Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Hustler – Walter Tevis
In a lean, efficient prose Tevis takes us into a world that has elements of grime and grandeur. For Fast Eddie Felson the bright rectangle of a pool table is an arena where he can impose order by guiding the paths of ivory balls with amazing precision. When he goes against men nowhere near his level he pretends to be only a middling player – until the stakes are worth exploiting. Sometimes his opponent is as good – or nearly as good – as he is, and these encounters are prolonged battles of skill and will. The movie version, which I saw many years ago, stuck closely to the novel in plot and casting (Jackie Gleason’s Minnesota Fats is Tevis’s creation brought to life). As in the film, Eddie meets Sarah in a bus station lunchroom where she’s killing time until a bar opens at 6AM. They come together largely because they’re both drinkers and lonely; though they begin to care for one another, they’re emotionally wary and thoroughly mismatched. At the novel’s end their relationship is left unresolved – as are many issues. Eddie has the determination and discipline needed to beat a player like Fats; but after victory he finds that he’s the property of his manager, and to go against this imposed arrangement is as dangerous as going against a mobster. This seems like a last minute – and unwarranted – complication. For an author whose endings are usually strong, to leave so much hanging is perplexing. The Hustler was Tevis’s first novel; I had previously read three other books by him (starting with his best of the lot, The Man Who Fell to Earth). I consider him to be a neglected author; he should be better known. He was always good, and at times he could be as exceptional as Fast Eddie on a run.

Signals – Tim Gautreaux
This collection has twenty-one stories, of which I read twelve. Gautreaux abides by the solid old virtues of storytelling – particularly the primacy of voice – and though the results are sometimes good, the slight nudge to very good isn’t there; often it’s sabotaged by a tendency to get sentimental or to send a message. In the title story, sixty-year-old Professor Talis lives an isolated existence; his radio – a venerable Pioneer SX-1250 – has been his “Mozart-seeping companion” for decades. It breaks down, and it turns out that the all-capable lawn lady is capable of fixing it. She’s a life force, his opposite, and in the course of the repairs he awakens to what he’s been missing. He asks her out, she refuses, saying “I don’t believe we’re cut from the same bolt of cloth.” With the radio once again producing beautiful sounds, he asks her to dinner, and she replies, “You stay home and be a good listener.” Talis responds by lugging the radio out of his house and throwing it on the sidewalk, where it breaks into pieces. He says, “And now?” She accepts. The Message was not only too overt and simplistic, but it came by means of a foolish act. Another aspect that kept recurring in the weaker stories was an over-reliance on outlandish characters (often old folks whose mind has given out) and the weird situations they get into. When this outlandishness goes rogue – when stories feature low-life types who are scraping bottom (such as the vicious, drunken cretin in “Sorry Blood”) – I felt I was being dragged through the mire for no good reason. But even in its milder manifestations, as in “The Adventures of Sue Pistola,” a character study is sacrificed for laughs based on someone’s freakish behavior. Bottom line: I have too many objections to what Gautreaux offers. He and I just aren’t cut from the same bolt of cloth.

My Antonia – Willa Cather
This novel is set in the Nebraska prairie in the 1880s. Jim Burden and Antonia Shimerda arrive at Black Hawk at the same time, but they face drastically different circumstances. Jim is ten and has been recently orphaned; he’s going to live with his grandparents, who have forged a comfortable life on their farm. Antonia is a few years older; she and her family are immigrants from Bohemia. When Jim and his grandmother pay a visit to the Shimerdas they find that their home is a hole dug in a draw-bank. Antonia’s father is a cultured gentleman, totally unfit to farm the land; the mother is a shrewish study in negativity. Jim and Antonia form a closeness in the few years before she’s saddled with work (which she embraces, proud of her strength). Though they never lose the bond from their early years, she begins to live her hard life while his continues in an unruffled fashion. In the book’s second section, called “The Hired Girls,” Jim leaves the farm when his grandparents move to Black Hawk. Antonia is one of those hired girls, employed as a domestic; at the Saturday night dances life opens up for her, with mixed results. When Jim goes to the university, he and Antonia part ways (and the book loses some of its spark). As an adult Jim comes to think about Antonia in an almost worshipful way. In the closing scene he visits her, now a woman in her forties with a large brood of children, and he sees someone battered by life but still vital and able to “stop one’s breath for a moment by a look or gesture that somehow revealed the meaning of common things.” Maybe, through Jim’s outsized emotions, Cather is trying to express an appreciation for the pioneering spirit that can survive all obstacles. Not all survive – Antonia’s father commits suicide. Madness is not uncommon, and in some people the worst aspects of human nature take root. Others work and grow in generosity and understanding. Cather’s prairie is a testing ground for character. This is a rich and heartfelt book. And a tough one – when events or subject matter warrant it, Cather can be as unyielding as a Nebraska winter.

Friday, October 20, 2017

I Am Charlotte Simmons – Tom Wolfe
Seventy-three-year-old Tom Wolfe goes back to college. His fictional alma mater is prestigious Dupont, which ranks up there with Yale (which Wolfe attended in 1957). Things have changed drastically since he was a student, so Wolfe begins this novel with thanks to the many young insiders who helped him gather information about present-day conditions on campus. Though I wonder how reliable his sources were, they can’t take the blame for this smarmy novel: all blame falls on Wolfe’s shoulders. His trademark white suit, it turns out, hides a bad case of dandruff (probably the only kind of bodily discharge he doesn’t describe in detail). Charlotte Simmons first visit to her dorm’s coed bathroom is a grueling example of male vulgarity at its scatological worst. But are males, even college students, that bad? Are the women as sluttish as Wolfe portrays them to be? Do students speak in what is described as Fuck Patois, in which that word is used as every form of speech? Has sex at the collegiate level become an act indulged in randomly and indiscriminately? (“Sex! Sex! It was in the air along with the nitrogen and the oxygen! The whole campus was humid with it! tumid with it! lubricated with it! gorged with it! tingling with it! in a state of around-the-clock arousal with it! Rutrutrutrutrutrutrutrut – ”) A claim might be put forth that Wolfe is making a moral statement about the immorality on today’s campuses; but, if so, his depiction of life at Dupont would have to bear the stamp of authenticity. And authenticity is what this over-heated novel lacks. What we’re getting is an old man’s fantasy (which would account for the many lingering descriptions of “ripped” male anatomy). The prose is hammered out in a makeshift fashion, and the characters are stereotypes or gross exaggerations. Even the virginal Charlotte Simmons, dumped in the middle of this Sodom and Gomorrah, isn’t developed to the point where she garners sympathy; she serves a merely functional role, as a colorless counterpoint to the rest of the students. My rule is that I must read at least half of a book to review it. I quit a third of the way through this novel, but its so mammoth that I’m making an exception. As for why I got that far, I simply fell victim to the fascination that the repellent offers. And, to give Wolfe a crumb of praise, he still writes with a demented vigor.

The Far Country – Nevil Shute
This novel contains elements basic to a successful love story. First and foremost, the characters must be real, for why else would we care about them? Shute’s portrayal of Jennifer Morton is especially strong; she’s multi-dimensional and appealing. When she’s on a trip to Australia she meets Carl Zlinter, and it’s under dire circumstances. An accident had occurred at a mining camp, and she helps him perform two operations, one the severing of a leg, the other cranial surgery. Jennifer is no nurse; she’s pressed into duty because she’s the only person in the vicinity with clean hands. Carl is a lumberman, but in his native Czechoslovakia he had been a doctor; after WWII he migrated to Australia and had to serve two years as a laborer. The men in the camp call him Splinter, and turn to him for medical care (which, by law, he isn’t allowed to do). So Jennifer and Carl are thrown together, working for twelve hours in an intense situation; an intimacy arises. In the following months their feelings for one another deepen; Shute gives us reasons why they fall in love. And they deserve one another’s love: they’re good people with similar values. Beyond some kisses there are no sex scenes, but it’s clear that they’re made of flesh and blood. We’re left believing that these two will make a good life together. This isn’t a great novel, but it’s a satisfying one. Since there are no major complications, it can be said that Shute approaches the subject of love in simple terms. There are other ways to do it. But many attempts fail because the characters aren’t real and reasons for the depth of feeling which merits the word love are never convincingly developed.

Fortune Is a Woman – Winston Graham
I enjoyed a previous work by Graham, so, despite its silly title, I took a chance on this one. It starts out promisingly, but gradually the promise dissipates. The falling off in potential occurs because Graham wants this to be a mystery/suspense novel, along with a love story, and halfway through he begins to manipulate characters and situations to make the book serve those purposes. Things get very complicated, but I didn’t try to follow the twists and turns because the whole endeavor had become an empty fabrication. The love story was flat, the mystery was based on unlikely convolutions, the action scenes were clumsy. In that previous novel by Graham – The Walking Stick – its main character was authentic – painfully so. If, in Fortune, he had focused on Oliver Branwell’s obsession, this wouldn’t have been a love story, nor would it have been a mystery. It would have been a psychological study. But that’s a complex undertaking. Instead an author can take the easy route – and still be commercially successful – by writing something second-rate like Fortune Is a Woman.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Americana – Don Delillo
This was Delillo’s debut novel, and his prose crackles with intelligence and originality. Dave, the first person narrator, is a young executive at a television network. In a manic chapter (the Friday review meeting) he observes people like Weede Denney and Reeves Chubb engage in an absurdist charade of mendaciousness and ineptitude and toadying. When he’s not killing time in his office Dave navigates through New York as if he owned it – he seems to know everyone and has beautiful women at his beck and call. Yet he feels a profound desolation and solitude. And there’s the killer. This might have worked as a satire of corporate life, for it’s funny in parts and has a fast-moving surface sheen good for skating on. But with a protagonist suffering from angst that potential melted away. Especially when the angst comes across as a contrivance. In Part Two we take an excursion into Dave’s youth, but he’s no different from the adult version: one cool customer with hidden depths. After leaving a party rife with inanity (Dave gets off some of his trademark quips) he stands outside in the dark and quiet and thinks, “It was a Sunday night in early September, and my body beat with sorrow at the beauty and mockery of all bodies.” Shortly thereafter, as Dave was shagging fly balls at a deserted ballpark, I decided to part company with him. So I missed his cross-country trip, in which, according to the back cover, he makes a “mad and moving attempt to capture a sense of his own and his country’s past, present and future.”

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison
The first person narrator in Morrison’s debut novel is ten-year-old Claudia; the book seems to be about her and her sister. Pecola appears as a secondary character, a poor soul who has everything going against her. But Pecola’s story begins to take up more space; we even get the life histories of her parents. At the close of the chapter devoted to her father he rapes Pecola. What follows next is a chapter featuring Soaphead Church, who has a thriving business as a Spiritualist and Psychic Reader. Pecola comes to him, asking for blue eyes (so that she can be beautiful, like white people). Soaphead rents an apartment from a lady whose mangy old dog revolts him; he gives Pecola some poisoned meat and tells her to feed it to the dog, and “if the animal behaves strangely, your wish will be granted on the day following this one.” The dog dies horribly and Soaphead goes to his desk and writes a long, instructive letter to God, much of it justifying his sexual desire for little girls. Pecola gets her wish; we learn this in a chapter in which she’s talking obsessively about her blue eyes to an imaginary friend; she’s gone over the edge. In an Afterword Morrison expands on the genesis of the novel and its broader theme (racial self-loathing). Though she wanted readers to interrogate themselves for the smashing of Pecola, many “remain touched but not moved.” Beyond my “poor soul” reaction, I was both unmoved and untouched. The fault lies primarily in the way Pecola is presented. She mostly appears in disconnected segments in which she’s observed by others; this placing her on the sidelines amounts to an avoidance of her. Other elements detracted from believability, foremost of which was the over-the-top garishness (the Soaphead chapter is an example). And the degree of ugliness was alienating. Some people get more than their rightful share of it, but to express it so graphically made me feel as if it were being shoved in my face (here’s the Truth, like it or not). Lastly, Morrison’s attempt to impose newness through typography stuck me as gimmicky. We get chapters in which the margins aren’t justified; we get sections in italics; chapters begin with excerpts from a white child’s reader: HEREISTHEFAMILYMOTHERFATHERDICKANDJANE . . . Morrison ends her Afterword by writing that “the initial publication of The Bluest Eye was like Pecola’s life: dismissed, trivialized, misread. And it has taken twenty-five years to gain for her the respectful publication this edition is.” Morrison’s Nobel Prize was surely the deciding factor in the republication. As for the belated respect, Morrison deserves credit for her intentions.

Seven Poor Men of Sydney – Christina Stead
In Stead’s debut novel (I’ve been using those last two words a lot lately) she lets her prodigious talent run unchecked. Her characters are speaking machines, going on and on in a manner so rarefied, so hyper-intelligent that it was difficult to follow. No discernible plot emerged – just a lot of socialism and unhappiness – and the emotions were pitched way too high. Finally, two thirds of the way through, the tidal wave of words began washing over me, and I quit reading. There were stretches in Poor Men when the weight of words and ideas was lifted, when people interacted, and these interludes were wonderful; they’re better than what most authors are capable of. Though Stead would always remain an undisciplined writer, she would learn some things about her craft. In The Man Who Loved Children we get an entire novel that is wonderful.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Summer - Edith Wharton
Charity Royall was born on the Mountain, a place so impoverished and primitive that it exists outside the realm of civilized society. Lawyer Royall had gone there and taken her from a mother all to willing to give up the infant; since then, for eighteen years, Charity had lived in his house in North Dormer. The first spoken words in this novel, which Charity repeats twice as she walks alone to her job at the library, are “How I hate everything!” She’s an outsider in a village that offers her nothing; as for Lawyer Royall, she maintains a defiant and wary distance from him. She sees herself as a person without a future, and her negativity is hardening into a shell. But she opens up when a young architect arrives to sketch the old houses. Her relationship with Lucius, which grows into a love affair, is daringly portrayed, considering when the book was written. Charity’s sexual passion is real and positive. Though obstacles arise and bring an end to their idyllic meetings, Charity isn’t a rejected lover; yet that’s the role she all too readily accepts. I wondered why she didn’t fight for what she wants – and for what Lucius wants too. Throughout the book looms the presence of Lawyer Royall. Charity’s conflicted attitude toward him makes it difficult for the reader to pin down an already complex character. His strong feelings for Charity seem to be a mix of carnal and parental love, and how can these coexist? The ending Wharton gives us is troubling. It seems to be a dead end, a submission to a dismal and barren existence. And, again, I wondered why Charity accepted winter and didn’t fight for summer.

The Ragged Way People Fall Out of Love – Elizabeth Cox
Though Cox inundates the reader with feelings, throughout this short novel I felt as if I were standing on the sidelines watching a game I wasn’t much interested in. The prose is good, and Molly and her daughter Franci are, at a certain level, well-drawn. But when dire events occur their reactions seemed to be watered down versions of emotions. As I read on other flaws began to accumulate. The male characters are sketched in; William, the husband, comes across as an automaton, and Ben, Molly’s new love interest, is no more than a prop. The plot twists are makeshift (such as the dead son blithely returning from the dead). We occupy the minds of all the characters, but the book is evasive as to why somebody does something. Why don’t we learn one thing about the woman William leaves Molly for? The topper came near the end when a peripheral character – a disturbed young man – sets fire to himself. The whole town gets weepy over this. If you too get weepy, you’ve failed the test, because Zack has been inserted in the book merely to elicit your tears. It came as no surprise to learn that Cox has spent most of her life teaching in creative writing programs. She does everything right as far as technique goes. But it would serve a useful purpose if she were to assign this novel to her students, telling them that they need to identify the ways in which she fails to make her story real.

The Devil to Pay in the Backlands – Joao Guimaraes Rosa (Portuguese)
The form this novel takes is an unbroken five hundred page monologue to an unidentified listener – the reader. In a disjointed way Riobaldo tells the story of his life, but two things predominate, and stand in stark contrast: warfare between lawless bands of heavily armed factions operating in the wilds of Brazil and the narrator’s love for another man. It’s not a comradely love but a physical desire. Though Riobaldo has sexual encounters with women, and none with Diadorim, the women are inconsequential while Diadorim is all-important. The bulk of this bulky novel is filled with descriptions of battles conducted by men who are the epitome of machismo. But Rosa also gives us noble acts and sentiments and a lot of philosophical asides (none of which made sense to me). The colloquial voice works, and the novel has a freewheeling drive. But that drive was going nowhere. No plot emerged, just more battles, more mooning over Diadorim. It all struck me as a pointless endeavor, and at the halfway point I bid goodbye forever to the backlands.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Possessed – Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Russian)
When I was reading this as a comic novel, for more than half its 700 pages, I thought it was wonderful. Dostoyevsky assembles a cast of people who are twisted in some way – mad, delusional, malignantly manipulative, etcetera – and sets them to work on one another. The book is in the Victorian tradition, complete with set scenes on a grand scale; there’s a Gala held to raise funds for the Aid of Needy Governesses which turns into a fiasco, complete with pratfalls. The melodramatic pot-boiler of a plot (about an undercover attempt to overthrow the whole of society) is run by a ragtag handful of bunglers. Possibly Dostoyevsky was commenting, in a cynical fashion, on the errant tendencies in the Russian character. At any rate, it was vivid, vigorous and entertaining. My first stirring of unease came in a long dialogue Stavrogin has with a priest; it involves a confession and a discussion of faith and the soul and God’s forgiveness. Suddenly we’re in Crime and Punishment territory. This change in tone slowly takes precedence. Dostoyevsky tries to force elements that are comic into a serious mold. The result is still comic, but foolishly so; the book becomes a nonsensical jumble, and two hundred pages from the end I had enough. I truly believe that for much of the book Dostoyevsky was having fun; if I was, how could he not be? Maybe he couldn’t separate himself from his reputation as one who probes into profound matters. Who knows?

Cranford – Elizabeth Gaskell
Cranford is an English village which, Gaskell writes in the first sentence, “is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women.” Yet these Amazons are not warriors; they’re spinsters or widows concerned solely with local matters, and the rare conflicts that take place are conducted with slights and snubs. Cranford began as stories that appeared in the mid-1800s in Household Works, a magazine edited by Charles Dickens. Their quiet charm made them very popular and they were collected to make up this slim volume. Gaskell’s benevolent attitude toward her elderly ladies can become a bit saccharine, but that’s countered by the sly humor she directs at their preoccupation over matters of status and propriety. My enjoyment of the book was probably due in part to what readers long ago found pleasing: it offers escapism. Cranford is a safe retreat from worldly turmoil.

The Breaking Wave – Nevil Shute
This unusual war novel involves a Wren in the British navy who works behind the lines maintaining guns on ships that will take part in the D-Day invasion. Except for one flyover by a German plane, there are no battle scenes. For Janet Prentice war will have a lasting appeal. She’s young, involved in an event with a vital purpose; added to that, she falls in love for the first and only time in her life. But war’s dark side hits her hard. Though she’s unscathed physically, she deals with guilt (involving that flyover by the German plane); she comes to believe that she killed seven innocent men. Shortly afterwards she loses Bill, the man she loves, then her father. She sees their deaths as retribution for her actions, and she conceives the idea that she’s fated to lose five more things she loves. She’s not deranged; in the months before the invasion exhaustion and stress have eroded her emotional resources. When the dog Bill had entrusted to her is crushed by a tank she breaks down. It’s a case of PTSD before that term was in use. The war is over for Janet. She goes through years of caring for others as they die: first her mother, then a distant relative. She repeatedly tries to rejoin the Wrens, but is rejected. Though the bulk of the plot is devoted to her, the first person narrator is Alan, Bill’s brother. The book opens twenty years after the war, with Alan returning home to a sheep ranch in Australia; on the morning of his arrival he learns that his parent’s live-in maid had committed suicide. Her name – or the one she gave them – is Jessie Proctor. What follows, in flashbacks, is Janet Prentice’s story. To make Alan the narrator of this story (he only spent one day with her and Bill) seemed like a dubious contrivance, but it didn’t interfere with my reading because the Janet that emerges is strong and authentic. More so than Alan, who is the other central character. I was disappointed in how Shute wraps things up; I couldn’t accept the final entries in Janet’s diary. In this book you have to take the good with the not-so-good. And the good is not just engrossing, but it goes deep.

Kept in the Dark – Anthony Trollope
In an ideal marriage, by Victorian standards, a wife should be pure as the driven snow, a husband should be a stalwart and benevolent Master. Though these roles are antiquated, what gives this book relevancy today is the fact that jealousy and possessiveness are constants in human nature. Trollope creates a situation which is analogous to a tightening noose. A year before her marriage to George Cecilia was engaged to a charming reprobate; when she began to discern Sir Francis Geraldine’s true nature she broke things off. Then she meets and marries George and they live in conjugal bliss. But Cecilia never tells him of her previous engagement. Though she’s innocent of any wrongdoing, she never summons up the courage to divulge something that she finds distasteful. To further complicate matters, George knows and despises his wife’s former suitor. Sir Francis, with malicious intent, sends George a letter in which he reveals his relationship with Cecilia; he tells no lies, but he implies that he and Cecilia still have a sort of understanding. At first George believes the letter is a complete falsehood; when Cecilia admits that the facts in the letter are true, suspicions arise in George’s mind. How could she have been close to such a despicable man? Why has Cecilia kept him in the dark about Sir Francis? What secret has she been hiding? Distrust and a feeling of being duped consume George, and his response is to institute a complete separation. Though Trollope tries to give George a basis for his emotions, his harshness toward someone he purports to love puts him in a bad light. The two strongest characters are the villains; the book is most alive when Sir Francis and Francesca Altifiorla are in action. Interesting, isn’t it, how evil is more compelling than virtue? This slim volume may have been Trollope’s last work; it was serialized in Good Words magazine in 1882, the same year he died. I read it in a republication as it first appeared (in cliffhanger installments, and complete with typos). As always with Trollope, those readers long ago were rewarded. Not a masterpiece, but a good read in which one forms opinions about the situation and the protagonists.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Finding a Girl in America – Andre Dubus
Girls are easy to find for Hank Allison, professor at an upscale university; they’re sitting in his classroom, waiting to be plucked. In the title story, I lost count of them. I also lost respect for Dubus. If you’re an author and professor of literature, you can’t have a protagonist who’s an author and professor of literature and not expect the reader to see the work as autobiographical. I passed judgment on an individual who has affairs with girls fifteen years his junior. Dubus added to my alienation by subjecting me to smarmy sex scenes with all the thrusting details. I had started this collection in a positive frame of mind; I liked Dubus’s one novel, The Lieutenant. But the first four stories (before I got to “Girl”) were flawed by the author’s presence; I felt him showing off his all-embracing sensitivity. In two stories empathy is extended to killers. Here’s one contemplating his victim: “He felt her spirit everywhere, fog-like across the pond and the bridge, spreading and rising in silent weeping above him into the black visible night and the invisible space beyond his ken and the cold silver truth of the stars.” This excerpt is an example of panting prose; Dubus wants the reader to think, “God, that man can write!” But back to “Girl.” Dubus ennobles the affairs: they move Hank from “a need not only to give her more of what attracted her in the classroom” to his “passion to know all of her.” For sexual gratification he can’t turn to the women in the town who “thought Chekhov was something boys did in their beds at night.” He needs someone who, like him, loves literature. Needs: Hank has a lot of needs to fill; it’s a burden that can do a lot of damage to someone vulnerable. Most of the coeds he beds are far from paragons of virtue; if they’re budding writers they probably see sleeping with their published prof as a chance to advance their careers. But at the end of the story he has found his true love in Lori, who’s relatively innocent. I fear for the Loris who unwisely stray into the orbit of his neediness.

A Question of Upbringing – Anthony Powell
The burden this novel carries is that it’s the first of a nine volume undertaking called A Dance to the Music of Time. I couldn’t help wondering, “Do I want to spend a good part of my life reading about these people?” The answer, which came to me on page 150, was that I just wasn’t interested enough. Part of the problem is that the narrator is looking back at events that occurred in his late teens, and his older self exhibits little emotion; even when the word “love” is used it’s without animation. Not helping matters is the stately prose: “The fact that an incisive step of one sort or another had been taken by him in relation to Lady McReith was almost equally well revealed by something in the air when they spoke to each other: some definite affirmation which made matters, in any case, explicit enough.” It’s as if the author was writing while dressed in suit and tie (and maybe spats). This excerpt also illustrates Powell’s quirky use of the colon. Was he trying to set a world record? As an experiment, I just opened the book five times, at random, and every page had one or more colons. The fact that I was noticing punctuation is a bad sign. But I’m being hard on a work that deserves respect. Though it wasn’t my cup of tea, I realize that Powell’s opus would be a treat for others. They could snuggle down by the fireplace for a good long read; they could enjoy Powell’s intelligence and sly humor; they could follow his handful of characters until, I suppose, they become doddering old men. Enjoy away!

Too Many Clients – Rex Stout
This was written late in Stout’s career, and it shows an author merely going through the motions. Archie has lost his bounce, and the many women characters are hum-drum. Like Stout, I didn’t exert myself – I read this inattentively. If I had made an effort to solve the mystery I would have resented how Stout pulls a motive for murder out of thin air (Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention . . .). What makes the ending interesting is that Nero Wolfe once again gives the murderer the time and space to commit suicide.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Dalkey Archive – Flann O’Brien
In the opening chapters the highly fantastical almost bridges into science fiction. We get a stoppage of time; an interview with Saint Augustine; a concoction, which, when released, will exterminate all life on the planet. This weirdness is presented with a rollicking verbal inventiveness. But gradually a change settles in – the prose becomes straightforward and the plot has Mick logically working out a plan to save humanity. We aren’t done with eccentrics – Sergeant Fottrell is addicted to adjectives: “I know the dates and times protuberantly because it was my good self who carried out the punctures with my penknife.” Fottrell has disabled a bicycle tire because, according to his “moly-cule theory,” a man can turn into a bicycle or anything else that he has a long and intimate acquaintance with. (Since the molecules switch places, a bicycle will begin acting like a man.) Mick also has an encounter with James Joyce, who’s living in anonymity in a nearby town (but is he the JJ?). The picture of Mick that emerges is a sad one: he’s a bachelor in his thirties who lives with his mother; his job is so insignificant (and underpaid) that it’s never identified; he has a girlfriend, but their relationship is celibate. And he drinks too much. He decides that, after he’s solved pressing problems (such as saving humanity), he’ll enter one of the more rigorous religious sects. But he solves nothing; instead, in the closing ten spoken words Mick gets a jolt that unravels all his plans. Though the book never becomes dark or heavy, the fading of the initial exuberance is obvious. Near the end O’Brien has Mick think “As an intending Trappist, he would have to turn his back on pleasure but that would not be so easy because he knew of practically nothing which could be called pleasure.” Is the author describing his own frame of mind? Archive was written by a sick man; it was published two years before O’Brien’s death at age fifty-five. His first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, is his most famous work; I find it to be a boring bit of juvenile indulgence. But in The Third Policeman and The Poor Mouth, and in Archive too, O’Brien gave me pleasure.

The Works of Love – Wright Morris
I never could get a handle on what made Will Brady tick. His only act of initiative – this is something he does as a young man – is to propose to a prostitute he visits regularly. She laughs him out of the room. When he leaves the house he finds a group of women sitting on the steps; he asks, “Is there one of you girls who would like to get married?” They too find his proposal to be funny. But after this Will shows no conviction; his jobs and his subsequent marriages are initiated by others. He even has an infant he didn’t father foisted on him. He accepts all that comes his way without resentment or involvement. His life roles are summarized in this way: “A father, one who didn’t know what being a father was like, and a lover, one who didn’t know much about love. More or less hopeless.” Perhaps it was Will’s uniqueness – was there ever such a rudderless person in fiction? – that made reading about him rather fascinating. But what counts in a novel that challenges your credibility is your final opinion about where the author is taking you. As Morris skips years (in unsubstantiated giant strides) Will winds up an old man who, in a faux childish fashion, deals with the Great Questions of Life. A Voice from out of the sky says to him, “There’s no need for great lovers in heaven. Pity is the great lover, and the great lovers are all on earth.” With this turn to profundity I began to plod along inattentively (which may be why I couldn’t understand the ending). Morris violated his own credo about what fiction should deal with; regarding a book about men who visit the moon, he writes, “What the world needed, it seemed, was a traveler who would stay right there in the bedroom, or open a door and walk slowly about his own house.” I agree – there’s value in addressing the ordinary human condition. But in The Works of Love Morris is closer to that condition when he’s describing a man who hasn’t a clue about how to be human.

Scenes from Village Life – Amos Oz (Hebrew)
What these eight stories share is a mysterious, sometimes creepy sense of dislocation, as if something terrible is lurking in the shadows. Everybody in the Israeli village is unhappy in one way or another – lonely, angry, lost – and relationships (when they exist) are troubled. In the final story, “In a Faraway Place at Another Time,” the place Oz takes us to is one where degeneration and degradation reign. Though this is a solid collection, too many stories seem truncated; if a point is being made, it never comes to light. In “Digging” is everyone imagining the digging under a house or is it or is meant to be symbolic? Oz is good at creating atmospherics, but that’s not enough. Only in one story – “Waiting” – do all the elements work. The mayor of the village receives a note from his wife; it reads “Don’t worry about me.” Benny waits for her to come home, then he begins searching for her. What emerges is how empty Benny’s relationship with his wife is, and how flawed he is. He’s all surface, glad-handing his way through life. His search, deep into the night, may be his only act of commitment. He winds up sitting on the bench where his wife had been when she gave someone the note that was delivered to him. “So he settled in the middle of the bench, his bleeding hand wrapped in the scarf, buttoned up his coat because of the light rain that had started to fall, and sat waiting for his wife.”

Scum – Isaac Bashevis Singer (Yiddish)
This novel was published the same year Singer died (at age eighty-seven), so one can’t help but wonder about that blunt title. Who or what does “scum” refer to? To Max Barabander or the world in general? In the opening page Max is at a cafĂ© in Poland, looking at a Yiddish newspaper. Alongside stories of a world careening toward WWI he reads of three hundred brides being shipped off to prospective grooms in Australia; they have been selected solely on the basis of photographs. Max thinks, “Three hundred girls! Damn their wicked little navels. That’s what I’d like, a ship with live merchandise. Between a yes and a no, I’d make a million rubles.” So he sees this as a business opportunity – sex trafficking. Later in the novel he’s drawn into that exact endeavor. But he doesn’t instigate the plan; he initially goes along with it at another’s urging, then later decides to back out. On the surface this forty-seven-year-old man is forceful and smooth and persuasive, but he’s unable to discriminate in his actions. He’s constantly getting caught up in a tangle of lies, all of them involving women. That’s the book, basically. Singer holds one’s attention, but the abrupt ending suggests that he got tired of dealing with his conflicted character and brought a halt to the proceedings by sticking him in prison. Though Max is despicable in many ways, it’s hard to condemn him. We’re in his mind, so we’re privy to his regrets and confusion and desire to lead a life in which he hurts no one: “to make amends for every sin – with money, with words, with presents. An aversion arose in him against all those who take nothing in account except their own desires.” Despite his good intentions, Max follows his inchoate desires and goes stumbling on the downward path.

Behind the Lines – Jaroslav Hasek (Czech)
These episodes take place in a country that has long been exposed to the conflicts of its more powerful neighbors. Perhaps the Czechs are so well-acquainted with war that they can appreciate an author who makes a cynical joke of it. This book’s “hero,” Gasek (close to Hasek, isn’t it?), is a survivor, resourceful and wily and able to land on his feet in the face of any threat that comes his way. When he’s in charge he never resorts to brutality; he’s deflects it if he can. And when he can’t – when people die – it’s only mentioned as happening. Hasek populates these stories with grotesques and madmen, which lends an element of slapstick to the proceedings. His take on calamity and chaos was probably bracing to a people caught up in the Great War and the communist revolution in Russia. Bitter laughter is better than no laughter at all.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Vagabond – Colette (French)
It was Colette’s nature to overdramatize emotions; her fiction, which is based on her life experiences, reflects this aspect of her personality, and I can usually accept her on those terms. But the problem that tarnished this novel’s virtues was my persistent feeling that her first-person narrator was misrepresenting matters. We’re to accept that Renee’s first husband was such a monster that he destroyed her ability to give herself to another man, no matter how perfect he may be. Enter Max. Though at first she keeps this rich and handsome admirer at a distance, she slowly sees him for what he is: kind, considerate, sensitive and ready to marry her and thus end forever her money worries. Finally she concedes that she loves him, but she allows nothing beyond passionate kisses (though she ardently wishes for more). Renee goes on tour with the promise that when she returns she’ll marry Max, but in her letters to him she begins to pull away: “Love is so simple, isn’t it? You never supposed it had this ambiguous, tormented face? We love and give ourselves to each other, and there we are, happy for life, isn’t that it? Ah, how young you are . . .” Of course (to the delight of Erica Jong, who considered this to be “the first and best feminist novel”) Renee chooses the shabby life of a vagabond performer; at least she will retain her independence. And though she will experience solitude, she has the proud consolation of enduring it. I simply didn’t buy any of this, starting with the monster (after all, Renee was in her twenties when she married a notorious womanizer; how naive a victim could she be?). And would a worldly thirty-three year old woman who is fearful of aging and losing her physical charms act like a virginal tease toward a man she loves? As for solitude, why does a lesbian with an “indefinable attraction” make an appearance near the end? Colette gave us not the truth but glossy romanticization. This is evident in the overblown prose: “Ah, how long shall I not thirst for you upon my road!” This comes from the final letter Renee writes to Max. Lucky fellow, Max.

A Bell for Adano –John Hersey
It took a while, but my good will toward this novel slowly ebbed, and then turned to animosity. In his Foreword Hersey states that “Major Victor Joppolo, USA, was a good man” and he closes with “We have need of him. He is our future in the world.” Joppolo is in charge of an Italian town recently liberated from Nazi control. The citizens of Adano come to love this just and compassionate man who embodies, in his decisions, the ideals of democracy. The novel is written in a simple, clear style and is cinematic in that scenes are presented with the minimum of words (often in the form of dialogue). I was on board – until some problems began nagging at me. The Italians are persistently portrayed as childish and overly emotional. The worst example comes in a mass panic over a false “gas attack,” when only Joppolo’s calm intervention stops the flight of the fearful mob. Hersey is treating these people – war survivors – as comic figures. And, in a roundabout way, he allows free rein to a contemptuous attitude. Joppolo is always respectful in his speech and actions, but the other American soldiers are a foul-mouthed bunch who consider the young women of Adano to be subjects of lewd speculation, and they routinely refer to the Italians (often in their presence) as “wop” and “dago.” The straw that broke it for me came in the chapter in which we get the story of how Giorgio died. It was so mishandled, so overwrought, so damn false that I abandoned the book in mid-sentence. Bell would win the Pulitzer Prize in 1945. Apparently Hersey gave the judges – and the American public – the stereotypes and platitudes they wanted at the time.

Unaccustomed Earth – Jhumpa Lahiri
The title story of this collection is by far the best (at least of those I read). A recently widowed father visits his married daughter in Seattle. She has one child and is expecting another. She’s quite willing for her father to move in with her (a tradition in Indian households) and her non-Indian husband (who is away on a business trip) is fine with that idea. But the father is satisfied with his life in a condo in Pennsylvania; he enjoys taking package tours to Europe, and on one he met a woman he starts a relationship with (something he doesn’t want to disclose to Ruma). We’re in the minds of daughter and father, switching between them, and it turns out that Ruma is the one who is lost, needy, dissatisfied; there’s no specific reason given for her discontent, but it comes across as real. During his stay her father asserts his independence; he prepares his own meals and he starts a garden; when he leaves he drives himself to the airport in a rental car. Lahiri has presented us with two character studies in which she gets the feelings of both people right, and she doesn’t try to expand the story beyond its natural limits – it’s complete unto itself. These virtues are missing to some degree in the other four I read. “A Choice of Accommodations” was the worst of the lot. Two unappealing and uninteresting characters meander about emotionally and wind up nowhere (actually, on a bed in a vacant dorm room, in a ridiculous scene). The prose in all these long and ambitious pieces is precise and complete in a dutiful way. I think Lahiri tries very hard, in a dutiful way, to be a great writer. But, for me, her problem has to do with conception – knowing her characters and recognizing where they’re going. That accounts for why I left three stories unread.

Stones for Ibarra – Harriet Doerr
It came as no surprise that the events depicted in these interconnected stories closely parallel those of the author and her husband. In a way, this is a book about death: in the second sentence we learn that doctors have given Richard Everton six more years to live. He has decided to spend that time reviving the fortunes of his grandparents, who owned a copper mine in a remote part of Mexico. He and his wife (from whose point of view we get the story) give up their life in San Francisco and head into the unknown. What they find are the ramshackle remains of a once-grand house. They are resourceful and determined and slowly the house is made into a pleasant place and the mine is again producing. So life in Ibarra works out for the Overtons. But the bulk of the book is not devoted to them. What we get is an honest portrayal of a town and its people, especially their way of thinking and their world view. Chapters are devoted to various characters (such as the unscrupulous Chuy Santos and his red taxi). When Doerr turns to personal issues she does so in an understated, muted way. The major emotion Sara deals with is her sense of doom as she watches the deteriorating condition of her husband. When Sara goes to a nearby town and waits her turn to make a phone call to a doctor in the states, her anxiety is effectively conveyed by having her sit, observe others and count off the minutes. The restraint works here because we’re in Sara’s mind, so intimacy is built in. But it extends to Richard, and as a result he seems to be partially in the shadows. Maybe too much in this book is left unrevealed. What we do get is a mood: the hushed stillness of loss.

The Chequer Board – Nevil Shute
Shute was a born storyteller. Despite all sorts of problems with this novel, it held my attention for almost four hundred pages (and there was even a kick at the end). As for those problems: clumsy construction, overly-long episodes, a somewhat saccharine message. The prose is workmanlike, but that’s okay with me as long as an author gets the emotions right, which Shute does. John Turner is beginning to experience neurological problems stemming from a WWII wound (a shard of metal was embedded in his brain). The doctor’s prognosis is grim: he has less than a year to live. Turner, who takes things impassively, says, “It’ll all be the same in a hundred years.” But he does give thought to how to spend his last months; he tells his wife that there are a few things he needs to clean up. He recalls being in a hospital ward with three other men whose plane was strafed by a German Jerry. The copilot was the only one who wasn’t in trouble with the authorities. Turner was wanted for black market dealings, a paratrooper was up for murder outside a London pub, and an American Negro soldier was to be tried for rape. Since Turner’s eyes are bandaged, the other three are told to read to him, or just talk, and a relationship of sorts develops. It’s these three men that Turner sets out to find – to see how they got on. And how they got on makes up the novel. One character is given the lion’s share of attention – Shute can’t seem to let go of any detail of the pilot’s story. That leaves much less space for the other two (the paratrooper gets the short shrift). As for the message, it’s that one’s color doesn’t matter. But Shute’s approach is simplistic in that all the black soldiers stationed in an English town are noble souls while the Southern whites are virulent racists. When a writer stacks the deck, I resist being pushed in one direction. Still, I liked Turner; I liked the other two men (I never got to know the paratrooper); I liked how Turner and his wife renew their feelings for one another. And I liked the ending, which deftly brings it all full circle.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Angela’s Ashes – Frank McCourt
On the opening page McCourt claims that of miserable childhoods (the only ones worth writing about) none can equal the misery of an Irish Catholic childhood: “the poverty, the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father, the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters.” This is a despairing book, filled with death and suffering and filth; only a bitter humor ameliorates the heaviness. A character, in speaking of the English “quality” (those with money), says that they wouldn’t give the likes of him “the steam off their piss.” But even family members are mean and grudging toward one another, and city officials exhibit a callous indifference to the needy. As for Catholicism, all it breeds is a prejudicial hatred. Frank’s memories begin when he’s three, and his main concerns are getting food in his stomach and staying warm; these concerns will hold sway over his entire childhood. One sea change in his attitude occurs, and it involves his father. The boy loves him for his inherent kindness; but when Malachy gets paid for his intermittent periods of work he heads directly to a pub, where he drinks the money away. Meanwhile his wife and children live on the verge of starvation; it comes to the point where Frank finds this unforgivable, and his heart hardens toward the man. McCourt’s depiction of life in Limerick has a sensationalistic aspect, and I sometimes wondered if he was leaning heavily on exaggeration. That I didn’t pause to give my skepticism much attention was due to the book’s entertainment value. Unfortunately, McCourt moves us far past the point where his story should have ended. Most likely an editor saw a gold mine in these ashes and wanted to set things up for a sequel. So we follow Frank into his late teens, skipping years along the way; I found the young man who occupies these pages (in which we’re subjected to his sexual awakening) to be unappealing. And the final scene served to revive my doubts about the memoir’s authenticity. Immediately after Frank arrives in New York he and some companions go to a party where five bored American housewives (their husbands are off hunting) are ready for an orgy. Maybe McCourt was trying to express the freedom he’d find in the new world as compared to that in repressive Ireland. But, whatever, it’s never a good thing for a reader to finish a memoir thinking, “Yeah, right, in your dreams.”

A Hazard of New Fortunes – William Dean Howells
Reading this, I could visualize an author who’s aware of his preeminent position in American letters and is carefully, and with confidence, plying his craft. Trouble is, a reader should never see the author behind the words. For all its expertise in individual scenes, and its good depiction of life in New York in the 1890s, this novel is overpopulated and unfocused. Howell posits an interesting premise: a new literary magazine will take a different approach to submissions: “Look at the way the periodicals are carried on now! Names! names! names! In a country that’s just boiling over with literary and artistic ability of every kind the new fellows have no chance. I don’t believe there are fifty volunteer contributions printed in a year in all the New York magazines. It’s all wrong; it’s suicidal. Every Other Week is going back to the good old anonymous system, the only fair system.” So the “fellows” who don’t have impressive “names” are to be given a chance. But near the end of the book (when I abandoned it) the magazine exists and is doing quite well, yet not one word has been expended regarding its content and quality. Like everything else, Howell introduces a situation and leaves it undeveloped. And his efforts at recreating vernacular became ridiculous. We get ignorant country folk (“Then what are we goun’ to do? She might ’a’ knowed we couldn’t ’a’ come alone, in New York.”), Southerners (“Ah’m so much oblahged. Ah jost know it’s all you’ doing, and it will give papa a chance to toak to some new people.”) and a German (“I ton’t tink we are all cuilty or gorrupt, and efen among the rich there are goodt men.”).

The Moviegoer – Walker Percy
The first person narrator’s voice – the way he thinks, his observations of people – gives this novel a sharply-etched noonday brightness that’s as fresh and and original as it was when I first read it, decades ago. Binx begins by describing his uneventful existence in Gentilly, a suburb of New Orleans. He’s quite happy in a movie, even a bad one: “Other people, so I have read, treasure memorable moments in their lives,” but what he remembers is “the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.” Binx gets mild pleasure from making money as a stock and bond broker; his affairs are uncomplicated by emotional entanglements. He has carefully structured his life in such a way as to avoid being engulfed by despair (a feeling that he is intimately acquainted with). His cousin Kate does not fare so well; she has no defenses to the onslaught of her emotions. Though Percy suggests the acrid whiff of desolation and emptiness which can creep upon us in the most mundane situations, we never plunge into gloom. What keeps us afloat is the artfulness of the writing: “At last I spy Kate; her stiff little Plymouth comes nosing into my bus stop. There she sits like a bomber pilot, resting on her wheel and looking sideways at the children and not seeing, and she could be I myself, sooty-eyed and nowhere.” *

On Leave – Daniel Anselme (French)
France’s war in Algeria was a quagmire that dragged on for eight years and involved, at its height, a half million young men. In this novel there are no battle scenes, just brief flashbacks – images of a heap of bodies, a burned village. It opens with three soldiers on a train; they have a highly-anticipated week’s leave in Paris. Though we follow Lachaume (a sergeant), he meets up with the other two men. For all of them the leave turns out to be devoid of pleasure. They’re unable to slough off their anger at being asked to fight a war they don’t believe in; they can’t express how they feel to anyone who hasn’t experienced what they have; they know they can’t change things politically. They’re isolated souls in the midst of a city that has turned its back on them. Their only release is in getting drunk. This makes for glum reading, but that mood is the only honest one to convey. The book ends with the men again on a train, this one taking them back to the front. Anselme’s depiction of the state of mind of soldiers in such a situation is one that our Vietnam vets could surely commiserate with.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Hear the Wind Sing – Haruki Murakami (Japanese)
This will be a short review for two reasons: the novel was short and reading it was as easy as eating a bag of potato chips. The unnamed narrator is spending his last eighteen days before returning to college. He talks with his friend Rat, he gets halfheartedly involved with a girl who has four fingers, he drinks a lot of beer. Though his aimlessness may depict youthful ennui, it could also reflect an author with no purpose in mind. Supporting the latter theory are the many pages devoted to filler: long spiels from a radio DJ, lyrics of American pop tunes (“I wish they all could be California girls”), the life story of a dead novelist. In a two page “sequel” the narrator jumps ahead in time: at age twenty-nine he’s married, and he and his wife like Sam Peckinpah movies. And that’s about it. He says, “If someone asked me if I was happy, I guess I would have to say yes. Dreams are like that in the end.” I guess they are (whatever that means). This was Murakami’s first novel; he would go on to have international success. Though I haven’t been able to get into his more ambitious work, I enjoyed this. But if you put a bag of potato chips in front of me, I’d enjoy that too. Both are made up of empty calories, and though the novel has a sprinkling of ambiguity (to suggest deep mysteries hidden beneath the surface), that doesn’t slow down consumption. In his Introduction Murakami notes how “very easy” the novel had been to write and how little it meant to him; after he sent it out, he completely forgot about it. If it hadn’t been short-listed for a prize, he “most likely would have never written another novel. Life is strange.” Yes, it is strange. Some writers are committed, work extremely hard, and care deeply about getting even a shred of recognition.

Home Is the Hunter – Gontran de Poncins (French)
That this book fails is a shame, because it has a unique main character and a story that was worth telling. Jean is a cook on an estate; he sees his purpose in life as serving, and that includes keeping up the entire house and the grounds. This is an endless task, but he does it both lovingly and with vigor (he attacks a staircase with steel wool and wax, not content until each step glows). He can show love and kindness to the Monsieur and Madame, but to others (even his wife) he has no feelings. Jean is fecund, earthy, more of a creature (a hare, a carp, a beetle) or a thing (the waters of the lake, leaves, moss) than a man. His bond with nature is spiritual; that he’s an expert hunter is no contradiction, for do not all creatures kill in order to live? When Poncins presents these ideas simply, he’s effective: “For him, to Serve was everything. For forty years he had lived, magnified, lifted above himself by this one idea. There are people who in order to realize their greatness need a battlefield. He had found it in a kitchen.” Good, right? With a deft touch, Poncins said what was needed. But far too often he unloads a mass of verbiage that buries his point; the death of the Madame takes up seven pages, and becomes a meditation involving Nobility, Eternity, God. I won’t go into the plot; suffice to say it’s a tragic one and involves the loss of the old values. If Poncins had stuck to people and events this could have been excellent; instead, his ponderous etudes made it an ordeal to read. I continued to the end because I had admired two books by him. Kabloona is an account of his stay with the Eskimoes; Father Sets the Pace is a biography. In both he found the perfect approach which would serve his subject. But with Home Is the Hunter he uses his inarticulate main character, a man the color of the earth, to philosophize, and he does it in prose that is purple.

Polyglots – William Gerhardie
I liked this author’s first novel, Futility, but it had its faults, the major one being that it was futile to wait for something to happen. I hoped that in his second outing he would offer more than aimless people carrying on aimlessly. But – alas! – early on the narrator describes the book we are reading: “The next story I write will be a tragedy of people who imagine that certain things will happen: they imagine, and their drama is a drama of imagining. Actually, nothing happens.” This is a youthful affectation, and it has its pitfalls. Without a coherent plot Gerhardie needed a constant influx of new blood; midway through an already overpopulated novel we come to a chapter entitled “More Polyglots,” followed by “And Still More Polyglots” and then “A Nest of Polyglots.” I was reminded of a scene in a Marx Brothers film where people crowd into a closet until it’s stuffed to the point where it bursts and everyone comes spilling out. But there’s no bursting in this book; the continuous idiosyncratic chatter of eccentrics became tiresome, and when I quit reading it was with no regrets. The Neversink Library edition has rave reviews from the likes of Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and C. P. Snow. In 1925, at the age of twenty-nine, the author became the toast of London’s literary world; in his introduction Michael Holroyd writes that “At Oxford, the book became the young man’s bible.” Yet, in Gerhardie’s words, it brought in “something equivalent, in terms of royalties, to nothing.” He would live to age eighty-two; at his death in 1977 he was impoverished and seldom left his apartment. One wonders where his band of admirers were. Gerhardie has a streak of cynicism that, it turns out, was justified. A characters in Polyglots muses, “ How strange: people meet, and then part, then write letters, grow tired of that, forget – and then die.”

The Tenth Man – Graham Greene
In his Introduction Greene describes how, in 1983, he learned of the existence of what he recalled to be an outline for a film he had written in 1948 (the same year he did The Third Man). In going through an old diary he came across a synopsis of the plot: “A decimation order. Ten men in prison draw lots with matches. A rich man draws the longest match. Offers all his money to anyone who will take his place. One, for the sake of his family, agrees. Later, when he is released, the former rich man visits anonymously the family who possess his money, he without anything but his life. . . .” When Greene was sent the script he was surprised to receive “not two pages of outline but a complete short novel of 30,000 words.” He found this forgotten story to be “very readable.” It is, despite a few problems. In the prison section there’s much ado about a cheap alarm clock and an expensive watch; they show differing times, and the owners have a dispute about which is accurate; in the second section the watches play no part. Also, after those four dots in the original synopsis, Greene waffled on where to take his premise. His tendency to delve into moral conundrums is out-of-place, and the villain who makes a late arrival is weak. If Greene recognized these defects, at age eighty he couldn’t be expected to rework something he had done thirty-five years ago. So the book stands as an intriguing idea that doesn’t quite come off.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Framley Parsonage – Anthony Trollope
Trollope understood his audience. They were the educated upper class of Victorian society, and they had no interest in the brutish lives of those in the lower classes. They wanted to read about lords and ladies, vicars and bishops. They wanted romantic entanglements, money matters and political maneuvering; they wanted virtue and villainy. And since reading was their main form of entertainment (imagine that!) they wanted a story that would go on at length. A bit about the genesis of Framley Parsonage shows how well Trollope gave them all they desired. Thackeray asked him to contribute to Cornhill Magazine, which he was editing. Trollope produced monthly installments of three chapters (the complete book consists of forty-eight). During this run the circulation of the magazine stayed around the 120,000 mark; after the last chapter was completed the sales dropped off sharply. Trollope was highly readable then, and he still is. His enduring strength is his insight into human nature (which hasn’t changed over time). He avoided one-dimensional characters or treacly sentimentalizing. And despite his benevolent attitude, he was a cynic; thus we get observations like this: “If I want to get anything from my old friend Jones, I like to see him shoved up into a high place. But if Jones, even in his high place, can do nothing for me, then his exaltation above my head is an insult and an injury.” And, for a novel populated largely by clerics, Trollope chooses to exclude God; what his religious hierarchy care about are money, position and prestige. If a barb can be gently applied, Trollope was a master at it. He did believe in some things, one being that man and woman weren’t meant to live alone. Marriage was a wonderful institution – if the couple are united by love and respect. Fanny is generous and forgiving toward her errant husband; without her, he would have crumbled. Though I enjoyed my five hundred page stay in Barsetshire, I was more interested in some characters than others. Nathaniel Sowerby has lived for over fifty years indulging in every luxury without doing a lick of work. He’s a manipulator, a man who uses others for financial gain. But he operates so smoothly, with such charm, that he resists being dismissed as a mere scoundrel. I also had strong feelings for Lucy Robarts, a girl that the imperious Lady Lufton condemns as too “insignificant” to be a proper match for her son. But Lucy is very significant – not in beauty or how she carries herself, but in how she thinks and in her actions. Lucy does marry Lord Lufton, with his mother’s blessing. And they lived happily ever after? Trollope seems to imply that things may not be all that rosy.

Chalky – Matthew Vaughan
This resolutely idiosyncratic novel was written by a twentieth century author, but the setting is the Victorian England that Victorian English writers don’t concern themselves with. The opening sentence: “Chalky sat in the corner of the room and chewed his piece of rag while the snake-swallower vomited into a battered bucket over by the bed.” Three-year-old Chalky is abandoned by his prostitute mother and is taken to a Church orphanage whose manager is a sadist and a pederast. When Chalky emerges as a distinct personality he’s a thirteen-year-old who is physically strong, intelligent, and determined; his first act is to bring about the downfall of the manager. The reverend who had taken Chalky to the orphanage sees potential in the boy, and he educates him (how to speak correctly, what books to read, etc.). But though Chalky absorbs, his ideas and personality are set. The most important element in his makeup is his reserve: he’s composed, stoical. He has two sexual encounters in his entire life (described in a detail that would make D. H. blush); they’re releases from his self-imposed repression, but are followed by a resumption of defenses against such release. As a profession, Chalky selects the military; he’s perfectly suited for that life, and he rises in the ranks. When Vaughan stuck to factual episodes, the book flowed, was very readable. But he clutters things up with long, erudite asides about religion, metaphysics, etc. And too many events are contrived. Most significant is the ending, which involves an encounter in Africa with a sect of “snake-men” (yes, more snakes). Chalky’s plan to have his platoon captured and then rescued is just plain dumb. The scene that ensues is as nightmarish as the opening one – purposely so. It exists only so Vaughan can have Chalky relive childhood terrors. This is a novel that fails in some ways, but which is endowed with an inner conviction. Ultimately I cared about Chalky. Or, rather I felt sympathy for the fact of his isolation, and that may have been what Vaughan was aiming for.

The Silence in the Garden – William Trevor
Trevor always approaches his stories from an oblique angle; I’ve come to expect this, and to wait for characters and events to take shape and become meaningful. In this case, I waited to the end, largely in vain. I’ve also long admired his ability to evoke emotions, but with this book I felt little to nothing. So what went wrong? For starters, there were too many characters, some who matter and many who don’t – one’s attention gets diluted. And telling the story in part through a diary doesn’t work when the diary writer has no defined personality. Trevor is good with muted people, but Sarah is almost non-existent. At the heart of the matter there’s a long-ago tragedy that has lasting repercussions; the revealing of what happened is done in such a vague and disjointed way that it had no impact. Characters, too, are handled in a desultory fashion. Villana marries a much older man – there’s a lot about wedding preparations – but we never learn how this oddly-matched couple get along. What we do get are pages devoted to young, illegitimate Tom walking around town. In the final chapter Trevor jumps ahead decades, to when everybody except two players are dead (and unaccounted for). Tom contemplates the downfall of the once-idyllic Carriglas. But since Trevor had never created a sense of the idyll, its downfall had no resonance. The writing is good, there are patches that are stand out, such as John James’ affair with a fat, fifty-ish owner of a boarding-house (he despises himself for his weakness, she’s desperate for his love). And the deeply religious Holy Mullihan is really creepy (“There’s a thing called contamination, Tom.”). But beyond these effective odds and ends, there’s not much life stirring in this garden. One wonders, when an author falls far short of his own standards, if he realizes it. I think Trevor did. What he delivered to his publishers was a very short novel with an aborted ending.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Krapp’s Last Tape – Samuel Beckett
I’ve had a rocky relationship with Beckett. When I finished high school I took an evening class at San Francisco State University. We read short novels and one play: Waiting for Godot. The man teaching the class came across not as a professor but as a bearded prophet preaching the gospel of literature. He would go deep into the meaning of the works he selected, and Godot provided a mother lode of ambiguity. I responded; now, looking back, I wonder if the teacher’s charisma influenced me, or if I felt proud of myself for being able to explore mysteries. I’ve never reread the play, but I started watching a film of it being performed on stage (Zero Mostel was in it). I didn’t last long before switching it off; the buffoonery didn’t work for me. After finishing Krapp’s Last Tape, I was moved to try once more to read one of Beckett’s novels. Molloy, this time, and sheer determination took me to page forty before I abandoned it. It seemed like so much nonsensical indulgence in oddity and obscurity. But – and here’s the final point – anybody who could write something as good as Krapp’s Last Tape deserves my lasting respect. Because of the play’s brevity, it doesn’t warrant a review (it would be like reviewing a single story). But it packs such an emotional wallop that I wrote an essay on it (which I subtitled “Samuel Beckett’s nightmare”). It can be found at Tapping on the Wall. *

The Dangling Man – Saul Bellow
With only seventy pages left I had all I could take of long descriptive passages, of pontificating, of a main character I couldn’t relate to. My misgivings began with the opening premise. The novel purports to be a journal (the first entry is dated December 15, 1942) in which Joseph declares his solitude and inertia and inability to focus. Yet this solitary, inert man goes on to recount a series of social encounters: lunches, parties, etc. Also, he’s married (though his wife comes across as no more than an object, like a table or lamp). And despite his inability to focus he gives us richly detailed scenes and philosophical musings about morality, values: “Out of my own strength it was necessary for me to return to the verdict of reason, in its partial inadequacy, and against the advantages of surrender.” This type of thing, constantly. But who is this guy and what is his problem? He takes it upon himself to spank the bottom of his brother’s nubile teenager (she had been rude to him); since he believes this action to be perfectly justified, I had an Aha! moment: he’s nuts. But Bellow lets this incident slide away without repercussions. What we get is more deep thinking. My reading came to an abrupt end at a paragraph that began: “Great pressure is brought to bear to make us undervalue ourselves. On the other hand, civilization teaches that each of us is an inestimable prize. There are, then, these two preparations: one for life and the other for death.” I chose death for this book, which was Bellow’s first. He would go on to win the Nobel Prize. At least he was more deserving than Bob Dylan.

Fast One – Paul Cain
I was in the mood for a hard-boiled crime novel, and that’s what Cain delivers. I had quit this book previously because I couldn’t keep the many names attached to people; also, I found the events to be confusing. This time I didn’t let those things bother me; I just kept my attention focused on the main character as he cuts a bloody swath through the corrupt world of Los Angeles during the Depression (the novel came out in 1933). In this brand of fiction authenticity is all-important, and I believed in how tough Kells was. He has a trace of softness (a woman), and he has a code of honor (he sticks by his few friends). But he’s out to make a killing, and if that involves killing, so be it. Besides, the people he’s dealing with are as amoral as he is. What was interesting to me – the element that gave this novel an added dimension – is that in Kells we get a study of a man with an ingrained recklessness. Money is important to him – he accumulates it and loses it and accepts both stoically – but what really spurs on this risk-taker is the ultimate risk: to put your life at stake against dangerous men (and, as it turns out, dangerous women). At several points he has misgivings – he makes plans to get out of LA and return to the comparative safety of New York, where he knows the game better. But he doesn’t leave; he always has some unfinished business – money to collect, revenge to be doled out. In the end he stays too long. The novel is written in a rapid fire, choppy, bare bones prose. Action propels it forward; it has no rest stops until the final one.

Travels with a Donkey – Robert Louis Stevenson
In 1878, when Stevenson was twenty-eight, he took a twelve day trek through a mountainous region of France. He needed a beast of burden to carry his supplies, so he bought a she-ass, “not much bigger than a dog, the colour of a mouse.” If you expect some bond to develop between Stevenson and Modestine (for that’s the donkey’s name), you’ll be disappointed. You might even be appalled by his resorting to liberal use of a goad (a stick with a nail at the end) to get her to move at a satisfactory pace. The first part of the journey is full of hardships, which Stevenson recounts with a labored humor. The area he travels in is bleak, the weather is bad (cold, rain, wind), the many of the people he meets are surly. He stays for a few days at a Trappist monastery; the monks, who have taken a vow of silence, are allowed to speak to travelers. Stevenson is impressed with the life they lead, though he knows it’s not for him; he values female companionship too highly. The monks’ days, which begin at two AM, are filled with religious duties, work and selected pastimes (one man keeps rabbits). Their meals are meager, yet they seem brimming with health and good spirits. After he leaves Our Lady of the Snows he enters a more southernly area where the landscape is pretty and the people more open and lively. But at this point a tendency that was present throughout the book became more pronounced. There’s too much deep thinking about man and God. Also, we get a long account of the bloody revolt that raged between the Protestant Camisards and their Catholic oppressors. All this (including lyrical descriptions of nature) seemed like padding. To read a travelogue one must have an interesting companion. I want someone observant of people, of their homes and occupations and meals, etc. Except for the monastery stay, there wasn’t much of this, and I grew impatient for the journey to be over. It culminated on a note of falsity. In the last chapter Stevenson sells Modestine. Through he hadn’t shown the least bit of affection for this dumb beast, in the closing sentence he’s openly weeping about their parting.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Summer Bird-Cage – Margaret Drabble
I’ve enjoyed some of Drabble’s novels, so I decided to check out her first one, which was written when she was twenty-three. The enthusiasm of an author with an assured future is evident (her family was well-established in Britain’s cultural hierarchy, she had her English degree from Oxford, and her older sister is the novelist A.S. Byatt). She displays talent: her prose is smooth and clear, and the voice of the first-person narrator is engaging. Sarah is recently graduated from Oxford, she has a boring job with the BBC, her love interest is in America. She goes to parties where bright young things engage in bright young chatter, and she has conflicts and moods, but it’s all unsubstantial. The person Drabble turns to for a plot is Sarah’s older sister, the glamorous, self-assured and aloof Louise. The novel opens with Louise’s marriage to Stephen. Sarah can’t fathom what her sister sees in this pedantic bore; yet, because the sisters were never close, she’s merely an uninformed bystander. In a long chapter called “The Information,” which comes after the halfway point in the book, she has dinner with a friend and gets the whole scoop (their dialogue begins after they have minestrone and continues without a break for fifteen pages, which made me wonder when they had a chance to chew their food). Anyway, it seems that Louise is having an affair with a handsome and virile actor named John (who was Stephen’s best man at the wedding); this is causing unstable Stephen great pain. We find out where all this leads in the last chapter, called “The Collision.” Stephen catches Louise and John enjoying a bath together; Louise, who relates the scene to her sister (the only instance of semi-intimacy between the two), is very upset at how monstrously Stephen acts; he even kicks her out of the house. Can you imagine that? Louise, we must assume, is the most obtuse mortal walking the face of the earth. The novel ends with more news about her: she’s living with John, who wants to marry her, but she . . . Oh, who cares, it’s all silly and illogical, with no point in sight. This is a tyro effort. The older and wiser Drabble won’t create characters who have labels pinned on them (glamorous, virile, unstable) and she won’t base her plot entirely on secondhand accounts. Lastly, she won’t give someone the moniker of Sappho Hinchcliffe (you know, the actress).

The Spanish Farm – R. H. Mottram
This is a war novel in which war is relegated to the background. It’s set mostly in Flanders, some twenty kilometers behind the trenches. The troops who occupy the town are English (later Australian), and they abide by French law as to what they can and cannot do; they pay for their lodging and the food they eat. There are no battle scenes and no atrocities are committed, though the fact of war is made to seem both atrocious and a colossal waste. What we get is primarily a character study of Madeleine. This young woman’s purpose in life is to make her father’s farm profitable; she doesn’t care about anything else (except love). She’s somewhat hard-hearted; only once does she shed tears. She’s tenacious, and she uses her practical intelligence to get what she wants. Her beauty comes from the health and strength of her body; she’s like a splendid animal. She’s competent, unimaginative, possessive, calculating and proud. That’s Madeleine, and the plainness of the prose, its ordered simplicity, is unwaveringly in accord with what she is. Besides managing the farm and dealing with troops, her major preoccupation is the Baron’s son. Georges had taken her as if it was his right to take the daughter of his father’s gamekeeper. She was quite willing: “Careful, even grudging, when she gave she gave generously, no half measures.” But her giving is devoid of any romantic notions; instead there’s a maternal aspect to her sensuality. When the war breaks out Georges goes off to fight; in an effort to see him, she conspires to be sent to Paris, where she works in a government office. Before briefly reuniting with Georges she has an affair with an English lieutenant. Skene needs her, and she responds to that; but they have nothing in common. She considers him to be her good child, but her “spoiled, imperious one was what she needed.” The novel closes with the war over and Madeleine back at the farm. Only ghosts remain: Georges dead, both of her brothers dead, her father an apparition. She accesses her losses with bitterness, and then turns stoically to the work at hand. How (and why) could Mottram capture so completely the sensibilities of Madeleine? I felt there must be some connection between the two. A bit of research revealed that the author served in France from 1914 to 1918. I’m convinced that Mottram was Lieutenant Skene. Skene is the only other character whose mind we’re in; he knew Madeleine at the farm; later he spent a week with her at a hotel in Paris (a respite from the “obliteration of his individuality in the dark mud of Flemish trenches”); she had given her body to him as one bestows a gift. When Skene stops by the farm after the war Mottram has her think that he “was just one of the things the War, the cursed War, had brought on her, and now it, and they, were going. Good riddance.” But Mottram couldn’t rid her from his thoughts and emotions. Thus this deeply felt and artfully executed novel. It’s the first of a trilogy. I have absolutely no desire to read more. I’ll leave Madeleine forever as she is at the end of this book.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

White Mule – William Carlos Williams
Ezra Pound said, “Make it new,” and Williams does, but without resorting to obscurity. He immediately put me on intimate footing with his characters, and that association never slackened. His straightforward prose relies heavily on the spoken word; in a single paragraph two or three characters talk (without one quotation mark getting in the way), but each voice is so distinctive there’s no difficulty in sorting them out. His subject matter is unique; on the first page an infant enters the world. The mother’s reaction to learning that it’s a girl: What? A girl. But I wanted a boy. Look again. It’s a girl, Mam. No! Take it away. I don’t want it. All this trouble for another girl. The father enters the room: Are you all right, Mama? Oh, leave me alone. What kind of man are you? As he didn’t exactly know what she meant he thought it better to close the door. So he did. If you’ve formed any preconceptions about the parents, they’ll prove to be wrong; as we follow Flossie in her first year, they’ll take good care of their sickly, underweight, squalling child. Williams, a pediatrician by profession, has a matter-of-fact attitude toward Flossie and every other character; he gives us a realism stripped bare of sentimentality. While Flossie struggles To Be (the title of the first chapter), the adults have to deal with practical matters. A major one is money. The novel is set in the early 1900s, a time of turbulent growth. Joe steadily emerges as a man whose intelligence and determination make him someone to reckon with. He’s reserved in his words and feelings; his wife, Gurlie, is his opposite; she’s emotionally volatile. In the book’s closing section she takes their two children to the mountains of Vermont to stay with an immigrant Norwegian family; they do this to get Flossie out of New York’s oppressive summertime heat. Gurlie is invigorated by the beauty and peace of nature, which she had last known in her childhood. As we see this dimension of her come to light, the novel is complete. Williams, a poet, wrote a book that contains no poetic language; but there’s a sort of poetry in the down-to-earth way he depicts human beings in the midst of life.

In the Money – William Carlos Williams
This second installment of the trilogy is more conventional in form than White Mule (I was disappointed when I saw the first quotation mark). And much of the plot concerns Joe’s efforts to get a contract to print government money orders. Though he submitted the low bid, the firm he had previously worked for is determined to beat him by whatever means necessary; they have a band of high paid lawyers and political connections. Williams is able to make this long struggle engrossing; he even builds tension, because we’re never sure whether Joe will prevail against the cutthroat tactics thrown at him. He does, and is “in the money.” But the stamina, the resolve – was it worth it? Is money that important? For Gurlie, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” She also believes that she should get credit for Joe’s success because it’s her ambition and drive that is pushing him forward. But she’s giving herself too much credit; Joe isn’t oblivious to her demands, but he remains his own man. The two have different values. When Gurlie is asked why she wants to be rich, she answers, “Why do I want to be rich for! What do you want to live for? Of course I’m not satisfied with what I’ve got. I want to go places. I want to see everything there is to see that I’m interested in.” She jerks her head at her husband. “He doesn’t want anything, that’s why he needs me. He’d be satisfied to walk around in the woods by himself, he never sees anything. What do you mean, why do I want to be rich?” Gurlie’s combativeness often turns abusive; Joe can handle her – in his quiet way he’s as tough as she is – but she’s taking on ominous dimensions. When her mother comes to stay with them the two are constantly at odds; their final fight turns venomous. During this argument Flossie begins to scream like she had never done before. The crying goes on and on, unstoppable. An odd old doctor (“I should have been a writer”) had given Gurlie a pamphlet in which he proposes that influences in the second year of a child’s life can determine their personality. Had the voices of her mother and grandmother, raised in such anger, shaken the foundations of Flossie’s security? Maybe we’ll see a darkness emerge in her, but for now she’s a cheerful child, eager to learn (language, in particular) and to do (such as to climb stairs like an adult, one step at a time). At the end of the book she and her sister Lottie return to the Vermont mountains, this time without their mother. They’re in the bosom of a family, in the embrace of nature; it’s clear, in these idyllic scenes, which way of life Williams values. But they return to New York, and what awaits them there?

The Build-Up – William Carlos Williams
This should have been called The Let-Down. Williams fails to bring a satisfying (or even coherent) close to his trilogy; worst of all, he abandons characters that I had come to care about. The book begins five years after the previous one, and we swiftly cover the next dozen years. Joe is hardly present; when he makes brief appearances he’s usually in a pissed-off mood. Gurlie is at the forefront, moving heaven and earth; she’s a swaggering bully getting her way. Lottie, the older child (who had been a shadowy figure) plays a major role; at age fourteen she goes to a conservatory in Leipzig to study to be a concert pianist. (Really? – I had no idea she had talent.) She comes across as a nasty, selfish person, and the attention paid to her was wasted on me. And then there’s Flossie, who entered the world on page one of White Mule. If you gathered together all the text devoted to her it might come to ten pages. She’s a vapid, colorless presence, and for Williams to present her like this amounts to a literary betrayal. If taken as a separate novel, without antecedents, The Build-Up has some good individual scenes, but there’s no overall structure; it’s meandering and full of loose ends. Why such a drop-off in quality? The publication dates may provide an answer. White Mule came out when Williams was fifty-four, In the Money three years later. Then there’s a span of twelve years before The Build-Up. In that interval the inspiration that produced the first novel was lost. Maybe the downward arc of this trilogy reflects a sad truth about life.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Merciless Ladies – Winston Graham
Two flesh and blood ladies in Paul Stafford’s life are merciless, but Success (or his pursuit of it) can be seen as another. All make unreasonable demands. In the end he winds up a winner; he gets the woman he loves and he achieves lasting importance as an artist. The person who tells Paul’s story is Bill Grant, a friend from boyhood. This character sacrifices much in the interests of Paul (even, possibly, in the up-in-the-air ending, his freedom). He also has feelings for both of the women Paul marries. There’s a hint of something incestuous (though not in a sexual way) in Bill’s dedication – a dedication of which Paul is oblivious. In stiff upper lip fashion Bill withholds his feelings, so we never understand what motivates him. Other than that odd undercurrent, Ladies is a solid, well-constructed, intelligent novel. But I read it because I liked Graham’s The Walking Stick so much, and Ladies isn’t nearly as good. It’s more worldly – there’s an ocean voyage, courtroom scenes, a variety of locales, from posh London clubs to an isolated cottage on the moors – but the intimacy with a character is missing. Nor does the prose have the flow of the earlier work. This book seems the product of a good writer dutifully plying his trade. Deborah in Walking Stick obviously meant more to Graham than anybody in Ladies. With one exception: Paul’s second wife is similar to Deborah in a number of ways. Most striking is that both have a limp caused by a youthful tubercular condition. One of Paul’s merciless ladies – his ex-wife Olive – refers to Holly as a “one-legged, bespectacled creature.” But she has an inherent goodness. Paul was fortunate to get her before Bill does. Some people have all the breaks. And don’t you, deep down, hate them?

Dark Bridwell – Vardis Fisher
Idaho in the late 1800s – a primitive world populated by primitive people. In telling his tale, Fisher’s prose is primitive; if you want sophistication, this is not the book for you. Charley Bridwell takes his wife and their two young boys to live in the most remote plot of land he can find. He believes that civilization (the mining camps he knew all too well) are festering holes of corruption. Charley is a study in contrasts. He’s gives expression to an exceedingly brutish side of his nature in acts of cruelty to animals, and he subjects his sons to vicious beatings. But for his wife he shows unerring devotion; toward her he’s always thoughtful, tender, kind. And though he delights in cheating people, he can show great generosity to those in need. Charley has a carefully worked out philosophy of life; he doesn’t believe in work, in striving to get ahead; he embraces irresponsibility. As time goes by, Lela grows increasingly discontent. She’s oppressed by their isolation: the mountains surrounding them, the roaring river that plummets near their cabin. She was fifteen when Charley married her; he was more than twice her age, and she respected and looked up to him. But when their sons leave home in their mid-teens – out of hatred for their father – she falls into a deep depression. When she rouses herself she goes onto a full-scale rebellion against Charley. She will work, try to get ahead and make a better life for the two children who were born in the cabin; they won’t become savages like Jed and Thiel. For Charley Lela feels two strong emotions simultaneously: love and hate. The most laudatory thing I can say about this novel is that Fisher makes her conflict into a tragedy. At the end all the principals disappear, moving in directions that will never converge. We know what lies in wait for them: Charley will wallow and die in the degradation he despised, Lela will be haunted by her abandonment of a man who loved and needed her.

The Paradise Below the Stairs – Andre Brincourt (French)
Thirteen-year-old Francoise is manipulative and deceitful; he can also be unrepentantly malicious. In his search for a role in life he decides on being a tough guy. But he’s still a boy, and, as events reveal, he’s not ready to become involved in sex. Though authors have explored this issue with girls, in this case the girl is the experienced instigator; at age fourteen Myriam wields the power of her sexuality. The hidden cellar the boys discover at their school would have been a sort of club, but when Myriam becomes its “savage queen” it takes on a perverse purpose. She begins to have two boys enter the room where her bed is. Though Francoise resists Myriam’s efforts to get him to go all the way, he claims to the other boys that he does; he even gets Myriam to promise that she will never tell anyone that they do not “make love.” Basson, older and experienced – he considers himself a man – is the other person who shares Myriam, and he does go all the way with her. The outcome is pregnancy, then a crude attempt at an abortion. The griminess of all this is distasteful, partly because none of the young people elicit sympathy. If Brincourt was trying to portray the illogical turmoil of adolescence, he undermines that purpose by the luridness of his plot. Francoise’s “paradise” is actually a hellish place.

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Finkler Question – Howard Jacobson
Jacobson’s main character is besieged by emotional woes; the second sentence of the novel is, “His life had been one mishap after another.” Unfortunately, Julian Treslove and his mishaps (particularly those involving women) were too doggedly offbeat to be credible. For example, Julian is employed by a theatrical agency as a double for famous people at parties, conferences, etc. “Treslove didn’t look like anybody famous in particular, but looked like many famous people in general, and so was in demand if not by virtue of verisimilitude, at least by virtue of versatility.” (Of course, we never see Treslove plying his trade.) The crucial event comes early, when Treslove is robbed on a London street. The person who mugs him is a woman, and she says something Treslove finds unintelligible. At first he thinks her words were “Your jewels,” but after interminable contemplation he becomes convinced that she said, “You Jew.” This is used as a jumping off point: Treslove (who isn’t Jewish) begins to think of himself as being a Jew. The Finkler Question is really the Jewish Question. When Finkler and his wife argue (which is all they do) it’s over his ASHamed Jews movement; Jacobson even manages to make Treslove’s affair with Finkler’s wife revolve around Jewishness. I’m not interested in that subject per se (and per se was all there was), and what was left? Only one of the characters was appealing (an old fellow named Libor Sevcik, who is relegated to the sidelines); I found nothing humorous in a book that was (I suppose) meant to be a comic romp; the bluntness of the sex scenes made me yearn for women who have a modicum of modesty in words and actions (something mighty hard to find in today’s fiction). After I quit this Booker Prize-winner I did a bit of research on Jacobson and found that through a long and successful career his bread and butter issue has been Jewishness (his latest novel is entitled J). As an experiment I glanced through the half of The Finkler Question that I hadn’t read, opening it twenty times at random, and not once did I come across a page without references to you-know-what. I’ll do it again, right now. Okay, page 220 of the hardback edition: “He doesn’t say, the Jews misleading the world again, but only an uncomplaining fool, happy to be unforeskinned, could miss the implication.” This excerpt conveniently brings up something else that I wasn’t interested in but that gets a lot of attention: the state of penises.

Look at the Harlequins! – Vladimir Nabokov
If you’re not a Nabokov afficionado, don’t bother with this book; I am, and I found it enjoyable. It’s framed as an autobiography of a emigre Russian writer named Vadim; his novels are listed, and all of them are Nabokov’s novels assigned new names (it was fun to figure out which was which). Nabokov is playing a game with the reader; he mixes similarities in his own life with differences. Vadim is married three times before he meets the right woman; Vladimir married the right woman when he was twenty-six. What do these other wives represent? Mistakes he managed to avoid? Vadim states that “madness has been lying in wait for me behind this or that alder or boulder since infancy.” One wonders if Vladimir suffered from the same “incipient insanity.” And then there’s the Lolita connection . . . Coming from an author who some accused of having pederastic tendencies, Nabokov’s assigning that abnormality to Vadim seems like either an admission or an act of defiance. When Vadim’s eleven-year-old daughter Bel comes to live with him after a separation of many years, we get scenes like this: “She could not stop shivering, though, and I had to thrust my hands under her skirt and rub her thin body, till it glowed, so as to ward off ‘pneumonia’ which she said, laughing jerkily, was a ‘new,’ was a ‘moon,’ a ‘new moon’ and a ‘moan,’ a ‘new moan,’ thank you.” Later he claims to see “Nothing wrong or dangerous, or absurd or downright cretinous in my relationship between my daughter and me. Save for a few insignificant lapses – a few hot drops of tenderness, a gasp masked by a cough and that sort of stuff – my relations with her remained essentially innocent.” Yet Bel takes to walking around the house naked; when she appears wearing only slippers and a necklace, the woman who would be Vadim’s third wife is “flabbergasted” and has her sent away to a boarding school. Vera appears late in Vadim’s life, and is referred to only as “you” (Vera was Nabokov’s first reader, and he dedicated all his books to her). For him she represented no-nonsense Reality; I believe that she kept him stable, able to avoid the nightmare world to which he exiled so many of his fictional creations. But I may have given the impression that this is a dark and depressing work when it’s actually rather a lark. I believe that the act of writing well about even deplorable things gave Nabokov pleasure. At any rate, after suffering through half of Ada, I was grateful that my long association with him would end on a bright note; his last sentence has, appropriately, no period: “I had been promised some rum with my tea – Ceylon and Jamaica, the sibling islands (mumbling comfortably, dropping off, mumble dying away) –” Before he died Nabokov asked that the book he was working on (or, rather, doodling around with) be destroyed. But thirty years later his son Dmitri had The Original of Laura published, something which I consider an act of betrayal. I’ll close with a quote from Harlequins that describes what his craft meant to Nabokov; Vadim remembers Paris “merely as the chance setting for the most authentic and faithful joys of my life: the colored phrase in my mind under the drizzle, the white page under the desk lamp awaiting me in my humble home.”