Monday, December 30, 2019

Suite Nocturne - Patrick Modiano (French)
What helped make Such Fine Boys successful, I see now, is that it was made up of self-contained stories about different people. This novella (it’s barely over hundred pages) has one first person narrator, and though individual scenes are comprehensible, the plot holding it all together isn’t. It seems to be a metaphysical mystery in which a man in his sixties is on a search – one that takes place entirely in his memories – for a foundation to his existence, and he was “relying on the sea-green Fiat and its driver to help me discover it.” In the opening scene he’s twenty and is hit by the Fiat when crossing a Paris street. He’s brought to a hospital, but his injuries aren’t serious. Much of rest of the book involves the young man’s efforts to find the woman who was driving the car. It seems that he knows her, in some vague way. The word “seems” has already appeared twice in this review; not a good sign. I don’t like to be immersed in a nebulous world, especially when no clear answers ever emerge. The novel ends with the narrator finding the woman, and they’re immediately (and mysteriously) on familiar terms. She invites him to the apartment where she’s staying. The last paragraph has them together in an elevator; Modiano writes: “Her hand was resting on my shoulder and she whispered something in my ear.” What she whispers is never divulged (why not?). The predominant thought I was left with was “What’s been going on?” As is the case in Boys, one thing going on is parental neglect, and this time it reaches extreme proportions (no mother, a silent specter of a father, a feeling of having “come from nothing”). Are we on shifting sands for all our lives without a loving family to ground us? If Modiano is making that dubious point, he does so in such a roundabout way that it loses force. I closed my review of Boys with the stated intention of reading more by this author. Now – unless I’m assured that the work is more accessible – I think I’m done.

An Unmarried Man - Darryl Ponicsan
I liked the movies “The Last Detail” and “Cinderella Liberty” – they had their hearts in the right place and rang true. Darryl Ponicsan was the author of the novels both films were based on, so I got this book. For a while there were things that kept me engaged: the vindictive wife and the lawyers were good, as were the financial details of a marital break-up. But this is the husband’s story, and though I was meant to feel empathy for Ben’s loneliness and despair, I couldn’t. His responses to situations were unrealistically over-the-top, making him seem like a dope, and I was bothered by his crudity. Still, the workmanlike writing carried me along for what I hoped would be a mild diversion. Then, quite suddenly, near the midway point, a plot contrivance caused it to fall apart. A woman moves into an apartment adjoining Ben’s; she’s the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, one who, he thinks, kings would desire. She’s intelligent, has a sense of humor, is compassionate and morally upstanding. She’s also, for reasons inexplicable to me, ready to go to bed with Ben after one brief meeting. What follows are sex scenes depicted in ugh-inducing detail. When Mr. Ponicsan launched into a description of cunnilingus I had quite enough of him. And so yet another book bites the dust. And all I want is to be entertained.

Identity - Milan Kundera (French)
In looking over my four previous reviews of books by Kundera, I came across the same conclusion reiterated in slightly different words: “Kundera is a cerebral writer, more a moral philosopher than a novelist. Plot is subservient to his intellectual pursuits, and though we’re constantly in the minds of his characters, they function mainly to convey his ideas.” Of those five novels I thought only one fully succeeded – Life Is Elsewhere, which came out in 1969, when the author was forty years old. At the end of Identity the reader is informed that it was “Completed in France, in Autumn 1996” (when authors gain Kundera’s eminence they often record such momentous events for posterity). This novel gets a ditto to my quote above. The two people whose thoughts are being dissected are Chantal and Jean-Marc. Chantal is receiving anonymous letters, and I found her reactions to them interesting. But this plot premise is interrupted by much expounding (mostly by cynical men) on a variety of philosophical topics. So a question arises: Kundera may be intelligent, but is he a novelist? The ending of Identity provides an answer. Somehow Chantal winds up naked at an orgy. How she got there isn’t clear (the last look we had of her she was fully clothed in a phone booth at a London train station). At any rate, she’s terrified, running about a strange house, trying to escape. There are many exclamation marks (!) to emphasize her state of mind. Then the next chapter begins with Jean-Marc clasping her shuddering body: “Chantal! Chantal! Chantal! Wake up! It’s not real!” Yes, folks, Chantal was dreaming. At this point, one page before the end, the author arrives on the scene: “And I ask myself, who was dreaming? Who dreamed this story?” Kundera goes on at length in this mode, closing with: “At what exact moment did the real turn into the unreal, reality into reverie? Where was the border? Where is the border?” Well, Milan, I’m not smart enough to answer those deep questions. But I am smart enough to recognize a really dumb ending when I read it. And I can also do simple math: you were seventy-eight when you completed this book (in France). Maybe it’s time to give up writing fiction and direct your intellectual energies elsewhere.

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