The Winds of Morning – H. L. Davis
This is the third novel I’ve read by Davis, and his strengths are consistent. When his characters talk (and do they talk!), their voices have an earthy vigor. His descriptions of the Northwest of the 1920s, and of the tools men use in their daily work, have an indisputable authenticity. One of those tools are horses, and this book can serve as a primer on equine psychology. Two men are moving a herd to a new location, and there’s a murder mystery hanging over the affair. Amos is the first person narrator, but we learn little of what makes this reticent man act and feel as he does. He’s an observer, and it’s his companion on the trip – an old man named Hendricks – that he observes most closely. Hendricks has made mistakes in his past (undisclosed ones), and as a result has adopted a strict code of conduct; he always sees a choice, even in minor matters, as to what’s the right thing to do. Both men sense that there’s something awry in the world – their personal worlds and the larger one – and they’re trying to find ways to deal with it. Nature, though largely conquered and defiled by man, can still inflict suffering, but a more formidable problem is presented by people. Amos and Hendricks instinctively respond to others with suspicion: most likely they’re deceptive and possibly dangerous. As for women, Amos is deeply cynical, and the love story involving a girl named Calanthe moves in fits and starts. The same can be said for the plot in general. Davis is at ease describing a river crossing, or an incidental conversation, or a landscape, but when it comes to the entanglements of human emotions he becomes grudgingly obscure. Regarding the murder, its never made clear who did what to whom, and why. And though Hendrick’s source of guilt is revealed, it’s handled in an offhand way. As for Amos and Calanthe, Davis can’t, at the end, bring himself to settle for us, in simple terms, if there’s just a possibility of happiness for them.
Under the Net – Iris Murdock
This was included in the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best novels written in the English language in the 20th Century. I struggled to the halfway point (page 127) just so I could ask, in this review, “Why?” Murdock tries for a lively lark (and the effort is evident) by having the main character run here and there in frantic pursuit of this and that, with a host of eccentric people crowding their way into the loose-ended plot. Even the prose strains for animation: “At that very moment the telephone rang. My heart sprang within me and fell like a bird striking a window pane. I started to my feet. I had not the slightest doubt that the caller was Hugo. I looked at the phone as if it had been a rattlesnake.” (Two animal similes?) Or Jake’s reactions while eavesdropping: “I must hear more, I thought, with my eyes popping out.” “I was seized forthwith by a convulsive desire to laugh, and had to prevent myself by covering my mouth violently.” This book was a mistake – rollicking comedy was not Murdock’s thing. But it’s an amateurish mistake. And can’t mistakes show talent? The main character is no more than a prop; I never for a minute believed in Jake, his actions, his feelings. This book doesn’t belong on any “best” list. So why is it there?
The Revolt of the Angels - Anatole France (French)
Guardian angels, each assigned to a human, abide on earth and are privy to modern (early 20th Century) learning. Through their reading of scientific texts, they conclude that the bible is a conglomeration of falsehoods, and that God is a tyrannical fraud. The author doesn’t seem to be troubled by the contradiction in his premise. He has his rebellious angels express atheistic views, but their very existence – and that of the God they want to overthrow – is confirmation that a spiritual world exists. When they begin plans to wage war on heaven (with the help of a mysterious arsenal of bombs), I felt I was reading a book for kids, and I quit. The points France makes – that the dominance of Christianity brought on much suffering, that it’s rampant with hypocrisy, etc. – were surely not groundbreaking even in 1914. He seems to believe that the pre-Christian pagan worshipers – the Greeks especially – were on the right track; if humans are to worship anything, why not Bacchus and Venus? The aspect of the novel that deals with humans has interesting moments, but the angels are duds, every one of them. Despite how misconceived this undertaking was, I got the impression that the seventy-year-old author was having a fine time expounding his views.
Asymmetry – Lisa Halliday
Under the photo of the young woman on the back cover we’re informed that this debut novel won the Whiting Award, and that Lisa Halliday was born in Medfield, Massachusetts and currently lives in Milan, Italy. The book came to my attention when, in a radio interview, Ms. Halliday talked of her real-life affair with Philip Roth; it took place some sixteen years ago, when she was in her twenties and he was in his seventies. In the first part of Asymmetry, entitled “Folly,” a young woman (Alice) recounts her affair with a much older Famous Author (Ezra Blazer). In the interview Halliday denied that this section was autobiographical. Really? I read the book in order to get the inside scoop on Roth, and surely Halliday (and Simon and Schuster) were aware that others will do the same. The second section, “Madness,” veers off into an entirely different sphere: it deals with the problems in the Middle East and the first person narrator is a Muslim man. This novel (or, rather, two novellas) is a polished, intelligent work, but I constantly found myself questioning what was behind the author’s decisions. This led me to try to sort out, in simple terms, exactly what Halliday did and what she didn’t do. You can find my conclusions at “Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry” at my Tapping on the Wall blog.