One of My Favorite Fiction Writers of the 20th Century – Graham Greene

This is the second in a series.

Graham Greene

Born:   October 2, 1904    Died:   April 3, 1991

I came to reading Graham Greene relatively late in my reading career, not until the late 1990s.  Up until that time I had these misguided ideas about Greene that he was a spy genre novelist or that he was a Catholic novelist. My first Greene novel then was ‘The Heart of the Matter’ which I thought was magnificent.  I quickly started reading novel after novel by Greene.  The one novel that really took my breath away was his early ‘Brighton Rock’ about these young guys chasing through the streets and lanes of Brighton, England.  But his novels have a uniform quality, and just about any of them will be fine.  I have read about fifteen so far.

Greene’s novels range from settings in Africa (‘The Heart of the Matter’) to Asia (‘The Quiet American’) to Latin America (‘The Honorary Consul, ‘The Power and the Glory’, ‘Our Man in Havana’) to England.  He was a novelist of the world.

What I like about Greene is that he is a good-natured compassionate writer who tells great stories.  Also his characters seem to have more underlying depth than most writers’ characters.  In one of his novels, Greene writes:

“Human nature is not black and white but black and grey.”

There are some individuals who are worse than others, but we all share in the guilt to some extent.  Individual people are not pure evil or pure good in Greene novels, and that makes his characters more realistic and human. Greene’s characters wrestle with their own particular guilt. No one is let off the guilt hook, but at the same time no one is eternally doomed on Earth. Also his tolerant view of humanity allows Greene to have a sense of humor about his characters.

Martin Seymour Smith does criticize Greene by saying “His most serious deficiency is his failure to portray women ‘in the round’.  I am not sure I agree with Smith.  I would recommend women to read ‘The End of the Affair’ which is a fiction supposedly based on Greene’s own extramarital affair and probably contains his deepest portrayal of a female character.

Fiction by Graham Greene that I strongly recommend:  ‘Brighton Rock’, ‘The Heart of the Matter’, ‘The End of the Affair’, ‘Our Man in Havana’, ‘A Burnt-Out Case’, ‘The Quiet American’ and about a dozen others.

Quotes about Graham Greene

“I asked for The Heart of the Matter for Christmas in 1947. I suddenly thought, here is this man who can represent ordinary life, ordinary troubles, and make them exciting to read about.” – Shirley Hazzard

“He will be missed all over the world. Until today, he was our greatest living novelist.” – Kingsley Amis for Greene’s Obituary

“He is deepest in my head in the way he looks at the world with a mixture of, I think, kindness and honesty. I feel he’s very undiluted. And he’s really determined to look at the most difficult, dark parts of himself and the world.” – Pico Iyer

“Any writer would envy an imagination of such irresistible contrapuntal thrust – he never lacked a story, he was drowning in them. He famously said that childhood is the credit balance of the novelist, and Greene’s childhood – the misery of his public school, the power struggles with his headmaster father, the teenage seduction of his own psychiatrist’s wife, the flirtations with madness and God – well, he was never, ever going to be in the red. There are many natural storytellers in English literature, but what was rare about Greene was the control he wielded over his abundant material. Certainly one can imagine nobody who could better weave the complicated threads of war-torn Indochina into a novel as linear, as thematically compact and as enjoyable as The Quiet American.” – Zadie Smith

“His (Greene’s) obvious strengths, some of them leaving him vulnerable, are extreme fluency and professionalism, power, the ability to create clear-cut characters and sound plots. His capacity to convey atmospheres of oppression has hardly been equaled in English.” – Martin Seymour-Smith

Quotes from Graham Greene

“Our worst enemies are not the ignorant and simple, however cruel; our worst enemies are the intelligent and corrupt.”

“We praise heroes as though they are rare, and yet we are always ready to blame another man for lack of heroism.”

 

 

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‘Dirty Snow’ by Georges Simenon – Not Only the Snow was Dirty

 

‘Dirty Snow’ by Georges Simenon   (1946) –  244 pages                                                      Translated from the French by Marc Romano and Louise Varese

The young man Frank Friedmaier in ‘Dirty Snow’ is one of the most vile and amoral characters you will find in any novel.  Frank has a very German name but he lives in Brussels, Belgium because the political boundaries in Europe do not match the ethnic boundaries.  The novel takes place during the German occupation of Belgium in World War II.

Frank’s mother Lotte runs a brothel in their apartment mainly for the German occupiers.  She gets her girls young and innocent when they are only sixteen or seventeen because that’s the way the men like them, and she gets rid of them when they are eighteen so the men don’t get bored. Frank starts the process by dating the innocent girl and corrupting her before bringing her back to the house to work for his mother.  Even as a teenager Frank was on the lookout for fresh young girls to work for his mother.  He would take the girl to a movie, have sex with her, and then ease her into his mother’s prostitution business.  There was always a need for Frank to get more girls.  Frank can have sex for free with any of the girls working in his apartment any time he wants.

Frank does not know who his father is but thinks it might be the police inspector who allows his mother’s business to operate.

Frank hangs out at the local bar which is where all the young thugs hang out.  Most of the guys there have murdered someone, so Frank decides to kill a guy for no other reason.  Later Frank also kills an old woman who had been nice to him as a child in connection with his stolen watch racket.

Frank is then noticed by the German authorities and locked up in a school that has been turned into a makeshift prison by the German occupiers, since the regular prison is already too crowded.   The German authorities couldn’t care less about Frank’s murders or any of his other crimes, but they wonder how he obtained a special pass that only the German occupiers were supposed to have.   Frank says of one his guards:

“He is the kind of man who would calmly beat people up on command feeling no hate as conscientiously as a clerk doing sums in an office.”   

‘Dirty Snow’ is a story of a very bad man living in malevolent times. It is one of Georges Simenon’s romans dur or “hard or tough novels”.  This is an honest novel about the sordid underside of life but it is compelling on its own terms.  It feeds our fascination with the seamy criminal element.

 

‘Dirty Snow’ is a headlong plunge into the dark side.

 

 

Grade :   A

 

 

One of My Favorite Fiction Writers of the 20th Century – Willa Cather

With this article, I am starting a new feature on those fiction writers in the 20th century who are my personal favorites.  These fiction writers have entertained and intrigued me both at the sentence level as well as at the story or novel level.  Since these are my favorites, I have usually read a number of books by them which is the case with Willa Cather.  However there may be special cases where only one book gets an author in. Although I am starting with a United States writer, I will be including writers from various parts of the world. You may disagree with some of my choices, especially those writers I choose to leave out.

So here goes.

Willa Cather

Born: December 7, 1873    Died: April 24, 1947

I am starting with Willa Cather because up until recently Cather had been consistently underrated as a fiction writer with guys like Hemingway and Fitzgerald who couldn’t hold a candle to Cather getting the acclaim.  The English writer A. S. Byatt has gone a long way to ensuring that Willa Cather gets her due in the literary world.

Those of us who appreciate Cather’s work are passionate about it.

Willa Cather spent most of her childhood in Nebraska which is the setting for several of her finest novels.  She spent most of her adult life in New York City although she had a summer house on the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, Canada which was the only house she ever owned.

She never married nor had any children which must have been a boon to her fiction writing career.  She frequently dressed like a man.  That’s fine, I don’t care; it is her fiction that fascinates me.

There is a tendency to view a writer’s work as piling success upon success up until the end of their life.  However, I have found that many a writer’s strongest work happens relatively early in his or her career.  That is certainly the case with Cather with her best works being written between 1913 and 1927.  As with the very best fiction, Cather makes her characters come alive for me, and I am moved by much of her work.

Interesting Fact:  She has a prairie, Cather Prairie, near her childhood home in Red Cloud, Nebraska named after her.

Fiction by Willa Cather that I strongly recommend: The Prairie Trilogy which includes ‘O Pioneers’, ‘The Song of the Lark’, and ‘My Antonia’.  Don’t be afraid to read these three novels out of order since each is a standalone story. Also ‘A Lost Lady’ and ‘The Professor’s House’; also ‘Obscure Destinies’ which is a wonderful collection of three of her very best stories.

Quotes about Willa Cather:  “No American novelist was more purely an artist.”- J. Donald Adams

“No romantic novel ever written in America, by man or woman, is one half so beautiful as My Ántonia.” – H. L. Mencken

“She has been steadily admired by stylists. Alice Munro learned from her; Eudora Welty, Katherine Anne Porter, and Wallace Stevens praised her perceptively. She learned from Virgil, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Henry James. She wrote 12 novels and some remarkable long and short stories.” – A. S. Byatt

A Quote from Willa Cather:The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is.” 

 

‘To The Back of Beyond’ by Peter Stamm – Walking Away From Home

 

‘To The Back of Beyond’ by Peter Stamm   (2017) – 140 pages    Translated from the German by Michael Hofmann

Have you ever wondered what kind of adventures you would run into if you just walked away from your home and your family with no destination in mind? You don’t even tell anyone where you are going.  You just walk off on the spur of the moment for no particular reason.  Things were going good with the family but you just had the sudden urge to get away.

In ‘To The Back of Beyond’, there is no discord in this Swiss family, no easy explanation why Thomas decided to leave his comfortable home. His reasons for leaving are inscrutable, even to himself. Instead he just wanders off after returning from the family summer holiday.

Of course, in real life there would be a ton of obstacles to a man walking away and disappearing like that, but Peter Stamm with his quiet precision makes us believe that this could really happen.  The story takes on the quality and existential feel of an allegory.

His wife Astrid is not angry at him at all which to me is another unreal aspect of the story, and she reflects about Thomas:

“He had no close friends; his superficial relationships to colleagues at work, his clients, and his teammates seemed to be enough for him.  Neither of them had an especially active social life, and since the children, they hardly ever went out in the evenings.” 

Days go by, and Thomas doesn’t return. Astrid doesn’t panic even when the police come to the house and look in every room to make sure that he isn’t lying dead somewhere having done himself in.  Instead Astrid covers for him at his job, telling his workplace that he has shingles.

So we have this man walking through the woods and towns near his home.  He rarely encounters anyone as he tries to avoid people as much as he can.  The few people he does encounter seemed to me like oases of interest.  This being Switzerland, he eventually encounters the Alps Mountains.

The scenes in the novel alternate between those with Thomas on his massive strenuous walk and those with his wife Astrid and their kids at home.  The scenes involving Thomas are of a man who is mostly alone in nature.  I know there are some readers who welcome physical descriptions of rocks and karst and tarn and vegetation in their stories, but I am not one of them.  I found the excessive natural description somewhat tiresome and found myself looking forward to the scenes involving Astrid which were more sociable.

The bottom line is that Peter Stamm has achieved a quiet allegory about a patient understanding wife and the restless energy of her husband or perhaps of all men, but I wasn’t quite in the patient mood for a quiet allegory in nature myself.

 

Grade :   B   

 

‘Mrs. Osmond’ by John Banville – An Appropriate Sequel to ‘The Portrait of a Lady’

 

‘Mrs. Osmond’ by John Banville   (2017)  –   369 pages

About two years ago, I read and was fascinated by the novel ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ by Henry James, so it is only right that I read this sequel. ‘Portrait’ is the story of a young American woman Isabel Archer who goes to England and stays with some of her rich relatives there.  Ultimately she travels to Italy and winds up getting wed into a disastrous marriage with Gilbert Osmond. This all takes place in the 1880s.

As ‘Mrs. Osmond’ by John Banville begins, Isabel Archer Osmond is no longer a naïve innocent young woman. A few years have passed since ‘The Portrait of a Lady’.   Trapped in a terrible marriage, she knows she has made a huge mistake.  Now she has a new resolve and a strong determination to set things right again.

In both ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ and ‘Mrs. Osmond’, the villains are Gilbert Osmond and his lady friend Madame Merle.  In ‘Portrait’, after hearing of Isabel’s new inherited fortune, they schemed and plotted to trap her into this marriage to Gilbert Osmond.  Henry James dislike of his character Gilbert Osmond bordered on hysterical frenzy.  How dare these poor Italian nobles scheme to marry into English or American money?  Banville takes a more analytical approach to this insolent devious vindictive man Gilbert.  Few of Gilbert’s actions are unpremeditated. Now Gilbert and Madame Merle are plotting daughter Pansy’s marriage into a rich English family.

Most of the characters from the first novel show up in ‘Mrs.  Osmond’. There is talk of Lord Warburton and Caspar Goodwood, two of Isabel’s old suitors.   Isabel discusses strategy with her independent reporter woman friend Henrietta Stackpole.  She meets Madame Merle and her step-daughter Pansy’s suitor Edward Rozier in Paris.  Finally she returns to Italy in order to confront Gilbert.  Sadly, her cousin Ralph Touchett who was such a lively presence in ‘Portrait’ has died, but his mother does make an appearance.

Writing ‘Mrs. Osmond’ is obviously a labor of admiration by John Banville.  Banville is paying homage to perhaps the greatest novel by Henry James or at least the one which is most accessible.  What is really impressive is the way Banville captures Henry James’ style of writing which uses the longer sentences of the Victorian era. Modern sentences are streamlined, direct, and to the point.  However, back in the time of Henry James, sentences were more involved and intricate than they are today.  Longer sentences allow for more nuances, more shading, and more subtlety. I have read my share of 19th century literature, and it seems to me that these longer sentences allowed for greater depth both in characterization and physical description. I am not so sure that the move to shorter sentences has been totally such a good thing. The shorter sentences of today may be the result of a briefer attention span.   Perhaps our modern short streamlined sentences cause us to stay more simplistic, more on the surface of things rather than going deeper into motivation and implication.

I would recommend ‘Mrs. Osmond’ for anyone who has read and enjoyed ‘The Portrait of a Lady’.  I’m not sure it would work as a stand-alone novel.

 

Grade :   A         

 

‘Glass Houses’ by Louise Penny – Three Pines, Quebec is a State of Mind

‘Glass Houses’ by Louise Penny    (2017)  –   388 pages

“Three Pines is a state of mind. When we choose tolerance over hate, kindness over cruelty, goodness over bullying, when we choose to be hopeful not cynical, then we live in Three Pines.” – Louise Penney  

The town of Three Pines is a place where everyone treats and is treated with respect and concern.  Where else are you going to find that today?  It is a shame that this cozy little French Quebec town of Three Pines near the Vermont border has so many murders.  Fortunately they have Armand Gamache, Chief Superintendent of the Surete du Quebec, to nab the criminals.

Louise Penney novels have become my favorite guilty reading pleasure, my literary comfort food.  I realize that these police inspector novels are by no means high literature. Like so many murder mysteries, the plot of ‘Glass Houses’ is necessarily contrived, but this delightful remote little town of Three Pines intrigues me.

 “Readers come to Three Pines for the murders and the quirky villagers – Ruth, the foul-mouthed poet-sage and her duck, Rosa; Myrna, the retired therapist turned bookstore owner – but stay for the celebration of kindness and friendship, the plumbing of the nature of morality, and the musings on the creation of art and its purpose.”  – CS Monitor  

If I were to compare ‘Glass Houses’ to the other Louise Penny novels I have read, I liked it better than ‘The Nature of the Beast’ but not quite as much as ‘How the Light Gets In’ which is still my favorite. ‘Glass Houses’ is the thirteenth in the Gamache series of novels.

In ‘Glass Houses’, Three Pines must deal with the opioid crisis.   Some forms of fentanyl, the opioid that killed Minneapolis musician Prince, are 10,000 times stronger than morphine.  It only takes a relatively small amount of fentanyl to get its effect and even one dose can cause a deadly overdose. Fentanyl has been linked to thousands of overdose deaths in the United States and Canada. Being close to the Vermont border, Three Pines is an ideal place to sneak fentanyl across the border into the United States.

One thing I particularly like about the novels is that they will deal with high-stakes moral quandaries.  If Gamache has discovered a route for fentanyl deliverers into the United States should he arrest small-time operators using it or should he wait for the big shipment?  He compares himself to Winston Churchill who was faced with a similar choice during World War II after British scientists had cracked the German top secret Enigma codes, and the Allies knew ahead of time that the Germans were going to bomb Coventry, England.  Should Churchill warn the people of Coventry thus informing the Germans that the English had their Enigma codes or not?

The bottom line is that ‘Glass Houses’ worked for me as a mystery thriller set in this tiny Quebec village of Three Pines.

 

Grade :   A

 

‘Improvement’ by Joan Silber – Not Necessarily an Improvement

‘Improvement’ by Joan Silber   (2017) – 256 pages

One of the more common forms of fiction today is the linked story novel.  This type of novel is made up of individual stories which are tied together by a town as in Elizabeth Strout’s ‘Olive Kitteridge’ or by an event such as the Vietnam War as in Tim O’Brien’s ‘The Things They Carried’ or by a workplace such as the newspaper office in Tom Rachman’s ‘The Imperfectionists’ or by a theme such as music in Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad’ or by some other unifying device.  ‘Improvement’ by Joan Silber is just such a novel of linked stories.

The stories in ‘Improvement’ range in locales from the country of Turkey to New York City to Virginia, and they range in time across forty years, so time and location are not the unifying factors.  I was quite impressed by a previous novel of linked stories by Joan Silber called ‘Fools’.  However this new novel ‘Improvement’ didn’t really work for me.  I will explain why.

In what are supposed to be connected stories, the connective tissue here seemed vague and almost random.  I could not see how the stories were connected at all, and for me they might better have been just separate stand-alone stories.  I suppose the author somehow felt they were all joined under the title theme of ‘Improvement’ but I couldn’t see how the stories even fit that title.  I did not really see any improvement in the characters’ lives, as for the most part they behave miserably and rather meaninglessly. The individual stories felt mundane and rather pointless to me

Between the various chapters the groups of characters are nearly unrelated.  Thus the novel doesn’t build up any energy or allow the reader to develop strong feelings for the characters. A number of the characters in the novel are black, and I felt that the author fell back on racial stereotypes to some extent in her depictions rather than developing fully well-rounded individuals.

The description of the scenes and the plots of the various stories are perfectly clear and capably done, but they didn’t lead anywhere.  I didn’t feel that this novel transcended its material as some novels do. It left me feeling rather blah, and I felt no compelling urge to return to the novel when I wasn’t reading it except to get through with it once and for all.

I realize this judgment is rather severe for an author that I have admired and praised in the past for her short stories.  When a fiction doesn’t work for me, it just doesn’t work.

 

Grade :    C+

 

 

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