Death with Interruptions – Jose Saramago (Portuguese)
In Blindness, which Saramago wrote when he was seventy-three, people begin, inexplicably, to go blind. In Death, written thirteen years later, people begin, inexplicitly, to cease dying. This vanquishing of man’s oldest fear may seem a blessing, but it’s not so in this case. Those on the brink of death remain on the brink; they may be comatose, they may be suffering, they may be horribly mangled from a car accident, and they simply live on in that state. In the beginning of the novel Saramago studies the repercussions on families burdened with the care of these living corpses, then he explores the effects on the economy, examining how insurance companies, nursing facilities and funeral homes respond. Next organized crime gets into the act, seizing a hold on the transfer of the should-be-dead across the border to a country where death still reigns. I found all this pretty interesting, and I maneuvered my way through Saramago’s convoluted prose (you have to read it to understand what I’m referring to). The tone he assumes – one of omniscient bemusement – is right. But then he switches gears by introducing death (she refuses to have her name capitalized, and she’s the standard issue skeleton of myth, complete with scythe). Though we’re now in her thoughts, no explanation is given for her ceasing to take her daily toll of lives, and when she resumes she begins to send letters (by magical transference) to all those who will die, informing that they have one week to live. Why she does this also goes without explanation. Then one letter keeps returning to her, and she’s perplexed. A man is defying death! She visits him (as an invisible presence); he’s a cellist with a dog. She revisits him in human form, they fall in love, and wind up in bed. The last sentence: “The following day, no one died.” I closed the book thinking, What a lot of foolishness. As a character, death is a dud, and for a novel in which logic had prevailed for the first third, nothing that occurs afterward is justified (including why the man was able to escape death). The love story was not just unconvincing, it was sappy. Probably age can account for these failings – at eighty-six Saramago (with a Nobel Prize in his resume) kept writing when his creative powers were on the wane. In Blindness he was at his peak; he was able to make the reader relate to characters who experience a harrowing disintegration of societal norms. Read that one, don’t bother with Death.
Stanley and the Women – Kingsley Amis
There are three major female characters in this novel and all, Stanley comes to conclude, are insane. There’s his former wife, who’s implacably oblivious to all but her own needs; there’s the wacky psychiatrist who treats his crazy son; there’s his present wife who, at the end, inflicts a knife wound on herself and blames it on the son. Just to get attention, you see. The son, who makes an appearance on the fourth page (in a section entitled “Onset”), is not really a character because he’s way off his rocker; he remains in that state throughout the book; in the last section, entitled “Prognosis,” the prognosis is not good. Martin Amis, Kingsley’s real life son, described Stanley as “a mean little novel in every sense, sour, spare, and viciously well-organized.” I agree with all but the “well-organized.” For almost the entire novel Stanley’s wife seems to be an ideal mate, so when her advanced degree of insanity is revealed it seemed imposed by the author to suit his agenda; some prior indications of instability should have been provided. The novel is both entertaining and distasteful; it’s as if Amis was trying to be offensive, and it’s his mental state I was left wondering about. Stanley, despite a major drinking problem (the book abounds in double scotches), seems sane, but his conclusion – that all women are mad – is irrational. And for an author to write a novel filled with misogyny, and then dedicate it to his first wife (“To Hilly”), seems to be a cruel jab. It’s interesting to note that Sir Kingsley Amis would end his messy life under her care, living in the house she shared with her third husband.
Transit – Anna Seghers (German)
This novel is set in Marseille just after Nazi forces had invaded France. A nameless narrator (an escapee from a concentration camp) is telling about his efforts to get on a ship leaving Europe. Many others are pursuing the same goal – Marseille offers the only port for exit. But you need a bewildering array of visas, all in proper order, and getting them is a bureaucratic nightmare of Kafkaesque proportions. I was unable to follow the complexities which Seghers describes in detail. Soon I stopped trying; I came to believe that the process was meant to be (as is true with Kafka) incomprehensible. This is a world in which desperate people want life to begin with a transit to another place, but almost all are fated to fail. There are many secondary characters, too many to keep track of, so I just let the scenes in which this or that person took part to exist for the moment. Besides the narrator, only two characters mattered – the woman he falls in love with and her doctor friend, and they stand out. As for that narrator, he’s a slippery fellow, with his many reversals in making decisions. He wants to get out, but without steadfast conviction; at one point, when success comes, he sabotages it. Often he slips into the apathy of doing nothing. Did I understand him? No. As to why I continued reading a book that presented so much that was baffling, I just took enjoyment when it cropped up, which was often enough. The writing flowed, and the atmosphere of a seedy Marseille was nicely evoked. But the novel’s main strength is the emotional mood Seghers creates: the sense of people waiting and wandering in a shadowy limbo.
Vladimir Nabokov: Selected Letters 1940 –1977
Either Vladimir was super careful as to what he included in his correspondence or (more likely) his son Dmitri, one of the co-editors of this book, wasn’t about to include any letters that would sully his deceased father’s reputation (especially since his mother/Vladimir’s wife was still alive). These suppositions arise because of the one-dimensional portrait that emerges. We get the man as a writer, and little else. And, because he’s writing about his work to those who will (or had) published it, we get a lot of shoptalk. Nabokov emerges as firmly resistant to distortion of his work (he was, for example, very particular about cover illustrations). In his demands he’s often truculent and contentious. Though an artist, he cared a lot about the money end of the business. He got into prolonged feuds, notably with Maurice Girodias, whose Olympia Press first published Lolita. In his comments about some other writers, he could be brutally dismissive (Saul Bellow is a “miserable mediocrity,” no more than an “exhaust puff”). Not that Nabokov wasn’t, at times, generous and kind, but the negatives carry greater force. And, by citing them, I’m making the book seem more interesting than it is. We get far too much about V’s work on a mammoth Pushkin translation; also, his lepidopterist activities take up many pages (I skipped both these sections). He was pedantic, so some issues are nit-picked at length. Lastly, many letters were written by his wife; in his post-Lolita years he was inundated by matters that he delegated Vera to respond to. All in all, this book is a disappointing mishmash. But I was left with some personal observations. Without Lolita, Nabokov would have remained a professor all his life. He was initially wary of the harm the novel might do to his reputation (and his job); thus its first publication by a Paris-based press noted for dealing in salacious material. Of course, what he referred to as a “timebomb” turned out to be a gold mine, and changed his life. Nothing he wrote after it was near the level of that book; some, in my opinion, were flops, including two highly ambitious efforts. Early on Katherine White, editor at The New Yorker, gave him advice which he should have heeded more often than he did: “I think it’s fine to have your style a web, when your web is an ornament, or a beautiful housing, for the context of your text . . . but a web can also be a trap when it gets snarled or becomes too involved, and readers can die like flies in a writer’s style if it is unsuitable for its matter.” I died in the webs of Pale Fire and Ada. In this review I’ve been mainly critical of someone who has given me enormous pleasure; six of his novels are on my “most meaningful” list. So if I were to write a letter to Mr. Nabokov I’d give him my enduring admiration and thanks. And I wouldn’t ask for his autograph.