I first read “Yonder Peasant, Who Is He?” in Cast a Cold Eye, McCarthy’s 1950 short story collection. It reappears as the lead-off story in these memories (which came out seven years later). In it she dissects the mentality that allowed her paternal grandparents to be blithely indifferent to the miserable existence she and her brothers endured after their parents’ death. “Dissects” is the correct word: emotions are presented in a detached, analytical way, and sometimes with a wry humor. This is true even in the next piece, in which she describes the nature of their misery at the hands of the brutish uncle they were sent to live with. Uncle Myers is the only person in the book who comes across as evil. McCarthy isn’t a condemner; she sees people as too complex to be categorized as good or bad. The stories follow her life chronologically; when her well-to-do maternal grandfather takes her to live in Seattle she begins to live in privileged circumstances. She attends school at a Sacred Heart convent; though Catholicism is an influence, early on she becomes a non-believer. My favorite piece in the collection is the final one, “Ask Me No Questions,” in which McCarthy finally tackles (after the woman’s death) her supremely vain maternal grandmother. The smooth and precise prose never flags, but when we move into McCarthy’s mid-teens I got the sense that she was at a loss for material. Actually, these memories are meager; without the supplement of italicized addendum (which I skimmed) the book would come to less than two hundred pages. I can’t say that I grew fond of Mary, but I don’t believe she was asking that of me. Respect for her intelligence would mean more to her, and that I can grant her.
This novel takes the form of a diary of a man in his seventies (and moves into his eighties). Sylvestre Bonnard is a bachelor whose house is filled with books – he lives in a “City of Books.” He has an elderly housekeeper and a cat named Hamilcar, to whom he talks. He is, actually, talking to the reader throughout the novel – a sense of intimacy is established on the first page and never wanes. My acquaintanceship with this unique individual was a most enjoyable one. The novel has a sentimental strain that may be old-fashioned, but it’s appropriate to the character of Bonnard; there are soft-hearted people like him. The first part of the book is devoted to a search for a precious manuscript, but that subject is dropped entirely. The story then concerns itself with the young daughter of a deceased woman whom Bonnard loved in his youth (a love that was unrequited; she married another). Paris is a big city, and how likely would it be for him to cross paths with someone he didn’t even know existed? But I found these “faults” to be irrelevant; the voice dominating the novel kept me out of a fault-finding mood. Jeanne is in need of help; she’s staying at a school where she’s a charity case and has been relegated to the status and duties of a servant. Bonnard – who has led a sheltered a life among his books – sees for the first time a manifestation of evil in the person of the headmistress. She informs Bonnard that Jeanne must be trained in the struggle of life, and is to learn that she can’t just amuse herself and do what she pleases. His response: “One comes into this world to enjoy what is beautiful and what is good, and to do what one pleases, when the things one wants to do are noble, intelligent and generous.” He rescues Jeanne, and to provide for her dowry he decides to sell his book collection; the books gave him pleasure, but they have no real value. (His “crime” is robbing Jeanne by secreting some volumes aside from the sale.) As for his age and his solitary existence, it’s not in his nature to complain or to harbor regrets about what he doesn’t have. He accepts, and does so with benevolence and humor. The simple act of acceptance is shown to have its rightful place as one of the keys to contentment. Bonnard has reached the age when he has observations to make about Life (such as the one quoted above), and I found wisdom from a man who professes to have no wisdom. That Anatole France was thirty-eight when he created his “old-book man” is remarkable, as is the fact that this was his first novel. Years ago I read his Penguin Island and thought it a wonder, yet I didn’t pursue other works by him. I succumbed to the fact that France (even though he won the Nobel Prize) is out of vogue. Who even talks of this contemporary of Flaubert? Sylvestre Bonnard might say, with a shrug and a smile, thus are the vagaries of fame.
Transparent Things – Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov’s novels can be divided into three categories. Two of the categories are similar in that both have believable characters involved in an intelligible plot; what separates them is that some succeed in telling a good story and some don’t. Generally speaking, the simpler the plot, the more successful the story. The third category consists of works that are unintelligible. Though Lolita has its difficulties, it’s certainly not impenetrable. After that novel, Nabokov was finally freed of money worries and he no longer seemed to care about the reader (and so we get Ada). Transparent Things belongs in the third category; it delves into arcane matters in a prose that often seems like a verbal labyrinth. The characters that occasionally emerge from these encumbrances are unreal and act with a perverse randomness. For all his vast intelligence, why couldn’t Nabokov perceive how boring and foolish this is? At any rate, my long association with him ends here, on this down note: I’ve now read (or attempted to read) all of his novels. I wish I had taken his final two in chronological order. Look at the Harlequins! (the last to be published in his lifetime) would have been a much more fitting goodbye to an author who gave me so much pleasure.
Found, Lost, Found – J. B. Priestley
Priestley was a hugely productive writer – I counted thirty novels in the list of his works, and there were equally long numbers of plays, essays, autobiographies and criticism. This novella was published when he was in his eighties, but it has the feel of something done by a young man. I have a hunch it was a discarded manuscript that the elderly writer discovered in a drawer and found pleasing. Premise: Tom drinks a lot of gin (why he chooses to float through life in a perpetual state of inebriation is not made clear); he and Kate meet and soon (too soon) fall in love. She leaves London for an undisclosed location, challenging Tom to find her; she wants to test his commitment to their relationship. The episodes involved in his search make up the bulk of the novel. They’re played as comic set pieces; trouble is, they’re not funny. I became awfully annoyed with Tom the inventive wit (he likes to make up names for himself such as J. Carlton Mistletoe and Theodore A. Buscastle). So I skipped to the end: he finds her. But the larger question for me is why I’m having such a hard time finding a good book to read. I only review those that I get halfway through, so you don’t know about all the ones (sometimes six in a row) I can’t tolerate for that long. Even having to write about this bit of fluff has put me in a bad mood.