Saturday, February 13, 2021

The Fountain Overflows – Rebecca West
Rose tells the story – it begins when she’s young, maybe nine, and ends about ten years later – and it’s very much a family chronicle. She has a twin sister, Mary, and an older sister, Cordelia; her little brother is Richard Quin. The mother is a reliable presence, but the father is a remote figure (mostly in his study, writing political tracts). All members of the Aubrey family exist on a high cultural level and are unique, extraordinary, exceptional, gifted – except one: Cordelia (also known as “poor Cordelia”). The gift the father has is intellectual in nature, whereas the mother and Rose and Mary are highly talented pianists. Though Richard Quin is capable of mastering anything he casually attempts, his main gift is his goodness: he aspires to be liked, and everyone loves him. There’s no conventional plot carrying the reader over the years; the book is a series of events (including a murder trial) strung together. A mix of interesting and colorful characters are introduced, but all events are confined to interaction between the members of the family (there are no scenes with Rose at school, for example). West handles her material in a way that’s not at all heavy; she’s often quite funny and her prose is inventive in a quietly beautiful way. This novel about extraordinary people can rightfully be called extraordinary, and if you love Rose you may love it. I didn’t love nor dislike her, but I was often bothered by the way she thought and acted. And some minor players in the family didn’t hold up to scrutiny. The beloved father, who is forgiven for all his misdeeds, was, to me, unforgivably selfish and irresponsible; Richard Quin was simply too good to be true. The mother was laudable – the family could not have survived without her. But, though she could be compassionate, she was also judgmental in a mean way (she would dismiss someone for their bad taste in the choice of a hat). Maybe Rose and Mary got this attitude from her. Which brings us to “poor Cordelia.” She plays the violin with perfect technique but a complete absence of feeling; in other words, atrociously. She’s unaware of her lack, and haplessly plunges ahead on her musical “career.” No one in the family tells her the blunt truth, but Rose and Mary treat her with disdain. The mother addresses this issue with the girls in the closing pages of the book: their uniqueness (their talent) gave them the eccentricity, the oddness, to accept the hardships of their childhood. They could endure being different. Ordinary Cordelia could not. Thus life, in the family, was miserable for her. Why wasn’t this lesson impressed on the girls 400 pages earlier, so that the vulnerable one was treated more kindly? Why, when Cordelia was starting out on the violin, wasn’t she gently diverted away from it by the mother? Actually, these questions show my level of involvement, which was high. The novel is classified as semi-autobiographical (with an emphasis on the “semi”) and was the first of a projected trilogy; West completed the next two in the series, but she wasn’t happy with them and they were never published in her lifetime. I’ll abide by her judgment and not go any further with the Aubreys. Oddly enough, she dedicated Fountain to her older sister, Letitia Fairfield, who, it’s said, objected to her portrayal as Cordelia. I don’t blame her. It’s interesting to note that, in real life, poor, hapless, deluded Cordelia went on to become a distinguished doctor and lawyer.

Selected Letters of John O’Hara
Let me explain. I read approximately half the words of the letter collections that keep popping up in these reviews. I leaf idly through their pages after finishing my serious reading (in which I don’t skip a word). Since letters do bring you close to someone, it may be a way for me to commune with another person. In the case of John O’Hara, his forceful character is partially submerged in a lot of verbiage regarding money matters (contracts, promotion of his books, etc.), so more than the usual amount of skimming took place. At any rate, I’m going to limit my comments to an issue I mention in my essay, “Reading Other People’s Mail.” I write about how successful authors are often discontent. O’Hara was world famous, made a lot of money and achieved critical acclaim and awards. Yet, as his fame grew, he was constantly carping about negative reviews and about not receiving other awards he believed he deserved (most of all, he coveted no less than the Nobel Prize). He could get quite aggressive about being underappreciated. So the success he did achieve was not enough; it actually seemed to spur on a desire – which would inevitably go unfulfilled – for more. But in his final five years this desire seemed to subside into peaceful acceptance. And he had two things to fall back on: to all indications his long marriage was a happy one, and it’s quite certain that the compulsion – and the enthusiasm – to keep writing never left him. The editor of this collection, Matthew Bruccoli, chose to end the book with a nondescript letter and no closing annotation about the author’s death (I turned to the next page and was staring at an index). This struck me as both negligent and rudely abrupt. So I’ll provide an account of the last hours of John O’Hara: he was at his desk, working on a novel, when he complained of chest pains; he went to bed early and was found dead the next morning.

The Blunderer – Patricia Highsmith
The strong sense of corruption emanating from this crime novel could be considered an asset, but I was often repelled by it. Of the three main characters, the perverted Kimmel was hard to stomach, as was a sadistic police detective by the name of Corby. It was Walter who I could relate to, and his predicament kept me turning pages. He reads a newspaper article about an unsolved murder and suspects that a man named Kimmel had used a certain tactic to murder his wife. Walter is trapped in a marriage to an unstable woman, and he gets the idea (just an idea, not a fully thought-out plan) of killing Clara in the same way. He proceeds up to a certain point, but circumstances ensue so that he commits no murder. We can’t know whether he would have carried out the deed (he doesn’t know), but it leads us to a question: should Walter be punished for his thoughts and intentions? He is punished – step by step his life unravels. The plot is strong in its conception, and Walter’s dilemma is convincing. That said, we keep treading the same ground; the novel is way too long. It’s also quite grisly (it begins and ends with luridly described murders). As for anyone contemplating marriage, Highsmith’s highly cynical depiction of human relationships might well scare them off.

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