Friday, May 8, 2009

Collected Short Stories of Aldous Huxley
There are over four hundred pages of them, and they vary widely in quality. Some are wonderful (“The Gioconda Smile,” “Nuns at Luncheon,” “Sir Hercules”), some are clunkers. Huxley generally does better in the longer pieces; the shorter ones tend to have a “tossed off” quality. He’s mostly in his acerbic, cruel mode (which can get repetitious in back-to-back stories), but at times he shows compassion; the results are usually successful, though, surprisingly (for such a cynic about human nature), he can get a bit mawkish. Even the prose is inconsistent; it’s mostly polished writing, but there’s some sloppy work. I wish this was a two hundred page The Best of Aldous Huxley.

The Ballad and the Source - Rosamond Lehmann
This novel is made up of three monologues. They’re framed as conversations, but Rebecca (who’s the listener) only serves to ask leading questions. This struck me as artificial (particularly since Rebecca is ten when the first exchange takes place; how could she ask the questions that lead the speaker on – and on and on?). Also, the plot and characters are exaggerated, even melodramatic. There are detailed descriptions of flowers, dresses, and a concentration on feelings. Seems like a woman’s novel, one I didn’t like, right? Wrong. This is a remarkable work. The three voices are those of very different people, but Lehmann captures each perfectly (the book is written in flawless prose). I became caught up in the dense, ambiguous, sinister, tragic story which takes shape. The middle speaker, Sibyl, is at the core of everything. Her version of events is not to be fully believed, though it’s unclear how much is falsified. She emerges as a driving force – but driven by a desire to make people and events conform to how she wants them to be. At times I thought she was evil, at other times I felt (as does Rebecca) wonder at the strength of her will. The ending is extraordinary: there’s a death (and I felt the loss); then, in the last paragraph, Rebecca has a dream. Nightmare is a more fitting word. Harry finally reveals the secret behind his silence and Sibyl emerges from where she’s been hiding in Rebecca’s heart. We suddenly understand how deeply this adult tale has affected the girl. *

The General in His Labyrinth - Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Spanish)
On the first page the General is dying. When I stopped reading, on page 170 (with a hundred pages left), he’s still dying. In other words, when dealing with the present the novel was stagnant. There was a lot of going back in time to include historical events, but this material meant little to me. What I read was good, and I was interested, but the “interested” gradually became “somewhat interested.” I think the foremost novelist of South America felt obligated to write a novel about South America’s greatest leader, Simon Bolivar. Being Garcia Marquez, he couldn’t write a simple tribute – his Bolivar has flaws, though what predominates is the man’s tremendous determination. Also, Garcia Marquez focuses on the shabby end to glory. The book was an easy read (no labyrinth in the prose), but the “somewhat” prevailed.

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