An odd occurrence: I discovered, after reading this entire novel and writing the review above, that I had read it before (in May of 2016). I did – especially in the beginning – find it vaguely familiar, but five years isn’t that long ago. Makes me wonder about myself. . . . Anyway, below is the review I did after the first reading. It is much richer and more comprehensive than the one I did now, in my dotage. I think I’ve become somewhat tired of reading novels that I don’t care for and writing reviews about them.
Thursday, June 3, 2021
In Touch – Paul Bowles
In my review of The Delicate Prey I wrote that its depiction of acts of extreme cruelty made me think there was something warped in Bowle’s nature. The three novels of his that I read were also dark. Yet in these letters (540 pages of them) no twisted personality emerges. He makes a few remarks that indicate a state of alienation from people and from himself, but he seems quite able to relate to others and to sustain friendships over many years. Of course, his constant wanderings to exotic places and his choosing Tangier as his home are not something most boys born in New York City do. He wasn’t like most boys; he was gifted both as a writer and a composer. But, as regards his writing, his creative resources dried up after a less than a decade of productivity; though he continued to publish odds and ends for much of his long life, it was just for the money. He smoked kif on a daily basis (he claimed that it acted as an anesthetic to dull feelings that he found unbearable), and possibly that dampened the creative spark. He married Jane Auer (Jane Bowles, the writer). I know, from sources other than this book, that he was a homosexual, she was a lesbian. Exclusively? – I can’t say, but I doubt that they had a sex life together. Though he corresponds with just about every gay man in the arts – from Aaron Copeland (an early friend and sponsor) to Tennessee Williams – he says almost nothing about his sex life; on one occasion he writes that it has been “largely imaginary,” and, as for whom he had been in bed with, he states “To answer that, it would be necessary to have known their names.” So what were his feelings toward Jane? He ends his letters to her with “much love” (though “love” is a closing he uses to many people), and signs off with the name “Bupple” (which he uses only for her). Still, there’s little affection on display in the letters themselves. Jane went through a an agonizing sixteen year period of physical and mental deterioration; it’s chronicled pretty thoroughly, and it’s a frightening story. Paul obviously cares, and does what he can to help (which includes spending a lot of money). In order to write this review I’ve had to glean for interesting tidbits, so I’ll close with a Bowles’ quote that indicates the lack of revealing that’s present in his correspondence: “It seems to me that a good letter has to have the smell of the personality of the one who writes it. And I think my eagerness to avoid leaving any such smell is the same, whether it is a letter or a novel or whatever. Don’t risk giving offense with halitosis or B. O. !”
Abigail – Magda Szabo (Hungarian)
In one aspect, this is a Girl-Goes-To-Boarding School novel. The girl is Gina, the school is the ultra-strict Bishop Matula Academy located in a remote part of Hungary. She’s very unhappy about being sent there (early-on she makes an attempt to escape), and at first she alienates the other girls; they retaliate by ostracizing her. Eventually matters are patched up, and they become close. All this is OK, and I found the suffocating religiosity of the school to be interesting, as were the efforts of the girls to garner some enjoyment from their constricted lives. But there’s a whole other issue introduced. WWII is in full swing, and her father, a general, is at odds with the ruling faction; if his opponents could get their hands on his daughter they could blackmail him, so he wants her in the fortress-like school to protect her from danger. This espionage/suspense element is labored and strung-out. After it took precedence I kept on reading only to find out (in print, not in my mind) the solution to the mystery of Abigail. Abigail is a statue, and is able to solve the problems of the girls, either by causing things to happen or by written out advice (or in commands). Of course, Gina knows that a human being is doing these things, and she tries to figure out who it might be. The most unlikely candidate, in Gina’s mind, is one of the teachers, a Mr. Konig, who she considers to be weak and odious. Why she despises this person was not clear to me (and, since it seemed both unfair and uncharitable, it didn’t reflect well on Gina). But, at any rate, as soon as the mystery was posed I knew that Konig was Abigail, and, in the book’s last sentence, my belief was confirmed. This is no spoiler simply because there was no mystery – which reflects the amateurish, clumsy construction on the part of Szabo. Abigail was published as a New York Review Book (as was Transit, reviewed in the previous batch). They seem to have taken on a speciality: foreign writers. This is laudable, but only as long as the works are excellent. Some books on their list that I’m familiar with belong in that category, but not this one.
The Enchanted April – Elizabeth von Arnin
There are three acts to this novel, and the first one was engaging. It has two women who live in dreary London responding to a newspaper ad for the rental of a “small mediaeval castle on the shores of the Mediterranean.” The women – Lottie and Rose – are unhappy with their lives (particularly their married lives). In order to defray expenses they get two others to join them – an older lady named Mrs. Martin and the very beautiful Lady Caroline. None of these women had known each other before this joint venture. The second act is about the arrival and first week of the month’s stay – and this has a charm, because the place is paradise. But paradise alone can’t sustain interest, so Arnin introduces some complications. Lady Caroline and Mrs. Martin aren’t able to give up their past hang-ups, and therefore don’t succumb to the beauty around them. And Lottie and Rose begin to long for their husbands. Since these men were a major source of their unhappiness, I found this dubious. As I read on much of what was happening was simply manipulation; things got progressively worse until there were no real people in real situations – just an author using her characters as props and moving the scenery around. The last act has three men arriving at the castle – the two husbands and the owner of the place – and here the novel descends into mushy emotionalism. We get a sweepingly happy ending (love conquers all), but one so contrived and false that I found myself reading, with disgruntlement, a woman’s romance. A high quality one, but that’s not saying much.
The Enchanted April – Elizabeth von Arnim
A woman lunching in her London club reads an ad in The Times addressed “To Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine.” An Italian castle is to be let for the month of April. Mrs. Wilkins (Lottie) notices another woman staring at the same page. Eventually the two – strangers, both unhappily married and dissatisfied with their lives – decide to take the plunge. To defray expenses, they recruit an elderly widow, cranky and stuck in the past, and a young woman who is so gorgeous that men are mesmerized by her. (Caroline yearns to get away from all the “grabbers” in the world.) In Italy the four women are immersed in the stunning natural beauty. For Lottie it’s transforming: she sees life in an altogether different light (a rose-colored one), and the force of her feelings affects the others. Well into this novel I was caught up by an invigorating sense of escapism. But when men (the two husbands and the owner of the castle) enter the picture, reality set in. At least it did for me; the author tries to keep up the Lottie fantasy that Love can induce a radical change in everybody. I couldn’t accept that Mr. Wilkins will cease to be a tyrant, nor that Caroline would warm up to a grabber like Mr. Briggs. Unlikely complications proliferate, and the gentle humor is replaced by slapstick. What had been quietly uplifting becomes doggedly instructive; to assert the primacy of Love makes it seem simplistic and sappy. When you like a book, then it falls apart, one feels betrayed. So I was in a bad mood when I read the introduction by Cathleen Schine. She raises the possibility that some characters are based on real people from the author’s life: “The Enchanted April’s sweetly ardent Mr. Biggs, owner of the castello, is, in his search for a mothering sort of love, based on Frere.” For one thing, the man’s name is Briggs, and he’s so smitten with young Caroline that he’s hardly able to function; he’s certainly not after any mothering.