Monday, February 4, 2013

Doctor Faustus - Thomas Mann (German)
This massive novel is framed as a biography of a deceased composer, written by a lifelong friend. Unlike Goethe’s Faust, it’s not about a man who sells his soul to the devil. In a key document (which comes into the hands of the biographer/friend), Adrian Leverkuhn writes of his encounter with Satan and of the pact they enter into (he’s granted twenty-four years of genius). As presented, one can only conclude that this encounter happened entirely in the mind of Adrian. This strange man has character traits – primarily a coldheartedness – that alienate him from humanity. His friend claims that, unlike Adrian, he’s a humanist. Why, then, does he (or, rather, Mann) punish the reader by delving into matters that only a scholar could comprehend? As I labored through the dense sections on theology and music I had to console myself with the belief that I was getting the gist of what the author was trying to convey. Other parts are intelligible, even engaging (without them I couldn’t have made it to the end). And some scenes are beyond impressive. Yet in the last hundred pages there’s a weakening of the grip that Mann had always kept on his material. Most crucial is that the voice of the narrator becomes overwrought; with the appearance of Echo he falls into a sea of sentiment. Watching the child read he thinks, “thus must the little angels up above turn the pages of their heavenly choir-books.” In a world ruled by the daemonic such purity must die a ghastly death (related with drum rolls of doom). Syrupy sentiment, resounding doom – Mann loses his sense of moderation, and, like a wounded bull, he becomes vulnerable. My reaction to his last lengthy excursion into the intricacies of musicology was dismissive: “You do go on!” When copious tears are shed, I was unaffected because too much heavy-handed obscurity had alienated me from the emotional life of the characters. In trying to account for the failure of Doctor Faustus a few factors may be relevant. As Mann worked on the novel destruction was raining down on his beloved Germany (a nation that had, in a sense, made a pact with the devil). And, like his narrator, he was in his seventies; possibly he was looking back at a life in which he had devoted himself to his art to the exclusion of all else; he might have seen himself in Adrian Leverkuhn. If so, the tears could well have been real, but Mann was fated to cry alone.

The Suicide’s Wife - David Madden
“She woke, felt his finger in her.” You can decide for yourself whether this opening sentence is inviting or distasteful; for me it was the latter, particularly since no lovemaking follows. The man simply withdraws his finger and gets out of the sleeping bag he’s sharing with his wife. In silence he leaves the house; he later turns up dead, an apparent suicide. Why did he kill himself? – Ann hasn’t a clue. Her husband seems to have been an enigma to her. They have three children, the oldest twelve years old, but it’s as if they had no intimate relationship. She’s upset and baffled, but beyond that she doesn’t have the deep feelings one would expect, such as remorse or anger. Apparently he never cared much about her and his kids (he leaves them with hardly any money and a car in terminal disrepair). This passive, insecure woman tries to learn about “the man around whom her life had been expended” by turning to his colleagues at the college where he taught. There she meets a creepy professor who raises the possibility that a mentally unstable student had murdered her husband. Rather than finding this an intriguing plot twist, I suspected that Madden was merely trying to extend the book to a minimal length; he had already included some dead end detours and a lot of filler – much space is taken up with Ann’s efforts to learn how to drive (repeated shifting and stalling; a page and a half that comes directly from a manual for a driver’s license test). Would insight – the only thing that could save this novel – emerge at the end? I had no faith that it would because the premise isn’t realistic: a twelve year marriage can’t be presented as a void. At any rate, the repugnance I felt from the first sentence became overpowering (Ann has a vaginal infection; you don’t want to know the details, but Madden supplies them). I abandoned this morbid book halfway through.

Female Friends - Fay Weldon
It’s unusual to quit on a 237 page book when you’re fifty pages from the end. For one thing, there has to be a reason why you got so far. I was initially impressed by the unique structure and perspective; the writing was topnotch and the three women varied and interesting. What eventually wore me down was that Weldon kept going over the same ground. All the women are victims of their bodies (which bleed, get pregnant, undergo unwelcome changes, etc.); more important, they’re victimized by men. Men dominate them, if only by being absent from their lives. And the men in this novel are a bad lot; a few are grotesquely bad, yet the women willingly engage in sex with them, have their babies, marry them, serve them, obsess about them. Weldon presents life as grubby and mean; this is true even when she adopts a flippant tone: “Grace has abortions. Like having a tooth out, she says. She looks forward to it. All that drama, she says, and distracted men, and the anaesthetics are lovely, and you wake up with no sense of time passed. What luxury!” An unwieldy cast of secondary characters (at least a dozen to keep track of) didn’t help matters; most are dismal and distorted people trapped in aggressively bizarre situations. Love? – not to be found, even among the three “friends.” What was lively and unique on page ninety had become unpalatable by page190. I couldn’t swallow another bite.

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