Annie John - Jamaica Kincaid
The author was born in Antigua; this book follows a girl’s life in Antigua from age ten to eighteen; it ends with her on a ship bound for England. She leaves her mother and father and all the people and places she had known without regret: “the world into which I was born had become an unbearable burden and I wished I could reduce it to some small thing that I could hold underwater until it died.” Until it died? I found no justification on the pages of this book for such a venomous thought. Annie’s early life is idyllic; she basks in the largesse of love bestowed upon her by her parents, especially by her mother, and she comes across as a pleasant child. But in her mid-teens she changes into an angry, deceitful, malicious troublemaker. Most significant is the hatred she harbors for her mother. Why? The woman isn’t the monster Annie perceives her to be. She’s strong-willed and wants to control her daughter; Annie, equally strong-willed, resists. Such clashes are normal; this one, in its implacable intensity, is not. When Annie is fifteen she has an illness that keeps her bedridden for many months; it’s some sort of emotional crisis, but its root cause is never accounted for; she simply recovers. Too much about her is allowed to remain murky; instead of insight into what makes her tick, the author empowers Annie with negatives. In presenting her as a hateful young woman Kincaid seems to be gloating about it. There was something perverse – and false – in this portrayal. When Annie left Antigua it was without my good wishes.
The Miraculous Barber - Marcel Ayme (French)
In the dazzling opening chapter, which takes place at a luncheon party, we gradually realize that the man observing the people around him is having a stroke and is in a slow motion struggle to keep contact with a world that’s becoming increasingly distorted and fragmented. His death sets off an improbable chain of events. What matters in this book is not the ungainly plot but the characters, each of whom has some quality that’s just short of being fantastical. Ayme holds his avaricious, pretentious, vain, stupid, spineless, amoral, crazy characters up to ridicule, but his attitude is amused rather than cruel. Since the book involves politics, one is left wondering how a country made up of such bunglers can survive. The barber of the title provides the answer: he’s a man with no expertise (beyond cutting hair), but he’s running France from behind the scenes simply because he’s practical and decisive. If a reader takes this novel as a farce, he’ll find it entertaining, fresh, and smart.
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.