to interest a man; as for her two sisters, Kerrin is deranged and Merle is unable to curb her sarcastic tongue. When Grant departs, and the drought drags on, the bleakness closes in. It’s not just Marget’s family that suffers, but others around them. Johnson’s achievement is to make us feel how, for some, it takes an act of courage to face another morning.
The Truce – Mario Benedetti (Spanish)
This novel takes the form of a diary kept by a forty-nine-year-old man nearing retirement from his job as an accountant. He’s a widower who lives with his three grown children, and his first entries deal with his rocky relationship with his two sons, worries about advancing age, and speculation on how he’ll spend his leisure time. Okay so far, though there were aspects of this scenario that bothered me: no reason is given for Martin to keep a diary, his prose is flawless, and he’s highly cerebral. When he falls in love with a woman in her twenties, and this comes to dominate his entries (and all other matters fall by the wayside), it became clear that this so-called diary was not the work of a fictional creation but that of a novelist who was out to philosophize, and Martin’s love for Avellaneda gives Benedetti the opportunity to do so. This love, though initially marred by doubts and fears, is presented as an idyllic merging of souls. Too idyllic for my tastes, and Avellaneda was too perfect to be credible. Then she abruptly dies of heart failure, which I felt was a convenient way for Benedetti to open the door for Martin to sink into despair (and to meditate on God, and His role in this crime). The last entry has Martin cleaning out his desk, with the rest of his empty life stretching before him. This ending lacked resonance because I had long ago decided that there was no Martin to care about.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson
Jackson uses a demented first person narrator to tell the story, so we see events from Mary Katherine’s warped perspective. This eighteen-year-old is filled with hatred toward everyone except her sister Constance (whom she adores) and her Uncle Julian (though I’m not sure about him). She also loves a cat named Jonas. She ardently wishes that she could kill off all the people in the village where she lives. She had, years ago, disposed of most of her own family (including mother, father, brother, and I’m not sure how many others). This mass murder occurred at a dinner table, and was caused by arsenic in the sugar that was sprinkled on the blackberries. Constance survived because she never ate blackberries, and Uncle Julian used just a small amount of sugar, so he was left a cripple. Mary wasn’t present because, as punishment for some unspecified misdeed, she had been sent to bed without her supper. Since Constance prepared the meal, she was tried for murder, and was found not guilty. But, if not her, who? The villagers believe that Constance was the poisoner, and they have a rich store of rhymes and sayings attesting to that belief. I knew from the outset, when Uncle Julian first relates the story of that deadly night (it seems to be his function in the novel), that Mary was the culprit. I thought that Constance knew too, and that it was out of concern for her fragile little sister that she took the rap. But near the end it becomes clear that she didn’t know; and when she finds out, she seems unperturbed (which put her sanity in doubt). At the midpoint a youthful Uncle Charles comes and stays with them, and it seems that Constance is being drawn back into the world, which frightens and angers malignant Mary; in an effort to undermine his presence, she causes a fire that burns down much of the house; when the flames are extinguished the jubilant townsfolk go inside to carry on an orgy of destruction. But, after all the mayhem subsides, we get a happy ending: Charles is gone and Mary and Constance (along with Jonas) are living contentedly in an enclave they fashion out of the ruins. Jackson is a good writer, but this is over-the-top. “The Lottery,” her famous story, was effective because of how understated her approach was. In Castle she lets all guns fire away. The intensity with which she relates this grim and virulent tale makes one wonder what lurked in her psyche.