Thursday, June 3, 2021

In Touch – Paul Bowles
In my review of The Delicate Prey I wrote that its depiction of acts of extreme cruelty made me think there was something warped in Bowle’s nature. The three novels of his that I read were also dark. Yet in these letters (540 pages of them) no twisted personality emerges. He makes a few remarks that indicate a state of alienation from people and from himself, but he seems quite able to relate to others and to sustain friendships over many years. Of course, his constant wanderings to exotic places and his choosing Tangier as his home are not something most boys born in New York City do. He wasn’t like most boys; he was gifted both as a writer and a composer. But, as regards his writing, his creative resources dried up after a less than a decade of productivity; though he continued to publish odds and ends for much of his long life, it was just for the money. He smoked kif on a daily basis (he claimed that it acted as an anesthetic to dull feelings that he found unbearable), and possibly that dampened the creative spark. He married Jane Auer (Jane Bowles, the writer). I know, from sources other than this book, that he was a homosexual, she was a lesbian. Exclusively? – I can’t say, but I doubt that they had a sex life together. Though he corresponds with just about every gay man in the arts – from Aaron Copeland (an early friend and sponsor) to Tennessee Williams – he says almost nothing about his sex life; on one occasion he writes that it has been “largely imaginary,” and, as for whom he had been in bed with, he states “To answer that, it would be necessary to have known their names.” So what were his feelings toward Jane? He ends his letters to her with “much love” (though “love” is a closing he uses to many people), and signs off with the name “Bupple” (which he uses only for her). Still, there’s little affection on display in the letters themselves. Jane went through a an agonizing sixteen year period of physical and mental deterioration; it’s chronicled pretty thoroughly, and it’s a frightening story. Paul obviously cares, and does what he can to help (which includes spending a lot of money). In order to write this review I’ve had to glean for interesting tidbits, so I’ll close with a Bowles’ quote that indicates the lack of revealing that’s present in his correspondence: “It seems to me that a good letter has to have the smell of the personality of the one who writes it. And I think my eagerness to avoid leaving any such smell is the same, whether it is a letter or a novel or whatever. Don’t risk giving offense with halitosis or B. O. !”

Abigail – Magda Szabo (Hungarian)
In one aspect, this is a Girl-Goes-To-Boarding School novel. The girl is Gina, the school is the ultra-strict Bishop Matula Academy located in a remote part of Hungary. She’s very unhappy about being sent there (early-on she makes an attempt to escape), and at first she alienates the other girls; they retaliate by ostracizing her. Eventually matters are patched up, and they become close. All this is OK, and I found the suffocating religiosity of the school to be interesting, as were the efforts of the girls to garner some enjoyment from their constricted lives. But there’s a whole other issue introduced. WWII is in full swing, and her father, a general, is at odds with the ruling faction; if his opponents could get their hands on his daughter they could blackmail him, so he wants her in the fortress-like school to protect her from danger. This espionage/suspense element is labored and strung-out. After it took precedence I kept on reading only to find out (in print, not in my mind) the solution to the mystery of Abigail. Abigail is a statue, and is able to solve the problems of the girls, either by causing things to happen or by written out advice (or in commands). Of course, Gina knows that a human being is doing these things, and she tries to figure out who it might be. The most unlikely candidate, in Gina’s mind, is one of the teachers, a Mr. Konig, who she considers to be weak and odious. Why she despises this person was not clear to me (and, since it seemed both unfair and uncharitable, it didn’t reflect well on Gina). But, at any rate, as soon as the mystery was posed I knew that Konig was Abigail, and, in the book’s last sentence, my belief was confirmed. This is no spoiler simply because there was no mystery – which reflects the amateurish, clumsy construction on the part of Szabo. Abigail was published as a New York Review Book (as was Transit, reviewed in the previous batch). They seem to have taken on a speciality: foreign writers. This is laudable, but only as long as the works are excellent.  Some books on their list that I’m familiar with belong in that category, but not this one.

The Enchanted April – Elizabeth von Arnin
There are three acts to this novel, and the first one was engaging. It has two women who live in dreary London responding to a newspaper ad for the rental of a “small mediaeval castle on the shores of the Mediterranean.” The women – Lottie and Rose – are unhappy with their lives (particularly their married lives). In order to defray expenses they get two others to join them – an older lady named Mrs. Martin and the very beautiful Lady Caroline. None of these women had known each other before this joint venture. The second act is about the arrival and first week of the month’s stay – and this has a charm, because the place is paradise. But paradise alone can’t sustain interest, so Arnin introduces some complications. Lady Caroline and Mrs. Martin aren’t able to give up their past hang-ups, and therefore don’t succumb to the beauty around them. And Lottie and Rose begin to long for their  husbands. Since these men were a major source of their unhappiness, I found this dubious. As I read on much of what was happening was simply manipulation; things got progressively worse until there were no real people in real situations – just an author using her characters as props and moving the scenery around. The last act has three men arriving at the castle – the two husbands and the owner of the place – and here the novel descends into mushy emotionalism. We get a sweepingly happy ending (love conquers all), but one so contrived and false that I found myself reading, with disgruntlement, a woman’s romance. A high quality one, but that’s not saying much. 

An odd occurrence: I discovered, after reading this entire novel and writing the review above, that I had read it before (in May of 2016). I did – especially in the beginning – find it vaguely familiar, but five years isn’t that long ago. Makes me wonder about myself. . . . Anyway, below is the review I did after the first reading. It is much richer and more comprehensive than  the one I did now, in my dotage. I think I’ve become somewhat tired of reading novels that I don’t care for and writing reviews about them. 

The Enchanted April – Elizabeth von Arnim
A woman lunching in her London club reads an ad in The Times addressed “To Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine.” An Italian castle is to be let for the month of April. Mrs. Wilkins (Lottie) notices another woman staring at the same page. Eventually the two – strangers, both unhappily married and dissatisfied with their lives – decide to take the plunge. To defray expenses, they recruit an elderly widow, cranky and stuck in the past, and a young woman who is so gorgeous that men are mesmerized by her. (Caroline yearns to get away from all the “grabbers” in the world.) In Italy the four women are immersed in the stunning natural beauty. For Lottie it’s transforming: she sees life in an altogether different light (a rose-colored one), and the force of her feelings affects the others. Well into this novel I was caught up by an invigorating sense of escapism. But when men (the two husbands and the owner of the castle) enter the picture, reality set in. At least it did for me; the author tries to keep up the Lottie fantasy that Love can induce a radical change in everybody. I couldn’t accept that Mr. Wilkins will cease to be a tyrant, nor that Caroline would warm up to a grabber like Mr. Briggs. Unlikely complications proliferate, and the gentle humor is replaced by slapstick. What had been quietly uplifting becomes doggedly instructive; to assert the primacy of Love makes it seem simplistic and sappy. When you like a book, then it falls apart, one feels betrayed. So I was in a bad mood when I read the introduction by Cathleen Schine. She raises the possibility that some characters are based on real people from the author’s life: “The Enchanted April’s sweetly ardent Mr. Biggs, owner of the castello, is, in his search for a mothering sort of love, based on Frere.” For one thing, the man’s name is Briggs, and he’s so smitten with young Caroline that he’s hardly able to function; he’s certainly not after any mothering.

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Death with Interruptions – Jose Saramago (Portuguese)
In Blindness, which Saramago wrote when he was seventy-three, people begin, inexplicably, to go blind. In Death, written thirteen years later, people begin, inexplicitly, to cease dying. This vanquishing of man’s oldest fear may seem a blessing, but it’s not so in this case. Those on the brink of death remain on the brink; they may be comatose, they may be suffering, they may be horribly mangled from a car accident, and they simply live on in that state. In the beginning of the novel Saramago studies the repercussions on families burdened with the care of these living corpses, then he explores the effects on the economy, examining how insurance companies, nursing facilities and funeral homes respond. Next organized crime gets into the act, seizing a hold on the transfer of the should-be-dead across the border to a country where death still reigns. I found all this pretty interesting, and I maneuvered my way through Saramago’s convoluted prose (you have to read it to understand what I’m referring to). The tone he assumes – one of omniscient bemusement – is right. But then he switches gears by introducing death (she refuses to have her name capitalized, and she’s the standard issue skeleton of myth, complete with scythe). Though we’re now in her thoughts, no explanation is given for her ceasing to take her daily toll of lives, and when she resumes she begins to send letters (by magical transference) to all those who will die, informing that they have one week to live. Why she does this also goes without explanation. Then one letter keeps returning to her, and she’s perplexed. A man is defying death! She visits him (as an invisible presence); he’s a cellist with a dog. She revisits him in human form, they fall in love, and wind up in bed. The last sentence: “The following day, no one died.” I closed the book thinking, What a lot of foolishness. As a character, death is a dud, and for a novel in which logic had prevailed for the first third, nothing that occurs afterward is justified (including why the man was able to escape death). The love story was not just unconvincing, it was sappy. Probably age can account for these failings – at eighty-six Saramago (with a Nobel Prize in his resume) kept writing when his creative powers were on the wane. In Blindness he was at his peak; he was able to make the reader relate to characters who experience a harrowing disintegration of societal norms. Read that one, don’t bother with Death.

Stanley and the Women – Kingsley Amis
There are three major female characters in this novel and all, Stanley comes to conclude, are insane. There’s his former wife, who’s implacably oblivious to all but her own needs; there’s the wacky psychiatrist who treats his crazy son; there’s his present wife who, at the end, inflicts a knife wound on herself and blames it on the son. Just to get attention, you see. The son, who makes an appearance on the fourth page (in a section entitled “Onset”), is not really a character because he’s way off his rocker; he remains in that state throughout the book; in the last section, entitled “Prognosis,” the prognosis is not good. Martin Amis, Kingsley’s real life son, described Stanley as “a mean little novel in every sense, sour, spare, and viciously well-organized.” I agree with all but the “well-organized.” For almost the entire novel Stanley’s wife seems to be an ideal mate, so when her advanced degree of insanity is revealed it seemed imposed by the author to suit his agenda; some prior indications of instability should have been provided. The novel is both entertaining and distasteful; it’s as if Amis was trying to be offensive, and it’s his mental state I was left wondering about. Stanley, despite a major drinking problem (the book abounds in double scotches), seems sane, but his conclusion – that all women are mad – is irrational. And for an author to write a novel filled with misogyny, and then dedicate it to his first wife (“To Hilly”), seems to be a cruel jab. It’s interesting to note that Sir Kingsley Amis would end his messy life under her care, living in the house she shared with her third husband.

Transit – Anna Seghers (German)
This novel is set in Marseille just after Nazi forces had invaded France. A nameless narrator (an escapee from a concentration camp) is telling about his efforts to get on a ship leaving Europe. Many others are pursuing the same goal – Marseille offers the only port for exit. But you need a bewildering array of visas, all in proper order, and getting them is a bureaucratic nightmare of Kafkaesque proportions. I was unable to follow the complexities which Seghers describes in detail. Soon I stopped trying; I came to believe that the process was meant to be (as is true with Kafka) incomprehensible. This is a world in which desperate people want life to begin with a transit to another place, but almost all are fated to fail. There are many secondary characters, too many to keep track of, so I just let the scenes in which this or that person took part to exist for the moment. Besides the narrator, only two characters mattered – the woman he falls in love with and her doctor friend, and they stand out. As for that narrator, he’s a slippery fellow, with his many reversals in making decisions. He wants to get out, but without steadfast conviction; at one point, when success comes, he sabotages it. Often he slips into the apathy of doing nothing. Did I understand him? No. As to why I continued reading a book that presented so much that was baffling, I just took enjoyment when it cropped up, which was often enough. The writing flowed, and the atmosphere of a seedy Marseille was nicely evoked. But the novel’s main strength is the emotional mood Seghers creates: the sense of people waiting and wandering in a shadowy limbo.

Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940 –1977
Either Vladimir was super careful as to what he included in his correspondence or (more likely) his son Dmitri, one of the co-editors of this book, wasn’t about to include any letters that would sully his deceased father’s reputation (especially since his mother/Vladimir’s wife was still alive). These suppositions arise because of the one-dimensional portrait that emerges. We get the man as a writer, and little else. And, because he’s writing about his work to those who will (or had) published it, we get a lot of shoptalk. Nabokov emerges as firmly resistant to distortion of his work (he was, for example, very particular about cover illustrations). In his demands he’s often truculent and contentious. Though an artist, he cared a lot about the money end of the business. He got into prolonged feuds, notably with Maurice Girodias, whose Olympia Press first published Lolita. In his comments about some other writers, he could be brutally dismissive (Saul Bellow is a “miserable mediocrity,” no more than an “exhaust puff”). Not that Nabokov wasn’t, at times, generous and kind, but the negatives carry greater force. And, by citing them, I’m making the book seem more interesting than it is. We get far too much about V’s work on a mammoth Pushkin translation; also, his lepidopterist activities take up many pages (I skipped both these sections). He was pedantic, so some issues are nit-picked at length. Lastly, many letters were written by his wife; in his post-Lolita years he was inundated by matters that he delegated Vera to respond to. All in all, this book is a disappointing mishmash. But I was left with some personal observations. Without Lolita, Nabokov would have remained a professor all his life. He was initially wary of the harm the novel might do to his reputation (and his job); thus its first publication by a Paris-based press noted for dealing in salacious material. Of course, what he referred to as a “timebomb” turned out to be a gold mine, and changed his life. Nothing he wrote after it was near the level of that book; some, in my opinion, were flops, including two highly ambitious efforts. Early on Katherine White, editor at The New Yorker, gave him advice which he should have heeded more often than he did: “I think it’s fine to have your style a web, when your web is an ornament, or a beautiful housing, for the context of your text . . . but a web can also be a trap when it gets snarled or becomes too involved, and readers can die like flies in a writer’s style if it is unsuitable for its matter.” I died in the webs of Pale Fire and Ada. In this review I’ve been mainly critical of someone who has given me enormous pleasure; six of his novels are on my “most meaningful” list. So if I were to write a letter to Mr. Nabokov I’d give him my enduring admiration and thanks. And I wouldn’t ask for his autograph.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

The Mortal Enemy & Obscure Destinies – Willa Cather
Though this will result in the best coming last, I’m reviewing Enemy and the stories that make up Destinies together because, though they were published separately, each volume must have been under a hundred pages. The setting for the first part of the novella is New York, a place Cather knew well – as an adult she was quite cosmopolitan. In it she has a first person narrator observe Myra and Oswald Henshawe. This couple lead a comfortable, cultured life (operas, etc.), but Nellie is perplexed by the dynamics of their marriage – something is amiss – and she remains perplexed right to the end. The problem for me is that I also remained perplexed right to the end. Though Cather seems to value – or be fascinated by – the quicksilver nature of Myra (she even grants her a romantic death), no one in Enemy got to me emotionally; it was merely a fairly interesting read. The three stories in Destinies are set in the plains of Nebraska, where the author was born and spent her early – and impressionable – years. They’re peopled not by sophisticates but by rural folk. In “Two Friends” she again has an outside observer tell the story; and, like Enemy, it was merely pretty good. But then – drum roll – we come to two gems: “Neighbor Rosicky” and “Old Mrs. Harris.” Here Cather enters the minds of her characters, and she does so with depth and sensitivity. Beyond the events that occur, the stories are about what matters in life. Rosisky and Mrs. Harris accept their lives because they live in accordance with their values. They also accept approaching death – the inevitable ending. With these “simple” characters (Rosicky has “one taproot that goes down deep”) I was more than emotionally involved; I was moved.

A Life in Letters – John Steinbeck
A collection of letters has a main character and a plot (the character’s life), but it can’t be reviewed the way a novel would. It comes down to a purely subjective consideration: was the person interesting? In the case of Steinbeck, for me the answer is yes and no. On page 356 he meets the woman who will become his third wife, and from there on my interest began to wane. And, since this is an 860 page book, there was a lot of waning going on. What also began to wane was Steinbeck’s creative output. After his last marriage, at age forty-eight, the only thing he published of consequence was East of Eden. He died at age sixty-five, so we have an artistically fallow period that lasted for almost twenty years. It’s important to note that the co-compiler of this collection was the third wife – Elaine – and she devotes about 500 pages to the period in which she’s involved. Maybe – since he became famous with The Grapes of Wrath – there were more letters available. And he was often writing to people who were of consequence (he was friendly with Adlai Stevenson, Elia Kazan, Oscar Hammerstein, etc.). But Elaine Steinbeck might have wanted to place preeminence on his years with her. At any rate, I found his early letters more engaging. During his first marriage to Carol Henning he was a struggling writer (sometimes struggling to buy food). He made a breakthrough with Tortilla Flat, followed by Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony (my favorite of all his work). And then came Grapes in 1939. Two years later he met the woman who would become his second wife. It’s interesting that in his letters written during the twelve years he was with Carol he never writes a word that suggests any problem in their marriage. She comes across as a stalwart trooper, holding two jobs, typing his manuscripts, etc. Yet in post-divorce letters he writes about how mismatched and miserable they were. Maybe he was revising history to justify his actions; I felt that he moved on, and in doing so discarded the shopworn wife for an aspiring Hollywood singer (from whom he would break after five years). Do you detect a note of disapproval in my choice of words? But John Steinbeck was only human, and he was too damn likable and decent a guy to dislike. As to why he lost the ability to produce work of note, one factor could be that in his later years (especially after receiving the Nobel Prize) his life became way too complicated – too many people, too many demands on his time, too much traveling. He was never comfortable with the status of celebrity and often expressed a desire for a life of anonymity. I don’t think he’d be bothered by the fact that my spell checker doesn’t recognize the name “Steinbeck.” He might have gotten a laugh out of it.

The Eustace Diamonds – Anthony Trollope
This novel first appeared in twenty monthly installments of the Fortnightly Review. No doubt it was eagerly awaited – how else were those in the upper crust of British society supposed to entertain themselves back in 1870? Trollope offers up a cynical look at the values of that very society, but this aspect is somewhat masked by the light, comic tone he employs. Because she’s primarily a caricature made up of moral deficiencies, no one would see themselves in Lizzie Eustace (Lady Eustace – for she is so elevated in status by having married into money and a title). The plot revolves around a Eustace family diamond necklace valued at ten thousand pounds that her husband – who died shortly after their marriage – had given her as a gift. Or so she claims. Whether he did indeed give her this gift is the matter that is hotly disputed for over 700 pages. The diamonds represent what is valued by society. Love and virtue are insignificant for Lizzie and many others. Marriages are made not on the basis of love (in one notable side story the engaged couple despise each other), but to enable the parties involved to garner economic and/or social advantages. This is not true for everyone – Trollope has some characters who are virtuous and for whom love is meaningful. But the flawed ones are more vivid. The novel has the feel of having been written in haste, and is not one of Trollope’s full-fledged successes. One-dimensional Lizzie is not that interesting in the long run, and I began to get mighty tired of those damned diamonds. Also, the book’s many disparate parts don’t coalesce, and the result is a sprawling, sloppy mess. But it’s a delicious mess, and I never faltered in my reading. In his presentation of a greedy and willful woman, Trollope injects a cautionary note. Because Lizzie is false to the bone – unable to have sincere feelings for anyone, not even her infant son – she’s destined to be alone and loveless. And at the end she may have met her match in the greasy cleric she marries, for he’s as avaricious and devoid of morals as she is. Since Trollope takes up moral issues, he has something to answer for in his depiction of Jews. They are, without fail, loathsome creatures (Lizzie never elicits loathing). The cleric is actually a Jew, and I used the word “greasy” to describe him because that’s the word Trollope uses whenever a Jew makes an appearance. You’d think a writer of his genius would have been able to come up with other terms (well, actually, at times he does resort to “oily.”). His anti-Semitic attitude must have been sanctioned by the people for whom he wrote. Which is another fault of that society, but one which Trollope was also guilty of.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Fountain Overflows – Rebecca West
Rose tells the story – it begins when she’s young, maybe nine, and ends about ten years later – and it’s very much a family chronicle. She has a twin sister, Mary, and an older sister, Cordelia; her little brother is Richard Quin. The mother is a reliable presence, but the father is a remote figure (mostly in his study, writing political tracts). All members of the Aubrey family exist on a high cultural level and are unique, extraordinary, exceptional, gifted – except one: Cordelia (also known as “poor Cordelia”). The gift the father has is intellectual in nature, whereas the mother and Rose and Mary are highly talented pianists. Though Richard Quin is capable of mastering anything he casually attempts, his main gift is his goodness: he aspires to be liked, and everyone loves him. There’s no conventional plot carrying the reader over the years; the book is a series of events (including a murder trial) strung together. A mix of interesting and colorful characters are introduced, but all events are confined to interaction between the members of the family (there are no scenes with Rose at school, for example). West handles her material in a way that’s not at all heavy; she’s often quite funny and her prose is inventive in a quietly beautiful way. This novel about extraordinary people can rightfully be called extraordinary, and if you love Rose you may love it. I didn’t love nor dislike her, but I was often bothered by the way she thought and acted. And some minor players in the family didn’t hold up to scrutiny. The beloved father, who is forgiven for all his misdeeds, was, to me, unforgivably selfish and irresponsible; Richard Quin was simply too good to be true. The mother was laudable – the family could not have survived without her. But, though she could be compassionate, she was also judgmental in a mean way (she would dismiss someone for their bad taste in the choice of a hat). Maybe Rose and Mary got this attitude from her. Which brings us to “poor Cordelia.” She plays the violin with perfect technique but a complete absence of feeling; in other words, atrociously. She’s unaware of her lack, and haplessly plunges ahead on her musical “career.” No one in the family tells her the blunt truth, but Rose and Mary treat her with disdain. The mother addresses this issue with the girls in the closing pages of the book: their uniqueness (their talent) gave them the eccentricity, the oddness, to accept the hardships of their childhood. They could endure being different. Ordinary Cordelia could not. Thus life, in the family, was miserable for her. Why wasn’t this lesson impressed on the girls 400 pages earlier, so that the vulnerable one was treated more kindly? Why, when Cordelia was starting out on the violin, wasn’t she gently diverted away from it by the mother? Actually, these questions show my level of involvement, which was high. The novel is classified as semi-autobiographical (with an emphasis on the “semi”) and was the first of a projected trilogy; West completed the next two in the series, but she wasn’t happy with them and they were never published in her lifetime. I’ll abide by her judgment and not go any further with the Aubreys. Oddly enough, she dedicated Fountain to her older sister, Letitia Fairfield, who, it’s said, objected to her portrayal as Cordelia. I don’t blame her. It’s interesting to note that, in real life, poor, hapless, deluded Cordelia went on to become a distinguished doctor and lawyer.

Selected Letters of John O’Hara
Let me explain. I read approximately half the words of the letter collections that keep popping up in these reviews. I leaf idly through their pages after finishing my serious reading (in which I don’t skip a word). Since letters do bring you close to someone, it may be a way for me to commune with another person. In the case of John O’Hara, his forceful character is partially submerged in a lot of verbiage regarding money matters (contracts, promotion of his books, etc.), so more than the usual amount of skimming took place. At any rate, I’m going to limit my comments to an issue I mention in my essay, “Reading Other People’s Mail.” I write about how successful authors are often discontent. O’Hara was world famous, made a lot of money and achieved critical acclaim and awards. Yet, as his fame grew, he was constantly carping about negative reviews and about not receiving other awards he believed he deserved (most of all, he coveted no less than the Nobel Prize). He could get quite aggressive about being underappreciated. So the success he did achieve was not enough; it actually seemed to spur on a desire – which would inevitably go unfulfilled – for more. But in his final five years this desire seemed to subside into peaceful acceptance. And he had two things to fall back on: to all indications his long marriage was a happy one, and it’s quite certain that the compulsion – and the enthusiasm – to keep writing never left him. The editor of this collection, Matthew Bruccoli, chose to end the book with a nondescript letter and no closing annotation about the author’s death (I turned to the next page and was staring at an index). This struck me as both negligent and rudely abrupt. So I’ll provide an account of the last hours of John O’Hara: he was at his desk, working on a novel, when he complained of chest pains; he went to bed early and was found dead the next morning.

The Blunderer – Patricia Highsmith
The strong sense of corruption emanating from this crime novel could be considered an asset, but I was often repelled by it. Of the three main characters, the perverted Kimmel was hard to stomach, as was a sadistic police detective by the name of Corby. It was Walter who I could relate to, and his predicament kept me turning pages. He reads a newspaper article about an unsolved murder and suspects that a man named Kimmel had used a certain tactic to murder his wife. Walter is trapped in a marriage to an unstable woman, and he gets the idea (just an idea, not a fully thought-out plan) of killing Clara in the same way. He proceeds up to a certain point, but circumstances ensue so that he commits no murder. We can’t know whether he would have carried out the deed (he doesn’t know), but it leads us to a question: should Walter be punished for his thoughts and intentions? He is punished – step by step his life unravels. The plot is strong in its conception, and Walter’s dilemma is convincing. That said, we keep treading the same ground; the novel is way too long. It’s also quite grisly (it begins and ends with luridly described murders). As for anyone contemplating marriage, Highsmith’s highly cynical depiction of human relationships might well scare them off.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Meanwhile There Are Letters – Eudora Welty and Ross MacDonald
This decade long correspondence began when Welty was sixty-one and Kenneth Millar (Ross MacDonald was his pseudonym) was fifty-five; it ended when Millar lapsed into dementia. It was an unlikely pairing: Welty was a Southern regional writer, very much in the literary sphere, and Millar was a crime novelist. But these two found a like soul in the other. So much so that this collection reads like a love fest (after only a few letters the word “love” appears in the closings, and is never thereafter absent). Here’s a sample of the tone from Welty: “. . . our spirits have traveled very near to each other and I believe sustained each other – This will go on, dear Ken – Our friendship blesses my life and I wish life could be longer for it.” Millar could be equally gushy. You soon know what to expect: praise of each other’s writing (way over-the-top, in my estimation), concern for the other’s health and happiness, and total agreement on all matters. A constant flow of this gets monotonous. The co-editors do some campaigning for a romantic attachment, but I didn’t buy into that (Welty never married; Millar’s wife of many years was a writer of popular mysteries). The two met only a few times, briefly, and the letters divulge very little of a personal nature. The editors add supplementary notes that depict grave difficulties in the Millar marriage (he never complains about Margaret to Welty). According to eyewitnesses (including Welty) when Ken’s Alzheimer’s incapacitated him, Margaret was uncaring and abusive. I think there’s a mystery in the dynamics of that marriage, and I’d like to know the wife’s version. Last note (which adds to the mystery). Welty kept all of Ken’s letters, but there were no copies of her letters to him – until a rare book dealer who had purchased Ken’s library and papers found them in the pool house of the Millar home (by then Margaret was deceased). Apparently Ken had hidden them there. . . .

Beast in View – Margaret Millar
Millar employs a pink herring, which is that Helen Clarvoe is being victimized by Evelyn Merrick, an old school friend. But Helen is obviously bonkers, and I (and probably every other reader) knew after the first chapter that she was suffering from a repression so deep that it manifested itself in a split personality. At the end, when this is revealed, the only one surprised is Helen. Despite there being no mystery to this mystery novel, it’s pervaded by a maliciousness that gives it an unsettling strength. As Evelyn, Helen engages in all manner of destructive activities. One is an offstage murder, but most of her attacks come via phone calls, and her main targets are her mother and brother, both of whom she despises. The mother is Millar’s strongest portrayal, but also notable is the homosexual brother (the abhorrence toward homosexuality is an interesting circa 1955 attitude). The weakest character is the fifty-something lawyer who attempts to unravel the “mystery.” When he expresses feelings of love for Helen it’s ludicrous; there’s not a scintilla of a reason provided for such an emotion to arise. Helen’s plight didn’t elicit any feelings of pity in me. Some people are so far gone that they cease to be human. They’re beasts.

When the Going Was Good - Evelyn Waugh
In his Introduction Waugh notes that “The following pages comprise all that I wish to preserve of the four travel books that I wrote between the years 1929 and 1935.” The last excerpt was written when he was thirty-two and employed as a war correspondent in Abyssinia (later renamed Ethiopia); the other four were done when he was in his mid to late twenties. This going off to remote and backward lands was a young man’s undertaking; as I read about the hardships Waugh endured I wondered what it was like when the going was bad. The impression that emerges on almost every page is one of chaos and squalor. Filthy accommodations, horrendous food, hordes of aggravating (or deadly) insects – and then there were the people with whom he was constantly struggling to accomplish any goal he had in mind. As I read the first four excerpts, I found that each page was interesting (and often amusing) but there was no context or continuity in experiences that could involve me, and the unflappable Waugh remained emotionally inaccessible. The final section, devoted to the war that was about to break out with Italy, had more of a sustained characterization and plot, but I found it to be less interesting (and the prose, which had been elegant, dropped down a notch). I think Waugh was tired of traveling. In the case of the previous books, he needed the money they brought in (the Brits love their travel books), but that was no longer true after Vile Bodies came out in 1930. One plus resulting from these exploits was that he used them in two of his novels: Black Mischief takes place in Africa, and the conclusion of A Handful of Dust in the Brazilian jungle. One could categorize the inexplicable people he encounters in Going as savages; but in his novels set entirely in England the savages are just sophisticated ones, and they’ll eat you alive.

Dear Theo – Vincent Van Gogh (letters edited by Irving and Jean Stone)
Irving Stone had written a fictionalized account of the life of Van Gogh – Lust for Life – which had been a best seller. Three years later he published this selection of letters that Van Gogh wrote to his brother. The word “selection” is important. In his Preface Stone recounts how he and his wife pruned down the 1670 pages of letters he had at his disposal to the 572 pages that make up this volume. The result of that pruning is far from a complete and accurate picture of Vincent, nor of his relationship with Theo. If you want to learn more about that issue, you can click on my essay, “Reading Other People’s Mail.” In this review I’ll address what Stone chose to give us, for what he selected was, no doubt, truly the words Vincent wrote – how could he have altered that? – so they do show a side to the man. I was surprised by what a very good writer Van Gogh was; he was able to express his emotions both forcefully and with restraint (an approach employed by the best novelists). He was quite intelligent and was a reader – Zola, Hugo, Dickens, etc. When painting became his consuming passion, it was a learn-as-you-go proposition; he could view his work critically, and he strived to get better; even at the end of his life he considered only a small number of his canvasses to be successes. He was opinionated as to what art should concern itself with; for him it was nature, humble subjects, and, above all, the transference of feeling. The majority of words in this book have to do with the technical side of painting, such as the treatment of colors. Van Gogh led a troubled existence, but he found deep pleasure in his love of natural beauty and in the act of creating art. Though these letters evoke sadness, they also have a radiance about them. This may have been what Stone was striving for.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Selected Letters of William Styron
I started – but never finished – Styron’s two major works, The Confessions of Nat Turner and Sophie’s Choice. This was long before I was doing reviews, so I can’t give specific reasons as to why I abandoned them (though I vaguely recall strong negative feelings). I did read all of Darkness Visible, his short memoir about his bout with depression, and his fine novella, The Long March. But I have no interest in tackling his first and second novels (both, as is true with Nat and Sophie, are enormous). Though I don’t qualify as a fan of his writing, Styron had a prominent place in the literary scene in the second half of the twentieth century. I didn’t suspect how far-reaching that place was. Apparently he had personal charm (or something going for him), because he was able, over the years, to establish close relationships with just about everybody who mattered. This extended to people in the uppermost tier of politics and pop culture (he palled around with the likes of JFK and Jackie, Sinatra and Mia). I could see one aspect of his success with other writers: his glowing comments about their work. Here’s a sample, taken at random: “It is an overwhelmingly splendid achievement that has left me gasping for superlatives.” He does a lot of gasping in these pages. In Advertisements for Myself Norman Mailer wrote that Styron “oiled every literary lever and power” to advance himself (as if he, Mailer, didn’t also work to make the right contacts). This attack – which was returned in kind – gives a look at the feuding that often crops up among writers. If Styron doled out praise, he needed it too, and he got combative toward those who viewed his work negatively; for him criticism cut deep. Though he succeeded as few writers do, and enjoyed many of the perks of that success, in his last two decade he published almost no fiction, and in his final six years his depression would return and overwhelm him. I found the book to be an interesting read (though there was much skimming over its 640 pages). I had questions in regard to what the compiler – Styron’s wife Rose – chose to include and exclude. There’s not one letter to her, nor to three of his four children (his eldest daughter gets ten, all cheerful and loving). I think some major tinkering was going on regarding personal matters. As I read these letters I initially felt dislike for the man, but gradually my attitude grew more forgiving. That tends to happen when the span of a life unfolds, from youth to old age.

Reading My Father - Alexandra Styron
I skimmed this book to find out about Styron’s relationship with his family, a subject that I thought had been avoided in the letters his wife chose to publish. According to his daughter, the father she grew up with was someone she tried to avoid (as did her mother, who stayed away from the house as much as possible). He had a volatile temper and went into verbally abusive rants at the slightest provocation. He comes across as a supremely selfish and self-centered man who was frequently unfaithful to his wife and largely indifferent to Alexandra. Being the youngest of his four children, she got the worst of him, for in her teenage years his ability to write began to desert him. Darkness Visible, his account of the depression that he experienced in his fifties, ends on an upbeat note; but the assault on his mind and body that reoccurred fifteen years later was brutal and unrelenting. Alexandra chronicles his decline, and it’s a frightening story. It provoked in me some radical thoughts. Why are doctors and mental care facilities so determined to keep patients from committing suicide? If someone reaches the point of no return and nothing in the medical arsenal helps – as was the case with Styron – it would be humane to let them have  access to a pill to put them out of their misery. I also questioned whether Styron was deserving of the care he received from his wife and children for the last six years of his life. Though Alexandra tries to evoke feelings of love and sympathy for her father, she was clearly conflicted. While at the Duke University library, going through letters he had received from readers, she wonders, “how could a guy whose thoughts elicit this much pathos have been, for so many years, such a monumental asshole?” She feels like “picking up the letters by the fistful and shouting into the silence of the library, PEOPLE! Do you have ANY idea of who you are dealing with here?” (Italics the author’s.)

Ten North Frederick – John O’Hara
His more literary contemporaries expressed disdain for O’Hara’s writing, but I think their real gripe was that his books sold quite well. Though he did churn out a lot of mediocre work, he should be judged by the four long, ambitious novels he produced at the midpoint of his career. Ten North Frederick, the second of the four, tells the life story of Joe Chapin. We get to know Joe mainly by what he says. Even detractors acknowledge O’Hara’s ability to capture speech. This may seem like a minor distinction, but through speech a personality can emerge. Joe is a good man – no vices, really, until alcohol brings him down (though he had resigned from life before the serious drinking began). The odd twist is that this lawyer from Gibbsville, Pennsylvania aspires to become no less than president of the United States. Why? Perhaps the answer lies in his belief that he isn’t ordinary, and that his convictions have value. Of course, he fails dismally – in the political arena he’s a lamb among wolves. O’Hara was for many years a newspaper man, and he knew how to write eminently readable prose. This background also gave him a wide range of experience of life in this country in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. His stated purpose was “to record the way people talked and thought and felt, and do it with complete honesty and variety.” He largely succeeds. But, as is true in gymnastics, one must nail the landing; if you stumble, you detract from an otherwise excellent routine. O’Hara stumbles. I believe he made his misstep because he came to love Joe, and so he grants him a brief interlude of happiness with a woman the age of his daughter. This contrived and somewhat mushy episode is at odds in a novel that is otherwise firmly grounded in reality. All in all, Ten North Frederick is a solid achievement, both as entertainment and literature, and it deserved the National Book Award it received in 1956.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

An Academic Question - Barbara Pym
After having years of publication, and with a loyal (though somewhat small) coterie of readers, the swinging seventies engulfed England, and Pym’s type of quiet, humorous novels – mostly about unmarried church ladies – were deemed to be out of date. She experienced fourteen (!) painful years of rejection. But she wrote on, and even tried to make her characters and subjects more in keeping with the times. Question was an abortive effort in that direction – abortive because she wrote two version of it, then abandoned the project altogether. Instead she turned her attention to another novel, one which would be her best: Quartet in Autumn. It was darker than her usual work, and she harbored no hopes that it would find a publisher. But she clearly believed in it. By a serendipitous series of events, Quartet did find a publisher (and was a runner-up for the Booker Prize). Her career was again on track, and some of the novels she wrote during her fallow period were now accepted and enjoyed. The “Pym touch” still had a place in the world. Question, being unfinished, was not part of that initial revival. In her opening Note Hazel Holt writes that she took the two handwritten drafts of the novel and amalgamated them into a coherent whole. Should she have done it? Probably not. Though mildly engaging, marriage and children and an unfaithful husband were not subjects Pym knew firsthand, and the result is a rather tepid, aimless book. When authors decide to drop a project, their wishes should be honored.

The Same Man - David Lebedoff 
The men profiled are two of my favorite authors: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh. I’ve read just about every work of fiction they wrote (nine by Orwell, thirteen by Waugh). This dual biography revealed many facts I didn’t know about Waugh (including why he earned a reputation for cruelty); in the case of Orwell, I had read his Selected Letters, so I was familiar with his personality and his life story. Lebedoff’s prose is smooth, and there’s a gossipy element that was enjoyable (especially in regard to Waugh); but if you aren’t fans of the writers, this book is not for you. As for its title – how could two men be more different? Lebedoff acknowledges that glaring fact, but tries to justify their sameness along sociological grounds: both saw the coming age as a disaster. The last section, in which this premise is belabored, was of little interest to me, and I skimmed. Also, since I appreciated the novels, I wanted a more full discussion of them than I got; since Lebedoff is trying to support his sameness theme, he concentrates on 1984 and Brideshead Revisited, both of which present a bleak view of our present (and future) world. But I consider Brideshead to be Waugh’s weakest novel (a mistake, actually); his best, A Handful of Dust, is mentioned, in passing, three times. Orwell’s non-political work is worth reading; my favorite, Coming Up for Air, is cited once. My advice: try those two.

Pied Piper - Nevil Shute
This isn’t one of Shute’s more inspired outings. Still, he could tell a story, and I stuck around to the end. The plot concerns an elderly Englishman who’s on a fishing trip in France when it’s invaded by German troops; he accepts the responsibility of getting two children to safety in England. The number of children he’s escorting keeps increasing (there’s six by the end), which makes him, I suppose, a pied piper. Midway in his trek (there’s a lot of walking) Mr. Howard is joined by a young French woman who, it turns out, was in love with his son, an RAF pilot killed in the war. The novel was published in 1942, so it must be considered in context: it meant something to the English people at the time. Though Mr. Howard is prohibited by his age to engage in any feats of daring-do, he’s a stiff upper lip type with a firm will. The problem with the novel is that he, and all the other characters, aren’t developed; what they are in the beginning is what they are at the middle and at the end. And the assorted kids didn’t act in a way I found convincing; they accept hardships too complacently. Shute tries to generate feeling for Nicole, the young French woman; she’s likable and resourceful and a good soul – as is Howard – but not much else. The novel seems flat; it needed more complexity in characterization to have resonance. A word about the title. The pied piper of Hamelin lured children, and was an ominous figure bent on revenge. This is certainly not in keeping with the character nor the intent of Mr. Howard.

Vandover and the Brute - Frank Norris
Norris had established a reputation with McTeague and The Octopus, so after his death (at age thirty-two) there was a search for the rumored manuscript of an early novel. Vandover was literally pulled from the ashes of the San Francisco earthquake and fire, and it was published twenty years after Norris had written it. In a Foreword his brother states that it would surely have undergone revision if Frank had been given the opportunity. It needed more than revision – it needed to be re-conceived and rewritten. The novel tells the life story of a privileged man (Harvard, etc.) who has faults: he’s weak-willed, impractical, pleasure-loving, unable to commit to higher goals. But he also has – or so Norris repeatedly tells us – a side to him that’s brutish. But he never shows that Brute in action. Though we’re told that Vandover spends time in houses of ill-repute and associates with low types, we only see him, near the end, engage in a self-destructive gambling binge. Early on he has a sexual relationship with a woman of loose morals; he never forces himself on her, he only does what many young men do. But Vandover will suffer grievously for his shortcomings. In the last half of the book things begin to go downhill, and by the end he’s a financial, physical and emotional wreck. He’s even relegated to episodes in which he’s naked, crawling on all fours, growling like an animal. This doesn’t work artistically, it doesn’t work logically (though, I must admit, it got to me – it was unsettling, even frightening). Now that I’ve criticized the novel, I need to give it some praise. It has life, it moves. And the Vandover I was viewing before his improbable descent was an interesting study. Despite his faults, he was a decent guy, and I liked him. This fact leads me to do some psychoanalyzing of the author. It was Norris who created this sympathetic character. So why was he so brutal toward him? Did he see his own faults in Vandover, and feel the need to exorcize them by punishing a fictional surrogate? There’s another character in the book who’s morally lamentable – lacking in compassion or ethics (qualities that Vandover has). He’s the one who deserves to be punished, but he rises in the eyes of the world. He even has thoughts of rising to the presidency of the country. And who knows – he may get there.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Mayor of Casterbridge - Thomas Hardy 
In a powerful and disturbing opening scene Michael Henchard, during a drinking bout, puts his wife and infant daughter up for auction and sells them to a passing seaman for five guineas. The following day he’s repentant, and makes a vow never to take another drink for twenty-one years. When we next see him he has risen from poverty and become the mayor of the Sussex village of Casterbridge. Hardy created a great character in Henchard – a flawed and complex man who compels one’s attention and engages one’s imagination. But as the book moves along his forceful presence is diluted. Hardy recognized the loss, and he identified the problem. He wrote the novel to appear serially in a newspaper, and he felt the need in each week’s installment to introduce new characters and incidents; many of these incidents are unlikely (especially as they accumulate) and the new characters are lacking in depth and authenticity. Henchard himself gets stretched this way and that to accommodate the plot twists. What would this novel have been if Hardy hadn’t felt the need to give his readers a page-turner? If he had let only artistic judgements guide him? Quite possibly a great novel – which it isn’t. But it’s definitely worth reading. One of its virtues is the recreation of a Wessex village in the late 1800s; the place and its people – through their talk and their actions – come vividly to life. 

The Rise of David Levinsky - Abraham Cahan 
The words “and Fall” could be added to the title. Certainly, in America, David rises. In Russia he lives in poverty; but as a boy he’s intensely interested in religion and learning: his goal is to be a Talmud scholar. When, in his teens, he immigrates to America he’s penniless; but his smarts and toughness and ability to engage the trust of people in a position to help him (in however small a way) enable him to become, by the time he’s in his late thirties, a millionaire. So what constitutes a fall? His religious beliefs and his passion for learning and culture go by the wayside. His youthful high-mindedness is compromised by business decisions that aren’t always ethical. He has no interest in the textile industry beyond the profit margin. So in the closing sentence he writes that “the poor boy swinging over a Talmud volume at the Preacher’s Synagogue seems to have more in common with my inner identity than David Levinsky, the well-known cloak manufacturer.” This 530 page novel was written in 1917, and I read all of it; I find the story of the immigrant experience to be an interesting one, and the workmanlike prose carried me along. Cahan was able to capture a teeming New York and its colorful inhabitants. The novel’s only weakness has to do with the author’s depiction of Levinsky in love; his rhapsodizing about his feelings struck a discordant note. These three romantic episodes – all fated to turn out as disappointments – are given too much space. Still, Rise is a capable, satisfying piece of work, and is deserving of the revival that Harper & Row gave it in the 1960s. 

The Vicar of Wakefield - Oliver Goldsmith 
I’ve joined the millions of readers who have enjoyed this novel since it appeared in 1766. But why has it given so much enjoyment? In his Afterword J. R. Plumb of Cambridge University states his belief that it’s because the novel radiates goodness and shows how the buffets of a wanton fate cannot break the spirit of a truly good man. I totally disagree, and I think I may have read it as Goldsmith intended: as a highly amusing dismemberment of a good man. Dr. Primrose (note the name) has every virtue; he is indeed a good man. That he’s a religious man has no bearing. It’s notable that, although the Vicar is a great talker, the name of Jesus never appears in this novel. But the afterlife – eternal bliss – is often referred to as the blessing that one receives after leading a life free of sin (though those who repent also get admission to heaven). The novel opens with the Vicar ensconced in domestic tranquility; but from this idyllic state he suffers one misfortune after another; these move from minor to more and more dire and then to disastrous. There’s a villain to blame for most of the serious disruptions – the vile Squire Thornhill (boo, hiss), a lecher who’s attracted to Dr. Primrose’s two beautiful (and virtuous) daughters. Dr. Primrose ultimately winds up in gaol, penniless, his arm maimed by a fire (he ran into his burning house to rescue his two small sons); one daughter is dead from the shame of being corrupted, the other has been kidnaped. I’m not callous to suffering, but Dr. Primrose doesn’t suffer. He’s like one of those toy figures that you punch and they immediately pop back up, still smiling. Goldsmith has created a caricature, not a real human being susceptible to the burden of real pain. Never does the vicar contemplate revenge, nor does he once question his faith. Disasters, when not based in reality, can be funny (think of Laurel and Hardy). This is not a tragedy, but a comedy of misfortunes – a “What next?” outing. In gaol, seeing his life coming to an end, the vicar still preaches an uplifting sermon to his fellow prisoners. The guy just won’t give up. Then comes the long closing chapter in which, by means of an unlikely deus ex machina, all the problems are remedied; even his dead daughter is brought back to life (actually, it turns out that she never died). This, too, I found funny – because it’s preposterous. An “unlikely” savior? What a understated word! This ending is not meant to be believed except by the gullible. My take on the novel is that Goldsmith was being subversive. At the time he wrote it he couldn’t openly make a religious figure an object of mockery, so he disguised his intent; but, for me, the disguise was transparent. It wasn’t for the likes of J. R. Plumb. He finds fault with the novel for its “outrageous improbabilities” and its “unrealistic characters” – elements I don’t see as faults: they’re intended. Maybe you get out of a novel what your nature inclines you to. But, truly, I think Oliver Goldsmith and I were on the same wave length. He was kicking up his heels like a rambunctious mule, wrecking the barn in which virtue resides and enjoying himself immensely. That the novel retains a freshness after all these years is a tribute to his accomplishment. *

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Cross Creek - Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
The town of Cross Creek is located in north central Florida, deep in “scrub country.” In 1928 Rawlings moved into a rundown farmhouse and set about trying to make the surrounding orange grove a paying proposition. Something in this world – one far from the comforts of civilization she had known – fulfilled her; it was loving care that compelled her to dedicate so much effort in describing it. What’s remarkable is the completeness of her description; it encompasses the land, plants, animals, insects, people. She establishes a personal connection to her subjects; if it’s snakes, we get to know how Rawlings felt in her encounters with them; if it’s okra, she gives her recipe for preparing it; if a freeze is threatening the orange crop, we get an account of how they kept fat pine fires burning throughout the night. As for the people she lived among, she applies her considerable novelistic skills to bring them to life; both blacks and whites are involved in incidents, acts, conversation. There’s no sugar-coating applied to them, and the author’s attitude toward blacks may not meet the current requirements for correctness. But she feels respect to all who deserve it. In most of the book Rawlings doesn’t try to dispense wisdom, but some of her observations stand out. She believed that no people can be relegated to the status of inconsequential; in fact, the opposite is true: “The rich, the well-favored, the well-situated are surrounded by a confusing protective mass of extraneous and irrelevant matter that tends to hide the substance beneath. The poor, the unfortunate, have been put through the sieve and stand nakedly for what they are.” The personality of Rawlings emerges: she was a tough, down-to-earth lady; she could be compassionate, she could be hard. She and I share little in common, and the place she captures with such authenticity is not one that I wanted to live in – it’s too primitive for me. But for Rawlings it was the place on earth where she felt she belonged, and she immersed herself in that world – and wrote about it in this memorable book. *

Under Western Eyes - Joseph Conrad
This novel – which hinges on a political assassination in Czarist Russia – was completed about six years before the Bolshevik Revolution, so it had relevance at the time of its publication. Conrad concerns himself primarily with the role played by Razumov, a young student. One of the assassins – a fellow student – seeks refuge in Razumov’s room. Razumov makes an effort to help him escape, but when that attempt fails he turns Haldin over to the police. These early events were engaging, but as the novel progresses Conrad’s ponderous probing of Razumov’s tortured psyche – which goes on at length and repetitively – suffocate his character under the weight of verbiage. He didn’t give the man room to breathe. It’s interesting that two characters for whom the author has contempt – and who are treated superficially, as stereotypes – have a vitality that Razumov lacks. Conrad’s passion and seriousness of purpose are virtues, but in his hands they often became a liability. He didn’t realize a simple fact: reading a novel shouldn’t become burdensome.

The Letters of Jean Rhys
In these letters there was no reluctance by Jean Rhys to express emotions, and most of what is on display for 300 pages is her unhappiness. Or, to put it more forcefully, her misery. Though misery makes for interesting reading, repetition of woes tends to dilute their force and can get tiresome (something Rhys was aware of; but she couldn’t stop herself). Another dominant element in these letters is Rhys’ struggle to get Wide Sargossa Sea into proper shape. The struggle was a long and grueling one; in a letter from 1945 she states that she has a novel “half-finished.” In her last letter, written twenty-one years later, she finally feels that Sea is complete. Seldom is the effort by a novelist to produce something of value been more vividly chronicled. My main problem with this book concerns what’s been omitted. It opens with a letter Rhys wrote in 1931, when she was forty-one; it ends with one written in 1966, just seven months before Sea was published. One of the two people who did the selecting and editing (and who was a recipient of many letters) was Francis Wyndham. In her Introduction she writes that she couldn’t get her hands on letters Jean wrote before 1931. I find this hard to believe – at that time Rhys was being published and was a figure on the literary scene in Paris; when the letters in this book begin she had sunk into obscurity. Worse – much worse – there are no letters after the immediate success of Sea. Wyndham states that these letters aren’t of much interest. This I flat out don’t believe. How could a woman so expressive of her feelings suddenly become a reticent bore? She surely continued writing to her daughter and to Wyndham – how did those relationships go? Was she able to able to financially help her daughter – something she repeatedly regretted not being able to do? Most of all, how did acclaim, awards, sales, etc. affect her? Did she find some degree of happiness? And was she able, finally, to find a pleasant place to live? (A warm one – the last words she writes in the last letter of this book are “It’s so cold.”) Since matters that I wanted to know about are omitted, I consider this collection to be a disappointment. Last bit of advice: If you haven’t read Sea – and you should – do it before you read these letters. Rhys wasn’t one of those writers who believe that you “shouldn’t talk about it.” She talks about it at length.
Novels, Tales, Journeys - Alexander Pushkin (Russian)
I read a few short pieces in this collection of Pushkin’s occasional “descent into prose” (his words). I found them pleasing, so I turned to the novels. The Queen of Spades revolves around an unscrupulous character’s efforts to get a magical formula that would enable him to identify three cards in a row – and thus garner a fortune. The imperious old countess who holds the secret (and appears near the end as a ghost) was the only character that captured my interest. The story struck me as a dalliance on the part of Pushkin – a feeling that was reinforced by the slapdash Conclusion that wraps things up. But I liked the simple, clear, direct prose – though Pushkin has an imposing reputation, he’s very easy to read. So I moved on to The Captain’s Daughter. More to my taste, as there were no supernatural happenings. It’s set in a remote region of Russia beset by rebel uprisings, and involves military matters; there’s a love story, but it’s weak because the girl isn’t fully developed. Dubrovsky is the longest and the least known of the three, but I found it to be the most enjoyable. Revenge for injustice drives the plot, and the love aspect is more convincing because the woman is given room to grow. What stuck me about the last two novels is that they read like boys’ adventure yarns. I think that if Pushkin had lived longer – he was killed in a duel at age thirty-seven – he would have become more serious about his prose and we may have gotten a major work.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Oil! - Upton Sinclair
As Bunny and his father make a long drive over the mountains into California an endearing relationship is established. I liked the man, I liked the little kid. In the opening sections of Oil! Sinclair displays the gift of sustained narrative. Even when we get into the technical aspects of drilling and the business side of the industry (which includes deception and bribes) I was pulled along. Unfortunately for the book, Bunny grows up and becomes an idealistic prig; worse, his father fades into the background. The people who take center stage are crude stereotypes. The rich girl Bunny gets involved with is shallow, manipulative and has no morals (that’s how the rich are). Eli is an over-the-top evangelist, spouting revelations while accumulating wealth (religious hypocrisy in action). Paul – the poor boy who grows into a man with a clear-thinking mind – is a spokesman for all that is just. And so on. Sinclair’s most important work – one which led to reform in the meat packing industry– was The Jungle. In this novel he’s on the side of labor, and is out to show how an “evil Power roams the earth, crippling the bodies of men and women.” I peeked at the last sentence to get that quote; I didn’t make it halfway through this very long polemic. It’s no surprise that Sinclair was a politician – he ran for Congress as a Socialist and for governor as a Progressive Democrat under the banner of “End Poverty in California.” I’m not here to judge his political views – my judgment has to do with his ability as a novelist (he produced forty-five). He had talent – that opening section was good. But then the use of props to make political points took over. And the workmanlike prose turned clumsy; especially irritating was the overuse of exclamation marks. The one lesson I took from Oil! is to avoid any novel that has an exclamation mark in the title.

The Big Clock - Kenneth Fearing
This is one of the six crime novels in The Library of America’s American Noir of the 1930s and 40s (the lead off selection is The Postman Always Rings Twice). But Clock is atypical for the genre. Though there’s one act of violence (not depicted graphically) never does a gun appear, nor are any of the characters tough guys. This is a cerebral work, literary in nature, and it takes place mostly in the office of a New York publishing house or in the suburban home of George Stroud. He’s the main first person narrator, though others briefly take that role. The book involves the choices we make. George chooses to have an affair, and as the result he becomes the suspect in a murder: Who was that man with Pauline Delos on the night of her death? George was that man, and the plot twist is that he’s assigned the job of locating himself. He also knows the identity of the murderer, but to reveal what he knows would expose his affair and thus end his marriage. I found the novel to be engrossing and well-written; it’s a good character study of a flawed man. I was especially grateful that there weren’t any red herrings – we aren’t intentionally misled. That said, the ending was too abrupt and left some important loose ends unresolved. If Fearing could have continued for another twenty pages, pursuing the track he had established while keeping the proceedings logical, he might have a produced a real gem. I have a feeling he tried but found the task too complex to pull off. So maybe his choice to bail out was the right one. A letdown is better than a collapse.

The Cossacks - Leo Tolstoy (Russian)
Tolstoy began this short novel when he was twenty-four and worked intermittently on it for ten years. He was an author who always wanted to impart a higher meaning to his writing, and I think he was searching for – and having trouble finding – more than just a picaresque depiction of the Cossacks. His Olenin is a young Russian nobleman who becomes disenchanted with his profligate life in Moscow; he joins the army as a cadet and is sent to the Caucasus. He becomes enamored by the simplicity of that world and its people. He’s boarded at the home of a family, and he goes from admiring the sturdy beauty of the daughter to deciding that he wants to marry her and live the life of a Cossack. This is a silly idea; he isn’t, and never could be, a Cossack. Nor is there any foundation to his feelings of love for the girl; they don’t even have one conversation of substance. Though Maryanka somewhat encourages Olenin, she’s engaged to Lukashka, a freewheeling young man who’s a Cossack to his marrow. I thought the ending would involve a confrontation between Luka and Olenin; a duel seemed to be in the offing. This never takes place; instead Luka is shot in the stomach during a battle with Chechens. At this point things are wrapped up in a cursory manner: Maryanka turns hostile, Olenin’s regiment gets orders to relocate, he leaves the village (whether or not Luka dies is never disclosed). Later in life Tolstoy expressed dissatisfaction with the book; I’d like to know his reasons why, because I’d probably agree. Olenin’s moony romanticizing annoyed me; Maryanka came across as a tease; Luka was over-the-top with his flamboyant virility; the skirmishes with the Chechins seemed to be an excuse for exhibits of masculine bravado. As for that higher meaning Tolstoy was after, it seems to boil down to this: you can’t be what you’re not cut out to be. Not a bad little novel, but it wouldn’t be in the Everyman Library if it hadn’t been written by Tolstoy. And it certainly doesn’t deserve the words like “masterpiece” and “great” that John Bayley uses in his Introduction.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Jenny - Sigrid Undset (Norwegian)
We first see Jenny through the eyes of a man who falls in love with her. She’s living in Rome, she’s a talented painter, she has friends. She seems in control of her life. But she’s twenty-eight, and when we turn to her perspective we learn that she has never been in love, never had a relationship, and with her youth passing she feels she has missed something. The novel hinges on her attempt to capture what she doesn’t have. Her words provide the best summing up: “I found it so severe and hard to live the life I considered the most worthy – so lonely, you see. I left the road for a bit, wanting to be young and play, and thus came into a current that carried me away . . .” “I have given way to an emotional impulse – lied to myself; I ought to have known if I could keep my word before I said: I love. I have always hated that kind of levity more than anything in the world. Now – to my shame – I find I have done that very thing.” “I wanted never to be ashamed of myself as a woman or an artist. Never do a thing I did not think right myself. I wanted to be upright, firm, and good, and never to have any one else’s sorrow on my conscience. And what was the origin of the wrong – the cause of it all? It was that I yearned for love without there being any particular man whose love I wanted.” In saying the word “love” she has twice caused suffering, and she comes to despise herself. Her art offers no solace, and when her baby dies there’s nothing to sustain her. This grim and powerful tale is told with conviction; I believed in Jenny, I cared for her. Undset also cared for her, but near the end that emotion becomes effusive. Chekhov’s words apply: “When you depict sad or unlucky people, and want to touch the reader’s heart, try to be colder – it gives their grief, as it were, a background, against which it stands out in greater relief. Yes, you must be cold.” Still, I can’t end this review on a critical note – Jenny is too good for that. It takes the familiar themes of love and loneliness and presents them in a new and thought-provoking way.

Walter Winchell - Michael Herr
Reading this novel was like eating buttered popcorn – I consumed one page after another without much thinking involved. Eating popcorn is an apt comparison, for Herr originally wrote WW as a screenplay (for a movie that was never made). It’s mostly snappy dialogue, often abusive, often funny. Winchell was a gossip columnist in the 1940s; at the height of his fame he could make or break someone’s showbiz career, and so was catered to and feared and hated. He eventually moved into radio: “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea . . .” (I vaguely remember that voice which, in Herr’s words, was “Hammering, insisting, hypnotizing.”)  He also dealt in political commentary; he was vigorous supporter of FDR and, later, of Joe McCarthy. As the book races along it takes on more depth. We get a look at Winchell’s Jewish ghetto origins, which were enough to crush most men (poverty, hard knocks, no family life, no education; at twelve he was tap dancing on the vaudeville circuit). If nothing else, he was a battler. It was success, and the power over others it endows, that he craved. Living on the brink of disaster – of stepping on the wrong toes – seemed to give him a high. Was he a bad man? – yes. Did he have redeeming qualities? – yes. But I’m basing my feelings on Herr’s version of him. I’m always suspect of books which depict a real life person. How can they arrive at the truth? At any rate, I was left feeling sympathetic about the decline of this fictional Winchell – it meant so much to him to be on top. And the New York of the forties – that sparkling, glamorous world with its home base in the Stork Club – is nicely evoked. Though one fact is clear: it sparkled and had glamour only for the elite few. Winchell wasn’t the only person striving for money and fame and power. And the struggle was often vicious and dirty.

5001 Nights at the Movies – Pauline Kael
The reviews in this mammoth book came from the work Kael did at The New Yorker. Some pages have eight reviews, some four. The succinct ones work better (the longer ones tend to get bogged down in detail). I read – or skimmed or skipped – through Nights because I wanted to add titles to my Netflix queue. I did get ideas, though I found that Kael’s sensibilities and mine weren’t an ideal match. In the case of films we had both seen we agreed that some were good (or bad), but too often we disagreed. As a rule I don’t write in library books, but in this one I did – lightly, in pencil – when I wanted to refute her criticism of a film I thought was wonderful. It’s a matter of two opinionated people clashing over something they’re passionate about. Kael was a reader too – if a movie is based on a novel or story, she always cites the name of the author and sometimes mentions variations in the adaptation. She was a literate woman, and she writes in a prose that’s a pleasure to read. Another aspect I appreciated is that she didn’t like the vast majority of the films she saw, and she wasn’t afraid to pan them, often with cruelly humorous barbs. A few examples: “You can have a better time cleaning closets than watching this thing.” “Egan gives a performance that would be memorably bad if only one could remember it.” “If someone insists on your going to this movie, take a small flashlight and a book.” “Irene Dunn does something clever with her teeth that makes one want to slap her.” And “As Lady de Winter, Lana Turner sounds like a drive-in waitress exchanging quips with hot rodders.” In this age of lavish praise heaped on undeserving work, Kael’s scathing criticism of something she found to be crummy is mighty refreshing.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Drowned and the Saved - Primo Levi (Italian)
Of the three other books I’ve read by Levi, this is the first that deals with the ten months he spent as a prisoner in Auschwitz. I tend to avoid that subject. Levi, on the other hand, could not avoid it – it was the central experience in his life. Some of what he writes will be hard for survivors of the death camps to accept; he questions the veracity of their memories (his included) and writes that “the worst survived, the selfish, the violent, the insensitive, the collaborators, the spies.” But dehumanized people – and in his analytical way Levi describes the process by which human beings were systematically reduced to animals – are not noble or brave or generous. Especially if they’re in a state of constant fear, hunger, exhaustion. For perpetuating the worst crime known to man Levi condemns not only those authorities who carried out Hitler’s agenda, but also the German civilians who were alive at the time. In the book’s last section he provides excerpts of letters he received from Germans after the publication of Survival in Auschwitz in Germany (it was written in 1947 but not translated into German until 1961). Though he had shown how fear ruled the lives of those imprisoned in the camps, he rejects the claim by Germans that they refrained from any form of resistance due to fear of retribution; he finds the silent (often complacent, in his opinion) onlookers also culpable. Levi died a year after the publication of this book. A coroner deemed his death a suicide, a conclusion that some dispute. What is known is that he fell three stories from the interior landing of his apartment house. Days before his death he had complained to his physician of dizziness. But there must have been a railing on the landing; surely the coroner took into consideration its height to determine if someone could have accidentally toppled over it. At any rate, I don’t think it was healthy for Levi to retire from his job as a chemist; when he devoted full time to writing he had one tormenting subject that he had to revisit. He tried to turn to others – notably (and quite successfully) in The Monkey’s Wrench – but he wasn’t a novelist. In The Drowned and the Saved he writes that a reason which would justify his survival is that he could bear witness. But, he notes, “. . . the thought that this testifying of mine could by itself gain for me the privilege of surviving and living for many years without serious problems troubles me because I cannot see any proportion between the privilege and its outcome.” I have a photo of Levi taken in the summer of 1986 (he died in April, 1987). He’s sitting at his desk, looking over his typewriter at the camera. I can use only one word to describe his expression: desolate. On the pages of his final book there are many references to suicide. And to survivor’s guilt. Ultimately, no one escapes Auschwitz.

The Hermit – Eugene Ionesco (French)
This “novel” is a conceptual mistake in which Ionesco mixes two distinct modes of writing. There’s the story of a man who retires from his job after coming into an inheritance; he moves to a new apartment, begins to settle in, etcetera. Though this unnamed narrator is able to interact with others, he’s solitary and idle – a bad combo – and is prone to anxiety attacks, which he turns to alcohol to ease. I found the account of the man’s daily existence to be fairly interesting. But we also get a heavy dose of his musings on life, death and the Meaning of It All. Or lack of meaning: he sees the world as an inexplicable void. A sample: “I would take on such dimensions that by occupying the entire space that one might refer to as existential, I would again find myself hard against the walls of the inconceivable.” As the book progressed this contemplative aspect took over and became bleak and frenzied; the man seemed to be going mad. But Ionesco had buried him under the weight of so much abstract thinking that I couldn’t relate to a human being. The Hermit was no longer a novel, and I was no longer a reader.

A World of Profit - Louis Auchincloss
There must be at least a few good novels among the thirty-two that Auchincloss wrote in his long life. This doesn’t happen to be one of them, and I won’t be embarking on a search for any winners. Not that Profit is bad – it’s a competent piece of writing, and I finished it. But I did so in a disengaged manner. I had high hopes in the beginning – there a was a plot, characters were developed, dialogue was lively. The first inklings of a problem had to do with motivation. The character’s emotions and actions didn’t ring true; they seemed to be playing roles in a contrived drama. I felt I was reading – for all its trappings of depth and intelligence – what amounted to the equivalent of a TV soap opera. The ending, in which all the dilemmas that had accumulated are left unresolved, wasn’t disappointing because I didn’t care very much about anyone. Auchincloss was born into a wealthy family, attended Groton and Yale, had a career at a prestigious New York law firm. (There’s an orderliness to his prose, probably an asset in composing a legal brief.) He draws from his background for his fictional subject matter, and I think his audience came mainly from the upper crust of society. He also produced over a dozen non-fiction works (the man was a compulsive writer); one is about Edith Wharton, who, like him, was a chronicler of the world of privilege. But in her best work she cared so deeply about her characters that they came alive for the reader. I wonder if Auchincloss realized what she possessed, and what he – at least in this novel – lacked.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Love Among the Daughters - Elspeth Huxley
I found Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika – subtitled “Memories of an African Childhood” – to be quite wonderful, so I got this book of her “Memories of the Twenties in England and America.” In it she observes people with an unflinching eye, but she doesn’t take a critical stance; in a blunt and unladylike way she aims for humor, and achieves it. The England section has a passel of characters (mostly relatives she stays with) who indulge their idiosyncratic tendencies. Aunt Madge is a standout, with her pack of dogs (who fight with each other and make messes in the ramshackle house) and her sulks (she can refuse to speak to her husband for weeks, something Uncle Jack doesn’t object to). Others were hard to sort out; many people are captured vividly, but only briefly. As a result I never established a relationship with them, and when they reappear (and they do keep popping up), I had forgotten what they were like and what their role was. A more substantial problem is that a third of the book is set in America, where Elspeth attends Cornell University for a year; here the approach is anthropological, so different from the immediacy and liveliness of the previous section. I didn’t find five pages describing the rituals of a football game to be exciting reading, and by the time we return to England I was in skimming mode. Huxley (yes, she’s related by marriage to those Huxleys) wrote two dozen books, most of which were nonfiction. And she’s a good writer. But the haphazard construction of Love Among the Daughters works against it. Even that title is unfocused: I had no idea who the daughters were and where love comes into play (love, in fact, is conspicuously absent in relationships). Which brings us back to The Flame Trees of Thika, which is complete unto itself and is the one to read.

The Carreta - B. Traven
Are Traven’s “Jungle Novels” novels? In The Carreta we can go for twenty pages without Andres Ugalde – whose name appears as the first words of the book – playing any role whatsoever. Traven uses this character as a prop through which he can describe (with heavy-handed sarcasm) the exploitation of the Mexican Indians by commercial and political interests. He has Andres become a carretero, the name given to peons who drive carts filled with goods over the mountains. I learned about every aspect of this difficult and dangerous job, right down to the ravenous flies that plagued the yoked oxen. I learned how the patron arranged matters so that workers were bound to him by debt. But by the halfway point (where I abandoned this book) Andres had never emerged as a person I could relate to. Traven was capable of writing novels in which character and plot prevail – The Death Ship and The Bridge in the Jungle attest to that. Possibly the agenda that dominates The Carreta had relevance when he wrote his six jungle books in the 1930s. Though the Mexican Revolution had occurred, the practice of peonage was still prevalent in more remote regions of the country. But that was long ago and far away. In The Octopus Frank Norris made the victims of the railroad monopoly vital and complex humans who still live over a hundred years after the book was written. Traven never achieved this artistic feat.

Spring Torrents - Ivan Turgenev (Russian)
This short novel has Sanin looking back thirty years to the time when he fell in love with Gemma, a beautiful Italian girl. They become engaged, but at that point the wealthy Maria Nikolaevna enters the picture. Whereas Gemma is all simplicity and virtue, Maria is a sophisticated seductress. Sanin is swept away from his true love by this predatory woman who will, he tells us in the coda, “treat him like a lapdog and then discard him.” What follows for him is a “poisoned life, emptied of all meaning.” In betraying and losing Gemma, he lost his chance at happiness. Turgenev is pushing hard to generate sympathy for Sanin (or for himself – the book is considered to be autobiographical); but my predominant feeling was annoyance. After all, this is a late work by someone who’s considered to be a major author. At its best moments, Torrents is mildly diverting. But there’s no depth of characterization. Both women are overdone – extreme types, not real people. Because I didn’t believe in them, I couldn’t believe in Sanin’s feelings for them. Part of the problem is that Turgenev, in 1870, had never heard of the rule of “show, don’t tell.” And he tells in a prose that’s exceedingly gushy; as a result the emotions he’s describing are reduced to silliness. In the sample that follows I invite you to count the overwrought words. Sanin enters Gemma’s room: “No sooner had he crossed the hallowed threshold than all the love which possessed him, its fire, its rapture and its sweet terrors, overwhelmed his whole being and burned within him. He glanced around him with tender adoration, fell at the feet of his beloved . . .”

Friday, February 21, 2020

Two-Part Invention - Madeleine L’Engle
The first third of the book – which I found to be pleasant reading – deals with L’Engle’s life as a young woman. The section ends with her marriage to Hugh when she’s twenty-seven. I had expected what follows to be the story of their forty years together, but instead I got a grueling account of a seventy-year-old man being ground to an empty shell by cancer. Throughout the ordeal L’Engle often questions God, but her conclusion is always the same: “the purpose of a universe created by a loving Maker is to be trusted.” I wondered if Hugh, who was doing the suffering, would agree about a loving God. But he’s absent as a distinct personality. Even in their courting days L’Engle never makes him come alive. As a novelist she should be able to accomplish this, but we get more of what he does than what he is. For most of this book he’s just a body undergoing one medical procedure after another (including something called “platinum chemotherapy,” which uses a scorched earth policy but doesn’t do anything beneficial). I suppose we all must find ways to make it through ordeals. Besides the support of loving friends and family, L’Engle finds sustenance in her spiritual way of thinking. People who share her outlook may find the book uplifting. But I responded by asking “Where’s the anger, the cynicism? When does one give up on God and the gods of medical science and simply allow a merciful death?” I quit reading before I got to the inevitable ending.

Mutiny on the Bounty - Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall
Finally I got to this classic, and though I enjoyed it, I enjoyed some parts more than others. The episodes in Tahiti (in which the fictional narrator, Roger Byam, is the principal character) were too idyllic, and as a result superficial and simplistic. The authors were at their best when conveying the harsh and often brutal life of a sailor in the British navy in the late eighteenth century. It was the captain – the absolute ruler of the ship – who determined the degree of harshness and brutality. Captain Bligh comes across as a paranoid bully. He was competent and even worthy of respect as a seaman, but he alienated the men in ways that ranged from verbal abuse to an over-reliance on physical punishment. In a harrowing opening scene a man is flogged until the flesh of his back is hanging in tattered strips, revealing the bare bones. He dies before receiving the full punishment that naval law had decreed, so another two dozen strokes of the cat-o-nine-tails is applied to his corpse. This barbaric act had not been ordered by Bligh, but he watches it “as a man might watch a play indifferently performed.” Captains generally considered the unrelenting law of the sea to be a necessity. Voyages were long and arduous, and the common sailor was often of disreputable character; mutiny was always a possibility. Fletcher Christian and Captain Bligh, who play major roles in the three movie adaptations of Mutiny, are peripheral characters in the book. They will be featured in subsequent novels by Nordhoff and Hall (who obviously saw that they had struck a gold mine). Men Against the Sea follows Bligh after he’s put in an open launch overloaded with men; he somehow makes a 3600 mile voyage to the island of Timor. Pitcairn’s Island deals with what happened to Fletcher Christian. All the books are based on fact, though in the case of the third the material is scanty and dubious. I’m not interested enough in naval adventures to read the spin-offs. But the author’s considerable achievement in Mutiny was to take the raw material of events that actually happened and transform them into highly readable historical fiction.

The Galton Case - Ross MacDonald
On the left column of this blog is a list of the “most meaningful” books I’ve read, and Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer novels are included. But what’s meaningful at one stage of your life may not hold up in another. I almost never reread a book on that list. Why subject it to reappraisal? If it meant something to me once (even if for the wrong reasons), I should respect that response. The circumstances in which I devoured one after another of MacDonald’s books – I was in my twenties – were unique: I needed escapism, and he fulfilled that need. Now, five decades later, I got the Library of America edition of his “Crime Novels of the Fifties” because I wanted to read the Chronology section. After completing that I took a look at the first chapter of Galton and thought it was near perfect writing. Characters emerged with a quick efficiency, the dialogue was smart and sharp. So I continued. I knew at the outset that my younger self had found his plots too complex to unravel, but back then I just went with the flow, waiting for Archer to fit the puzzle pieces together. Today I’m not so generous toward intentional concealment. Why can’t writers of mysteries let the reader close the net? Often they arrange it so that a person one suspects the least in the beginning turns out to be the guilty party. As the revelations pile up at the conclusion of Galton, the result is a shambles. Some of the virtues of that wonderful first chapter (especially the delineation of character) are present throughout. And there was another aspect I had originally liked and still do: the crime committed in the beginning has its roots in a violent act that took place in the past. This amounts to a theme that must have reflected something in the author’s psyche. Of the eighteen novels featuring Archer, I don’t think I read more than seven during my spree. Maybe Galton wasn’t one of them (it struck no chord of recognition, and Archer seemed more of a tough guy than I recalled). Maybe I read the later novels, and maybe they were better. Or maybe Thomas Wolfe has the last word: “You can’t go home again.” Though “The Lew Archer novels” will remain on my list of most meaningful books, I won’t be revisiting any more of them.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

I happened to check the word count of these reviews. I’m over the 200,000 mark (very close to the length of Moby Dick). The history of this undertaking, and my opinions on reviews in general, can be found at Reviewing the Reviews.
I’m disappointed in the lack of readership. I wish a dialogue about books had developed, one stemming from comments that agree or disagree with my opinions. But I realize that readers of literary works are few (especially when those works are from the past and off the beaten track). And, since I’m not writing for a major newspaper or magazine, those few potential readers aren’t aware of the existence of “Jack London.” I persist because it’s become something I do: I read a book, I offer my take on it. In an odd way, this is my autobiography, though it’s a limited one. I began writing these reviews about 15 years ago, so they constitute less than a fourth of my reading life. The feelings of the twelve-year-old boy who was startled by the power of “To Build a Fire” are not represented.

The Nickel Boys - Colson Whitehead
Elwood is an upstanding high school student who wants a look at the local college where he’ll be taking classes; to get there he hitches a ride, and it turns out that the car he’s in is stolen. A judge sentences him to a reformatory called Nickel Academy. Elwood needs no reforming; but he’s a black boy in rural Florida in the 1960s, and the white judge is apparently not interested in extenuating circumstances. Elwood soon discovers Nickel’s dark secret: brutal beatings, sometimes amounting to intentional murder. Though he obeys the rules, hoping to earn merit points (which can lead to early release), he gets into trouble simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As a result he’s pulled out of his bed at night and taken to the “White House.” The prolonged whipping he receives is so severe that he loses consciousness and must spend weeks in the school’s infirmary; he has scars that he’ll carry for the rest of his life. Whitehead is able to create credible characters and situations, and he does so in a prose that’s clear and smooth. Still, as the main protagonist Elwood is one-dimensional. Another boy, Turner, is more complex and thus stronger. By the end of the novel I understood why Whitehead gave Turner such a prominent role. But I have mixed feelings about that ending. Though surprised by the twists and turns, I felt that I was being tricked. I think the novel should have taken a more direct (and less dramatic) line – should have stuck with Elwood and shown him harden into a man who never achieved his potential. In a note at the end Whitehead states that he based Nickel Academy on a real life place: the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. Soon after finishing the novel, while TV channel surfing, I came to a station devoted to true crime stories; just as I was about to click the remote I heard the word “Dozier.” At the conclusion of the hour long documentary I was left feeling that Whitehead hadn’t subjected Elwood to the worst that Nickel/Dozier had to offer. After his beating Elwood isn’t left to fester in a tiny, crowded sweat house; he isn’t raped (there was another house devoted to that activity); he doesn’t become a slave laborer. And he isn’t an eight year old child. Dozier was a place of evil, run by evil men (men who never came to justice). And though the majority of inmates were black, there were many white boys at Dozier. The two were strictly segregated, and the whites had better facilities, but all suffered. The unmarked graves contain the remains of both races. What these boys, black and white, had in common was poverty. No middle class or wealthy boys were sent to Dozier. Only the poor.

A Town Like Alice - Nevil Shute
I’ve read six other novels by Shute, and this is the first one that I abandoned. Things were going quite well when the setting was Malaysia during WWII. Jean is part of a group of women captured by Japanese forces. They’re made to walk from one location to another, ostensibly to find a prison camp where they can stay. No camp is found, and half the women and children die on the trek. Though Jean is the youngest of the group and the only one unmarried, in her quiet way she becomes the link holding them all together. This person who, in daily life, seems to be ordinary, turns out to be extraordinary in a time of extreme hardship. She isn’t depicted as heroic; her qualities are resourcefulness, grit and compassion. The women happen to meet some Australian men who are also prisoners. Jean strikes up a friendship with Joe, and he helps them by pilfering food and medicine. He’s found out, and the Japanese commander has his hands nailed to a tree, and then he’s beaten to death. Jean survives the war, and the novel switches back to England, where she learns that she’s inherited a large amount of money. What follows are many plot twists, some of which were unlikely. After a shift in locale to Australia, the novel becomes a love story. Besides creating strong and appealing female characters, Shute was usually good at depicting love relationships. This one fell flat for me; I found the scenes of intimacy to be awkward. And the intimacy was limited – the Shute Rule against premarital sex was in effect. That this annoyed me may reflect today’s liberal moral climate, but I think that in the 1940s a twenty-seven-year-old woman wouldn’t be as withholding of her favors as Jean is. Overall, I felt the absence of the more down-to-earth character she had been in Malaysia. The side plot – about transforming desolate Willstown into a town like Alice – bored me, so it was time for me to part ways with my old friend Nevil.

Tania - Parmenia Miguel
This is an unlikely book for me to read. It’s a “biography and memoir” of Isak Dineson, a writer I’m not a fan of. But Dinesen was a colorful character, and Miguel is such a good writer that she pulled me into the story. In her short Preface she states that Dinesen feared being misrepresented, particularly by her fellow Danes. She also was afraid of being subjected to Freudian probing. So she asked Miguel to take on the job of writing her biography; and, out of friendship and loyalty, Miguel acquiesced. She states that her approach was to “present a portrait of a Romantic and magical personality, not at all of the twentieth century.” Rather than an effort at dissection, she “opted for a more lyrical interpretation in keeping with Tania’s spirit.” Though at times Miguel takes an adoring attitude to Dinesen, I found myself reading between the lines and seeing someone a good deal less than attractive. Was this Miguel’s intent? And it’s interesting that though the book is based on “many years of visits and interviews,” Miguel appears only once, as “the wife of an American diplomat in Paris.” Yet, though she plays no role in these pages, Miguel seems to have access to her subject’s innermost thoughts. Does this constitute the “memoir” aspect of the title? And in this revealing book much is left unrevealed. Foremost, for me, was Dinesen’s relationships with men. Though she very much wanted men to find her attractive, to fall under her spell (a desire that increased as she grew old and frail), I wondered if this childless woman ever had any sexual relationships. Deny’s was supposedly the love of her life, but what was the nature of their intimacy – was there any intimacy at all? It’s all a bit mysterious – which, oddly, adds to the success of the book. As for the woman who emerges – and Dinesen does emerge – I felt respect for her indomitable nature. And she has some interesting observations to make: “There are three kinds of complete joy in the world: 1) to feel an excess of strength within oneself; 2) to be convinced that one is fulfilling one’s destiny; 3) the cessation of pain.” I wasn’t aware of how famous Dinesen was in her lifetime. This was enormously important to her. And the question arose in my mind: what would have become of her if she had no fame – if she hadn’t fulfilled the destiny she desired? I think her life story would be very bleak indeed. She gave a talk at the Poetry Center in New York, and Miguel describes the scene as she was leaving: “Crowds gathered afterwards on the sidewalk to catch a glimpse of the diminutive teller of tales leaving the auditorium in a wheelchair, swathed in black, her eyes luminous with a sort of trancelike excitement, her arms filled with red roses.”