I’ve had a rocky relationship with Beckett. When I finished high school I took an evening class at San Francisco State University. We read short novels and one play: Waiting for Godot. The man teaching the class came across not as a professor but as a bearded prophet preaching the gospel of literature. He would go deep into the meaning of the works he selected, and Godot provided a mother lode of ambiguity. I responded; now, looking back, I wonder if the teacher’s charisma influenced me, or if I felt proud of myself for being able to explore mysteries. I’ve never reread the play, but I started watching a film of it being performed on stage (Zero Mostel was in it). I didn’t last long before switching it off; the buffoonery didn’t work for me. After finishing Krapp’s Last Tape, I was moved to try once more to read one of Beckett’s novels. Molloy, this time, and sheer determination took me to page forty before I abandoned it. It seemed like so much nonsensical indulgence in oddity and obscurity. But – and here’s the final point – anybody who could write something as good as Krapp’s Last Tape deserves my lasting respect. Because of the play’s brevity, it doesn’t warrant a review (it would be like reviewing a single story). But it packs such an emotional wallop that I wrote an essay on it (which I subtitled “Samuel Beckett’s nightmare”). It can be found at Tapping on the Wall. *
The Dangling Man – Saul Bellow
With only seventy pages left I had all I could take of long descriptive passages, of pontificating, of a main character I couldn’t relate to. My misgivings began with the opening premise. The novel purports to be a journal (the first entry is dated December 15, 1942) in which Joseph declares his solitude and inertia and inability to focus. Yet this solitary, inert man goes on to recount a series of social encounters: lunches, parties, etc. Also, he’s married (though his wife comes across as no more than an object, like a table or lamp). And despite his inability to focus he gives us richly detailed scenes and philosophical musings about morality, values: “Out of my own strength it was necessary for me to return to the verdict of reason, in its partial inadequacy, and against the advantages of surrender.” This type of thing, constantly. But who is this guy and what is his problem? He takes it upon himself to spank the bottom of his brother’s nubile teenager (she had been rude to him); since he believes this action to be perfectly justified, I had an Aha! moment: he’s nuts. But Bellow lets this incident slide away without repercussions. What we get is more deep thinking. My reading came to an abrupt end at a paragraph that began: “Great pressure is brought to bear to make us undervalue ourselves. On the other hand, civilization teaches that each of us is an inestimable prize. There are, then, these two preparations: one for life and the other for death.” I chose death for this book, which was Bellow’s first. He would go on to win the Nobel Prize. At least he was more deserving than Bob Dylan.
I was in the mood for a hard-boiled crime novel, and that’s what Cain delivers. I had quit this book previously because I couldn’t keep the many names attached to people; also, I found the events to be confusing. This time I didn’t let those things bother me; I just kept my attention focused on the main character as he cuts a bloody swath through the corrupt world of Los Angeles during the Depression (the novel came out in 1933). In this brand of fiction authenticity is all-important, and I believed in how tough Kells was. He has a trace of softness (a woman), and he has a code of honor (he sticks by his few friends). But he’s out to make a killing, and if that involves killing, so be it. Besides, the people he’s dealing with are as amoral as he is. What was interesting to me – the element that gave this novel an added dimension – is that in Kells we get a study of a man with an ingrained recklessness. Money is important to him – he accumulates it and loses it and accepts both stoically – but what really spurs on this risk-taker is the ultimate risk: to put your life at stake against dangerous men (and, as it turns out, dangerous women). At several points he has misgivings – he makes plans to get out of LA and return to the comparative safety of New York, where he knows the game better. But he doesn’t leave; he always has some unfinished business – money to collect, revenge to be doled out. In the end he stays too long. The novel is written in a rapid fire, choppy, bare bones prose. Action propels it forward; it has no rest stops until the final one.
In 1878, when Stevenson was twenty-eight, he took a twelve day trek through a mountainous region of France. He needed a beast of burden to carry his supplies, so he bought a she-ass, “not much bigger than a dog, the colour of a mouse.” If you expect some bond to develop between Stevenson and Modestine (for that’s the donkey’s name), you’ll be disappointed. You might even be appalled by his resorting to liberal use of a goad (a stick with a nail at the end) to get her to move at a satisfactory pace. The first part of the journey is full of hardships, which Stevenson recounts with a labored humor. The area he travels in is bleak, the weather is bad (cold, rain, wind), the many of the people he meets are surly. He stays for a few days at a Trappist monastery; the monks, who have taken a vow of silence, are allowed to speak to travelers. Stevenson is impressed with the life they lead, though he knows it’s not for him; he values female companionship too highly. The monks’ days, which begin at two AM, are filled with religious duties, work and selected pastimes (one man keeps rabbits). Their meals are meager, yet they seem brimming with health and good spirits. After he leaves Our Lady of the Snows he enters a more southernly area where the landscape is pretty and the people more open and lively. But at this point a tendency that was present throughout the book became more pronounced. There’s too much deep thinking about man and God. Also, we get a long account of the bloody revolt that raged between the Protestant Camisards and their Catholic oppressors. All this (including lyrical descriptions of nature) seemed like padding. To read a travelogue one must have an interesting companion. I want someone observant of people, of their homes and occupations and meals, etc. Except for the monastery stay, there wasn’t much of this, and I grew impatient for the journey to be over. It culminated on a note of falsity. In the last chapter Stevenson sells Modestine. Through he hadn’t shown the least bit of affection for this dumb beast, in the closing sentence he’s openly weeping about their parting.