‘The Touchstone’ by Edith Wharton – A Novella about a Literary Misdeed

‘The Touchstone’ by Edith Wharton   (1900)  –  92 pages  Grade: B+

touchThe novella ‘The Touchstone’ has a tidy little literary plot. Here is the setup.

Stephen Glennard was good friends with the famous author Margaret Aubyn for a long time.  In fact she was infatuated with him and sent him hundreds of passionate love letters, but he kept rejecting her as a lover.  She suddenly died, and then she became a legend in the literary world.  Now it is three years after her death, and Glennard has met a new woman, Alexa Trent, he does want to marry.  However his current finances would not support such a marriage.

He then discovers that there is so much public interest in Margaret Aubyn that her correspondence would be worth a lot of money if published.   He secretly has the letters published in two volumes and thus gets the money that allows him to marry Miss Trent.  He removes his own name from the letters, and not even the publisher knows that these letters were written to him.

These “unloved letters” of Margaret Aubyn have a profound effect on readers, especially upon woman readers.  Soon Glennard’s new wife asks him to purchase the two volumes of Margaret Aubyn’s letters for her.  Glennard begins to feel extremely guilty about having had the letters published, and his guilt soon comes between him and his new wife.

I found this setup tremendously interesting, although the logistics are a bit questionable.  We are never told the ages of any of the participants, and also has there ever been a writer’s correspondence that was worth a whole lot of money?  Along the way in ‘The Touchstone’ we readers get some interesting viewpoints of the literary world.

“Literature travels faster than steam nowadays.  And the worst of it is that we can’t any of us give up reading; it is insidious as a vice and as tiresome as a virtue.” 

 But the ultimate story is about the endangered relationship between Glennard and his wife Alexa.

 “Only the fact that we are unaware how well our nearest know us enables us to live with them.”  

 ‘The Touchstone’ was Edith Wharton’s first novel, and perhaps she was still in thrall to Henry James.  Here, as in James, we have sensibilities so refined that it would be impossible for the average person to understand them.  Sometimes I feel like a bull in a china shop around such fine sensibilities.  Sometimes I just want James or Wharton to come out and say what they mean clearly and directly.  In later works such as ‘House of Mirth’ and ‘Custom of the Country’, the Henry James influence is somewhat lessened which is only beneficial to Wharton’s work.

Ultimately Edith Wharton developed into a more interesting writer than Henry James, because James’ theories on social class and fiction writing sometimes got in the way of his story telling.   Still it is very much to Henry James’ credit as a mentor that he developed such an excellent student as Edith Wharton.

It is only near the end of ‘The Touchstone’ that it became somewhat difficult to keep track of the characters’ feelings.  For most of the way, ‘The Touchstone’ is a very fine novella indeed.

‘I Refuse’ by Per Petterson – A Severe Overdose on Norwegian Realism

‘I Refuse’ by Per Petterson    (2012)  –  282 pages      Translated by Don Bartlett    Grade: C

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‘I Refuse’ is the novel where I have finally realized that I have overdosed on Norwegian realism.  This is Norway where the fathers are all alcoholic trolls, and their sons are all hurt and self-centered.  This is Norway where no one has a sense of humor in spite of their problems.

‘I Refuse’ has the things we have all come to know and put up with in Norwegian realism.  It is cheerless, depressing, ominous, fatalistic, brooding, portentous, bleak, dismal, listless, humorless, and grim.  One could easily believe that ‘I Refuse’ is a parody of a Scandinavian realistic novel, but there is no evidence that Per Petterson is in on the joke.

Here we have two sons, Jim and Tommy.  Jim’s father ran off when Jim was small.  Tommy’s mother ran off, but his father stuck around to beat up their children until Tommy retaliated with a baseball bat.  Then Tommy’s father ran off too.  Jim and Tommy are best friends as kids until Jim goes off the rails mentally.  Now it is 35 years later, and they run into each other near Oslo.

So far this is your typical Norway story, and it doesn’t get any better than this.  It is no help that we switch back and forth from these guys’ grim childhoods to their unhappy adulthoods.

In all these stories of sons who have mean decrepit drunk fathers, there is one thing they forget to mention.  At some point, the sons grow up and are likely to become mean and decrepit and drunk too, but most of all self-centered.

There is little dialogue in ‘I Refuse’ which is a good thing, because the dialogue that is there reeks.

 “Do you ever hear from your mother or father?”

 “No.”

“Don’t you think that’s sad?”

“No, I don’t think it’s sad.  I don’t give a damn.”

“I can understand that.”

So if you are looking for scintillating witty conversation, avoid ‘I Refuse’ at all costs.

I have had it with these self-absorbed Norwegian novels.

During the last couple of years I have read and truly enjoyed two fine lively exuberant novels by Enrique Vila-Matas of Spain, and I have always liked the work of Spanish author Javier Marias.  Perhaps I will seek out some more excellent novels from Spain to read.

‘Broken Glass’ by Arthur Miller – The Kristallnacht Play

‘Broken Glass’ by Arthur Miller  – a play   (1994)  – 161 pages   Grade: B+

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Although several of the most famous of the plays of Arthur Miller including ‘All My Sons’, ‘Death of a Salesman’, ‘The Crucible’ and ‘A View from a Bridge’ were written quite early in his career, he wrote this play that most directly addresses what it means to be Jewish in the United States, ‘Broken Glass’, in 1994 when he was 78 years old.

“Well, all the plays that I was trying to write were plays that would grab an audience by the throat and not release them, rather than presenting an emotion which you could observe and walk away from.” – Arthur Miller

‘Broken Glass’ takes place in November, 1938, when the American newspapers had just reported on Kristallnacht, a series of coordinated deadly attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and Austria.  For anyone who was paying close attention, none of the subsequent events that took place in these countries would come as a surprise.

After reading and becoming terrified by these Kristallnacht news stories, Brooklyn Jewish housewife Sylvia Gellberg suddenly loses her ability to walk.  There is no physical reason for the paralysis, so it must be psychosomatic.   Her husband Phillip calls in the family doctor Dr. Harry Hyman to determine the root cause of her hysterical paralysis.  Arthur Miller actually based this doctor on one of the many physicians who had treated his ex-wife Marilyn Monroe.

 “I just get the feeling sometimes that she knows something.  It’s like she’s connected to some . . . some wire that goes half around the world, some truth that other people are blind to.”  

 The husband Phillip is a successful mortgage banker, the only Jewish banker within his company.  It turns out there are deep-rooted problems in the marriage of Phillip and Sylvia, stemming from Phillip’s discomfort with his own Jewishness.

After a disastrous short run on Broadway, a separate production of ‘Broken Glass’ opened in London to near universal acclaim, and the play went on to win the 1995 Laurence Olivier Award for best new play.  There have been several recent revivals of the play including one in London in 2010.  The play was also turned into a TV movie.

As with so many of Arthur Miller’s plays, ‘Broken Glass’ achieves a depth and edge that is missing from so many modern plays.  I wish there were more new plays that are this cerebral and heartfelt. It is still possible to deal with serious themes and yet have small moments of humor.

I listened to the audio version of the play with JoBeth Williams, David Dukes, and Lawrence Pressman in the main roles, and as always the audio proved a fine substitute to actually seeing a live production of the play.

‘Notes from a Dead House’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky – Four Years of Hard Labor in a Prison Camp in Siberia

‘Notes from a Dead House’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky   (1861)  –  304 pages   Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky     Grade: B+

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I’ve read enough translated classic Russian literature so that it is an occasion for me when a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is released.  Pevear and Volokhonsky are the two stars of Russian classics translators today just as at one time Constance Garnett, Aylmer and Louise Maude, and David Magarshack were the big names.

This novel is perhaps better known by the title ‘House of the Dead’.   It is the lightly fictionalized account of Dostoevsky’s time in Siberia.

Dostoevsky was sent to the prison camp in Siberia not for committing any crimes but for political reasons during the reign of Nicholas I.  He was thrown in prison with a rough crowd of murderers, armed robbers, rapists, and assorted brutal thugs.  But the worst thing for the sensitive Dostoevsky was that all these guys hated him, because he was a highly educated nobleman.

Personality-wise Dostoevsky was probably somewhat like me.  He was clumsy at the labor, and the rest of the prisoners scorned him for that.

“It also seemed to me that he had decided without racking his brains too long, that it was impossible to talk with me as with other people, that apart from talking about books, I would not understand anything and even could not understand anything, so there was no use bothering me.” 

 Yes, Dostoevsky and I do have a lot in common.  But also like me, Dostoevsky was the type of guy who when life gave him a lemon, he made lemonade.

Dostoevsky describes the other men in his hard labor prison in Siberia with the same simple-hearted youthful joy that I could use to describe the young guys in my freshman dormitory at college.  I prided myself on knowing the names of all 78 men in my freshman dorm, and Dostoevsky got to know all his fellow prisoners no matter how much they disliked him.  Some of the men at the prison had committed from one up to six murders, but that doesn’t prevent Dostoevsky from enthusiastically describing these fellows. Just as in the dorm, there were rumors that salt peter has been added to the prison food in order to curb the male libido.

“There are bad people everywhere, and among the bad some good ones.”

 ‘Notes from a Dead House’ is a fictional memoir of the time spent, so it is necessarily episodic with vignettes from the daily prison life.  There are chapters on celebrating Christmas, a stay in the prison hospital, the prisoners’ pets, and even a theatrical performance put on by the prisoners.  Some of the patients in the hospital are prisoners who were forced to run the gauntlet as part of their punishment during which they were nearly beaten to death.

For someone new to Dostoevsky, I would recommend they read first one of his intense powerful novels such as ‘Crime and Punishment’  or ‘The Brothers Karamazov’.

716723Dostoevsky was released from prison in 1854, and Nicholas I died in 1855.  The liberal reformer Alexander II (Alexander the Liberator) became Czar, and Dostoevsky was then allowed to publish all his great novels including this one.

Somehow I believe that Dostoevsky and his fellow socialists would have been terribly disappointed in Lenin and Stalin when they sent millions of fellow Russians to Siberia as political prisoners.

‘To Be a Pilgrim’ by Joyce Cary – Caution, Read at Your Own Risk

‘To Be a Pilgrim’ by Joyce Cary   (1942) – 451 pages     Grade: B-

41ZRQFFPS3L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_You know the routine.

I am supposed to say that I picked up this old novel that was written way back in the 1940s and that no one else has read in a coon’s age. Then I am supposed to say that I started reading this musty ancient tome, and, lo and behold, I was really quite amazed.  The book was beyond wondrous, a real gem actually.  You must drop anything else you were intending to do, useful or useless, and read this book.

Sadly the truth about ‘To Be a Pilgrim’ is much more complicated. It is a very odd novel.

‘To Be a Pilgrim’ is the second volume of Cary’s first trilogy.  I read the first volume of the trilogy, ‘Herself Surprised’, a few years ago and quite enjoyed the lively high-spirited cleaning lady narrator of that story, Sara Munday.  However the narrator of ‘To Be a Pilgrim’, Tom Wilcher, is distinctly unlikeable.

Tom’s description of himself is “that life-battered gnome”.   Except for the time he spent with Sara Munday, Tom has never lived his own life. He spent his years as the lowly factotum and gofer to his brother Edward who was a big-time politician.  One of Tom’s tasks was to keep track of Edward’s mistress Julie and keep her in line. Tom is now in his mid-sixties and has returned to his family home, but he fears his young relatives will put him in an asylum.  He is waiting for Sara Munday to get out of jail for stealing items from his apartment. Although he is very devout in his religion and is given to making prim pronouncements about the younger generation, Tom himself is a dirty old man.  He has already attracted the attention of the police for his antics with young women in public parks.

“Do you think it is a good thing for girls to paint their faces like the lowest strumpets and go around in short skirts or even short trousers and drink and swear like bargees?”  

51vRli2pDQL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ One thing you won’t find in ‘To Be a Pilgrim’ is an exciting plot.  Here we get flashbacks to many scenes from Tom’s tedious previous life over the years as well as his staid but troublesome current existence.  The life story of a rather passive person makes for a listless read.

The time I spent reading this long novel seemed interminable.  Nothing of the faintest interest seemed to happen, but still I kept reading.  I suppose that speaks to a positive aspect of the work.  Will I read the third novel in the trilogy, ‘The Horse’s Mouth’, which is supposed to be the best of the three?  Perhaps.

But if you value your time at all, you probably should not read ‘To Be a Pilgrim’.

‘In Certain Circles’ by Elizabeth Harrower

‘In Certain Circles’ by Elizabeth Harrower     (2014)  –  252 pages      Grade:  B+

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Can you even imagine a writer today whose novel has already been accepted for publication withdrawing it like Elizabeth Harrower did with ‘In Certain Circles’ in 1971?  Harrower gave as her reason that the novel “seemed wrought, manipulated, not organic”.  She was her own harsh critic. The novel was finally published last year.

Of course, Harrower had already published the brilliant devastating ‘The Watch Tower’, so just about any novel would suffer in comparison.

I believe there is a clue as to why Harrower withdrew it in one of her characters’ lines from ‘In Certain Circles’.  I want to highlight these lines, because I think they are also exceptionally good advice to both writers and bloggers.

“I was interested in the work, not who was equalling whom.  You compete with the intractable, not with your fellow toilers.  Compete with the difficulty.”    

What I take away from these lines is that Elizabeth Harrower was not concerned with the popular reception of her work; her main concern was whether or not she had solved the problems she had set for herself in writing the novel in the first place.

‘In Certain Circles’ is about two sets of a brother and sister.  One set, Russell and Zoe, have parents who are movers and shakers in Sydney, Australia and live on a large estate next to the ocean.  The other set, Stephen and Anna, are orphans, their parents killed in a level-crossing accident when they were very young.  Since then they have lived with their mentally ill aunt and over-solicitous uncle.  Russell first befriended Stephen, and since then the four of them have become close friends despite the fact that Stephen and Anna are somewhat awkward socially.  We follow these four characters for about twenty years of their lives starting when they are quite young adults.

The story deals with intense emotional issues between these four young people, perhaps at the expense of the story not being well-grounded in the real world.  Much of the novel is dialogue, and it is definitely not down-to-earth dialogue.

“What I mean is – I never pity anyone I care for, so if what someone wants is pity, I can’t care for him.”   

 One can appreciate Harrower’s efforts to go deeper with the dialogue in “In Certain Circles”, but this quest for depth does make the conversations here more abstract and esoteric than real conversations tend to be.

The climactic event in the novel is also overwrought, soap opera-ish.

Emotional depth and intensity are good things.  Still I don’t believe the characters in ‘In Certain Circles’ are sufficiently anchored to the real world.

‘Aquarium’ by David Vann – A Unique Seattle Story

‘Aquarium’ by David Vann    (2015) – 266 pages      Grade: B+

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Every afternoon twelve-year-old Kaitlin must spend several lonely hours at the Seattle Aquarium after school waiting for her mother to get out of work and take her home.

“It was a fish so ugly it didn’t seem like a fish at all.”

Kaitlin spends so much time in the Aquarium and is so fascinated, she wants to become an ichthyologist when she grows up.  There is an old man who also spends a lot of time at the aquarium, and Kaitlin begins to discuss the various fish and other sea animals they see with him.  One day the old man puts his arms around Kaitlin.  Her mother finds out about this, and brings in the Seattle police to nab this suspected pervert.

That is how the story of  ‘Aquarium’ begins.  I will not elaborate any further.  Let us just say that the ultimate story is nothing like you would expect it to be up to this point.

In the version of the novel I read, there are pictures of sea animals spread throughout the text.  However this is no graphic novel; the pictures are there to enhance the theme of the novel which I take to be that just like the fish in the aquarium, we humans are stuck in our own tanks.  Excuse me for the fish metaphor, but ‘Aquarium’ is filled with fish metaphors, and if you are going to read this novel, you better get used to them.

I admired the simple unique plot in ‘Aquarium’.  In my many years of novel reading, I have never encountered a plot that is even remotely similar to this one.  The plot is in the here and now and does not rely on nostalgia at all.  It is the girl telling this family story from 1994 looking back today after she has grown up.

There are five well-drawn characters in ‘Aquarium’.  With a few simple strokes, David Vann has invested each of the characters with his or her own personality.  But don’t expect all five of these people to be nice and pleasant, because at least one of these characters has a foul personality, perhaps with good reason.  Once again, it is not the character one would have expected to be the bad one.

There are scenes of violence and personal degradation in ‘Aquarium’, but they are not at all stereotypical and, again, not what you would expect.

So, bottom line, if you want to read a novel that defies expectations and tells a peculiar intense family story, read ‘Aquarium’.

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