Monday, July 8, 2019

Born in Exile – George Gissing
The name of the main character is Godwin Peak. God. Win. Peak. He is a superior being as far as intelligence goes; but he was born in poverty, which, in his mind, exiles him from the world in which he belongs. It’s not mere social status he seeks; he wants cultural and intellectual stimuli and a fineness of moral values. Though Peak is a snob, Gissing manages to make his thinking justifiable; we all want to be in an environment that gives us sustenance. When he’s introduced to the Warricombe family he finds the virtues he desires; also, he’s attracted to the daughter. Sidwell and her father are devoutly religious, and Peak decides that the only way he could make her his wife is by going into the clergy. He is, however, an unwavering atheist. For someone as moralistic and judgmental as Peak, to play the role of a deceiver and hypocrite is hard to swallow. Yet he persists; the goal justifies the means. This is a novel in which intellectual matters are explored, and at times Gissing gets a bit ponderous (as does his prose, which is stodgily outdated for a novel written on the eve of the 20th century). But Gissing didn’t care; his attitude was that he would deal with matters that meant something to him, and do it in the style he preferred. If a reader wanted light entertainment or a modern approach, they could go elsewhere (in some ways he displays the rigidity of his main character). But his instincts as a writer of fiction are solid; I was engrossed throughout this very long novel, and that’s because Gissing had insight into human nature. When I approached the last three pages, and Peak’s fate had not been revealed, I was still sure that Gissing would not fail me. What was remarkable was the emotional punch he was able to deliver. With a few sure strokes the novel became a tragedy.

Laura - Vera Caspary
This is the book that the famous film of the same name was based on, and I was curious about how the two differed and were similar. But after reading Part One I had hopes that the novel would stand alone as a successful mystery. Waldo Lydecker (the Clifton Webb character) gives his account of matters, and his personality is deliciously rendered. There’s also a logical reason for him to be writing (that’s what his profession is), so his stylish prose is appropriate. In this opening Vera Caspary shows that she had talent. But in Part Two, told from perspective of the detective, Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), things get shaky. There’s no reason for his putting into words – in a novelistic form – his account; Caspary is simply using him to move the plot along. And whereas Waldo arrogantly takes on the right to imagine scenes that he was not a witness to (an author’s prerogative), it’s not credible when Mark does it. Lastly, his voice isn’t distinct; no personality emerges. In Part Four we get the story from Laura Hunt’s diary, and here the book falls apart. My three complaints about the McPherson section are magnified to the point of ineptitude. Laura, the enigmatic figure in the film (played by Gene Tierney), comes across as weak and silly. And though she’s the prime suspect of a murder, never once does she state that she’s innocent. This is blatant evasiveness on the part of the author. I found myself reading third-rate fiction, but I kept going for the reason I began – to see how the film differed or coincided with its source (there’s very little coinciding, beyond the bare bones of a premise). That five writers (including Ring Lardner) worked on the screenplay indicates a problem; I see a revolving door of conflicting ideas. Maybe it was the director, Otto Preminger, who should get the credit for constructing a coherent story, one in which love is the major element (in Caspary’s version the love angle is so flimsily handled as to be nonexistent). Before Laura was published in book form it ran, in a seven part serial, in Colliers magazine. So it had a lot of readers. I wonder how they felt about the movie version. I hope they appreciated it.

The Good Leviathan - Pierre Boulle (French)
The name of the ship is Gargantua, but many call it Leviathan (an Old Testament creature spewed out of hell). Both names refer to its enormous size, but the hellish aspect is that it’s powered by a nuclear reactor. And, since it’s a tanker capable of carrying six hundred thousand tons of oil, environmentalists foresee the possibility of an ecological disaster. The people in the French town where it’s berthed feel animosity for the ship; the leading antagonist is a woman known as the Cripple. She’s the organizing force behind a protest in which a flotilla of boats surround the ship. When some people begin to board it, the captain has hoses release a barrage of water to drive them off. The outcome of this defensive measure is unexpected. The Cripple, who’s in a lead boat, is drenched, and is immediately cured of her lameness. One could use the word “miraculously” cured by waters from the ship, which is the interpretation given to the event by the townsfolk – and then the world at large. The issues raised in this novel are nuclear power; how faith in something can endow it with potency; capitalism’s way of exploiting any situation for profit; the survival of the planet. We get attitudes toward these matters from the viewpoints of characters with widely differing beliefs, inclinations and interests. But nobody is fleshed out to the point where one can relate to them. The closest we come is the captain – the only person who’s practical – and he starts to waver. I began to question the author’s attitude toward the melee he had created, and I reached the conclusion that he viewed humans with such cynicism that he looked down on their machinations with disdain (most of it directed at fanatical environmentalists). This theory was supported by the farcical ending: during a huge storm the characters carry on like participants in a comedy. This is a novel of ideas, but they simply accumulate and then fizzle with a sour laugh.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

A Life in Letters - George Orwell
In his carefully composed letters Orwell comes across as a man who was sane and sensible and reserved. When he does express his state of mind – or the state of his health – it’s presented in a reasonable way. No outbursts – except exasperation regarding some political subject. Politics was Orwell’s first passion (and definitely not mine, so much of his correspondence was of no interest to me; I did a lot of skimming). Orwell lived in near-poverty for most of his adult life; his income came mainly from doing reviews. He finally began to make money with the publication of Animal Farm in 1945 – five years before his death. He wrote four novels before AF, and none of them sold well. He avidly disliked two of those early works (A Clergyman’s Daughter and Keep the Aspidistra Flying) and wanted them suppressed. He stated in one letter that he wasn’t really a novelist. He felt that his talents were more fitted for nonfiction, such as The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia, which are politically oriented (as are his fable, AF, and 1984). Writing came hard for him, but he was a diligent worker. For much of his life he was a sick man (tuberculosis), and he faced his illness with stoicism. In his last letters he expresses a wish for five more years; he felt he had something to say, and the world was finally listening. He was married twice. I was grateful that Peter Davison, an Orwell scholar who put together this compilation, included the letters his first wife, Eileen, wrote; they’re entertaining, lively, funny, and have a spontaneity that Orwell’s lack. She emerges as a flesh and blood personality, and I felt emotionally drawn to her. She too had serous health problems; her last, upbeat letter to Orwell was written as she was about to go into the operating room for removal of an ovarian cyst; she died under the anaesthetic. I don’t believe their marriage was a bed of roses; I also felt (perhaps unfairly) that Orwell was a neglectful husband, too involved with his writing and political activities. They adopted an infant son, Richard, and Orwell had deep concern for the boy’s welfare. In his last, mostly bedridden years he proposed marriage to several women. It was a practical proposition, as befits this practical man (he noted that, as widows, they would receive royalties). But he also wrote one of the women that he needed “someone to be fond of me.” This plea, coming from a man like Orwell, is touching. He married Sonia Brownell – the ceremony took place in his hospital room; a few months later he would die in that same room. His headstone has the words “Here Lies Eric Arthur Blair” and gives the dates that span the forty-seven years he lived and wrote.

The Journals of John Cheever
The nearly 400 dense pages that make up this book represent only one twentieth of the words Cheever wrote in the journals he kept for over forty years. To publish all the three to four million words wouldn’t be feasible, and the decision as to what to include was made by Cheever’s longtime editor, Robert Gottlieb. He has omitted the journals from the forties, which, he writes, “. . . seemed considerably less consistent in their intensity and quality than what was to follow . . .” Indeed, quality was of concern to Cheever. These pages contain carefully crafted prose. Even the last entry, written three days before his death, is a lovely piece of writing. He admits to the “narcissism” (that’s the word he uses) of his journal-keeping: “At the back of my mind there is the possibility of someone’s reading them in my absence and after my death, and exclaiming over my honesty, my purity, my valor, etc. What a good man he is!” This is a self-conscious undertaking, meant to impress. His perceptiveness and powers of observation are often on display. He also includes lengthy descriptions of nature and of people he happens to observe; there are scenes that could come off the pages of a novel or short story. For me this amounted to extraneous clutter, and I found myself skimming. What I wanted were his thoughts and feelings, and there is much of that. He could be unsparing of himself and others (foremost his wife). We learn of his miserable marriage (one which he describes as “obscene and grotesque” but which lasted for over forty years); his alcoholism (which he overcame late in life); his depression; his rampant bisexuality. He had a complex and contradictory nature which he struggled with. Considering that struggle, I should have developed more sympathy for him than I did. Often I didn’t like the man. As for those above mentioned virtues he wanted to inspire in the reader, I thought he often didn’t face the truth. Such as why his wife came to loath him; reading between the lines, I could see how she would get to that point. As for purity, he could be lyrical about love and sex, but he could also be extremely gross. Valor and goodness are things he aspired to, at least in words; his wife and children would be the ones who could say whether he achieved those virtues. At times I wondered why his family allowed the journals to be published (maybe money played a role). He kept them for his eyes only until three years before his death, when he floated the idea of their publication to his son. When they did come out (first as excepts published in The New Yorker) he had been dead for years, but his family members had to live with words that must have been extremely painful. I wonder if he was aware of that. Or if he just didn’t care.

Friday, May 31, 2019

A Shower of Summer Days - May Sarton
This is a three person novel. A middle -aged couple (Violet and Charles) come to live in the once-grand house in Ireland where she grew up. Sally, the daughter of Violet’s sister, arrives for a two month stay (and is not at all happy at having been “sent” to Dene’s Court). Charles is mainly a steadfast presence; it’s the emotional life of the two women that gets Sarton’s attention. But, as complications accumulated, I couldn’t relate to the feelings that were being bandied about. I grew more and more detached and wound up abandoning the book at the halfway point. This was my only experience with the highly prolific Sarton. She published fifteen volumes of poetry and twenty-one novels, but she was mainly known as an autobiographical writer – six of her books have the word “journal” in the title. Many people have found sustenance in her accounts of aging and illness, and this is surely due to the fact that in these works she had a subject – herself – who was real and whose feelings had authenticity. For me Violet and Sally lacked those qualities.

The Third Reich - Roberto Bolano (Spanish)
The book takes the form of a diary of a young German on vacation in Spain with his girlfriend. Why he can write like a sophisticated novelist didn’t bother me (until later, when a lot of things bothered me). I liked the freshness of the voice and the situation – mainly its modernity. Udo has a workaday job, but his passion is for a specific kind of gaming, one that involves re-enactments of WWII campaigns. The historical outcome of battles – and the war – can thus be altered if the gamer is skilled in his tactics. Udo is a major figure in this arcane world. But his gaming isn’t initially given a lot of space; mostly we get an account of his vacation-time activities with Ingeborg. They link up with another German couple – Charly and his girlfriend. There’s a lot of late night partying. Charly seems to be a dangerous nut case, especially when he drinks too much, which is often. There are other residents of the resort town thrown into the mix, including a man deformed by burns and the German proprietress of their hotel. But gradually the aimlessness of the plot, along with Udo’s shifting moods (which are perplexing even to him) began to wear thin. If there was some point to the random events I wanted it to emerge. Charly goes out windsurfing and never returns (Is he dead? Is he playing one of his tricks?), but his disappearance soon gets relegated to insignificance. The two girlfriends depart, and the Burn Victim and Frau Else play a prominent role, but Udo’s relationship with them is murky and conflicted. More attention is given to his gaming, which I found silly and boring (Bonano could have introduced a neo-Nazi slant to this, but he never does). By the time I quit reading my interest had faded to nothingness. I had hopes, but Bonano turned out to be just another author who can’t (or chose not to) tell a coherent story. Last note: on the info page I saw that he died in 2003, at the age of fifty, but the book wasn’t copyrighted by his heirs until 2011. Also, despite its considerable length, it was serialized in The Paris Review.

A Young Man in Search of Love – Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yiddish)
Singer describes this book, which was published when he was seventy years old, as part of a “spiritual autobiography.” It’s slim in every way except ideas. But the ideas aren’t anything new; the young men in Shosha and The Family Moskat went over the same ground, though their contemplation of life and God and politics was embedded in novels with many characters and events. Nothing much happens to Singer, who comes across as passive and controlled. He’s in a search, but it’s for a meaning to his existence and a place in the world; the book is filled with philosophical musings. He has a strong need for sex, but his relationships with women are marked not by love but by dissension. The most interesting character is Gina, a landlady/mistress more than twice his age, who makes the decision to withdraw not only from Singer but from the battle of life. Only she takes on a dimension that I found touching. Nothing else stirred me, including Singer’s misery; by delving at length into his troubled state of mind he defuses its impact. Singer’s major work came out in the fifties and sixties; this book reflects a compulsion to continue writing, even though he had nothing much to say. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1978, the same year Young Man was published, and Doubleday gave it the deluxe treatment: over-sized volume, thick paper, and drawings by Raphael Soyer. These spidery, washed out drawings succeed in capturing the characters – and the mood of Warsaw between the world wars – better than the author’s words.

Mrs. Starr Lives Alone - Jon Godden
At last, a writer who’s able to create convincing characters and place them in a plot that’s absorbing from beginning to end. This isn’t a great book, but it provided me with a pleasurable reading experience. Meg Starr, recently widowed, discovers that someone is living in the loft of her house. It turns out to be Chris, a sixteen year old runaway. Meg allows the girl to stay with her. She does it out of compassion, though her loneliness plays a role. She’s also foolishly naive. She remains blind to – or makes excuses for – Chris’s lies and manipulation. She’ll learn, abruptly and forcefully, that she’s made a major mistake: the girl is a dangerous case. Since this is a suspense thriller, I won’t go into the plot. Suffice to say that Meg becomes a captive in her house. As all good suspense thrillers must be, this is a character study of three people (Chris wasn’t alone in the loft; her boyfriend Roy later emerges). Chris is the most compelling of the three – her steely determination is chilling. Godden moves things along nicely – her prose is straightforward and she writes with intelligence. Nothing occurs that’s illogical. Meg uses her only resource – her brain – to try to figure a way out of the trap she’s in. But even there she’s limited; Chris has covered all the bases (or almost all). I never bonded with Meg, though I believed in her. She’s a woman who’s led a sheltered life and who has never learned the value of suspicion. The same can’t be said of Godden. She was sixty when the book was published, and it reflects a fear of disaffected, amoral youth.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Greyhound in the Leash - Joyce Horner
In the prologue Evelina is at her high school graduation and is listening (though her mind wanders) to the speaker, who gives out that old homily: their lives are still to be lived. “But when the time comes we can be only one of the things we dreamed of being; sometimes we end by not being any of them.” The speaker adds that they have “several possible selves . . . in some places, with some people, you turn into a different person . . . .” The novel is made up of four parts; in each Evelina is thirty-five. In the first three of her incarnations she has married very different men, and is shaped by those choices. In two of her marriages she was not in love, nor does she share an affinity of spirit. The men are good, in their fashion, and she’s not unhappy (though there’s a reappearing Charles Bryce to whom she’s physically attracted). Her marriage to Paul is a different matter altogether; there passion existed, and also an affinity. But that marriage was wracked by problems, mostly due to Paul’s dissatisfaction (not with her, but with how his life had turned out). No seductive Charles Bryce appears because he’s not needed. Evelina and Paul wind up separating. Whereas the loveless marriages survived, and offered security, the love of her life is someone she cannot live with. Part Four is brief: Evelina is unmarried (though in her past she had loved a man named Paul); she has a job as a librarian at an Institute. She has a close friend, Katherine (also a recurring figure throughout the novel, one for whom an independence existence was primary). Though this isn’t the ending Evelina may have wished for, she isn’t a tragic character; she’s open to the world around her and is content in a quiet way. Her life is similar to the one lived by the author (Joyce Horner was forty-six when she wrote the novel). I think she was trying to explore the way things worked out for her, and her approach is thought-provoking. It evoked my own private thought: Evelina remains stable and resilient in all her incarnations because she was brought up by loving parents. She had a solid base from which to embark on whatever life had in store for her.

The Family Moskat - Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yiddish)
This teeming, panoramic novel brings to life Poland from the early 1900s to the beginning of WWII. In weight and scope it has elements of greatness. But is there too much weight and scope? There are over 600 dense pages, and it’s prefaced by three family trees. I soon developed a strategy to deal with this deluge of names: concentrate on the people who are important. There’s Asa Heshel and the three women he loves (or can that emotion be attributed to him?); Abram, a capricious and monumentally flawed life force; the nefarious Koppel. All the others, though colorful, I relegated to accessory role players. Once those ground rules were in place, I found the book to be eminently readable. The plot covers too much ground to give any summarization, but some general statements can be made. One is how unhappy most people are. Especially in the relationships between the sexes, strife reigns, and in many cases marriage leads to divorce. Also of importance is the book’s historical aspect, especially in regard to how political upheavals affected the Jewish population in Poland. With the onset of WWI and the threat of Bolshevism, the first evidences of antisemitism appear, and it becomes steadily more virulent. Lastly, there’s the role that Judaism plays. Though the many rituals and religiously-dictated customs seem foolish (as they do to many Jews, who reject the old ways), they give sustenance to a people who are outsiders; through them they connect with all Jews everywhere, including those who are no longer alive. And the rules of conduct set down in the Torah, though rigid, are noble in nature; to break them is to violate the True Way. But there’s aberrant human nature to consider, and life to be lived, so the violations occur. Singer presents characters with all manner of faults, but because they are human I could relate to how they think and feel and act. In the late 1940s the novel was serialized for two years in the Jewish Daily Forward. Singer may have felt an obligation to recreate for this audience a world that was vanishing. He succeeded. *

Emma - Jane Austen
This is the fourth book by Austen that I’ve read – and the last. In the opening a weak-willed young girl accepts Emma as her mentor. Harriet is romantically interested in a farmer. A farmer! For Emma this will certainly not do, so she steers Harriet away from the estimable Robert Martin and toward a more socially acceptable mate (though one lacking in character). To me this was a shameful act of manipulation, and I wondered if Austen was making a statement about values. Could she be critiquing a world in which status, money, manners and dress are all important? No – for Austen status, money, manners and dress were of the utmost importance. Like the rest of her work, her main subject is affairs of the heart among wealthy villagers who have estates with names such as Hartfield and Donwell. The rest of the world, with all its messiness, is totally excluded. This may be one of the reasons for Austen’s appeal; she offers escapist reading, complete with happy endings. I don’t have much interest in her subject matter, nor do I find her parodies of characters like Mrs. Elton amusing. And, if one isn’t interested or amused, the intricacies of her prose, though it has a crystalline stateliness, is a bit difficult to follow. She’s also too wordy; this 539 page book could benefit by a cut of two hundred pages. Still, I kept reading because I rather liked Emma. She has flaws, one of which is an inflated view of her own merit; after a series of blunders, she comes to see herself in a diminished light. So she grows as a person. By the end of the book four marriages have taken place, including that of Emma and Mr. Knightley (in the last line, their union is described as one of “perfect happiness”). Harriet, who had all but disappeared from the novel, is one of those who marry – to Robert Martin. Emma (who had seen the error of her meddling ways) is glad for her, and wishes her the best; but, of course, they can no longer remain on terms of intimacy.

Friday, March 22, 2019

The next three books inspired an essay called “Three Authors in Search of a Life.” You can find it at Tapping on the Wall.

The Friend – Sigrid Nunez
I knew this novel won the National Book Award, but I had to check whether it was for fiction (it was). My doubts arose because there’s hardly any plot and only one human character – the nameless female first person narrator. There are two friends in the book. One (shown on the front cover) is a Great Dane named Apollo. The dog was passed on to the narrator when another friend committed suicide. We learn about the difficulties of having such a huge animal in New York. Apollo isn’t an endearing creature; he’s old and despondent. Eventually he warms up to his new “owner” (she doesn’t like that word), and she to him. But the bulk of the book isn’t about Apollo. The narrator, who’s in her sixties and has had a long career as a writer and teacher of creative writing (all of which is true of Nunez), devotes the most space to her thoughts on the literary life. Also of concern to her is the subject of suicide; that word – “suicide” – may set a record for appearance in a short novel. This centering on how Nunez (through her character) feels and perceives things made the book seem like a memoir. Her deceased friend (also a writer/teacher, though with the status of a Nobel candidate) was a womanizer who had affairs with his students (long ago she had been one of them and they had sex – only once, after which a close platonic relationship developed). Though he’s the “You” the “I” addresses throughout the book, Nunez sticks in a scene that raises the question of whether he exists as he’s been presented. She has a “woman” visit a man who failed in his suicide attempt and who has a small mutt she cared for briefly. After a long conversation the woman tells this diminished version of the famous author that she has written a story about him. Whatever Nunez is up to in this very personal book, I can’t see its appeal for the general public. I’m a literary soul, so I found her observations to be interesting, and I liked the clarity and precision of her prose. I even found the ending to be moving. But people who want a heart-warming story of bonding between human and animal will have to plow through a whole lot of other stuff, much of it depressing.

Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters 1917-1961 – edited by Carlos Baker
If you’re interested in Hemingway, this is the book for you. Because of the uninhibited nature of these letters, they’re very revealing as to what the man was like. The book is huge – over 900 pages – and I skimmed much of it (such as the parts about hunting and fishing and bullfighting and wartime exploits). What I paid attention to was his emotional life and how he felt about the people he interacted with. I came away with some sympathy for him, but the overriding feeling he evoked in me was disapproval – and sometimes disgust. But I won’t go into why I responded the way I did. Since the man is revealed in these letters, you can reach your own conclusions. I wonder how many care. In his heyday, in the 1950s, he was a Bigger-Than-Life figure on the American scene. Papa was the epitome of a new type of writer – the two-fisted brawler, the hard-drinking adventurer. His safaris, his marriages (four in all), and his feuds made the news; his face was on the cover of every major magazine. Hemingway wanted to be a great writer, right up there with the likes of Tolstoy and Flaubert, and when he received the Nobel Prize his status with the giants was confirmed. But is he still held in esteem? I think not. For me his characters are artificial and his prose is over-worked, self-conscious and, well, precious. If he were alive today and read that last word, he would challenge me to duke it out with him, so he could knock my teeth down my throat. (Which he would also do if he read my review of To Have and Have Not, which is a crummy novel.) I think, as a writer, he shines the brightest in these letters. A few are formal in nature, but most are spontaneous, full of misspelling and grammatical errors. Obviously there was no revision. But he avoids those qualities I found fault with in his fiction – they’re lively, inventive and often funny. He comes across in all his shifting moods: loving and spiteful, happy and depressed, generous and brutish. Also on display is a virulent racism and an anger that’s truly chilling. He didn’t curb his words; these letters weren’t meant for public consumption. In his will he wrote that “none of the letters I wrote in my lifetime are to be published.” His wife, Mary, was executrix of his estate, and for fifteen years after his suicide (a blast to his forehead from a double-barreled Boss shotgun) she abided by his wishes and sought to prevent their publication. But she relented, for whatever reason, and thus Carlos Baker has given us this volume. The letters are “selected,” and we get none of the ones Hemingway received. Oddly enough, this isn’t a problem. What we have is a journey through a life, from age eighteen to sixty-two (the last letter, which was written less than three weeks before he ended his life, closes with these words: “Am feeling fine and very cheerful about things and hope to see you all soon”). I should note, in closing, that success did not bring Hemingway happiness. In A Moveable Feast, his posthumously published memoir about the time when he was married to his first wife Hadley and was just setting out on his writing career, he closes with these elegiac words: “But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”

That Time of Year – Joyce Horner
This is a journal Joyce Horner kept during the three years (1975 to 1977) she spent in a nursing home (she became wheelchair-bound at age seventy-one). She had been a professor of English at Mount Holyoke College and had written two novels; her poetry had appeared in leading magazines. In the journal’s last entry she’s about to leave the nursing home to go to Boston for an operation (which was to prove unsuccessful). Three years later she died. I learned these scanty facts from Robert Tucker’s Introduction (I could find almost nothing about her on the internet). Mr. Tucker – who states that he never met Joyce Horner – was clearly moved by the person who wrote this journal – and so was I. In presenting a matter-of-fact chronicle of her daily life a distinct personality emerges. The beginning: “Everyone wants to go home. Perhaps that says too much. Everyone ‘wants out.’ Or there may be some who are beyond wanting as much as that. But the woman who calls ‘Martha’ over and over, the woman who calls ‘Eileen,’ want what they used to have and sometimes think they can get it if they call loud enough.” Unlike many, Joyce has resources to fall back on: literature and classical music (provided by her trusty radio). Nature is also precious to her, and she loves to sit out in the sun, to smell the new-mown grass and the pine. She keeps up with the politics of the time and continues to write poetry. Visits and letters from friends give her pleasure, and sometimes she’s able to go for a few days to her home, which she shares with her friend Elizabeth. Joyce never married, though in one entry she writes “I suppose nostalgia takes the place of fantasy in age. (Heaven knows, I had fantasies enough, including the recurring one of meeting the completely desirable husband – I never set foot on an Atlantic liner without hoping for that.)” She’s also nostalgic about her active days, when she could take a long trek with a backpack or explore the streets of a foreign city. This journal was meant to be read by others; it’s too carefully worked to be a purely personal undertaking. But the act of writing it also serves a purpose for its author. By observing, and by conveying her observations and thoughts through language, Joyce is trying to keep her intellect sharp. It is sharp, but the fear behind this effort is that her mind will deteriorate (as has happened to so many of those around her). She’s remarkably tolerant of what she experiences – the world of the nursing home isn’t a nightmare world for her; there’s kindness and humor to be found, and she appreciates the nurses who do a difficult and underpaid job and still retain their spirit. Though it wasn’t Joyce’s nature to be depressed or negative, with passing time her down moments become more persistent. She worries that she’ll be deprived of people with whom she can exchange ideas; she doesn’t want “to be visited as good work,” but she feels that she’s losing the energy to be interesting to others. Tiredness and resignation must be setting in, and the entries become more widely spaced. But that’s just part of the experience I shared with Joyce Horner. This is a rich and valuable book, and I thank the University of Massachusetts Press for allowing her to live for me. For Joyce that would mean something. *

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Rogue Male – Geoffrey Household
This novel, published in 1939, is set just before WWII had broken out. It takes the form of the journal of “a bored and wealthy Englishman who had hunted all commoner game and found a perverse pleasure in hunting the biggest game on earth.” He had tracked Hitler (whose name never once appears in the book) to a house where he was staying in Poland. The writer of the journal (who also never reveals his name) has no political interests and no mission in mind – he claims that even when he was lying on the edge of a cliff with the “great man” in the telescopic sights of his rifle, he wasn’t sure if he intended to pull the trigger. But at that moment he’s attacked by a guard. In his journal he reports that he was tortured extensively (fingernails pulled out, etc.), then left for dead. He isn’t dead – not quite. When the authorities come to recover the body – and find it missing – they begin a world-wide manhunt for the rogue male. Most of the novel follows his escape and his period of hiding from determined agents. The amount of prolonged misery he goes through caused me to wonder if it would be worth living in so brutish and furtive and lonely a state. At the end he manages, by an ingenious devise, to kill the evil Quive-Smith (who has him trapped in what is, literally, a hole) and regains his freedom. Household closes things out with a letter, from which we must assume that our hero has set out again on the same mission as before – though this time he’ll pull the trigger. The book is written in a simple, straightforward style, and it kept me engrossed. But after a while the thoroughness with which Household describes everything became tiresome; too much detail amounts to empty verbiage. And for all his determination to make things authentic, near the end the author introduces a plot twist (involving a confession Quive-Smith wants our hero to sign) that has no logical basis. But Rouge Male is one of those books that must be judged in context. I don’t mean to be sarcastic when I use the term “our hero.” He’s a stoic Britisher who through intelligence and skill and perseverance manages to win out over tremendous odds. This tale of survival – which was repeatedly reprinted from 1939 to 1943 – was relevant and, in a dark way, inspiring to British readers in the midst of a war.

Accident – Walter Mosley
Mosley abandons traditional narrative, and I abandoned his novel at the halfway point. Impressionism can work in painting, but not in telling a story. Language is meant to order things. If you were describing an accident you were in (to the police or to a friend) you wouldn’t leave out connecting sentences or engage in a leap-frog of the mind or insert asides. The listener would think you were brain damaged. Here’s an example of Mosley’s approach: “The good brown earth in my hands. Once this would be a thing of tension; bells and music. Now we act it all so slowly. The camera stays for minutes on a close-up. Speaks for itself. Silence. Time running out.” Writing of this sort is trying to attain some intellectually inspired end. The reason I stuck with the book for so long is that when Mosley has at least one foot on the ground he’s good. Characters and plot peek out, and I was interested. But these moments of clarity were few and far between. I wonder what Accident would look like if Mosley rewrote it in a manner that was as simple and straightforward as Rogue Male. Of course he wouldn’t; he’s gone off in a direction that has garnered him praise from the intelligentsia. In a five page Afterword a professor gives a professorial explanation of what Mosley is seeking to do: “See his tactics, instead, as a disclosure of the complexities of narrative discourse.” But what gets buried, in these tactics and complexities, is the human element. I usually glance at the endings of books I don’t finish to see what became of the characters. I didn’t this time. I wasn’t interested, and I knew it would be complicated.

The Hotel – Elizabeth Bowen
This was Bowen’s first novel, written when she was twenty-eight. Despite a prose style that was a bit difficult to follow, I was initially interested in the residents of an upscale vacation hotel somewhere in Italy. But increasingly the “bit difficult” prose became more convoluted; one can only wonder when one reads a sentence like this: “Her personality had a curious way of negativing her surroundings, so that unless one made instant resort to one’s senses the background faded for one and one conjured up in one’s half-consciousness another that expressed her better, that was half an exhalation from herself.” A similar shift toward awkward complexities occurs in the plot, with Sydney taking the central role. This young woman has an emotional attachment with an older lady by the name of Mrs Kerr. I never could understand what this attachment was (or what any of Sydney’s problems were). A clergyman by the name of Mr Milton arrives at the hotel and enters into a nebulous relationship with her. They become engaged, she breaks it off (for which Mr Milton should be eternally grateful). Then comes Ronald, Mrs Kerr’s son, who seems to lack a will (or a distinct personality); he wanders about. It’s only when the other hotel residents – the Lawrence girls, Colonel Duperrier, Mr Lee-Mittison – make brief appearances that the novel has a sparkling humor; if the focus had been on them, this could have been an entertaining romp. But Bowen was aspiring for something much more ambitious – and who is more lofty an object of aspiration than Henry James? So we get laborious explorations of states of mind expressed in a labyrinthian prose. Bowen would have been better off if she had been influenced by the early Waugh or Huxley.

Monday, February 11, 2019

To Know a Woman – Amos Oz (Hebrew)
Everything in this novel, though presented in a clear prose, is shrouded in inexplicability. In the opening chapter Yoel rents a house; it’s a step in his embarking on a new life. After the death of his wife he had retired from his long-time job as an Israeli spy. His strength in that career is purported to be an analytical mind that can penetrate facades. But, in regard to the three people he lives with, he’s pretty much clueless. His teenage daughter is perversely uncommunicative and his mother and his dead wife’s mother (the “grannies”) present problems he can only referee. He’s surrounded by odd types, foremost being his next door neighbors, a brother and sister. Yoel has sex with the sister while the brother watches approvingly; Yoel seems to be sleepwalking through these encounters (on one occasion the brother has to undress him). His former employers keep trying to get him to return to Helsinki, but he’s suspicious of their motives; even his dreams have an elusive quality. Yoel occupies himself by making minor repairs on the house, planting a garden. Then, in the last chapter, his life takes an abrupt turn: he volunteers in a hospital, doing menial jobs and treating the patients with compassion. Is this a solution for his irresolute state? Maybe, maybe not. When I read (and reread several times) the final paragraph, in which we get Yoel’s thoughts, he’s waiting for something: “Hoping for a recurrence of one of those rare, unexpected moments when the blackness is momentarily illuminated, and there comes a flicker, a furtive glimmer . . .” Of what? The entire novel (even the title) was stubbornly obscure. Though I value clarity and usually consider inexplicability to be pretentious, Oz did succeed in keeping me interested in a world of shifting shadows.

The Manor – Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yiddish)
I began my recent review of Shosha with this sentence: “Singer was no novelist.” Well, I was wrong. The Manor is a novel, and it’s very good. It’s a large scale work, heavily populated, and its many narrative strands embrace politics and religion. This makes it difficult to describe the plot, so I’ll crib from the Author’s Note to present a few background facts. The setting is Poland between 1863 and the end of the nineteenth century. The Russians, who are in control of the country, have just put down an insurrection. Poland is fast becoming industrialionalized; railroads and factories are being built, fortunes made. Jews are emerging from the shtetl and have begun to play an important role in this growth; some become wealthy and powerful. New ideas are sprouting: socialism and nationalism, Zionism and assimilation, free love, atheism, the beginnings of Fascism. Though some of Singer’s main characters are not Jewish, his main concern is with Jews. That said, there are Jews who find the religious beliefs that saturate the lives of the devout to be an absurd jumble of medieval superstitions. Yet the devout hold onto something meaningful to them and are the better off for it. But “better” is a relative term. There’s much unhappiness and even misery in the lives of these characters. It’s not imposed by state oppression – flawed people generate their own problems. Though sex plays a large role, no relationship or marriage (often arranged ones) results in contentment; the polar opposite is more common. I was caught up in these dramas. My only quibble has to do with the large cast; there were too many people to keep track of. Still, I suppose that’s what you get in a long, sprawling novel. Singer employs a narrative strategy that’s worth noting: he has a situation reach a crisis, and then he drops it; as we continue to read time passes, maybe years, and eventually we find out, in an offhand way, how that crisis was settled. This has the effect of making one fill in the gaps, to imagine the emotional blow that had been inflicted. For mostly it is a blow. The prose is smooth and engaging. I’ve always wondered how Singer’s original Yiddish was able to survive translation so well. Or did it lose something? I believe that the author, who had a full grasp of English, must have played a role in the process. The Manor is part of a trilogy that includes The Family Moskat and The Estate. More very good novels? We’ll see.

The Midwich Cuckoos – John Wyndham
Though this novel features a UFO and alien children, it’s too intellectual to fit into the category of science fiction. What Wyndham offers up are ideas, not action. The premise is that a UFO lands in a small English village; during the one day it remains there all women of childbearing age are impregnated (how this is accomplished we never know, for everyone has been put into a deep sleep). The babies that are born are distinguished by glowing golden eyes. As they mature it becomes clear that they have a collective will, and are able to control humans whenever they wish. If they perceive a danger to one of their group, they retaliate. What’s to be done with this threat from Beyond? Are the Children to be granted human consideration? A handful of intellectually-minded characters talk and argue about issues of that ilk. But we don’t experience the events that occur in Midwich from the villager’s perspective. We never get the feelings of a woman who is carrying a child that she knows was not conceived in the normal way. When the villagers raid the Grange, where the Children are housed, we learn what happens through someone’s brief summary. That’s how most events are presented – by means of secondhand accounts. Wydham seldom takes his premise to where the affected humans are to be found. As a result the book lacks emotional immediacy, and this caused me to read it with a sense of detachment.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Jennie Gerhardt – Theodore Dreiser
Dreiser began Gerhardt in 1901; it wasn’t completed until 1911. During this time he led a tumultuous personal life and had health problems. The novel shows the adverse effects of its long gestation. Even the quality of the writing changes; the second half is more polished. But can one use the word “polished” in referring to Dreiser’s prose? He’s a plodder piling up the bricks for his massive edifices. A strength he had was a compassion for the downtrodden that comes across as sincere. And he had scope – in covering many decades in a life a weightiness is generated. Still, major flaws were present throughout this book. The plot is disjointed (probably due to his leaving and coming back to it over all those years). And Dreiser constantly tells us how Jennie feels, but he doesn’t show those feelings being developed. This is a love story, but we get no scenes of intimacy between Jennie and Lester. The same omission involves Jennie’s daughter. We’re told that she’s devoted to Vesta, but we don’t see them interact. Vesta is an offstage presence whose primary purpose is to die at age fourteen (and for poor, bereft Jennie to grieve). The core of the novel involves a conflict between two very different personalities. Jennie is simple in that she can love wholeheartedly; it’s her gift. It’s not in her nature to be angry, or demanding, or assertive. She gives herself fully to a man who is above her in the hierarchy of society. But Lester cannot respond by committing to her; his indecisiveness drags on and on while Jennie waits. I was involved enough in their dilemma to stick around to the maudlin ending. But I don’t see myself reading anything else by Dreiser. His best work was his first, Sister Carrie, which he spent one year writing. Not ten. In that book his strengths – his compassion and scope – prevailed over any flaws.

The Surrounded – D’Arcy McNickle
The author of this novel, which came out in 1936, was half Indian and half white, as is his main character. The book opens with Archilde Leon’s return to his home after living for years in Portland, Oregon, where he eked out a living from his talent as a violinist. He intends this to a be a brief last visit. When he left he had been on bad terms with his volatile Spanish father. Max Leon had married an Indian woman who, as a child, had fully accepted the white man’s god (she was known as “Faithful Catherine”). But in her old age she had returned to the Indian ways; now she and Max live apart. Max is also estranged from his seven sons; none fulfilled his hopes of taking over his ranch, and some turned wild and dangerous. Archilde is definitely not of that ilk; he’s mainly an observer who keeps a tight rein on his emotions. During his stay he reaches an understanding with both parents. They die, and Max leaves Archilde a considerable sum of money. With this inheritance Archilde could pursue his dreams of traveling and developing his musical skills. Yet he hangs around aimlessly (there’s a woman involved, but this is a weak aspect of the story). Ultimately he becomes a victim of the violent acts of others. This ending seems imposed. It’s as if the author was out to make a point: since the Indian culture was set upon and destroyed, Archilde must suffer the same fate. McNickle denies his character the future that he achieved; at the age of seventeen he left the Flathead Reservation and began an academic career. Perhaps he saw his life of accomplishment as an anomaly. Yet, though he made Archilde an anomaly, he still has him wind up in shackles. McNickle succeeds in showing the plight of the Indian in the 1930s, especially insight into their way of thinking. But this is a case of the sociologist taking precedence over the novelist. Interestingly enough, the most vital character in the book is a white man: Max Leon.

When I Whistle – Shusaku Endo (Japanese)
Finally, at long last, a novel that got to me emotionally. It begins with Ozu recalling the day – some fifty years ago – when a new student named Flatfish entered the study hall of Nada Middle School. The depth of the friendship which develops between the two teenage boys was believable, as was the romantic attachment Flatfish has for a girl with whom he has only a few bumbling encounters. Though he has no chance of winning her heart – Aiko is way above him in social class and has a naval academy suitor – Flatfish’s feelings for Aiko remain strong throughout his short life. When he’s a soldier stationed in China (WWII has broken out) Ozu becomes the bearer of a gift which Flatfish wants the now married and pregnant Aiko to have. This encounter with Aiko carries Flatfish’s love, and she responds by giving Ozu a pen to send to Flatfish. A few years later Ozu again seeks out Aiko, who has lost both her husband and child to the war; she’s now living in a mountain village. Ozu had been sent Flatfish’s possessions after his death; one item was the pen, and Ozu had come to return it to her. That pen, a gift which shuttles back and forth, takes on a symbolic aspect: it denotes Flatfish’s devotion and Aiko’s kindliness. These feelings from the past are revived in the present when Ozu discovers that Aiko is a patient in the hospital where his son is a doctor; she has cancer. This humane story has its dark counterpart in the person of Ozu’s son, Eiicho. Half the book is given over to the deceptions and manipulation of this heartless, ambitious man. The medical profession as a whole isn’t portrayed in a positive light. Drugs are dispensed not because they can help a patient but because the pharmaceutical firm that produces them has deep pockets (note: the novel was written in 1974). Also shown in a highly negative way is how Japan treated its soldiers: brutally, as if they were the captured enemy. Flatfish died from pneumonia, but malnutrition and constant beatings from his superiors were contributing factors. The novel isn’t a complete success; at the end Endo is unable to close with the emotional focus he was obviously searching for. Another problem involves something that was out of the author’s hands. There must be unique difficulties in translating Japanese into English. I don’t think the clumsiness of the prose is Endo’s, and at times it was distracting. But despite those minor issues Endo wrote a moving novel about the enduring power of friendship and love. *

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Brave Escape of Edith Wharton – Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge
Wooldridge avoids a pitfall many biographers succumb to when writing about famous authors. It has to do with length. Do we need multiple volumes (three for Graham Greene, five for Henry James)? Do the single volume works need to be so lengthy (Updike 576 pages, Capote 632)? This is research gone wild; the biographers feel compelled to use every last thing they find, and as a result the subject gets buried under a deluge of facts. Wooldridge’s account of Wharton’s life is a mere 152 pages (and at least half of those pages have photographs, an invaluable asset in telling a story). Possibly the book has been relegated to the Young Adult category because it’s not a weighty tome and its approach is straightforward. But I didn’t at any time feel I was reading a book meant for a teenager. (Anyway, what fifteen-year-old would be interested in an author of the early 1900s who wrote novels for adults?) In the confines of this review I won’t go into the life of Edith Wharton. Suffice to say it was a remarkably active one; she had a unquenchable thirst for experience – for new sights and for the company of stimulating people – and she used her considerable wealth to satisfy her needs (her “brave escape” from convention was contingent on her inherited fortune). But she could also sacrifice comfort – in WWI she worked tirelessly to aid the suffering in France. Lastly, she was a writer, and in that profession she found immediate success (with the help of family connections). There was a marriage to the wrong man and a dearth of physical love. But all in all she led a good life, one which she appreciated. In her last year Wharton addressed a packet of papers “For my biographer.” Her request of the person who told her story was that they “find the gist of me.” I believe that Wooldridge has fulfilled that wish.

Plains Song – Wright Morris
Wright Morris and I have had a long relationship. This is the fourth of his novels I’ve reviewed in this blog, and previously I had read three or four others, two of which I liked very much – The Deep Sleep and Love Among the Cannibals. At least I liked them when I was in my twenties; since then I’ve been consistently disappointed in his work. I keep returning to Morris because I believe he possessed the ability to produce something wonderful, and in reading the opening chapters of Plains Song I thought he might fulfill that potential. The two characters (Cora and Harrison) and their situation are presented without adornment. A woman marries a man she hardly knows; she goes to live on his farm on the Great Plains. She finds their first (and possibly last) sexual act to be a horrific experience; they live together without emotional intimacy but also without strife. Her life consists of the many chores of a farmer’s wife, which she does diligently and which give her a sense of purpose. From that first sexual act she bears their only child, a daughter. Though these seem to be sparse ingredients for a novel, I found them fully sufficient to hold my interest. But Morris wasn’t content with a limited scope, and he abruptly shifts gears. As the decades start to speed by a host of new people crowd into the confines of this short novel; more daughters get born; daughters marry husbands and bear more daughters. A dispersal of focus sets in, and I reached the point where I felt no contact with anyone (including Cora and Harrison, who recede quietly into the background). In the last third of the book one of the random daughters named Sharon is given the most space, but she’s undeveloped as a person (what’s her job, what’s her sexual persuasion?). She’s merely a vehicle the author uses to go into an overtly profound mode – it was a Morris tendency to muse about Life, always a mistake. He started out with a grounded simplicity, which I found satisfying and meaningful, but by the end things had become ill-defined and inconsequential. So there it is: once again Wright Morris disappoints me. Maybe I’ll read his autobiography next.

Nine Women – Shirley Ann Grau
This collection came out when Grau was in her late fifties. Because of the extreme range of quality, it occurred to me that the four outright failures may have been discards found in a drawer. If this was the case, she surely worked on them, but they’re based on an idea that doesn’t hold water (a woman wants to rejoin her husband and daughter by dying in a plane crash) or they lack substance (post-wedding bickering among relatives and friends who drink too much). Their conceptual flaws make them unsalvageable. That said, four stories – most of which deal with old age – are good and may be of recent origin. In all the writing flows nicely, with pleasing clarity. But let’s cut to the one outstanding piece, which is the first and the shortest. In “The Beginning” a girl tells about her resourceful mother, who knew not only how to survive in a hostile world but how to flourish as a businesswoman. She always referred to her daughter in the highest terms: as a hidden princess, a lotus flower, a pearl without price. Their bond is made palpable. The closing lines in the story: “When the kingdom at last fell and the castle was conquered, and I lost my crown and my birthright, when I stood naked and revealed as a young black female of illegitimate birth, it hardly mattered. By then the castle and the kingdom were within me and I carried them away.”

Friday, November 2, 2018

Shosha – Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yiddish)
Singer was no novelist. As a short story writer he excelled, and that’s because he could work within a limited scope. In this novel the incidents are excellent; they just don’t connect up to form a coherent plot. Still, I was involved and often impressed by the flow of ideas from his characters: “. . . eternal life would be a calamity. Imagine some little shopkeeper dying and his soul flying around for millions of years still remembering that once it had sold chicory, yeast, and beans, and that a customer owed it eighteen groschen.” Or: “I don’t recall who said it, that a corpse is all-powerful, afraid of no one. All the living want and ever hope to achieve the dead already have – complete peace, total independence.” The book is set in Poland on the eve of Hitler’s invasion, and it seems like a recapturing by Singer of the life of Jews in that precarious time. His main character, Arele, is a passive (though sexually active) young man who finds it difficult to make decisions; he’s one of many Jews who could get out of harms way but doesn’t. A decision he does make and sticks to is to marry Shosha, a girl he had known when they were children. He describes her as “infantile – physically and mentally backward.” He seems like a protective father of a vulnerable child; I never believed (despite Singer’s half-hearted efforts to convince me) that their feelings for one another went deeper than that. It’s also clear that Singer reached a point where he wanted a way out of all the personal and political crises that had accumulated. So, on the brink of disaster, he simply abandons the narrative. He closes the book with an Epilogue which takes place thirteen years later. Arele has become a famous author; on a visit to Israel he meets a friend from the past, and we get a brief account of the fate of the characters. Concerning Shosha’s death, there’s not a scintilla of emotional impact. I accepted this ending because to go on was too momentous a task, and both Singer and I had grown weary.

Adam and Evelyn – Ingo Schulze (German)
Schulze writes in a cryptic way. Not the prose – that’s clear enough. But in his narrative the reader is constantly having to connect the dots. Characters will talk about an event that we weren’t privy to, and through their words we have to figure out what happened. Or a chapter will begin with a dialogue between two people, but it will be a while before the identity of one of them is revealed. That type of thing. An added difficulty was that the plot involved political problems in Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary (secret police, shootings by border guards, etc.). Though the novel was written in 2008, it seems like a Cold War is still going on; at any rate, I had no idea what the situation was. There’s a lot of traveling by car, a lot of boundaries crossed, and I was lost geographically. However, I stuck with the book because I liked Adam’s third person voice and found his predicament interesting. His wife Evelyn catches him having sex with a woman for whom he’s making a dress (dressmaking is his profession). Evelyn leaves him, he follows. He seems sincere in his remorse and his determination to convince her that they should stay together. Along the way he picks up a young hitchhiker (Katja), and they hit it off (though Adam keeps things platonic). When he occasionally meets up with Evelyn the signals she gives are mostly negative, though she also says that she needs time to make a decision about their marriage. Then, abruptly, Schulze switches to Evelyn’s POV and we find her in bed declaring her love to another guy (Michael). At this halfway point in the novel the complications had risen to an unacceptable level, and I decided that these people would have to work out their futures without me.

Zuleika Dobson – Max Beerbohm
I like Max. I like his collection of stories, Seven Men (particularly “Enoch Soames”), and some of his essays are the best I’ve read. I also like him as a person, as portrayed in those essays and in a book about him entitled Portrait of Max by S. N. Behrman. But I didn’t like his only novel, Zuleika Dobson. Others do: the Modern Library selected it as one of the best novels written in the English language in the 20th Century and the Heritage Press deemed it worthy of a deluxe boxed edition, oversized and adorned with art work. The subtitle of Zuleika is “An Oxford Love Story,” and maybe if I went to Oxford (as did Max) and had a rollicking good time there (as did Max), the novel might hold some charm for me. But I doubt it. The plot hinges on a female so alluring that every man who sees her (even a glimpse is enough) immediately falls in love. But Zuleika’s problem (though it doesn’t much bother her; nothing does) is that she can only love someone who doesn’t give a hoot about her. When the self-absorbed Duke initially shows no interest, she becomes enamored; but when he ‘s suddenly stricken by her beauty, and he too becomes a devotee, she loses all interest. So he decides to commit suicide. Soon every young man at Oxford makes the same decision: they will die for love of Zuleika (something she blithely accepts). What follows from this fantastical premise is decidedly earthbound; besides some silly antics, we get a lot of tiresome talk from people I found unlikable and uninteresting. An artist by the name of George Him has crammed the pages with ninety-six drawings, both in monochrome and color; they’re atrociously garish cartoons. His depiction of the bewitching Zuleika shows her as a vapid painted doll (which may, actually, be fitting). I don’t know whether all the Oxford young men commit suicide because I didn’t read far enough to find out.

Vanish in an Instant – Margaret Millar
In this superior mystery the mystery element takes second place to a psychological study of a varied group of individuals. The third person narrator, an attorney by the name of Meecham, has the problem of loneliness; others are much worse off, and some are emotionally crippled. Lives are entangled, and the untangling makes up the plot. Meecham has an inkling that the motivation for a murder lies in the past, and that it hinges on the identity of a shadowy woman by the name of Birdie. But he’s no sleuth able to perceive what the reader cannot see. Nor does he dispense justice. At the end he lets the person who committed the murder go unpunished. Punishment would serve no purpose, and the guilty party has often treated those in need with kindness. As for Meecham, he finds love. Millar doesn’t establish much of a reason for the love to emerge, she just grants it. I didn’t object; in this grim melange some hope of happiness was welcome. Margaret Millar was married for over forty years to the crime novelist Ross MacDonald. Vanish is similar to his Lew Archer books in the psychological probing, the sharp characterizations, the dark vision of life. I can imagine the two of them typing away, working out the fates of lost souls, and the picture that emerges is somewhat unsettling. I’ve read all the Archer novels – I was, at one period in my life, addicted to them – and now I plan to read more of Millar.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

To an Early Grave – Wallace Markfield
There’s hardly any plot to this comic novel: someone dies and four of his friends assemble and try (successfully, though after many setbacks) to attend the funeral. The humor is based mostly on dialogue and wacky events, and it was working for me because of Markfield’s inventive prose and his ability to generate a rollicking energy. But gradually it turned sour. Part of the problem has to do with the word “friends.” Spite and resentment between these four men far outweigh affection; most of their conversing is abusive in nature, and even their feelings for the deceased are mixed with rancor. The negativity is wide-ranging. One character says, “You look at families, you don’t have to wonder why there’s war in the world.” Indeed, in these families, with these women (who play an off-stage role), life is an unruly combat zone. It was a relief when Markfield occasionally changes gears and takes on a gentler tone, as when Morroe, the main character, does a bit of self-evaluation: “I am no big intellect. I am no bargain. I watch too much television. I read, but I do not retain. I am not lost, exactly, but still I am nowhere. I am the servant of no great end.” But when Morroe parts with the last of the four, and is being told a sort of confession, he thinks, “Tough shit and tough titty.” So he could add mean-spirited to his flaws, as could everybody in the novel. A few last notes: all of Markfield’s characters are Jewish, and they talk in a Jewish cadence. Morroe remembers an argument (of course, an argument) he had with a Jewish tailor over a suit: “By me is the lining no lining. By me – you should pardon the expression – is a piece toilet paper.” There are also untranslated Yiddish words sprinkled throughout. (What does fahrblunged – and at least fifty other words – mean?) From the blurbs, it seems that Jewish reviewers – Heller, Shapiro, Levin – didn’t share my objections. They found the book to be spirited fun. Members of a culture tend to enjoy self-deprecating humor, at least when it comes from one of their own.

The Village – Ivan Bunin (Russian)
Bunin portrays Russia as a wretched place populated by malignant and degraded people. We see things from the perspective of two brothers. Both, though of different natures, are mired in unhappiness. What we get is a series of brutish events and sordid scenes and a procession of characters (men only) who contribute their bit of malice and then move on. The book was written in 1923, when Bunin was living in exile; he had fled Russia in 1918, during the revolution (in an Autobiographical Note he describes that upheaval as a time of unspeakable horrors). The czarist regime must take a large portion of blame for producing a wretched peasantry. As for its replacement, how can any government make good citizens out of men sunk into such cynicism and bestiality? And what can be accomplished in so severe an environment? But there’s another consideration: the misery is too much of a bad thing and leads to doubts as to the validity of Bunin’s depiction of Russia (a point that critics at the time took issue with). Judged on literary terms, reading this novel was like looking out a train window at a monochromatic landscape devoid of any trace of beauty, and two-thirds of the way through I pulled down the blind.

The Gourmet Club – Junichiro Tanizaki (Japanese)
Decades ago, when I set out on this ill-fated “Jack London” endeavor, I wanted the first book I reviewed to be a great one. Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters received that honor. It’s a realistic and sensitive portrayal of three sisters written in a clear, elegant style; in its stateliness it reminded me of Buddenbrooks. I don’t regret my choice, even though the collection of six short stories I’m now reviewing shows the same author at his worst. In the first story a ten year old boy is drawn into sadomasochistic sex games; in the last, “Manganese Dioxide Dreams,” the elderly protagonist (who seems to be Tanizaki himself) is studying his feces (throughout the book there’s an obsession with all manner of bodily discharges). Reading “Mr. Bluemound” (about weirdly realistic sex toys) one wonders that a human mind can contrive such depravity and that a self-respecting author would put it down on paper. But for all their shock value the stories are so silly that they’re boring. And they’re poorly written – the prose is amateurish and the construction slipshod (for no good reason “Dreams” includes a four page summary of the plot of the film Les Diaboliques). How can a writer capable of excellent work sink to such artlessness? And, if he’s compelled to indulge in gross fantasies, why not destroy the results? Another question arises: why, in 2017, did the University of Michigan Press deem these worthless pieces to be worthy of publication? In his introduction Paul McCarthy (one of the two translators) writes that he and Anthony Chambers “have been planning some sort of Tanizaki collaboration for many years; this collection of stories is the fruit of those plans.” They found their fruit rotting in the dumpster. Tanizaki must take responsibility for sullying his reputation, but all involved in the publication of The Gourmet Club have done no favor to an author they claim to respect.

Monday, September 24, 2018

The Folks That Live on the Hill – Kingsley Amis
To devote the first chapter to a character who will make only a few brief appearances for the rest of the novel raises questions. To construct sentences in which some integral part is left out, so that you can’t follow the meaning, makes one wonder (example: “If there could ever have been truly said to be more of something where something came from, the two at present conversing had run across it”). Adding to my questioning and wondering was a disjointed plot and a cast of oddballs who are barely functioning (or, in the case of Fiona, aren’t functioning at all). Yet when the prose wasn’t making me feel dumb (which wasn’t that often) it was lively, and after I accepted the idiosyncratic characters I found their predicaments to be interesting and often funny. Harry Caldecote emerges as the linchpin of the novel. Harry is cynical about people, and he would deny that kindness motivates him in helping others. Those who come to him needing something – money, a place to stay, a bit of advice – annoy and sometimes anger him, but he gives aid out of a sense of responsibility (which he feels is misguided). Harry is elderly, retired, twice-divorced, presently living with his widowed sister, yet he’s not a sad figure. He and his sister share a quiet, unobtrusive love, and he still finds life enjoyable. One of his pleasures is alcohol – he’s seldom without a drink in his hand, though he’s never drunk – and another is a sharp mind which enables him to view (and navigate safely through) the shambles around him. Amis ends things on fairytale note. He grants all the major characters what they wish for – even pitiful, degraded Fiona has regained her senses – and people who had been depicted throughout in a negative way are treated with kindly insight. After presenting much of the dark side of life, the sixty-six year old author chose to let in the light.

The Lost City of the Monkey God – Douglas Preston
This true story of a search for a pre-Columbian “White City” in the midst of the Honduran rain forest didn’t provide the thrills its lurid title led me to expect. There’s too much background material; we’re past the hundred page mark before Preston sets foot on land. And when we’re at the site, it’s a letdown. The members of the expedition find evidence of what was once a large and flourishing civilization, but it’s been so over-run by vegetation that only experts can determine that anything had been there. In other words, it’s not exactly like breaking into King Tut’s tomb. Artifacts are found – pottery and statues – but the photographs provided show only three objects (why so few?). There had been a great deal of build-up about the dangers to be met in the rainforest, but Preston isn’t able to make the hardships he experiences have much impact. After he departs, he goes into theories as to what role this civilization played in the larger picture of Mesoamerican cultures, and I began skipping chapters. I resumed reading – this time with great interest – when I came to a chapter entitled “White Leprosy.” Back home the members of the expedition (including Preston) start coming down with disturbing symptoms. It turns out that they have leishmaniasis. Humans contract this disease when bitten by a blood-sucking insect that carries the leishmania parasite. Once the parasite is in the human body, the results can be horrific; also, it has developed methods of survival that make treatment very difficult. Preston’s life-or-death adventure doesn’t take place in the jungle, but at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. That said, he doesn’t make his experience of having the disease come alive. As a writer he lacks the ability to create drama; he’s good at explaining factual material, and I think he should stick to writing essays of that sort. As for leishmaniasis, I was surprised that this disease, which I had never heard of, is both ancient and prevalent throughout the world. But it’s mostly the poor that contract it. Because of this, it hasn’t received much attention (or allocation of funds for study). Preston ends with a warning: he presents the factors that could result in leishmaniasis becoming a pandemic.

The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot – Angus Wilson
I agree with what Dorothy Parker had to say of Wilson in an Esquire review (back when that magazine cared about literature): “His is a ruthless knowledge of this woman. Uncanny, you might call it.” When the story opens Meg Eliot is content with her life. After two decades of marriage she’s still in love with her husband and is loved by him; they have enough money to live a comfortable life; she has friends, she does social work. Besides contentment, she feels competent and purposeful. Then Bill is killed. In grief and despair she looks to “the dreadful, dead years ahead.” Though she recovers a shaky equilibrium, there will always be an emptiness. And there are jolts: her financial situation isn’t good; she’ll have to give up her house, she’ll have to get a job. As Meg tries to come up with practical solutions to her new circumstances – and to deal with bouts of loneliness and depression – I found her struggle to be moving. But it’s here that Wilson leaves Meg and switches to another point-of-view, that of her brother David. He will occupy half the book, and I just wasn’t interested in him and his problems. He’s very cerebral, and one has to follow his deep analyses of states of mind; I felt I was reading Henry James (something that was present in the Meg section, but not in so laborious a form). We return to the immediacy of being in Meg’s mind – and the vitality returns to the novel – but again we leave her, never to return. She remains a character, but only in her words and actions as filtered through the perspective of David (whose generosity provides her with too simple a way out of her troubles). On the last page all we get of Meg is a brief excerpt of a letter she writes to David. To abandon the woman he had a “ruthless knowledge of” is a major mistake by Wilson. I wonder if Dorothy Parker, in her full review, hit on this flaw.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Reef – Romesh Gunesekera
The novel begins with a boy of eleven coming to work for a wealthy Sri Lankan named Mister Salgado. Initially he does menial jobs; but later, when he’s a young man, he has taken charge of the entire house (at this point he’s given the name Triton). Cooking becomes his speciality, and the book is filled with descriptions of the preparing and eating of exotic dishes. Triton respects Mister Salgado greatly, and he makes an effort to be the perfect servant (he’s even intuitive to Mister Salgado’s moods). Though Triton is the first person narrator, he comes across only as an appendage of Mister Salgado. This man (who he refers to as “Sir”) is intelligent, refined, kind, remote. And mostly indolent. He’s an expert on coral reefs, and for a while he’s employed in a study of their disappearance, but he lacks the commitment to push for change. His quiet, bookish existence ends when he falls in love with Nili. (Triton, who’s still a virgin, seems to be in love with her too – is this another example of his subservient role?). During the affair Mister Salgado opens up socially, and his home is often filled with guests. I found these worldly friends to be jarring, especially their vulgar language; they didn’t seem the type of people that the reserved Mister Salgado would tolerate; even Nili is too flighty for him. Lurking in the background is the growing political unrest in Sri Lanka. When matters disintegrate into violence, and the relationship with Nili ends, Mister Salgado and Triton move to England (by this time they’re middle-aged, though Mister Salgado is still “Sir”). More uneventful years go by; then Mister Salgado learns that Nili has fallen onto hard times, and he returns to Sri Lanka. Before he leaves he sets Triton up in a small restaurant. How Triton fares on his own isn’t explored. But in the brief opening section (what follows, the entirety of the novel, is a flashback) Triton comes across as a melancholy man still holding onto memories of Mister Salgado. This story of a relationship is an intriguing read. Since no sexual feelings emerge, and the two never become friends (they’re always master and servant), I couldn’t understand what emotional ties bound Triton to Mister Salgado. I wasn’t bothered by my lack of comprehension; I only felt how unhealthy it was. I was left wishing that, at some point, Triton could have broken free to become his own man.

They Hanged My Saintly Billy – Robert Graves
The words of the title were spoken by William Palmer’s mother. The son she laments was certainly no saint. Rather, in Graves’ account, from his teens on he was involved in every sort of vice and criminal act – except, possibly, murder (though his entanglement in many questionable deaths – especially his brother’s – makes him suspect of that crime too). The book is based on a notorious case that took place in England in the mid 1800s. By assuming the voices of various people who knew Palmer, Graves gives us a contradictory picture of the man. Seen in the worst light, he was a monster; in the best, a charming scoundrel. He wanted to live the high life, but he was always short of money, always juggling debts; to get by he resorted to lies, forgery, theft. Trained as a physician, he abandoned that profession and turned his attention to owning and betting on race horses, a precarious activity in which shady dealings abound. In this story of a dissolute life there’s one issue about which Graves expresses a passionate opinion: he believed that Palmer’s trial was a miscarriage of justice. The accusation was that Palmer murdered John Cook by administering strychnine. But the credible medical community was united in the opinion that strychnine could be detected in a corpse, and no trace of it was found in the autopsy. Graves is convinced that the insurance companies, which would have to pay up if Cook had died of natural causes, rigged the trial (with the assistance of the Lord Chief Justice). And so, at age thirty-one, William Palmer went with silent dignity to the gallows (in front of a howling crowd of some thirty thousand people). In his Forward the author states that “In reconstructing Palmer’s story, I have invented little, and in no case distorted hard fact.” But the sources he cites are few, and most are confined to the trial. This is a highly fictionalized account, but it’s Graves’ skill at writing fiction that enabled him to make the many voices that give commentary vivid and real. That said, there are too many voices; the reader is overwhelmed by names. Adding to the confusion is the detail with which Graves goes into money matters. Still, the good outweighs the bad. Upon finishing the book I was left not knowing what to make of William Palmer. I don’t think Graves knew either. Yet he closes things by making an attempt to humanize the man. It comes in the form of a letter the mother receives after her son’s execution, and suggests how Billy Palmer, at age eighteen, was first compelled to embark on a disreputable path of life. I’m almost certain that this letter ever existed, but so what? As fiction it succeeds in making one think.

Monday, August 6, 2018

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
This 2015 best seller is narrated by three women; they recount events that had recently taken place or are currently happening. So we’re in their minds, seeing things from their perspectives. One of the women will be murdered. By whom? In this mystery Hawkins’ major bit of deception involves an affair that the murdered woman is having; Megan never uses the man’s name when writing about their meetings, nor does she give us enough information to identify him (in fact, we’re misled as to who he is). Though I read all 400 pages to find out who-dun-it, the experience became burdensome. Things were too drawn out, and the accumulation of loose ends wore me down. As did the plethora of psychological problems the women display. Rachel is the worst of the lot (and, since she’s an alcoholic who has black-out periods, her account of events is unreliable). The lives of all three women are dominated by men they find both sexually attractive and threatening. I felt little empathy for Hawkins’ characters, and this is partly due to how she keeps the intensity level unrelentingly high; what is needed is a fresh breath of normalcy. Also, as I neared the end, I realized that I wasn’t reading about adults. All the characters think and act like emotionally unstable children. They cry a lot, they fall apart, they think in platitudes. Because their impulse control is nil, they have affairs and commit murder (“See what you made me do?”). And they can’t stay off their devices; the novel is full of texting and emailing and voice messages.

A High Wind in Jamaica – Richard Hughes
I had attempted to read this novel twice before, but never got far. Since people I respect consider it to be a masterpiece, and I recently (at a used book sale) picked up a pristine copy in a Time Reading Program edition (which usually published excellent stuff), I again embarked, with determination, on Hughes’ story of children captured by pirates. I made it all to the way to the end, so am now qualified to give my opinion: the book is an elaborate bore. It’s overly rich in language but shallow in character and plot. Only Emily is given much attention, and she’s a mishmash of neurotic odds and ends. All others – her brothers and sisters, the captain and mate – are merely sketched in. As for plot, I got the sense that Hughes was scouring his mind for what outlandish happening to toss next into his disorderly procession of events. Admirers of High Wind tout the realism of its portrayal of children; Hughes backs that viewpoint in his Introduction, in which he claims that he was trying to portray them “realistically” and “lovingly.” But realism and love are totally absent from these pages. Real children recognize their vulnerability; they’re easily frightened and emotionally dependent on adults; they need stability. Hughes’ “wild things” never experience such feelings. The parents they leave behind are quickly forgotten, and when John dies his brother and sisters immediately erase him from their thoughts, as if he never existed. Instead of love, Hughes indulges in scenes in which people and animals are callously victimized. I agree with detractors such as Andre Gide, who could see no reason why the book had ever been written.

Various Miracles – Carol Shields
I counted twenty-one titles in this 183 page collection, which means that Shields keeps it short – as short as three pages. These aren’t stories; they’re evocations, in which the author tries to capture an emotion. She begins with an odd premise; from there she gives us fragments of experiences, or jumps back and forth in time, or starts with one character and then moves to another. I read these pieces over a long period of time, and looking at them again, to write this review, I find that I can’t remember their content; there wasn’t enough substance to hold onto. What I do remember is that, when I was in the act of reading, occasionally a connection was made: I experienced (to varying degrees) the emotion that Shields was trying to evoke. In some, I also recall, no emotion registered. The last story, which I read recently, was longer and more traditional than most. It begins with a stranger asking a couple to cash a personal check (they’re all Americans on vacation in Europe); they do him the favor, not knowing if they would ever be repaid. But a check arrives at the address they gave the man, and from then on, for over twenty years, they receive Christmas cards from him and his wife; each card contains a note about their lives, which seem to be idyllic. Meanwhile we follow the marriage of Robert and Lila, which doesn’t go so smoothly. One is left with a somewhat resigned “What is love all about, anyway?” feeling. In working with evocations Shields is taking a risk as a writer – the terrain is fragile and largely untrodden – so her successes are a unique accomplishment. Try these. If nothing else, you can admire the immaculate prose.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The House on Clewe Street – Mary Lavin
To read 242 pages of a book and then abandon it because of a lack of interest can breed resentment (especially if, as in this case, the print is small and the line spacing tight). Why did I waste my time? Of course, to keep me going for so long I was experiencing some degree of pleasure. The writing was nice, the characters were well-drawn, scenes had life. The pace was leisurely, but I can accept that if things seem to be evolving. It was okay for Aunt Theresa to always be a tyrant, but the novel’s main character was Theodore, and as he grew up his development was occurring with glacial slowness. More and more Lavin’s choices as to how to expend words began to strike me as misguided. For a good deal of the beginning of the novel Theodore’s grandfather is the main character; it’s his mind we’re in. After the birth of Theodore he’s alive, he’s present in the house on Clewe Street, and I wanted to know how he was getting along, what he was thinking. But he’s totally absent from the pages; even his death occurs offstage. Yet his funeral (and a farcical race to get to the cemetery ahead of a competing burial) takes up thirty pages. There are many examples of Lavin inflating inconsequential events while letting vital issues idle away or die out completely. Theodore’s predicament should be paramount; when he’s in his mid-teens he gets interested in the maid, and big changes were in the offing. But by that time I had lost confidence in the author. The point at which I called it quits was when some lady visitors are standing in the doorway in a dither about how to dispose of their scarves and hats and gloves. Lavin apparently found this scene so funny she couldn’t stop writing about it.

The Voyage of the Beagle – Charles Darwin
In 1831 twenty-two-year-old Charles Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle in Plymouth, England and set out on a journey that would circumnavigate the world. He later cited the five year trip as the most important event of his life, one that would determine his entire career. I had owned this book for many years but didn’t attempt to read it because I thought it would be about matters of concern to a naturalist. Of course, it is, but only to a certain extent; though I found the sections about animals on land and in the air and sea interesting, those devoted to insects and plants and land formations were less engaging (and sometimes incomprehensible). Still, I was impressed by Darwin’s knowledge; I felt I was in the presence of a great mind. That I read all 400+ pages of this journal can be attributed to two factors. One is the excellence of the writing, which, besides having an efficient clarity, succeeded in capturing the personality of a young man full of enthusiasm and curiosity. The other is that Darwin gives much attention to his fellow human beings and how they lived in various environments. He doesn’t just observe and report; he thinks about what he sees and experiences and gives his opinions (notable is his abhorrence for the slavery prevalent in Brazil). Almost all the journal entries are about his time on land (he meets the Beagle at appointed ports). Darwin had many adventures, and in no way was he coddled; he roughed it, mostly on foot or horseback, and only someone with a strong constitution and mental toughness could have endured the hardships and dangers he encountered. Though the book has elements of an adventure story, on a deeper level it presents the vastness of life in all its myriad and mysterious forms. Every creature strives to survive on this earth. A “lowly” insect needs food, and it’s equipped with the means to get it; it can kill, it can defend itself; it also needs to procreate. In these respects man shares a commonality with a dung beetle. Some people that Darwin encounters (such as the residents of Tierra del Fuego) live in such a brutal environment and in such a degraded condition that he’s moved to speculate about what pleasure they can derive out of life. As for his theory of evolution, it isn’t developed on these pages; yet, in giving advice to someone considering a trip such as the one he took, he writes, “No doubt it is a high satisfaction to behold various countries and the many races of mankind, but the pleasures gained at the time do not counterbalance the evils. It is necessary to look forward to a harvest, however distant that may be, when some fruit will be reaped, some good effected.” This is the journal of a naturalist whose scientific side was combined with an enlivening humanness, and who just happened to have the artfulness to produce a classic of its kind. *

Mr. Stone and the Knights Companion – V. S. Naipaul
I tend to like odd characters and situations, but this novella is odd in a way that fostered incredulity and boredom. Mr. Stone came across as inhuman, and his plan for his company to aid retirees with a program called the Knights Companion was too quirky a basis to build a plot around. Add to that an inexplicable marriage and an overly-imaginative PR man named Whymper, and I felt I was in a murky alternate universe populated by people who act without believable motivations. I groped to the halfway point before putting this novel aside. You have to wonder about the vagaries of creativity when you consider that three years previously Naipaul had written the wonderful A House for Mr. Biswas. Also a cause for speculation is his choice of the name Whymper for the PR man. Surely he knew that the words “whimper” and “why” would immediately come to the reader’s mind. Since those words have no relation to the character (who’s emphatic and upbeat), what point is Naipaul trying to make (if any)?

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

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.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Billy Liar – Keith Waterhouse
The opening sentence: “Lying in bed, I abandoned the real world and was back in Ambrosia.” Ambrosia is a fantasy world where Billy Fisher possesses power and prestige; in the real world things are not going at all well. The novel covers one day in his life – “a day for big decisions.” His plan is to leave his Yorkshire town and go to London, where he’ll make a living writing jokes for the comedian Danny Boon. By doing so he can avoid a number of predicaments he’s gotten himself into (two fiancees, a huge stash of business calendars he neglected to mail and must dispose of). He can also escape a life that offers him nothing. He lives with his mother, father and grandmother, and all find him to be insufferable (in the case of his father, the disapproval has risen to the level of hatred). He works as a clerk at a funeral home, and his boss relishes the moment when he can nail Billy for pocketing the postage money for the unmailed calendars. Billy’s hyper-energetic observations of people and the town are often funny, but they have a dark side: he sees the real world as ugly. And he never rises above the muck around him. Those lies which he casually dispenses are mostly aimed at evading unpleasant situations or inflating his importance, but some show a disregard for the feelings of others. Billy cares for no one and no one cares for him – with a single exception: Liz. It’s interesting that the only person with whom he feels a sense of comradery is the book’s only unbelievable character. It turns out that Billy lacks the courage to get on the train for London (he was lying when he claimed that Danny Boon had promised him a job). At the end of the long day, as Billy trudges home with his suitcase, I contemplated his future, and I saw no hope for him. I was impressed by this novel’s freshness and originality – it was like an invigorating breeze. But behind the spirited fun was a character study of a flawed and thwarted man. As a result I felt conflicted about Billy – pulled one way, then another.

Paradise Postponed – John Mortimer
Mortimer’s first career was that of a barrister, a profession in which intelligence and precision are of primary importance. But he also possessed a gift for fiction. Though this novel is overpopulated, I was able to keep the six major characters straight because he imparts a distinct individuality to each one. In covering their lives from youth to middle age he jumps back and forth in time, no small feat. He kept my interest at a high level, and even his commentary on changing politics in England was palatable. But, though Mortimer has all the trappings of a traditional novel working nicely for him, he frames the story as a mystery. In the beginning Simeon Simcox, a clergyman, leaves a will in which his possessions go not to his wife and two sons, but to someone he seems to have no ties to and who is already wealthy. As six people fall in and out of love, as they rise or settle in the world, as their attitudes take shape and harden, the mystery of the will pops up at intervals. It’s handled as a teaser – though we get suggestions of something a bit murky going on, what motivated Simeon is kept in the shadows. When the end is near the mystery is suddenly promoted to center stage. With all this buildup, what was needed was a solution that would come as a revelatory surprise. But it’s a letdown, and so things close on a disappointing note. If Mortimer had handled this as a straight novel he might have provided a sense of closure for his main characters; as it is, he leaves them hanging. I wasn’t surprised to learn that he wrote a sequel to Paradise. It’s called Titmuss Regained, so it obviously concentrates on this book’s most compelling character, the implacably ambitious Leslie Titmuss, M.P. (Member of Parliament).

The Abbess of Crew – Muriel Spark
This odd little novel takes place in a convent, is about nuns, is saturated in the ceremonies and trappings of religious life, yet the plot deals with grubby worldly matters. At it center stands Alexandra, “a tower of ivory.” When the book opens she has been elected Abbess, a position she coveted with steely resolve. Her chief competition was a nun who was having sexual relations with a Jesuit priest; this act of rebellion attracted some followers to her side. When the wayward nun is defeated she leaves the convent, and in newspapers and other media outlets she presents a long list of moral transgressions committed by Alexandra (to which this unflappable lady comments, “A dazzling indictment, and, do you know, she has thought not only of the wrongdoings I have committed but those I have not done yet but am about to perform”). Alexandra’s underhanded maneuvering to get elected has repercussions, and when a nun dressed as man is caught in a men’s lavatory of the British Museum with a bag of payoff money the police get involved. A worldwide scandal ensues; reporters try to breach the convent walls (which are guarded by police with dogs). The novel ends with Alexandra being summoned to Rome; aboard the ship her serene self-confidence remains intact. What is one to make of all this? I felt traces of science fiction in the gleaming control room of electronic surveillance equipment which has been installed at Crew (even the trees are bugged). And no matter how demented – or vulgar or comic – things get, the prose never loses its lofty tone. I did a bit of post-reading research, and, to my surprise, the word “Watergate” came up (Sister Gertrude, the globe-trotting nun Alexandra calls to get advice, is Kissinger). This interpretation makes some sense, especially since the book was published at the time of the scandal (when it had a relevance that’s missing now). But why set a satire of Nixon-era shenanigans in a convent? And the parallels are weak (Nixon was no Alexandra). The book, which was obviously written with malicious intent, has an unsavory fascination, but little else.