Monday, July 14, 2014

The Ruined Map - Kobo Abe (Japanese)
This has the trappings of a mystery (private detective, missing husband, unforthcoming wife, perplexing clues). But abstract thoughts, obscure descriptions and inconclusive encounters eventually led me to conclude that murkiness was Abe’s goal and that the clues (notably, a matchbox with matches which have different colored tips) wouldn’t reveal the how and why of the husband’s disappearance; they were aiming at something deeper, maybe about the friability of identity. This is a mood-driven work, and the mood is markedly unpleasant. Tokyo is depicted as unrelentingly ugly, almost alien in its desolation. People are often vulgar and brutish; hidden agendas abound, and no one is to be trusted. As a straight mystery this might have been good, because some scenes (particularly the ones reliant on dialogue) are successful. Abe, however, was in pursuit of that which resides in the waters of an existential sea. I didn’t care to go fishing there, because who knows what you might reel in.

Around the World in Eighty Days – Jules Verne (French)
This famous novel is no more than light entertainment. Very light. Though I found it to be mildly enjoyable, its superficiality is a bit staggering. Phileas Fogg is so cold and reserved that he seems like an automaton. His French servant, Passepartout, displays an abundance of emotions, but they’re on the simple-minded side. And then there’s Aouda. How this beautiful (as “fair as a European”) and cultured (she was given a “thoroughly English education”) young lady winds up in the Indian jungle as the designated victim of a suttee is not adequately accounted for. There’s a preposterous rescue by Passepartout (using his gymnast skills), at which point the book dips to the level of a boy’s adventure yarn. Aouda joins the others in their trek around the world, so you’d think that she would gain a little depth along the way. But she’s kind and gentle and grateful, and nothing more. Phileas shows not a snippet of romantic feeling toward her during all the time they spend together, yet he fervently proposes marriage when they arrive in London (“Yes, by all that is holiest, I love you, and am entirely yours!”). This sudden about-face left me feeling disgruntled, as did the trick ending. After losing the bet by failing to arrive at his club at the designated time, Phileas wins the bet by arriving at the fifty-seventh second before his time runs out. How can you have it both ways? But I probably shouldn’t be subjecting this novel to close scrutiny. Verne didn’t attempt to write a literary work; he was one of those canny authors who knew how to deliver a product that would make him a lot of money.

Against the Grain - J. K. Huysmans (French)
This book also goes by the title Against Nature. Which is more fitting, for it’s pervaded by disgust for that which is natural. An elderly aristocrat who has led a life of dissipation retires to a secluded cottage where he indulges in solitary preoccupations (such as glazing the shell of a huge live turtle with gold, then incrusting it with precious gems). He’s a connoisseur of sensory and intellectual stimuli. Whole chapters are devoted to perfumes and flowers, or to writers who, for the most part, I had never heard of. Des Esseintes’ erudition and the detail in which he describes arcane matters make much of the book unintelligible; I let pages flow by. Why, then, did I continue reading? I didn’t consider this to be a novel; instead Huysmans presents the workings of a very strange man’s mind. Des Esseintes’ austere and perverse refinement has drawn him to that which is hideous and brutal. He doesn’t select flowers for their beauty; his “cup of joy was brimming over” at the sight of a fresh batch of “monstrosities”: flowers that “mimick the membranes of animals’ insides, borrow the vivid tints of their rotting flesh, the superb horrors of their gangrened skin.” The paintings he hangs up also depict horrors, and a modern writer he appreciates – Barbey d’Aurevilly – offers “those gamey flavors, those stains of disease and decay, that cankered surface, that taste of rotten-ripeness which he so loved to savor.” The cottage is a house of horrors, and Des Esseintes sits spider-like at the center of the web. He has contempt for society’s codes and standards, and at no point does he express a feeling of love for another human being (or even for any living creature). As the morbid negativity accumulated, this began to take shape as a cautionary tale; such an acidic attitude will consume one from inside. And, indeed, Des Esseintes mentally and physically breaks down under the strain of being confined in the narrow cell of himself. His doctor orders him to return to Paris; at the end he complies, filled with despair at the prospect before him. In this book of impressions, one episode stands in solid contrast. In Chapter Eleven Des Esseintes, driven by a need to see another human face, embarks on a trip to London; actually, he gets no farther than Paris, where he goes to a bar and a restaurant frequented by Britishers. In this chapter we get the bustle of ordinary life, viewed without censure, and it’s brilliant. It shows Huysmans’ ability to do exactly what he chose not to do – to write a naturalistic novel. As for what he did choose to do, one must judge the man whose state of mind he examines. Only at one point, late in the book, did I feel an emotional connection with Des Esseintes. Schubert’s lieder stirs him to his depths; he sees “lines of poor folks, harassed by life’s wretchedness”; and he, “full of bitterness, overflowing with disgust, felt himself standing alone, all alone in the midst of weeping Nature, overborne by an unspeakable melancholy, by an obstinate distress . . .” Contempt slips away; compassion for others makes its lone appearance; Des Esseintes recognizes his isolation and feels his bitterness and disgust as a burden. He’s a man who has reached the end of the road and sees an abyss before him. As Barbey d’Aurevilly wrote, “After such a book, it only remains for the author to chose between the muzzle of a pistol or the foot of the cross.” In his Preface, written twenty years after the novel appeared, Huysmans makes clear that he is Des Esseintes. And the choice he made – the path that opened before him – was Catholicism. He has not given up his negative attitudes about life, but he writes that “Never has Pessimism consoled either the sick of the body or the afflicted of the soul!” The Church offered a remedy in the effortless act of belief, and “If any man can have the certainty of the worthless thing he would be without God’s help, it is I.” These words are a far cry from the austere disapproval of Des Esseintes in his cottage. Yet, in this preface, disturbing glints of the old hatred appear, and I found his comments on the Church’s urgent need to fight against the Devil to be ominous. Des Esseintes/Huysmans is no loving Christian; it’s Catholicism’s cloistered seclusion and medieval trappings which appeal to him. I could see him, clothed in the robes of an Inquisitor, carrying on a brutal campaign against the Evil One. It would be in his nature to do so. Yes, the man frightens me.

Prater Violet - Christopher Isherwood
In the opening pages young Isherwood (he gives the main character his name, though the book is structured as fiction) gets a job as a scriptwriter for a movie called “Prater Violet” (an insipid musical taking place in old Vienna). This could be the premise for a comedy, but the author injects philosophical issues throughout. The director, a larger-than-life Austrian named Bergmann, is capable of doing excellent work; to be saddled with a piece of fluff is distressing to him. For Chatsworth, the imposingly self-assured producer, the only goal is to get the picture shot; his blight practicality stands in contrast to the doubts and compunctions that beset the artist. Another complicating factor is that events take place before and during Hitler’s takeover of Austria; because Bergmann’s wife and daughter reside in Vienna, he’s facing a matter of life and death importance as he tries to turn out commercial pap. His situation generates some pathos, and his fatherly attitude toward the fatherless Isherwood is touching. But this book is slight; it needs padding (such as a long and dull stretch about the mechanics of movie making) to move it out of the short story range. Even the efforts to add depth to the story may be a form of padding (at the end we get an extended meditation on love and loneliness and the meaning of life). Isherwood simply didn’t have sufficient material to work with, and the results feel flimsy and patched together. Kind of like the movie.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Lotte in Weimar - Thomas Mann (German)
The Lotte of this novel is the beloved portrayed fictionally in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Now sixty-three, she visits Weimar with the expectation of again meeting the author she had known in her youth. This premise interested me because of the human element. Unfortunately, the human element got lost in complexities. Mann builds the plot around visitors who come to Lotte’s hotel room. They engage in long monologues (one covers over a hundred pages) that deal with the character of Goethe and the essence of genius. Ideas are presented with a rigorous and austere intelligence. Even the prose is lofty; listening to Goethe’s son, Lotte thinks that he speaks in an old-fashioned, artificial and pedantic way; but, since such language is used throughout the book, she could be commenting on Mann’s own style. His insights are perceptive (Goethe is portrayed as a parasite who, in his relations with young Lotte, laid his emotions like a cuckoo-egg in a nest already made and then flew off). But too much undiluted intelligence becomes tiresome; Mann’s weightiness, his refusal to be direct and simple, wore me down. When a chapter begins with the reader plunged into the mind of Goethe (“Alas, that it should vanish!”), I had enough; I had even lost faith that anything of interest would emerge from the long-delayed meeting of Lotte and the Great Man. Actually, I had lost faith in Thomas Mann. His first novel, Buddenbrooks, appeared in 1901; in it he immerses the reader in the stuff of life – weddings and divorces, births and deaths, money matters and gossip. Lotte was written forty years later, while he was living in the United States (in self-imposed exile from Hitler’s Germany). Unlike the twenty-five-year-old who wrote the early masterpiece, age and insularity must have caused Mann to lose contact with the times and with ordinary people. Instead he turned his attention to grand subjects: biblical figures, the Faust legend, geniuses. He also considered the majestic power of Literature to be a legitimate subject for a novel. I’m one of the few left who value great writing, but only when its primary concern is human nature.

Aleck Maury Sportsman – Caroline Gordon
In old age Aleck Maury recalls an episode that occurs early in the book: “I knew suddenly what it was I had lived by, from the time when, as a mere child, I used to go out into the woods at night with a negro man. I remembered it – it must have been when I was about eight – looking up in the black woods into the deep, glowing eyes of the quarry and experiencing a peculiar, transfiguring excitement.” Ever since he had been seeking and finding that excitement – which is, for him, a sense of being fully alive. His solitary quest demands selfish dedication. Though he has feelings for his family, they make inroads on time – precious time! – that could be spent on the water or in the field. The vast majority of these pages are filled with scenes of hunting and fishing; his dog Gy gets more space than his wife and children, and his job as a teacher matters not at all. Since his story is told from the perspective of old age, it’s permeated by an awareness of loss. When young Aleck sees his uncle, who was always first in the field, unable any longer to mount a horse, a sense of foreboding rushes over him. He will suffer the same fate. First a bum leg prevents him from hunting, then he becomes too heavy to easily get around; worse, he feels a lessening of enthusiasm: “Delight . . . I had lived by it for sixty years and now it was gone and might never come again. . . .” This is something he cannot face, and he has no resources to fall back on. Yet at the end he rallies to make a last assertion of his independence – he will live only by his terms. Caroline Gordon had a personal investment in this portrayal, for Aleck Maury is based on her father. She’s present in the book as Sally; but, until the last pages, there’s not one sustained scene between the two. Is she condemning him for his absence from her life? I didn’t get that impression. Rather, she seems to respect the choice he made: few people know what their passion is and follow it so resolutely. Gordon’s stories about him are more artfully done than this novel; the descriptions of hunting and fishing are too detailed (by the way, how did she get to know as much about those subjects as her father?) and time is covered haphazardly, often in leaps and bounds. But those faults are irrelevant. What matters is the author’s complete and effortless empathy.

Riceyman Steps - Arnold Bennett
The title refers to a place – a slum in London – where Henry Earlforward lives in a dilapidated building which also houses his used bookstore. His servant Elsie and a woman he marries, Violet, make up what is mostly a three character novel. Henry and Violet are perplexing because who they are and how they act aren’t in conformity. I never understood why this eccentric bachelor – a man in his late forties – decides to marry, and why sensible and independent Violet accepts such an odd duck. Whether love (or sex) plays a role in their relationship is left ambiguous. Elsie, on the other hand, presents no complexities: simplicity and goodness and a desire to work define her. An aspect of Henry’s personality that’s developed convincingly is his “soft obstinacy.” I could comprehend why others are dominated by a will so mild and yet so immovably and inhumanly strong. Though it’s Elsie’s nature to be submissive, Violet loses all but remnants of her once-vigorous self-sufficiency. Also convincing is Henry’s fanatical miserliness; despite the considerable fortune he keeps in a safe, he deprives himself and others in the house of food and heat. In one sense this is pathological, but hoarding money – gazing at it, holding the lovely, crisp new notes and gold sovereigns – is Henry’s passion and, as such, gives him pleasure. When he becomes ill he refuses to go to a hospital. It’s not only the expense; he sees it as a place where individuality is crushed, and this is a dreadful prospect for someone of his nature. I consumed this book, fascinated by its amalgam of commonality and perversity. Bennett’s attitude is godlike; he’s both pitying and amused by the emotions and travails of his three characters. It never occurs to them that they’re insignificant cogs in an enigmatic universe; they’re too busy with their share of working it out. Which is called life.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh
I’m an ardent admirer of Waugh, but this book, his magnus opus, is a mistake. How does it differ from the seven earlier works that I hold in high esteem? For beginners, in the prose. Waugh’s beautiful sentences are self-consciously ornamental; when he reverts to the stringent economy of his old style (as in Charles Ryder’s stay with his craftily malicious father), the novel rises to excellence; in fact, it succeeds in all sections in which Charles is an observer. Detachment was Waugh’s strength. But in Brideshead he taps into his intimate emotions (he uses a first person narrator, which he had never done before). He begins by recreating a paradisaical Oxford and Charles’s friendship with the “madly charming” Sebastian Flyte (who carries around a life-size Teddy Bear named Aloysius). The young men are inseparable and do gay things together. I use “gay” with a double meaning; since Waugh has the two sunbath together in the nude, I wondered why he didn’t take the step of making their relationship a physical one. Charles writes of Sebastian: “He was magically beautiful, with that epicene quality that in extreme youth sings aloud for love . . .” In this book there’s much talk of love (Charles thinks that “to know and love another human being is the root of all wisdom”). But – going back to Waugh’s strengths – he excelled at depicting hapless characters being cruelly manipulated, or monsters of selfishness doing the manipulating. Love is precisely what he’s unable to make credible in Brideshead. Sebastian is one of a number of people who are discarded. As the disastrous Book Two begins ten years have passed, and Charles is returning from the jungles of South America. He’s married but loathes his wife and cares not one whit for his two children. When he encounters Sebastian’s sister, the beautiful and tragic Julia, an empyreal love springs up between them. The gauzy, rhapsodic prose in which it’s described is, at times, laughable. He and Julia part over some religious mumbo-jumbo concerning the operation of divine grace. As with the discarded characters, this seemed like a convenient way to avoid dealing with the mundaneness of a long-term commitment. I find it significant that, early in the book, there’s a nine page monologue in which a homosexual character unloads on Sebastian and Julia and their mother; he goes beyond cattiness and into the truly vicious. The point is, it’s a brilliant sequence that showcases Waugh at his best. It surprises me that so many people buy into what’s false in this novel: its elegiac romance.

King Solomon’s Ring - Konrad Lorenz (German)
In describing the behavior of a wide variety of creatures, Lorenz draws some parallels (and comparisons) to how our species acts. Regarding our highly-touted capacity to love, long before they mate male and female jackdaws form alliances that have every indication of being romantic; these continue, unabated, for the rest of their lives (which can last as long as human lives). As for the gory aspects of the natural world, I was surprised by the ferocity of “harmless” vegetarians. Lorenz states that the “roe-buck is the most malevolent beast I know”; if given the opportunity he’ll methodically slit the bellies of does and fawns. And when Lorenz makes the mistake of putting two doves in the same cage (for the purpose of mating), one of these symbols of peace eviscerates the other. His conclusion is that, in nature, both deer and doves can flee from an attack; when confinement makes escape impossible the stronger is free to inflict carnage. Vegetarians haven’t developed the social inhibitions that predators have. A raven or wolf cannot harm one of their own kind who assumes a submissive stance; if this prohibition didn’t exist the survival of those species would be in jeopardy. Man, it seems, is not similarly inhibited. Lorenz’s line drawings are more lively than his prose, which is a bit plodding. Still, his enthusiasm for his life’s work is always evident.

The Uncoupling - Meg Wolitzer
A spell comes over the women of a New Jersey suburb: they’re unable to respond sexually to their husbands and boyfriends. The characters are faculty members and students at a high school where the new drama teacher is putting on a production of Lysistrata. The most attention is given to Dory and Robby Lang, a couple who enjoy, after many years of marriage, a robust sex life; the plot revolves around the repercussions when a coldness inexplicably descends on Dory. What are not developed (at least not by the midway point, when I called it quits) are the questions raised in the premise. Is the supernatural at work? Does the Greek play (in which women stop having sex with men until they end a war) have relevance, and, if so, what are the women of Stellar Plains protesting? To account for my growing distaste, I briefly entertained the possibility that Wolitzer was making some radical points: that the Lang’s happy but conventional marriage is vapid, and that, from a certain perspective, intimate physical contact is repugnant. But, as the trivialities accumulated, it became clear that I was giving her too much credit. The Uncoupling is no more than boring rote work that leans heavily on a lot of sex talk. I had again wasted my precious time on a modern American novel.

Tartuffe - Moliere (French)
Fun, but great literature? I’d say no; this is a lightweight comedy. Still, if I was in the audience in seventeenth century France I’d have left the theater with a satisfied smile. It’s a misrepresentation to say that Moliere was exposing religious hypocrisy. Tartuffe isn’t a hypocrite; he’s a con man. Though others recognize this, from the outset Orgon is so captivated by Tartuffe that he tries to force his daughter to marry him and gives him all his money. The real problem is Orgon’s gullibility; but, since we never learn how and why he became ensnared, he just seems dumb. The liveliest character in this lively play is Dorine (a maid who definitely doesn’t know her place). The ending has a deus ex machina: a wise and benevolent King Louis XIV saves the day; I guess Moliere needed to pay homage to power. Lastly, the translation is by the poet Richard Wilbur. Moliere must have written in rhymed couplets, because that’s what we get. In his introduction Wilbur writes that “contemporary audiences are quite willing to put up with rhymed verse on the stage.” This phrasing suggest that he’s not sold on the matter, and it’s true that one tends to be distracted by the ingenuity needed to find words that conveniently fit. On the other hand, think of how children delight in rhymes; humans are drawn to it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Fire-Dwellers - Margaret Laurence
Laurence immerses us in Stacey MacAindra. In addition to what she does, says, thinks and fantasizes, we also get scenes from her past. She’s thirty-nine years old, married with four children (oldest fourteen, youngest three). Emotionally, she’s conflicted; almost every feeling she has coexists with one in direct opposition. Though she loves her children, they’re a drain on her. Though she loves her husband, she wishes he would communicate with her. But when Mac says, “Just leave me alone,” both the reader and Stacey understand why: she’s exhausting to deal with. She even exhausts herself, and only her sense of humor saves her. Adding to her discontent is the fact that age is taking its toll – Stacey doesn’t like what she sees in the mirror. To say that she’s going through a midlife crisis wouldn’t do justice to this lively and ambitious psychological study. Unfortunately, Laurence goes astray near the end. Possibly she felt (with some justification; the book is too long) that she was getting repetitive and that she needed to add some dramatic events. But the ones she comes up with are poor choices. The novel is like a print on “Antiques Roadshow” whose value is diminished significantly by a tear along one side. The tear in Fire-Dwellers has to do with two male characters. The Stacey I know would have nothing to do with the aggressively vulgar Buckle. As for Luke Venturi, this young man should have been relegated to one of Stacey’s more sappy fantasies (from which she would recover with a laugh: “Get a grip, doll”). Luke’s name for her is “merwoman” – and I cringed. As for the sex scenes – more cringing. The novel recovers when it returns to the trivialities and turmoil of daily life, and Laurence closes on the right note. Lying in bed next to Mac, Stacey makes a inventory of the house and finds that everyone is asleep and all is quiet. She thinks, “Temporarily, they are all more or less okay.”

Theresa - Arthur Schnitzler (German)
In this novel, which is subtitled “The Chronicle of a Woman’s Life,” Schnitzler gives us a portrayal that begins when Theresa is sixteen and ends in her early death. Though attractive and intelligent, her life becomes a series of unsatisfying governess/tutoring jobs, financial difficulties, and love affairs that turn out badly. Theresa will never marry, but she will have one child. With the onset of middle age hope fades and disillusionment sets in; she prays that “passion might never again disturb the quiet current of her life and torment her innermost being.” Yet, except for brief interludes, the current of her life is never quiet, nor is her innermost being at peace. What begins to dominate her thoughts is the world’s indifference; she feels acutely that she is of no importance to anyone. And this is true – she doesn’t matter. As a key event in this chronicle, she shouldn’t have had the illegitimate child. But what she lacked was foresight and calculation, and that is no crime. Though not a paragon of virtue, Theresa isn’t a bad person, nor does she ever act maliciously. I began to ask myself what was lacking in her. Why is her life such a struggle? Did it all unfold from the fact that she was born to parents who were unable to love her (as she would be unable to love her own son)? At one point Theresa considers herself of another species from those to whom happiness is granted. Others seem to instinctively know how to preserve themselves and take what they desire, while her efforts to be coldly resourceful are destined to fail. Of her entire existence she decides that “she had not come into this world to be happy.” Perhaps that’s the final summing up. Though this book is a grueling experience, Schnitzler’s unique achievement is to make Theresa matter to the reader; on these pages she is of importance. Her last dreams, from which she awakens feeling an “unfulfillable tenderness and the apprehension of endless solitude,” are moving. What more can an author do? *

Time and Time Again - James Hilton
The dominant figure in Charles Anderson’s life – and in the book – is his father. Havelock’s eccentricities are a manifestation of his disregard for others – he will do what he damn well pleases – and his charm is merely a vain display of his brilliant tail feathers. Charles sees the truth about this selfish and destructive man, but it’s not in his nature to condemn him. The son is the opposite of the father; his reserve and sense of propriety earn him the nickname of “Stuffy.” But he’s not reserved in his romance with Lily; Hilton captures the passion of first love beautifully. Since Lily is working class and so beneath the Anderson level in British society, Havelock swoops down to end the affair. This is a life-changing event, for Charles and Lily had planned to move to France, where he would pursue his painting. (Hmm . . . A youthful pipe dream?) Instead Charles becomes a diplomat, and the woman he eventually marries is eminently suited to aid him in that role. Though it’s a happy union, it seems that they are mainly a compatible team. Except for the drama of the bombing of London, the book begins to slow down in the post-Lily second half. It unravels in the concluding section, in which Charles, at age fifty-two, tries to connect with his son. Charles comes across as fussy and foolish, the son is nondescript, and the defection of a Russian spy is a dull sideshow. Hilton has Charles start up a relationship with a much younger woman, but there’s not enough going on between the two to make it credible. The prose never weakens – it’s exceptionally smooth and inviting – but what does weaken is Hilton’s resolve to explore Charles’s dilemma. Feelings of loneliness and regret are hinted at, but then are sidestepped. In trying to account for this evasiveness, some facts stand out. Hilton died at age fifty-four, a year before the novel was published; the cause of death was liver cancer, so he must have been aware of his imminent mortality. That he has Charles being born in 1900, the same year he was, may indicate that he put something of himself in a character whose nature it was to always keep a stiff upper lip. As for the hopeful ending, Hilton may have chosen to open the door to life and love for his fictional self as it was closing for him.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Nephew - James Purdy
The nephew of the title is an eighteen-year-old who’s declared missing-in-action in the Korean War. Though Alma and her brother brought Cliff up since he was fourteen, when she embarks on writing a memorial to him (despite her hope that he’s still alive) she draws a blank. She turns to others who knew Cliff to provide material. In a simple and concise prose Purdy effectively creates a gothic atmosphere in which dark secrets lurk behind Rainbow Center’s facade of middle American normalcy. Trouble is, though he tosses in teasers, the author doesn’t have much to offer when it comes to revealing. An example: photos of Cliff, taken by a bisexual neighbor, are discovered, but we never find out what they show (is Cliff naked?); since Purdy simply dismisses these photos as having no relevance, why did he introduce them? At the end Cliff remains indistinct, and the townsfolk, for all their eccentricities, are just flawed humans. What we get is a message, which comes directly from the author: love one another. Maybe his capacity to embrace the residents of Rainbow Center made Purdy feel magnanimous, but I found his message of compassion to be a letdown. It’s significant that the two scenes with impact are ones in which characters act cruelly: A senile old lady goes into a tirade in which she expresses her virulent hatred of everyone, and an aging homosexual and his young companion verbally tear at one another. In these scenes Purdy may reveal the real secret behind his Rainbow.

A Weakness for Almost Everything - Aldo Buzzi (Italian)
I got this book because I wanted more of the arcane knowledge (particularly about literature and food) and the zest for life (particularly for food and pretty women) that Buzzi displayed in Journey to the Land of the Flies. So I was brought up short in the introductory “Self-Interview” when Buzzi answers his question as to whether cooking still interests him: “Really . . . nothing interests me anymore.” Then, a few pages later, in the section called “Notes on Life,” he gets a call – a wrong number – from a woman asking for Enrico. After he puts down the phone Buzzi writes: “Enrico must be the usual little shit, one of those self-important types, who establish a family, with children, just to demonstrate that they exist.” Who, I wondered, is this dejected cynic? The most that can be said for “Notes on Life” is that it contains a sprinkling of engaging observations. Things pick up in “Notes on Gastronomy” (it seems that food does still interest Buzzi), but the first “Notes on Travel,” about a Mexican journey, is little more than a logbook recording where he was on particular dates. The second trip, from New York to Charleston (which also took place in 1956), is much better, mainly because Buzzi describes the meals he has (and the pretty waitresses who serve them). Still, this second travel section, along with some other good parts, should have been included in Flies, which had come out three years earlier. Weakness exists, probably, because there was a demand for more from Buzzi, but all he could scrape together was a plate of leftovers.

The Lazarus Project - Aleksandar Hemon
During the course of the first chapter, which takes place in 1908 Chicago, we spend time in the mind of a young man who will end up riddled by bullets in the hallway of the chief of police’s house. We’re made aware of Lazarus’s innocence (he isn’t even armed), yet the truth of what happened is distorted in newspaper accounts: the police chief and others were shooting in self-defense; the man was a “vile foreigner” of a “Semitic type,” obviously a “degenerate” and an “anarchist” bent on destroying the American way of life. In subsequent chapters the police act in ways that would get a nod of approval from a concentration camp guard. When the sister of Lazarus is shown his mutilated corpse, a detective asks, “as if delivering a punch line, ‘Happy to see him? Give him a kiss . . .’ ” Rather than generating a sense of outrage, this version of events struck me as suspect; like the newspaper account, it was just too one-sided and lurid. The person writing it is a Serbian immigrant living in present day Chicago (Brik is clearly a fictional stand-in for Hemon; their bios match). Why is Brik interested in a century old atrocity? Because, like Lazarus, he’s an immigrant? But Brik is an immigrant married to an American neurosurgeon. What connection can he (who’s not even Jewish) have with a poor ghetto-dweller? Anyway, his idea for a novel necessitates a grant-financed trip to Eastern Europe. Again, why? What can he possibly expect to uncover about Lazarus? Brik is accompanied on his travels by a photographer he knew in Serbia. Rora is the type of over-the-top, always triumphant super hero that twelve-year-old boys dream up. Hemon also reveals a twelve-year-old’s mentality in what he considers to be humorous. In one scene the sister of Lazarus goes to an outhouse, and down in the hole, totally submerged in excrement, is a friend of her brother (okay, he’s hiding from the cops, but why there?). In the next chapter we’re in the Ukraine, and the car Brik hires “smells of feces.” It’s a Ford Focus, but the author thereafter refers to it as a Ford Feces. Funny, huh? When I quit reading this novel, just short of the halfway point, it had become hugely annoying (including the pretentious black and white photos that precede each chapter and were inserted, I suppose, in an attempt to provide authenticity). The only parts of this “project” that ring true are those which describe Brik’s efforts to advance his literary career. Since Hemon has received a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation, he should have no worries. But I still have a word of advice for him. Brik refers to Jesus as “the nailed gymnast” and at one point asks “Why is it that churches have no bathrooms? Did Mr. Christ have no bladder?” Don’t, Aleksandar, make the mistake of having a character treat Mohammed in such a disrespectful way.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
Mr. Darcy was a problem for me, one that never went away. For most of the book Austen presents him as a man whose sense of superiority is such that he has open disdain for those who don’t meet his lofty standards. He’s also a meddler; he uses every resource to separate his friend from a woman who he, Darcy, considers an inappropriate match. Since he displays little feeling for Elizabeth, when his proposal of marriage comes it’s a surprise (her “astonishment was beyond expression”); she rejects him and catalogues her reasons for actively disliking him. Yet they will marry, and this is due to nothing short of a metamorphosis in Darcy. Suddenly he engages in all sorts of kind, generous acts. We’re to take this as an indication of his feelings for Elizabeth, but to me it wasn’t Darcy doing these things; it was Austen stacking the deck in his favor. Does she succeed at making the two credible as lovers? I saw no warmth on either side. Darcy remains wooden, and though the same cannot be said of Elizabeth, her most passionate moment takes place when she first sees his estate; the splendor of the house and grounds is such that she feels “to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” When her sister asks her how long she has loved Darcy, she answers, “I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.” Her mother is enraptured by the marriage: “Oh! my sweetest Lizzie! how rich and how great you will be!” Her sentiments are not just those of a small-minded and greedy woman. In the society of the idle rich depicted in this book (no main character does a lick of work) people maneuver to be in the good graces of those who rank higher in wealth and status. The two worst toadies – Elizabeth’s mother and the fatuous Mr. Collins – are one-dimensional objects of Austen’s ridicule and disdain. Yet Elizabeth’s friend marries Mr. Collins for the financial security he can provide. And Elizabeth? After her marriage she plans to protect Darcy from the “mortification” of having to interact with “vulgar” people. She “looked forward with delight to the time when they should be removed from society so little pleasing to either, to all the comfort and elegance of their family party at Pemberley.”

Growing Up - Russell Baker
For half the book Baker focuses not on himself but on his family. His father dies at the onset of the Great Depression, and he and his mother are forced to live with various uncles and aunts. The child/young boy’s growing up is depicted in terms of a growth in his understanding of the people around him. Though his indomitable but thwarted mother is the most vivid character, others – such as the hugely generous Uncle Allen and Aunt Pat – are strong presences. Then there’s Oluf, who carried on a courtship with Russell’s mother. In letters he wrote to her we see this lively, enterprising, optimistic man being broken in his struggle to find work. He ends his correspondence with Elizabeth (and disappears from her life) with the words “I am lost and going and not interested in anything anymore.” Baker’s use of these excerpts show him at his unobtrusive best. Unfortunately, the book weakens as he reaches his mid-teens and takes center stage. Teenagers and young men are not very likable creatures, nor are their crises of much interest. Baker assumes an attitude of humorous indulgence (in the case of his difficulty in losing his virginity, he portrays himself as a fumbling rube). But it’s a lumbering type of humor, and the prose – which once could deftly evoke emotions – is no more than what would be expected of a competent journalist.

The Patriot - Evan S. Connell
In The Patriot Connell proves himself adept at writing a long, straightforward novel. One of his major accomplishments is to make clear what a life-altering experience military service is, and why so many veterans hold dear the memory of their war years and the relationships they formed during that time. The most important person for Melvin Isaacs is swaggering Sam Horne, who takes Melvin under his wing. Melvin’s name is one indication that this is an autobiographical work: with the change of a vowel and the omission of two consonants we get Evan. Melvin is presented as a fragmented person in whom the parts do not function together. He’s alive and real, but, like the perplexed Horne, we’re constantly asking, “Why the hell did you do that?” Embedded in the mostly realistic narrative are scenes that skew into the surreal. Melvin has a nightmarish interview with a Lieutenant Caravaggio, who is either insane or has some unfathomable agenda. In a doomed flight in a dilapidated plane, during which Melvin announces to the tower that he’s The Green Hornet, he seems insane. Throughout the novel there’s an underlying disjointedness, but when it moves into civilian life it becomes a shambles as Connell unsympathetically assigns Melvin to various roles (college student, abstract artist, husband). But even in this last section I never lost interest, and the final scene, with the father urgently talking about how to survive a nuclear attack, again shows how forceful and original a writer Connell can be. The Patriot should ultimately be judged by the ways it succeeds, because those successes are so distinctive. In the descriptions of flight we get it all: the smell of oil, the coughing, barking engine as the plane labors upward; then a bleak and gaseous silence, the miniature world as seen from the solarium of the cockpit. And there’s a seemingly innocuous visit to a Confederate museum in which an old lady who smells of vinegar and beer and has a bath towel around her head (“Washin’ my hair, men”) gives a tour of a house where a horrific battle had been fought. She closes her four page monologue by asking her guests to look down a stairwell where the bloodstains are still “as dark as midnight, men, and fearsome as ever.” *

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Mother’s Love - Mary Morris
Halfway through this novel I did some research and learned that Mary Morris grew up in circumstances quite unlike those of her protagonist. Whereas Ivy has a hardscrabble life, Morris was (at least looking at her bio) blessed with every advantage. I felt a bit resentful about this. When I recovered my senses, I realized that I should give the author credit for creating so authentic a character. If any young woman sees single motherhood in a romanticized light, they need to read this book. Little Bobby poops and sucks and screams. Little? For all the attention he demands, Bobby could be the size of a bungalow. Ivy diligently fulfills her duties, but it’s grueling and is breaking her down emotionally and physically. The father of the boy is no help. Matthew thinks Ivy should have gotten an abortion; at any rate, he’s just not ready for parenthood and won’t even assist her financially. That she has sympathy for this jerk’s “problems” shows her passive, weak side (which coexists with her angry side). Bouts of fear and depression are the predictable offshoot of her isolated existence in a grubby apartment in New York City. She’s beset by memories, most of them involving her own mother, who ran off when she was seven, taking with her a younger daughter. The “Why” of this event – why run away and why take Sam? – is unsolvable and is something Ivy struggles to come to grips with. Of her father we get little; he’s well-meaning, but his gambling problem leads to an itinerant lifestyle in the western deserts. Memories of the past intermingle with present-day facts and with Ivy’s imaginings. In the present, things begin to brighten; she finds a supportive friend in Mara and the perfect babysitter in Viviana (she’s a babysitter in the sense that Einstein could solve really difficult equations). At the end of the book one is left feeling that Ivy has gone through the roughest stretch, and that shes become stronger for it. As for the mother who abandoned her, she thinks, “I miss her, but not really the one I lost. Rather I miss the one I never had, the one I am trying to become.”

One for the Books - Joe Queenan
I thought I might get chummy with a fellow lover of books; I should have known better. As early as page seventeen, when he lumps A Fan’s Notes with Dune (both books that are, in his opinion, “impossible to enjoy”), I began to question his taste and intelligence. But on page seventy-two we irrevocably parted ways over Vanity Fair, which he calls “implacably precious.” “I hated it. Despised it,” he writes, then he goes on to attack the “lantern-jawed” Reese Witherspoon who plays Becky Sharp in the movie version. Mean-spirited gibes run throughout the book; Queenan considers many people to be ignoramuses, dinks, cretins, etcetera. While he’s flippantly dismissing works of substance (usually with no reason given), he devotes much of his time to light fare and outright junk (such as the biography of Sonny Bono and the “voluptuously vulgar” Va Va Voom). We all need escape reading occasionally, but thirteen Ruth Rendell mysteries in a row? Some books he won’t abandon (he’s spent pretty much of his entire adult life struggling with Middlemarch and Ulysses) and others he rereads repeatedly (The Best of Roald Dahl nine times). He claims that he’s able to consume many books simultaneously (presently he’s “blasting away” at thirty-two, but the number has been much higher) and he can read anywhere (on a subway, at a prizefight, waiting in line at the supermarket, at a wake). He seems mighty proud of these feats, which struck me as the literary equivalent of a carnival sideshow act (“The Amazing Queenan!”). He’s been a columnist for top magazines and newspapers and has published eleven books. He’s talented – his writing style is pleasurable and he can be amusing. Actually, of the enormous number of titles that he cites, we agree on the worth of more than half. Still, I don’t like the guy, and I don’t think he much likes himself or his life; despite his success and his claim that he has “sixty-five close friends” he seems to be a discontented man. Reading was his form of escape from a boyhood blighted by an alcoholic, abusive father (once again we see how abusiveness begets abusiveness, though the form it takes may vary). His addiction to books was, he writes, the reason why he didn’t make any headway in his career until his mid-thirties. “Well, that and the fact that the people were appalling.” Since he did build a career, he must have started cozying up to these “appalling” people. Just an observation.

The Maltese Falcon - Dashiell Hammett
As I read this novel images from the movie played in my mind. John Huston wisely followed the storyline closely and used much of the author’s smart, snappy dialogue. The fact that Hammett’s Sam Spade is tall and has light brown hair didn’t bother me; I always saw Bogart. In both book and movie Spade is tough and efficient, like other fictional private eyes, but we’re never clear as to what makes him tick. Is he capable of dishonesty? Is he emotionally invulnerable? What feelings does he have for Brigid O’Shaughnessy? This element of ambiguity makes Spade intriguing. The most lively interactions are the ones involving the effeminate Joel Cairo and the grossly fat Casper Gutman (Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet are perfect matches for Hammett’s characters). The novel is superior to the movie in one important aspect. I got a grip on who and what Brigid was because she’s shown with her hair down; she’s a woman who can – and does, often – use her sexuality to manipulate men. Spade turns her in not only because she murdered his partner (“just like swatting a fly”), but also because he won’t “play the sap” for her. Like Spade, she’s an enigma, but he (and we) know enough about her to understand how dangerous she is. This wasn’t clear in the film version, in which Mary Astor was too prim. The book and movie end differently (Hammett never wrote the line “It’s the stuff that dreams are made of”). In the book we’re back in Spade’s office the day after he delivers Brigid and the others over to the police; he greets his secretary Effie (who may be his real – and platonic – love) with a bright “Morning, angel.” He soon has an unwelcome visitor: his partner’s wife. He had an affair with her and she’s clinging to him. He shivers when he hears her name, then tells Effie, “Well, send her in.”

Friday, February 21, 2014

Mrs. Ted Bliss - Stanley Elkin
Elkin inhabits his character: Mrs. Ted Bliss lives. She’s an elderly widow residing in a condominium on Biscayne Bay. She considers herself an ordinary person, but her thoughts and memories yield a rich vein of material. What is unnecessary are the plot complications that Elkin introduces (drug kingpins, Junior Yellin’s antics, Hurricane Andrew). He should have had more confidence in Dorothy and the so-called small events of her life. Also, the vulgarity – which appears sparingly – was jarring because I felt that Dorothy wouldn’t approve of it (not that she’s a prude, but still). It’s an odd sort of tribute when a reader thinks he knows a character so well that he objects to what an author does. The prose rambles along in freewheeling style; it turns an occasional somersault, but this novel – which was Elkin’s last (he died the same year it was published) – is more straightforward than other work by him. Like her creator, Mrs. Bliss is facing the end of life, but for the most part this is an upbeat and frequently funny read. And in Dorothy’s observations we get some down-to-earth wisdom. Regarding how people react to the elderly: “The trouble with kindness, Mrs. Bliss thought, was that there was a limit to it, that it was timed to burn out, that if you slipped up one time too many, or didn’t put a brave enough face on things, or weren’t happy often enough, people lost patience.” And on making a change in your later years: “What was to stop her from moving back to Chicago? Nothing. Nothing but her failing energies, nothing but her sense of how disruptive and untrue one must be to oneself even to want to make a new life.”

The Shrimp and the Anemone - L. P. Hartley
I liked half of this two hundred page novel, but the rest was all downhill. Hartley writes well in every sense of the word except one: he doesn’t have the right instincts. For one thing, he doesn’t know when enough is enough, or when a little is too little. He goes into every nuance of Eustace’s overactive mind, but in doing so the little boy becomes a tiresome neurotic. On the other hand, his sister gets shortchanged; Hilda is an interesting presence in the beginning, but she’s demoted to the sideline. As for the mechanics of the plot, Hartley glosses over major events and prolongs minor ones. Eustace’s year long relationship with Miss Fothergill, in which he goes to her house for tea, takes up one short chapter; the brief glimpse of what went on between the two is inadequate considering that the old lady will leave him a small fortune. Hartley has a taste for misinterpretations and misunderstandings. Anxious Eustace thinks “You’re going away” means “You’re dying,” and Hartley explores the repercussions at length. Then he has the father withhold from the boy the news of his inheritance; since every living soul in town knows about it, a scene reminiscent of the Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first?” skit ensues. Poor instincts = poor choices. This is the first of a trilogy that make up Eustace and Hilda. I won’t be reading the others.

To Be a Pilgrim - Joyce Cary
The first person narrator has a voice that pulls you in. Tom Wilcher has strong opinions, and his inner dialogue is interesting and vigorous. Though he doesn’t lead an exciting life, he’s the primary character only in that what we get is filtered through his sensibilities, and the people he writes about supply an abundance of color. One of two alternating plot lines takes place in the present, when Tom is an old man, and it mostly involves his brother and sister’s adult children, who are married and with whom he lives. The other is based on memories of the past and focuses on his three siblings. All the lives in this book end in dismal defeat. But Cary writes with such verve and liveliness that he manages to divert the reader from the bleakness. He also managed, for a long time, to divert me from the fact that his characters act without proper motivation. Cary sets up terms by which some people are outside the limitations imposed by logic, so I accepted that Tom’s sister Lucy was emotionally explosive and his brother Edward a calculating enigma. The problem came near the end, when Tom suddenly – after a lifetime of propriety – begins acting in a way that he considers shameful. No reasonable explanation is given; the one that Tom proposes – possession by the devil – may be an okay defense for Flip Wilson, but not for someone whose highly-rational mind we’ve been in for the entire book. This episode of errant behavior (which ends abruptly) called into question all the previous randomness, the sudden about-faces that fill this book. Mostly they involve Lucy and Edward, but I thought back to Tom’s unconvincing love affair with Julie, which was full of inexplicable twists and turns. I was left wondering if Cary was an irresponsible author who liked to toss furniture about. Well, even if he was, it was rather fun watching him do it. One last aspect of interest is Tom’s religious convictions. He believes that, without faith, life is pointless and frightening. Yet this viewpoint isn’t presented in a proselytizing manner; it’s merely the way Tom sees things, and he’s a flawed man. Pilgrim is the middle volume of a trilogy. The first is Herself Surprised and the last is The Horse’s Mouth. I haven’t read either of them, but will attempt (for the fourth time) to read the latter.

Of Love and Other Demons - Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Spanish)
Though I read half of this very short novel, and thus it qualified for a review, I considered avoiding the task of being critical of an author whose work I admire. Garcia Marquez was in his late sixties when he wrote Demons. I don’t see a decline in his abilities; what I object to is how he takes his trademark magic realism to an extreme; the result is a steaming heap of peculiarities. On page eight Bernarda is introduced: “Her Gypsy eyes were extinguished and her wits dulled, she shat blood and vomited bile, her siren’s body became as bloated and coppery as a three-day-old corpse, and she broke wind in pestilential explosions that startled the mastiffs.” While such extravagances abound, we get few glimmers of humanity. On page one young Sierva Maria is bitten on the ankle by a rabid dog; when I called it quits she had been placed in a cell at a convent run by a monster of an Abbess and was to be exorcized. It’s not that I dreaded what the girl would be put through; I had no feeling for a character who was depicted as a feral animal. I dreaded what I would be put through.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Petty Demon - Fyodor Solugub (Russian)
Initially I took this to be a comic novel because every character and every encounter highlight the absolute worst in human nature; since people aren’t that bad, the results are absurd. Peredonov, the main character, is made up of a plethora of vices, with not one virtue thrown in. Some examples: “Everything that reached his consciousness was transformed into something vile and filthy” and “He had no objects that he loved just as there were no people he loved.” Despite his odiousness, women are in hot pursuit of him as a husband. This sadist (yes, he’s that too) is a schoolteacher in a provincial town, and the haphazard plot revolves around his bumbling machinations to be appointed to the post of inspector. At the midway point the author escalates the level of outrageousness by introducing an androgynous, pubescent boy and having him engage in sex games with a young woman; this comes perilously close to pornography. He also has Peredonov, who from the beginning was paranoid and superstitious, turn into a full-blown maniac. No longer did I find anything comic about this novel; the grimy desolation that pervades it had became dull and monotonous, and I went into skimming mode. From the Introduction I learned that Demon was enormously successful in Russia when it came out in 1907. Some critics credited Sologub with exposing the petty and vicious vulgarity of provincial life, and that, in Peredonov, he was portraying an individual with a spiritual void. I don’t buy this. Without real people, no point about life can be made. This isn’t a novel about moral corruption; rather, it’s a corrupt novel conjured up by a man whose mind works in a peculiar and undisciplined way.

The Quest for Corvo - A. J. A. Symons
In the opening paragraph a friend suggests that Symons read an obscure novel called Hadrian the Seventh by Baron Corvo. Symons is deeply impressed by it and wants to know more about the author. His initial curiosity grows into an obsessive search to get to the heart of an enigma. The result is this “experiment in biography” which, for the most part, takes the form of letters written by Frederick Rolphe (the real name of the deceased “Baron”) and the people who came into contact with him. A shadowy portrait emerges of a man who, despite being gifted with exceptional talents, made a mess of his life. All his relationships ended the same way: with his biting (quite viciously) hands that had reached out to offer him aid; in his letters he constantly rails against the people who failed him. How did they fail him? Symons explores that question in a closing chapter. He believes that “the starting point of (Rolphe’s) complex character is that he was a homosexual in Victorian England,” and as a consequence he was “intolerably conscious of the lack of emotional satisfaction in his life.” Since this need could not be fulfilled, he aspired to become a priest: “Set among those who had voluntarily embraced celibacy, his abnormality became, not a possible vice, but a sign of Vocation.” His first blow was not being accepted for the priesthood (for which he never forgave “the Catholicks”). Denied the fulfillment of any of his desires (one of which was recognition of his artistic talents), he found his strength in hate; Rolphe is one of the great haters in literature. His life ends in the dark byways of Venice, where he became a corrupter of young boys and made money as a procurer for those who had a taste for what he had sampled. This is revealed in letters which he sent to an unknown party, and which come into Symons’s possession. Their contents shock Symons into anger and pity, but he provides no excerpts. Since so much about Rolphe is revealed, why deny us a firsthand account of his descent to the depths? Not that I would take his words as the absolute truth. Rolphe so dramatized himself and his martyrdom that early on I began to suspect him of distorting reality. This could either be for effect or for practical gain; when he describes the appalling hardships he endures due to his impoverished state, I considered the possibility that he was exaggerating in order to milk money from benefactors. These doubts regarding the Baron’s veracity don’t detract from a book about someone who dealt in deception. Nor does it matter that I don’t share Symons’s enthusiasm for Rolphe’s brand of genius; before I read Quest I had started Hadrian but didn’t get far; it was too ornate, too absorbed in the paraphernalia of Catholic ritual. Still, Rolphe is a fascinating character, and two excellent works arose from the ruins of his life: one is Pamela Hansford Johnson’s The Unspeakable Skipton, which is based on his last desperate, decadent days, and the other is this unique biography. By calling it a quest Symons is indicating his personal involvement; he was moved to try to understand his tragically flawed subject, and in doing so he offered him a last, posthumous hand of compassion.

To Be a Villain - Rex Stout
Even Archie seemed a bit out of sorts in this outing. It has too many suspects and a plot built around foolish improbabilities. At the end, with everyone gathered in Wolfe’s office, I didn’t expect (and didn’t get) a resolution that came near to untangling the loose ends, and when the identity of the murderer was revealed all I felt was disappointment. Would someone please tell me which of the many (too many, obviously) mysteries that Stout churned out are worth my time, and which ones are the duds?

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Living - Henry Green
In my review of Green’s Loving I wrote, regarding the prose, “I don’t think Green tried; he was transcribing onto the page the way he thought.” This novel, written sixteen years before Loving, shows that it took effort to develop his style; Living is not as polished a work as the later book. The stretches in which nebulous states are described don’t quite come off, nor does the dropping of articles (“This girl Lily Gates went shopping with basket and by fruiterer’s she met Mrs. Eames who stood to watch potatoes on trestle table there”). What is present in both books is an ability to use dialogue so successfully that characters attain a palpability. Another quality that was fully developed – a quality that was Green’s gift – was his empathy. It’s interesting that though he was born into a wealthy family, he chose to focus on the working class. I think he felt (without a trace of condescension) that they were closer to life’s vital essence. In Living there are many characters, many voices, and for a long while the novel doesn’t settle on any particular individual; it seems to wander about. Which was fine in that we get a sense of diversity. But gradually most of the attention is given to Mr Craigan and Lily Gates. Mr Craigan is elderly; his being sacked from the foundry because of age marks the beginning of his decline. To work – something he had done for fifty-seven years, since he was eight – was an essential part of his being. Lily Gates is a young woman who feels an inchoate need to live, which to her means to care for a child of her own and to keep house for a man she loves. We have two intertwined lives at opposite stages; it’s the intertwining that presents a conflict for both. In a sudden and wondrous ending it’s clear that life must have its way. *

Too Much Happiness - Alice Munro
I was glad that Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize. Over the decades she’s been a chronicler of life whose work often rose to the level of four star excellence. But in this collection, which came out in 2009, only three stories can be called good; most of the others were fair, some were bad. How could Munro write something as awkward and foolish as “Wenlock Edge”? “Child’s Play” is another mistake; it’s revealed on the last pages that a murder had been committed, but instead of having force – something which Munro was uniquely capable of – this ending seemed contrived and lame. As for the title story, I read only five pages; it had too many characters, too many locations, too much research cluttering things up; and by the time I got to it I had lost faith. Munro, who was in her late seventies when Happiness came out, recently announced that she had given up writing. Could she be aware of a decline in her abilities? It’s hard to relinquish something that has been an integral part of your life for so long, but what’s the alternative? To just go through the motions? The last story I read by Munro (before the ones in this collection) was a stunner called “Silence.” That, and a dozen others like it, are what I’ll remember her for.

Flatland - Edwin A. Abbott
An oddity, a diversion. In the beginning Abbott describes how life is structured in the world of Flatland, where people exist without the dimension of height. They are two-dimensional shapes: Lines, Triangles, Squares (which is what the narrator is), Hexagons, etc. Their status in society is defined by the number and the degree of pointedness of their angles. Polygonals, which can hardly be distinguished from circles, are the highest class. All Lines are female; they’re stupid, very emotional and dangerous (the sharp point of their lines can inflict a mortal wound when they start thrashing about). Abbott is making a humorous commentary on class discrimination, the status of women in Victorian England, and – since the punishments for nonconformity in Flatland are extremely harsh – he depicts a brutish totalitarian state. In the second part of the book (which I found less engaging), the narrator discovers, to his amazement, a three-dimensional world like ours, and he contemplates the possibility of there being even more dimensions. Abbott’s message is that we need to keep our minds open to possibilities; what we know, based on our perceptions and what we’re taught, may not be the whole story. This book itself was flat – eighty pages long – which was about the right size.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Chromos - Felipe Alfau
In the midst of the rampant idiosyncracy of Chromos a traditional novel exists in the form of one that the narrator’s friend, Garcia, is writing. Garcia burdens the narrator (Alfau, obviously) by either reading from the manuscript or giving Alfau sections to read; thus we get, in portions, the story of the rise and fall of the Sandoval family. We have a strange – and funny – phenomena here: Alfau is the one who’s writing Garcia’s novel, and it’s he who considers it to be no more than a tawdry melodrama. In Garcia Alfau may be giving us a portrait of the artist as a dedicated, indefatigable hack. The setting for Chromos is New York City, but the characters are Spanish (“Americaniards”). All are colorful, though Don Pedro (the Moor, Don Pedro el Cruel) is fantastical, an intellectual wind-up toy who seldom wears down, spouting far-out ideas and giving a running commentary on the people and events around him. I was simpatico with what the author was doing until one hundred pages from the end, when the scene switches to a party at El Telescopio (a bar the Americaniards frequent). First Don Pedro launches into an incomprehensible philosophical/scientific discourse, then the narrator gives a learned treatise on music and dance; both seemed interminable. Up to this point Alfau had ignored all the novelistic rules except one: entertain the reader. When he broke that rule – when he let his arcane indulgences run unchecked – my attitude changed. The conclusion of Garcia’s novel, in which the Sandoval family descends to a most lurid end, no longer had its naive appeal. Even the colorfulness of the Americaniards took on artificial hues, as if too much makeup had been applied to create them. Feeling that I did not belong and would not be missed, I made a quiet exit from El Telescopio.

The Catherine Wheel - Jean Stafford
The action takes place at Congreve House, a summer estate in Maine. In Chapter One we’re privy to the thoughts of twelve-year-old Andrew as he broods about his friend Victor, who is ignoring him while he tends to his ailing brother. Andrew wants the brother either to get well and go back to sea or, better still, to die – quickly and horribly. In Chapter Two we switch to the mind of serene Aunt Katherine and find that emotionally she’s like a Catherine wheel (a spinning firework that flings out flares in every direction). Her crisis involves a man she was obsessed with in her youth; he married another, but now he wants her to run off with him to the island of Mangareva (he picked it at random from the globe). Next we get a look at the villagers, who range from highly peculiar to grotesque. At this point I began to wonder if there was an insane asylum nearby with lax security. But, no, Stafford was oblivious to the maniacal aspects of her scenario; only complete earnestness could produce prose like this: “The inseparable mind sang in its bone-cell and she was wheeled outward swiftly and the purblind mind nosed like a mole through splendid mansions of ice-white bone and luminous blood, singing with the music of the spheres.” After reading this sentence I felt quite satiated and called it quits. Though I couldn’t resist a peek at the last few pages to see if Katherine dies when set afire by an aberrant Catherine wheel. She is.

A Tour of the Prairies - Washington Irving
In his Introduction Irving states that he has written a “simple narrative of everyday occurrences” in which he has “nothing wonderful or adventurous to offer.” His down-to-earth approach is one of the virtues of this Tour. He embarks onto the prairies as a member of a large contingent, mostly made up of military rangers. In 1832 Oklahoma was the Wild West, where the buffalo roamed and Pawnees were a dangerous foe. Irving gives a vivid picture of what this country was like before the encroachment of civilization. We get a fresh perspective on the Indians and learn about the pleasures and difficulties of living off the land. I was entertained and informed, but eventually my attitude became one of disapproval. Man must kill for food, certainly, but these men have a blood lust for deer, elk and buffalo (in that order of preference). When a wild horse is sighted it’s pursued with the objective of capturing it, methodically breaking its spirit and reducing it to a pack animal. Man is a scourge upon the land; when Irving departs a camp he looks back and sees “Trees felled and partly hewn in pieces, and scattered in huge fragments . . . smouldering fires, with great morsels of venison and buffalo meat, standing in wooden spits before them, hacked and slashed by the knives of hungry hunters . . . around were strewed the hides, the horns, the antlers and the bones of buffalo and deer, with uncooked joints, and unplucked turkeys, left behind with reckless improvidence and wastefulness . . .” The author is sometimes caught up in the spirit of the hunt, but more often he wishes for the magnificent buffalo and the wild horse to escape, so they may continue their lives on the unbounded freedom of the prairie.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Nickel and Dimed - Barbara Ehrenreich
Ehrenreich's subject is how people earning minimum wage get by. The book sold very well, but its readers were not, I suspect, from either the top or the bottom of the economic ladder. Probably socially conscious liberals read it and were gratified that convictions they already held were supported by the facts. The author does provide facts – the best kind, those based on personal experience. She gets employment as a waitress at a chain restaurant, as a dietary aid at a nursing home, as a maid employed by a cleaning service, and as a “sales associate” at WalMart. She describes the jobs, her co-workers and bosses, and the way she has to live in order to make ends meet. It’s no horror story – we’re not in the meat-packing houses of The Jungle – but nobody (I’m disregarding the most callous) can say all is fine for low wage workers. A major problem is the lack of affordable housing. Although Ehrenreich rates her performances at the jobs (which are challenging and demanding) as deserving a B or a B+, she’s unable to find decent living accommodations on her salaries (one place she stays in is an over-priced “rat trap” of a motel). But, unlike the people she works with, she has another life, a quite comfortable one, to fall back on. That others are stuck in a world from which she can escape is a fact that Ehrenreich is fully aware of, and she wonders about the damage done, over time, to the spirit of those anonymous others. Her compassion is the non-mushy variety; she grants simple respect to maids who clean bathrooms and salespeople who sort endless cartloads of clothes. This examination of a subject of social and economic importance has the virtue of being highly readable and frequently funny. As I followed Barbara Ehrenreich’s stints in low wage America, I came to like the lady. I’d give her a solid A for Nickel and Dimed.

The Chip-Chip Gatherers - Shiva Naipaul
Naipaul’s grounded approach and unadorned prose impart a solidity to his portrayal of members of an Indian community living in (or escaping from) an impoverished Settlement in his native Trinidad. I formed a mind’s eye image of his characters, each standing in a distinctive pose. These statues could be labeled according to the person’s dominant trait. The labels would be harsh ones, for human nature is depicted at its petty worst. Life itself is a grubby affair with no meaning, so selfishness is justified; the operative credo is do for yourself, rely on nobody. If you search these pages for love you won’t find it; this is true even with parents and their children. Only Sita arouses sympathy. She refuses to take part in the emotional melee around her, barricading herself behind a clear-sighted and prideful indifference; yet in doing so she faces the void of isolation. At the end characters disappear, or wander off to indeterminate fates, or remain unreformed. All we’re left with is those statues. Because they represent real people, this novel attains a disquieting universality.

Wasps - Robley Wilson, Jr.
I read “Wasps” in the prestigious Norton Anthology of Short Fiction (third edition); I liked its freshness and checked out a collection by the author from my local library. It turns out that “Wasps” is by far the best thing in Dancing for Men; the title story is the second worst (“Thalia” takes that honor). Wilson’s persistent problem has to do with motivation; his characters act in ways that make no sense. I could give examples (actually, I’d love to), but that would take up too much space. Anyway, the point of this review has to do with the fact that the author is represented in Norton and is thus rubbing shoulders with the likes of Chekhov, Kafka, Joyce. The editor of the anthology, R. V. Cassill, writes in his preface that he included “writers who have very recently claimed a place in contemporary literature.” I agree that they should be included, but only if they have claimed a place by producing a body of excellent work. At the time the anthology came out in 1986, Wilson didn’t qualify; he had written very little (even Dancing needs filler to reach the 150 page mark). It seemed to me that there was a missing link in all this, so I Googled the names of the two men. I found a blurb Cassill wrote for the collection, in which his praise is lavish: “It is one of those rare books one treasures as a genuine service to the heart’s blind grope for understanding.” In my own grope for understanding I continued the search and came across a fact that may constitute a smoking gun: both men were on the faculty at Indiana University in 1981 (one year before Dancing was published and five years before the anthology came out). Friendship would, sadly, answer many questions.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Dark Night’s Passing - Naoya Shiga (Japanese)
This is a novel in which depression plays a major role. We follow Kensaku as he searches for a way of life that will free him from episodes of emotional, physical and spiritual suffering. At the halfway point he marries; this seems to offer the prospect of contentment, but it turns out not to be as simple a solution as he had wished. One of the book’s virtues is its restrained portrayal of the “dark night” of the soul; another is its depiction of pre-war Japanese culture. Kensaku’s marriage to Naoko – both their courtship and their relationship as husband and wife – is especially interesting. For over four hundred pages I was involved in someone’s life, which is a significant achievement. Yet Shiga goes astray in the last section. The first half of this autobiographical work came out in 1921, followed in the next two years by a substantial part of the second half. In the concluding chapters, which weren’t published until 1937, the fifty-four-year-old author has Kensaku go to a temple in the mountains; we last see him in a tranquil state of near-death. Shiga had spent too much time in the actual for this nebulous attempt at closure to be convincing.

Ocean of Story - Christina Stead
Few writers are more oceanic than Christina Stead, though with her you don’t sink to the murky depths; instead you get a tumultuous ride on white-capped crests. That said, this volume of her “uncollected stories” is a mistake because it’s primarily made up of sketches, fragments and toss-offs. Stead closes one “story” with “(And so on. Don’t know.).” In his Afterword the editor traces which of her novels these pieces are connected to (“ ‘The Woman in the Bed’ is a rewriting of those parts of The Little Hotel . . .”). But I suggest that you read The Little Hotel. And why bother with an “obvious spin-off from The Man Who Loved Children? The editor concludes his inventory with the following statement: “The writings in this volume vary in quality. This is no matter for surprise, since a little fewer than half of them (some obviously lacking the final polish) were found among her papers after her death. It seemed to me worthwhile putting them together.” I disagree. They may be of some value for Stead scholars, but for those not acquainted with her work this collection does her a disservice.

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.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Vet in Harness – James Herriot
Herriot is a veterinarian, but few professional writers can match his ability to engage and engross a reader. This book differs from All Creatures Great and Small in that it contains more of the gritty side of a vet’s job. A difficult birth of a lamb can be a messy affair, and Herriot describes it in a graphic and matter-of-fact way. Though he accepts the fact that suffering is a part of life, he’s also able to fully appreciate the joys the world has to offer. Put simply, he’s a happy man. In almost every episode his subject is a sick animal, though equal attention is paid to the feelings of the owner and to his own responses. Herriot has a sharp eye for the foibles of human (and animal) nature and conveys his observations with a humor that’s sly and gentle. In this decidedly down-to-earth book an intriguing character makes repeated appearances. Whereas the author presents himself as an ordinary soul of limited abilities and precarious finances, Granville Bennett (what a name!) is a super hero; even the most devilishly complicated surgery is warm putty in his hands. He’s also a force of nature, consuming life’s bounty in tremendous gulps and basking in the possession of everything a man could hope for, from a gorgeous wife to a Bentley automobile. Perhaps, in Granville Bennett, Herriot created a mythic figure – a God of the Vets.

Murder at the Pentagon – Margaret Truman
Margaret = Margit. In creating her heroine, Major Margit Falk, Margaret Truman may have been indulging in a “What I could have been” fantasy. Margit is the whole package: she’s a helicopter pilot and attorney; she’s attractive; she’s tough, intelligent and guided by principles of honor. She also knows her limitations; when she’s asked to defend an officer accused of murder she declines, citing her total lack of experience in criminal cases. But the request becomes an order. The young man she’s representing happens to be homosexual; thus Truman, in 1992, tackles the issue of homosexuality in the military. Margit does some digging and learns that the murdered scientist had been about to blow the whistle on a heavily-funded but ineffective missile defense system; she also becomes convinced that her client is being set up. But she’s unable to accomplish much because people in positions of power are thwarting her efforts. Margit realizes that she was picked for the job precisely because it is beyond her capabilities; she’s being used. As a mystery/thriller, this is only so-so. The writing is competent and Margit is a strong character, but the plot has too many gaping holes and loose ends. The main point of interest lies in the fact that the author is the daughter of a president. As an Insider, her cynicism about DC matters. She portrays a city in which integrity and idealism get trampled by a military/political establishment that will employ any means to protect their interests.

The West Pier – Patrick Hamilton
Hamilton creates a creepy predator in Ernest Ralph Gorse and a sympathetic victim in Esther Downes. But do we need every detail of Gorse’s machinations to separate Esther from her life savings? It’s as if the author found vicarious pleasure in working out and presenting to the reader the minutia of his villain’s stratagems. The perspective in which we view these events is odd. Esther’s flaws are human ones; she tells about twenty lies in the course of the novel, though none are malicious and her deceitfulness presents a moral dilemma for her. When, at the end, Gorse accomplishes his goal – the poor girl is stripped of every penny she owns – I felt the far-reaching damage done to her. Yet I also felt that the author didn’t share my compassion. He makes me feel pity but he seems to relate more to the inhuman individual who inflicts the pain. There’s a gloating exhilaration in the scene when Gorse blithely drives off, leaving Esther waiting for him at an inn without the money to pay for their tea and cakes. Hamilton embraces a set of warped values, which may be the right way to write about a psychopath. In the Author’s Note he states that The West Pier is the first in a series of novels dealing with this character, but he assures the reader that it’s a complete story in itself. Not really. The duping of Esther Downes is too minor an incident to stand on its own; it should have been compressed to the size of a chapter and been part of a longer work, one in which Mr. Gorse will move on to much more serious matters.

Monday, August 12, 2013

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 reveal 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. *

A Bird in the House - Margaret Laurence
This can be read as a novel, but all the chapters were first published as stories. This presents a problem when they’re put together because there’s a repetition of facts that have already been established, and the chronology isn’t consistent (the father dies, but in episodes that follow his death he’s alive). Despite that speed bump, Laurence accomplishes something very basic but at the heart of fiction: we get to know Vanessa as she grows from child to young woman, and we get to know those closest to her. Though virtues are appreciated and flaws accepted, there’s one person Vanessa struggles to come to terms with. Grandfather Connor’s cruelty is especially appalling because he’s incapable of seeing how harmful his words and actions are (in Laurence’s The Stone Angel such a man irrevocably damages his daughter). When, as a young woman, Vanessa views him in his casket she thinks: “I was not sorry that he was dead. I was only surprised. Perhaps I had really imagined that he was immortal. Perhaps he even was immortal, in ways which it would take me half a lifetime to comprehend.” In some stories/chapters Laurence looks beyond herself and her family. “The Loons,” “Horses of the Night” and “The Half-Husky” are insightful studies of outsiders who do not (or cannot) reveal their inner selves to anyone. During Vanessa’s years in Manawaka she learns that the world isn’t a benevolent place, nor can one expect fairness. That said, there’s much to live for, if you’re strong enough to fight for it. *

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 offers 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. *

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Weights and Measures - Joseph Roth (German)
This novel is lightweight – it’s only 150 pages long – and the edition I have is midway between the size of a mass market and a trade paperback. Oh, you want to know about content? Well, there’s hardly anything to it. In a review of Roth’s The Radetzky March, which I liked very much, I described the characters as “muted” and wrote that they proceeded to their fates like “dumb animals.” The same can be said for W&M, yet it lacks the panoramic social aspect of March. We get Inspector Eibenschutz and little else. He’s supposed to be extremely unhappy, but he comes across as emotionally inanimate. The book is sloppily constructed; only near the end do we find out that the Inspector is thirty-six (all along I thought he was in his fifties). It’s also silly. Eibenschutz is obsessed by a gypsy woman (those gypsy women!); when she first appears “her dark blue-black hair led him to think of southern nights, which he had never seen but had possibly once read or heard about.” The prose is simple and precise, but in a self-consciously studied way; you know this when you’re constantly thinking, “How precise and simple!”

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.

The Test - Pierre Boulle (French)
In France there’s a test youths must take to get their General Certificate. Or maybe the government has curtailed it due to this 1957 novel, in which it’s depicted as a scourge worthy of use by the Inquisition. Marie-Helen is uniquely unprepared to digest the work of the intellectual giants of the western world. She had lived in a Malaysian fishing village from age nine to seventeen; at that point she was kidnapped and returned to “her people” (white people). But she considered the villagers to be her people. Not only was she assimilated into their culture, but she was happily married. Boulle clearly believed that his heroine should have been allowed to carry on her life in Malaysia. Certainly she should! – all that happens after the kidnapping borders on the ridiculous. Her failure to pass the test leads to her breakdown, a number of murders and a suicide. The agony and despair the various characters feel is rendered in prose that would make a writer of Harlequin romances cringe. At first I thought the translator might be responsible, then I thought he might be partially responsible, but finally I put the blame on Boulle. How could a novelist whose work I’ve admired (The Bridge over the River Kwai, Planet of the Apes) come out with something as clumsy as this? I read those other books long ago. Was I lacking in discrimination? I find it reassuring that the edition of Kwai I have is from the Time Reading Program, and they made excellent choices. 

Life and Times of Michael K - J. M. Coetzee
Michael K is like Robinson Crusoe, yet his isolation takes place in the midst of war-torn South Africa. The opening sentence presents us with one factor that will separate him from others: “The first thing the midwife noticed about Michael K when she helped him out of his mother into the world was that he had a hare lip.” His life passes in solitariness, which he finds easier than dealing with people. At age thirty-one Michael is thrust into the turbulent world when he tries to return his dying mother to the place where she was born. After her death we follow his wanderings. I was involved with the problems he faced and his attempts to solve them, and the unadorned prose was effective in conveying facts. But Coetzee wasn’t satisfied with facts, nor with the character he had created. He wanted to impart a higher meaning to Michael’s existence. As a result, things go badly off course. First he has Michael reject life by rejecting food. Not only didn’t this ring true, but following a person’s loss of bodily substance wasn’t interesting. In a brief Part Two, Coetzee changes the point-of-view to that of a doctor treating the emaciated Michael in a camp; through this deep-thinking character the author tries very hard to inject significance into the situation. In the even briefer last section we return to Michael, but everything – particularly a sexual encounter – seems fabricated. Ultimately we wind up someplace murky and inconclusive. The path Coetzee chose to take – one in which he aimed for profundity – led to a dead end, both for the novel and for Michael K.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Iron Candlestick - Dimiter Talev (Bulgarian)
On the second page of this epic folktale a hunting dog attacks Stoyan; he kills it with his bare hands. But the dog belongs to Mahmoud Bey, a Turk who holds dictatorial power over the Bulgarians; Stoyan must immediately flee his native village, lest he pay with his life. The young man walks to the town of Prespa where, in the following days, he picks up odd jobs. As he passes a ramshackle house a woman calls out to him; Sultana wants firewood chopped. Since he has nowhere to stay, she allows him to sleep in the barn. Eventually she takes Stoyan as her husband, hoping they will produce children that combine his immense physical strength with her intelligence and determination. He gets work as a coppersmith; after he learns the trade Sultana spurs him on to open his own shop, which becomes successful. My interest flagged when the novel skipped to the next generation and a political angle emerged (in the 1800s the Christian Slavs are controlled by Muslim Turks and the Greek Catholic hierarchy). But their son, Lazar, re-engaged me; most crucial was that I came to believe in his idealism. Though there’s a social protest element (about Slavic independence), Talev never abandons the realm of emotions. His people are exotic yet comprehensible. The most imposing figure is Sultana; near the end, when this imperious woman asserts her aberrant will (with the iron candlestick as the only witness), I read for long stretches with a sense of impending doom. Yet the last chapter is given to two secondary characters; in an unexpected way Talev makes a final statement about art and love. *

The Constant Nymph - Margaret Kennedy
This novel was a bestseller in England and the USA (I consulted our list; it was number two in 1925). A stage play and four (4!) film versions were made of it. Though I could go into its flaws at length, I’d have to say that it deserves the acclaim it received. At age twenty-eight Kennedy came up with a romance that connects in an odd way. It begins when Lewis Dodd visits Albert Sanger at his chalet in the Austrian Alps. Both men – gifted composers and longtime friends – have disdain for the conventions of polite society. Sanger has his “Circus” – seven children and his latest wife – living with him. Nonconformity isn’t glamorized, nor is it condemned. There’s freedom, though it can be messy and mean. The person who emerges as the “constant nymph” of the title is Sanger’s daughter, Teresa, fourteen when we first meet her. What’s constant is her love for Lewis, who’s in his early thirties. Because of her youth, he doesn’t recognize the affection he feels for her as more than brotherly. But Tessa will wait, believing that Lewis will, in time, realize that they share a deeper bond. Kennedy is both assured and haphazard in telling this story. We see those qualities most clearly in the marriage of Lewis and Florence. Neither person would have made the mistake of marrying one another; but they do, and Florence, with her upper class values, could have been stereotyped. Instead the reader is made to sympathize with a good woman who finds herself (to her horror) becoming a shrew. The marriage turns out to be the spark that ignites Lewis and Tessa’s love. But the purity of that love is shadowed by something dark and destructive. Or that’s what I felt; others may not agree. I don’t think Kennedy planned out this novel but wrote it intuitively, and her intuitions pulled her in opposing directions. Since rationality isn’t the guiding force, people will get different impressions from The Constant Nymph. The strength of those impressions is what make it unique.

Theophilus North - Thornton Wilder
Wilder wrote this four years before his death, at age seventy-eight. It’s remarkable that he could be so buoyant at the end of his life. He takes as his subject a young man who moves to Newport, Rhode Island and gets work as a tutor and tennis instructor (at $2 an hour). Though Theophilus’s background mirrors Wilder’s (attended school in China, went to Yale, etc.), this isn’t autobiographical. Wilder couldn’t have played the role his main character does (nobody could). The book is a kind of wish piece; who wouldn’t want to be like the perceptive, resourceful, many-talented Theophilus? Wilder did, so, in fiction, he became him. However much enjoyment he got in writing this (and I believe he got a lot), I lost interest at the halfway point. In each chapter someone has a problem that Theophilus solves, but the dilemmas were simplistic and the solutions too smoothly achieved. Still, there’s an engaging boyishness about this novel. Wilder looked back and indulged in a pleasant fantasy about life. There are worse ways to say goodbye.