Monday, February 11, 2019

To Know a Woman – Amos Oz (Hebrew)
Everything in this novel, though presented in a clear prose, is shrouded in inexplicability. In the opening chapter Yoel rents a house; it’s a step in his embarking on a new life. After the death of his wife he had retired from his long-time job as an Israeli spy. His strength in that career is purported to be an analytical mind that can penetrate facades. But, in regard to the three people he lives with, he’s pretty much clueless. His teenage daughter is perversely uncommunicative and his mother and his dead wife’s mother (the “grannies”) present problems he can only referee. He’s surrounded by odd types, foremost being his next door neighbors, a brother and sister. Yoel has sex with the sister while the brother watches approvingly; Yoel seems to be sleepwalking through these encounters (on one occasion the brother has to undress him). His former employers keep trying to get him to return to Helsinki, but he’s suspicious of their motives; even his dreams have an elusive quality. Yoel occupies himself by making minor repairs on the house, planting a garden. Then, in the last chapter, his life takes an abrupt turn: he volunteers in a hospital, doing menial jobs and treating the patients with compassion. Is this a solution for his irresolute state? Maybe, maybe not. When I read (and reread several times) the final paragraph, in which we get Yoel’s thoughts, he’s waiting for something: “Hoping for a recurrence of one of those rare, unexpected moments when the blackness is momentarily illuminated, and there comes a flicker, a furtive glimmer . . .” Of what? The entire novel (even the title) was stubbornly obscure. Though I value clarity and usually consider inexplicability to be pretentious, Oz did succeed in keeping me interested in a world of shifting shadows.

The Manor – Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yiddish)
I began my recent review of Shosha with this sentence: “Singer was no novelist.” Well, I was wrong. The Manor is a novel, and it’s very good. It’s a large scale work, heavily populated, and its many narrative strands embrace politics and religion. This makes it difficult to describe the plot, so I’ll crib from the Author’s Note to present a few background facts. The setting is Poland between 1863 and the end of the nineteenth century. The Russians, who are in control of the country, have just put down an insurrection. Poland is fast becoming industrialionalized; railroads and factories are being built, fortunes made. Jews are emerging from the shtetl and have begun to play an important role in this growth; some become wealthy and powerful. New ideas are sprouting: socialism and nationalism, Zionism and assimilation, free love, atheism, the beginnings of Fascism. Though some of Singer’s main characters are not Jewish, his main concern is with Jews. That said, there are Jews who find the religious beliefs that saturate the lives of the devout to be an absurd jumble of medieval superstitions. Yet the devout hold onto something meaningful to them and are the better off for it. But “better” is a relative term. There’s much unhappiness and even misery in the lives of these characters. It’s not imposed by state oppression – flawed people generate their own problems. Though sex plays a large role, no relationship or marriage (often arranged ones) results in contentment; the polar opposite is more common. I was caught up in these dramas. My only quibble has to do with the large cast; there were too many people to keep track of. Still, I suppose that’s what you get in a long, sprawling novel. Singer employs a narrative strategy that’s worth noting: he has a situation reach a crisis, and then he drops it; as we continue to read time passes, maybe years, and eventually we find out, in an offhand way, how that crisis was settled. This has the effect of making one fill in the gaps, to imagine the emotional blow that had been inflicted. For mostly it is a blow. The prose is smooth and engaging. I’ve always wondered how Singer’s original Yiddish was able to survive translation so well. Or did it lose something? I believe that the author, who had a full grasp of English, must have played a role in the process. The Manor is part of a trilogy that includes The Family Moskat and The Estate. More very good novels? We’ll see.

The Midwich Cuckoos – John Wyndham
Though this novel features a UFO and alien children, it’s too intellectual to fit into the category of science fiction. What Wyndham offers up are ideas, not action. The premise is that a UFO lands in a small English village; during the one day it remains there all women of childbearing age are impregnated (how this is accomplished we never know, for everyone has been put into a deep sleep). The babies that are born are distinguished by glowing golden eyes. As they mature it becomes clear that they have a collective will, and are able to control humans whenever they wish. If they perceive a danger to one of their group, they retaliate. What’s to be done with this threat from Beyond? Are the Children to be granted human consideration? A handful of intellectually-minded characters talk and argue about issues of that ilk. But we don’t experience the events that occur in Midwich from the villager’s perspective. We never get the feelings of a woman who is carrying a child that she knows was not conceived in the normal way. When the villagers raid the Grange, where the Children are housed, we learn what happens through someone’s brief summary. That’s how most events are presented – by means of secondhand accounts. Wydham seldom takes his premise to where the affected humans are to be found. As a result the book lacks emotional immediacy, and this caused me to read it with a sense of detachment.

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