Monday, March 16, 2015

The Confidential Agent – Graham Greene
This is what Greene termed “an entertainment” (as opposed to his “serious” work), so one could expect that he would let up a bit on the gloom and doom. No such luck. Though he put a lot of effort into the prose, the scenes and the characterizations, the plot involves espionage, and here he’s unforgivably sloppy. H. – the confidential agent – is sent to London by his government (which is at war with rebels) to work out a deal for a critical supply of coal. Why they selected such a ninny is, for starters, baffling. H. has very important papers that authorize him to carry out his mission; for sixty pages he’s been guarding these papers with his life. When he leaves for a meeting at the house of the coal supplier, he “put the papers in the breast-pocket of his jacket and wore his overcoat fastened up to the neck. No pickpocket, he was certain, could get at them.” He enters the house, a servant asks “Coat, sir?” and he “let the manservant take his overcoat.” Later, when asked to show his papers, he finds that they’re missing; the servant had lifted them in that briefly described exchange. This feat of legerdemain is preposterous. Also preposterous is a scene in which H. breaks into a vacant apartment; before the police come knocking, he disguises himself (his most notable feature is his “heavy mustache”) by smearing shaving cream over his face. The only razor he finds is a small woman’s, and he goes to the door with that in his hand; the policeman comments on it: “Funny sort of razor you use.” H. says it’s his sister’s, the bobby leaves, and then we have, as with the papers, another magical disappearance: “He cleared the soap away from his mouth: no mustache.” That’s it? With a lady’s razor and with no preliminary clipping with scissors? I may seem to be nitpicking, but it’s incumbent for a writer working in this genre to make things plausible. And it wasn’t just incidentals that are problematic: so are all the villains that pop out of the woodwork. I stopped reading when H. is supposed to change from “The Hunted” (in the first section) to “The Hunter.” I spent a dozen pages with this now-dangerous man, and he was still dithering about.

Late Call – Angus Wilson
You’d think that an author who was knighted for his services to literature would do a better job of structuring a novel. The question of where things are headed arises in the prologue. It needed a revelatory force to warrant its length and intricacy, but when I finally realized who and what it was about it amounted to a mere over-indulgence in narration. Wilson can write well – his disconnected forays, if taken in ten page stretches, were lively enough to keep me reading. Also, in some of those stretches I connected with the main character. Sylvia Calvert is an elderly woman who retires from managing hotels and goes to live with her son and his three grown children; accompanying her is her unruly husband. What undermines Sylvia’s credibility are her inexplicable shifts in mood and attitude; in a space of twenty pages she goes from the depths of depression (immersed in “stunning misery” and “panic horror”) to being upbeat and competent. Such unsubstantiated flip-flopping (and it occurs with other characters) can only originate in the author’s wandering inclinations. Sylvia should be the focus, but Wilson shovels extraneous material into the maw of this novel like a crazed stoker. Secondary characters pop up like jack-in-the-boxes, do something outrageous or semi-insane, and then disappear. There’s a long section in which a mysterious old hunchbacked woman tells her life story to Sylvia (who, like me, is clueless as to its significance). Side-issues abound, such as her son’s efforts to save the town’s Meadow from development; her grandson is flagrantly homosexual (which nobody seems to notice) and one wonders when or if that will be an issue. Finally I concluded that my question of “Where are things going?” doesn’t apply to this haphazard book. At the close Wilson does make an effort to bring some order to the clutter. Sylvia, on one of her walks, saves a little girl’s life and is adopted by a family that immerses her in love; this plot contrivance belonged in a fairy tale. After weathering a series of crises, on the last page a chipper Sylvia contemplates a bright future of independence. A happy ending, unearned. Final note on Late Call: the author tried hard to avoid tags (“Sylvia said”); but, since the many voices aren’t that distinct, it’s often unclear who’s talking. Just another aspect adding to my annoyance.

The Precipice – Ivan Goncharov (Russian)
According to the notes on the back cover, Goncharov (the author of Oblomov) labored over twenty years on The Precipice, and the negative reception it got so embittered him that he never wrote another novel. I’m afraid this review will further his embitterment. The only major character I related to was the aunt, and this was because I admired her diligent concern with the business of running Boris’s estate. When she tries to involve him in his affairs he bluntly refuses; he has no interest in practicalities or material goods (though he lives in high style and never does a lick of work). He thinks of himself as an Artist, and though he has talent as a painter, composer and writer, it’s clear that he’ll never produce anything of substance. Mark, a social outlaw who quotes Proudhon and whose cynicism is all-embracing, refers to Boris as “half a man.” Then there’s the beautiful and mysterious Vera, who Boris falls hopelessly in love with at first sight. She steadfastly refuses to give him a grain of encouragement; all she asks is that he leave her alone. Spying and prying Boris suspects that she has a secret lover. The point at which I quit reading came when her lover’s identity is disclosed: it’s Mark. Of course it’s Mark! She certainly wouldn’t pick someone reasonable to fall in love with. In the first minutes of their encounter she accuses him of being wolfish, malicious and callous. He finds her words amusing. So did I. If he’s all these things, what attracts her to him? The overwrought depiction of tumultuous passions make this novel as dated as a “Perils of Pauline” movie (in which, come to think of it, precipices often plays a role).

The Temptation of Eileen Hughes – Brian Moore
The tension this thriller generates comes not from violence but from psychological forces in opposition. Eileen is a naive young woman who accepts favors, gifts and all-expense-paid trips from her employer and his wife. On an excursion to London she learns what’s behind the generosity: Bernard McAuley reveals his fanatical (though entirely platonic) love for her. Her rejection of him sets off a struggle of wills. While the workings of Bernard’s mind are very odd, they’re also convincing. I believed in his obsession and his sometimes frantic efforts to hold onto someone who wants no part of him. When he says “I will always love you,” these words are both sincere and creepy. His need makes him a pitiable figure; this wealthy, powerful man repeatedly demeans himself in front of Eileen. Despite the temptations (mainly money) dangled before her, Eileen’s determination to shake free never wanes, and as a result she grows into a stronger person. Mona, Bernard’s wife, turns out to be a calculating woman who, in exchange for a life of luxury, acts as an enabler for her husband. There’s a stretch when the book gets mired in plot contrivances (including an ill-conceived scene in which Eileen has her first sexual experience), but in the closing pages Moore rights the ship. Particularly effective is Eileen’s last encounter with Bernard; their meeting needed to have resonance, and it does. There’s a lesson embedded in this short novel: To be under someone else’s power is bad, but so is having power over another person.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Jewel in the Crown – Paul Scott
On page one Scott writes “This is the story of a rape . . .” In a broad sense, it’s the story of the Indian struggle for independence, and this hugely complex subject is presented in a way that’s intelligent and fair. But a rape is the focal point from which all else spirals out; this makes the final hundred pages, a journal in which Daphne Manners tells what happened in Bibighar Gardens, essential to the book’s success. It’s here that Scott flounders badly. His first person voice is definitely not that of a young woman. And there’s no reason for Daphne to write an overly-detailed narration of events, which is what Scott has her doing. In her lack of substance she stands in stark contrast to the others who preceded her. The intense feelings she expresses – such as her love for Hari Kumar (unsupported by one scene in which the two share emotional intimacy) – don’t emanate from a real person but come across as words written on the page by an author. An author who was clearly struggling. The dramatic approach Scott had utilized throughout – that of telling his story by delving into the inner lives of a variety of characters – worked brilliantly in the opening chapter. He gets Miss Crane right, as he does many others, only to get the last, crucial person all wrong. Because of this I can’t – as I had planned to do – praise a book that has many virtues. This is especially painful since Scott was clearly aiming for greatness; Jewel is the first installment of a two thousand page epic called The Raj Quartet. In an effort to soften this negative review I’ll close by recommending his last novel – a short, two-character piece called Staying On. In that one he got everything right.

On the Beach – Nevil Shute
This book’s message, regarding the danger of proliferation of nuclear weapons, surely had impact in 1957, but time has lessened the relevance of that issue. What still matters are the dual love stories. The feelings that Peter and Mary Holmes and Dwight Towers and Moira Davidson have for one another are more than credible – they’re meaningful. The novel also has aspects that give it a thought-provoking depth. Sensible, sane people exist on two levels: they accept the fact that they will soon die, but they carry on with plans for the future. Captain Towers buys presents to give to his wife and children, who have long ago perished in the dead zone that is the North American continent; Mary begins planting a garden which she will never see; in the last weeks left to her Moira begins taking a secretarial course. The effect of this oft-repeated dichotomy in the characters’ thinking is to give the so-called “little” things in life their rightful significance. These people are ordinary, decent folks, but – like those little things in life – their decency is elevated so that it’s all-important. Also thought-provoking is Dwight’s refusal to give himself to Moira, which is something she wants with all her heart; he chooses to remain faithful to his wife. He rescued Moira from an alcoholic blur – his influence makes her carry on with dignity – and she appreciates what he has done for her. She also knows that she has meant a lot to him, for he tells her so in a beautiful way. But still . . . She dies alone, with a bottle of brandy as her only companion. Is she the tragic figure in all this? On the Beach is not a sophisticated piece of writing, but my total involvement with four people made it a moving experience. Nevil Shute took the subject of impending death to write a novel about life. *

Please Pass the Guilt – Rex Stout
The first Nero Wolfe mystery I read – Fer-de-lance – was the first one Stout wrote. Guilt was next to last in the series, written when the author was eighty-seven. Though there’s a separation of forty years between the two, this outing has one of the strengths present from the beginning: Archie is still jaunty. My problem concerns the murder Wolfe is trying to solve. Two men are vying for the presidency of a corporation; one keeps a bottle of bourbon in the drawer of his desk. Before a crucial meeting his opponent sneaks into his office with some LSD, planning to spike the bourbon; instead a bomb in the drawer blows up, killing him. All this seems ridiculous. Using LSD to disable a person is a hare-brained idea. And where did the bomb come from? Either the culprit who planted it had expertise in bomb-making (highly unlikely, given the suspects) or he/she purchased it (a tricky proposition). Also, since it would take time to rig a bomb in a drawer, they would need prolonged access to the office of a senior executive. Wolfe’s intelligence is the basis of these mysteries, so to offer up a stupid premise (the problems I’ve cited are never addressed) is to undermine the whole enterprise. I was after a simple diversion, but this didn’t fill the bill. The abrupt ending indicates that Rex Stout had run out of patience and just wanted to be done.

The Perfect Stranger – P. J. Kavanagh
This book is well-written and unabashedly autobiographical, but the author never fully animates himself. It’s interesting that Kavanagh, at the halfway point, interjects a piece he wrote when he was twenty: “I give the story now as I wrote it then, because it is true to how I felt at the time, the disconnectedness.” What follows is an account of a war experience. It’s unreadable, but before I quit I came across sentences like this: “Please God make me a human being.” The author notes that, after this segment, “. . . the rest of the book is the story of a rescue; and you can only measure the size of a rescue if you know how badly it is needed.” We’re to believe that a person who lacks something vital will be transformed. I didn’t buy that, nor did I care; a flat character just isn’t interesting. When I checked Stranger out from the library I thought I was getting a novel by the Kavanagh who wrote Tarry Flynn, which was also autobiographical but was brimming with life. My mistake – two different authors altogether.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Disenchanted – Budd Schulberg
When he was in his early twenties Schulberg accompanied F. Scott Fitzgerald on a trip to Dartmouth, where they were to get background material for a film entitled Winter Carnival. He writes about this episode in The Four Seasons of Success. The Disenchanted, written twenty-two years before Seasons, is a fictional account of the same trip; the once-famous and glamorous author is Manley Halliday, the young man accompanying him is Shep, and the script they’re working on is Love on Ice. This big, sprawling novel follows Halliday’s descent into an alcoholic binge of hellish proportions. But while we witness his harrowing dissolution, we also see him, through his memories, in his glory years, when he and his wife Jere frolicked about in a world that was their oyster. The scenes of the past aren’t as strong as the hard-edged ones in the present; the depiction of Victor Milgrim, the Hollywood producer, is devastatingly spot-on, and Manley’s futile efforts to do hack work are painfully funny. How could, one wonders, the Manley who observes the people around him with such clear-sightedness be unable to recognize that the life of the Madcap Hallidays was a frivolous squandering, and that the magical Jere was a co-conspirator in his destruction? Actually, he understands all that; he simply chooses to hold onto a gilded past, even if it’s mythical. He has no feeling for the present day Jere, stripped of her beauty and glamour (he sees her as “a carping, middle-aged imposter”). Nor is he, in the here-and-now, able to appreciate Ann, who is exactly what he needs to survive; when he refers to her as his “Seeing-Eye Dog” I was appalled by his callousness. Often he appalled me. Yet he faces life with a combative insistence on his worth as a man and a writer, and this refusal to relinquish the tattered shreds of his dignity gives him a tragic aspect. Shep plays a role larger than the space he occupies on the pages. He finds himself intimately responsible for the burden of someone who’s bent on self-destruction. Though Shep responds at times with anger and disgust, he’s moved by what he witnesses and experiences. Since I felt the burden of Manley, I wondered about the effect this ordeal would have on a decent, caring young man. That issue is not explored, though the fact that Schulberg revisited the trip in his writing may indicate its impact. Also, the degree of the author’s involvement is evident at the end, when the prose gets excessively emotional. But this, like other faults, is understandable: Schulberg couldn’t be detached about a person he idolized. The clout this book delivers came at a price.

Butcher’s Moon – Donald Westlake (under pseudonym of Richard Stark)
The best parts are the ones in which we get sketches of secondary characters: “Adolph Lozini, at the wok, said, ‘The trouble with a lot of people is, they don’t understand about Chinese cooking.’ ” Trouble with this book is, I related better to Lozini than I did to the main character, a professional crook by the name of Parker. Lozini (the boss of the city of Tyler) is human; Parker is a machine of destruction. He engenders an automaton effect that the author may have been trying to offset by making his sidekick a pastiche of contradictory and colorful traits. Neither character came across as credible, and they’re on stage most of the time. When Parker recruits his criminal pals to come to Tyler to – I suppose – plunder it like the barbarians did Rome, I found this gathering of toughies to be fatally silly. As for fatalities, we get them in abundance; also, to keep true to the hard-boiled genre, Westlake throws in gruesome details (fingers are severed, etcetera). The dialogue is sharp and smart, but the action sequences didn’t come across (film may be the medium that can get that right). Westlake was a pro, a writer who produced work that sold, but for my tastes he set the bar too low. In the best crime novels – The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Asphalt Jungle – the reader can identify with flawed people caught up in moral dilemmas of their own making.

A Horse of Air – Dal Stivens
Laurence Sterne is the archetypical self-indulgent author; in Tristram Shandy the labyrinthine prose induces bafflement, and the book’s content is made up of a character’s outlandish and free-floating thoughts. Though Stivens writes lucidly, he joins ranks with the self-indulgers because he constructs things in a way that allows Harry Craddock free rein to carry on capriciously. Since what we’re reading is a memoir that Harry writes while confined in a mental hospital, there’s a built-in excuse for his bizarre musings. And because he’s wealthy he’s able (in the prior life he’s describing) to pursue to fruition any whim that pops into his head. There’s a pitfall that derails most works like this: what are we left with when the eccentricities lose their luster? In Horse we can’t fall back on feelings because Harry is merely a fabrication through which Stivens has been dispensing what he considers to be amusing and inventive incidentals. When Harry follows his passion and sets off into the wilds of central Australia to find the elusive (and perhaps non-existent) night parrot, I declined to join the expedition. So I never found out who Harry shoots. On the first page the psychiatrist says, “If you shot this strange man, you must know why.” Harry replies, “I often get impulses to do something outrageous. I don’t know why.”

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Song of Sixpence - A. J. Cronin
Cronin was in his late sixties when he embarked on an account of his years from six to sixteen. Besides having achieved mastery of his craft, he had gained a perspective that allowed him to tell his story with a compassion moderated by even-handed detachment. Laurie/Laurence isn’t romanticized nor dramatized; his commonness makes him accessible. When his widowed mother becomes romantically involved, his attitude and actions are such that, though we cringe at his selfishness, we understand it; he’s only fourteen, and he feels threatened. This episode succeeds in eliciting pity and regret. Of those who play a role in his life, there’s not one person, major or minor, that doesn’t attain a solid presence (often in a few sentences). Though some are far from beneficent, no one is a simply a villain. We first meet Laurie’s younger cousin, Nora, when his father dies (which occurs when the boy is twelve). After the funeral, Nora takes him on a tour of the farm where she lives, and she becomes exasperated by her inability to raise his spirits. Finally she says, “Will you stop it, man, for the love of God” and braces him against the wall of the barn and begins to butt him with her head. “The brush of her hair against my cheek, the warmth of her nearness, the determined encirclement of her arms, all this was strangely soothing.” Thus Nora’s character and Laurie’s feelings for her are established. We meet her again, when Laurence is sixteen. Laurie’s life had many dark phases; but whereas the boy had been resilient, events involving Nora cause him to descend into anger and despair. In portraying how crushing adult disappointments can be, Cronin drops his detachment. This change in tone may be justified, but I found it jarring. I was also disappointed with the hurried and scattered summarization that ends the book. Still, these missteps didn’t detract significantly from what is a truthful and highly readable piece of storytelling. As an indication of my involvement, I was often tempted to flip ahead a few pages to find out what happened next in this boy’s life.

Cress Delahanty - Jessamyn West
These interconnected stories (in the 1940s and ’50s they were parceled out as such to various magazines, including The New Yorker) follow a girl’s life from age twelve to eighteen. I survived the first pages, in which the budding young poet rhapsodizes, because I sighted the solid presence of her parents in the background. And once we get down to ordinary events I enjoyed a book which is – imagine this! – about a happy family. Mr. and Mrs. Delahanty love one another, are financially secure, and have no neuroses or health problems. I liked them; I liked the gentle humor (mostly embedded in dialogue); I liked the setting (a Southern California orange ranch). And I liked Cress. At least, I liked her in her younger years. At each stage she faces a situation and grows from it. This works nicely when the concerns are basically light and innocent. But when boys and sex get to be serious issues I lost touch. So, I think, did the author; from age fifteen on the episodes seem to be the product not of enthusiasm but of perseverance, with the goal being a full-length novel. This is most glaring in the brief final chapter, in which the dying grandfather makes a belated return appearance in order to impart the requisite message. The initial buoyancy and charm of this book was refreshing, but those elements waned with the onset of maturity. Kind of like in real life.

Strangers and Brothers - C. P. Snow
On the first page I was fully involved in a predicament; on the fourth page the main character, George Passant, makes a forceful appearance. In spite of personal risk to his position as an assistant solicitor in a law firm, George defends someone he believes is being unfairly victimized. This act of impetuous generosity makes a lasting impression (as does the celebration afterwards, when he takes a group of young men to a house of ill-repute, where all the girls know him by name). We soon learn that George has a lofty mission: he wants to teach his followers to break free of society’s conventions. All this was interesting in a cerebral way; there’s not much physical action but plenty of psychological ins and outs. Snow seemed to be exploring the question of what makes a life valuable, which is a laudable aim. But endings are important, and in the last sixty pages the book loses the precision and clarity that had been Snow’s strength. The closing scenes take place in a courtroom, where George is being tried for a petty swindle. Eliot, the first-person narrator – whose role throughout was to observe and give his judicious impressions – had always emphasized George’s strengths over his flaws, so when he demotes him to a mere self-deceiver all that has gone before is reduced to a misrepresentation. People’s attitudes begin flipping about; the narrator is suddenly endowed with the power of omniscience; we get a jumble of repetitive exposition. Ten more novels make up the Strangers and Brothers series, and this one closes on a note that suggests we haven’t seen the last of George. Eliot (once again in the ranks of an admirer) thinks “. . . both he and I were still eager for what life would bring him.” Though I don’t share their eagerness, I am curious.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Tarry Flynn - Patrick Kavanagh
This is not (as I initially thought) just a comic look at Irish villagers in the early 1900s. When Tarry asks his sister what she thinks of a girl he’s interested in, her answer – “Isn’t she only a lump of dung like the rest of us?” – is both amusing and scathing. The melee going on in Dargan is partially an outgrowth of a repressive culture that distorts people who already have an abundance of flaws. While the novel cannot be easily categorized, neither can the main character. Tarry is selfish – he admits that he lacks genuine sympathy for anyone but himself – yet he’s deeply moved by nature’s glories. He’s a hard worker (the scenes of farm labor impart an authenticity), yet he’s a dreamer who writes poetry. He’s petty yet perceptive, a buffoon yet a questioner of the meaning of existence. Though he must escape from the village where he’s spent twenty-seven years of his life, he’s aware of those aspects of happiness and beauty that he’s leaving behind, and on the final page a poem evokes “the pain of roots dragging up.” Before that comes Tarry’s parting from his mother. This sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued woman had been a rambunctious presence throughout the book. A lesser author would have her say more than eighteen words. But if the eighteen words are the exact right ones, they can be heartbreaking. It’s called art. *

Preparations for the Ascent - Gilbert Rogin
There’s no forward-moving plot in Ascent, just a procession of highly idiosyncratic musings. A self-indulgent work like this (Gilbert chose to name his main character Albert) will run aground if the reader becomes disaffected with the person whose mind he’s in. Chapter Six begins with “The bedroom floor creaks alarmingly when Albert does his push-ups. What if it gave way and he descended, outstretched, into the apartment below like a poorly coordinated quattrocento angel?” A page and a half later he’s still on his imaginary descent, because he conjures up the idea that he’s falling through time, into the rooms of his past. Later Albert is standing in the shower “energetically shaking a bottle of shampoo under the mistaken impression it is Italian dressing.” Then he visits his twenty-eight-year-old girl friend, the Human Dynamo. He contemplates causality; his operative number is thirty-two, though multiples are admissible. His riff on numbers terminates in, “Now, making love to the Human Dynamo, Albert executes one hundred and twenty-eight strokes.” Gazing at the sleeping woman he thinks “So had Sardanapalus surveyed the tumult and wreckage of his life.” I took my sampling of vagaries from this chapter because it marked the point at which I had my fill of an author who was constantly insisting “See how inventive I am? See how I can find in the flossing of teeth a goldmine of imagery?” Rogin also puts his intelligence on prominent display; we get phrases in foreign languages, words like “sheolic” and “aposiopesis,” and references to literary and philosophical luminaries (Goethe, Baudelaire, Heidegger, Kant, et al). But he fails to make Albert more than an agglomeration of unlikely peculiarities. I began to ask practical questions, such as why this forty-five-year-old man doesn’t spend any time at a job, and why so many women pop into bed with him. Most important, is he experiencing pain and despair? This is purported to be the case, but it’s the book’s most glaring falsity; Albert seems mighty pleased with himself. A bit of research revealed that Rogin was managing editor of Sports Illustrated and later held a corporate editorial position for Time, Inc. When I learned that seven of the eleven chapters of this novel first appeared in The New Yorker I was moved to indulge in my own flight of fancy; it featured two Insiders in the world of publishing having a genial lunch at “21.”

Generosity – Richard Powers
Powers takes an intriguing subject – happiness – and explores it from three perspectives: personal, scientific and philosophical. The book opens with Russell Stone meeting his writing class at an art school in Chicago. One of his students – an Algerian named Thassa – radiates an ingrained joyousness. That this character is entirely believable and grounded is Powers’ major achievement. The early scenes had a glow, and at page fifty I was enthusiastic about this novel; by page one hundred, less so. Powers is an expansive writer; it’s not his nature to keep things small. So we get a scientist named Thomas Kurton who’s trying to find (and patent) a “happiness gene.” We get Tonia Schiff, who hosts a popular science-based TV show. And Thassa is propelled onto the worldwide stage; she even appears on the Oona Show. Think Oprah – and yes, this is a bit silly, mainly because Thassa wouldn’t expose herself to public scrutiny. But she must act (or be acted upon) in unlikely ways for Powers to enlarge the field of inquiry. The diverse strands he throws into the mix – DNA microarrays, exotic Middle Eastern locales, the pervasiveness of the internet, etcetera – amounted to so much white noise. If Powers the novelist had stayed in charge he wouldn’t have allowed Stone and Thassa to become less than they were in the classroom scenes, nor would he introduce a portentous and melodramatic tone. Unfortunately, Powers the thinker winds up calling the shots.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Interpreter of Maladies - Jhumpa Lahiri
After reading five of the nine stories I was convinced that none of the others would rouse enthusiasm from me. Lahiri is too careful, safe, diligent; the absence of a wayward strain in her work results in a bland, muted quality, and her endings trail off because there’s nothing forceful to build upon. I’m not advocating eye-gouging fiction; but a story that’s dutifully obedient to the rules of good fiction won’t rise to excellence. Another Lahiri shortcoming – a more serious one, but possibly attributable to youth – is evident in the title story, which was the last I read. Early on I was hopeful; it had an engaging premise and its satirizing of two tourists in India was done with an uncustomary zest. But it foundered badly due to the author’s lack of insight into how people think and feel. Would the tour guide become so enamored of the wife (who is depicted as callous and crass) just because she shows a sudden interest in him? Would he fantasize about the two of them leaving their spouses and children and becoming soul mates? Is he fifteen years old? And would she confess the secret of her unfaithfulness to this stranger? We’re asked to believe that his profession – he’s employed by a doctor to interpret the symptoms of Gujarati patients – makes him, in her eyes, qualified to offer “some kind of remedy” for her pain. No, sorry, no basis. To top things off, would adults be so stupid as to allow their children to play with wild monkeys? After some silliness involving sticks and the stamping of feet, the story ends with a textbook moment: the tour guide’s dreams flutter away in the wind. Lahiri’s dreams had a better fate: this debut collection won the Pulitzer Prize.

Black Boy - Richard Wright
On one level this is an exploration of the formation and development of a personalty; on another it’s a study of race relations in the South during the Depression. On both levels it succeeds to a remarkable degree, and that’s because Wright possessed two rare qualities: honesty and perceptiveness. What he has to say – much of it raw and ugly – is shaped by an orderly mind; this is a book with no roadblocks to understanding. In the first half Wright is a small boy, and most of his interactions are with other Blacks. He’s not sympathetic or generous in his depiction of his own race. (I wondered, when I came across a rant at the beginning of Chapter Two, whether certain paragraphs had been censored from the original published version; they contain a sweeping condemnation of the Negro – or, rather, the Southern Negro of the time – and begin with “I used to mull over the strange absence of real kindness in Negroes . . .”). The Negro is ruled by a fear that is almost obsessive; it engenders a deep conservatism, a mentality that says, “You can’t.” When Wright is older and dependent on Whites for jobs, he’s subjected to abuse of such virulence that it’s a jolt to our twenty-first century sensibilities. Wright is constantly on guard, knowing he must conform, must play the role assigned to him or face physical violence, even death. Besides fear, hunger is an unremitting presence in his life. There’s hunger for food (from childhood he never had sufficient food), but as he grows into manhood he develops a hunger for the freedom to be himself and also to be intellectually free. When he’s finally able to get the use of a library card we see the awakening of a famished mind; in novels this isolated young man finds, at long last, others he can relate to. Black Boy reads beautifully; scenes and dialogue come across with immediacy and power, and even minor characters stake out their presence. In an unobtrusive way this book attains the status of an American classic. *

Something of Myself - Rudyard Kipling
This short autobiographical piece was the last thing Kipling wrote. His twisty prose relies on a lot of negatives (a principle “ends not seldom in bloodshed”) and he frames his thoughts in an oblique way (“Thus I often lived alone in the big house, where I commanded by choice native food, as less revolting than meat-cookery, and so added indigestion to my more intimate possessions”). Though initially refreshing, too much of this self-conscious preening became tiresome. Kipling comes across as likable fellow, but as he moves into adulthood he avoids disclosing anything intimate and mostly traces his writing career. Success came easily – from the start there was an audience for his picaresque tales and poems. His receiving the Nobel Prize was probably the worst thing that happened to him, as it led to disparagement of his work. Based on the one story I read, a flaming mess called “The Man Who Would Be King,” the criticism was justified. I think his true domain was as a jingoist and a writer for children. He does manage to end his last book in a striking and dramatic way – by stating that air routes on his globe were “well in use before my death.”

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Good Behaviour - Molly Keane
In the opening chapter Aroon serves a mousse made with rabbit to her mother (who can’t stand rabbit), and the old lady promptly dies. The servant, Rose, accuses Aroon of murder and a variety of other despicable acts that go back many years. Aroon, who claims that “All my life I have done everything for the best reasons and for the most unselfish motives,” decides to review her life; perhaps, she thinks, “I shall understand more about what became of us.” Her remembrances make up the entirety of the novel. The Aroon who emerges isn’t the person she believes herself to be. Unable to face dismal reality, she becomes adept at self-delusion (“I know how to build the truth”). Unloved and unvalued, she needs to be needed; she even wants people to suffer so they will rely on her for sympathy. Despite such warped self-centeredness, Aroon isn’t a hateful character. We see how emotional deprivation twists her into what she becomes. The most guilty party is the mother, with her elegant, poised cruelty. The other characters are also captured with wonderful accuracy, as is the setting (the horse-obsessed world of the Irish gentry in the 1920s). The section that deals with Aroon’s One Great Love is handled perfectly. Her brother Hubert’s friend, Richard, comes for an extended stay at the family estate. The young men include Aroon in most of their activities, and she comes to believe that Richard has romantic feelings for her. One night he creeps into her room (and then into her virginal bed); this is a painful scene, for Richard has no intention (or desire) to do anything sexual. He’s just trying to get the family off the scent of the truth: that he and Hubert are lovers. Aroon is being used, but she rejects that ugly fact; all her life she holds onto the belief that she and Richard shared a deep bond. Despite all the sadness and cruelty in this book, it has an abundance of color and verve. I sometimes wondered, “Can Keane keep it up?” She couldn’t. The disasters which ensue when Aroon attends a Hunt Ball are depicted in prose that goes way over the top. Extravagance works, but not a jumble of overwrought emotions. What also suffers is logic; in the closing pages improbable events and loose ends abound. It’s as if Keane let the reins fall slack in her hands and the horse went plunging along. But even with these missteps, the pleasures to be found in Good Behaviour are unique ones. And to think that Keane wrote it when she was in her late seventies, after a literary silence of over two decades. Maybe this dark, rich brew was percolating all that time.

Ada - Vladimir Nabokov
In trying to account for the flaws in this novel – flaws born of self-indulgence and excess – I concluded that the financial success of Lolita freed Nabokov from having to please anybody but himself. He subjects the reader to his dalliances and digressions, his overly-fecund imagination, his obsession with words and wordplay. His premise – that a fourteen-year-old boy and a twelve-year-old girl fall in passionate love (and have passionate sex, constantly) – is unconvincing; that the children are (he would have us believe) brilliant and sophisticated and precocious doesn’t justify giving them adult emotions. Despite the posh trappings (everybody is fabulously wealthy), the book has a grubby quality; the use of elegant prose to describe gross carnality turns out to be the literary equivalent of dressing a toad in lace. The plot is both extremely complicated and irrelevant. Language is what matters in Ada, and it’s with language that Vlad impales the poor reader. Not only are sentences long and circuitous, but pretty much every page has a sprinkling (sometimes a cascade) of French and Russian; many English words were unknown to me. So why did I get four hundred pages into this six hundred page book? Because I respect the author and thought I should read what he considered his magnus opus. Also, there are brilliant scenes and stretches when the fog lifts and we’re in the hands of Nabokov the Genius. But there was much too much of Nabokov the Bore. A gluttonous bore to boot; when he adds a sci-fi angle I knew that his appetite for complexities had no bounds. At one point Van asks Ada what her IQ is and she answers, “Two hundred and something. A sensational figure.” Maybe this book is meant for people with sensational IQs (or pretenders). Nabokov’s failure is such that, when I called it quits, I had absolutely no interest in his two protagonists, and the grande amour he tried so hard to evoke had fallen flat on its puss (face, American slang). I didn’t even bother to skim what remained, though I did check out the ending and was surprised at what I found. For a full page Nabokov – in plain English, finally – extols the virtues of Ada. One sample: “Nothing in world literature, save maybe Count Tolstoy’s reminiscences, can vie in pure joyousness and Arcadian innocence with the ‘Ardis’ part of this book.” Seems His Arrogance had doubts and felt the need to defend his work. But, sad to say, this turgid and bloated novel is indefensible.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

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

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

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

Monday, August 4, 2014

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

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

Monday, July 28, 2014

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

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

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

Monday, July 14, 2014

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

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

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

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

Friday, May 30, 2014

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

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

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

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

Thursday, May 1, 2014

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

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

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

Thursday, April 17, 2014

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

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

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

Friday, March 14, 2014

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

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

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