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

Re-reads
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

Re-reads
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

Re-reads
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

Re-reads
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.

Re-reads
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.”
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 . . .

Friday, February 10, 2023

Candleford Green – Flora Thompson
So I come to the end of my relationship with Flora Thompson. This third entry follows Laura’s life as assistant to the postmistress at Candleford Green. Though  Laura – now in her middle teens – is a more distinct personality, one with opinions, she’s still mostly an observer of others. In these vivid portrayals, through all three books, we learn not just about individuals, but how they fit into society. That society provided for basic human needs, such as a sense of community and pride of craftsmanship. It’s presented without sentimentality, but its virtues still emerge. Thompson ends the trilogy with a thought-provoking chapter entitled “Change in the Village.” The influence of the Industrial Revolution was reaching into rural England, altering people’s way of life. All begins to change: the way they farm, the houses they live in, the clothes they wear. And, most importantly, their values. Some of these changes are for the better, but, for me, a strong sense of loss prevailed. As, it is clear, it did for Flora. She would always be bound to the world that would vanish – it formed who she was – and when she was in her sixties she felt the need to recreate it. That she did it so well is her lasting tribute. *

In Pursuit of the English – Doris Lessing
The action begins when Doris leaves South Africa for London (the time is 1950) and rents a flat in a rundown rooming house. Three characters stand out: Flo and Dan, a married couple who own the house, and one of the tenants, Rose. All are vivid, mostly emerging through the words they speak; Lessing catches the working class vernacular exceedingly well. It’s Rose who is the most developed, and she’s a very appealing character; on one level, the book is about the friendship that develops between her and Doris. But, though the book is in the first person, Doris stays in the background; we learn little about her. She has a son – eight years old, I believe – who lives with her, but he’s mentioned, in passing, maybe a half dozen times; he’s basically non-existent. I don’t see Lessing as a negligent mother; she was just not writing about herself or her role as mother. She’s primarily a recorder of the words and actions of others. At about the halfway point the mood of the book changes. It had seemed rambunctious, often humorous, with a sense of comradery prevailing. Then it grew grim, even sordid. What was colorful became murky. The humor was still present, but it involved such human emotions as meanness and greed. Problems lurking in these lives gained dominance, and it took an effort for me to adjust. I can’t imagine that Lessing thought she was describing the English people as a whole (as the title implies); she was dealing with a strata of society. Since her bio corresponds to the events in the book (which in some versions is given the subtitle of “A Documentary”), were her characters real people she got to know? If so – since many are depicted in a highly unflattering way – what about a libel suit? She actually addresses this concern in a dialogue near the end in which an odious fellow proposes that she write a book in which he’s a thinly disguised character, and she has him doing odious things. He would then sue her publisher for libel, and, he assures her, their insurer would settle out of court. They would pay up, and he and Doris could split a hundred nicker. Hmm. Maybe Lessing thought that no one in the book was likely to read it. As was, apparently, the case with the people at Popular Library, which put out the paperback version. They managed to get everything wrong. The cover photos are wildy misleading, their description of what the book is about is way off base, and the text itself is a mess, with many typos and misspellings and wrong words substituted for the right ones. I wonder if Lessing would care. This was a phase in her writing she would turn away from, and go on to more ambitious undertakings (and a Nobel Prize). A shame, for this waywardly structured book delivers a look at life that kept me interested and involved.

The Lemur – Benjamin Black (pen name)
A crime novella that’s a dud and ends with a thud. It’s literary in style, set in New York, and full of the trappings of extreme wealth. This probably was an effort to appeal to its original audience – it was first serialized in the New York Times Magazine, whose sophisticated readers no doubt recognized the brand names of ultra expensive watches, clothes, etc. But enough about this inconsequential book – let’s talk about John Banville, the guy behind that pen name. He’s an esteemed author, the winner of numerous awards, including the Booker. I haven’t read anything by him, but apparently he’s difficult (he’s described as “the heir to Proust, via Nabokov”). So why is he slumming in the crime novel genre? Most likely for the money. Crime novels sell, literary ones don’t. And I see, in his Wiki entry, no mention of his teaching at a MFA program, where most literary writers wind up. In his back cover photo Mr. Black looks grim and tough, though it may be depression. The book was never published in hard cover, just a Picador paperback. I’m always amused by typos. Here’s a sentence: “You’ve certainly upset, Granddad.” Of course, there should be no comma; the speaker is not addressing his Granddad, he’s talking about him. But, in this book, who cares?

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Reviews from the past
Voyage in the Dark - Jean Rhys
In my reviews of Quartet and Sleep It Off, Lady I concluded that Rhys (an autobiographical writer) wasn’t able to capture who she was as a young woman. In this novel she succeeds – and I understand why the task was daunting. When the book opens Anna has left her childhood home in the West Indies and is working as a chorus girl in England. The job is far from glamorous. Anna can’t adapt to the people or climate (both seem cold and alien). She has an affair with a wealthy married man; she’s in love with him, but he abruptly breaks off their relationship. Other men follow, she drinks too much; things go steadily downhill. A sordid story, but the Anna that emerges arouses sympathy; she’s trapped in an emotionally predatory world. To a large degree her problems have their roots in her early years in the West Indies; she arrived in England damaged, full of diffuse fears. She’s depressed, directionless, needy; her most important need is for someone to love and care for her. Yet the men she comes into contact are only willing to give her money (which she takes without compunction). The other people she interacts with – mainly chorus girls and landladies – are a mixed lot of distinct and colorful individuals. The book isn’t dreary or static, even though Anna is often in a deep funk. I found the use of stream of consciousness to be less successful than the direct narrative and dialogue. Maybe these impressionistic forays are an attempt to show Anna groping her way in the dark. As for her reaching a place of light – I didn’t see much hope for her. (4 other books by this author are reviewed)

The Man Who Fell to Earth - Walter Tevis
This book seems to have fallen by good fortune into my hands. I pulled it from the library shelf because I recognized the title – a movie had been made of it (one I hadn’t seen and knew nothing about). I read the opening paragraph and admired its unadorned precision, so I took it home. I suppose it belongs in the category of science fiction (a genre I have little patience with), and its overly-familiar message has to do with the threat of annihilation by nuclear war. This novel, however, is something different; it’s an example of how intelligence and insight can generate a bright, crackling freshness. Tevis makes it entirely logical why an Anthean (who’s just able to pass as a human) has come to Earth, what his goal is, and how he goes about trying to achieve it. As I followed T. J. Newton’s story I shared the burden of his undertaking, respected his abilities, and admired his resolve and courage. That he winds up disillusioned and lonelier than one can imagine is a tragedy, and I was moved. I was moved by an alien! – when so many human characters in fiction fail to elicit that emotion in me. * (3)

Old School - Tobias Wolff
There couldn’t have been a large audience for a novel almost entirely about literary matters. Even the first person narrator isn’t fully fleshed out; his dominant dimension is that of writer and reader. All this was fine with me, for I’m a bookish soul myself. Plus, I found Wolff’s straightforward prose pleasurable. Most of the action takes place at an exclusive boys’ prep school (a beneficent place loved by the narrator). It’s exclusive enough to be visited by Robert Frost, Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway. Around these visits the school arranges a competition. The boy who writes a poem or story that’s selected as the best gets a private audience with an author. In their appearances a wily Frost puts on a folksy act, Rand is a judgmental bully, and Hemingway gives a rambling telephone interview in which he offers no-nonsense advice on writing and brings up old grudges. In the depiction of these dead writers, I had my first problem with the book. How could Wolff know what any of them would do and say? Would Ayn Rand carry on so outrageously? As for the two men, they’re caricatures of their public images, and as such come across looking foolish. Moving on (past that speed bump) our narrator’s story is deemed best by Hemingway, but he doesn’t get to meet the Great Man because it’s discovered that the story he submitted was plagiarized. Unable to write anything of his own, he had found a story in an obscure periodical and had copied it word for word, with just the names and sexes of the characters changed. As he carried out the plagiarization, the boy believed the story to be his own; when, days later, he’s confronted with evidence of what he’s done, his response is “Even with the proof in hand, even knowing that someone named Susan Friedman had written the story, I still thought of it as mine.” Here my second, more serious, problem arose. Wolff tries, with verbal sleight of hand, to present a grubby act of dishonesty in an innocent light. I didn’t buy this for a second; only temporary insanity could account for the boy not knowing exactly what he was doing at the time he was doing it. After he’s expelled we’re taken on a sketchy tour of his life; he becomes, like Wolff, a successful author. This was no surprise. No effort is made to conceal the autobiographical nature of the novel; the dust jacket photograph shows the cafeteria of the same prep school that Wolff attended. Seen from this perspective – that the author and his first person narrator are one – the plagiarism scene needs to be revisited. When the boy reads Susan Friedman’s story he relates to her character because both are leading lives of deception. He’s a scholarship student trying to fit in with boys whose affluent backgrounds are radically different from his own. That’s why he gets it when she writes about “the almost physical attraction to privilege, the resolve to be near it at any cost; sycophancy, lies, self-suppression, the masking of ambitions and desires, the slow cowardly burn of resentment toward those for whose favor you have falsified yourself.” I get it too, which is why I’m bothered by the entire page that appears before the opening of the novel, and contains only the following words: “I cannot begin to thank Catherine Wolff and Gary Fisketjon for the incalculable help they gave me in their many readings of this book; my particular thanks as well to Amanda Urban for her help, and for all her encouragement and support over the years.” Why did Wolff devote a prominently-placed page of thanks to Fisketjon and Urban, two of the most privileged people in the literary world? Seems like sycophancy to me. (1)

Everything That Rises Must Converge - Flannery O’Connor
A reappraisal of O’Connor is in order. I had read this collection many years ago; in this rereading several things struck me with considerable force. Foremost was the anger that infuses all but one of the ten stories. In three of them anger leads to murder; in three others a violent death occurs, with anger swirling around the event. In five stories grown sons live with their mothers; the feelings they have for her range from resentment to contempt to hatred. Love, though not totally absent in this book, is rare and meager, as is beauty. Sexual passion is nonexistent, while virulent passions abound. As for relations between the races, blacks and whites occupy hostile worlds. O’Connor’s niggers (for that’s how they’re referred to by most of her white protagonists) are either deceitful or murderous. Her whites are Southern Gothic hicks or self-pitying and hapless intellectuals; she treats both with scorn. These are the facts, based on the words O’Connor wrote, and what do they reveal about the author? What can be expected from a young woman cheated out of the life she hoped to lead by a ravaging disease? Her bitterness and anger flowed into her fiction. With steely-eyed cruelty she gloatingly exposed her sorry characters and their sorry lives. Also on display is her fascination with the grotesque (she would have loved the supermarket tabloids that have cover photos showing babies born with the heads of barnyard creatures). I’m rejecting the religious angle, which is commonly brought up when talking about O’Connor. When she inserts it into her stories it seems imposed. “Revelation” suffers from some mystical mumbo jumbo at the end; the rest of the story is lucid and direct, the conversations in the doctor’s waiting room are recorded with such accuracy that the reader could be sitting in one of the chairs. At the core of the story is a young woman’s anger, an anger venomous enough to erupt into violence. In this reappraisal how many times have I used the word “anger”?  It’s a detriment when untempered. The first paragraph of the weakest story, “The Comforts of Home,” contains this sentence: “Rage gathered throughout Thomas’s large frame with a silent ominous intensity, like a mob assembling.” This rage culminates in murder; it’s all just too unrelenting. It’s significant that the two best stories – “Everything That Rises Must Converge” and “Parker’s Back” – close on a note of compassion. Maybe O’Connor would have moved more in this direction – toward compassion – if she had been allowed to live. To turn from content and judge the stories solely on an artistic basis, O’Connor too often messes up her endings. Sometimes it’s by the previously-mentioned imposition of religious significance, sometimes by the garishly awkward way she describes murders and other violent acts. She wasn’t a moderate writer; she dealt in extremes. This can be compelling, but when she goes too far incongruity sets in. She exposes self-deception in “The Lame Shall Enter First,” but she does it in a heavy-handed way; when she took a less cumbersome approach, as in “The Enduring Chill,” she was more successful. She was often outright funny, and her dialogue (where most of her humor is found) was pitch perfect. As for the prose itself, she put much effort into making her writing achieve a smooth-flowing clarity. She could capture a personality or a scene so that it attains solidity; she does it in part by selecting the animating detail (from “Revelation”: “The only man in the room besides Claud was a lean stringy old fellow with a rusty hand spread out on each knee, whose eyes were closed as if he were asleep or dead or pretending to be so as not to get up and offer her his seat”). Her work, so simple on the surface, has drive and energy. Lastly, even in her weaker stories O’Connor entertains; it mattered to her to do so. She was a writer with unique gifts, but one who is misrepresented; it was a misrepresentation that she encouraged. I think, deep inside, she knew the truth about herself and struggled with her dark side. But it’s that dark side which dominates the pages of this collection. * (1)

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Happening – Annie Ernaux (French)
Ernaux won the 2022 Nobel Prize for Literature. I found only one of her many books in my local library, and it was shelved in the non-fiction stacks. But the copyright page describes it as fiction. I can understand the confusion. Ernaux writes about herself – Happening, which was published in 2000, is about an abortion she had thirty-five years prior to the writing, when she was twenty-three. Her style is flat, devoid of embellishments. It doesn’t read as a novel – it’s more an exploration of a situation. We do get the emotions of Annie as a young woman (it’s written in the first person), but there’s a clinical feel to Ernaux’s approach. She even includes sections in parentheses, in which her adult self makes observations. Abortion was illegal in France at the time the events take place, and doctors – who were subject to imprisonment – wanted no part of it. From people Annie knows she finds little help, little understanding, little kindness. The impression I got was of a lonely young woman searching in a bleak, uncaring world. She even attempts to terminate the pregnancy using knitting needles. She’s finally put in touch with an old woman who performs “back street” abortions. It doesn’t go smoothly, and we get the unpleasant details. Ernaux never tries to make her younger self endearing. At no point does she refer to what she’s carrying inside her as a baby or a child; its potential as a human being never seems to enter her mind – it is only a foetus. Also, the father is not interested in helping her, but she had unprotected sex with someone for whom she had no emotional ties. The  book can be taken as a denunciation of the French anti-abortion law, but as such it is belated – when it was published the law had been revoked many years ago. Ernaux had a purely personal agenda: she set out to recreate – to relive – an experience that had great significance for her, and on those terms she succeeds. But do you want to accompany her?

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: Sojourner at Cross Creek – Elizabeth Silverthorne
A good biography by someone sympathetic to its subject. Not that Rawlings’ flaws are glossed over (her over-drinking, her black moods during which she could say hurtful things), but all-in-all she was a remarkable woman. What I will concentrate on in this review is how, after many years of submissions and form rejections, she attained success as a writer. It began with her moving to Cross Creek, a remote area of the Florida Scrub. She fell in love with this world, and proceeded to learn about it – the animals, the plants, and, most of all, the people. Marjorie immersed herself in how the “Crackers” thought – their values, their outlook on life – and she kept notebooks in which she transcribed how they talked. She interacted with them as a neighbor; her house was not unlike the ones they lived in. She hunted, grew crops as they did. She could kill a rattlesnake, butcher a pig. So, when she turned to writing about the residents of Cross Creek, there was an authenticity. She was thirty-five when she submitted a story set in that region to a New York magazine – Scribners. It was a life-changing choice. A sophisticated audience was interested in the exotic world which, in Rawlings’ capable hands, was most definitely a real world. The story was passed on to the chief editor at Scribners, Maxwell Perkins. Max Perkins – the premier editor of his era. He wrote Marjorie, telling her that he thought the story was excellent, but he had many suggestions for revision. She found his suggestions sound, and made the changes. So began a relationship – and a friendship – that lasted until Perkins’ death. Marjorie would, under his tutelage, produce two enduring works – The Yearling and Cross Creek. She was introduced to just about everybody of importance in the literary world. But the negative aspect was that she developed a dependence on Max. After his death she would produce one novel, The Sojourner, but it wasn’t up to the standards of the previous books. She went into an emotional and physical slump, and would die at age fifty-seven (four years after Max’s passing). I’ll close with an excerpt from a letter she wrote to her secretary while working on Sojourner: “I should not be in such anguish if Max were here. He could have told me long ago whether or not I’m on the right track, and there’s absolutely no one else I could allow to see unfinished work . . . There’s no one I trust for an honest answer as I trusted Max . . . I have lost all faith in my creative ability.” (Max and Marjorie is a collection of the correspondence between the two, and it includes nearly 700 letters, notes and wires.)

Over to Candleford – Flora Thompson
If you appreciated Lark Rise (as I did) and grew to like and care about Laura (as I did), you won’t find this sequel disappointing. Thompson does something akin to adjusting a telescope. In the first book we get a broad view; in this one she turns the knob and we get a closer look. Most significantly, Laura emerges as a more developed individual. But this is not an autobiography or a memoir. Thompson obviously had no desire to reveal intimate details about her family, and she only touches on her own feelings. We do get to know the mother much better, but the father stays in the background (though when he emerges he is kindly toward Laura). We learn more about life in the hamlet of Lark Rise, but gradually the locale shifts to Candleford. It’s a bustling market town where Laura has relatives with whom she stays for long periods of time. She meets and develops a friendship with the postmistress, who also owns and runs a blacksmith shop in the neighboring village of Candleford Green. When Laura reaches the age of thirteen (after her meager schooling ends) it’s time for her to get a job and leave home. Laura’s mother wants her to become a nursing assistant, but she recognizes that Laura as no inclination in that direction. And her needlework is so poor that she can’t be an apprentice to a dressmaker. What to do with Laura? At this point a propitious offer comes: the postmistress needs an assistant. So, in a final chapter entitled “Exit Laura,” she moves to Candleford Green. The virtues of this book are in the lovely writing and the acuteness of observation and perception. Thompson possessed a gift: when she describes a person they come alive, and the world she creates was made real to me. I look forward to the last instalment in the trilogy. *

Friday, December 23, 2022

By the Lake – John McGahern
My first reaction, as I was into the opening pages, was: “Who is this guy?” I had never heard of McGahern, but what I was reading was very good. A bit of research told me that in his lifetime (he died in 2006, at age 71) he was acclaimed for his work, but he existed outside the literary in-crowd. As I read on I found this to be a novel of unusual depth. It takes place in a Irish farming village in the mid 1900s and involves everyday matters. The lives of a handful of characters are followed through what seems like a year. It’s all quite interesting – the village and its occupants (many of whom are eccentric) come alive, the activities (bringing in a crop, a cattle sale) have an authenticity (the author lived his early and his last years working on a small farm). The dialogue is outstanding in that each voice is distinctive and conveys the essence of the speaker. The main character, Ruttledge, though mostly an observer, gets involved in the predicaments of others. In his relations with those others he’s always considerate, thoughtful, generous. He’s a man who has obviously made a choice as to how to conduct his life. He also made a choice as to where to live: London or the village? His choice seems to be the right one for him. The village is not an idyllic world – far from it – but there exists a sense of community; people care for one another (even if it is mainly out of curiosity). His friendship with a neighbor, Jamesie, is one that will endure (though Jamesie, on parting, often says “I never liked yous anyhow.”). Ruttledge has no answers to life’s big questions, but those questions exist as an aura – or a mood – which envelopes this novel. One thing that emerges is a sense of mortality. McGahern died of cancer four years after On the Lake came out; possibly he had a diagnosis. Another aspect of the aura concerns the relationship between Ruttledge and his wife, Kate. She exists almost entirely in the words she speaks; though none of these words express love, the sense of a deep love between the two quietly evolved in my mind. Anyway: read this one — it’s a masterful job. *

Paul Cezanne – John Rewald
A good biography, one that relies heavily on letters. Many come from a childhood friend – Emile Zola. That the friendship eventually foundered was unfortunate, but Cezanne was a very difficult man. And, although they broke off relations, they still retained affection for one another. I won’t go into the personality of Cezanne and his art – the book does that. But I found it interesting how schools of thought existed concerning what good painting should be. The Paris Salon dominated in the mid 1800s, but there was a rebellion against its dictates. Rightly so; it was a dull, stagnant art. The Impressionist movement evolved, and was initially vilified. Though some artists (Manet, Renoir, Degas, Monet) gradually attained acceptance, Cezanne wasn’t proclaimed to be a master until old age. And when acceptance finally came, his attitude was this: Once those whose judgements people follow ridiculed me; now people follow the judgements of people who laud me. All followers! Art would continue to change in its attitudes as to what was of value. The trend has been toward a turning away from the human face and form. Cezanne never went in this direction; his portraits are character studies. I wonder what he would say about blocks of color and dribbles of paint and Campbell soup cans. Last note: this book proclaims on the cover that it has “over 100 illustrations,” but almost all are in black and white. To Cezanne color was a primary element of his work. He wouldn’t be pleased.

The Story of Lucy Gault - William Trevor
I’ve reviewed eleven other books by Trevor, and four he’s written are on my Most Meaningful list. Not all of those eleven got good reviews, but I finished them. This one – the shortest, a novella – I only made it halfway through. The prose was good, and so was the beginning, but when Lucy (age eight) runs away and is permanently separated from her mother and father, there were too many pages in which Trevor struggles to make these events plausible. But what bothered me the most was his abandonment of what is going on in Lucy’s mind. He had given us access to that mind, but when dire events occur to her (injury, near starvation, etc.) we learn nothing of what she was experiencing. When she’s found, and recovers (though with a permanent limp), we continue to be excluded; she’s merely presented as a subdued and withdrawn presence. Then Ralph arrives (he drives up to the house by mistake), and love blooms. Suddenly we’re again privy to eighteen-year-old Lucy’s thoughts and feelings, and she seems remarkably stable, sensible, well adjusted. How did she get this way? If it’s her story, as the title proclaims, why the gap between eight and eighteen? And the love happens too quickly, without basis (Ralph lacks much of a personality). I simply wasn’t buying it, so I stopped reading.

Reality and Dreams – Muriel Spark
At age 78 the spark of creativity had died in Dame Muriel. Despite the pretentious title, this is a silly mishmash involving a bunch of characters who all have problems with marital fidelity. The prose is still good – that’s the last to go. I guess the lifelong habit of sitting down to write is hard to break. And when an eminent author issues yet another book, it gets published (no editor is going to say, Muriel, you’ve lost it – don’t embarrass yourself). And it also gets praised by other eminent authors; on the back cover we have blurbs by Updike, Vidal, Byatt. I was only able to plod my way to the halfway point of this very short book. But – let me end this with a reappraisal. I had the belief that I was a fan of Spark’s writing. But I just looked back through my previous reviews of her work (12 in all), and discovered that I was mostly disappointed. Only one – The Driver’s Seat – impressed me. And, before I began reviewing, I greatly admired Momento Mori and The Bachelors. So my positive feelings for Spark rests solely on three novels. But, actually, that’s enough to garner respect. And, as for authors who continue writing when the well is empty (Trevor was another one), they’re responding to a compulsion. They have to write.

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Reviews from the past
Blindness - Jose Saramago (Portuguese)
A visceral novel comes from the guts of an author. This type of book succeeds only if it’s done so artfully that the urgency of emotion is transferred to the reader. Saramago succeeds. I entered the nightmarish world he creates. I experienced the squalor of the asylum where the blind are imprisoned, I felt the elation of the women washing clothes (and themselves) in the downpour on the balcony. But the best example of my involvement is how deeply I wanted the doctor’s wife to commit a murder; when she does, and makes a good (and grisly) job of it, I felt satisfaction. I can’t think of a more heroic female figure in fiction than the doctor’s wife. Saramago delves deep into the sordid and disgusting; but he’s describing the total breakdown of society, and he shows us the results. His scenario made me wonder: How low can man descend, how many trappings of dignity can he lose, and still struggle to survive? In the last chapters the author attempts to find meaning in what he’s created, but he flounders; this is one of those works that defy a summing up. Finally Saramago lets matters trail off in an indeterminate way. Which is the right ending. We get questions, and that’s enough, if the questions are such good ones. * (3 other books by this author are reviewed)

From Death to Morning - Thomas Wolfe
In “The Story of a Novel” Wolfe describes the struggle he had in writing Of Time and the River, and in doing so he inadvertently reveals the pitfalls that come from too fecund an imagination, an obsessive-compulsive need to embrace everything in words, a desire to impart profound truths about life, a romantic belief in the artist as a tormented soul. Missing are restraint, discipline, a sense of structure – anything that imposes limits. The editor who tried to bring some order to Wolfe’s gargantuan outpouring of words was Maxwell Perkins; what an ordeal that poor man went through. Of the stories that make up the rest of the book, most fail due to those flaws inherent in the author’s nature. Two of them, though not outright bad, have too much description; the words don’t capture the essence of the moment, nor do they serve any purpose to the plot (what plot?); things become repetitive, as if Wolfe were insisting, “Understand, damn it!” In two others emotionality runs amok, and the results are unreadable. Yet Wolfe had talent when it was reined in. The structure of “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” imposed limits. The man talking to the reader isn’t a poet; he’s a down-to-earth guy who had an encounter that he found compelling, mysterious. Wolfe lets him tell his story in his voice; it’s presented directly, simply, in a narrative that flows naturally. In “Chickamauga” an old man relates his harrowing experience in a Civil War battle. Here too the need to take on the voice of the person, and no more, put limits on Wolfe’s extravagance. These stories show how good he could be, which is very good.

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert (French)
A brutal novel. It gives off no moral light. Emma Bovary’s adulteries are its focus because they – the transitory intoxication of the senses – are the tawdry focus of her life. But unfaithfulness is merely one manifestation of her corrupt nature. She lies, she manipulates; her profligacy drags her husband and daughter into poverty. As for that daughter, Emma can barely tolerate Berthe’s presence. The novel is full of stifling dissatisfaction, cynicism, disillusionment, despair. The one aspect of Emma that makes her an object of pity is her suffering. She suffers, though not as a victim, and in her final imperious rejection of life there’s a heroic dimension. The characters around her are, in Flaubert’s eyes, merely humans – far from admirable. Pettiness, hypocrisy, selfishness, stupidity are on full display, and the greedy Lheureux attains the lofty status of evil. The one good character is Emma’s husband, Charles; on her deathbed she tells him “You are good,” but his goodness does not touch her; she’s making a cold statement of fact. Soon after her marriage she comes to loath him – a dull man, so mediocre. And such a dupe, ridiculously easy to deceive. Partly he’s a dupe because he deludes himself about Emma’s true nature. Emma lives with delusions too: her romantic and unattainable dreams of glamour and romance (which curdle into bitterness and resentment). At the end of the book Flaubert seems to revel in crushing Emma with hammer blow after hammer blow. Not only is she punished, the innocent suffer too. Charles’s cherished memories of Emma are shattered when he finds love letters from Rodolphe and Leon. Berthe – after her father’s death and in the wake of the financial ruin brought on by her mother – is sent to work in a cotton mill. There’s a perversity in Flaubert’s destructiveness. He wrote, famously, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Could Emma embody all the pernicious and corrupt qualities he found in himself? And could his destruction of her be directed, masochistically, upon himself? At any rate, the novel he created is a work of art. It gives off no moral light, but we’re given a vision of life, and it smoulders. * (2)

Fun with Problems - Robert Stone
This short story collection should have been called Drunks, Druggies, Nut-Cases. But it’s a literary work by a National Book Award winner, so the title can’t be blatantly lurid. It has to have class (albeit of the quirky variety). Still, the book is far from a class act; I won’t attempt to do justice to its many failings. If you’re at the library, read the four page “Honeymoon” and tell me why an author with discernment or self-respect – if they wrote such nonsense in the first place – wouldn’t have tossed it in the wastebasket. Granted, the prose throughout is fine and the title story is good, in a slummy way (it’s the only story that can be called “good”; most are bad, and the two long ones are so tediously bad that I couldn’t complete them). The problem with Problems – a huge one, endemic in today’s literary world – is content. Pandering is the name of the game. Freakiness, outrageous behavior, violence, obscenity – these make up the content of work by many young writers and some elder statesmen (like Stone). No person I can relate to appears on these pages because no real humans are depicted. Real people in real situations, though a subject of vast potential, have been largely abandoned. So why did I read the book? I heard Alan Cheuse, on NPR, highly recommend it, and I liked Stone’s Dog Soldiers (written in 1973 and also containing the content I’m condemning here); but twenty-seven years ago I was young, and the novel was fresh and had vitality and drive; now I’ve matured, but Stone, though he’s seventy, hasn’t; he’s just gotten angrier – the prevailing attitude in these stories is a mean and abusive one. In the blurb on the back cover Madison Smartt Bell writes “American fiction has no greater master than Robert Stone.” What hope is there if Cheuse and Bell (and many others who heap praise on this dismal book) can’t recognize its faults and emphatically condemn them? A last comment, regarding Stone’s anger. He heavy-handily bludgeons caricatures: an insane Secretary of Defense, a rich Silicon Valley entrepreneur; and, in a broader sense, he attacks an American society phony to its diseased core. But if he wants to see, up close, the disease that’s killing literary fiction, he simply needs to look in a mirror.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Pioneers of France in the New World – Francis Parkman
A very impressive display of scholarship combined with a storyteller’s flair for the dramatic. Parkman makes the exploration of North America come alive, in all its grimness. Yes, grim, exceedingly grim, full of hardships, brutality, disappointments. In Europe, too, things were chaotic, mostly due to religious conflicts (between people who all professed to believe in Jesus Christ), and these deadly conflicts were continued in the New World. It was a world that offered the possibility of riches, as had been found by the Spanish in the Aztec and Inca empires. But alas, there turned out to be no other such glorious civilizations. And a route to the Far East was sought, but resulted in dead ends. The only source of financial gain was the fur trade, which the Spanish, the French and the English competed for control of. As for the Indians, Parkman refers to them as “savages.” We have a tendency to glamorize the Native Americans, to conceive of them as noble environmentalists. Reading this account, they are indeed savages; tribes are constantly at war with one another, and their treatment of captured enemies is appalling (they delighted in slow tortures). And they readily wiped out the beaver population for what they gained in barter. In other words, they were no better than the white man. A picture of humanity emerges that’s disturbing (or maybe that segment of humanity with ambitions). Some (notably the Jesuits) journeyed to the New World to convert the Indians, who they believed to be possessed by the devil; though they come across as fanatics, their fortitude and determination and acceptance of suffering is impressive. Others had the idea of establishing a self-sustaining colony in America. France failed to do so, despite the efforts of Champlain, who emerges as the hero of this book. My one problem was keeping all the names of people and places straight. Finally I gave up, and just continued to read to have another episode of failure and cruelty and suffering described. What most of these early arrivals discovered in the New World was death – by violence, disease or starvation.

Meet Me in Mumbai – Sabina Khan
This is a young adult novel, aimed at girls in their mid-teens. So why is an old guy like me reading it? Well, it was a proof copy in a box of giveaways, so why not give it a look? It was easy going, fairly interesting in the beginning, so I continued to the halfway point. What I want to explore in this review is how Khan imbeds messages in her book, some of which are untrue or evasive. In the first of two sections, a teenage girl, a Muslim from India going to school in the US, gets pregnant. Ayesha is not promiscuous, and she’s in love, and the boy (also an Indian) uses a condom. But (message) accidents happen, girls, and when you get pregnant you’re in a heap of trouble. Ayesha considers an abortion (which is what the boyfriend suggests), but can’t go through with it. So she gives the baby up for adoption – to a lesbian couple living in Houston. With no misgivings. The message here is that being homosexual carries no stigma, no problems. When the novel changes to the perspective of the daughter, the same age as the mother was in the first section, the two women who raise her (Ma and Mama) are as acceptable and normal as a heterosexual couple. No kids at school sneer at Mira’s lesbian parents. No cold stares from other parents at PTA meetings (remember, to some homosexuality is an abomination). In this novel all is fine. Also, neither girl encounters any prejudice from classmates due to their brown skin. Is this true to life, especially after 9/11, when Muslims were the object of hostility? The author is presenting things as they should be, in a best of all possible worlds, one free of prejudice, hatreds, condemning. Mira has no love interest (her male friend is, predictably, gay); in her section she gets in touch with her rich Indian heritage (message: people should respect cultures other than their own). She also finds letters written to her by her mother when she was in the womb. I found the Mira section boring, so – since things were headed to a reunion in Mumbai with the mother and daughter – I skipped to the last pages. What I got was a sob fest of love, which its intended audience may have responded to with tears.

Scandal – Shusaku Endo (Japanese)
I greatly admired Endo’s When I Whistle, but during the reading of this novel there were at least seven occasions where I was tempted to abandon it. I kept going because the prose was good, and I felt that the author was working out private issues, and that some point would emerge. His narrator is a writer, the same age as Endo (in his sixties), who’s going through emotional crises. One focus of the book revolves around sex of a deviant nature. I found the descriptions of the activities in Tokyo’s porno district to be quite distasteful. Surguro (apparently) has a doppelganger who engages in disgusting acts. Is he, in fact, the dark side of Suguro (who lives a scandal-free life)? Do we humans harbor the darkest of urges: sadism, masochism; can we even find pleasure (sexual in nature) in murder? There’s a lot of soul searching and contemplation of life’s Big Issues, with a touch of religiosity thrown in (Endo is classified as a Christian author). But it’s flailing mess, full of loose ends and twists and turns that go nowhere. As for the resolution that I had been waiting for, there was none that I could discern. In fact, the last paragraph has a phone ringing, which seems to signify something – but what? In looking at my review of Whistle, I close with these words: “. . . a moving novel about the enduring power of friendship and love.” This novel was written twelve years before Scandal. What went wrong?