Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Ice Saints – Frank Tuohy
This is a Cold War novel, but without the espionage. Tuohy is concerned with ordinary people living in Poland in the 1960s, when it was under communist rule. A young English woman, Rose, travels to Biala Gora. Her sister is married to a Polish man, and a deceased aunt has left their teenage son a sizable amount of money. It seems like good news, but in Poland forces conspire to undermine anything that’s good. In this unrelentingly drab and dreary place even a stroll in a park reveals a squirrel with “thin fur and a degenerate face” and trees that show “the amputations of shell fire.” People long subjected to defeat and deprivation are resentful, suspicious, and their self-deprecating humor is a mixture of cynicism and defiance. Rose’s hope is that the son, Tadeusz (for whom she forms an immediate attachment), can escape to England; all he needs is a visa. Yet her plans turn out badly, and at the end the sister tells Rose “Just leave here as soon as possible. That’s all I want now.” Rose is appealing, and her imperfections are the sort that makes her easy to identify with. The prose seems made up of concrete slabs that don’t quite fit flush, but this wasn’t a defect; it conveys the unavoidable disorientation one feels in a foreign world. By keeping things grounded in the realities of everyday life, Tuohy gives us an honest look behind the curtain. In 1964, when this novel was published, it may have been important. Today, it’s still a good read.

An Artist of the Floating World - Kazuo Ishiguro
In the first sentence the elderly narrator tells the reader “you will not have to walk far.” This personal approach is to be a constant, along with asides (“I believe I was recalling the events of that day last month . . .” or “It is possible, of course, that Mori-san did not use those exact words”). What Ono slowly reveals is the part he played in the nationalism that led to World War II. In his paintings he portrayed the New Japan as a militant force, and he became an adviser to the Committee of Unpatriotic Activities. In 1948 (when events take place) some – especially the young – feel hostile to those who, in their eyes, caused so much misery. Ono can’t remain unaware of such an attitude because his daughter is of marriageable age; in the Japanese culture of the time, suitors hire investigators to check on the backgrounds of prospective mates, and Ono’s past may be an obstacle for Noriko. There are problems with how the story is told. The prose is smooth, unruffled; but people don’t talk that way, so Ono’s voice seems artificial. And then there’s what he tells the reader. For much of the book we don’t know what his “secret” is, even though he’s fully aware of it. To withhold information is a novelistic tactic that the author hangs on his narrator. Still, when we finally understand Ono’s involvement, Ishiguro rejects the simplistic path of presenting us with an unrepentant war criminal or a man wracked by guilt. Instead, Ono perceives that his actions were mistaken and caused harm, but he also knows that he was motivated at the time by sincere belief. We get acceptance instead of catharsis; the book turns out to be about an ordinary man contemplating his life from the perspective of old age. That he’s content at the end didn’t bother me. Others, though, may see it as an example of his callous obliviousness, and they may be right. When Ono’s daughter tells him that the role he played in the war was a minor one, he resists this evaluation. Is his desire to have been of importance a natural human impulse, or something more sinister? This is one of those books that can provoke argument, which is a strength.

To Have and Have Not - Ernest Hemingway
This book was depressing. Partly because of its content, partly due to the fact that everybody involved – the author, the publisher – had to know how bad it was. Maybe, if an editor had insisted on changes – that Hemingway take out the spite and make it a much shorter hard-boiled crime novel – it might have worked. It starts out pretty well, with Harry Morgan as the first person narrator. There’s far too much tough guy talk, but the voice is good, the action sequences move, and Hemingway’s knowledge of boats, fishing and Cuba adds authenticity. But Harry is a grim, oppressive presence, and I felt nothing but aversion for him. The back cover of the edition I have calls him an “honest man.” Honest? He agrees to smuggle some “Chinks” to Florida, but when he gets the dough he kills Mr. Sing by breaking his neck (“I bent the whole thing back until she cracked”); the Chinks get dumped back in Cuba. As for the above-mentioned spite, for long stretches Hemingway has other narrators take over; some are writers, and the only possible reason for their inclusion is to show how contemptible they are. So we swing from brutish Harry to Richard and Helen Gordon bickering: “I’m though with you and I’m through with love. Your kind of picknose love. You writer.” Eighty pages from the end I couldn’t bear to continue, though – having seen the movie and read the back cover (which claims that Harry will become involved “in a strange and unlikely love affair”) – I skimmed what was left, waiting in vain for Lauren Bacall to appear. Harry’s a family guy, but he exchanges about a half dozen words with his daughters, and his wife is merely a stooge whose purpose is to rhapsodize about what a man Harry is. He’s more of a man than other men, even after he loses an arm in a shootout and is left with a stub that’s “like a flipper on a loggerhead.” This grungy, sullen, blood and booze-saturated mess isn’t just a minor novel by a Nobel Prize winner; it’s a failure of character. The prose is careless, and the stream of consciousness sequences lumber along like Frankenstein’s monster: “You just get dead like most people are most of the time. I guess that’s how it is all right. I guess that’s just what happens to you. Well, I’ve got a good start. I’ve got a good start if that’s what you have to do. I guess that’s what you have to do all right. I guess that’s it. I guess that’s what it comes to.”

Monday, August 4, 2014

Glory - Vladimir Nabokov (Russian)
Nabokov wrote Forwards to the English translations of his Russian novels, and for Glory he expresses a special affection. He admires his prose, and rightly so. His use of description is not just beautiful and inventive, but it’s tied to the main character’s emotions. When Martin spots Sonia sneaking out of the house (to go dancing with a rival), he enters her room, where “there remained a cloudlet of powder, like the smoke following a shot; a stocking, killed outright, lay under a chair; and the motley innards of the wardrobe had been spilled onto the carpet.” Nabokov bestows on Martin – who he proclaims to be “the kindest, uprightest, and most touching of my young men” – a finely-tuned and expansive imagination; for him a boyhood train ride is a feast of sensations. Nabokov calls it a “wand stroke” not to make someone with such keen sensitivity an artist. “How cruel,” he writes, “to prevent him from finding in art – not an ‘escape’ (which is only a cleaner cell on a quieter floor), but relief from the itch of being!” Indeed, how cruel this denial is, because all Nabokov leaves Martin with is a fascination for Sonia. Nabokov calls her “a moody and ruthless flirt,” but I’d go much further; she’s another wand stroke of cruelty. Her sarcastic, derisive rebukes cut; she seems compelled to bat Martin’s feelings about like a cat with a crippled bird. Not having the refuge of art and being left only with Sonia, Martin is an isolated man; his existence is purposeless, and by his mid-twenties he seems depleted. Still, his capacity to find something thrilling in ordinary pleasures is never entirely snuffed out, and the book ends with him embarking on an exploit into an imaginary world of adventure. We never know the outcome of his dangerous crossing of the border into Russia. In an abrupt and seamless transition we switch to the mind of a friend who has no idea what becomes of Martin. This switch, though done with remarkable skill, points to a major flaw: for half the novel Nabokov was stuck without a storyline. Though he filled the void with the distractions of wonderful incidentals, the ending presented an insurmountable obstacle. It’s significant that in his Forward Nabokov describes a chess problem he once composed, one that was “diabolically difficult to construct.” In Glory he resorts to legerdemain to solve his novelistic problem. He has Martin disappear like a canary on the arm of a magician. With a flourish of a scarlet scarf – poof! – he’s gone. And Sonia, finally, weeps.

Down and Out in Paris and London - George Orwell
This was Orwell’s first book, and the edition I have categorizes it as a novel. Actually, it’s three parts reportage, one part fiction. In Paris the unnamed narrator works as a plonguer (a dishwasher with a variety of other tasks) in a large hotel and later in a Russian restaurant. The kitchens in both places are filthy and vermin-infested. His experiences “destroyed one of my illusions, namely, the idea that Frenchmen know good food when they see it.” The work is physically punishing and often frenetic; verbal abuse is so commonplace that “imbecile” is a mild form of address. The pay for sixteen hour days (with only Sundays off) is barely enough to cover the cost of a tiny room in a hotel (also filthy and vermin-infested). For Orwell the City of Lights shrank to his workplace, the Metro, a bistro (to get drunk in on Saturday nights) and his bed. The Paris section teems with colorful characters carrying on in a state of high drama. When Orwell moves to England things slow to a more sedate pace. But in London he never finds work – he’s a tramp, sleeping in “spikes.” These government-sponsored boarding houses limit an individual to one night’s stay, a rule which causes the poor to constantly be on the move (thus comes the word “tramp”). Meals at the spikes consist of tea and two slices of bread with margarine; men sleep (or try to) crammed into filthy dormitories; the “beds” are often the floor. Though Orwell doesn’t in any way ennoble the down-and-out, he believes that most of the men he encounters could be worthwhile citizens. They would prefer to work, but the inability to keep themselves clean, or to have decent clothes, limits their options. And as they idly wander, their hopes are extinguished and their bodies deteriorate. They’re even denied the comforts of sex; no woman would have anything to do with them, and they don’t have money for the cheapest prostitute. The book is grimy and vulgar, as befits its subject (the Paris section reminded me of the atmosphere of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer). Orwell is successful in relating conditions, but he understands that his insight is limited because he’s not stuck in that life. He closes by writing, “I should like to know what really goes on in the minds of plonguers and tramps and Embankment sleepers. At present I do not feel that I have seen but the fringe of poverty.” An issue that cannot be avoided in reviewing this book is the anti-Semitism that runs through it. Is Orwell merely relating the attitude of his friend Boris when the man goes into a long diatribe expressing his virulent hatred for Jews? Why, whenever a Jew appears (and Orwell can spot them), are they depicted in a very negative light? For a man whose compassion and intelligence I respected, I found this to be disturbing. And disappointing.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The House by the Medlar Tree - Giovanni Verga (Italian)
The reader is transported to a Sicilian fishing village in the late 1800s. In his Introduction William Dean Howells writes of Verga, “He seems to have no more sense of authority or supremacy concerning the personages than any one of them would have in telling the story.” This approach attains a universality because the personages, despite their primitive circumstances, are not unlike people today. It seems as if all the villagers try to elbow their way into the frame of Verga’s canvas, but the main focus is the Malavoglia family. In the beginning they’re doing well; Padron ’Ntoni has his own boat, and his son and daughter-in-law and five grandchildren live contentedly in the house by the medlar tree. But a business deal gone wrong precipitates a series of disasters. At the end a broken, sickly Padron ’Ntoni asks, “But will Death never come?” Some respond to his words with laughter, asking him where he thought Death had gone. Trezza is not a benevolent place. Many villagers live together as rivals, traitors, enemies. Most manifest their ill will in gossip, while others (Howells describes them as “the children of disorder”) are ruled by a predatory greediness; money plays as large a role in Trezza as it does on Wall Street. Padron ’Ntoni leads his life by old sayings and proverbs (“his own nest every bird likes best”); but his nest is snatched away in payment for a debt. His son dies, as do two of his grandsons; another grandson takes the wrong path in life. The good – and there are good people – make simple choices: they choose to do the honorable thing. But their simplicity makes them ready victims. It would be too easy to say that virtue is its own reward, and Verga, with his tragic view of life, never takes the easy path; he even lets the love two people have for one another wither away, unconsummated. Though I have great respect for this novel, I felt close to only one character: the wayward grandson. Others, despite their vigor, are archetypes, but with young ’Ntoni we’re given access to his intimate thoughts and emotions. On the last page he takes a farewell look at the awakening village. It could have been a sentimental scene, but Verga emphatically rejects that ending. Instead, the last person ’Ntoni sees is a spitting Rocco Spatu.

The Hard Life - Flann O’Brien
O’Brien was probably an entertaining fellow to have a few (or more than a few) drinks with. I spun my way through this short novel, even though it wasn’t a novel but a series of set pieces. The majority of pages have Mr. Collopy and the Jesuit priest, Father Fahrt, discussing theology and politics; though neither subject holds any interest for me, O’Brien’s ability to write rambunctious dialogue kept me engaged and amused. The narrator – a boy/young man with the fine Irish name of Finbarr – is passive, though his older brother (referred to as The Brother) is a go-getter, and what he goes and gets is money. He moves to London where he starts a correspondence academy that offers courses in everything under the sun (tightrope walking, elocution, care of the teeth, Egyptology, etcetera); he also sells medicinal cures. When Mr. Collopy becomes ill, The Brother has Finbarr give him Gravid Water; but, instead of teaspoons, Finbarr doles out tablespoons, which causes the old fellow to become extraordinarily heavy (well over four hundred pounds, though his slight frame doesn’t change). Preposterous? Yes. But O’Brien is having fun, wandering wherever his imagination takes him. There are various other characters, various lines of plot, none of which add up to much (and some of which go nowhere). Which brings me to a problem, one I think O’Brien recognized and which may explain the book’s odd ending. Over drinks at a pub The Brother suggests that Finbarr marry Collopy’s daughter (who has inherited a large portion of the old man’s estate). When The Brother takes his leave, Finbarr drains his glass. “Then I walked quickly but did not run to the lavatory. There, everything inside me came up in a tidal surge of vomit.” Since there’s no reason for such a response, those last four words are puzzling. Could the author have found a way to express disgust for his own enterprise? O’Brien knew he was capable of more than idle frivolity. For a writer with his talents, The Hard Life was far too easy.

Elephants Can Remember - Agatha Christie
I decided I should read something by an author whose books have sold in the billions. This Hercule Poirot mystery was published four years before Christie’s death (at age eighty-six), but it doesn’t show any signs of fatigue. The no-frills prose achieves its utilitarian purpose of moving things along at a nice pace. There’s not much to Poirot – he’s courtly and a good questioner (which is pretty much all he does). Another character – Mrs. Oliver, an elderly lady who writes detective stories – is more lively. The plot gets a bit muddled in the middle – too many facts, too many leads – but things sort themselves out, and I was able to figure out who did what to whom before Poirot explains it all at the end. As for logic (where most mysteries flounder), we never learn where the bullet wounds were located. Head, heart? This matters, and so is a glaring omission. Also, we’re asked to believe that two sane people would allow a homicidal maniac (someone who kills children!) to carry on for a lifetime. Despite such missteps, this was a pleasant diversion. Pleasant? Though death by violence is the subject, it happens well offstage (a type of mystery deemed a “cozy,” probably linking it to the knitted covering put over teapots). Dame Christie may be summarizing her own career when she has Mrs. Oliver think: “She was a lucky woman who had established a happy knack of writing what quite a lot of people wanted to read.” After I finished this book I tried a Miss Marple (The 4:50 from Paddington); I hoped it would be better than Elephants, but it was worse. So I won’t be one of the billions.

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 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? 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.