Monday, February 10, 2014

The Petty Demon - Fyodor Solugub (Russian)
Initially I took this to be a comic novel because every character and every encounter highlight the absolute worst in human nature; since people aren’t that bad, the results are absurd. Peredonov, the main character, is made up of a plethora of vices, with not one virtue thrown in. Some examples: “Everything that reached his consciousness was transformed into something vile and filthy” and “He had no objects that he loved just as there were no people he loved.” Despite his odiousness, women are in hot pursuit of him as a husband. This sadist (yes, he’s that too) is a schoolteacher in a provincial town, and the haphazard plot revolves around his bumbling machinations to be appointed to the post of inspector. At the midway point the author escalates the level of outrageousness by introducing an androgynous, pubescent boy and having him engage in sex games with a young woman; this comes perilously close to pornography. He also has Peredonov, who from the beginning was paranoid and superstitious, turn into a full-blown maniac. No longer did I find anything comic about this novel; the grimy desolation that pervades it had became dull and monotonous, and I went into skimming mode. From the Introduction I learned that Demon was enormously successful in Russia when it came out in 1907. Some critics credited Sologub with exposing the petty and vicious vulgarity of provincial life, and that, in Peredonov, he was portraying an individual with a spiritual void. I don’t buy this. Without real people, no point about life can be made. This isn’t a novel about moral corruption; rather, it’s a corrupt novel conjured up by a man whose mind works in a peculiar and undisciplined way.

The Quest for Corvo - A. J. A. Symons
In the opening paragraph a friend suggests that Symons read an obscure novel called Hadrian the Seventh by Baron Corvo. Symons is deeply impressed by it and wants to know more about the author. His initial curiosity grows into an obsessive search to get to the heart of an enigma. The result is this “experiment in biography” which, for the most part, takes the form of letters written by Frederick Rolphe (the real name of the deceased “Baron”) and the people who came into contact with him. A shadowy portrait emerges of a man who, despite being gifted with exceptional talents, made a mess of his life. All his relationships ended the same way: with his biting (quite viciously) hands that had reached out to offer him aid; in his letters he constantly rails against the people who failed him. How did they fail him? Symons explores that question in a closing chapter. He believes that “the starting point of (Rolphe’s) complex character is that he was a homosexual in Victorian England,” and as a consequence he was “intolerably conscious of the lack of emotional satisfaction in his life.” Since this need could not be fulfilled, he aspired to become a priest: “Set among those who had voluntarily embraced celibacy, his abnormality became, not a possible vice, but a sign of Vocation.” His first blow was not being accepted for the priesthood (for which he never forgave “the Catholicks”). Denied the fulfillment of any of his desires (one of which was recognition of his artistic talents), he found his strength in hate; Rolphe is one of the great haters in literature. His life ends in the dark byways of Venice, where he became a corrupter of young boys and made money as a procurer for those who had a taste for what he had sampled. This is revealed in letters which he sent to an unknown party, and which come into Symons’s possession. Their contents shock Symons into anger and pity, but he provides no excerpts. Since so much about Rolphe is revealed, why deny us a firsthand account of his descent to the depths? Not that I would take his words as the absolute truth. Rolphe so dramatized himself and his martyrdom that early on I began to suspect him of distorting reality. This could either be for effect or for practical gain; when he describes the appalling hardships he endures due to his impoverished state, I considered the possibility that he was exaggerating in order to milk money from benefactors. These doubts regarding the Baron’s veracity don’t detract from a book about someone who dealt in deception. Nor does it matter that I don’t share Symons’s enthusiasm for Rolphe’s brand of genius; before I read Quest I had started Hadrian but didn’t get far; it was too ornate, too absorbed in the paraphernalia of Catholic ritual. Still, Rolphe is a fascinating character, and two excellent works arose from the ruins of his life: one is Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Unspeakable Skipton, which is based on his last desperate, decadent days, and the other is this unique biography. By calling it a quest Symons is indicating his personal involvement; he was moved to try to understand his tragically flawed subject, and in doing so he offered him a last, posthumous hand of compassion.

To Be a Villain - Rex Stout
Even Archie seemed a bit out of sorts in this outing. It has too many suspects and a plot built around foolish improbabilities. At the end, with everyone gathered in Wolfe’s office, I didn’t expect (and didn’t get) a resolution that came near to untangling the loose ends, and when the identity of the murderer was revealed all I felt was disappointment. Would someone please tell me which of the many (too many, obviously) mysteries that Stout churned out are worth my time, and which ones are the duds?

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