Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Jenny - Sigrid Undset (Norwegian)
We first see Jenny through the eyes of a man who falls in love with her. She’s living in Rome, she’s a talented painter, she has friends. She seems in control of her life. But she’s twenty-eight, and when we turn to her perspective we learn that she has never been in love, never had a relationship, and with her youth passing she feels she has missed something. The novel hinges on her attempt to capture what she doesn’t have. Her words provide the best summing up: “I found it so severe and hard to live the life I considered the most worthy – so lonely, you see. I left the road for a bit, wanting to be young and play, and thus came into a current that carried me away . . .” “I have given way to an emotional impulse – lied to myself; I ought to have known if I could keep my word before I said: I love. I have always hated that kind of levity more than anything in the world. Now – to my shame – I find I have done that very thing.” “I wanted never to be ashamed of myself as a woman or an artist. Never do a thing I did not think right myself. I wanted to be upright, firm, and good, and never to have any one else’s sorrow on my conscience. And what was the origin of the wrong – the cause of it all? It was that I yearned for love without there being any particular man whose love I wanted.” In saying the word “love” she has twice caused suffering, and she comes to despise herself. Her art offers no solace, and when her baby dies there’s nothing to sustain her. This grim and powerful tale is told with conviction; I believed in Jenny, I cared for her. Undset also cared for her, but near the end that emotion becomes effusive. Chekhov’s words apply: “When you depict sad or unlucky people, and want to touch the reader’s heart, try to be colder – it gives their grief, as it were, a background, against which it stands out in greater relief. Yes, you must be cold.” Still, I can’t end this review on a critical note – Jenny is too good for that. It takes the familiar themes of love and loneliness and presents them in a new and thought-provoking way.

Walter Winchell - Michael Herr
Reading this novel was like eating buttered popcorn – I consumed one page after another without much thinking involved. Eating popcorn is an apt comparison, for Herr originally wrote WW as a screenplay (for a movie that was never made). It’s mostly snappy dialogue, often abusive, often funny. Winchell was a gossip columnist in the 1940s; at the height of his fame he could make or break someone’s showbiz career, and so was catered to and feared and hated. He eventually moved into radio: “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea . . .” (I vaguely remember that voice which, in Herr’s words, was “Hammering, insisting, hypnotizing.”)  He also dealt in political commentary; he was vigorous supporter of FDR and, later, of Joe McCarthy. As the book races along it takes on more depth. We get a look at Winchell’s Jewish ghetto origins, which were enough to crush most men (poverty, hard knocks, no family life, no education; at twelve he was tap dancing on the vaudeville circuit). If nothing else, he was a battler. It was success, and the power over others it endows, that he craved. Living on the brink of disaster – of stepping on the wrong toes – seemed to give him a high. Was he a bad man? – yes. Did he have redeeming qualities? – yes. But I’m basing my feelings on Herr’s version of him. I’m always suspect of books which depict a real life person. How can they arrive at the truth? At any rate, I was left feeling sympathetic about the decline of this fictional Winchell – it meant so much to him to be on top. And the New York of the forties – that sparkling, glamorous world with its home base in the Stork Club – is nicely evoked. Though one fact is clear: it sparkled and had glamour only for the elite few. Winchell wasn’t the only person striving for money and fame and power. And the struggle was often vicious and dirty.

5001 Nights at the Movies – Pauline Kael
The reviews in this mammoth book came from the work Kael did at The New Yorker. Some pages have eight reviews, some four. The succinct ones work better (the longer ones tend to get bogged down in detail). I read – or skimmed or skipped – through Nights because I wanted to add titles to my Netflix queue. I did get ideas, though I found that Kael’s sensibilities and mine weren’t an ideal match. In the case of films we had both seen we agreed that some were good (or bad), but too often we disagreed. As a rule I don’t write in library books, but in this one I did – lightly, in pencil – when I wanted to refute her criticism of a film I thought was wonderful. It’s a matter of two opinionated people clashing over something they’re passionate about. Kael was a reader too – if a movie is based on a novel or story, she always cites the name of the author and sometimes mentions variations in the adaptation. She was a literate woman, and she writes in a prose that’s a pleasure to read. Another aspect I appreciated is that she didn’t like the vast majority of the films she saw, and she wasn’t afraid to pan them, often with cruelly humorous barbs. A few examples: “You can have a better time cleaning closets than watching this thing.” “Egan gives a performance that would be memorably bad if only one could remember it.” “If someone insists on your going to this movie, take a small flashlight and a book.” “Irene Dunn does something clever with her teeth that makes one want to slap her.” And “As Lady de Winter, Lana Turner sounds like a drive-in waitress exchanging quips with hot rodders.” In this age of lavish praise heaped on undeserving work, Kael’s scathing criticism of something she found to be crummy is mighty refreshing.

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