An Academic Question - Barbara Pym
After having years of publication, and with a loyal (though somewhat small) coterie of readers, the swinging seventies engulfed England, and Pym’s type of quiet, humorous novels – mostly about unmarried church ladies – were deemed to be out of date. She experienced fourteen (!) painful years of rejection. But she wrote on, and even tried to make her characters and subjects more in keeping with the times. Question was an abortive effort in that direction – abortive because she wrote two version of it, then abandoned the project altogether. Instead she turned her attention to another novel, one which would be her best: Quartet in Autumn. It was darker than her usual work, and she harbored no hopes that it would find a publisher. But she clearly believed in it. By a serendipitous series of events, Quartet did find a publisher (and was a runner-up for the Booker Prize). Her career was again on track, and some of the novels she wrote during her fallow period were now accepted and enjoyed. The “Pym touch” still had a place in the world. Question, being unfinished, was not part of that initial revival. In her opening Note Hazel Holt writes that she took the two handwritten drafts of the novel and amalgamated them into a coherent whole. Should she have done it? Probably not. Though mildly engaging, marriage and children and an unfaithful husband were not subjects Pym knew firsthand, and the result is a rather tepid, aimless book. When authors decide to drop a project, their wishes should be honored.
The Same Man - David Lebedoff
The men profiled are two of my favorite authors: George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh. I’ve read just about every work of fiction they wrote (nine by Orwell, thirteen by Waugh). This dual biography revealed many facts I didn’t know about Waugh (including why he earned a reputation for cruelty); in the case of Orwell, I had read his Selected Letters, so I was familiar with his personality and his life story. Lebedoff’s prose is smooth, and there’s a gossipy element that was enjoyable (especially in regard to Waugh); but if you aren’t fans of the writers, this book is not for you. As for its title – how could two men be more different? Lebedoff acknowledges that glaring fact, but tries to justify their sameness along sociological grounds: both saw the coming age as a disaster. The last section, in which this premise is belabored, was of little interest to me, and I skimmed. Also, since I appreciated the novels, I wanted a more full discussion of them than I got; since Lebedoff is trying to support his sameness theme, he concentrates on 1984 and Brideshead Revisited, both of which present a bleak view of our present (and future) world. But I consider Brideshead to be Waugh’s weakest novel (a mistake, actually); his best, A Handful of Dust, is mentioned, in passing, three times. Orwell’s non-political work is worth reading; my favorite, Coming Up for Air, is cited once. My advice: try those two.
Pied Piper - Nevil Shute
This isn’t one of Shute’s more inspired outings. Still, he could tell a story, and I stuck around to the end. The plot concerns an elderly Englishman who’s on a fishing trip in France when it’s invaded by German troops; he accepts the responsibility of getting two children to safety in England. The number of children he’s escorting keeps increasing (there’s six by the end), which makes him, I suppose, a pied piper. Midway in his trek (there’s a lot of walking) Mr. Howard is joined by a young French woman who, it turns out, was in love with his son, an RAF pilot killed in the war. The novel was published in 1942, so it must be considered in context: it meant something to the English people at the time. Though Mr. Howard is prohibited by his age to engage in any feats of daring-do, he’s a stiff upper lip type with a firm will. The problem with the novel is that he, and all the other characters, aren’t developed; what they are in the beginning is what they are at the middle and at the end. And the assorted kids didn’t act in a way I found convincing; they accept hardships too complacently. Shute tries to generate feeling for Nicole, the young French woman; she’s likable and resourceful and a good soul – as is Howard – but not much else. The novel seems flat; it needed more complexity in characterization to have resonance. A word about the title. The pied piper of Hamelin lured children, and was an ominous figure bent on revenge. This is certainly not in keeping with the character nor the intent of Mr. Howard.
Vandover and the Brute - Frank Norris
Norris had established a reputation with McTeague and The Octopus, so after his death (at age thirty-two) there was a search for the rumored manuscript of an early novel. Vandover was literally pulled from the ashes of the San Francisco earthquake and fire, and it was published twenty years after Norris had written it. In a Foreword his brother states that it would surely have undergone revision if Frank had been given the opportunity. It needed more than revision – it needed to be re-conceived and rewritten. The novel tells the life story of a privileged man (Harvard, etc.) who has faults: he’s weak-willed, impractical, pleasure-loving, unable to commit to higher goals. But he also has – or so Norris repeatedly tells us – a side to him that’s brutish. But he never shows that Brute in action. Though we’re told that Vandover spends time in houses of ill-repute and associates with low types, we only see him, near the end, engage in a self-destructive gambling binge. Early on he has a sexual relationship with a woman of loose morals; he never forces himself on her, he only does what many young men do. But Vandover will suffer grievously for his shortcomings. In the last half of the book things begin to go downhill, and by the end he’s a financial, physical and emotional wreck. He’s even relegated to episodes in which he’s naked, crawling on all fours, growling like an animal. This doesn’t work artistically, it doesn’t work logically (though, I must admit, it got to me – it was unsettling, even frightening). Now that I’ve criticized the novel, I need to give it some praise. It has life, it moves. And the Vandover I was viewing before his improbable descent was an interesting study. Despite his faults, he was a decent guy, and I liked him. This fact leads me to do some psychoanalyzing of the author. It was Norris who created this sympathetic character. So why was he so brutal toward him? Did he see his own faults in Vandover, and feel the need to exorcize them by punishing a fictional surrogate? There’s another character in the book who’s morally lamentable – lacking in compassion or ethics (qualities that Vandover has). He’s the one who deserves to be punished, but he rises in the eyes of the world. He even has thoughts of rising to the presidency of the country. And who knows – he may get there.