Friday, September 1, 2023

Reviews from the past
Immortality - Milan Kundera (Czech)
Kundera isn’t a novelist. He’s a thinker whose writing serves as a forum for his ideas. He has attained such eminence in the literary world that he can do whatever he wants; this shapeless grab bag of a book is what I’ll call philoso-fiction. In it the author plays a role, as does Goethe and other real-life figures from the past. The fictional modern-day characters are subordinate to Kundera’s larger aims, so they aren’t fully-developed. Free rein can liberate or lead to self-indulgence, or it can do both. Immortality may offer up a unique potpourri for the intellect, but it lost its luster for me (and it did have luster for a while). The overall perspective on human nature is a cynical one. An example: a woman is given the choice (it’s one or the other) of spending the next life with her husband of many years or of never meeting him again; her answer is “We prefer never to meet again.” (She phrases it as “we” because her husband is sitting next to her.) The point being made (with Kundera everything has a point) is that her love is an illusion, and with her answer she’s made to face that fact. Despite invigorating moments, I grew weary. The fictional side wasn’t holding up, and ideas that were intriguing and insightful were examined so rigorously that the freshness was leeched out of them. Plus I had my fill of Goethe; when he reappeared at the beginning of Part Four I called it quits. I did so with absolutely no curiosity, no regrets. I just wanted class to be over. (4 other books by this author reviewed)

Loving - Henry Green
What strikes one immediately is the quirky rhythm of the prose. I don’t think it can be replicated, for to do so a writer would have to try. I don’t think Green tried; he was transcribing onto the page the way he thought. He wasn’t showing off, nor was he trying to be difficult. Reading him is difficult only if you’re inattentive. If you’re alert you get into the flow, and once there you’re able to savor the humor and pathos. About 70% of the novel is dialogue – brilliant dialogue in which the many diverse personalities display their essential natures. As for plot, Green’s subject matter is the mundane (he wrote that “simply everything has supreme importance, if it happens”). The setting is an Irish castle during World War II. We follow the maneuvering among servants and masters (though the servants, being more colorful, are given by far the most space). Throughout Loving there’s an awareness of how conflicted a matter love is. This is most evident in the last words: “ . . . they were married and lived happily ever after.” Those words are an unabashed rejection of the truth; Green knew that life couldn’t be wrapped up with a pretty bow. But he also knew life’s many-faceted richness, and in capturing that richness he produced one of those rare works that makes you see the world in a fresh new way. * (4)

Sappho - Alphonse Daudet (French)
“Come, look at me. I like the colour of your eyes. What’s your name?” So the novel opens, with Fanny Legrand (who had posed for a statue of Sappho and was known in some circles by that name) approaching a much younger man. This encounter takes place at a masquerade ball held at the studio of a rich Parisian. Fanny spends the night with Jean, and so begins their five year affair. This is no gauzy romance about life in bohemian Paris of the 1800s. Courtesans are not glamorized, a la Dumas’s Camille; Daudet portrays them as nothing more than depraved whores. Fanny, however, is not of their ilk. She has a vulgar side and her past is littered with a long string of lovers, but she has retained a core of decency. Her decency makes her formidable; she can’t be easily dismissed. A clue to what the author is up to is found in his dedication: “For my sons when they are twenty.” What he gives his sons is a withering cautionary tale about the ensnarements of passionate love. I can’t embark on a description of the plot – it’s too full of emotional twists and turns – but all can be summed up in that first night, when Jean brings Fanny to his hotel. His room is on the fourth floor, and he takes her in his arms “with the lovely fierce energy of youth” and carries her up the stairs. The second flight “was longer, less delightful.” When he finally staggers to the fourth floor Fanny had become “some heavy and dreadful thing that was stifling him.” She says, “So soon?” and he thinks, “At last!” Yet he’s never able to come to “At last” in reality. As I followed the course of their relationship I reached the point where even the word “love” had become suspect. Yet the confusion and conflict I felt accurately depict Jean’s state of mind. This is not a novel which gives the reader solace; we can understand Fanny and Jean, but we can’t sympathize with them. They’re both right, they’re both wrong, they both deserve what they get. *

Seize the Day - Saul Bellow
What a wordsmith Bellow was! His writing is both smooth and sumptuous, grounded and imaginative. But a novel succeeds or fails on character and plot. In the course of one day (a day fraught with crises) Tommy Wilhelm’s guts are spread out before us. Perhaps this serving of Wilhelm is too rich – he’s like a dish fancied up with so many sauces that the palate becomes confused. As Tommy floundered about in a cascade of emotions I became increasingly detached. In a three character book, the father was the only person I could relate to; at least I could draw a bead on who and what he was. Tamkin, on the other hand, was way too slippery a concoction. For a long stretch in the middle of the book – seventeen pages – he holds forth on matters like the “real soul” and the “pretender soul.” When Tamkin gives Tommy a poem he wrote about Mechanism vs Functionalism, Tommy says to himself, “What kind of mishmash, claptrap is this? . . . What does he give me this for? What’s the purpose? Is it a deliberate test? Does he want to mix me up? He’s already got me mixed up completely.” Tommy could be complaining about Saul Bellow. It cannot be wisdom that Tamkin is spouting (most likely he’s a con man); why, then, did Bellow dedicate a good chunk of this 115 page novel to “claptrap”? Things end in a torrent of tears from Tommy: “. . . they were pouring out and convulsed his body, bowing his shoulders, twisting his face, crippling the very hands with which he held the handkerchief.” This spectacle of grief failed to move me; like his hardhearted father, I had my fill of Tommy and his problems. (1)

No comments: