Cross Creek - Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
The town of Cross Creek is located in north central Florida, deep in “scrub country.” In 1928 Rawlings moved into a rundown farmhouse and set about trying to make the surrounding orange grove a paying proposition. Something in this world – one far from the comforts of civilization she had known – fulfilled her; it was loving care that compelled her to dedicate so much effort in describing it. What’s remarkable is the completeness of her description; it encompasses the land, plants, animals, insects, people. She establishes a personal connection to her subjects; if it’s snakes, we get to know how Rawlings felt in her encounters with them; if it’s okra, she gives her recipe for preparing it; if a freeze is threatening the orange crop, we get an account of how they kept fat pine fires burning throughout the night. As for the people she lived among, she applies her considerable novelistic skills to bring them to life; both blacks and whites are involved in incidents, acts, conversation. There’s no sugar-coating applied to them, and the author’s attitude toward blacks may not meet the current requirements for correctness. But she feels respect to all who deserve it. In most of the book Rawlings doesn’t try to dispense wisdom, but some of her observations stand out. She believed that no people can be relegated to the status of inconsequential; in fact, the opposite is true: “The rich, the well-favored, the well-situated are surrounded by a confusing protective mass of extraneous and irrelevant matter that tends to hide the substance beneath. The poor, the unfortunate, have been put through the sieve and stand nakedly for what they are.” The personality of Rawlings emerges: she was a tough, down-to-earth lady; she could be compassionate, she could be hard. She and I share little in common, and the place she captures with such authenticity is not one that I wanted to live in – it’s too primitive for me. But for Rawlings it was the place on earth where she felt she belonged, and she immersed herself in that world – and wrote about it in this memorable book. *
Under Western Eyes - Joseph Conrad
This novel – which hinges on a political assassination in Czarist Russia – was completed about six years before the Bolshevik Revolution, so it had relevance at the time of its publication. Conrad concerns himself primarily with the role played by Razumov, a young student. One of the assassins – a fellow student – seeks refuge in Razumov’s room. Razumov makes an effort to help him escape, but when that attempt fails he turns Haldin over to the police. These early events were engaging, but as the novel progresses Conrad’s ponderous probing of Razumov’s tortured psyche – which goes on at length and repetitively – suffocate his character under the weight of verbiage. He didn’t give the man room to breathe. It’s interesting that two characters for whom the author has contempt – and who are treated superficially, as stereotypes – have a vitality that Razumov lacks. Conrad’s passion and seriousness of purpose are virtues, but in his hands they often became a liability. He didn’t realize a simple fact: reading a novel shouldn’t become burdensome.
The Letters of Jean Rhys
In these letters there was no reluctance by Jean Rhys to express emotions, and most of what is on display for 300 pages is her unhappiness. Or, to put it more forcefully, her misery. Though misery makes for interesting reading, repetition of woes tends to dilute their force and can get tiresome (something Rhys was aware of; but she couldn’t stop herself). Another dominant element in these letters is Rhys’ struggle to get Wide Sargossa Sea into proper shape. The struggle was a long and grueling one; in a letter from 1945 she states that she has a novel “half-finished.” In her last letter, written twenty-one years later, she finally feels that Sea is complete. Seldom is the effort by a novelist to produce something of value been more vividly chronicled. My main problem with this book concerns what’s been omitted. It opens with a letter Rhys wrote in 1931, when she was forty-one; it ends with one written in 1966, just seven months before Sea was published. One of the two people who did the selecting and editing (and who was a recipient of many letters) was Francis Wyndham. In her Introduction she writes that she couldn’t get her hands on letters Jean wrote before 1931. I find this hard to believe – at that time Rhys was being published and was a figure on the literary scene in Paris; when the letters in this book begin she had sunk into obscurity. Worse – much worse – there are no letters after the immediate success of Sea. Wyndham states that these letters aren’t of much interest. This I flat out don’t believe. How could a woman so expressive of her feelings suddenly become a reticent bore? She surely continued writing to her daughter and to Wyndham – how did those relationships go? Was she able to able to financially help her daughter – something she repeatedly regretted not being able to do? Most of all, how did acclaim, awards, sales, etc. affect her? Did she find some degree of happiness? And was she able, finally, to find a pleasant place to live? (A warm one – the last words she writes in the last letter of this book are “It’s so cold.”) Since matters that I wanted to know about are omitted, I consider this collection to be a disappointment. Last bit of advice: If you haven’t read Sea – and you should – do it before you read these letters. Rhys wasn’t one of those writers who believe that you “shouldn’t talk about it.” She talks about it at length.
Novels, Tales, Journeys - Alexander Pushkin (Russian)
I read a few short pieces in this collection of Pushkin’s occasional “descent into prose” (his words). I found them pleasing, so I turned to the novels. The Queen of Spades revolves around an unscrupulous character’s efforts to get a magical formula that would enable him to identify three cards in a row – and thus garner a fortune. The imperious old countess who holds the secret (and appears near the end as a ghost) was the only character that captured my interest. The story struck me as a dalliance on the part of Pushkin – a feeling that was reinforced by the slapdash Conclusion that wraps things up. But I liked the simple, clear, direct prose – though Pushkin has an imposing reputation, he’s very easy to read. So I moved on to The Captain’s Daughter. More to my taste, as there were no supernatural happenings. It’s set in a remote region of Russia beset by rebel uprisings, and involves military matters; there’s a love story, but it’s weak because the girl isn’t fully developed. Dubrovsky is the longest and the least known of the three, but I found it to be the most enjoyable. Revenge for injustice drives the plot, and the love aspect is more convincing because the woman is given room to grow. What stuck me about the last two novels is that they read like boys’ adventure yarns. I think that if Pushkin had lived longer – he was killed in a duel at age thirty-seven – he would have become more serious about his prose and we may have gotten a major work.