‘The Death of the Heart’ by Elizabeth Bowen

‘The Death of the Heart’ by Elizabeth Bowen   (1938) – 418 pages

 

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I am happy I listened to ‘The Death of the Heart’ on audio because the dramatic and comedic qualities of the dialogue are clearly apparent that way.  Each of the characters comes vividly alive as they interact with each other.   It is the talk which makes ‘The Death of the Heart’ an exceptional novel.

This is a coming-of-age story that takes place in the England of the 1930s between the wars.  It centers on sixteen year old Portia Quayne, recently orphaned.

First there is the entertaining back story of Portia’s upper class father Mr. Quayne who in his late fifties has a dalliance with young woman Irene – ‘Irene, you know, was not what anyone would want at all’ – and gets her pregnant.  Mr. Quayne’s wife forces him to do the right thing in divorcing her, leaving his settled life much to his chagrin, and marrying Irene.  Portia is the outcome of this affair.  Mr. Quayne dies when Portia is only four years old, and Irene and Portia move from hotel to hotel for the next twelve years at which time Irene dies.  Then Portia has nowhere to go so her much older half brother Thomas and his wife Anna agree to take her in for a year.

During that year Portia meets ‘the astonishing cad’ Eddie, a 23 year old friend of Anna’s, and falls hopelessly in love.

Here we are in the home of Thomas and Anna, an upper class mansion with three maids.  Anna feels stuck with Portia, doesn’t really want her in the house.  Thomas just wants to withdraw from any emotional scene.  There is cruelty just under the surface of the polite genteel conversation.

For those minutes of silence, Thomas fixed on her (Anna) his considering eyes.  Then he got up, took her by one elbow and angrily kissed her.  “I’m never with you,” he said. 

“Well look how we live.”

“The way we live is hopeless.”

Anna said, much more kindly: “Darling don’t be neurotic.  I have had such a day.”

He left her and looked round for his glass again.   

 Can we speak of the comic energy of a novel with the melodramatic name of ‘The Death of the Heart’?  Each of the characters except Eddie is portrayed in a somewhat positive light, but that doesn’t stop Elizabeth Bowen from exposing each one’s flaws in the full light of day.   Mainly through the back-and-forth of sharp dialogue, Bowen nails each one of these people.  You laugh at them even as you loathe them.

This is a story of the betrayal of an innocent girl in a mad scene in a movie theatre while on holiday.  It is also the betrayal of an adult reading her secret diary.  The betrayals seem rather tame compared to the betrayals possible in modern-day romances, but they are devastating betrayals for Portia nonetheless.

As in so many of the great novels, there is an energy in the writing, both tragic and comic, that sets this apart from lesser works.

 

‘Wonderland’ by Stacey D’Erasmo – The Comeback Tour

‘Wonderland’ by Stacey D’Erasmo   (2014) – 242 pages

wonderland

‘Wonderland’ is the perhaps too authentic story of the comeback tour of 44-year-old indie rock artist Anna Brundage.  Her first album ‘Whale’ was a monster hit, her next two not so much.  She dropped out of the music business for seven years, and now she’s back touring Europe with a new band.

The rock performance life is all here.  The shows where the band is hot, the bad scenes, the casual hookups, the drinking, the all-pervasive drugs.  For most of us the Sixties and Seventies have long been over, but these musicians and their entourages are still living the life.

This is the first novel by Stacey D’Erasmo that I’ve read.  I think she was faced with two ways she could have portrayed the rock life. One way would have been to portray these musicians as sincere serious artists who are attempting to create and perform valuable work that will last.  That would be the Rolling Stone magazine approach, that rock musicians are real artists.  The other way is that D’Erasmo could have presented the rock-and-roll life as an outrageous scam with everyone in it for the drugs and the adulation and the casual sex and the money.

It would have been much easier for D’Erasmo to take the ‘serious artist’ approach, but she took the more complicated route where the musicians, including the main character, are somewhere between artists and shams.

My problem with ‘Wonderland’ is that I did not like any of the characters in this novel.  I had an active dislike for most of them that never went away.  Throughout the novel we see Anna Brundage hooking up with one loser nonentity after another, all of them on a rather casual basis.  Her father is a world-famous artist all because he sawed a train car in half.  This kind of stunt was big in the art world at one time, but it is difficult to see it as anything but a scam.  So this father, though famous and loved by Anna, was an obvious fake and a phony.  He also is a cliché, and he pretty much undermined any appreciation I had for ‘Wonderland’.

And the other characters aren’t better.    The dialogue in ‘Wonderland’ is terrible, mainly because they talk like musicians talk in real life.  ‘The vibe was kind of weird.’  ‘I’m being such an asshole.  Let’s rock this thing.’  Verisimilitude is not always a good thing in a novel.

There have been novels where all the main characters are unlikeable, yet the élan and the spirit of the writer wins us over.  I felt that in ‘Wonderland’ D’Erasmo didn’t realize how detestable her characters really were, and she expected us to like them anyhow.

On the cover of ‘Wonderland’ there is the following quote from Michael Stipe of the band REM: “The world of Wonderland is authentic, vibrant, and genuine.  D’Erasmo explores the delight and terror of second chances.  A great read.”  Michael Stipe is a rock hero of mine, but we kind of disagree on this novel.

 

‘With A Zero at its Heart’ by Charles Lambert – A New Way to Tell Your Life Story

‘With A Zero at its Heart’ by Charles Lambert   (2014) – 147 pages

 

GetImage (1)In ‘With a Zero at its Heart’, Charles Lambert has come up with a powerful new way for each of us to describe his or her life.  There are rules to the method; let me explain the rules.

First he chose twenty four different aspects or subjects from which to view his life including ‘Clothes’,  ‘Money’, ‘Work’, ‘Home’, ‘Sex’, and ‘Language’.  For each category, he posts exactly ten items that have meaning for him.  Sometimes these are early memories from childhood.  For example for ‘Clothes’ he tells how as a young teenager he wanted for Christmas a velvet frock coat just like the ones worn by the music group the Kinks.  Instead his parents bought him a dark green corduroy double-breasted jacket “which he hangs in the wardrobe that evening and will never wear again.”  In ‘Animals’, he remembers the three white mice in a plywood box he was given as a child and their tragic end.

We all have these very early memories, memories that sometimes go back from even before we started school.  My very first memory was when my mother took a picture of a few kids including me when I was four years old sitting by some of her tulips which had just come into full bloom that spring.  I vividly recall those bright flowers, or is it the photograph that I remember?

My mother told me that even when I was three or four I memorized the song names that were on each of their records and could recognize the record associated with each song, so would yell out, “Play this one, ‘How Much is that Doggie in the Window’, again!”  I don’t recall this at all.

In Charles Lambert’s book, an item can deal with any part of his life, young or old.  Each item must be about 100 words long.  Why this limit of 100 words?  The limit has several beneficial effects.  First this rigor keeps the writer from getting too long-winded on certain subjects which is always a danger in autobiography.  Second each item at 100 words has equal weight so that no single item is given a disproportionate weight.  That becomes important because of the next unstated rule.

The unstated rule is that one must be honest.   One item in ‘Sex’ shows Lambert’s early disinterest in girls.  An item in ‘Danger’ tells about his wild sex “with men whose names he doesn’t know and doesn’t ask.”  For each of us, our items would surely be of a different nature, but all the items together would hopefully achieve an accurate picture of our life.

I found this a brilliant method of autobiography, a rigorous honest approach to conveying a life, the bad stuff as well as the good stuff.  It approaches what we do in our own minds when we look all the way back to our earliest memories up to our current situation.  Each of our life stories would be different, perhaps not unique, but with tremendous variety.

The best method for understanding the items is to read each item – a paragraph – twice, first to get the main idea and second to fully appreciate it.

In the afterward to ‘The Zero at its Heart’, Charles Lambert thanks his publisher for taking an enormous risk in publishing this book.  No risk, no gain.

 

‘The Known World’ by Edward P. Jones – A Great Novel from Early in This Century

‘The Known World’ by Edward P. Jones (2003) –  388 pages

the-known-world

Of all the novels that were published in the early 2000s, the one I have most regretted not having read was ‘The Known World’.  I have read both of his two spectacular collections of stories, ‘Lost in the City’ and ‘Aunt Hagar’s Children’, so I knew how profound and moving a writer Jones is.  ‘The Known World’ won both the Pulitzer Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, so it was way past time that I read this novel.

‘The Known World’ recreates the rural world that included slavery in the state of Virginia in the 1850s.  Slaves – humans – were the property of slave owners and were bought and sold.  In Virginia a few of the slave owners were black, and that is a situation that is dealt with in this novel.  By this time Great Britain had already outlawed slavery throughout the entire British Empire.  The nearby state of Pennsylvania passed a law in 1780 that gradually abolished slavery so that by 1860 there were no slaves in the state.  The American South was one of the few last places in the world that still allowed slavery.  The Civil War was still a few years away.

There were the slave owners, the slaves, and those people who neither owned slaves nor were slaves.  Up to three quarters of the white people did not own slaves.  As opposed to the slaves who had a specific property value, these white people had no recognizable value to the slave owners.

The slaves were either field slaves or house slaves.  The house slaves sometimes grew quite close to the owner and the owner’s family due to proximity.

Since the slaves had a property value to the owners, most owners would take care of their property.  There were some vicious owners who did not and would usually wind up with their farms foreclosed.  This only caused more devastation for the slaves as they would be auctioned off, their families split up.

Slaves who attempted to run away and were caught were often hobbled by having their Achilles tendon cut.  Then they could never run away again and would walk with a hobble for the rest of their lives.

By focusing on a black slave owner, Edward P. Jones avoids turning this re-creation of the days of slavery into a morality play of good and evil.   There is no one preaching in this novel.  The matter-of-fact tone of this narrative only intensifies the reader’s reaction to the events in the story.

edward jonesJones’ strong story-telling skills are on full display here.  We care what happens to all of these characters.

I’m happy that I went back and caught one of the big novels from the early part of this century.  Now that I’m caught up with the work of Edward P. Jones, all I can do is wait for his next novel or collection of stories.

 

‘The Temporary Gentleman’ by Sebastian Barry

‘The Temporary Gentleman’ by Sebastian Barry   (2014) – 307 pages

“After all the world is indeed beautiful and if we were any other creature than man we might be continuously happy in it.”  – Sebastian Barry,  ‘The Secret Scripture’

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At one point Jack McNulty, our main guy in this novel, is in the army and assigned to the bomb disposal unit in London during World War II.   He has the job of defusing undetonated bombs which the Germans had dropped.  The men who did this dangerous explosive job were naturally called ‘Temporary Gentlemen’.

It is now the 1950s.  Jack McNulty is living in a small apartment by himself on the Gold Coast of Africa in Ghana as he recounts his life back in Ireland.  The novel alternates between short scenes in Ghana and Jack’s memories of his youth in Ireland.

 “Was there really such happiness?  There was, there was.”

 As a young student Jack met Mai Kirwan in Galway.  She is a local beauty, ‘a fierce gaiety to her every move’.  Mai is the love of his life, and they marry.

Alcohol plays a major role in this sad Irish story as Jack is a guy who drinks too much and bets on the horses.

 “How is it that for some people drinking is a short-term loan on the spirit, but for others a heavy mortgage on the soul?”

So far I’ve read three previous novels by Sebastian Barry, ‘A Long, Long Way’, ‘The Secret Scripture’, and  ‘On Canaan’s Way’.  I consider him one of the finest novelists writing today and will always read his novels.   Barry has a dexterity with words, a sense of the music of language, which places him above most other novelists.

I realize I’m being terribly unfair, but there is one defect for which I’m always on the lookout especially in novels by Irish writers.  That is excessive sentimentality.  Maybe it is because I’ve been stuck in too many Irish pubs on too many St. Patrick’s Day nights listening to dreadful renditions of ‘The Unicorn’.  Not being Irish myself, why should I care any more about the Irish than about anybody else?

‘The Temporary Gentleman’ does not escape that cliché of an Irish man crying in his beer.  That seems to be the sad story of Jack McNulty‘s life.   It would be difficult telling his story without getting maudlin.

But Sebastian Barry makes his characters come alive, and if you haven’t already read dozens of other similar novels, you will get caught up in Jack McNulty’s story.  I preferred ‘A Long, Long Way’ and ‘The Secret Scripture’ because they didn’t seem so stereotypical, but ‘A Temporary Gentleman’ is a strong moving novel nonetheless.

 

‘The Ballad of a Small Player’ by Lawrence Osborne – Gambling in Macau

‘The Ballad of a Small Player’ by Lawrence Osborne  (2014) – 257 pages

 

cover210x330Our hero, ‘Lord Doyle’ (he’s not really a lord), in ‘The Ballad of a Small Player’ is sitting at a high rollers table in the Greek Mythology casino in Macau, a small peninsula off the Chinese mainland near Hong Kong.  Macau is called the Monte Carlo of the Orient, and its gambling revenue has surpassed that of Las Vegas since 2007.  Most of the gamblers in Macau are Chinese business people, but gamblers from all over the world come there.

Our hero is playing the punto banco version of baccarat which is his game.  He is quite forthright on how he came by his money.  Previously as a lawyer in England he embezzled a large sum of money from a wealthy elderly female client, and then he flew away and escaped to Macau.

Earlier I was quite taken with Lawrence Osborne’s novel ‘The Forgiven’, because of its expert depth in presenting life in a foreign land which I found similar to writers such as Graham Greene and Paul Theroux.  Thus I had high expectations for ‘The Ballad of a Small Player’.

The entire plot of this novel revolves around gambling in the Macau casinos.  If you are not deeply interested in the world of high stakes gambling, you are probably not going to have much interest in the story in this novel.  That was my problem.  I have absolutely no appreciation for the world of gambling.   I figure the odds in gambling are always stacked in favor of the house, and I have never been tempted to gamble.  There is a reason that casino owners from Aristotle Onassis to Donald Trump to Sheldon Adelson are among the richest people in the world.

‘…everyone knows you are not a real player until you secretly prefer losing.’

 Beyond my lack of interest in gambling itself, I wound not want to go to these flashy plastic places like Las Vegas and apparently Macau.  These casino areas always seem like cold and bitter lifeless places.

Macau Casino District

Macau Casino District

My lack of enthusiasm for gambling is not the only reason for my lack of enthusiasm for ‘The Ballad of a Small Player’.  The characters in the novel did not appeal to me.  Most of the novel focuses on the main character Lord Doyle who is absolutely obsessed with gambling.  He meets a call girl Dao-Ming who stupidly, in my opinion, gives him some of her money to gamble.  There is a lot of talk about synchronicity and causality and the Chinese mind and supposedly having control over one’s luck, all of which may just as well have been nonsense gibberish as far as I’m concerned.

So ‘The Ballad of a Small Player’ was a severe disappointment for me.  The next time if I consider reading a novel by Lawrence Osborne, I will make sure it has nothing at all to do with gambling.

‘Marta Oulie’ by Sigrid Undset – Unfaithful in Christiania

‘Marta Oulie’ by Sigrid Undset  (1907) – 112 pages   Translated by Tina Nunnally

Sigrid Undset

Sigrid Undset

 

The first sentence in ‘Marta Oulie’ by Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset is “I have been unfaithful to my husband.”  It happens, even back in 1902 when this novel takes place.  This is a personal painful account, written in diary form, of one woman’s coming to terms with her adultery.  Not only has she been unfaithful; her youngest daughter is not her husband’s child.

The Marta Oulie diary entries start a couple of years after her affair with Henrik, her husband Otto’s partner and her first cousin.  Now Otto, the husband, is in a sanitarium suffering from consumption, and she feels tremendous guilt.   She relates her story up to this point.

She had always been good in school and achieved academic success while young.  Then she meets Otto in her early twenties, and they fall in love and get married.  He is practical, simple-minded, optimistic, and good at business, and soon they have three children.  She is a school teacher, but Otto convinces her to stay home with the children.  That is when she becomes dissatisfied.  Otto must travel to London on business for a few months.  Otto has charged his partner Henrik to look after Marta and the family, so Henrik hangs around the house.  You can guess the rest.

18778004 This first novel by Sigrid Undset was a success de scandal in Norway when it was first published in 1907. This intimate realistic story of an unfaithful wife is much different from Undset’s most famous work, ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’, which is a historical trilogy about Scandinavia in medieval times. ‘Marta Oulie’ had never been translated before this new edition by the University of Minnesota Press.

Undset won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928.  She was a vehement anti-Nazi and had to go into exile to the United States during World War II.  She returned to Norway after the war.

I was surprised and delighted to find out that Tim Page, the critic who almost single-handedly rescued Dawn Powell out of the ash heaps of literary history, has also taken up the work of Sigrid Undset.  He discovered that one of Dawn Powell’s favorite books was the novel ‘Jenny’ by Undset, and then he put together a collection called ‘The Unknown Undset’.

12425s So there are two sides to Sigrid Undset, the historical novelist of the medieval and the daring scandalous contemporary novelist.  Yet her historical novels speak in an intense realistic voice of the continuing problems of living, and her intimate contemporary novels put the modern problems of living into an objective framework.   I have read both sides of her work and believe Sigrid Undset is a valuable novelist who still speaks to us today.

‘Marta Oulie’ is an intense novel and a quick memorable way to become familiar with the work of Sigrid Undset.

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