Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Time to Kill - Ennio Flaiano (Italian)
This novel was published in the USA under the title The Short Cut, which I prefer. If only the young lieutenant hadn’t taken the short cut through the Abyssinian bush. If only he hadn’t come across the native girl bathing alone in a pool. But he does, and I was drawn with him into a nightmarish vortex. I followed his thinking, I accepted his baffling actions because they were what someone driven beyond the brink – eventually into madness – would do. The ending is enigmatic; he’s suddenly (miraculously) free of all entanglements. But . . . no, it’s not that simple. He’ll never be free; you don’t free yourself from your inner demons so easily. The novel is filled with ambiguities. Although the events described are comprehensible and scenes have the substance of reality, I was often – while feeling complicity with the lieutenant – perplexed. I even wondered if the events related in the first person really happened the way they were presented. Flaiano provokes those kinds of doubts. All is inconclusive in this book. I only know it was an experience. Not a pleasant one, but an experience. *

Father Sets the Pace - Gontran de Poncins (French)
I wonder if the author read Clarence Day’s Life with Father. The structure of this book is so similar, even in the chapter headings (“Father Takes the Train,” etc.). Yet while Day’s portrayal of a family tyrant was sweet-natured, Gontran de Poncins’ father emerges as a man of overriding selfishness. He cares for nothing but his comfort and his horses. He insists that his every need (and he had many) be indulged to the fullest. Episodes are presented with a light, humorous touch, but the cumulative effect is to lay bare a man’s lack of humanity. Gontran’s father sets the pace in French society – that is, he’s the epitome of the cultured gentleman. He believes not in doing (accomplishing things of any sort) but in being (witty, well-dressed, etc.). His son feels an element of respect for one so self-centered, so sure of what he wants and so manipulative in getting it. Many times Gontran comments that his father never should have married; he also never should have been a father. In fact, he wasn’t a father, in any sense. This trenchant character study cuts to the bone. *

Apologies to the Iroquois - Edmund Wilson
An article by Joseph Mitchell called “Mohawks in High Steel” comes first, but after reading a few pages of what was a dry recitation of facts I skipped to Edmund Wilson’s section (which makes up 95% of the book). Wilson writes sedately, with no fireworks or attempts at creating pretty sentences, but he provides a personal touch and has the ability to recognize what’s interesting. He reports – with intelligence, fairness and clarity – on how the Iroquois are faring in the larger society. In the process he disposes of stereotypes. Apologies was written in the late 1950s; the Iroquois were making progress to assert their individuality and legal rights. At the end I was left wondering how they’re doing now.

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