Three Novels: Hordubal, Meteor, An Ordinary Life - Karl Capek (Czech)
On the Yard – Malcolm Braly
Braly took his personal knowledge of prison life and combined it with insight into the minds of his characters to produce a work that’s both authentic and emotionally involving. He avoids stereotypes; there are good and bad men on both sides of the bars. San Quentin (not named as such in the book) is actually a humane place (at least during the time Braly spent there, in the sixties). But even a humane prison is prison. Besides the pervasive threat of danger from other inmates, there’s a sense of waste; each day is like a scrap of litter tossed idly on the yard. Some try to avoid this demoralizing fact, others are all too aware of it. The absence of women leads to homosexual encounters (or at least constant talk about that subject). The novel is ugly, grim and vulgar, but what else can it be? A lifer named Chilly Willy plays a prominent role; he’s the prison’s King Rat, a man who uses his brains to get his way. But the mechanics of his downfall are too obvious (from the get-go I spotted the trap that was being set for Willy, so why couldn’t he?). Braly’s portrayal of Juleson, on the other hand, is masterful. Juleson is a decent man, determined to hold onto his dignity; we know that about him, but we don’t know until the end of the book what his crime was. In seven devastating pages we find out. But that’s not all: the scene that immediately follows has the impact of a hammer blow. *
Portrait of Max - S. N. Behrman
This is an elegant book, as befits its subject. For the most part it’s made up of conversations between Max Beerbohm and Behrman; it also includes a generous helping of Max’s caricatures. This certainly isn’t a tell-all – it’s a loving portrayal – though a side to Max emerges in which his impishness has a bite; his drawings can be hurtful (a fact that he was ruefully aware of) and he also has a taste for gossip in which people’s faults and foibles are exposed. But it’s a sharp-eyed interest in human nature that seems to be motivating him, not mean-spiritedness. Max was one of those rare souls who have a talent for living. He valued friends, and he was rich in that respect. He chose to lead what some would consider a diminished existence. His artistic and literary output was meager; and, though he was a prominent figure in London’s smart set, after his marriage he moved to a tiny villa on the outskirts of an Italian town. In speaking about his retreat from glitter, glamour and fame, he has absolutely no regrets. Behrman made visits to Rapallo over a period of four years (the book ends with Max’s death at age 84). During his stays the two men spent a few hours each day talking (or, rather, with Max talking – it’s his portrait, after all). I was often pleasantly involved, but sometimes I felt excluded because I didn’t know anything about the people being discussed. Also, their encounters don’t provide enough material to fill a 300 page book, so Behrman resorts to describing in detail what Max wrote; since I could read the real thing (and, in many cases, had), I found these sections to be a waste of words. But being with Max was time well spent.