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. In a seemingly innocuous visit to a Confederate museum 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 battle had been fought. She closes her four page monologue by asking her guests to look down a stairwell where the bloodstains are still “as dark as midnight, men, and fearsome as ever.” *

Friday, March 14, 2014

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

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

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

Friday, February 21, 2014

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 10, 2014

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

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

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

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

Friday, December 27, 2013

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

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

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

Friday, December 6, 2013

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

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

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

Monday, November 4, 2013

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

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

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

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

Monday, August 12, 2013

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

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

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

Thursday, July 25, 2013

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

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

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

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

Monday, June 3, 2013

What’s for Dinner? - James Schuyler
Like Alfred and Guinevere, about 90% of this novel is made up of conversation (including the title). We learn about people not by what they do or think but by what they say; this approach to telling a story is fresh and engaging, and for a long stretch I enjoyed the book. Schuyler’s subjects are marriage, infidelity, alcoholism, mental illness (a large portion of the action takes place at a mental institution). He treats these serious issues with a light touch – too light, as it turns out. He should have heeded the advice that one of his characters gives a new patient when he starts weaving a belt in craft therapy: “And always pull the knot really tight, or it comes out looking funny. The first belt I made hung all crooked, because I didn’t do that.” Schuyler’s knots were too loose in that he never gave the serious issues the weight they deserved. Near the end he disposes of people and their problems in a callous way; even his language becomes crude, as if he were expressing annoyance with the whole enterprise. There’s also a lot of filler. Too much space is devoted to the group therapy sessions, and the only purpose the teenage twin boys serve is to trade vulgar remarks. Alfred and Guinevere was well-nigh perfect; this book hangs all crooked.

Castle Rackrent & Ennui - Maria Edgeworth
Rackrent is more successful because it’s shorter and is narrated in the voice of Thady Quirk, faithful servant to generations of Irish Rackrents. He chronicles the foibles of the various “Sirs” who take possession of the estate. They come across as shabby ne’er-do-wells; but as long as they give “entertainments” and are free with their money, Thady holds them in high esteem. One problem with the three times longer Ennui is that its premise is unsustainable. How much can you say about a man who has everything and is bored by it all? Not much. Instead, Edgeworth turns this into the story of the moral education of a man who learns to appreciate the higher values. Unfortunately, she does it in a preachy way. I liked the bored and irresponsible Lord Glenthorne more that the noble prig he becomes. When he finds out that he’s not really a Lord (babies switched at birth), he relinquishes his estate to a happy blacksmith who’s the rightful heir. Then, as Christopher O’Donoghoe, he embarks on life as an ordinary man. Edgeworth could have given him a harsh dose of reality; instead he’s immediately befriended by a wealthy mentor who admires his virtuous character. So Christopher is still rubbing elbows with the aristocracy. At a party he meets Cecilia, of the “celestial countenance.” At the end of the novel he’s married to her and is a successful lawyer; even his estate is returned to him (the blacksmith makes a mess of his elevated station in life). I felt gypped.

What Maisie Knew - Henry James
I’ve criticized authors for having a Henry James-like prose style. Now I can criticize The Master himself. I liked the novel’s premise – a little girl being shuttled about by adults – but James’s convoluted wordiness doesn’t reveal emotions, it obfuscates them: “ . . . if he had an idea at the back of his head she had also one in a recess as deep, and for a time, while they sat together, there was an extraordinary mute passage between her vision of this vision of his, his vision of her vision, and her vision of his vision of her vision.” Untangling such nuances wore me down; I began to think, in exasperation, “Just spit it out.” As an experiment, I took the book’s opening sentence and simplified it. James: “The child was provided for, but the new arrangement was inevitably confounding to a young intelligence intensely aware that something had happened which must matter a great deal and looking anxiously out for the effects of so great a cause.” Me: “Though the child was provided for, the new arrangement was perplexing to her, and she was anxious about how her life would be affected.” The elegance of James’s sentence has been lost; but, if I have to choose, I’ll take clarity over beauty. And I’ll always choose truth over falsity. James’s main goal was to capture the sensibilities of a little girl. But his Maisie has only one dimension: she’s an analyzer of adult feelings and motivations. She’s not a real child; Maisie is Henry James.

Buttonwood - Maritta Wolff
In none of the four novels I’ve read by Wolff is the prose polished, but this time it’s downright sloppy (her overuse of modifiers is a glaring problem). Why didn’t an editor at Random House do some work on the manuscript? And why didn’t Wolff learn the finer points of her craft? Another question is, Why do I read her? She has a gift for narrative, and I find the dilemmas she sets up to be engrossing. In this outing a woman is hooked on TV soap operas; in a way, Buttonwood is an old-fashioned soap opera. Not that it’s without depth and insight. Wolff’s examination of a marriage in the process of falling apart is convincing. However, she gives intimations of a mysterious problem (homosexuality?) separating the young couple, but never brings to light what that problem is. In the case of the main character, she does disclose his secret life in the final pages. But, after all the buildup, my response was “That’s it?” On the back inside cover of the book (I bought it secondhand) someone wrote the following: “Dull most of the way through small mid-western town to a tacked-on unreal ending that reveals Paul’s true attachment.”

Monday, May 6, 2013

Cheating at Canasta - William Trevor
Two stories are excellent: “The Dressmaker’s Daughter” and “Bravado.” Two others are good, but eight are no more than fair. Those aren’t stats to be proud of (even though the fair ones got published in The New Yorker). Trevor is in his eighties; it may be significant that his weakest stories – somber mood pieces that meander around an idea but never develop into anything of substance – deal with the elderly, while the two excellent ones are about people in their teens. In “Bravado” a young girl is attracted to a boy who has a reckless swagger. But does her admiration spur him on to impress her? When his actions have tragic consequences, a moral question arises for her: must she bear part of the responsibility? The fact that we never anticipate this specter of guilt gives it impact. Guilt is also at the core of “The Dressmaker’s Daughter.” The capacity to feel guilt can be redeeming, but often it’s a burden one must live with – somehow. In these two stories – in which Trevor is at his best – an emotion lingers on long after the final word.

The Girls of Slender Means - Muriel Spark
I almost abandoned this novel thirty pages from the end. It struck me as a thin enterprise in every way. The disjointed snippets seem carelessly patched together, and Spark’s attitude toward her characters is cold, even disdainful. Of the girls living in the May of Tech Club (just after WW II), three stand out. Selina is a sexually adventurous beauty, Jane does what she calls “brain work,” Joanna gives elocution lessons in which she recites poetry and has her students recite it back (the book contains long stretches of poetry and psalms, which the other-worldly Joanna knows by heart). Only Nicholas Farrington interested me (his death is announced on page four, though he appears, quite alive, from start to finish). For him the girls of slender means embody some ideal of young womanhood; his longing for the ineffable kept me reading, and those last thirty pages (which I almost skipped) added dimension to the novel. A bomb – a remnant of the war – goes off in the garden of the Club, starting a fire that traps some girls on the top floor. Nicholas tries, with the firemen, to rescue them; he’s acquainted with the roof of the adjoining building, for he’s been sleeping there with Selina. All the girls escape – except one. We know that Nicholas will, in the indeterminate future, be killed in Haiti, where he was a religious missionary; what caused him to take that path in life is never explained, but it seems somehow connected with the death at the Club. On the last page, in an evocative passage, he gazes at a May of Tech girl as she pins up her hair – an image he will recall “years later, in the country of his death.”

Murder by the Book - Rex Stout
It’s hit or miss with Stout, and this is a solid single. Archie takes center stage, the cast of suspects is manageable, and when Nero Wolfe unveils the identity of the murderer it made sense. I missed an inconsistency that Wolfe spotted, and felt my inadequacy as a private eye. The fact that three people are murdered for an inconsequential reason is no huge deal; Stout isn’t trying to be Dostoevski. The writing – Archie’s voice – is snappy and bright: “She was the kind you look at and think she should take off just one or two pounds, and then you ask where from and end by voting for the status quo.”

The Name of the World - Denis Johnson
Beware of novels with titles like this one. The first-person narrator has a lot of Zen-like thoughts but no vitality. He sleepwalks through a series of episodes that lead nowhere. When we learn that he’s actually mute with grief (his wife and daughter had been killed in a car accident) I didn’t respond because nothing about the guy rang true, including this tragedy. Then, while at the art department of the university where he teaches, Mike blunders onto a “Cannon Performance”: students are watching a young woman “engaged in shaving her lathered mons veneris.” Her name is Flower Cannon. Mike is roused out of his dormancy; he’s even inspired to this lofty thought: he would have loved for his daughter, if she had lived, to have turned out to be like Flower. The plot is headed toward a relationship between the two (Flower pops up wherever Mike goes), but I wanted no part of the impending nonsense, so I bailed out on page 62, which was the halfway point. I hope that my description of the Cannon Performance hasn’t misled you. Even with the sex thrown in, this book is as drab an old brown suit.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Charley Smith’s Girl - Helen Bevington
There’s a bittersweet irony behind the title, for Charley was never a father to Helen, though she dearly wanted him to be. In the course of this memoir, which begins when Helen is three and ends when she’s in her early twenties, she spends less than a year in his golden presence. Her mother raises Helen; she loves her daughter, but a difficult life has made her severe and unyielding. As a young woman Helen comes to a conclusion: “Both my parents had lost me, by not loving me enough. My judgment was stern and complete against them. Either one, I told myself, could have kept me through love. But my mother wanted a dutiful daughter, and my father wanted no daughter at all.” Though that evaluation is the harsh truth, this book is an effort by a middle-aged woman to understand, and thus feel compassion for, her parents. She succeeds without shirking from reality (even at her own expense). But this isn’t one of those memoirs full of woe and resentment. Not at all; there’s an engaging brightness to Helen’s story. And in that brightness lies the reason why she prevails over her upbringing. Throughout her life she’s always eager for happiness and is open to love. Perhaps that was her pleasure-seeking father’s one gift to her.

The Tortilla Curtain - T. Coraghessan Boyle
In a recent review of a story collection by Boyle I criticized his lack of interest in real people in real situations; I also questioned whether he was motivated in his writing by a mercenary cynicism. In this novel he shows not only a concern for the downtrodden, but for the state of our world. He follows the plight of two illegal Mexican immigrants who’ve come to this country to find work. I can’t go into the hardships they encounter – if I got started, where could I stop? The other two characters, the affluent Mossbachers, lead lives that stand in stark contrast to what Candito and America are going through. Kyra and Delaney have moved to the posh Arroyo Blanco Estates to escape the hectic and dangerous Los Angeles scene, but they’re still not safe from undesirables; a gate at the entrance proves inadequate, so residents decide to wall in the entire subdivision. There are also ecological problems: humans have invaded territory where they don’t belong. Coyotes snatch both of the Mossbacher’s dogs, and residential development high up in a canyon turns out to have disastrous repercussions. Boyle creates an apocalyptic mood, which is good, and I give him credit for tackling serious issues (the book could be entered into the debate about illegal immigration). That said, as a literary work it isn’t very good. Though Spanish words are tossed in, Candito thinks like someone raised in the USA, not in a small Mexican village. Also, the suffering he and his wife experience reaches nightmare proportions; it’s just too much. Delaney is a walking parody of liberal cliches, and his evolution into a rabid racist isn’t convincing. The ending is an out-and-out mistake; it’s chaotic, almost hysterical, and on the final page Boyle abandons his characters in the midst of a massive mudslide. Maybe the novel should be taken as a thriller with social relevance; it does succeed as a page turner.

The Last of Mr. Norris - Christopher Isherwood
This short novel was combined with the equally short Goodbye to Berlin to make up The Berlin Stories. In Goodbye, which I read decades ago, Isherwood writes, “I am a camera with its shutter open . . .” This time the camera is focused on an aging confidence man operating on the international stage. Though Arthur Norris has some talent for double dealing, his weak nerves make him unfit for a life of intrigue; also, his schemes fail as often as not, leaving him in dire financial straits. But he has a remarkable ability to shake off his fears (and to enjoy life in a blithe way), and during his flush periods he lives high on the hog (and is quite generous). He’s a scoundrel without malice, both guileful and oddly lacking in guile (he makes no effort to conceal his taste for sadomasochistic sex, in which he’s on the receiving end of the whip lashes). The narrator, William Bradshaw (a pseudonym for Isherwood), takes a liking to this old debauchee, who in return is childishly eager for his friendship – and his assistance (Mr. Norris is an incorrigible user of people). Little is revealed about Bradshaw’s life; Isherwood stays focused on Norris and a handful of secondary characters. The action takes place in the years preceding the Nazi takeover, so we get the author’s perspective of this tumultuous period in German history. I admired the novel on all levels and wondered why I had put off enjoying the pleasures it provided for so long.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Death in Summer - William Trevor
A third of the way through this novel a shift in emphasis occurs. The key figure in this evolution is Albert, an apparently insignificant young man whose job is to scrub graffiti off subway walls. He first appears as he listens to Pettie, a girl he came to know when they were in the same orphanage. Albert is worried, for he sees signs of distorted thinking on Pettie’s part. She’s been turned down for a job as live-in nanny for a baby whose mother was killed in a road accident. It’s the mother-in-law’s fault, Pettie believes; Thaddeus, the father of the child, wanted her to get the job, they had a bond, Pettie could sense it. . . . Albert tries, gently, to steer her away from this line of thinking. It’s futile; much of what Albert sets out to do is futile. What matters – in the terms Trevor establishes – is that Albert’s goodness makes him someone of major importance. It’s in his nature to worry about people who are life’s lost souls and to act on their behalf. In this novel those who are compassionate take on substance; those who lack that quality are diminished. Mrs Ferry, who at first glance is using an old affair to cadge money from Thaddeus, is not to be dismissed so easily, not when we gain insight into what motivates her. There’s a long section in which we follow Pettie’s thinking; she will kidnap the baby, but she doesn’t do it with malicious intent; her life has been blasted by so much pain that she has found refuge in a world of fantasies. At the end Albert pays a visit to the father. He wants to make Thaddeus understand Pettie, for understanding will lead to forgiveness; it’s important to Albert that the she be forgiven for what she did. There are scads of books aimed at enlightening; but here, in people and situations that are real, is a moving lesson in values. *

Where There’s a Will - Rex Stout
This is the sixth Nero Wolfe mystery I’ve read, and the most disappointing. Too many characters, too complex a plot. Even Wolfe, near the end, admits that he can’t figure out who killed Mr. Hawthorne. If the genius can’t untangle things, how can I feel anything but frustration? Wolfe does wind up solving the case, but the clue that opens the door is gratuitous, flimsy and involves knowledge that only a botanist could possess. Stout also throws a major red herring into the stew pot: one side of Mrs. Hawthorne’s face has been horribly disfigured by an arrow shot by her husband – presumably an accident – and he dies from a gunshot that rips off half his face. Yet this peculiar coincidence turns out to have no significance. Lastly, due to the large cast of characters, we get little of Archie, who merely runs around a lot, and even less of Nero, who merely asks questions. The first two Wolfe novels I read were good; the next three were not so good; this one was a waste of time. I’ll give Stout one more try.

The Grass Is Singing - Doris Lessing
In this novel a marriage is the seedbed for the unfolding of a horror story. It’s not just that Mary and Dick are mismatched, and that poverty and isolation (they’re poor white farmers in South Africa during the time of apartheid) grind them down. Mary, whose mind we spend the most time in, is mentally ill. “Of course I am ill,” she says in the last chapter. “I’ve been ill ever since I can remember. I am ill here” – and she points to her heart. But this is a brief moment of clarity; on the last day of her life she’s overwhelmed by despair. We know the outcome of the story in the opening pages: Mary is dead, murdered by Moses, the houseboy, and Dick is stark raving mad. What follows is a flashback in which Lessing relates in detail the factors that led to the disintegration of these two people. It’s a serious literary work, well-written and engrossing; but the ending, instead of bringing a sense of completion, raises questions – and doubts. Mary had always felt loathing for blacks and had treated them tyrannically; but in the last chapter, as she waits for Moses to kill her, Lessing suggests that the two have been involved sexually. Since the reader hasn’t been made privy to the development of this relationship, the forces compelling these two people to feel and act as they do are inexplicable. Lessing also suggests that Mary was sexually abused as a child; but why raise that issue at the end? And why all this suggesting? The intensity level of the entire book is pitched very high; but intensity can’t serve as a substitute for perception, and immoderation is always suspect. South Africa, with its debilitating climate and morally bankrupt racial attitudes, comes across as a sort of hell. The only singing on these pages is a wail of lamentation.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Simpleton - Aleksei Pisemskii (Russian)
In this depiction of human nature we get a heavy dose of vices, among them greed, selfishness, malice, callousness, hypocrisy and envy. Pisemskii’s characters are either unable to see their faults or they righteously justify their errant behavior. In the opening scene a woman proclaims that she’s no gossip; after getting the scoop on a family’s misfortunes she hurries to another house to pass on all that she had heard. In an attempt to ease his financial difficulties a father bullies his daughter into agreeing to marry a man she loathes. When the father talks to the suitor he says, “A bride used to be brought to the altar by force. We could never allow ourselves to do such a thing.” The suitor is the simpleton of the title; this marriage will bring Pavel nothing but suffering. He isn’t lacking in intellect. What he does lack is worldliness; he’s a babe in a woods full of vipers, and in this sense he is a simpleton. The reader can’t sympathize with the miseries Pavel experiences because to be innocent is to be contemptible. This is a subversive book; Pisemskii’s artful cynicism turns what could have been a tragedy into an excoriating comedy of manners.

Three Continents - Ruth Prawer Jhabvala
I shouldn’t be reviewing this novel because I never got halfway through it; but 145 pages constitutes a substantial investment of my time. Initially I was carried along by the prose, which flows without a ripple. The first stirring of my critical faculties came when characters have experiences that should elicit strong emotions; but their feelings, as expressed in that unruffled flow of words, lacked impact. Next to come under scrutiny was the plot. Rawul, the leader of a movement aimed at establishing a Seventh World, takes up residence at the estate of the narrator and her twin brother; accompanying him are his two assistants, Rani and Crishi, and a crew of anonymous followers. Soon they’re in complete control of the place. How they’re able to exert such power isn’t made credible (the twins come across as dopes and dupes); nor does Jhabvala make any attempt to explain the Seventh World philosophy (probably because there’s nothing to explain); nor are the relationships that develop out of this premise believable (the repellent Crishi easily gains sexual dominance over both twins). A host of secondary characters are added to the mix, all carrying a lot of baggage, but I saw no purpose for their being in the book (twenty-five pages are devoted to the grandfather, who does little more than die). After I quit reading I began to wonder whether I had been a dope and dupe in admiring Jhabvala’s earlier work. Or had she gone astray as a writer? Supporting the latter theory is her dedication of Three Continents to James Ivory and Ismail Merchant; this glossy novel may be the natural outgrowth of doing too many screenplays for glossy movies.

One Thousand Souls - Aleksei Pisemskii (Russian)
Seldom does an author create such an impressive work; seldom does it crumble so completely. For almost four hundred pages Pisemskii was writing what had the makings of a great novel. The portrayal of Kalinovich is remarkable for its thoroughness. This severe young man covets wealth and status; yet, when he moves to a town to take up the lowly post of School Inspector, he gradually comes to appreciate the generosity extended to him by his predecessor in that job, Godnev; more important, he responds to the pure love that Godnev’s daughter, Nastenka, feels for him. Despite these factors, he’s persuaded by an odious Count to marry the wealthy Paulina. In forsaking love for an advancement of his station in life, Kalinovich is aware of the cost to himself and its effect on the woman he betrays, but his good instincts are not strong enough to govern his actions. Up to the point of Kalinovich’s decision to marry, the characters and their interactions were authentic and vital. But the novel’s final Part Four, which takes up events a decade later, constitutes a repudiation of what went before. People we had come to know are replaced by imposters; changes in relationships defy logic; the prose gets strident; far too much attention is devoted to the impenetrable intricacies of Russian politics. It seems that Pisemskii, like his main character, couldn’t see the value in what he had in his grasp and thus let it all slip away.

Monday, March 4, 2013

H. M. Pulham, Esquire - John P. Marquand
If taken on a superficial level, this fictional autobiography is a pleasant read, in a lulling sort of way. Yet I finished it with misgivings. For beginners, is that “Esquire” meant to be mocking? Though Henry Pulham has the outward trappings of success, his personal life is devoid of pleasure or purpose. He’s alone in his family, unable to relate to his wife and two children. He can cope with things, but not with emotions. When his wife has an affair Marquand provides information so that the reader is fully aware of it, but Henry remains clueless. His youthful romance with Marvin Myles stands out as the brightest episode in a humdrum existence, but in this depiction of first love Marquand (like his protagonist) isn’t able to connect; not helping matters was my persistent doubt that a vibrant woman like Marvin could feel strongly about someone as bland as Henry. His relationship with his wife is more convincing. Kate is a discontented woman; she doesn’t love Henry and it shows in her constant carping. Though he has bouts of irritation (which he immediately chides himself for), he never becomes bitter or despairing; such feelings are not options for a person brought up to put the best face on whatever life hands you. So there it is, the story of Henry Pulham, told in his own guileless words, and what am I to make of it? Marquand’s light-handed approach gives it a humorous aspect, but I think the author had a darker agenda in mind. On the final pages Henry writes the “Class life” that he’s been putting off for the entire novel (his class at Harvard is having its twenty-fifth reunion). The closing sentences: “We spend our winters in town and our summers in North Harbor, Maine. In either place the latchstring is always open for any member of our Class.” What struck me was that only one member of his Class has remained a friend, and he’s the man with whom Henry’s wife had an affair. I think that J. P. Marquand was not unaware of this sad irony.

On Overgrown Paths - Knut Hamsun (Norwegian)
This book was written during the three years when the author – nearly ninety years old – was held in custody by the Norwegian government, facing charges of collaboration with the Nazis. Hamsun gives a defense of his wartime actions; you can accept it or not, though I can vouch for the truth of his claim that there’s no anti-Semitism in his many novels. In my readings of ten of them I recall a Jewish watch-seller who would cheat anyone gullible enough to let him, but he’s a benign rascal, not a Fagin. Hamsun faces most of his incarceration with resignation; the exception is a four month confinement in a Psychiatric Clinic. He doesn’t provide details of this stay, but it seems that the constant probing into his mental faculties was, for him, unbearable. He writes that when he went into the Clinic he was in good health; when they released him he was “turned into jelly.” Age, physical infirmity (he was deaf and partially blind), and his situation make this book a sad farewell. In the first part a buoyant spirit sometimes shines through, but as time passes his capacity to find pleasure in the simple things of life wanes. Paths is mainly made up of “trifles” that include routines, observations, encounters, memories. Near the end he recounts events that took place when he was a young man in America; he is, for the last time, a storyteller. Shortly thereafter the court verdict comes down; the final words in the book are: “I end my writing.” I’ll end this review with a quote in which Hamsun encapsulates his special gift: “ . . . I was no stranger to the field of psychology . . . during a very long career of writing I had created several hundred figures – created them inwardly and externally like living people, in every condition and aspect, in dreams and in action.”

The Government Inspector - Nikolai Gogol (Russian)
The director of a play must be faithful to the author’s intent. This rendition, directed by Peter Raby, didn’t ring true. Most jarring was the use of vulgar language, which I haven’t come across in any of Gogol’s other works. Later, reading Raby’s “Adaptor’s Note,” my suspicions were confirmed. He talks of “cuts, amalgamations, modifications” (one of these cuts is the omission of an entire scene). So this is an adulterated version of the real thing and should be avoided. I’d like to see (for a play should be seen) a faithful production. Despite Raby’s tinkering, Gogol launches into his story of mistaken identity with a madcap exuberance. Every character is a villain of one stripe or another, but they’re too grotesque and foolish to condemn. One can simply gape at them in wonder and amusement.

The Easter Party - V. Sackville-West
I assume that Miss Sackville-West was acquainted with real people. Possibly, in her fiction, she allowed herself the indulgence of dreaming up unreal characters. Even the dog in the story – the noble Svend – is unlike any dog that ever existed. The plot involves a group of people who gather at a country estate. One of the guests, Lady Juliet Quarles, a woman notorious for her love affairs, sweeps onto center stage: “Dar-lings! Oh, my sweets, I do apologize, I grovel.” (She’s outrageously late, you see.) I have to admit, somewhat guiltily, that for a while I was curious as to why cold, controlled Walter never consummated his decades long marriage. But I soon recovered my senses and abandoned this contrived bit of nonsense. I’ll let the inside dust jacket summary take over; it captures the novel’s tone of feverish extravagance so well that Miss Sackville-West could have written it. Regarding the characters: “Delicately, and with the supreme perception which has distinguished the author’s previous works, she sets their dormant, ruling passions in motion, probes their secrets, catalyzes their problems.” About the author: “Few writers can match the quiet dignity of Miss Sackville-West’s prose or the maturity of her understanding. In The Easter Party the rare technical adroitness with which she fashions her characters into contrapuntal patterns, renders their conversations into brilliant fugues, and . . .” Well, Dar-lings, enough of that.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Doctor Faustus - Thomas Mann (German)
This massive novel is framed as a biography of a deceased composer, written by a lifelong friend. Unlike Goethe’s Faust, it’s not about a man who sells his soul to the devil. In a key document (which comes into the hands of the biographer/friend), Adrian Leverkuhn writes of his encounter with Satan and of the pact they enter into (he’s granted twenty-four years of genius). As presented, one can only conclude that this encounter happened entirely in the mind of Adrian. This strange man has character traits – primarily a coldheartedness – that alienate him from humanity. His friend claims that, unlike Adrian, he’s a humanist. Why, then, does he (or, rather, Mann) punish the reader by delving into matters that only a scholar could comprehend? As I labored through the dense sections on theology and music I had to console myself with the belief that I was getting the gist of what the author was trying to convey. Other parts are intelligible, even engaging (without them I couldn’t have made it to the end). And some scenes are beyond impressive. Yet in the last hundred pages there’s a weakening of the grip that Mann had always kept on his material. Most crucial is that the voice of the narrator becomes overwrought; with the appearance of Echo he falls into a sea of sentiment. Watching the child read he thinks, “thus must the little angels up above turn the pages of their heavenly choir-books.” In a world ruled by the daemonic such purity must die a ghastly death (related with drum rolls of doom). Syrupy sentiment, resounding doom – Mann loses his sense of moderation, and, like a wounded bull, he becomes vulnerable. My reaction to his last lengthy excursion into the intricacies of musicology was dismissive: “You do go on!” When copious tears are shed, I was unaffected because too much heavy-handed obscurity had alienated me from the emotional life of the characters. In trying to account for the failure of Doctor Faustus a few factors may be relevant. As Mann worked on the novel destruction was raining down on his beloved Germany (a nation that had, in a sense, made a pact with the devil). And, like his narrator, he was in his seventies; possibly he was looking back at a life in which he had devoted himself to his art to the exclusion of all else; he might have seen himself in Adrian Leverkuhn. If so, the tears could well have been real, but Mann was fated to cry alone.

The Suicide’s Wife - David Madden
“She woke, felt his finger in her.” You can decide for yourself whether this opening sentence is inviting or distasteful; for me it was the latter, particularly since no lovemaking follows. The man simply withdraws his finger and gets out of the sleeping bag he’s sharing with his wife. In silence he leaves the house; he later turns up dead, an apparent suicide. Why did he kill himself? – Ann hasn’t a clue. Her husband seems to have been an enigma to her. They have three children, the oldest twelve years old, but it’s as if they had no intimate relationship. She’s upset and baffled, but beyond that she doesn’t have the deep feelings one would expect, such as remorse or anger. Apparently he never cared much about her and his kids (he leaves them with hardly any money and a car in terminal disrepair). This passive, insecure woman tries to learn about “the man around whom her life had been expended” by turning to his colleagues at the college where he taught. There she meets a creepy professor who raises the possibility that a mentally unstable student had murdered her husband. Rather than finding this an intriguing plot twist, I suspected that Madden was merely trying to extend the book to a minimal length; he had already included some dead end detours and a lot of filler – much space is taken up with Ann’s efforts to learn how to drive (repeated shifting and stalling; a page and a half that comes directly from a manual for a driver’s license test). Would insight – the only thing that could save this novel – emerge at the end? I had no faith that it would because the premise isn’t realistic: a twelve year marriage can’t be presented as a void. At any rate, the repugnance I felt from the first sentence became overpowering (Ann has a vaginal infection; you don’t want to know the details, but Madden supplies them). I abandoned this morbid book halfway through.

Female Friends - Fay Weldon
It’s unusual to quit on a 237 page book when you’re fifty pages from the end. For one thing, there has to be a reason why you got so far. I was initially impressed by the unique structure and perspective; the writing was topnotch and the three women varied and interesting. What eventually wore me down was that Weldon kept going over the same ground. All the women are victims of their bodies (which bleed, get pregnant, undergo unwelcome changes, etc.); more important, they’re victimized by men. Men dominate them, if only by being absent from their lives. And the men in this novel are a bad lot; a few are grotesquely bad, yet the women willingly engage in sex with them, have their babies, marry them, serve them, obsess about them. Weldon presents life as grubby and mean; this is true even when she adopts a flippant tone: “Grace has abortions. Like having a tooth out, she says. She looks forward to it. All that drama, she says, and distracted men, and the anaesthetics are lovely, and you wake up with no sense of time passed. What luxury!” An unwieldy cast of secondary characters (at least a dozen to keep track of) didn’t help matters; most are dismal and distorted people trapped in aggressively bizarre situations. Love? – not to be found, even among the three “friends.” What was lively and unique on page ninety had become unpalatable by page190. I couldn’t swallow another bite.