I have read a number of H.G. Wells's early sci-fi novels. This is the first time I have read one of his "other" novels, and I am surprised to see thatI have read a number of H.G. Wells's early sci-fi novels. This is the first time I have read one of his "other" novels, and I am surprised to see that it is by far his best work. Tono-Bungay is a bildungsroman about growing up poor in Victorian England and making one's way in the world by a combination of luck, good and bad.
The good luck is hero George Ponderevo's association with his uncle Edward, the inventor of a nostrum called Tono-Bungay. He brings his nephew George in with him and becomes a fantastically rich financier -- until ... until the whole thing comes undone.
The bad luck consists of George's three attempts at love. He marries, but it ends in a kind of listless divorce. Then there is a bright affair with a secretary, but that goes nowhere. Finally, there is Beatrice Normandy, whom George knew from his childhood. Unfortunately, she had made her accommodation in a lazy ongoing relationship with an English lord.
There are times when the novel seems to lose its way, as if Wells was not used to writing a 400-page novel, but he keeps coming back:
Don't imagine that I am coming presently to any sort of solution of my difficulties. Here among my drawings and hammerings NOW, I still question unanswering problems. All my life has been at bottom, SEEKING, disbelieving always, dissatisfied always with the thing seen and the thing believed, seeking something in toil, in force, in danger, something whose name and nature I do not clearly understand, something beautiful, worshipful, enduring, mine profoundly and fundamentally, and the utter redemption of myself; I don't know—all I can tell is that it is something I have ever failed to find.
I will continue to read more of Wells's sci-fi novels, but I think I will also check out Kipps and The History of Mr. Polly. ...more
For some reason, I had always avoided reading he work of William Saroyan, but for some reason I picked up a copy of The Human Comedy at the local librFor some reason, I had always avoided reading he work of William Saroyan, but for some reason I picked up a copy of The Human Comedy at the local library and read it. I was enchanted by the author's vision of a small agricultural town in which the local residents are, for the most part, decent human beings who are kind to one another.
At the center are the two Macauley boys, Homer and Ulysses (the name of the town is Ithaca), their family and friends. The father had died before the story begins, and the older brother is off to fight in World War Two.
I have never before seen in literature such a world of wish fulfillment. Yet it is never sappy. The world of Ithaca is surrounded by the same dark clouds that surround all of us, and Saroyan never Disneyfies his work. ...more
Some writers are all too easy to underestimate. I read this book on the recommendation of Jorge Luis Borges, and I was not disappointed. It is one ofSome writers are all too easy to underestimate. I read this book on the recommendation of Jorge Luis Borges, and I was not disappointed. It is one of those stories which, while they progress naturally from scene to scene, cannot in any sense be foreseen.
The Ebb-Tide: A Trio and Quartette by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyde Osbourne is set in the South Seas. There are three layabouts lying on the shore in Papeete, Tahiti: Herrick, Captain Davis, and Huish. Somehow Davis manages to get a new ship command -- a schooner that had limped into port quarantined for smallpox.
The schooner Farallone plans to sail for Peru but come instead on an island that is barely charted. There they encounter Attwater, who himself has survived a smallpox epidemic. The three plan to kill Attwater and steal the pearls he has accumulated ... but things don't work out as they had planned:
Then came over Davis, from deep down in the roots of his being, or at least from far back among his memories of childhood and innocence, a wave of superstition. This run of ill luck was something beyond natural; the chances of the game were in themselves more various; it seemed as if the devil must serve the pieces. The devil? He heard again the clear note of Attwater's bell ringing abroad into the night, and dying away. How if God...?
The ending is a surprise which I do not wish to divulge.
The Ebb-Tide deserves to be considered along with Stevenson's best work....more
In the world of Alan Furst the clock is set to either just before the start of or just after the start of the Second World War. He excels at presentinIn the world of Alan Furst the clock is set to either just before the start of or just after the start of the Second World War. He excels at presenting that sick feeling in the pit of the stomach that things are likely to get much worse ... and soon.
The Foreign Correspondent is the story of Reuters foreign correspondent Carlo Weisz, from Trieste, who now lives in Paris working for Reuters, and in his spare time editing an anti-fascist publication called Liberazione, which is attracting the unwelcome attentions of OVRA, Mussolini's secret police.
Weisz gets connected up with various British Intelligence operatives, who are eager to use his skills against Mussolini -- especially after the latter signs the so-called Pact of Steel with Hitler.
It is June 1939, and we are three months from the Nazi invasion of Poland. Like all of Furst's novels, there is a brooding atmosphere of impending violence, which no one is quite nearly as good at as he is.
There are several interesting subplots set in Germany, Spain, and Italy. I have enjoyed all the Furst novels I have read; and The Foreign Correspondent is well worth reading. ...more
The three great novelists of the Cold War spy genre were all British: John Le Carré, Ian Fleming, and Len Deighton. Perhaps this is because the AmericThe three great novelists of the Cold War spy genre were all British: John Le Carré, Ian Fleming, and Len Deighton. Perhaps this is because the American spy novels involved too much flag-waving and rah-rah, whereas the Brits wrote about a more ambiguous world (except, maybe, for Ian Fleming, whose James Bond was, for all intents and purposes, an honorary Yankee).
I loved Funeral In Berlin, which is just as morally ambiguous as Le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The unnamed hero (who is called Harry Palmer only in the movies, where you can't have an unnamed hero) finds the head of the KGB in East Berlin to be more sympatico than most of his associates, two of whom try to kill him.
The only trouble with the Deighton novels I have read is that they are so very nuanced and densely packed that you not only can't read them at the beach, but may have to re-read them to understand what is going on. The death of a certain German agent with whom "Harry" deals is so tricky that I had to read the chapter several times just to find out how it all happened. But it's all there: You just have to be wide awake. ...more
Looking back, the Communists were a worthy enemy. There were no suicide vests or improvised explosive devices aimed at innocent civilians. (ReligiousLooking back, the Communists were a worthy enemy. There were no suicide vests or improvised explosive devices aimed at innocent civilians. (Religious wars are always the most brutal.) Mind you, the Russians weren’t Boy Scouts, either. But after the ugliness and indiscriminate savagery of the current Sunni Muslim jihad against the West, I grow downright nostalgic about the 1960s.
Lately, I have been reading the three great spy novelists of that time—with great pleasure. I just finished Funeral in Berlin by one of them, the great Len Deighton. The other two were Ian Fleming of James Bond fame, and John Le Carré, author of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold.
Funeral in Berlin is typical of the period. The hero, who is called Harry Palmer in the movies but is unnamed in the books, arranges to transfer a Russian scientist to West Berlin by means of a coffin. No one seems to be trustworthy. In fact, the character one would think would be the most villainous, Colonel Stok of the KGB, is actually the most sympathetic character that “Harry” encounters. The people who are supposedly his allies are an untrustworthy lot: two of them try to kill him, others just want to sell him down river.
In comparison, James Bond is almost never surprised by villains who are supposed to be on the same side as him. There are all those lovely girls, and Felix Leiter of the CIA appears as a supporting hero in several of the novels.
Only Le Carré comes close to Deighton in creating a murky world of spies and supposed friends. My favorite of his books is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which has been made into an excellent film and a great British TV series starring Sir Alez Guinness as George Smiley....more
This is a book that could only have been written in France. And poor Anatole France got on the Catholic Church's Index of Forbidden Books for his effoThis is a book that could only have been written in France. And poor Anatole France got on the Catholic Church's Index of Forbidden Books for his efforts. The Revolt of the Angels is not really a work of irreligion as it is of gentle irony.
It all starts when Arcade, the guardian angel of Maurice d'Esparvieu, starts reading books in the famed d'Esparvieu library and decides that the God whom he served was actually a demiurge named Ialdabaoth. He enlists other angels who are living among men to join him, and with the collaboration of Satan, storm Heaven. At one point, Arcade is upbraided by one of his fellow rebels:
We are on the eve of surprising Ialdabaoth in his palace of porphyry, and you, who are burning to deliver the heavens, who were so eager to enter in triumph into your emancipated country,—you suddenly forget your noble purpose and fall asleep in the arms of the daughters of men. What pleasure can you find in intercourse with these unclean little animals, composed, as they are, of elements so unstable that they may be said to be in a state of constant evanescence? O Arcade! I was indeed right to distrust you.
There is, indeed, a gentle Gallic touch to this revolt. It's interesting that the Church took such offense to it.
This book makes me think of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It was said of Ginger that she could dance as well as Fred, but backwards, and while weariThis book makes me think of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It was said of Ginger that she could dance as well as Fred, but backwards, and while wearing high heels!
Foe by J.M. Coetzee is a re-telling of the tale of Robinson Crusoe, except that the "real" story is all different. Susan Barton is the mistress of a sea captain who is cast away by the ship's mutinous crew. She makes her way to an island, where she is found on the beach by Friday, who takes her to "Cruso" in his encampment.
This Cruso is nothing like Defoe's castaway, with all his prayers and projects. He is somewhat surly and lazy. His only project is the creation of terraces for agriculture -- except there is no agriculture because there are no seeds to be planted. And Friday seems to have been with Cruso from the start. The main difference between him and the cannibal of Defoe is that his tongue had been cut out, and he is unable to speak.
The three are rescued by a ship, the Hobart, and taken to England. In London, Susan Barton finds a writer named Foe and tries to interest him in the real story of the island -- but Foe is not really buying her story: He does not find it sufficiently interesting. Instead, he delves into her back story, about how she lost her daughter in Bahia, Brazil, and what may have happened to her.
We never actually see the final tale of Robinson Crusoe. The two divergent stories are never really reconciled. It probably would have been too neat if they were, and the tale of Susan Barton is interesting in its own right. In the end, we have two tales with some comparable elements -- and Susan's is an interesting tale as she tries to make her way in the world with the mute Friday, after Foe is set upon by debt collectors, and decamps.
We all have our literary prejudices: Mine is an aversion to underwater action scenes. I suppose if I were an avid skin diver, it would be a differentWe all have our literary prejudices: Mine is an aversion to underwater action scenes. I suppose if I were an avid skin diver, it would be a different story ... but I'm not. Other than that, the 9th novel in Ian Fleming's James Bond series, Thunderball, is the usual craftsmanlike product in the series.
I would probably have liked to have more background about SPECTRE, the SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, and its leader, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. That would have taken some of the wind out of James Bond's sails, but it would have provided a more useful background to the nuclear extortion plot that the organization is planning.
There is a lot of blub blub action, and another attractive Bond heroine in Domino Vitale (nee Petacchi). I was less than impressed by Blofeld's point man, Largo, and I would like to have known more about Largo's associates, some of whom looked interesting.
No matter. I'm by and large enjoying my Bond re-reads, which remind me of the time off I took in college from having to study for my English comprehensive examination. ...more
We are in the later days of the First World War. Ferdinand Bardamu is holed up in London with a bunch of French pimps, whores, pawnbrokers, con men, aWe are in the later days of the First World War. Ferdinand Bardamu is holed up in London with a bunch of French pimps, whores, pawnbrokers, con men, and arsonists. They are all more or less hiding out with bad papers and afraid of being deported to France and the trenches along the Somme.
Louis-Ferdinand Céline is up to his old tricks. The book starts with a Boche zeppelin and airplane raid. Ferdinand is hanging out with super-pimp Cascade, cowering from a run-in with Matthew of Scotland Yard, whose threatening presence is seemingly everywhere. After a big fight between Cascade's stable of prostitutes, Ferdinand runs off to join a friend with a Jewish pawnbroker in Greenwich. That ends when his friend accidentally kills the pawnbroker and deliberately sets fire to his place.
Guignol's Band: Novel is not the best of Celine's novels, but like all of them it is a hoot to read. It ends suddenly when the narrator takes up with a Franco-Chinese magician (?) on the verge of cutting a deal with the British military on a new gas mask.
There is a sequel called London Bridge, which I have not yet read. ...more
My first encounter with Charles Bukowski was watching a televised speech. I was entranced by the man. Then I read his novel Post Office, which I lovedMy first encounter with Charles Bukowski was watching a televised speech. I was entranced by the man. Then I read his novel Post Office, which I loved. Ever since then -- and it's been a number of years now -- I have been a fan of his novels, stories, and poems.
Hollywood is about a somewhat different medium. Bukowski wrote a screenplay which was filmed as Barfly (1987). Hollywood is the author's take on the whole film-making process, from the financing to the casting to the production to the wrap parties. At one point, Bukowski is interviewed by a journalist:
"What do you do when you're not writing?"
"Horses Bet them."
"Do they help you with your writing?"
"Yes. They help me forget about it."
"Are you drunk in this movie?"
"Do you think drinking is brave?"
"No, but nothing else is either."
"What does your movie mean?"
"Nothing. Peeking up the ass of death, maybe."
"Maybe means not sure."
"What do you see when you look up the 'ass of death'"?
"The same thing as you do."
"What is your philosophy of life?"
"Think as little as possible."
"Nice is not necessarily kind."
"All right, Mr. Chinaski [Bukowski's fictional alter ego]. What word do you have for the Italian people?"
"Don't shout so much. And read Celine."
Now that's a deep thinker! Typical Bukowski -- first he amuses me. Then I think about what he says, and I generally agree with it. Of course I can't drink as much as he does, because I would have snuffed it by now. But I'd be glad to buy him a drink, if he were still around, which, unfortunately, he is not....more
Around the same time that William Faulkner was inventing his mythical Yoknapatawpha County, many thousands of miles away, Indian author R.K. Narayan wAround the same time that William Faulkner was inventing his mythical Yoknapatawpha County, many thousands of miles away, Indian author R.K. Narayan was doing the same thing in his novels set in a small city named Malgudi in the southern State of Tamil Nadu.
Today, I read The Bachelor of Arts (1937), set in an India that was still under British control. We see his hero Chandran struggle to get his college degree, then fail spectacularly in trying to marry a local beauty named Malathi. He goes off the rails after this failure and spends many months as a holy man wandering around South India. Finally, he returns to Malgudi, finds a good job, and finds an even more beautiful bride in Susila.
I have read about eight of Narayan's Malgudi novels and find him continuing to grow on me. This is the second volume in a trilogy that began with Swami and Friends and ended with The English Teacher, which I have yet to read. Although it is called a trilogy, the characters in each novel are different from one another.
It was none other than Graham Greene who introduced Narayan to the world by finding a publisher for his first four novels. Narayan wrote in English His books are so good that he deserves to be considered one of the greatest 20th century novelists in English. ...more
Dave Galloway was a quiet clockmaker who was raising a teenage son on his own (his wife had run off fifteen years earlier leaving behind the son, Ben)Dave Galloway was a quiet clockmaker who was raising a teenage son on his own (his wife had run off fifteen years earlier leaving behind the son, Ben). He lived a quiet life, allowing himself a weekly visit to a cabinetmaker friend to watch baseball and play backgammon. It comes as a big surprise when he finds that Ben has run off with the fifteen-year-old daughter of his neighbor in his father's car.
But that is not all. Ben had shot and killed a passing motorist, robbing his car and money, and started driving to Illinois, whose marriage laws at the time permitted minors to marry without parental permission.
When Ben and his girl Lillie Hawkins are finally captured after a gunfight in which the boy runs out of bullets, Dave drops everything and flies to Indianapolis, only to find that Ben and Lillie were flying back to New York, where the murder was committed.
At no point does Ben actually want to speak to his father, who is eager to shower his son with forgiveness and understanding:
He no longer let himself grow impatient, was beginning to get used to the fact that everything turned out differently from what he hoped, and he did not lose courage, being convinced that it was he who would have the last word.
But did Dave Galloway, in fact, have the last word? I do not wish to say fo as not to spoil the book for others.
I have read several dozen Simenon novels and find this to be one of the best of them. I was astonished that Simenon, having set his story in upstate New York, had captured the American idiom so perfectly. There were no false notes, just the inevitably working out of the story of Ben's capture and Dave's growing self-realization. ...more
This is probably the single longest work of fiction I have ever read, and I read it during the most difficult days of tax season in an accounting offiThis is probably the single longest work of fiction I have ever read, and I read it during the most difficult days of tax season in an accounting office -- and I loved every moment of it. Curiously, I had never heard of Albert Cohen before, let alone his masterpiece, Belle du Seigneur.
Picture a gentle comedy about a man and a woman who fall altogether too much in love -- so deeply that there is literally nowhere to go from there. There is, so to speak, no second act. At the beginning of the book, Ariane is married to a boring League of Nations bureaucrat called Adrien Deume. Solal XIV de Solal is the Under Secretary General who happens to be Adrien's boss. The day Adrien returns from a work-related trip, a full week early, Ariane leaves him for Solal.
Ruining oneself for love is a uniquely European theme, and Cohen plays it for all it is worth. At the same time, at least until the very end, Belle du seigneur has a succession of scenes of gentle irony and even outright comedy. For instance, Adrien and Ariane plan for a dinner party for Solal, who has given the bureaucrat a plum of a promotion. Never was there so much thought put into a soiree -- but it all comes to nothing when Solal doesn't show.
I am inclined to think that Belle du seigneur is one of the greatest works of 20th Century French literature. It deserves to be on the same shelf with Proust. (Cohen knew Proust and liked him, but in the end decided he was too much of a snob.)
At first, the book concentrates on the character of Ariane, but as the story unfolds, Solal becomes the more interesting. A Greek Jew, the son of the Chief Rabbi of Cephallonia, Solal discovers himself when he spends several months in Paris in 1936, in an atmosphere rife with anti-Semitism and the beginnings of Nazism. ...more
Not all of Georges Simenon's books were mysteries. In fact, about half of them weren't. The Widow is a good example of his romans durs, his "hard noveNot all of Georges Simenon's books were mysteries. In fact, about half of them weren't. The Widow is a good example of his romans durs, his "hard novels," hard because of the mercilessness of the world in which they are set.
Jean is the son of a rich father who has disowned him. At one point, he murders a fellow gambler and serves five years in prison for the crime. He takes up with a farm widow named Tati who is twenty years older than him and seems to be content with doing the farm chores and occasionally making love with his boss. But then, Tati becomes hill after she is hit in the head with a bottle by one of her relatives and, at the same time, becomes increasingly jealous of the teenaged redhead, her niece Felicie, who is an unwed mother.
What was something of a lark for Jean loses its charm for the young man, and he ends up reverting to type. ...more
Pieces of this strange novel take place at the antipodes: Britain and Tasmania. On one hand, there is the Tasmanian Aborigine girl Mathinna with her oPieces of this strange novel take place at the antipodes: Britain and Tasmania. On one hand, there is the Tasmanian Aborigine girl Mathinna with her oddly winning ways, being pursued by the childless wife of Sir John Franklin, the Arctic explorer. On the other is Charles Dickens, giving up on her wife Catherine, with whom he had ten children, and taking up with the fetching young actress Ellen Ternan.
I had read Richard Flanagan's great novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North a couple months ago. Wanting: A Novel is about desire and its almost inevitable frustration. (Hmm, so was Narrow Road, come to think of it.) Toward the end, Flanagan looks at the years remaining to Dickens:
That in the thirteen years of life left to him, he would be faithful to Ellen Ternan, but that theirs would be a hidden and cruel relationship. That his writing and his life would change irrevocably. That things broken would never be fixed. That even their dead baby would remain a secret. That the things he desired would become ever more chimerical, that movement and love would frighten him more and more, until he could not sit on a train without trembling. He was smelling [Ellen], hot, musty, moist.
The book's central character, however, is Mathinna. What is it that she wanted? Probably to be left alone. For her entire short life, until her squalid death, Mathinna attracts the sacred and profane desires of both whites and natives, who think they know what they want, but don't.
On the basis of the two books I have now read by him, Flanagan is becoming one of my favorite living authors.
Mr Norris Changes Trains was written in that twilight period of the 1930s when it did not pay to admit that one was gay. Consequently, there is a lotMr Norris Changes Trains was written in that twilight period of the 1930s when it did not pay to admit that one was gay. Consequently, there is a lot of shuffling around of characters who are made to appear moderately, if not actively heterosexual -- very much like Marcel Proust earlier on, whose Albertine was actually his Italian chauffeur Alfred Agostinelli.
I am convinced that Christopher Isherwood would have livened up even an edition of Bradshaw -- a regularly published columnar railroad timetable that curiously bore the same name as the narrator of Mr Norris Changes Trains, one William Bradshaw, who stands in for Isherwood.
The novel takes place in the last days of Weimar Germany and, in fact, ends after the Reichstag fire that marked Hitler's official ascension to the post of Der Fuehrer. He describes the era thus:
Berlin was in a state of civil war. Hate exploded suddenly, without warning, out of nowhere; at street corners, in restaurants, cinemas, dance halls, swimming baths; at midnight, after breakfast, in the middle of the afternoon. Knives were whipped out, blows were dealt with spiked rings, beer-mugs, chair-legs, or leaded clubs; bullets slashed the advertisements on the poster-columns, rebounded from the iron roofs of latrines. In the middle of a crowded street a young man would be attacked, stripped, thrashed, and left bleeding on the pavement; in fifteen seconds it was all over and the assailants had disappeared.
It was almost as if the rise of Hitler were associated with the simultaneous settlement of thousands of scores that had festered over decades.
One must not forget the character of the fey Arthur Norris, who succeeds only in getting himself into messes under the watchful eye of his young English friend Bradshaw. He may have changed trains, but they never take him anyplace where he is not in the soup. ...more
As a writer of spy novels, Len Deighton is high on the scale of authenticity, but low on the scale of writerly skills. Probably the best in the fieldAs a writer of spy novels, Len Deighton is high on the scale of authenticity, but low on the scale of writerly skills. Probably the best in the field is John Le Carré, with Ian Fleming somewhere south of him.
The unnamed narrator of Horse Under Water is sent to Portugal to supervise divers in bringing some some highly interesting contents of a sunken U-Boat. As is typical in what I have read of Deighton's, everyone he works with is suspect in various ways, either as a spy for the enemy, or as a law enforcement officer from abroad, or as a criminal, or as any combination of the above. That he manages to survive this situation is surprising, though it is frequently difficult to follow exactly how it happens.
Just to shed some more darkness on the subject, Deighton includes several appendices giving details that show his (1) knowledge of spycraft or (2) his contempt of the reader's intellect.
No matter, I still rather like him. Is it because I'm a masochist? ...more
The World Jones Made is one of Philip K. Dick's earlier novels, dating back to 1956, but it shows signs of an advancing maturity. Still, at times it sThe World Jones Made is one of Philip K. Dick's earlier novels, dating back to 1956, but it shows signs of an advancing maturity. Still, at times it seems as if Dick cobbled together several disparate ideas at the short story level, namely: (1) the colonization of Venus; (2) a charismatic leader who can foretell what will happen a year from the present; and (3) an invasion of our solar system by spores resembling giant protozoa.
The hero is a police officer named Cussick who marries a Danish blonde named Nina. The two drift apart, with Cussick loyal to Fedgov's security forces, and Nina entranced by the charismatic Jones. Eventually, Jones and his followers win; but what happens is a surprise.
The World Jones made is not one of Dick's best works, but it is interesting enough to keep the reader guessing. ...more
Ipcress is not a name or a place: It is an abbreviation for “Induction of Psycho-neuroses by Conditioned Reflex under Stress” -- or, in other words, bIpcress is not a name or a place: It is an abbreviation for “Induction of Psycho-neuroses by Conditioned Reflex under Stress” -- or, in other words, brainwashing. I remember seeing the film of the book when it came out in 1965 and believed I had also read the book. Instead of a re-read, this turned out to be a first-timer.
On one hand, I liked The Ipcress File; on the other, I found it curiously remote. The protagonist is never named (though for the movie, Michael Caine himself invented the name Harry Palmer for him). He works for a mysterious agency called WOOC-P, about which little or nothing is explained. The protagonist is a fairly anonymous individual, and we are never really privy to his thought processes, the way, say, we are with James Bond or the characters of John Le Carré. In addition, there are two longish scenes, one set in Lebanon and the other on an atoll in the Pacific (scene of an upcoming American nuclear test). In both cases, the action is excessively murky.
Although the protagonist tries to explain it all in the final chapter, I cannot help but think that Len Deighton does not run a tight ship.
This is a difficult book to review because it deals intimately with the subject of passionate love, between the prostitute La Nina Estrellita and theThis is a difficult book to review because it deals intimately with the subject of passionate love, between the prostitute La Nina Estrellita and the longshoreman El Caucho. About three quarters of the book is about the long slow dance by which the two get to know and finally accept each other.
The author, Jacques Stephen Alexis was murdered by the Ton Ton Macoute when he returned to Haiti in 1959, fresh from participating in the Cuban Revolution of Fidel Castro. In the Flicker of an Eyelid was to be the first volume of a tetralogy in which the relationship between El Caucho and Nina was to be analyzed in detail.
It took me a while to get into the rhythm of the book and its specific Caribbean context. But as the story progressed, I grew enchanted with it. The whole story takes places in Holy Week of 1948 and ends on Easter Sunday.
Too bad we never get a chance to follow the characters in the ensuing novels that were never written....more
This is not an easy book to read, especially if you're intent on avoiding tales of depression and disintegration. Set in the 1950s in Belfast, in a veThis is not an easy book to read, especially if you're intent on avoiding tales of depression and disintegration. Set in the 1950s in Belfast, in a very Catholic population among the larger Protestant majority, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore tells of a fortyish spinster who bets it all on a former hotel doorman who's been to America.
But alas, all that James Madden is interested in is not Judith, but finding an investment partner for opening an American style diner in Dublin. But Judith not only has not the money, but is interested only in what she sees as her last chance at matrimony.
The connection fails to take place, so Judith takes to drink and becomes a very obvious toper. At the same time, she loses her faith in God.
Moore follows Miss Hearne's descent into the abyss without blinking. In the end, she pays dearly for not being to see things and people for what they are, and not what she wants them to be. When she visits her good friends, the O'Neills, her invariable line as she walks through the door is, "It's only me."
It's difficult to do what Moore did without losing control and traipsing off into self-indulgent riffs. In the end, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is a small masterpiece. ...more
Look at it as a kind of 21st century rewrite of Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness. Jean Rolin writes of his journey to the Congo interior, but witLook at it as a kind of 21st century rewrite of Joseph Conrad's The Heart of Darkness. Jean Rolin writes of his journey to the Congo interior, but with a used Audi being imported from Europe to be used as a taxi in the lucrative Kinshasa market. But as the book's title, The Explosion of the Radiator Hose, hints, it was not an easy task.
In Congo, everybody's hand is out and obtrusive officialdom is rife:
I spent whole days in Kurt's office -- he busying himself with innumerable tasks (for the most part consisting of nothing but the patient removal of obstacles surreptitiously put in place by authorities or some other agent, in order to levy unwarranted taxes on the flow of goods and merchansise), me sitting sideways on a chair, sometimes silent but more often ready to chat, watching the endless procession of petitioners, lawyers, intermediaries, clients, or company employees staggering under bulging files full of papers needing to be stamped and signed.
The book purports to be a novel, but is more real than most nonfiction I have read.
Whether it is fiction or not, it can be read as nonfiction. Then again, it occasionally trails into riffs that are decidedly fictional. No matter. Rolin's book is vastly enjoyable....more
Rarely have I ever finished a work by an author I had never read before and felt, "If this book doesn't get the Nobel Prize for Literature, then the SRarely have I ever finished a work by an author I had never read before and felt, "If this book doesn't get the Nobel Prize for Literature, then the Swedish Academy should stand down and gut fish somewhere." The Narrow Road to the Deep North bears the same name as a book of travel haiku written by one Matsuo Basho in the late 17th century, but is ever so much more.
Dorrigo Evans is a physician who is something of a philanderer. That part of his life is put on hold when he finds himself a prisoner of the Japanese building the Death Railway (the same one described in The Bridge on the River Kwai) between Thailand and Burma. As the ranking officer among the Australian prisoners, he is at one and the same time responsible for the health and the fate of his charges. The Japanese commandant, Nakamura, is brutal; but he is at the same time under heavy pressure from his superiors to build the railroad with essentially no resources.
The war eventually ends, and Dorrigo Evans returns to civilian life -- and his philandering ways. He marries Ella, his fiancee from the pre-war years, and has three children. Yet he is curiously aloof from life, suppressing, like many of the camp survivors, the grim war experience.
Toward the end of the novel, he saves his wife and three children from a gigantic forest fire. The author, Richard Flanagan, describes the doctor's little group as it emerges from the holocaust:
And in the back seat the three now silent, soot-smeared children absorbed it all -- the shocking creosote stench, the roar of wind and flame, the wild rocking of a car being driven that hard, the heat, the emotion so raw and exposed it was like butchered flesh; the tormented, hopeless feeling of two people who lived together in a love not yet love, nor yet not; an unshared life shared; a conspiracy of affections, illnesses, tragedies, jokes and labour; a marriage -- the strange terrible neverendingness of human beings.
In this novel, we are all family -- however tenuous or firm the ties that bind us. To underline his point, Flanagan not only takes us from the point of view of Dorrigo to that of the camp commandant, Nakamura; his brutal Korean sergeant nicknamed "The Goanna"; Nakamura's brutal superior Colonel Kota; and several of his (Dorrigo's) lovers, such as his uncle's wife Amy and of his own wife Ella.
As Vonnegut sang in Cat's Cradle: "Nice, nice, very nice; so many people in the same device."...more
This book was recommended by film director John Waters. I expected something a bit out of it and was not disappointed. Jane Bowles has been associatedThis book was recommended by film director John Waters. I expected something a bit out of it and was not disappointed. Jane Bowles has been associated in my mind strictly with her husband, fellow writer and beard Paul Bowles. In Two Serious Ladies, Jane has anticipated the work of Argentinian writer César Aira in creating a work that drifts from event to event seemingly without any plan.
In an introduction to her work, Joy Williams wrote:
There was no discernible narrative strategy. There was no way of explaining or analyzing the processes at work. Interpretation was useless. The vistas were dispiriting, the food foul, the wind always howling. Her people were mournful, impulsive, and as erratic in their particular journeys' flights as bats.
The two serious ladies of the title are Christine Goering and Mrs. Copperfield. At first, we have a section on Miss Goering, in which she meets Mrs. Copperfield. Then we follow Mrs. Copperfield on a madcap voyage to Panama. The Final chapter brings the two together, but alas, they find they no longer have anything in common.
Typical is this exchange in Section Three:
"I don't know why you find it so interesting and intellectual to seek out a new city," said Arnold, cupping his chin in his hand and looking at her fixedly.
"Because I believe the hardest thing for me to do is really move from one thing to another, partly," said Miss Goering.
"Spiritually," said Arnold, trying to speak in a more sociable tone, "spiritually I'm constantly making little journeys and changing my entire nature every six months."
"I don't believe it for a minute," said Miss Goering.
"No, no, it is true. Also I can tell you that I think it is absolute nonsense to move physically from one place to another. All places are more or less alike."
Curiously, it is Miss Goering who does most of the moving, while Arnold comes across as a couch potato.
My only problem with Two Serious Ladies is that, without any real organization, the book could have gone on forever and stopped at any point. César Aira realizes this in his own books, which are always short and crisp, like a Roomba vacuum cleaner gone mad. Still, I find the book interesting, but tending to drag at the end. ...more
Sometimes it seems as if it were the British who invented childhood, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. L P Hartley's The Shrimp and the AnemoSometimes it seems as if it were the British who invented childhood, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. L P Hartley's The Shrimp and the Anemone made me think repeatedly of my own childhood, of my own lack of understanding of the adult world, especially where money was concerned. At one point, Eustace thinks if he had the money, he would not have to do anything but hunt and shoot and visit foreign destinations.
Of course, I did not have what Eustace Cherrington had, a sister like Hilda who looked after him and helped him along when he fell. And I certainly did not have an ailing Miss Fothergill who left me a fortune. Somehow, I managed on my own; but I was not as disadvantaged as Eustace was. Not quite retarded, Eustace was a bit slow and had what appeared to be a weak heart.
I think of Eustace's crush on the unworthy Nancy Steptoe, and how she manages to lord it over the poor boy. Fortunately, by the end of this first volume of the Eustace and Hilda trilogy, Eustace begins to understand what is in store for him but has no idea on how it will affect the simple things he loves.
I look forward to following his adventures in the following volumes, The Sixth Heaven and Eustace and Hilda. ...more
Yashar Kemal is probably the best known author from that most admirable of Middle-Eastern peoples: The Kurds. His Memed, My Hawk is a folk tale of injYashar Kemal is probably the best known author from that most admirable of Middle-Eastern peoples: The Kurds. His Memed, My Hawk is a folk tale of injustice by a cruel landlord turning a young farmer's son to brigandage. At the same time he is a brigand, he is scrupulously justice, especially when dealing with the poor and the innocent.
"Slim Memed," as he is called, is a hero created by an author who doesn't believe in heroes. In his introduction to the New York Review Books edition, Kemal writes:
I have never believed in heroes. Even in those novels in which I focus on revolt I have tried to highlight the fact that those we call heroes are in effect instruments wielded by the people. The peoplecreate and protect these instruments and stand or fall together vwith them.
Still and all, Kemal was to write three more books featuring Slim Memed. For the first one, he was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973. That award was won by the Australian Patrick White. I think it should have gone to Kemal.
Kemal's villain is the landlord Abdi Agha, one of the most craven and beastly characters in all of literature. It is not until the end that Memed shoots three bullets into his chest, killing him; but he had been spiritually dead for years after Memed killed his nephew and wounded him. ...more
I cannot conceive of this book ever having been written in the United States. Picture a young public prosecutor resting on the banks of the Rhone withI cannot conceive of this book ever having been written in the United States. Picture a young public prosecutor resting on the banks of the Rhone with his girlfriend, who sleeps with her head on his chest. Across the river, a young woman who appears to have had an accident stumbles, falls into the river, and drowns. Our hero does ... nothing.
It transpired that the wastrel son of an influential businessman is blamed by the entire community for murdering the girl, even though the prosecutor knows it is not true. But when seemingly unbearable pressure is brought to bear on him, coming from the attorney general and the prosecutor's own patron -- the prosecutor puts on the mask of his office and demands the death penalty.
This is the country that made a movie called Twelve Angry Men, in which a single juror changes the minds of his eleven co-jurors on behalf of acquittal. For most Americans, the prosecutor, Jean Berthier, is much too squirrely and cowardly to be an object of admiration -- unless by the "hero" of the title, the author, Pierre Boulle is dripping with irony. (Yet Berthier does openly resist the pressures being brought to bear on him.)
Face of a Hero is basically an interesting book, but I wonder how I could ever really trust its hero....more
There they are -- the Subterraneans -- drunk as skunks while they burble on about literature and their love lives. Jack Kerouac (Leo Percepied in theThere they are -- the Subterraneans -- drunk as skunks while they burble on about literature and their love lives. Jack Kerouac (Leo Percepied in the book) wants nothing more than spend all his hours with these pseudo-intellectual lowlifes, but at the same time attempt to maintain a relationship with Mardou Fox, a young black woman. The Subterraneans is the story of this relationship and how it winds to a close with Jack deciding in the end he wanted life on his own boozy terms.
The pity of it is that Jack really appears to have loved Mardou, and Mardou was worth the trouble. Jack writes about himself as a not terribly lovable character, as essentially unworthy. So he gives up and returns to the "boys."...more