Sunday, May 5, 2024

Burmese Days – George Orwell
A book written in anger can be exhilarating, which is the case here. Orwell spent five years as a member of the Imperial Police Force in Burma, so his anger is based on personal experience. Mostly he’s angry at the mentality of the British administrators who are in charge of exploiting the considerable wealth of Burma. Most of them are contemptuous toward the native Burmese (the word “nigger” appears with monotonous regularity in their conversation). Yet they are not above using the women for sexual purposes. They’re an unhappy, dissatisfied, lonely group of men, who drink to excess (in some cases to unconsciousness). Flory is the main character, and it’s obvious that he is Orwell. But Orwell is in an attack mode, and Flory is not spared; at the end he is destroyed – violently. Which, I believe, is a misstep. One aspect of the discontent among the British is that most are without wives. When a young British woman arrives Flory falls in love with her. A love without a valid basis, for she is the polar opposite of all he believes in. Yet he convinces himself that she can share his innermost feelings, that they can be soul mates. The proper ending, in my estimation, would be for the two to marry. Flory would soon enough find out what a disastrous mistake he has made. But that may be a track Orwell wasn’t willing to pursue; the plot is already quite complex, teeming with characters and situations, and I think he wanted to cut things short. The prose is utilitarian, but the novel has a potent velocity. If Orwell cared enough to write something, it has value. 4

The Night Visitor – B. Traven
In 2009 I reviewed this collection, and deemed the stories to be “good (or pretty good; none are very good).” The reason I’m reviewing it again is that previously I didn’t reread the long title story. I wrote in the review that I would “let that chilling nightmare remain intact in my memory.” And I cite it as the sole reason why the book is worthy of being on my MMB list. Well, this time around I did reread “The Night Visitor,” and it left me cold. No chills, no nightmarish feelings were evoked. I found the premise to be unconvincing, and the Indian from the past who emerges at night seemed no more than a contrivance. My ho-hum reaction brings up the whole problem in these rereads. At some unknown age I was obviously moved by the story. Why? What changes occurred in me? – for the story has not changed. Which evaluation is valid? I’m not sure. Still, since many rereads do hold up, I have to delete this one.

The Collector – John Fowles
This novel disturbed me as very few do. The first section is told from Frederick Clegg’s POV, in his voice. We see his logic, his justifications, and we also see what he doesn’t: the horror of his actions. This is a warped man, and to be in his mind is chilling. Miranda, the person he “collects” (as he does butterflies) and holds prisoner also emerges. Not through any understanding on Clegg’s part (he can’t even understand himself), but through her responses and actions that he duly records. She wants desperately to live, and fights for her freedom in any way she can devise. That makes up the first section of this 300 page book. The next section is told from Miranda’s POV, through her writing in a sort of diary. This section, for me, was a big drop-off. Actually, we already knew all we needed to know about Miranda. Her thoughts are just not that interesting. A lot of pontificating about what is valuable in life, about art, about an older guy she’s infatuated with (to me he came across as a prig). Truth to tell, I found myself dragging through this section. I can understand Fowles’ dilemma. To have a novel, and not a novella, he had to take the path he took. He just wasn’t able to pull it off. Yet I need to be more charitable to the Miranda who is writing in her diary: she’s young, her ideas are important to her, she tries to keep them alive in captivity. After her death we return to Clegg’s POV. Always justifying. Though he’s a prisoner, in his own distorted mind, he victimizes others. What “grade” do you give a novel in which the first half is a tour de force and the second half mediocre? The strengths are so compelling that they win over the day. I can only deduct one point from a five. 4

Animal Farm – George Orwell
Orwell originally subtitled this novella “A Fairy Story.” I’m glad that was dropped, but I see a parallel between Farm and the work of the Grimm brothers. Their tales were indeed grim, full of cruelty and horrific events – and so is Farm. In this reading I had a gut reaction: I truly detested Napoleon and his toadies and I was appalled by the methodical subjugation of the animals. This reaction on my part was, I believe, Orwell’s intent. By framing his story in an almost childlike way he was able to convey what he couldn’t accomplish in a political essay: his hatred of the Communist regime. What he did in Farm was deceptively simple; he wrote that it was “the only one of my books that I really sweated over.” He had trouble finding a publisher; at the time (1945) England and the USSR were allies against Hitler. But Orwell saw clearly what was going on under Stalin’s iron fist. That was his gift: to see clearly and to find a way to express his feelings. In this instance, the way he chose was perfect. 5

Sunday, March 24, 2024

Amongst Women – John McGahern
This was the Irish writer’s next to last novel. I had read his final one – By the Lake – and loved it. This one doesn’t evoke love. It’s much harsher, and, though well-written and engrossing, I was left feeling there were gaps that should have been filled. I wound up not understanding what made the main character, Moran, tick. This small-scale farmer could be good natured, charming, amusing, but too often his mood would abruptly change, and he would say things that were extremely hurtful. Where did this cruel streak come from, what provoked it? Was it his youthful participation in the Irish War for Independence, in which he committed violent acts? (Not, in my opinion, a sufficient reason.) The objects of his affection and his cruelty are his five children and his second wife (we know nothing of his first wife, the mother of the children). All in his family are acutely aware – and apprehensive – of his potential black moods, yet are overly grateful for his good ones. He exercised a sort of tyranny over people, yet “Daddy” – at least for the women – is a great man, and they love him. He never uses physical force on the women, though he did on his two sons (both of whom rebel; one breaks ties almost completely). While I didn’t understand Moran, the women came across strongly. Especially Rose, the wife, who is constantly put in a position of peacemaker. Anyway, in closing, I offer my feeling about Moran: he didn’t deserve the love and respect he received from the women in his life. But at least I was interested enough in him and the others to form a strong opinion.

The Big Love – Tedd Thomey
Actually, the cover cites Mrs. Florence Aadland as the author – the book is “As told to Tedd Thomey.” He did the writing, but in her voice. We occupy Florence’s mind – exclusively, with, I believe, no intrusion by Thomey – as she tells the story of her fifteen-year-old daughter’s affair with an aging Errol Flynn. Did Thomey use a tape recorder? Or just take notes? Did Mrs. Aadland approve of what he had written? I think she must have, since she’s listed as the author. This book brought to mind Jean Stafford’s A Mother in History. I objected to Stafford’s attitude toward Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother; she gave us nothing but a hatchet job. But Thomey seems not to include an authorial opinion on Florence Aadland. He lets her emerge. It’s obvious to the reader that she engages in a distortion of the truth to make what occurred seem justifiable. It’s fascinating to see a mind in motion, trying to turn what is lurid into a “big love.” Readers will judge Florence Aadland harshly. She deserves it, for her bad choices. Anyway, she’s fully punished for any mistakes she made. This book is about ambition, and the lure and power that celebrity yields. It’s about victimization when the victim is complicit. Though told in told a most simple way, it can be seen as an American tragedy. 4

The Magic Christian – Terry Southern
Short, even for a novella. Yet I couldn’t make it to the halfway point. The fabulously wealthy Guy Grant devises outlandish projects that reveal how low people will stoop to get money. Well, what’s new about greed, in a society where money is so important? To demean people struck me as cruel. The book is supposed to be comic, but it’s just self-indulgent, juvenile nonsense. I must have been juvenile to have once liked it. (delete)

Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe (Nigerian)
Written by a Nigerian in English, this novel presents us with a rich and complex native African culture. Achebe doesn’t glamorize or sanitize it; it has its good and bad aspects. As for the good, their system of dispensing justice when disputes arise seems sound. But women are decidedly subservient (a role they accept). And some beliefs lead them to brutal acts, such as disposing of twins at birth in the Evil Forest. They are not a peaceable people, though wars between tribes are rare. Many gods, in many forms (quite a few malignant), influence people deeply. Their culture is rich in verbal myths, in origin stories (such as how the turtle got its uneven shell). This is a cohesive society in which there are no un-believers. Then, in the last third of the novel, white missionaries arrive and exert a divisive influence; they slowly but inexorably undermine the old beliefs. This constitutes things falling apart. After the missionaries a governing body arrives, and they use force to exert their dominance. Though a novel, this is mainly an anthropological study because the main character, Okonkwo, is one-dimensional, and evokes no sympathy; also, there isn’t any plot to speak of. Still, I can see the importance of the work: it makes a foreign culture come to life. As for the prose, it is admirably simple, straightforward, strong. 4

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The Car Thief – Theodore Weesner
This is the story of a boy in his mid teens who isn’t making it in life. He lives in a shabby apartment with his father, who’s an alcoholic, and  he’s an outsider at school. He’s full of amorphous feelings that bring on a restlessness, and to ease the pressure he steals cars and drives about aimlessly before abandoning them. It’s a purposeless act, and he’s not sure why he does it. He winds up being arrested and sent to a detention center for wayward youths. When released he returns home and tries to get straight. But it’s hard. Weesner makes Alex and his predicament believable. We’re in his mind for over 300 pages, but he isn’t presented in an outwardly sympathetic way; he’s not made a victim, or particularly sensitive or insightful. And yet – as they say – I felt for him. His father plays a big role in his life. He’s a good man – kind and understanding – and he holds a steady job at a factory, but his unhappiness constantly leads him to the bottle. The mother is an uncaring absentee in Alex’s life, and I felt antagonistic toward her. Yes, this book generated strong feelings in me. It was Weesner’s first novel, written when he was in his late thirties. It’s clearly autobiographical; he was Alex, complete with the theft of cars, the stay in a detention center, the dropping out of school and joining the army (which is where Thief ends). It’s very hard to write about oneself – to do it truthfully. But this unadorned work rings true. 4

The Ox-Bow Incident – Walter Van Tilburg Clark
In the first twenty or so pages I had problems. There was too much detailed description of men whose role in this affair had not been established. And then, when news of a cattle rustling and murder are delivered to the saloon, and a posse is proposed, with the intent of capturing and lynching the perpetrators, one character goes into a long speech about Justice and the Law vs. mob rule. He reappears at the end, wrestling with the issue of guilt. These are lapses – readers can arrive at their own conclusions about such issues without a spokesperson expounding them. In his Introduction to the edition issued by the Time Reading Program, Clark writes that the book “overexplains itself, to some extent.” True. The book is at its best when it simply allows the strength of the tale to take over. And with the arrival of the authoritative figure of Major Tetley things start to move with purpose. Move slowly, but the with an inevitability that’s unsettling. Unsettling because the reasonable option of bringing the three accused men into town is rejected. The person telling the story, in the first person, is Art Croft, and he constitutes the novel’s main strength. He’s an observer who sees both sides, but doesn’t back either. In his telling the inner natures of various people are revealed, and the moral issues emerge naturally. The atmosphere Clark creates is as bleak as the lives of people who live in Bridger’s Wells. This is a “western” without one bit of glamour or heroics. Incident was another first novel (I’ve been rereading a lot of first novels, haven’t I?). 4

No Laughing Matter – Joseph Heller and Speed Vogel
No, it isn’t a laughing matter. I’ve started three books by and about writers, and have been hugely disappointed in all of them. I’m reviewing Laughing because I got further into it than I did with the other two (though not to the halfway point). I abandoned ship because I couldn’t bear to spend any more time with Heller and his pal Speed. The story: Heller comes down with Guillain-Bare syndrome and is hospitalized for six months. His chapters alternate with Speed’s. Seems Heller is a quite a character, cranky and rude, but everybody just loves the guy. They’d give their eye teeth for him. And all these people are Somebodies, many with names you’d recognize: Mel Brooks, Zero Mostel, Dustin Hoffman, Mario Puzo. Everybody who runs in the Heller/Vogel gang is a colorful character, and they know all the In Places in New York. They do such things as form a Gourmet Club; every week they go to Chinatown and gorge themselves while carrying on with tremendous wit (according to Speed, they far exceed the Algonquian Club in witty repartee). But I saw no evidence of wit. What stands out – glaringly– from the Speed sections is the word “friend.” If I had the energy I’d count how many times that word appears in one of his chapters; it would surely set a world record. Everybody is a friend if you’re famous and wealthy. If you’re neither, New York can be a dismal place. Sour grapes? Well, back when I first read this book I was young and impressionable. Now I’m old and cynical. Who sees the truth more clearly? This is a phoney book, a lame attempt to make money. Heller offers up descriptions of his condition and treatment, but in only one chapter does he touch (lightly) on emotions like fear and  depression. Instead he meets a nurse who’s just about perfect, and love takes over. That’s when I checked out. The other two books? Both had an ass-kissing feel. In A Friendship Willie Morris gives a loving portrait of James Jones. Too much love for me to stomach. In A Private Correspondence Lawrence Durrell exchanges letters with Henry Miller. It begins with an adoring fan letter, and what proceeds is a high-blown literary discussion. How I was ever able to follow this convoluted nonsense is a mystery to me. I guess it was that impressionable stage I was in. I thought, as someone with literary ambitions, that this was the life fo me. But now I see the callousness and indifference of that exclusionary world. (All three books are deletions)

Tuesday, December 26, 2023

The Night of the Hunter – Davis Grubb
The tone and atmosphere that envelopes this book is unique and effective. What Grubb establishes is a world far apart from ours. His novel takes place in the Ohio River Valley of West Virginia during the Great Depression. It’s an already impoverished area which holds onto strong fundamentalist religious beliefs. The story he tells is a child’s nightmare with the surrealistic elements of nightmares. What is the basis for the fears the very young have – of a monster in the closet, under the bed? John, at age nine, has to live in an all-too-real nightmare, and there is nobody he can share his burden with. His monster – the Preacher – wants to know where $10,000 in stolen money is hidden, and he knows that John knows where it is. But John has sworn a solemn oath to his father not to reveal the secret – no matter what. This is a boy burdened by a responsibility far too great to bear, and we watch with apprehension the effects on him. That’s the story, and Grubb’s artistry in telling it is remarkable. His  prose is rough-hewn, as if carved out of wood, which is exactly what it should be, and the people speak in the vernacular of their time and place. There are elements of a fable, of a gothic fairy tale, of a religious allegory concerning good and evil. We’re presented with a conflict between Love and Hate, those two words etched on Preacher’s fingers. Read this one – it’s an experience. 5

The Gypsy Moths - James Drought
This is the weakest of my deletes. I can briefly sum up its virtues. It’s an easy read, the scenes of parachute jumping are fairly interesting (Drought was trained as a paratrooper). And it’s short. But the first person narrator is limited in what he knows about the relationships in the family he and two other stunt jumpers stay with; there are dire problems between Mr. and Mrs. Brandon, the narrator’s aunt and uncle, but we never find out what they are. Also staying with them is a college student named Annie who wears the label “love interest” for our young narrator. (BTW, I’m not using the narrator’s name because I don’t recall it; he’s always referred to as “Kid” by the other jumpers). As for those two guys, we never know why Rettig has a death wish, which he carries out after, apparently, having, on his first and only night with the Brandons, a tryst on the sofa with the wife. (There’s a lot I don’t know, right?) Browdy, the third jumper, is only interested in profits. Anyway, after the fatal first jump there’s a second one the next day (to cover funeral expenses) in which the Kid does the dreaded Cape Trick. On the way down he chooses Life over Death. He and Annie decide to get out of the Brandon house, and to take a train to parts unknown. The End. The movie version, directed by John Frankenheimer, was, as I recall, good. It starred Burt Lancaster as Rettig and Deborah Kerr as Mrs. Brandon. Obviously, with those big stars, the script filled in the gaping holes that are present in this amateurish first novel. 1 (delete)

Little Man, What Now? – Hans Fallada (German)
A novel about love and money. Great topics, handled exceedingly well. Fallada presents us with a young couple, Hans and Bunny, who are both believable and appealing. (Especially Bunny – one of the strongest female portrayals in fiction.) That they love one another is presented simply and yet with depth. That’s the key element that marks this novel – it’s simply written and yet achieves depth. I cared about these two, from the first page to the last. The aspect of money comes in because they have very little. The novel was published in Germany in 1932, in the midst of that country’s economic collapse. While prices skyrocketed, wages were low and jobs scarce. This brought out the worst in many (especially those in charge) and the best in others. The novel begins with the couple finding that Bunny is pregnant; Hans promptly proposes marriage (this is not forced on him; they are already fully committed to one another). We follow them as Hans tries to find work, and then to hold onto a position as a salesman at Mandels Department Store. They move from place to place, always trying to make ends meet. When the baby is born, the pressure increases. The novel was immensely popular in Germany; it spoke to millions. The words “Nazi” and “Communist” appear a few times, but the book doesn’t concern itself with politics. Hitler’s name is absent, and, though a few characters happen to be Jewish, anti-Semitism is also not an issue. Again – this novel is about love. I can’t think of anything I’ve read about that emotion that rang so true. Fallada doesn’t give us romanticism; rather, he makes us believe in a bond that cannot be broken. At the end, Han’s self image as a man is shattered – but Bunny will stand by him. Of course she will. This ending is powerful, it left me shaken. I can only hope these two make it – somehow. 5

Angel – Elizabeth Taylor
Angelica Deverell is her name, and we follow her life from age fifteen to her death some five decades later. She’s the author of long novels teeming with opulent fantasy. These novels have no literary merit, but are wildly popular with a certain set of readers, and they make Angel wealthy. She’s a person who, since childhood, escaped into fantasy worlds; she didn’t accept the shabby one she was born into, or its people (including her mother). She sees herself as someone grand, and she fully lives out that role. Reality is rejected, or twisted, to suit her tastes. That she succeeds in self-deception is a mark of a strong personality, and Angel is definitely formidable. A force, one fully capable of plowing over anything or anyone in her way. But how long and faithfully can one carry out self-delusion? That’s the bare outline of the unique story that Taylor tells with ease and artfulness. It’s a complex tale, with many events, many characters. The depth with which those secondary characters are developed is one of the books achievements. This novel is full of remarkable achievements. One of which is the fact that I came to care about Angel, with all her enormous flaws (of which an oblivious selfishness is one). I even felt protective of her. 5

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Life in the Crystal Palace – Alan Harrington
This is a study of a corporation. An ideal corporation, but, for Harrington (who worked in Public Relations), not a good fit; he was by nature a rebel caught in a labyrinth of benevolent conformity. So he’s critical of the Crystal Palace, though not in an angry, spiteful way. His approach is analytical, and it’s complete – he leaves no stone unturned. Which made for slow going. I was often uninterested, detached. Maybe, when I first read the book, I was employed in a big corporation, or had recently left one. So the book had relevance. Now it lacks that, and is basically a sociological study, so it does not belong on a list of Most Meaningful Books. 2 (delete)

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – Brian Moore
This is an angry book, and Moore goes on attack in a brutal fashion. No subtleties or niceties here; even the prose is as blunt as a club. He doesn’t spare poor Judith Hearne, the spinster of meager means who, on the first page, moves into a new boarding house. She isn’t portrayed with much sympathy: she’s not very intelligent or insightful and has many minor faults (such as an unwarranted snobbishness). Yet she’s a desperate soul – desperate for love or friendship; she feels herself at the dead end of a life of emotional deprivation, and can’t accept it. Most of those around her are specimens of humanity at its worst – meanness and cruelty and greed are prevalent. The plot centers on Judith’s hopes for a relationship with a man; not the man of her dreams – far from it – but a man anyway, someone who will care for her, care about her. This dream is, of course, shattered. Then, halfway through the book, Judith’s severe drinking problem is introduced. I didn’t quite buy this, especially since we never see her in her wild intoxicated state; I think Moore was using the alcoholism as a means to hurry his character to her end – an end in which she loses even her religious beliefs. Yet, I must say, at that end, on the last page, when Judy (she liked to be called Judy) is in a nursing home (where she will stay), and she begins to gather the few of her precious life possessions around her, I was truly moved. Yes, we try to carry on. Moore’s anger is at the injustice of life, though he also shows his deep enmity for the Catholic religion and the city of Belfast, which is portrayed as a woefully dismal place. A few notes: The original title was simply Judith Hearne, and the book was turned down by ten (some sources say twelve) publishers before it found a home. 4

Mrs. Bridge – Evan S. Connell
The novel is composed of what I’ll call “snapshots” (117 of them).They are often less then a page long, seldom over two, and all have titles (Good-by Alice, Tea Leaves). These snapshots present scenes – of a quiet nature – that cover the life of Mrs. Bridge from early marriage to elderly widowhood. She has all the things that Judith Hearne desired: a husband, three children, a beautiful house (the Bridges are part of the affluent Country Club set in Kansas City). Yet the husband is a workaholic who’s at his office most of the time, and when he’s home there seems to be no relationship between them; he’s tired, taciturn by nature, and is not the type to discuss feelings. As for the children, two of them turn away from her at a very young age. Why? She loves them and is a dutiful mother. Perhaps there’s one thing about her that they rebel against: her beliefs are conventional; she gently disapproves of anything they do that falls outside of propriety. This is, in fact, the one characteristic about Mrs. Bridge that stands out. Propriety rules her life: she never deviates in her thinking from anything that is not “proper.” She also has too much empty time on her hands, with a live-in cook/waitress/maid and a weekly laundress. Though she sometimes thinks of expanding her horizons – reading a good book or attending a class – all these ideas quickly die on the vine. But Connell has not written a harsh portrayal of a woman who is, as he’s stated, based on his own mother. She doesn’t deserve harshness: she hasn’t a mean bone in her body. And, as time goes by, a fleeting darkness begins to pervade her thinking. She considers her life in which each empty day proceeded like the one before. But she cannot change; that same life moves on and on, and there comes a time when moments of depression and even panic set in, a feeling that she is unloved and unwanted. All is not well in her tidy little world. I felt, despite Mrs. Bridge’s limitations, that the people around her – husband and children – failed her. What came across for me in this portrait was a sense of guilt and regret – embedded there by the author. For the son in the novel is one of those who failed her. This is a fine novel, highly readable and artfully done. 5

Mr. Bridge – Evan S. Connell
Strange. In all my other re-reads I recognized that I had been there before. Often I could remember the endings (in the case of Judith Hearne I knew her shoes would appear on the last page “with the little buttons, winking up at her”). But with Mr. Bridge I recognized nothing. Yet I had it listed as one of my Most Meaningful Books, and I had it in my bookcase. My conclusion is that either it never made any impression or, more likely, I had never read it – it’s on the list solely as a companion piece to Mrs. I plowed my way though most of it before calling it quits. It uses the same format as the preceding book, but is much longer. The snapshots are repetitive in presenting character; we keep getting slight variations on the man’s feelings, words and actions (all ultra-conservative). To be fair, it’s a thorough portrait of Mr. Bridge. But I found him to be a bore, nor did I like him. And whereas Mrs. was artfully done, this was a plodding piece of writing (which is, actually, in keeping with the character’s personality). In it Mrs. is merely an insipid presence and the obnoxious son is given far too much attention. Connell wrote this book ten years after Mrs. (which was his first novel). Maybe he felt he needed to complete the family portrait. Maybe he was searching for something to write. But the creative spark wasn’t there – a sad decline by a writer who always had a struggle producing fiction. And sad too because it serves to detract from its predecessor. 2 (delete)

Saturday, November 4, 2023

The Professional – W. C. Heinz
This novel follows a boxer’s preparation for a title bout. One of its unique aspects is its accurate depiction of the world of boxing. (You can throw out all those fight movies you’ve seen – they’re totally bogus and ridiculous.) The novel is primarily about three people: Eddie Brown, the boxer; Frank Hughes, a sports writer who’s doing a magazine story on Eddie; and Doc Carroll, Eddie’s trainer and manager. We’re never in Eddie’s mind – we only get to know him by his words and actions – but Frank is the first person narrator, so we’re privy to his thoughts and feelings. We also get to know Doc, because he talks a lot to Frank, and he’s quite open about what he thinks and feels. The locale, for almost the entire book, is a hotel in upstate New York – a secluded place in the off-season. It’s where Eddie, the contender, prepares his body and mind (under the scrupulous guidance of Doc).You’re not interested? That’s a shame, because this is a novel that digs deep into character. It’s conveyed mostly through dialogue – dialogue that ranks with best I’ve ever read. Heinz (a sportswriter; this was his only work of fiction) was a master of clean, clear prose. It’s interesting that the championship bout, which is the goal being pursued with such dedication and determination, takes up only a single page. 5

Heaven’s My Destination – Thornton Wilder
Twenty-three-year-old George Brush is tall, handsome, intelligent – and a man devoted to passing on his moral beliefs. They stem from his study of the Bible (plus some Gandhi and a touch of Marx). It’s not a private affair (though he lives in accordance with the beliefs he advocates); he takes every opportunity to instruct strangers on how to live the proper life, and he will politely correct any transgressors he comes across. He sees this as a duty. The reception he gets can range from disinterest to indignation to physical attacks. George emerges not as a comic character but as a lonely man unable to relate to flawed humanity (which includes, to his despair, women; he very much wants to be married and have a family). His job as a traveling salesman takes him through the Midwest and South during the Great Depression. He’s very successful at selling textbooks to schools because he has perused every volume, and he believes that Caulkin Press puts out the best product of its kind (if he didn’t believe this he wouldn’t have taken the job). You might get the impression that Destination is heavy going, but the opposite is true. It has a jaunty, buoyant quality, and is often quite funny. That said, it offers up ideas. Though George seems to change nobody, is he right in his beliefs? At any rate, I loved the guy, in all his naive sincerity. This is one of those rare books that I think everybody should read, for both the pleasure it gives, and for those ideas. 5

The Deep Sleep – Wright Morris
The way this book is constructed is unique. There are five characters, three women and two men, and the narrative constantly shifts from one to another. It works like this: we’re in one character’s mind, and then someone else enters the room, and we shift to that person’s perspective. Each character has his/her four or five pages (in the third person, with their name as the title of their section) and this shifting goes on for over 300 pages. We get to know each of these people (though the men come across more strongly then the women). Actually, there’s a sixth character, Judge Porter, who is recently deceased; it’s his passing that has brought his daughter and her husband to the house. The Judge emerges in a vague way – a man respected in the community but a stranger in his home (why this is I didn’t fully understand, but it has to do with his wife). I’ve read a lot of Morris’s work, and it seems to me that he loved the act of writing too much, which can result in words that have no real purpose in developing the plot and characters. Sometimes the book rambles without purpose, and I would become uninvolved. But, still, there’s a lot that’s good – and you won’t read anything quite like it, which counts as an achievement. 3

The Cook – Harry Kressing
This novel has been praised as a diabolical masterpiece, and it’s obvious that at some time I must have been one of its fans. My theory about its success is simple: you have to buy into the premise that Conrad (the cook) is all powerful. His manipulative skills are overwhelming, and he handles the wealthy family where he is employed as if they are as malleable as warm putty. By the end his employers have become his servants – literally, uniforms and all – and he rules at the Prominence mansion. On this reading that premise increasingly became unacceptable. Never a hitch, never a misstep as Conrad moves smoothly to his goal? People are simply weak pawns without wills? Really? It’s as easy as that? It all came to seem contrived, and the predictability of events caused a ho-hum feeling to set in. Not helping matters was my objection to the cruelty – notably a repellant scene where Conrad impales another cook’s hand to a tabletop. Its weirdness gives this book a compelling aspect, and it’s written in a nice prose style. But there’s not enough of substance to make it worth your (or my) time. 2 (delete)

Friday, September 29, 2023

The Big Sky – A. B. Guthrie
In our country’s northwest, in the mid-1800s, there existed a strange breed called mountain men. Guthrie’s considerable achievement is to bring them and their world alive. This panoramic novel rings true, and the truth is often brutal. To survive these men had to be resourceful, courageous, hard. If they were to eat, they must kill. If they were to make the little money they needed (they mostly lived off the land, but certain necessities must be bought), they had to kill beaver and buffalo for the skins and hides. They faced the constant threat of Indians (who are depicted as far from noble), wild animals, the weather – it was a hostile world. Yet it’s the world the mountain men chose, with no personal gain in mind. Populated places were alien to them. That’s not to say they were solitary – they usually traveled in small groups, partly for protection. Boone Caudill, the novel’s main character, makes two friendships that last for many years. Jim Deakins is a philosopher with a humorist’s bent, old Dick Summers is a teller of yarns; both contribute rich, colorful dialogue (Boone uses words sparingly). The Big Sky is a tragedy on several levels. The Native American culture begins its disintegration, the great buffalo herds start to dwindle, the pure and wild land sees the arrival of settlers. But before all that comes to completion, Boone – who’s too hard, too unflinching – will alienate himself forever from the only world he can live in. We understand what makes this deeply flawed man what he becomes, though we shrink from his decisions and actions. When I first read The Big Sky as a teenager I thought it was a great novel. I still do. 5

End of the Road – John Barth
I found the ending of this novel to be very disturbing, and to elicit such a response Barth deserves credit. Mostly the novel resides in the realm of the bizarre. Jacob suffers from an inability to make decisions. A doctor spots him sitting in the same spot, motionless, in a train station on consecutive days, and Jacob enters his therapy (the nameless doctor’s speciality is nihilistic paralysis). Part of Jacob’s therapy leads him to a job at a State Teachers College where he meets another teacher, Joe Morgan, and his wife Rennie. This couple share a marriage based on a highly rigorous dedication to authenticity. All these elements are buried in convoluted intellectual verbiage. And they’re unconvincing. Indecisive Jacob constantly makes decisions, and the authenticity Joe imposes on Rennie (once with a punch on the jaw that knocks her out – simply because she continually apologizes) struck me as insane. At one point Rennie says “I think all our troubles comes from thinking too much and talking too much.” My response was: Exactly! So why did I read the book, why did I get emotionally involved? Partly because for long stretches it was intelligible and inventive, even stimulating. And partly because I grew to care about Rennie. She bears a good deal of responsibility for what befalls her, but if she never met Joe and Jacob she could have led a normal life. Road is early Barth – before he started writing 800 page postmodernistic blockbusters. It’s strong stuff. 4

S. S. San Pedro – James Gould Cozzens
This odd little novel takes place entirely aboard a ship sailing from New York to Argentina. Besides 172 passengers and a full crew, it’s loaded with cargo (cars, cash registers, machine guns, cotton shirts, children’s toys, a million dollars in gold, etc.). We begin in port, where a doctor who has been seeing the captain is about to leave. This doctor, so weird looking as to cause people to recoil, asks for a tour of the ship, and this task is assigned to a senior officer, Anthony Bradell. At one point the doctor makes an offhand remark: “But you do not float quite level, do you?” Bradell will remember these words near the end of the book, when the ship is going through the final agonizing stages of sinking. He will also remember that the doctor, when describing the captain’s condition, says, “People grow old, Mr. Bradell. They break down, they wear out.” This turns out to be true: the captain cannot make decisions, though continuing to demand that he be obeyed. What makes the book odd is the way it’s told. There’s a sense of detachment. With a single exception (and that’s a brief one) we see things only from the perspective of various members of the crew. And though they diligently struggle on, they recognize their inadequacy: the uncaring, devouring sea will have its way. This is early Cozzens – before he, like Barth, expanded his scope. Which was unfortunate. He did his best work when he was short and concise. 4

The Postman Always Rings Twice – James M. Cain
What a disappointment! I can forgive myself for once liking this crime novel, for I was probably in my twenties when I first read it, and its serving of sadomasochistic sex and tough guy action must have impressed me. Now it seems fake and ridiculous (Cora’s “Bite me! Bite me!” made me cringe in embarrassment). The occasional musings by Frank of a religious nature are corny (looking in Cora’s eyes “was like being in church”). Not even the plot, involving the murder of Cora’s “greasy” Greek husband, is convincing. Like the attempts to kill him, the book is an ill-conceived mess. Yet on publication in 1934 it was a huge hit with the public and the intelligentsia (well, some of them). It gained praise from big name critics (Edmund Wilson) and writers (Albert Camus). Dorothy Parker claimed it was a love story; how a cynic like her could have found any love on these pages is beyond me. The Modern Library included it in its list of the one hundred greatest novels of the 20th Century; there are many movie versions, and even an opera. Am I missing something? The terse dialogue and minimalistic approach may have been innovative at the time. Yet even with those virtues, the plot drags on when Cain tries to explain things at length. Maybe the harshness of this review stems from the fact that I’ve actually recommended this book to people. 1 (Delete)

Friday, September 1, 2023

Reviews from the past
Immortality - Milan Kundera (Czech)
Kundera isn’t a novelist. He’s a thinker whose writing serves as a forum for his ideas. He has attained such eminence in the literary world that he can do whatever he wants; this shapeless grab bag of a book is what I’ll call philoso-fiction. In it the author plays a role, as does Goethe and other real-life figures from the past. The fictional modern-day characters are subordinate to Kundera’s larger aims, so they aren’t fully-developed. Free rein can liberate or lead to self-indulgence, or it can do both. Immortality may offer up a unique potpourri for the intellect, but it lost its luster for me (and it did have luster for a while). The overall perspective on human nature is a cynical one. An example: a woman is given the choice (it’s one or the other) of spending the next life with her husband of many years or of never meeting him again; her answer is “We prefer never to meet again.” (She phrases it as “we” because her husband is sitting next to her.) The point being made (with Kundera everything has a point) is that her love is an illusion, and with her answer she’s made to face that fact. Despite invigorating moments, I grew weary. The fictional side wasn’t holding up, and ideas that were intriguing and insightful were examined so rigorously that the freshness was leeched out of them. Plus I had my fill of Goethe; when he reappeared at the beginning of Part Four I called it quits. I did so with absolutely no curiosity, no regrets. I just wanted class to be over. (4 other books by this author reviewed)

Loving - Henry Green
What strikes one immediately is the quirky rhythm of the prose. I don’t think it can be replicated, for to do so a writer would have to try. I don’t think Green tried; he was transcribing onto the page the way he thought. He wasn’t showing off, nor was he trying to be difficult. Reading him is difficult only if you’re inattentive. If you’re alert you get into the flow, and once there you’re able to savor the humor and pathos. About 70% of the novel is dialogue – brilliant dialogue in which the many diverse personalities display their essential natures. As for plot, Green’s subject matter is the mundane (he wrote that “simply everything has supreme importance, if it happens”). The setting is an Irish castle during World War II. We follow the maneuvering among servants and masters (though the servants, being more colorful, are given by far the most space). Throughout Loving there’s an awareness of how conflicted a matter love is. This is most evident in the last words: “ . . . they were married and lived happily ever after.” Those words are an unabashed rejection of the truth; Green knew that life couldn’t be wrapped up with a pretty bow. But he also knew life’s many-faceted richness, and in capturing that richness he produced one of those rare works that makes you see the world in a fresh new way. * (4)

Sappho - Alphonse Daudet (French)
“Come, look at me. I like the colour of your eyes. What’s your name?” So the novel opens, with Fanny Legrand (who had posed for a statue of Sappho and was known in some circles by that name) approaching a much younger man. This encounter takes place at a masquerade ball held at the studio of a rich Parisian. Fanny spends the night with Jean, and so begins their five year affair. This is no gauzy romance about life in bohemian Paris of the 1800s. Courtesans are not glamorized, a la Dumas’s Camille; Daudet portrays them as nothing more than depraved whores. Fanny, however, is not of their ilk. She has a vulgar side and her past is littered with a long string of lovers, but she has retained a core of decency. Her decency makes her formidable; she can’t be easily dismissed. A clue to what the author is up to is found in his dedication: “For my sons when they are twenty.” What he gives his sons is a withering cautionary tale about the ensnarements of passionate love. I can’t embark on a description of the plot – it’s too full of emotional twists and turns – but all can be summed up in that first night, when Jean brings Fanny to his hotel. His room is on the fourth floor, and he takes her in his arms “with the lovely fierce energy of youth” and carries her up the stairs. The second flight “was longer, less delightful.” When he finally staggers to the fourth floor Fanny had become “some heavy and dreadful thing that was stifling him.” She says, “So soon?” and he thinks, “At last!” Yet he’s never able to come to “At last” in reality. As I followed the course of their relationship I reached the point where even the word “love” had become suspect. Yet the confusion and conflict I felt accurately depict Jean’s state of mind. This is not a novel which gives the reader solace; we can understand Fanny and Jean, but we can’t sympathize with them. They’re both right, they’re both wrong, they both deserve what they get. *

Seize the Day - Saul Bellow
What a wordsmith Bellow was! His writing is both smooth and sumptuous, grounded and imaginative. But a novel succeeds or fails on character and plot. In the course of one day (a day fraught with crises) Tommy Wilhelm’s guts are spread out before us. Perhaps this serving of Wilhelm is too rich – he’s like a dish fancied up with so many sauces that the palate becomes confused. As Tommy floundered about in a cascade of emotions I became increasingly detached. In a three character book, the father was the only person I could relate to; at least I could draw a bead on who and what he was. Tamkin, on the other hand, was way too slippery a concoction. For a long stretch in the middle of the book – seventeen pages – he holds forth on matters like the “real soul” and the “pretender soul.” When Tamkin gives Tommy a poem he wrote about Mechanism vs Functionalism, Tommy says to himself, “What kind of mishmash, claptrap is this? . . . What does he give me this for? What’s the purpose? Is it a deliberate test? Does he want to mix me up? He’s already got me mixed up completely.” Tommy could be complaining about Saul Bellow. It cannot be wisdom that Tamkin is spouting (most likely he’s a con man); why, then, did Bellow dedicate a good chunk of this 115 page novel to “claptrap”? Things end in a torrent of tears from Tommy: “. . . they were pouring out and convulsed his body, bowing his shoulders, twisting his face, crippling the very hands with which he held the handkerchief.” This spectacle of grief failed to move me; like his hardhearted father, I had my fill of Tommy and his problems. (1)

Friday, August 25, 2023

Momento Mori – Muriel Spark
Spark’s assemblage of mostly upper crust aged folk receive phone calls from an anonymous source that simply says “Remember you must die.” And they do die; most of those that don’t expire in the course of the novel are summarily put to rest in the last two pages. But this is not a dark book; it’s entertaining in a spirited way, and has a mordant humor. The writing is pretty much perfect, particularly the dialogue in the Maud Long Ward where the “Grannies” without money are housed. It made for enjoyable reading, though I felt that there should be a significant point. The only thing I can come up with is that Spark was showing people nearing death carrying on in the same petty ways they did all their lives. For example, wills play a large role, and are often changed (in one case, twenty-six times), based on shifting grudges and resentments. And the two most despicable characters wind up as major beneficiaries. Spark was only forty-one when she wrote this novel, and had, five years previously, converted to Catholicism – something that, she claims, greatly affected her writing (in Catholicism Death is the first of the Four Last Things to be remembered). While her characters on death’s doorstep don’t become wiser or more compassionate, neither, it seems, did Spark. When she died at age eighty-eight her will created a controversy. She and her son (an only child) had long ago broken off relations, and in her will she left him nothing. A final expression of spite? Though Mori comes close to a 4, I’m giving it a 3.

Stamboul Train – Graham Greene
Greene considered this“thriller” to be one of his “entertainments” (as opposed to his serious work, which usually had a religious theme). Problem is, it’s not very thrilling or entertaining. What succeeds is the depiction of the murky and ominous political atmosphere prevailing in Europe in the early 1930s (when the book was written). There are also some interesting characters in interesting situations, but most are not fully developed – or, in some cases, pretty much abandoned. Greene’s tendency was to ponder over weighty intellectual matters, which is anathema to a thriller. Too often I found tedium setting in. Anyway. . . One character, a businessman named Myatt, is Jewish – at times he’s simply referred to as “the Jew.” People can spot him as a Jew at first sight, and in many cases their reactions are highly negative. He seems somewhat stereotypical (eg., he’s “greasy”). He’s not a bad person – he acts generously toward Cora, a showgirl, to the point where she offers up her virginity to him. He also makes an aborted attempt to save her from peril. But at the end he’s forgotten her and his predominant interest is the closing of a business deal. Just like a Jew, right? Since I mentioned Cora (the virginal showgirl), she’s supposed to garner our sympathy, but she warrants a single summing-up word: unconvincing. I’m giving this novel a weak 2. (delete)

Rosemary’s Baby – Ira Levin
A book should be judged by how well it succeeds at what it attempts, and Levin has succeeded in writing a horror story that’s compelling and convincing. It’s done with an intelligent efficiency – the plot unfolds with momentum, and there’s not a boring page. Every character comes across clearly, every situation is constructed with logic. This is, simply put, damn good writing. Levin stated that he didn’t believe in the devil, and neither do I. So how can a book in which the Devil does exist be credible? Well, in a sense it isn’t. But I found Rosemary to be real and appealing, so I cared about the situation she becomes enmeshed in. To me the horror is the way people use her – evil exists in people. The worst of the lot is her husband; while the others act out of a belief, he sells Rosemary to advance his acting career. Her aloneness comes across with force, and at the end she’s emotionally and mentally broken. Roman Polanski did an excellent job of adapting this story to the screen. Many of Levin’s novels were made into movies because they’re so cinematic – that is, they embed real people in a fascinating plot that moves. 5

Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont – Elizabeth Taylor
This novel is the best of all the books I’ve reread so far. There’s one primary reason: it got to me emotionally. It did so in a quiet way – no fireworks go off in this story of an elderly lady who takes up residence at a hotel that has a few permanent guests (all of whom are also elderly). The writing is perfect in a straightforward, unembellished way, but what matters are the insights into age (or, more correctly, the human condition) that are imbedded in the story. These insights are simple, but how seldom are they presented so clearly. If you want to know about the feelings of those near the end of life – a difficult stage, particularly for the ones who are alone – this book will show you. And it will tell you, even if you’re young, something about yourself. It isn’t depressing or dark; it has an engaging plot, and a host of characters you’ll get to know (and whose minds you sometime enter). Of course, Laura Palfrey is foremost, but there’s a young man who is very strong. We can understand why Laura develops feelings for Ludo. It’s not sexual love, but one based on an attraction to a person who is kind, handsome, lively, funny (“kind” comes first). A caring love. Anyway: read this book – it’s one of the few that really matter. As an author Elizabeth Taylor was burdened by her name’s similarity to that of some actress. Palfrey was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1971; Saul Bellow was one of the judges, and he dismissed it as “a tinkling tea cup novel . . . not serious stuff.” It’s an ignorant statement; there are no tinkling tea cups, and my entire review addresses the book’s serious nature. Maybe the lack of pretentiousness turned Bellow off. (V. S. Naipaul's In a Free State would win the award that year.) Taylor was fifty-nine when she wrote Palfrey, and she died five years later. 5

Sunday, July 23, 2023

White Noise – Don DeLillo
I can understand how my younger self (how much younger?) was impressed by this novel’s inventiveness and energy and originality. All of those virtues are indeed present. But on this reading I didn’t buy into much of what DeLillo doles out. He tackles Big Issues, but he fails to succeed in saying anything that meant much to me. As for the major issue of Death – fear of it – I was never convinced that the characters were feeling dread. Instead of imparting that emotion, what we get are long stretches of esoterc verbiage. Though seemingly on a high intellectual plane, I found it to be a lot of white noise. And – if DeLillo is so intelligent – how do we account for the book’s silly shootout ending? His considerable talent is used best in the down-to-earth section concerning the evacuation (due to a toxic cloud) of the Gladney family to a Boy Scout camp. And there’s humor in the book, some good portrayals (I especially liked eleven-year-old Denise), plenty of linguistic vitality. But I think my younger self believed that DeLillo was insightful, even profound. Many critics felt this way, as did those on the committee that gives out the National Book Award. DeLillo was also a believer: he would continue on an elevated track rather than a down-to-earth one. I’m giving the book a 3 for its good points, but I’m tempted to drop it to a 2 for the bad ones.

Murder for Profit – Willam Bolitho
I only read the first section – about the murders committed by William Burke – and couldn’t go on (there are five other mass murderers studied). Not that it wasn’t done well – the problem is the reverse: It was done too well. When younger, I must have had a stronger stomach for an examination of brutality. In Edinburgh, Scotland in the mid-1800s there was a need for corpses for scientific study. Body snatchers dug up fresh graves and sold the remains to doctors. Burke hit on an idea: why bother with the digging? Why not just lure people off the teeming streets, kill them and sell the bodies? They had a willing (and generous) buyer in the esteemed Dr. Knox. Burke didn’t act on his own: he had an accomplice in Hare, and the wives of both men were participants. Bolitho examines the psychology of this grisly bunch (particularly Burke), and the manner in which matters progressed from that initial idea to a thriving business (we’ll never know how many victims there were). The setting in of boldness in their actions ultimately led to their downfall. But only Burke faced the gallows. Scottish law allowed Hare and the women to go free. As for Knox – who knew he was receiving the victims of murder – he was too high up socially to be punished (though in the mind of the public he was disgraced, and he lost everything). There’s no explicit gore in this account, but the horror of the acts come across with a disturbing power. The writing is elegant, though often intricately constructed. I found myself rereading a sentence over and over, trying to decipher the meaning. Maybe, when I was younger (and sharper), I didn’t face this difficulty. In the first paragraph of the Burke section Bolitho points out that mass murder has always been a part of history, carried out by leaders as they accumulated wealth and power, built empires. I’m giving this book a 4 because the little I read got to me in a visceral way.

The Vendor of Sweets – R. K. Narayan
Narayan was a storyteller, no small virtue in a novelist. He could engage a reader, carry him along with ease. His prose is smooth – no bumps. But, more importantly, the characters and situation he creates are interesting. Nothing bizarre about either; rather, they’re quite relatable (even though the setting is India, and contains elements foreign to western sensibilities). A widowed man, Jagan, desires peace and contentment, but those goals are undermined by the behavior of his errant son. He’s glad when the boy heads off to America. But Mali returns with a wife (actually it turns out that they aren’t married ) and an idea of making a fortune off a novel-writing machine. He pressures his father to invest a large sum of money in this plan. That the son shows no love or even respect for his father – he sees him merely as a source of funds – stuck me as strange. Was Jagan lacking in some way in how he brought the boy up? We’ll never know the roots of what went wrong in the relationship, but I didn’t find that to be a problem. The indeterminate ending, with Jagan making a drastic life choice that may (or may not) give him the serenity he desires, was also acceptable to me – even right. After all, loose ends prevail in life, and there’s no need to neatly tie them up. At least, that’s the terms that Narayan is able to establish. This novel rates a solid 4.

A Mother in History – Jean Stafford
This is an account of a three day interview Stafford conducted with the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald. After sections appeared in McCall’s magazine, it came out in book form two years after the assassination of President Kennedy. Maybe I read it then. Why did I consider the book worthy? This time around I see absolutely no value in it. It’s a lazy effort, devoid of substance or insight, written merely for an easy buck. Since only one interview was tape recorded, and Stafford recreates (at length) what Mrs. Oswald says, how much is a true transcription of her words? What we get in Stafford’s portrayal is a woman spouting disjointed conspiracy theories. An addled, embattled woman who feels that she – her perceptions regarding her son and what occurred – are being ignored. But let me pose a few questions: Who among you believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin, acting on his own, with no backing? That Oswald’s claim, after his arrest, that he wouldn’t be a “patsy,” had no basis? That Jack Ruby killed him solely because he was distraught over the death of Kennedy? That the conclusions in the Warren Commission Report are fully valid? Or do you believe that the truth of what happened on that November day in Dallas will never be revealed? Mrs. Oswald had a tough, hardscrabble life. The events involving her son must have been emotionally crushing. My resentment toward Stafford has to do with her attitude toward the woman – who amused and bored her. Her asides are full of sarcasm, ridicule, disdain. Whatever Mrs, Oswald’s faults may be, Stafford’s fault lies in her lack of sympathy, pity, understanding. This is not a fair account of a mother in history. It’s a cruel hatchet job, and thus worthless. (Delete)

Wednesday, June 28, 2023

Quartet in Autumn – Barbara Pym
Authors usually choose to write about interesting people in interesting situations. But this novel follows the “uninteresting” lives of four “uninteresting” people. Two men, two women work together in an office (what they do – something clerical – is not important enough to be even mentioned). They have no contact with one another outside work. They are all elderly, all unmarried (though one is a widower). They lead “nothing” lives in that nothing much happens to them. All these quotation marks are there because this quartet is interesting. Lives are never made up of nothing. Solitary people have dimensions, and their situation, their concerns, though maybe not dramatic, are important. The two events that are crucial are the retirement of the women and the subsequent death of one of them. This upsetting of the long status quo causes ripples. Not waves, but ripples. Pym, who never married, wrote this novel during the fifteen years in which she couldn’t get anything published; one of her characters has had a mastectomy, as did Pym. So, when she wrote Quartet, she was facing end of life concerns. Yet she keeps a distance. She does not push for the reader’s sympathy; the four people have their good and not-so-good points. And there is much quiet humor in the book. It’s an admirable work. This quartet in the autumn of their lives mattered to me.

The Feud – Thomas Berger
A man in a hardware store is asked to get rid of the cigar in his mouth; he responds by saying that it’s unlighted; a dispute ensues. This matter could easily be settled between reasonable men, but reason does not rule in the world Berger creates. As things spiral out of control, we could be witnessing a comedy of very bad behavior. It is funny, and makes for highly enjoyable reading, but I began to see that most of the participants in such behavior are actually not that unlike ordinary people, who keep in check – most of the time – emotions or tendencies that are given free rein by the denizens of the two feuding towns. And aren’t we all guilty of such faults as callousness and greed? Some extreme cases exist, and play a crucial role in the unfolding of events: Reverton has a need to be important, with the aid of his trusty revolver; a cop, Harvey Yelton, gives new dimensions to the word “corrupt”; Junior is vicious to the bone. And then there’s Bernice, a study in sexual and ethical amorality. But Berger includes some quite decent souls, particularly two teenage brothers. One of the boys is Tony, and his infatuation with Eva is especially interesting. Though she has the body of a woman, it turns out that she’s thirteen and has the mentality of a six-year-old; the slow dawning on Tony of her emotional deficiency is handled beautifully (he decides not to run off to Canada with her). A lot is handled beautifully in this novel. I was left feeling I had been given a pessimistic look at human nature, artfully disguised as a romp.

Starting Over – Dan Wakefield
I can’t fathom what I saw of value, at any point of my life, in this chronicle of Phil Potter’s sex life in the swinging 70’s. It’s devoid of the humor it aspires to – all it doles out is smarminess, couched in literary trappings. The women are without moral scruples, and they use the F-word as freely as Potter does. Maybe once I didn’t object to these elements as strongly as I do now, but how could I accept the lack of depth in the characterization of Phil? All there is to him are erections (which Wakefield lovingly describes) and a drinking problem. This novel’s presence on my Most Meaningful Books list is an embarrassment, and it will be removed post haste. Note: Things are now occurring in real time. I just found that it wasn’t on the list. Thank goodness! – I wasn’t an idiot. I had the book in my library (which is supposed to contain only “keepers”), so I assumed it was a MMB. I did have a review posted of another Wakefield book, which I was highly critical of and couldn’t finish. Out of warped sense of duty I did finish this one.

Confidence Africaine – Roger Martin du Gard (French)
Another bungle on my part. I’m supposed to re-read only books that I never reviewed. But, when I was almost done with this story, I found that I had reviewed it (you can find that review under “Roger” in the Labels section). In it I wrote about the ending: “The inner story is hidden, but we sense it lurking in the shadows. On the last page, in the last paragraph, the author goes into those shadows; in this powerful (and artful, passionate) moment I felt, forcefully, the ugliness coiled at the heart of the matter.” Here’s my problem: I’ve reread the ending – that last paragraph – at least seven times and I can’t fathom how it elicited my previous reaction. Its significance just isn’t there for me. What did I miss? (Or was there anything to miss?) Maybe I need to read this whole story over again. Because, as is, it’s interesting and well-written, but it needs that strong ending to raise it above the merely good.

The Postman – Roger Martin du Gard (French)
I thought Roger deserved another look (this outing by him I didn’t review). It’s a short novel in which a postman makes his mail deliveries, and in doing so we get a tour of a French village – one you never want to visit. Everyone is either morally deficient (including the postman, who, for beginners, steams open letters that seem to be of interest) or sad cases. The book reveals all sorts of vices and unhappiness, and its unadorned prose is efficient to the point of excellence (no wasted words: if someone’s appearance is described it serves to establish their character and situation). The kind of acidic approach the author utilizes has its fascination, though one wonders how he got to be so cynical about human nature. In the last dozen pages the detached tone is replaced by the personal musings of secondary characters, which is a misstep. Martin du Gard should have should have stuck with the postman and his wily amorality.
End of re-reads

Endgame – Frank Brady
Those who recognize the name Bobby Fischer probably recall the famous 1972 chess match that took place in Iceland between Fischer and the Russian Boris Spassky. Russia had long held hegemony in the chess world, but Fischer’s victory – he became World Champion – placed America on top. It was a front page event, aided by the fact that Fischer, at age twenty-nine, was quite handsome. He became a celebrity, appearing often on TV. But what kind of person was Bobby Fischer? I sensed that Brady – who knew him – overcame a reluctance to reveal facts about his character that are alienating. I know I was alienated; I came to dislike the man. He was fervently (to use a mild modifier) against Jews – even though both of his parents were Jewish. Also an object of his wrath was America, and when the Twin Towers went down he expressed jubilation. He took every opportunity to vocally (or in writing) espouse the evil of his enemies and the greatness of his heroes. One of those heroes was Adolph Hitler (in Bobby’s thinking the death camps never existed). Besides these odious opinions, on a personal basis he had an overriding sense of entitlement; things had to be his way. He was monumentally selfish, ungrateful, judgmental; if someone who had done many favors for him over the years committed one small act he objected to, that person was dead to him. He can be excused, at least in part, because of his obvious mental illness. This book presents a picture of the obsessive and restricting psychology of a chess genius. When Bobby was seven the game had become his predominant pursuit, which is not conducive to a normal life (he also, as a child, mostly associated with older men). But an aberrant personality does not excuse ugly ideas and callous behavior. Brady often refers to Fischer as the greatest chess player the world has seen. This claim is unsupported. At times he was brilliant, but his record is erratic. He played few major matches (none at all for twenty years), and many ended in draws or losses. Even his victory over Spassky is suspect. With his delays, demands, disruptions, and dramatics Fischer created an atmosphere of chaos in their Iceland match. He thrived on chaos, but how did it effect his opponent? Bobby Fischer died young – age sixty-four – which, Brady points out, is the number of squares on a chess board.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Pan – Knut Hamsun (Norwegian)
This novel is strange and perplexing. Not that it’s written in an obscure way – the prose is as clear as could be. But the main character —Thomas Glahn, whose journal we’re reading – feels and acts in ways that are inexplicable. He’s been living with his dog Aesop in a hut by an immense forest for two years, and his emotional bond with nature is extreme; it affects him in a deep, even rapturous way. But then he falls in love with a young woman – Edvarda – and, again, his feelings toward her are extreme. In the beginning she responds, but then she begins to withhold, then to give a bit. He’s emotionally pulled one way and then the other. The merest slight by her will cause him to go overboard, and when he’s angry he’ll do crazy things (such as shoot himself in the foot). The stage is set for tragedy – the “gift” that Glahn gives Edvarda when he leaves is truly shocking. Hamsun may have been responding to the glamorization in fiction of outsize emotions. He showed such emotions as being devoid of glamour, but rather a manifestation of a consuming madness.

The Job Hunter – Allen R. Dodd
This “Diary of a Lost Year” follows the travails of a NYC ad executive who finds himself out of a job. It’s not due to any lack on his part – in the course of this book he emerges as intelligent, creative, hard-working. But, due to some shifting in the upper ranks of the big corporation he works for, he’s deemed  expendable. This is a very readable account of his search for a position that corresponds to his experience and salary (though his expectations steadily lower). His search is actually a job in itself – he tells his wife that he labors ten hours a day to be a bum: pounding the pavement, eating at automats, making calls to prospective employers from public telephone booths. Corporate America can be a mean world for those looked upon as outsiders – he encounters a lot of callousness. What kindness and sympathy he finds comes from a cadre of job seekers like himself. This book first appeared in 1962 as articles written for a trade journal called Printers’ Ink, and it no doubt was read with a sense of trepidation. At the end our narrator finds a job, but not at the level (or salary) he was used to. Still, his new employers seem like decent, fair-minded people. His life style drops quite a few notches, but that’s OK (he realizes he had been living beyond his means). Though he’s found security, he’s left with a lingering suspicion – things are good now, but what if . . .

The Day of the Locust – Nathanael West
The setting of this fever nightmare is the underbelly of Hollywood, a place of cheap artifice populated by weirdos, grotesques, losers. Written 1939, it’s rough stuff even by today’s standards. Though today’s standards don’t apply, for the force of West’s vision is his own, and his skill is not to be duplicated. Tod, the main character, is fairly stable, though his sexual obsession with Faye is sick (a fact he fully comprehends). Faye, an aspiring actress, is a casually amoral user, and has an effect on every man she comes in contact with (if put on the screen – assuming her allure would transfer – she could be a sensation). Memorable characters swarm about the pages – and are often quite funny: Harry, the aging vaudevillian, who can’t stop doing routines even on his death bed; Abe, the pugnacious dwarf, always ready to dispense verbal or physical abuse. The book made me wonder about West’s state of mind. Though he doesn’t use overt gore or vulgarity, he seems to have a to-hell-with-it attitude, and he respects no limits of propriety. Was it written in anger, bitterness? This author of great talent received no financial compensation for his first three novels, and was stuck in Hollywood doing scripts for B- westerns. He died in a car accident shortly after the publication of Locust. He was 37 years old.

The Monkey’s Wrench – Primo Levi (Italian)
Faussone is a rigger – a mechanic who can do everything from weld a seam to operate a crane (and anything in between). This man with minimal schooling is so good at building things that he’s called to faraway lands (Africa, India, Russia) to work on the construction of a bridge or a tower. He tells of his projects to someone who is, clearly, Primo Levi. Faussone is a likeable and entertaining guy – a real individual emerges (though, being non-mechanical, I couldn’t understand most of the work he was describing). Levi is making a point: manual labor (as opposed to purely intellectual pursuits) can require a high degree of intelligence and creativity. He’s a chemist, and he tells one story in which he discovers the problem in some paint his company has sold. What Levi is contemplating in this book is abandoning his chemist job and becoming a full-time writer. Faussone responds with these words: “Excuse me for saying so, but if I was in your shoes, I’d give it some careful thought.” It’s better, he goes on, to do things with your hands; you can see your success, and, if you fail, you can fix it. This was good advice – which, of course, Levi was giving himself through his character. Levi, as writer, was not a novelist (Wrench, though classified as fiction, has no plot). What he wrote about in most of his books were his experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz. Though these books have value as a testimonial, they made him relive an emotionally unhealthy subject.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

A world Fit for Grimsby – Hilary Evans
The smooth, clean prose made for pleasurable reading, the characters were likeable and well-drawn, the premise was interesting: The English town of Riddleford is the birthplace and home of the renowned Jacobean poet and playwright, Nicolas Grimsby (don’t worry, he’s a product of Evans’ imagination). The town develops a thriving business off the tourist trade. It’s amusing how everything is geared to Grimsbililia; we get a depiction of capitalism at its crassest. But a scholar writes a book in which he offers proof that Grimsby was actually born in the neighboring town of Grimwick. A crisis! – will Riddleford’s cash cow be snatched from them by the greedy denizens of Grimwick? Well, I don’t know, because halfway through I quit reading. This is because the premise never goes anywhere; for far too many pages I felt that I was, as a reader, treading in tepid water. The likable characters remained likable but undeveloped to the point of blandness. I wanted something to HAPPEN, but I lost hope that anything would. My attention began to constantly stray from the words on the page, so it was time to move on.

To Each His Own – Leonardo Sciascia (Italian)
I’ve long believed that the best mystery novels will be written by literary novelists. They won’t indulge in cheap tactics, but will rely on logic and character development. Sciascia does both. A pharmacist gets an anonymous death threat letter; it’s made up of words cut and pasted from newsprint. Professor Laurana, a schoolteacher, notices that the words came from a Vatican newspaper. Later, on the first day of the hunting season, the pharmacist and his longtime hunting companion, a doctor, are shot dead. Laurana becomes a detective; his first conclusion is that it was the doctor, not the pharmacist, was the intended victim; the letter was a ruse to divert the authorities from that fact. Laurana pursues his search: who sent the letter, and why was the doctor killed? Laurana doesn’t act out of a desire for justice; he’s just curious. But curiosity killed the cat, a fact that is doubly true in Sicily. This is a look at a morally corrupt society where deceit is second nature, and the innocent are fools.

The Newspaper of Claremont Street – Elizabeth Jolley
Long ago I wrote Jolley a letter in praise of this novel, and she wrote back (all the way from Australia!); her handwritten letter was long and chatty. An unusual response, but one that might be expected from the creator of such an idiosyncratic character as Marge (known in the town as The Newspaper, or just Weekly, due to her dispensing of the news she garners from her job cleaning houses). What surprised me on this reread was how off-base my memories of the book were. Maybe it’s age that has changed how I see things; what I might have taken lightly in the past has grown dark, even, at times, disturbing. Weekly is an odd old bird, basically solitary, with a life in which she received no gifts, including love. Her only aspirations are to have a place of her own (which she never had) and to be alone. The way her story is told – in a disjointed, free-wheeling prose – is a perfect fit for its subject. Newsy comes fully alive, and in depth. Jolley, who was fifty-eight when she wrote this novel, had a gift, untouched by academia. I hope my letter gave her some gratification.

Cold Spring Harbor – Richard Yates
I was tempted to remove this novel from my Most Meaningful Books list. It just isn’t very good. Yates’ simple, straightforward prose still made for easy reading, but seemed (especially the dialogue) to be done in a paint-by-the-numbers mode. No one had my sympathy, not even teen-age Phil; and Evan, who begins as the main character, is someone I came to avidly dislike. The women were either young and stupid or old and alcoholic. All were, of course, unhappy, and at the end were headed towards more bad choices, more unhappiness. Yet that ending did, in this rereading, generate some resonance. It’s acts as a summing up: We poor humans! Yates had a dismal vision of life, earned the hard way – through personal experiences – and his persistence in portraying it deserves respect. Four years after this book came out he died in a VA hospital. He was working on another novel. Of course he was: writing was the only thing that mattered to him. But his best work is his first novel, Revolutionary Road, along with some exemplary short stories. Cold Spring Harbor is a last tired effort by a man beaten down by a hard life, and my sympathy lies with him.

The Trees – Conrad Richter
We begin with a family – a man and his wife and their five children – moving by foot into the Ohio wilderness of the early 1800s. They’re in a twilight world – the mass of trees around them obscures the sun. Worth Luckett is drawn away from civilization; he can find good hunting in this wild world. At a likely spot he stops and builds a small cabin – builds it by himself, with his own capable hands and his few tools. And there this novel takes place. It’s a remarkable recreation of a world that makes demands on people – if they are to survive they must be resourceful, resilient. And they must accept hardships – even death of one of their own – with stoicism. They’re not uncaring, but are on intimate terms with life’s often brutal dictates. What is most remarkable about this novel is how vividly Richter makes each of the characters come alive. I cared about them (though disapproving of some). He has written a novel whose prose is as perfectly rough-hewn as its subject. A remarkable piece of Americana, but also a work of psychological insight. 
(End of this session of re-reads)

Thursday, April 13, 2023

Reviews from the past
L’Assommoir - Emile Zola (French)
The title refers to a type of bar where people go to get smashed – to drink to the point of physical and mental destruction. Gervaise, the novel’s main character, is affected by the alcoholism of her husband, but for most of her life she never drinks. Her hopes as a young woman are modest: to be able to get on with her work, to always have something to eat and a half-decent place to sleep, to bring up her children properly, not to be beaten, and to die in her own bed. None of her hopes are realized. Zola belonged to the school of Naturalism, which advocated a strict adherence to reality. I believed in his depiction of life in the Paris slums (this is raw stuff, sordid and vulgar even by today’s standards). But it’s Gervaise’s story and, near the end, as I followed her slide into the mire, I became increasingly detached. As a writer Zola was drawn to extremes, and extremes distort reality. He reduces Gervaise to an animalistic state; her corpse is discovered when people smell rotting flesh. I wasn’t moved because she had ceased to be the woman I knew and cared about; she had become a vehicle to make a point about the ills brought on by poverty. Zola also went to extremes in the other direction, toward a Victorian mawkishness; he includes two characters who are so saintly that they’re preposterous. But, despite its faults, this work aspires to greatness and in many ways achieves it. I wrote that I knew and cared about Gervaise; she’s as real as anyone in fiction. In the twenty years we spend with her all is not bleak: there’s her glory as she makes her laundry business a success, her contentment in the first years of marriage. Though she’s far from perfect, at her core she’s a good, kind-hearted woman. She’s also hard-working and determined, but she slips in her resolve. Just a slip, but it begins her slow, inexorable (and sadly overdone) dissolution. Zola is like a painter on the grand scale, able to make, with words, his settings and people emerge from the canvas; throughout the novel are scenes that teem with life. The first of these takes place in the washhouse, culminating in an epic fight between Gervaise and Virginie. Gervaise’s saint’s day feast sprawls, in all its roistering vitality, over thirty-eight pages. Zola also chose the right ending for the book. The undertaker’s assistant had made brief appearances. Being an agent of death, people see him as an ominous figure, yet he jokingly refers to himself as “the ladies’ comforter” because he brings to them the sweetness of eternal sleep. On the last page he speaks tenderly to the corpse of Gervaise as he lifts her, with fatherly gentleness, and places her in the coffin. At this moment she did, again, matter to me. (3 other books by this author reviewed)

The Road - Cormac McCarthy
The main problem with this post-apocalyptic novel is that it’s monotonous. Regarding the action and the feelings of the two characters, what happens on page one is happening (with little variation) on page seventeen, and on page 84, and on page 116 – which is when I suddenly found myself flipping through the remainder of the book. In his depiction of love between a father and son, McCarthy spreads it on too thick; he’s in his true element with menace and cruelty. But since I’m not a fan of horror flicks, I couldn’t appreciate the atrocities committed by the cannibalistic monsters he has roaming the land. Nor was his style of writing to my liking; I’ll close with three examples. The opening sentences: “When he awoke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some glaucoma dimming the world.”  From page 31: “He woke toward the morning with the fire down to coals and walked out to the road. Everything was alight. As if the lost sun was returning at last. The snow orange and quivering.” And here’s a conversation between father and son (each person’s words occupy their own little paragraph): “Is it cold?” “Yes. It’s freezing.” “Do you want to go in?” “I don’t know.” “Sure you do.” “Is it okay?” “Come on.” As was the case with Hemingway, McCarthy calls attention to his prose under the guise of simplicity, and I find this annoying and false.

Sons and Lovers - D. H. Lawrence
Reading Lawrence’s short stories – notably, “The Odour of Chrysanthemums” and “The Rocking-Horse Winner” – made me aware of how good he could be. So I returned to a book that I had abandoned many years ago; I thought that this time around I’d be more sympathetic and patient – and I was. I also found that my preconceptions (garnered from commentary I had read) were baseless. In the first third of this autobiographical novel Lawrence examines the dissolution of his parents’ marriage. To place all the blame on Walter Morel doesn’t do justice to Lawrence’s insight; the Morels were a tragically mismatched couple. But the major misinterpretation is the characterization of Mrs. Morel as a suffocating mother. Though she does look to her children as her reason for being, believing that in their lives hers would find purpose, she isn’t selfish; she wants her sons and daughter to be happy and fulfilled. As for Paul (who is Lawrence), she has no desire to possess him; her hope is that he’ll find a woman who will be good for him. That the two women he’s attracted to are not right for him isn’t something she dreams up; it’s a fact that he’s aware of. His devotion to his mother is not coerced; he gives it of his own free will. The novel weakens considerably in the last third, when Paul is an adult. The intense scrutiny Lawrence devotes to him turns into emotional nitpicking. A law should be passed decreeing that nobody under the age of thirty-five can write anything autobiographical. They don’t have enough separation from their youth to see that what they went through wasn’t that momentous. Lawrence compounds the problem by presuming to enter the minds of the women Paul is involved with, so we not only get too much of conflicted Paul, but the conflicts of others too. It’s convoluted and ponderous; the prose (which in the first part has an unadorned beauty) gets overripe with abstract ideas that must be conveyed. To put it simply, Lawrence thought too much. When he detached himself from himself and didn’t attempt to express inexpressible states of being he could write with an immediacy and power that few authors have been gifted with. (2)

The Last of Mr. Norris - Christopher Isherwood
This short novel was combined with the equally short Goodbye to Berlin to make up The Berlin Stories. In Goodbye, which I read decades ago, Isherwood writes, “I am a camera with its shutter open . . .” This time the camera is focused on an aging confidence man operating on the international stage. Though Arthur Norris has some talent for double dealing, his weak nerves make him unfit for a life of intrigue; also, his schemes fail as often as not, leaving him in dire financial straits. But he has a remarkable ability to shake off his fears (and to enjoy life in a blithe way), and during his flush periods he lives high on the hog (and is quite generous). He’s a scoundrel without malice, both guileful and oddly lacking in guile (he makes no effort to conceal his taste for sadomasochistic sex, in which he’s on the receiving end of the whip lashes). The narrator, William Bradshaw (a pseudonym for Isherwood), takes a liking to this old debauchee, who in return is childishly eager for his friendship – and his assistance (Mr. Norris is an incorrigible user of people). Little is revealed about Bradshaw’s life; Isherwood stays focused on Norris and a handful of secondary characters. The action takes place in the years preceding the Nazi takeover, so we get the author’s perspective of this tumultuous period in German history. I admired the novel on all levels and wondered why I had put off enjoying the pleasures it provided for so long. (2)

What Maisie Knew - Henry James
I’ve criticized authors for having a Henry James-like prose style. Now I can criticize The Master himself. I liked the novel’s premise – a little girl being shuttled about by adults – but James’s convoluted wordiness doesn’t reveal emotions, it obfuscates them: “ . . . if he had an idea at the back of his head she had also one in a recess as deep, and for a time, while they sat together, there was an extraordinary mute passage between her vision of this vision of his, his vision of her vision, and her vision of his vision of her vision.” Untangling such nuances wore me down; I began to think, in exasperation, “Just spit it out.” As an experiment, I took the book’s opening sentence and simplified it. James: “The child was provided for, but the new arrangement was inevitably confounding to a young intelligence intensely aware that something had happened which must matter a great deal and looking anxiously out for the effects of so great a cause.” Me: “Though the child was provided for, the new arrangement was perplexing to her, and she was anxious about how her life would be affected.” The elegance of James’s sentence has been lost; but, if I have to choose, I’ll take clarity over beauty. And I’ll always choose truth over falsity. James’s main goal was to capture the sensibilities of a little girl. But his Maisie has only one dimension: she’s an analyzer of adult feelings and motivations. She’s not a real child; Maisie is Henry James.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

  I’ve been having a long-standing (too damn long!) problem finding novels that engage me. I can’t rely on the prize winners. For example, in the past five or so years I’ve started many books that have won prestigious awards and have not gotten far before deciding that they weren’t worth my continuing. I wander the stacks of the two libraries available to me and find a wasteland.
The end result is that I feel abandoned by fiction, something which has sustained me daily since I was twelve.
What to do?
I haven’t reread books that are included in the Most Meaningful Books list at this site. One reason is that I don’t want to be disappointed. If a book meant something to me when I was thirteen, or twenty-two, or thirty-six (etc.), shouldn’t I honor the taste of the person I was, the one who found it rewarding? Lastly, I realize that I was easier on books in the past. But a sourpuss decimation? No, that doesn’t appeal to me.
Still . . . I’m desperate for something good to read.
Which is why I turned to The Unbearable Bassington by Saki (H. H. Munro). I probably, as a guess, first read it sometime in my late twenties. How would it hold up?
It held up exceedingly well.
I’ll continue to delve into those old books (I own them all: I buy any book I find worthy of keeping in my library). But I’ll only turn to those I read prior to the time when I began writing reviews. (My first post was in 2008.) 
And I’ll write brief reviews of them (even if I have to be negative). 
I’ll designate these as “Re-reads.”
The Unbearable Bassington – Saki (H. H. Munro)
First, the prose. Smoothly elegant, unique, inventive. Many sentences employ an amusing or surprising twist. This could be tiresome — if it wasn’t embedded in the situation. Take this early example, describing Francesca Bassington: “Francesca herself, if pressed in an unguarded moment to describe her soul, would probably have described her drawing-room.” This sentence serves a purpose – it gives us a look, in a skewed way, at a central character’s personality. Her son, Comus, is unbearable because he devotes himself to his pleasures. While Francesca has money worries (she’s in danger of losing her precious house and its drawing room, along with her position in London society) he shows not the slightest inclination to seek gainful employment. Francesca’s only hope for him is that he marry a rich woman – and one is a prospect. But Comus doesn’t do what is needed to win Elaine’s hand – he’s too selfish, self-centered. The results are a tragedy for all three involved. The book, so light-handed for so long, becomes a tragedy. I consider this to be an unappreciated masterpiece.

The Cat’s Pajamas – Peter DeVries
What appealed to me about this book? It’s wildness, it’s absurdity? A man commits a faux pas on the first page and tries to make up for it; thus an inexorable descent begins. This professor of creative writing, happily married, winds up living in a shack with an idiot boy and an alcoholic dog and making a meager living selling bottles of fresh air door-to-door. It’s all weird, improbable. I never understood what was driving Hank Tattersall to act in a self-destructive way. Though, in losing all social respectability, he thinks of himself as happy, which may be part of his general self delusion. Anyway, the ending is so memorable that I started the book knowing what the last scene would be – I remembered how horrible it was. Yet it’s handled blithely (which, somehow, makes it worse). I think DeVries was engaging in blithe cruelty.

Other Voices, Other Rooms – Truman Capote
I was in my teens when I read this, so there were things about it that were strange – and fascinating. It was probably my first exposure to the Southern Gothic genre, with its cast of highly bizarre characters. Plus, the pervasive element of homosexuality would be new to me. I may also have been impressed by the extended flights of lyric prose. The last quality was less to my liking this time around; Capote was better when he was in a grounded mode. He was in that mode when writing about a young Black woman, Zoo (short for Missouri). She was the character I felt closest to, and her fate moved me. I also liked Joel, the thirteen-year-old main character, and I believed that his dreamworld experiences at The Landing, deep in the backwoods of Mississippi, would change his life. For a novel written by someone in his mid-twenties, this is a remarkable work. I recalled my younger self not understanding the ending; on this reading I still didn’t. Who is the figure in the window, the one Joel goes to? Randolph?
(End of this session of re-reads)

Friday, March 3, 2023

Places Where I’ve Done Time – William Saroyan
Saroyan’s approach in this autobiography, which he wrote at age sixty-four, is inventive and, for a while, quite effective. He takes places (The Typing Class at Tech High, Fresno, 1921 or The George V Hotel, Paris, 1959) and devotes a few pages to his experiences there. He skips around in time; we may finish a piece when he’s a boy, then, in the next one, he’s an old man, and in the next he’s in his thirties. A kaleidoscope look at his life emerges. The first half of this book is jaunty, entertaining, often humorous. Then the mood changes. My theory is that Saroyan wrote these snapshots in sequence, and his enthusiasm for the project waned. Maybe depression set in – I get that sense. He achieved success as a writer, and he did it without any advantages – almost no schooling, an upbringing in poverty (he spent his early years in an orphanage). But it becomes obvious that this much-sought-after success didn’t make him happy. What emerges is a man who has a serious gambling problem; he was married, and in writing about his ex (the “little woman”) he can be caustic with hatred. He fills much of the second half of the book with the names of hotels, many in foreign cities (Dublin, Moscow, Bucharest); he seems most at peace when he’s walking the streets of a new place – always alone. One of the problems with this second half is that he turns to philosophizing about Life. His conclusions are affirmative, but it’s always a mistake to make wise proclamations (especially when mixed with resentments). Last note: I don’t believe Saroyan revised his work. What he put down on paper the first time was what the reader gets. In My Name Is Aram the stories seem to have been tossed off in one sitting. Readers at the time took to his sweet, naive, colorful immigrant characters (mostly children) who embody simple virtues, but for me they’re mawkish. Places is  not mawkish, the writing is good, and it succeeds – at least for a while. I wish he had been able to retain the spirit of the first half, but, sadly, I suppose we all have to live with our state of mind.

Winter Notes in Summer Impressions – Feodor Dostoevsky
When Dostoevsky was forty-one he traveled to various cities in Europe. This book is definitely no travelogue; in his “In Place of a Foreword” he admits that he stayed for a very brief time in the many places he visited, and therefore had no right to draw conclusions. Yet he does draw many conclusions regarding social/political matters. He concentrates on Paris, though there’s a bit about London. He does not look approvingly at what he sees in either city. I found his thoughts of little interest, especially since they refer to conditions in 1862, and so I won’t go into them. What did interest me is the image of Dostoevsky that emerges. When I think of the author of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov I conjure up a grim, brooding presence. In this book he comes across in an amiable light, someone with whom I could have pleasant conversation (though it would be devoted to Ideas). He even has a sense of humor. The mild enjoyment I got out of this slim volume derives from getting to know the man better.

The Savage State – Georges Conchon (French)
Conchon served as Secretary General of the Central African Republic from 1958 to 1960, so I expected an insider’s view of race relations. I suppose I got that (and the relationship is depicted as very bad). But this is a novel, so how about creating credible characters? The main one, Avit, arrives in Africa as a representative of UNESCO, and discovers that his wife, who had run away with another man while they were living in Paris, is now in Fort Jacul (small world, isn’t it?), as is her lover. But, when he happens to meet this lover, he finds that Laure has left the guy for Doumbe, an African government official. Avit comes across as an overly emotional boy who flounders about indecisively (one wonders about the hiring practices at UNESCO), and when we enter Laure’s mind we wonder at how such a mature, self-assured woman would marry a kid. And, considering her dubious track record of skipping from man to man, how she did she get to be so stable and wise? Doumbe is a noble prop, wrestling with his love for Laure and the censure that their living together is bringing down on him from the natives. I believed in nobody, and after laboring past the halfway point I called it quits. Last note: after writing this review I learned that The Savage State had been awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1964. Big sigh . . .