Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Wager – Machado de Assis (Portuguese)
The novel takes the form of a journal kept by Aires, a sixty-three-year-old widower living in Rio de Janeiro. The wager is whether a young widow will marry again. (She does.) I’m giving away the outcome because it doesn’t matter. With the exception of Aires, no character is developed and the plot has no tension. This is a mood piece by a sixty-eight-year-old author who died months after the book was published. Though thoughts of death are pervasive, the mood isn’t dark. Aires/Assis accepts with calm resignation how life works, and he’s only mildly moved by anything, including his own demise. He still retains an interest in human nature and he can still find people to be a source of humor. But the absence of passion gives the novel a muted quality. To Aires the two young people who marry “have the right to live and to love, and to leave the dead and the aged behind with no regrets.” Fidelia must leave the memories of her dead husband behind, and both she and Tristao must leave their aged foster parents behind. There is no tragedy in this.

A Place in Time – Wendell Berry
These are crafted stories, in the sense that a master carpenter can make joints fit flush. I’m not referring just to the prose. Crafting in fiction is about how characters and situations are developed, and how the ending is handled. In “The Requirement” a man is dying; we go over Big’s life, as seen from the memories of a friend. We get to know Big. At the end he asks, from his bed, for the narrator to get his revolver from the closet. It’s what happens after that request that shows Berry’s gift; the ending is unexpected, perfectly right, and moving. In this story, as in many others, Berry imparts a philosophy about life and values. Mostly it blends in with the fabric of the narrative, but at times the philosophical and contemplative aspects are too overt (and belong, properly, in essays). What does consistently work is Berry’s waggish sense of humor. A woman recalls how she and her husband-to-be woke up a preacher to perform the marriage ceremony: “When he asked Grover to promise all those things ‘to death,’ Grover said, ‘Would you go over that a little slower?’ ” The pace throughout this collection is leisurely, which is appropriate for stories that dwell in the past, before mechanical efficiency sped everything up. I found it pleasurable to go back to a simpler time, when work was physically difficult but the fruits of one’s labor were clear to see. Also, people had an intimate connection with nature and animals and tools. Despite all the virtues to be found in this book – rare ones – I felt I was missing a lot. The setting is a small farming community on the banks of the Kentucky River. Kinship is important, but I couldn’t keep the relationships straight. Characters appear in one story, then reappear in another, and I couldn’t remember them as they had been. These are interconnected stories, but I often didn’t get the connections. What I intend to do is go back to the first novel in the series. Because I want to spend more time with the people of Port William.

The Enchanted April – Elizabeth von Arnim
A woman lunching in her London club reads an ad in The Times addressed “To Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine.” An Italian castle is to be let for the month of April. Mrs. Wilkins (Lottie) notices another woman staring at the same page. Eventually the two – strangers, both unhappily married and dissatisfied with their lives – decide to take the plunge. To defray expenses, they recruit an elderly widow, cranky and stuck in the past, and a young woman who is so gorgeous that men are mesmerized by her. (Caroline yearns to get away from all the “grabbers” in the world.) In Italy the four women are immersed in the stunning natural beauty. For Lottie it’s transforming: she sees life in an altogether different light (a rose-colored one), and the force of her feelings affects the others. Well into this novel I was caught up by an invigorating sense of escapism. But when men (the two husbands and the owner of the castle) enter the picture, reality set in. At least it did for me; the author tries to keep up the fantasy that Lottie Love can induce a radical change in everybody. I couldn’t accept that Mr. Wilkins will cease to be a tyrant, nor that Caroline would warm up to a grabber like Mr. Briggs. Unlikely complications proliferate, and the gentle humor is replaced by slapstick. What had been quietly uplifting becomes doggedly instructive; to assert the primacy of Love makes it seem simplistic and sappy. When you like a book, then it falls apart, one feels betrayed. So I was in a bad mood when I read the introduction by Cathleen Schine. She raises the possibility that some characters are based on real people from the author’s life: “The Enchanted April’s sweetly ardent Mr. Biggs, owner of the castello, is, in his search for a mothering sort of love, based on Frere.” For one thing, the man’s name is Briggs, and he’s so smitten with young Caroline that he’s hardly able to function; he’s certainly not after any mothering.

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