Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Nemesis – Philip Roth
After the publication of Nemesis Roth stated that he would write no more novels. Did the timing of his decision have anything to do with this book? Did he labor over it? Did he see signs of failing powers? Or did he feel it constituted a final statement? His last work has none of the wildness, humor, vulgarity and verbal inventiveness of Portnoy’s Complaint. But Portnoy was a warped arrow on an extended rant, while Mr. Cantor (Bucky) is a very straight arrow; morally, he always tries to do that which is honorable. He and his fiancee have sex; but, since love is motivating them, it’s treated with respect and restraint. On a few occasions minor characters spout some bad language, but never Bucky. The stilted, formal quality of the prose reflects Mr. Cantor’s personality (the same could be said for the absence of humor in the book). That he’s a plodder, and predictable, doesn’t make Bucky uninteresting. About those two names – he’s Mr. Cantor in the opening section, entitled “Equatorial Newark.” In the second section, “Indian Hill” (a children’s summer camp in the Poconos), Mr. Cantor becomes Bucky. The plot revolves around the polio epidemic that ravaged parts of our country in the summer of 1944. Though powerless, Bucky tries to do the right thing. He wavers once – in choosing to leave the hard-hit Jewish section of Newark for the safety of Indian Hill (and the arms of Marcia). The peacefulness of life in the summer camp left me unprepared when Roth shifts into another gear, and we’re propelled along by an urgent rush of events. Things end abruptly, and suddenly we’re in the closing section – “Reunion.” The reunion takes place twenty-seven years later and is between a first person narrator and Mr. Cantor. I found this section to be moving. I won’t go into why, or what had become of Bucky (and Marcia). In this expertly-constructed novel an emotional reevaluation occurred for me; it wasn’t until the last sixty pages that I knew how much I cared about Bucky. Going back to my opening questions: maybe Nemesis does contain a closing statement. At the playground where Bucky taught phys ed the boys saw him as “easygoing, kind, fair-minded, thoughtful, stable, gentle, vigorous, muscular.” To them he was both exemplary and revered. They also saw him as invincible, and in this they were wrong. The two nemeses Bucky cannot defeat are the fiend which inflicts suffering (he calls it God) and his own uncompromising sense of justice.

The Mosquito Coast – Paul Theroux
Theroux created a great character in Allie Fox. On the first page, as Allie drives along with his thirteen-year-old son (who narrates the story), he talks constantly about the awfulness of America. His emphatic opinions cover the whole spectrum of modern life. When in the town of Hatfield, he spots a woman: “Look at Tugboat Annie over there, the size of her. She’s so big that it would only take eleven of her kind to make a dozen. But that’s fat – that’s not health. That’s cheeseburgers.” He leans out the window and hollers, “That’s cheeseburgers!” That’s Allie. He often calls himself “the last man” because only he can see clearly. He talks constantly, but he’s more than talk. He can do just about anything of a practical nature: fix an engine, build a house, set up an irrigation system. He’s also an inventor, and the first invention we learn about is something he calls the Worm Tub; it can make ice without electricity. Because he’s convinced that the so-called “civilized” world is headed for extinction, he decides to take his family (wife, two boys, twin girls) to some wild outpost where he can build his own civilization from scratch. And so we wind up in Honduras. For a good stretch I found this interesting, though some nagging doubts began to surface. The rapid transformation of a raw piece of jungle into a smoothly-functioning community with all the amenities (including flush toilets) didn’t hold up to scrutiny. Allie builds a huge version of the Worm Tub, called Big Boy, and too much importance is assigned to this contraption. As disasters piled up and a murky, apocalyptic tone set in, I began to wish that the book had been a hundred pages shorter and that we had never left Hatfield. I got tired of Allie’s growing insanity, I got tired of jungles, I got tired of people talking in patois: “It were puppysho. Them people jump everyways and we ain’t get a dum bit of peace.” My disaffection was capped off by a melodramatic ending (gunplay, a getaway car). Allie had always detested and feared vultures – “Scavengers!” – but the last we see of him a vulture is ripping out his tongue. I had come to dislike the man, but obviously not as much as the author did. Theroux is a good writer who lacks good judgment; this includes the restraint to know when enough is enough. As a result that which started out so well winds up getting buried in puppyshoo.

Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It – Maile Meloy
I checked this collection from the library because its lead off story was one I had liked when I read it in The New Yorker. But “Travis, B.” turned out to be the only good piece in the collection. The loneliness of the main character came across; his need for love from someone who has nothing to give him was sad; at the end he looks at her telephone number he had jotted down, then “he did what he knew he should do, and rolled it in a ball, and threw it away.” Though the tone is muted, we get inside Chet, and so we care about his predicament and his feelings. Meloy deals mostly in understatement and small events, but this works only when an undercurrent of some emotion emerges. Except for that one story, this doesn’t happen. Here’s a sampling of the comments I jotted down after finishing the others: “Goes nowhere,” “No kick,” “I don’t care about these people,” “Inconclusive,” “Pointless.” In “The Girlfriend” she amps up the level of intensity, but gaping holes in logic render the whole thing silly. With three stories unread, I decided to give “Nine” a last chance. (BTW, I think that Meloy needs to hire a title coach.) It’s told from the point of view of a young girl observing her divorced mother’s relationship with her “new lover.” He seems OK; he has a son the girl likes; the mother and boyfriend have some undefined problems; they separate; while mother and daughter are gone the man breaks into their house to retrieve a necklace and some photographs; he also destroys her vegetable garden. In this synopsis of events I haven’t left much out; you don’t need to read the story to get more because there’s not much more there. Meloy is, of course, a MFA product (she dedicates the book to Geoffrey Wolff, her teacher and mentor at UC Irvine; before Wolff she studied under Richard Ford at Harvard). She gets encouragement – fistfuls of awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship – so she will write on. According to the Boston Globe she “may be the first great realist of the twenty-first century.” I find those words ominous. Going back to “Travis, B.,” part of the reason I originally liked it was due to shock: I had actually found a good story on the pages of The New Yorker. Imagine that!

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Way Home – Henry Handel Richardson
In this second installment of Richardson’s trilogy there’s less of the sprawl found in Australia Felix. Richard Mahoney and his wife Mary (previously Polly) are the main focus. As for what befalls them, they move to England (despite Mary’s protests); Richard hates it there, so they return to Australia; some stock he has in a mine takes off and overnight he becomes a wealthy man; he stops practicing medicine and builds his dream house, which he calls Ultima Thule; Mary gives birth to a son and twin girls. It all sounds wonderful, right? Wrong, and this is due to Richard’s congenitally dissatisfied and restless nature. Mary, no longer the seventeen-year-old girl who idolized Richard, begins to openly rebel at having to deal with his “unreckonable impulses.” Richard feels that she’s a narrow person with whom he doesn’t share one single interest, liking or point of view. Arguments occur with growing frequency; when Richard begins attending seances (in which, among tilting tables, the dead speak through a medium), Mary expresses her exasperation: “. . . if these really are spirits who came back, it doesn’t make me think much of heaven. That the dead can still take an interest in such silly, footling things!” Despite the rift in their relationship, Richard never loses sight of Mary’s inherent goodness, and she’s bound to a man who has been the central figure in her life. On the closing page, as matters start on a downward plunge, Mary feels a “fierce uprush of pity for him, so solitary, so self-centered, so self-tormented. Oh, that he might be spared the worst!” I don’t think the author will spare Richard anything. I’ll soon find out, for I’m going directly to Ultima Thule. *

Ultima Thule – Henry Handel Richardson
Richard entrusts the investment of his money to a crook, and as a result he and Mary are left in greatly reduced circumstances. He begins practicing medicine again. He moves here and there; his initial enthusiasm for a new place blinds him to practicalities; when he becomes disillusioned (and he always does), he plunges into the depths of despair. This recurring sequence wears thin for Mary; she feels bitterness as she hears him waxing eloquent about some half-baked scheme; no matter what she says, he will do as he pleases, and she and the children will suffer the consequences. She begins to tell him the truth about himself, to put into heavy words that which he doesn’t want to hear. This flawed man is under great stress; he suffers one disappointment after another, one step down the social ladder after another; he feels the debilitating inroads of age. But all that doesn’t support the abrupt mental disintegration that takes place. When he’s with Mary he’s either argumentative or contrite, but he’s a coherent human being. Alone he’s tormented, fear-racked. When things finally descend to the point where he loses touch with reality, he became inexplicable to me. It’s here that Mary fills the void. She’s no saint (her no-nonsense attitude toward life has a harsh side), but what’s impressive is her loyalty to husband and children and her determination to make the best of things. There’s a third character who plays an important role. Cuffy, their son, observes his parents, and through his reactions we can feel the enormous emotional toll their problems are having on him. At the end Mary takes the lowly job of postmistress at a desolate township. She rescues Richard from an insane asylum, but there’s nothing left of this once-prideful man. Mentally and physically he’s in a near-vegetative state. Yet, on his death bed, he rouses himself to utter his last words: “Dear wife!” These words, to Mary, are like “balsam on her heart. All his love for her, his gratitude for her, were in them: they were her reward, and a full and ample one, for a lifetime of unwearied sacrifice.” On one level I didn’t believe that this broken man would be capable of uttering those words. At the end of the last novel of the trilogy Richardson lets her intense feelings take over. But those feelings were ones I had come to share, so I accepted a last affirmation. *

The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney – Henry Handel Richardson
Ethel Florence Lindesey Richardson was born into an affluent family in Melbourne. Her father was a doctor (as was Richard Mahoney); he was committed to an mental asylum (as was Richard); he died of syphilis. At the time of his death Ethel was nine (as was Cuffy; and, like Cuffy, she was a musical prodigy). Her mother took up work as a postmistress (as did Mary). This novel clearly drew from the author’s personal experiences. There’s one element missing from the fictional story: syphilis. And it is exactly that disease which would account for Richard’s rapid mental deterioration. But, in the context of the story, there was no way it could play a role. Peter Craven, in his lively Introduction to the Text Classics edition of the trilogy, describes Richardson’s use of the skeletons in her closet as “gargantuan and unbalanced.” These words are not to be taken in a negative sense; they convey the book’s bursting-at-the-seams quality. He also notes that the author “chose to embrace naturalism at precisely the moment when those conventions died.” The novels that make up Fortunes were published between 1917 and 1929, a time when a different sensibility – that of Proust and Joyce – was changing the literary landscape. Craven characterizes the author’s style as “stately, rhythmical, visually precise and full of the points of view and idioms of the characters it wrestles with.” It is also “high, nearly stiff” and “incorporates a good deal of European polish.” (Think of Mann’s Buddenbrooks.) “It’s a workmanlike technique but the cumulative effect, through every detail of the articulation, is one of truth.” The truth includes a picture of Australian life that is exceedingly bleak. (Richardson left her native country when she was eighteen and came back only once, to do research for Fortunes; the Great Australian Novel was written by an exile.) Craven describes Richardson’s accomplishment as a “big, blind stumbling block of a novel, this love letter written in blood and bile to a vanished Australia and the father whose ghost would always be heard.” *

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

A Hero of Our Time – Mikhail Lermontov (Russian)
A young man wrote this book. A talented young man who would surely outgrow the juvenile posing that mars his portrayal of the reckless, handsome, world-weary hero. Pechorin is highly critical of his many faults, but in a romanticized way. As a result, the probing into his character merely reveals one devil of a dangerous fellow (especially to women). In a long letter from an ex-lover, we see Lermontov’s conceit in full bloom (for he, not Vera, wrote the letter to Pechorin): “One who has loved you once cannot look at other men without a certain disdain, not because you are better than they – oh no! But there is some singular quality in your nature, something particular to you, something proud and mysterious.” In “Princess Mary” (the story which makes up more than half of the book) Pechorin engages in a prolonged and calculated seduction, but when he achieves his goal he kills the love that Mary has for him with the words, “Princess, did you know that I have been laughing at you?” He also kills a rival in a duel. He seems somewhat upset by his destructive actions, but accepts them as inexplicable aspects of his complex nature. Lermotov is credited with introducing psychological insight into fiction (though the novel came out in 1840, it has a modern feel; the prose, in particular, is not at all dated). He may have introduced psychological issues, but others would have to provide the insights. Pechorin is said to be the prototype of the existential man, but I’ve never figured out what that was. This author’s fame rests partly on his early death. Being killed in a duel at age twenty-six is a romantic way to go, and tends to create a legend.

The Touchstone – Edith Wharton
Since Wharton’s was thirty-eight when she wrote her first novel (Touchstone is a mere eighty-two pages long), youth can’t be blamed for how bad it is. The influence of Austen and Henry James is evident in the wordy and convoluted prose: “He had never been more impressed by the kind of absoluteness that lifted her beauty above the transient effects of other women, making the most harmonious face seem an accidental collocation of features.” But the main fault lies in the premise and its repercussions. Glennard has in his possession letters written by Margaret Aubyn, a now-deceased Famous Woman Author. In order to get money to marry Alexa, he sells the letters; they’re published without his identity being revealed; they cause a sensation. I reread the pages that allude to the content of these “shocking” letters; though Wharton keeps it vague, it’s clear they aren’t passionate love letters, nor do they put the woman’s soul on display. But after Glennard marries Alexa, he begin to suffer from guilt about what he’s done. It grows until he’s “tortured” and “anguished.” Initially he tries to conceal his act from Alexa; then he begins to do things to reveal to her the “damnable, accursed” sin he has committed. In the course of this agonizing his feelings toward his wife change: love turns into indifference, then abhorrence sets in. At the same time he begins to moon about the dead author (he sits by her grave, feeling close to her). The ending is full of impassioned verbiage and makes no more sense than any of the nonsense that precedes it. If Wharton had written a comic novel about a madman, she wouldn’t have had to change much. One last note: two references are made to a child. I hunted down these pages. Yes, a nursery and a baby are mentioned. Apparently, in all the hubbub about the letters, the baby got lost.

No Fond Return of Love – Barbara Pym
If you haven’t read any Pym, don’t start with this novel, for you won’t find her virtues on display here. It’s a meandering and purposeless effort, with too many characters and too many strands of plot. Worse, I didn’t believe in the people nor what they did. Since I found reading the book a bit depressing, I wondered about Pym’s state of mind when she wrote it. At times – and this is atypical of her – there are glimmers of cynicism and malice (which, actually, constitute the only interesting moments, because the rest is plodding). In a tacked-on “happy” ending Pym asks us to accept one of the most unconvincing love matches in fiction. I think she knew how lame it was, for she adds a short addenda in which we’re in the mind of a minor character. He hears a taxi but is not quick enough to get to his window to see Aylwin emerge with a bunch of flowers and Dulcie open the door for him. Last lines of the novel: “He took a mauve sugared almond out of a bag and sucked it thoughtfully, wondering what, if anything, he had missed.” He didn’t miss a thing.

Father and Son – Edmund Gosse
In this book, subtitled “A Study of Two Temperaments,” Gosse examines his relationship with his father, beginning with his earliest memories and ending when he leaves home at seventeen. In the mid-1800s Philip Gosse was a noted biologist, but his thoughts and emotions were dominated by his zealous religiosity. He tried to instill his beliefs in his only son; moreover, he convinced himself that the boy was one of the anointed. Initially Edmund tries to fulfill the role his father has in mind for him, but as he matures he begins to harbor doubts about religion; he goes so far as to engage in private acts which test his father’s dogma (he worships a chair and then awaits God’s punishment; none comes). Edmund will go on to lead a worldly life in London; the father is disappointed, but grants him his freedom. The author of the Introduction claims that Father and Son “describes the horrors of a Puritan upbringing.” I wonder if he read the same book I did. We all grow up affected by our parents’ flaws and limitations. Edmund had an odd upbringing, with demands and repressiveness, but he was never mistreated, nor was he unhappy. Though his father was a reserved man not given to displays of affection, Edmund always knew that he was loved. I found much that is almost idyllic in his childhood. Edmund’s mother shared her husband’s religious fervor; but what struck me forcefully was how perfectly matched these two were; the boy grew up in a house where there was contentment based on a deep, quiet affection. His mother dies (cancer); years later Philip remarries, and Edmund’s stepmother is another beneficent presence. This isn’t a lugubrious book; on the contrary, Gosse presents many events in a humorous light. At age ten Edmund is baptized (which, in the sect of the Brethren, is only done to adults who experience a momentous religious awakening). He’s made an exception because, his father reasons to the congregation, in early infancy his son already had “knowledge of the Lord” and had “possessed an insight into the plan of salvation.” After little Edmund’s baptizement, the boy immediately becomes “puffed out with a sense of my own holiness.” He begins to lecture his father, to treat the servants haughtily, and to mock his young friends. In other words, he becomes an insufferable prig.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Miss Peabody’s Inheritance – Elizabeth Jolley
In all of Jolley’s work the characters, plot, structure, and grammar are idiosyncratic. In this novel she blurs the line separating reality from fiction. In the domain of reality we have Dorothy Peabody reading parts of a novel by an author to whom she wrote a fan letter. Miss Peabody is a spinster caring for a bedridden, demanding mother; she works as a clerk in an office in London. Actually, she has no life, whereas the fictional characters she reads about – Arabella Thorne, the headmistress of a girls’ school, and her assorted companions and students – are quite lively. Diana Hopewell, the creator of Arabella, sends letters with installments of the novel to her fan, but she remains in the shadows. Dorothy, in her letters to Hopewell, tries to establish some sort of relationship; but this won’t happen. Sadly (and I did feel the sadness) Miss Peabody is unable to make contact with others; when she tries (with the help of too many drinks) she makes a fool of herself. As a reader, she’s limited by her inexperience; she doesn’t understand that Miss Thorne is a lesbian. A confident, unabashed lesbian; the matter-of-fact way this is presented is refreshing. The book’s opening line is “The night belongs to the novelist.” Not only does Miss Peabody need to enter the life of Arabella each night, but the author must (it’s also clearly a need) create this life. Lastly, in order to exist, Arabella must be created. On the first page Jolley offers a quote from Samuel Johnson (via Boswell): “The flesh of animals who feed excursively is allowed to have a higher flavour than that who are cooped up. May there not be the same difference between men who read as their taste prompts, and men who are confined in cells and colleges to stated tasks . . .” My spell checker is claiming that Johnson meant “exclusively” rather than “excursively.” No – Johnson is referring to wandering far and wide in one’s reading. Jolley must believe this to be true, and so do I. If you read excursively, every so often you come across unique books like this one.

Lost Horizon – James Hilton
Shangri-La. That evocative name first appeared in this novel, which was published in 1933. The date may be significant. England was in the throes of the Great Depression and another war loomed on the horizon; people (including the author) may have felt the need to escape to a place of peace and serenity. Such a place – which is really a state of mind – can be reached (according the book’s message) only when one gives up all passions. This is something that the main character is quite ready to do. Conway has experienced the peaks and abysses of life, and when he arrives at Shangri-La he’s a depleted man. He finds an enclave where culture is preserved (against the threat of an imminent holocaust) and where people live for over a century (enabling them to engage in intellectual or artistic pursuits at their leisure). Unfortunately, Hilton didn’t get me to believe in or accept his utopia. One problem involves logic and logistics. We never know why Conway and three others are selected to be additions to Shangri-La, and the manner in which they arrive (a wild plane ride ending in a crash-landing) is preposterous. The lamasery is extremely inaccessible, yet it has bathtubs (made in Akron), a piano, central heating, etcetera. We get the vaguest of explanations as to how these items were transported there; the same could be said for why people are able to live long lives. A vagueness – or call it skimpiness – runs throughout the novel. No character has much presence, and Hilton doesn’t go into basics, such as what the sleeping arrangements are or what foods are eaten. From the little I did get, the prospect of living a century in this passionless place seemed like a colossal bore; when Conway isn’t dealing with his three companions he spends his time conversing with wise old llamas or gazing at the scenery. Last niggling complaint: the portrayal of the one American is farcical; the man is supposed to be a financier, yet he talks like a yokel (“figgered, “gotter”). All in all, this is a tepid work written by a man who seems not inspired but resigned and tired.

Bob the Gambler – Frederick Barthelme
Bob and his wife Jewel are people I came to know and like. RV, Jewel’s daughter, manages to avoid being a stereotype (no easy accomplishment for a fourteen-year-old who’s testing limits), and Bob’s mother is a plucky old gal. I stayed unflaggingly involved in and concerned about their problems – the main one being an addiction to gambling. From what I (a non-gambler) could see, Bob and Jewel lead lives that offer little stimulation (they have no interest in their jobs, they watch a lot of TV and videos). So losing huge sums of money (and they do, in every case, come out losers) provides a kind of thrill. Also, the casinos are worlds unto themselves, with a peculiar sense of comradery. Jewel starts gambling first, then Bob joins in with a vengeance. Their marriage is a good one; they’re a companionable pair who talk the same quirky language. When Bob begins to squander their life savings, Jewel remains calm, understanding and forgiving. I thought she should have thrown a fit, but she’s not me. At heart they seem to be irresponsible, devil-may-care souls. When they wind up moving into Bob’s mother’s house, they don’t get bent out of shape. Barthelme ends the novel on a prolonged upbeat note; Bob stops gambling, he starts doing some architecturally-related work, he grows closer to RV (who’s evolving into a human being). Not much going on, but I had no complaints. Jewel does, at the end, produce a big wad of cash and makes this proposal: “Ka-boom! We are back in the danger zone, on the red-hot wire high above the city of Biloxi, Mississippi, swaying in the wind. I say we stop at the Paradise and go for the big one.” She wants to play one hand for all they’ve got and then, win or lose, walk. Do they win or lose? The scene in the casino is skipped over. Afterwards Jewel says, “We won. They didn’t lay a glove on us. We just had to clean out that little bit that was left over, and now we’re set.” She may mean that they lost it all but they don’t care. The uncertainty as to what happened works, as does so much in this well-written, fast-moving book. Even the dog, Frank, is given his rightful place in an oddly endearing family.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Cheri – Colette (French)
The novel opens with Lea in bed, Cheri capering about the room, insisting that she give him her pearl necklace: “It looks every bit as well on me as on you — even better!” Cheri then announces that the necklace would be part of his trousseau. Lea, a worldly courtesan, seems unfazed by the news of his marriage. Lea is forty-nine, Cheri is twenty-five, and they’ve had a sexual affair for six years. What, considering the age difference, could she expect, except that he move on? But theirs is a perverted bond, and neither will be able to move on. Cheri (who never had a real mother) has the mentality of a twelve-year-old; he isn’t fit to be anything but an indulged boy. Lea (who never had a child) sees time eroding her beauty; she knows that soon she will be physically unattractive to Cheri (or any other young man), and she can’t accept that loss. After his marriage, when he and Lea are apart, the depth of their mutual dependency asserts itself. In presenting us with an unsolvable dilemma Colette is at times overly-emotional, but her conviction is impressive; it made me wonder if she had experienced such a relationship. Underneath a thin veil of lace this is a brutal and ugly novel. When Lea observes aged courtesans desperately trying to hold onto their youth she sees monsters. And of the lives they lead: “She had a foretaste of the sinful pleasures of the old – little else than a concealed aggressiveness, day-dreams of murder, and the keen recurring hope for catastrophes.” This, she fears, is what awaits her. In the closing scene Lea tells Cheri to go back to his wife: “And you will talk to her like a master, not capriciously, like a gigolo. Quick, quick, run off. . . .” He leaves, and Lea watches him from a window, sees him “throw back his head, look at the spring sky and the chestnut trees in flower and fill his lungs with the fresh air, like a man escaping from prison.” And so, on this hopeful note, the book ends. To be continued, in a novel written six years later.

The Last of Cheri – Colette (French)
Lea makes one appearance, when Cheri visits her. She has given up any attempt to preserve her looks; she’s gray-haired and fat. Though this meeting opens up wounds for her, she seems to have survived quite well without Cheri. He, on the other hand, is little more than a wraith, inexplicable even to himself. This inexplicability makes for exasperating reading. Unlike the other wealthy characters in the book, who live the “bustling life of people with nothing to do,” Cheri has become jaded and stagnant. He’s also celibate; his feelings for his wife (and everyone else) are hostile. What is there about this twenty-nine-year-old man that makes him unable to function? I didn’t buy the answer Colette presents us with – that he’s a lost soul without Lea. Cheri is deranged, not lovesick. On the last pages he’s lying on a divan in a room surrounded by photos of a young Lea: “. . . all the Leas, with their downward gazing eyes, seemed to be showing concern for him. ‘But they only seem to be looking down at me, I know perfectly well. When you sent me away, my Nounoune, what did you think there was left for me after you?’ ” This tortured soul is a fictional aberration, whereas the Lea who has accepted old age is grounded in reality. In the one meeting between the two Lea sees that Cheri is gaunt, and she recommends a little restaurant (while blowing an imitation kiss in honor of the food), along with some advice: “Romanticism, nerves, distaste for life: stomach. The whole lot, simply stomach. Love itself! If one wished to be perfectly sincere, one would have to admit that there are two kinds of love – well-fed and ill-fed. The rest is pure fiction. If only I knew how to write, or to make speeches, my child, what things I could say about that!” These blithe words smack of cruelty, as does the fate that Colette dooms Cheri to. Maybe this book is her day-dream of murder.

Christ Stopped at Eboli – Carlo Levi (Italian)
Christ never proceeded on to the desolate regions of Lucerno, Italy, where Carlo Levi is banished by the Fascist government. Levi stays for one year in the godforsaken town of Gagliano. The peasants there say “We’re not Christians.” “Christian,” to them, means “human being,” and, since they’re thought of (by the world of Christians) not as men but simply as beasts of burden, they do not qualify. This remark reflects the bitter humor – and hopelessness – with which they view their lives. Levi becomes close to the peasantry because he was trained as a doctor; he never practiced, but he has knowledge that the other two doctors in Gagliano don’t. Those two doctors – utterly incompetent and uncaring – are typical of the town’s gentry (those who are in charge). Levi winds up treating the ill, of which there are many. Malaria is rampant; this was a preventable disease, but nothing is done by the government to eradicate it; Rome only impinges on the lives of the peasants in the form of taxation or a demand to serve in the military. Time, in the form of progress, has passed them by; they live in brutish, primitive conditions; their homes are hovels which they share with their goats. The Christianity of the peasants has a strong element of pre-Christian paganism. Their “Black Madonna” is a forbidding, fearsome figure, and they adamantly believe in potions and spells, witches and gnomes. This book, which could be called narrative anthropology, is a close look at a place you would never want to visit (even the landscape is devoid of beauty). But when Levi leaves it is with a feeling of affectionate sorrow. He doesn’t sugar-coat nor ennoble the people of Gagliano, but he recognizes and responds to their humanity.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Violent Land – Jorge Amado (Portuguese)
The violence is between two “colonels” (plantation owners) vying for a tract of virgin forest on which they can cultivate the highly profitable cocoa tree. The action takes place in the early 1900s in Amado’s native Brazil. In his introduction to the 1965 edition, he describes the cocoa colonels as “indomitable, titanic men of unlimited courage, for whom life had no value.” But are there such men? Emotions in this book (everyone’s, not just those of the titans) are outsized; anger is deadly, love is wildly passionate. Amado attempted to write a saga chronicling the origin of a land that was “fertilized with human blood.” His story clearly moved him; but the garish, over-the-top quality kept me at arm’s length, and I remained merely entertained. His scope, being so broad and including so diverse a cast, proved to be unwieldy, and at the end even major figures are left unaccounted for. I wondered what happened to Sinho Badera. But it was curiosity that I felt, nothing more, and it soon passed.

God Bless the Children – Toni Morrison
It was a huge mistake for this eighty-four-year-old Nobel Prize winner to attempt a novel that was set in the present day hip culture. It’s about serious matters, but the synthetic characters and silly plot combine to make it cartoonish. Bride is a “midnight black” woman who becomes wealthy as the originator of a line of cosmetics called YOU, GIRL. She uses her blackness (which is what her light-skinned mother rejected her for) to become a much-desired “panther in snow.” Bride drives a Jaguar and wears boots of brushed rabbit fur. Her “friend” at the billion dollar firm of Sylvia, Inc is named Brooklyn (sample dialogue: “The dude splits, you feel like cow flop, you try to get your mojo back, but it’s bust, right?”). The dude in question is the enigmatic Booker; they meet while Bride is dancing in a packed stadium and someone puts his arms around her waist: “Then his hands are on my stomach and I am dropping mine to hold onto his while we dance front to back. When the music stops I turn around to look at him. He smiles. I am moist and shivering.” Booker turns out to be more than a dynamite lover; he’s deep, and he splits with the words “You not the woman I want.” She finds some things he left, including a shaving brush, which she use to fondle herself. Had enough? Well, okay, a woman by the name of Sofia is released from prison after serving twenty years as a child molester; Bride follows her to a motel; she knocks on the door and presents Sofia with a Louis Vuitton shopping bag containing five thousand dollars in cash, a three thousand dollar Continental Airlines gift certificate, and a box of YOU, GIRL products. When suspicious Sofia learns Bride’s real name, she proceeds to beat the crap out of her. Sprawling on the street with her gifts scattered around her, Bride calls Brooklyn instead of the police because, in her disfigured state, she would go in the public eye from “YOU, GIRL to BOO, GIRL.” Had enough? No? Okay. Bride, trying to find Booker, is driving her Jag at night on a curving mountain road and “trusts to her high-beam headlights and accelerates,” promptly crashing into a tree. A child named Raisin finds her, and her father and mother make room for Bride (her ankle is broken) in their humble abode; they’re aging white hippies, and sometimes they sit outside at night, strumming a guitar and singing songs: “This land is your land, this land is my land . . .” See, they don’t have a TV. But you do, girl, and I suggest you turn it on and watch some junky show. Because even if you haven’t had enough of this nonsense, I can’t provide any more because I stopped reading at this point.

Mulliner Nights – P. J. Wodehouse
Wodehouse is known mainly for creating two characters, the butler Jeeves and his master Bertie Wooster. I could never rouse interest in this duo. But Nights is a collection of stories told by Mr. Mulliner over drinks in an English pub. I gave it a try, and now I can understand Wodehouse’s appeal; he delivers light, enjoyable fare, he has a deft touch with humor, and his prose flows with a pleasurable smoothness. Mr. Mulliner’s tales are about some male relative, often a nephew, and most involve the efforts of the young man to gain a girl’s hand in marriage (the obstacle is commonly her formidable and disapproving father). Wodehouse knew where his talent lay, and he knew what his audience wanted. He produced close to a hundred novels, and I’ll wager that in none of them did he get serious or make any sort of demands on the reader. He wrote diversions, nothing more. That said, his diversions were intelligent ones; even when absurdity sets in, which it often does, it’s not the dumb type. Is Wodehouse a writer I’ll turn to in the future? No, but I don’t regret the evenings I spent in Anglers’ Rest.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Golden Gate – Vikram Seth
To write a novel entirely in verse is a unique and formidable feat, but for me the feat aspect was too apparent. I was constantly aware of Seth trying to find words that would fit into a rhyme. His search leads him from obscurity (“catholicon” and “fissiparity”) to triteness (the beer is “Schlitz” to go with “it’s” and “pits”). At times the poetry imparts a nice airiness, but more often it has a pedantic quality; also, much of the dialogue seems awkward (“Hey, stop that – oh, it’s Phil – hey, hi . . .”/“Hi, John, I just thought I’d drop by.”) The book is set is San Francisco in the 1980s, and the yuppies who populate it are involved in complicated relationships. How complicated? Phil, divorced with a son, is bisexual; he has an affair with Ed; but religious Ed believes that to act on his physical urges is sinful; Phil winds up marrying Ed’s sister, Liz. I found all this a bit much. Besides arguments in favor of love and sexual freedom (and against war and small-mindedness), we get cats, a CafĂ© Trieste and a band called Liquid Sheep. Seth is an accomplished wordsmith, and this book obviously took a lot of effort to pull off. For those who find it to be a delight, I wouldn’t claim that their pleasure is unwarranted. It just wasn’t my cup of cappuccino.

The Indian Lawyer – James Welch
Welch is an American Indian who attended reservation schools; he also served on the Montana State Board of Pardons. Since this novel incorporates both the Indian experience and prison life, I expected something forceful and authentic. What I got was neither. Sylvester Yellow Calf is a successful lawyer who’s being urged to run for Congress. But this muted and conflicted man – a shadowy figure even in a novel about him – is a most unlikely politician, so that story line was unconvincing. As was another, introduced in the first chapter. Sylvester is a member of a board of pardons, and he votes against granting parole to Jack Harwood; Harwood then asks his wife to meet Sylvester and get to know everything she can about him; eventually he asks her to sleep with him (which she’s already done, after meeting Sylvester twice, once in his office, another on a dinner date). Patti Ann is no trampy moll; she’s portrayed as a wife who had stayed faithful to her husband during his seven years in prison. Since there’s no spark in the scenes between her and Sylvester, her tumbling into bed with him is just another example of the author’s failure to provide a basis for the actions and feelings of his characters. People plod along dispiritedly, doing things I didn’t believe in, and when Sylvester and Patti Ann start having love pangs, I had enough.

Ask Me Tomorrow – James Gould Cozzens
This is a watershed novel in which the author of Castaway and The Last Adam shows signs of becoming the author who would write Guard of Honor and By Love Possessed. I liked the first two books, I found the last two unreadable; the same can be said for the differing parts of this novel. The opening fifty pages are very good. Francis, while on a train trip in Italy, meets a young woman. He doesn’t find her attractive, he doesn’t even like her as a person. But he’s bored and has had too much to drink; so, after mostly combative chit chat, he makes her a proposition: “I think we should go to bed.” The woman is hurt; she knows she means nothing to him and, precisely because of that, he has treated her as something cheap. What makes this episode psychologically acute is that Francis recognizes every nuance of his bad behavior. I could believe in this person. I could also believe in his interactions with his employer, Mrs. Cunningham, and her son, whom he tutors. But I couldn’t relate to the Francis who’s in love with somebody named Lorna and who attends parties; though his conflicting emotions are dissected, it’s not done with the directness of the opening scene; all that emerges is a lot of people talking a lot. In these sections the influence of Henry James is apparent (even the prose gets denser and more convoluted). Cozzens would choose to follow in the path of the Master, which is a shame.

Pack My Bag – Henry Green
Green wrote this autobiography (at age thirty-three) because he believed he would die in World War II, and he wanted to take stock of his life. He didn’t write the book for me, or for anybody but himself. This can account for the fact that he reveals very little. I found the nine page Introduction by his son to be more enlightening than all of Pack My Bag (especially if you read between the lines). One barrier keeping the reader at a distance is the prose; it’s like an elaborate musical composition full of twists and turns. It’s the same prose used in Loving and Living, but in those novels the way the words were set down seemed to be an integral part of characters who were bursting with vitality. In this book vitality is the very quality that’s absent. When Green recounts his feelings and experiences, he does it a roundabout way that leeches it of immediacy. As for those he interacts with, not one single person – not mother, father, brothers, friends – attains a solid presence. Nor are there fully-developed scenes; just a myriad of truncated impressions. Much of the book concerns his stay at Eton, and I got a sense of life there, but only a vague one. It’s this vagueness that finally caused me to stop making the effort to follow the stylistic gyrations; I finished the last fifty pages in skimming mode. If you write a book as a private indulgence, and it turns out as constricted as this one, it should stay in your bag.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Australia Felix – Henry Handel Richardson
Ethel Florence Richardson chose to publish, in the early 1900s, under a male pseudonym. This Aussie lady had an ability to write narrative fiction that is Trollopian in its scope and flow; for four hundred pages I remained unflaggingly absorbed in the fortunes of Richard Mahoney. Over the several decades covered, we sees signs of emotional problems, such as his intense dislike of the godforsaken land he’s stuck in and his sense of isolation from the people around him. Yet he seems stable and sensible, he works hard to achieve a comfortable life as a doctor in frontier Australia, and he loves his wife. Polly is, for much of the book, presented as simple, obedient and nothing more (in Richard’s eyes “pure, clean and sweet”); the lack of conflict in their relationship is offset by a large cast of secondary characters, all with dilemmas. Things ramble along pleasurably, but at the end my suspicion that Richardson set out without a firm grasp as to where she was headed was solidified by some questionable plot twists. Richard is suddenly in the grip of a debilitating depression. Despite this he still has enough energy (and optimism) to sell all his worldly goods in preparation for an arduous return trip to England, where he will have to start over from scratch. Polly, who at this point has a mind of her own, is justifiably appalled. In the final scene they’re aboard a ship. As it departs, Richard asks Polly to come on deck; but she, “with an eye to the future, was already encoffined in her narrow berth.” I felt that the author had arranged a setup for the second installment of a trilogy: How will Richard and Polly fare in England? Read The Way Home and find out – and I care enough that I will. The faults of this novel, such as its haphazard structure, are offset by its strengths. Faults can even become virtues in the hands of a prodigious talent: that overly-large cast of peripheral characters, though often difficult to sort out, serve to create a colorful tapestry of life.

Amsterdam – Ian McEwan
The novel opens at a funeral for a woman whose descent began with a tingling in her arm; soon she’s engulfed in madness and pain. Vernon Halliday, a former lover, comments that she would have killed herself if she had been able to. He’s speaking to his “oldest friend” and another of her lovers, Clive Linley. Vernon is the editor of a newspaper, Clive a composer. Shortly after the funeral, Clive experiences a tingling in his hand; then Vernon begins to get the sense that he doesn’t exist. Worried that they will go the way of poor Molly, both men promise that, if one of them is disabled, the other will intercede and end his life. But the tingling and the feeling of non-existence disappear entirely from the book, and we go off into two separate story lines. Clive works on a symphony, and we get lengthy meditations on music and creativity. Quite boring stuff, though its inclusion boosts the word count above the novella category. As for Vernon, he’s gotten possession of photos of a would-be prime minister in drag, and decides to print them. The yellow journalism part is more lively, but at this point I felt mired in a deeply-ingrained grubbiness; not helping matters was the fact that the two main characters (and all minor ones) were eminently distasteful. Clive botches his symphony and Vernon gets fired as editor; both “friends” blame the other for their downfall and go into an attack mode that can only, considering its virulence, be attributed to mutual psychosis. And it’s here that the city of Amsterdam comes into play. Vernon invites himself there to attend a performance of Clive’s symphony. The men are pretending that they’ve patched things up, but they still despise one another. So what are they planning? It seems that in liberal Holland some unsavory types with medical degrees will, for a price, eliminate inconvenient relatives. McEwan had included the strange symptoms and the death pact at the beginning because each man intends to have the other killed. If all this seems inane, the final twelve page stretch is the capper. At a party Vernon and Clive have spiked drinks that they maneuver the other into drinking (“Cheers!”). Later, drugged and hallucinating, they’re visited in their hotel rooms by a doctor and his nurse (whom they both believe to be Molly); they joyfully sign release forms and are dispatched by injections. McEwan was credited by many critics as being witty and wicked, but flailing about with a barbed stick is neither. What is truly amusing about this nasty, empty little novel is that it won the Booker Prize.

The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton
Wharton cared enough about her three characters and their predicament to build a solid foundation from which she could move into the rarefied realm of passion. At first she observes the rites and ceremonies of upper crust New Yorkers, circa 1870, with an amused detachment. But when the focus narrows to Newland Archer’s evolving and shifting feelings for two women, things darken. Newland loves Ellen but marries May. Timing and circumstances play a deciding role: if, before he met Ellen, he hadn't already been engaged to May (and thus committed, according to the dictates of society), all would be different. Wharton imparts an element of tragedy into this situation by making us believe that Newland and Ellen were meant for one another. His marriage to May is a mistake only in the light of his feelings for someone else. He and Ellen could cast convention aside, but she refuses to be part of destroying a relationship. Newland would destroy his marriage, for he finds it a prison keeping him from what he wants. He proposes to Ellen that they flee to another place where they will be “simply two human beings who love one another, and are the whole of life to each other; and nothing else on earth will matter.” Ellen responds with: “Oh, my dear – where is that country? Have you ever been there?” She shares Newland’s feelings but not his romanticized viewpoint. In this novel of unconsummated love there’s one solitary kiss. May turns out to be resourceful in holding onto her marriage; a strategic deception brings this affair of the heart to an abrupt end. Ellen moves to Paris and Newland buckles down to a life as husband and father. The last chapter, which takes place twenty-six years later, was a risky proposition, but Wharton has such a firm grip on her material that she uses this new perspective to deepen the situation. We learn that Newland found fulfillment with May. Though he looks back at Ellen as “the flower of life” that he had missed, he doesn’t mourn the loss; he has relegated her to an unattainable vision whose rightful place is as a memory. The question of “What if?” has great weight. What would Newland’s and Ellen’s life have been, together? The ache that thought evokes attests to how fully this novel succeeds. *

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.