Monday, July 16, 2012

The View in Winter - Ronald Blythe
The topic of this book – old age – is one people generally try to avoid. But the elderly pose problems that most families and all societies have to cope with; there’s also the fact that, in today’s world, an ever-increasing number of us will be blessed or cursed with a long life. So the subject must be addressed, and Blythe does this, thoroughly. Although some handle old age well, he finds loneliness, isolation, and a feeling of not belonging and not mattering endemic. Many of the elderly are fear-plagued – not of death, which most face with acceptance, but of losing control of their lives (a crippling fall, a fading of the mind); they fear losing their independence and becoming a burden to others. These various negative aspects are raised by the author in his introduction and commentaries, but what we get from the old people who are interviewed is a cheerful, plucky attitude, or resignation, or muted memories. And I wondered, Where’s the passion? Why doesn’t anybody express regret, anger, frustration, bitterness? Since Blythe restricted himself to the residents of one English village, it’s possible that those he spoke with were under a pressure the old commonly feel: that they must “behave.” The liveliest section is one in which young people talk about their attitudes toward the elderly; this blunt, honest, diverse dialogue has a vitality absent from the rest of the book. Even Blythe’s tone is intellectually detached. He’s insightful, unflinching and, at times, harsh. But the very complexity of his subject makes the book diffuse and scattered. Blythe wrote Winter when he was fifty-eight. I can’t help but compare it to Akenfield, which came ten years earlier. In that book people in a village spoke primarily about their jobs, and there was passion aplenty. In this look at the end of life it’s apathy that prevails.

The Garrick Year - Margaret Drabble
The following sentence, which comes halfway through this book, marks the point at which I abandoned it: “I lay there and wondered what frightful depths of need the chance words of a man whom I did not know and had no reason to like had revealed in me; and I saw then clearly what later became confused; that I was about to be chained, in a fashion so arbitrary that it frightened me, to a passion so accidental that it confirmed nothing but my own inadequacy and inability to grow.” A lot of probing, right? The critical problem is that I didn’t know the woman who was thinking these thoughts; little had been revealed about her by her words and actions. She makes a lot of claims; one of them is a deep love for her daughter, but Drabble doesn’t include one single sustained scene between the two. Even Nell’s physical appearance is sketchy; she’s supposed to be beautiful, but in my mind’s eye she remained featureless and shapeless. A book is an inanimate object, but its main character can’t be.

Brittania Mews - Margery Sharp
For 120 pages this was a good novel. We first get to know Adelaide as a ten-year-old; then the narrative skips a dozen years. What follows is her romance with her art instructor; she pursues marriage to this feckless fellow in a headstrong way. She gets what she wants, with disastrous results. The dissolution of her love – and her dreams – is handled well, as is the hardening of her nature. But in the next hundred pages my sympathy and involvement slowly eroded. The slum in which Adelaide is forced to live was never convincing; that didn’t bother me when I was involved in the dynamics of her marriage, but after Henry’s exit the stereotypical garishness of the Mews and its denizens led me to conclude that Sharp had no firsthand knowledge of that world (though she writes with authority about the moneyed class). Gilbert – the second man in her life – is abruptly introduced (he’s thrown out of a bar, drunk); they immediately form a platonic soul mate relationship. He’s easily reformed by Adelaide – far too easily. Sharp stopped trying to lay a solid groundwork. Her husband, with all his faults, was a real person; Gilbert merely serves a role. Events – such as the success of the Puppet Theatre – are predictable and improbable. As Part Four begins thirty years have passed. Young people with names like Dodo and Sonia Trent take center stage, while Adelaide has stiffened into a cardboard prop. At this point I had enough. Sharp attempted something major – a sprawling generational novel – but it was beyond her range. She was a sprinter attempting to run a marathon. As she labored through the years she lost her energy and the book turned slack and vacuous.

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