Pan – Knut Hamsun (Norwegian)
This novel is strange and perplexing. Not that it’s written in an obscure way – the prose is as clear as could be. But the main character —Thomas Glahn, whose journal we’re reading – feels and acts in ways that are inexplicable. He’s been living with his dog Aesop in a hut by an immense forest for two years, and his emotional bond with nature is extreme; it affects him in a deep, even rapturous way. But then he falls in love with a young woman – Edvarda – and, again, his feelings toward her are extreme. In the beginning she responds, but then she begins to withhold, then to give a bit. He’s emotionally pulled one way and then the other. The merest slight by her will cause him to go overboard, and when he’s angry he’ll do crazy things (such as shoot himself in the foot). The stage is set for tragedy – the “gift” that Glahn gives Edvarda when he leaves is truly shocking. Hamsun may have been responding to the glamorization in fiction of outsize emotions. He showed such emotions as being devoid of glamour, but rather a manifestation of a consuming madness.
The Job Hunter – Allen R. Dodd
This “Diary of a Lost Year” follows the travails of a NYC ad executive who finds himself out of a job. It’s not due to any lack on his part – in the course of this book he emerges as intelligent, creative, hard-working. But, due to some shifting in the upper ranks of the big corporation he works for, he’s deemed expendable. This is a very readable account of his search for a position that corresponds to his experience and salary (though his expectations steadily lower). His search is actually a job in itself – he tells his wife that he labors ten hours a day to be a bum: pounding the pavement, eating at automats, making calls to prospective employers from public telephone booths. Corporate America can be a mean world for those looked upon as outsiders – he encounters a lot of callousness. What kindness and sympathy he finds comes from a cadre of job seekers like himself. This book first appeared in 1962 as articles written for a trade journal called Printers’ Ink, and it no doubt was read with a sense of trepidation. At the end our narrator finds a job, but not at the level (or salary) he was used to. Still, his new employers seem like decent, fair-minded people. His life style drops quite a few notches, but that’s OK (he realizes he had been living beyond his means). Though he’s found security, he’s left with a lingering suspicion – things are good now, but what if . . .
The Day of the Locust – Nathanael West
The setting of this fever nightmare is the underbelly of Hollywood, a place of cheap artifice populated by weirdos, grotesques, losers. Written 1939, it’s rough stuff even by today’s standards. Though today’s standards don’t apply, for the force of West’s vision is his own, and his skill is not to be duplicated. Tod, the main character, is fairly stable, though his sexual obsession with Faye is sick (a fact he fully comprehends). Faye, an aspiring actress, is a casually amoral user, and has an effect on every man she comes in contact with (if put on the screen – assuming her allure would transfer – she could be a sensation). Memorable characters swarm about the pages – and are often quite funny: Harry, the aging vaudevillian, who can’t stop doing routines even on his death bed; Abe, the pugnacious dwarf, always ready to dispense verbal or physical abuse. The book made me wonder about West’s state of mind. Though he doesn’t use overt gore or vulgarity, he seems to have a to-hell-with-it attitude, and he respects no limits of propriety. Was it written in anger, bitterness? This author of great talent received no financial compensation for his first three novels, and was stuck in Hollywood doing scripts for B- westerns. He died in a car accident shortly after the publication of Locust. He was 37 years old.
The Monkey’s Wrench – Primo Levi (Italian)
Faussone is a rigger – a mechanic who can do everything from weld a seam to operate a crane (and anything in between). This man with minimal schooling is so good at building things that he’s called to faraway lands (Africa, India, Russia) to work on the construction of a bridge or a tower. He tells of his projects to someone who is, clearly, Primo Levi. Faussone is a likeable and entertaining guy – a real individual emerges (though, being non-mechanical, I couldn’t understand most of the work he was describing). Levi is making a point: manual labor (as opposed to purely intellectual pursuits) can require a high degree of intelligence and creativity. He’s a chemist, and he tells one story in which he discovers the problem in some paint his company has sold. What Levi is contemplating in this book is abandoning his chemist job and becoming a full-time writer. Faussone responds with these words: “Excuse me for saying so, but if I was in your shoes, I’d give it some careful thought.” It’s better, he goes on, to do things with your hands; you can see your success, and, if you fail, you can fix it. This was good advice – which, of course, Levi was giving himself through his character. Levi, as writer, was not a novelist (Wrench, though classified as fiction, has no plot). What he wrote about in most of his books were his experiences as a prisoner at Auschwitz. Though these books have value as a testimonial, they made him relive an emotionally unhealthy subject.