Monday, December 2, 2019

Half a Life - V. S. Naipaul
This novel is made up of three sections taking place in three worlds: India, London, Africa. In the India section we get the life story of Willie Chandran’s father. Since Willie assumes his father’s first person voice to tell this story, it serves to establish Willie as a writer. For the rest of the book Willie tells his own story. He’s an aimless young man, and a decision is made to send him to London where he’s to study to become a teacher. He has no interest in becoming a teacher, and we get almost nothing about his studies. The subject of the London section is his social education: he gets caught up with various groups, various people. He begins his sex life, which is tentative and unsatisfying. He writes a book made up of sketches set in India; though it gets published he’s not proud of his accomplishment, nor is the book successful, and the matter of his writing is dropped. In London Willie marries Ana, and they go to Africa to live on an estate she inherited. He will stay there for sixteen years. We get an in-depth look at a world exotic to me (and to Willie). One aspect that comes across strongly is the prevalence of interracial sex. Ana is mixed race – Portuguese and African – and such a mix, in some form, is the norm. All sections are good, but the Africa one is the best – up to a point. As Willie nears age forty, a shift in emphasis takes place. Though he loves Ana he’s not fulfilled by her, and he starts to frequent clubs where he has sex with African girls. Or, rather, children (the African belief, Naipaul informs us, is that a female is ready for sex when she has her first period). Later Willie enters into an affair with a woman whose husband is the manager of a nearby estate. The attraction is immediate and mutual (they look into one another’s eyes and get a message). Willie was never a very appealing character, but when he became so absorbed in the quality of his orgasms I had my fill of him. At this point the novel ends abruptly, with Willie leaving Ana and Africa (as a violent uprising looms). On the last page he tells her that he had been living her life too long. Since the life that awaits him goes untold, I saw the title in a new light. In Half a Life we get half a book. Possibly the sixty-nine year-old Nobel Prize winning author found an old manuscript in a drawer and did some work on it, but hadn’t the will to follow Willie’s journey any further. Pure supposition.

Village in the Sun - Dane Chandos
Ajijic is a village in Mexico. Chandos resided there for a year (in the 1940s), and he writes about how the villagers lived and how he fitted himself into that life. But with a book like this you must be on friendly terms with the narrator, and my attitude toward Chandos became increasingly critical. I objected to how he turned a young man into a flunky who learned how to properly set a table and mix drinks; I was bothered by his attitude toward the “humorous” ways of the villagers. As for fitting in, he doesn’t; he adjusts circumstances so that he can live in a privileged manner (also, he’s often away, at the houses of friends in cities). He purports to have liberal views and compassion for the impoverished, but he’s quite stingy (he believes that to earn the villager’s respect you mustn’t throw money around). He tells little about his private life – I didn’t even know his nationality – but the most insight comes when he has a globetrotting visitor (Provence, Cannes) who exhibits all the stereotypes of the unenlightened bigot. It’s a catty portrayal, and Charles comes across as a parody of effeminacy (“Isn’t that divine!”). I felt that the two men were cut from the same clothe, and I didn’t care to spend any more time with Chandos. I would find it interesting to know what private thoughts the villagers had about him.

Such Fine Boys - Patrick Modiano (French)
The “fine boys” of the title all attended the prestigious (or, at least, expensive) Valvert School on the outskirts of Paris. But the novel isn’t concerned with life at a fictional boarding school (and Valvert isn’t depicted as a place of cruelty and victimization). Modiano’s subject is the years after school. In chapters that read like short stories we get glimpses into how some of the former boys are getting on in life. As men they aren’t getting on; an aimlessness seems to prevail. They look back at their years at Valvert with nostalgia; some still hold onto their personality as it was when they were fifteen, others lead dangerously derailed lives. Near the end of the novel a character says to himself “our school had left us completely unprepared for life.” But the fault lies in another direction. What emerges forcefully is how the boys were neglected by their parents. Since they had no caring family, their compatriots at the school became their family, and when school was over they were cast into a void. Modiano is quite good at creating a mood that’s melancholy and at times eerie. His prose is crystal clear, but the way he structures the book isn’t. He switches narrators from first to second person, and the stories that constitute the chapters don’t take on a novelistic narrative. The resulting elusiveness seemed purposeful, and I never felt confused or frustrated by any game playing. Some of the stories are slack, not as compelling as others. But to use the word “compelling” at all is high praise. In the Foreword Le Clezio (who, like Modiano, is a Nobel Prize winner) writes that the Little Jewel passages “are among the loveliest pages written in the French language in the second half of the twentieth century.” I agree, they are lovely. I’ll read more by this author.

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