Love Among the Daughters - Elspeth Huxley
I found Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika – subtitled “Memories of an African Childhood” – to be quite wonderful, so I got this book of her “Memories of the Twenties in England and America.” In it she observes people with an unflinching eye, but she doesn’t take a critical stance; in a blunt and unladylike way she aims for humor, and achieves it. The England section has a passel of characters (mostly relatives she stays with) who indulge their idiosyncratic tendencies. Aunt Madge is a standout, with her pack of dogs (who fight with each other and make messes in the ramshackle house) and her sulks (she can refuse to speak to her husband for weeks, something Uncle Jack doesn’t object to). Others were hard to sort out; many people are captured vividly, but only briefly. As a result I never established a relationship with them, and when they reappear (and they do keep popping up), I had forgotten what they were like and what their role was. A more substantial problem is that a third of the book is set in America, where Elspeth attends Cornell University for a year; here the approach is anthropological, so different from the immediacy and liveliness of the previous section. I didn’t find five pages describing the rituals of a football game to be exciting reading, and by the time we return to England I was in skimming mode. Huxley (yes, she’s related by marriage to those Huxleys) wrote two dozen books, most of which were nonfiction. And she’s a good writer. But the haphazard construction of Love Among the Daughters works against it. Even that title is unfocused: I had no idea who the daughters were and where love comes into play (love, in fact, is conspicuously absent in relationships). Which brings us back to The Flame Trees of Thika, which is complete unto itself and is the one to read.
The Carreta - B. Traven
Are Traven’s “Jungle Novels” novels? In The Carreta we can go for twenty pages without Andres Ugalde – whose name appears as the first words of the book – playing any role whatsoever. Traven uses this character as a prop through which he can describe (with heavy-handed sarcasm) the exploitation of the Mexican Indians by commercial and political interests. He has Andres become a carretero, the name given to peons who drive carts filled with goods over the mountains. I learned about every aspect of this difficult and dangerous job, right down to the ravenous flies that plagued the yoked oxen. I learned how the patron arranged matters so that workers were bound to him by debt. But by the halfway point (where I abandoned this book) Andres had never emerged as a person I could relate to. Traven was capable of writing novels in which character and plot prevail – The Death Ship and The Bridge in the Jungle attest to that. Possibly the agenda that dominates The Carreta had relevance when he wrote his six jungle books in the 1930s. Though the Mexican Revolution had occurred, the practice of peonage was still prevalent in more remote regions of the country. But that was long ago and far away. In The Octopus Frank Norris made the victims of the railroad monopoly vital and complex humans who still live over a hundred years after the book was written. Traven never achieved this artistic feat.
Spring Torrents - Ivan Turgenev (Russian)
This short novel has Sanin looking back thirty years to the time when he fell in love with Gemma, a beautiful Italian girl. They become engaged, but at that point the wealthy Maria Nikolaevna enters the picture. Whereas Gemma is all simplicity and virtue, Maria is a sophisticated seductress. Sanin is swept away from his true love by this predatory woman who will, he tells us in the coda, “treat him like a lapdog and then discard him.” What follows for him is a “poisoned life, emptied of all meaning.” In betraying and losing Gemma, he lost his chance at happiness. Turgenev is pushing hard to generate sympathy for Sanin (or for himself – the book is considered to be autobiographical); but my predominant feeling was annoyance. After all, this is a late work by someone who’s considered to be a major author. At its best moments, Torrents is mildly diverting. But there’s no depth of characterization. Both women are overdone – extreme types, not real people. Because I didn’t believe in them, I couldn’t believe in Sanin’s feelings for them. Part of the problem is that Turgenev, in 1870, had never heard of the rule of “show, don’t tell.” And he tells in a prose that’s exceedingly gushy; as a result the emotions he’s describing are reduced to silliness. In the sample that follows I invite you to count the overwrought words. Sanin enters Gemma’s room: “No sooner had he crossed the hallowed threshold than all the love which possessed him, its fire, its rapture and its sweet terrors, overwhelmed his whole being and burned within him. He glanced around him with tender adoration, fell at the feet of his beloved . . .”