Sunday, April 24, 2016

Short reflections on books that have fallen short

The title may be longer than absolutely necessary, but I'm in one of those ruts where most of the books I have read recently have let me down one way or another.  It has been a very busy and somewhat stressful period of trying to wrap everything up at one job and launch a new one.  In fact, due to the unwritten pressure of trying to start at the new job early and the very overt demands of needing to wind up a lot of loose ends at my old job, I didn't have any time off between jobs.  I turned up at the new job on a Monday but was working through the weekend (granted only on two small tasks) to clear away the issues remaining from the old job.  I guess I have to content myself with the week vacation I took, though as should be fairly clear, it wasn't exactly restful...

That means that I was kind of hoping for books a bit more escapist than usual, and that I was perhaps a bit too severe on the books I have been reading over this period.  That said, in at least two cases (A Man Who Knows and After Julius), I am quite sure I wouldn't have liked the books even had I read them during a more sedate period.  I'm pretty sure that is also the same for Loving and Giving, though it is possible I would have been a bit more forgiving with that one.  Perhaps.

I'll try to be relatively brief about these books, though I imagine the post itself will be fairly long.  There will probably be at least some SPOILERS, so if that bothers you greatly, it is probably best to skip to the next post.

Indeed, I have been going through a relatively bad patch of books.  Probably the last book I enjoyed (almost without any reservations) was Albert Cossery's The Jokers and before that it was probably Tess Slessinger's The Unpossessed. Of the books that I am covering, I would say that I really liked one (The Price of Salt) and even that one will probably not make by top 10 list for the year, though you never know.  That said, I thought there were things to admire about three or maybe even four of the others, but that these were books that I still finished more out of obligation for having started them rather than actually enjoying them.

Somewhat ironically, I was warned away from Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt as it was too "talky" and completely failed as a thriller (and I am not sure if they did amp up the storyline a bit for the recent movie version: Carol).  And that is true, but the dilemma of two women falling in love in an era where this was still quite illegal had its own urgency.  I think this is a book that my mother would have liked very much, and I hope that she read the reissued version that was floating about in the early 90s.  Some of the hallmarks of lesbian humor are present here -- how the third date usually involves a moving van (substituted here with a cross-country trip).  This was probably the high point of the last 15 or so books that I have read.  My main reservation was that I just wasn't all that interested in the younger partner in the relationship, and that Carol probably only is attracted to her because of her youth, though it does turn out she has artistic abilities and has some insight into the workings of the world (i.e. she isn't a complete naif or ingénue).  Still, if the relationship does continue in fits and starts past the confines of the book, I can easily see a time when Carol would just lose interest and find a new partner or more likely return to her first partner, which is itself a fairly common pattern among lesbians, or at least it was up through the 90s.

Looking past this book, there was a definite theme to many of the books where male stubbornness played a huge role.  When stubbornness was combined with hot-headedness, as with Smollett's Roderick Random or the main character from Achebe's No Longer at Ease, then I really, really struggled with the books since I was fairly alienated from these characters and didn't care what happened to them, since they deserved it.  Roderick Random was such a jerk who never seemed to learn his lesson, and I thought the happy ending to be completely undeserved.  No Longer at Ease is a bit more interesting, as you know Columbo-style what crime was committed by the main character and the novel explains how he came to that point.  I still didn't like it very much, however.

Now, The Luck of Ginger Coffey was a bit different in that Ginger was stubborn in his own way, particularly in valuing himself a bit more than his employers (and he did foolishly spurn one decent job opportunity, which he might be able to salvage at novel's end) but he wasn't so completely hot-headed that I came to dislike him.  I'll be reviewing this shortly and will go into more detail at that point.

Faulkner's fiction is full of stubborn men.  Sometimes he lays it on just too thick, as in As I Lay Dying, which I pretty much hated (I certainly came to loathe the main character).  Intruder in the Dust features a stubborn Black man, Lucas Beauchamp, who also was a central character in "The Fire and the Hearth" from Go Down, Moses.  In many ways, he is extremely fortunate to have remained alive so long, particularly because he carries himself with so much dignity that it drives most Southern whites crazy.  Even the more sympathetic whites think he is generally too big for his britches.  What is generally not spoken of directly is that it is fairly clear that he has a "mixed" background.  (I actually briefly was confusing part of the plotline of Go Down, Moses, with Charles Johnson's Oxherding Tale where there is an unbelievable mix-up that leads to a mixed-race boy who becomes the lead character.  I think Johnson was definitely riffing off Faulkner to a large extent, though also Ishmael Reed.)

In any event, Intruder in the Dust focuses on Lucas in his old age when he is about to be lynched for shooting a white man in the back.  Where things get a little strange is that he won't say anything useful to his attorney, but asks the attorney's young nephew to go out and look at the body.  What then transpires is this weird almost Scooby Doo hijinks where the nephew and a spirited spinster Miss Eunice Habersham go off and dig up the body.  Confronted with evidence that Lucas is actually innocent, the attorney then feels a bit ashamed to not have taken Lucas quite seriously and they all set about trying to find the real killer.  In a lot of ways this feels like a more realistic To Kill a Mockingbird, though the style is often needlessly complex (kind of par for the course with Faulkner).  While more honorable than most of the townsmen, the attorney is still quite racist and feels a lot of this would have been avoided if Lucas was more respectful of whites.  (Intruder in the Dust may well be closer in tone to Go Set a Watchmen, which kind of deflated a lot of Harper Lee fans.)  Generally, when the uncle makes his speeches they are too long and just too defensive about about how the South would solve the Negro problem if left to their own devices.  That said, I might read it again (many, many years down the line).

Where Faulkner is quite good is on family dynamics: about how mothers never quite forgive their children for not needing to be buttoned up, whereas fathers focus more on the teen years.  Teen hijinks are looked at through a mixture of secret pride and a bit of despair over no longer being 16.  I did like this passage from Chapter VI: "the rage which was relief after the event {of the nighttime raid on the graveyard} which had to express itself some way and chose anger not because he would have forbidden him to go but because he had had no chance to ... it was his uncle's abnegant and rhetorical self-lacerating which was the phony one and his father was gnawing the true bitter irremediable bone of all which was dismatchment with time, being born too soon or too late to have been himself sixteen and gallop a horse ten miles in the dark to save an old [Negro]'s insolent and friendless neck."

Elizabeth Jane Howard's After Julius (1965) also has one solid passage about an older woman who has been passed by by time: "She watched them round the bend of the drive, listened as they slowed down and eased into the lane and she shut the door before she could not hear them any more. Cressy's scent was still in the air; she walked away from it into the drawing-room with its log fire, berries arranged in an urn, and her desk, neatly crammed with letters she had already answered."  But the rest of the plot is so annoying.  There is her older daughter who never forgave the woman for having an affair, which seems to have sparked her husband (Julius) to join the volunteer fleet which saved the British troops at Dunkirk (the miracle at Dunkirk), but Julius died during the attempt.  So what happens, twenty-odd years later, the daughter takes revenge by stealing away the lover who has shown up for the weekend.  As if that wasn't melodramatic enough, the younger daughter ends up sleeping with a borderline psychotic poet and goes off to marry him the next day.  Her life is clearly going to be a total ruin, but she is so witless that I simply didn't care.  I didn't like any of the characters at all, aside from an elderly colonel, who would have made a decent husband for the older woman if she would give him half a chance.

General dislike for the main character is also how I felt about Bove's A Man Who Knows, where I just couldn't bear their circular conversations that went no place (as well as his general immorality).  This is by far the worst book I've ever read by Bove, and I don't understand why it was translated and not some of his better books.  Molly Keane's Loving and Giving (sometimes titled Queen Lear in the UK) features the most milquetoast character I've encountered in a long time.  She was so insipid and only cared to please her rakish husband.  There were all the typical Keane touches -- a monstrous mother, slightly foolish elders who can't quite maintain their estates (shades of The Cherry Orchard here, though at least Aunt Tossie finds some way to keep it all going, unlike the mother in Good Behaviour who literally throws all the bills in a drawer and figuratively buries her head in the sand) and servants who are used to getting their own way.  But I couldn't get past the fact that the main character was so deserving of her unhappy condition.  I find it astonishing that a few people consider this to be Keane's best book, though I don't care much for Good Behaviour either, which is more generally ranked among her best.  At any rate, I have completed my march through Keane and Comyns, which I begun back in 2013.

While there were a few interesting moments in Waberi's Passage of Tears (and it was certainly less sterile than McCarthy's Satin Island) the plot was fairly thin and the outcome felt pre-ordained.  Most of the interest came from an Islamic radical reading Walter Benjamin's work second-hand.  I probably won't bother to read any more of Waberi's work.

I'm not quite certain about Amit Chaudhuri.  While the writing in Afternoon Raag was often enjoyable, there was essentially no plot to speak of.  I couldn't even tell you if the main character ended up with one or the other of the two women he was seeing while at school in Oxford, or if he left both of them to return to India.  It was just sort of a pointless noodling (somewhat intentionally modelled after a raag).  I didn't care for his The Immortals either, but I might at some point read more of his work.

That's kind of where I am landing with Dany Laferrière and Alain Mabanckou.  I'm not deeply interested in their work, but I might read more.  How to Make Love to A Negro (without Getting Tired) doesn't have much of a plot either, as I discussed here.  Blue White Red has a more traditional tale about immigrants and what they have to do to remain abroad when they don't have sufficient skills to be employed in the formal economy.

I suppose I will end (finally) with Machado De Assis.  In this case, the SPOILERS might ruin the book, so only press on if you have read his work or don't mind SPOILERS.

In this case, I find that I like his short stories more than his novels.  He wrote 3 major novels translated into English, but I do have to say that probably reading any one of them is sufficient, since they all largely revolve around the same concerns.  (Epitaph of a Small Winner is probably the best with Dom Casmurro a bit behind; I didn't rate Philosopher or Dog? as highly as either of these.)  I suppose Dom Casmurro is slightly different in that the title character does marry the woman of his dreams and has a son (the others have no descendants) but he starts to doubt her chastity and comes to believe that his son was actually sired by his best friend.  Breaking with Othello's example, he simply exiles them to Switzerland (on the pretense of educating his son) but then doesn't even shed a tear when he hears that his presumptive heir has died.  De Assis is sort of the master at creating characters with cramped souls that actually prefer leaving no mark upon the world.  It's definitely a strange viewpoint, and one that I certainly don't share (obviously).  Still, it is worth reading at least one or two of his novels (and a handful of the stories).  

And with this, I will bring this discussion to an end.  I will probably get through two more fiction books in April and then plan to stick to non-fiction for a while, which may be a bit of a shock to the system...

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