Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Alberto Moravia – One of My Favorite Fiction Writers of the 20th Century

Alberto Moravia

Born : November 28, 1907     Died : September 26, 1990

 

I suppose by this time that Alberto Moravia has been almost forgotten. How am I going to convince you that Alberto Moravia is an author well worth reading today?

Every true writer is like a bird; he repeats the same song, the same theme, all his life. For me, this theme as always has been revolt.” – Alberto Moravia

The best writers make it seem almost effortless. In plain simple language, Moravia early on was critical of the Roman middle class for its apathy to the fascism which was pervading Italy under Mussolini before World War II in his first novel ‘Time of Indifference’, written in 1929 when he was only twenty one. After that the fascists clamped down on his work and actually banned his wonderful novel ‘Agostino’ (Two Adolescents) in 1941. Moravia and his first wife Elsa Morante had to hide out from the fascists in Ciocaria in central Italy in 1943.

In May of 1944 with the liberation of Rome, Moravia returned. After the war, Moravia’s popularity steadily increased with such novels as ‘The Woman of Rome’ in 1947 and ‘The Conformist’ in 1951. In the Fifties and Sixties, several of his works were made into movies by the great film directors of the time including Vittorio De Sica (‘Two Women’), Jean Luc-Godard (‘Contempt’), and Bernardo Bertolucci ( ‘The Conformist’). After reading ‘Contempt’, I watched the movie which was outstanding and contains Brigitte Bardot’s best performance as an actress.

“One must try to say complicated things in a clear way,” – Alberto Moravia

How can I characterize Moravia’s work after the war? His themes are the hypocrisy of modern life and the inability of people to find happiness in traditional ways such as love and marriage. Moravia is a realist and a sharp but sensitive narrator of contemporary life. ‘The Woman of Rome’ is the story of a young woman who becomes a prostitute. Many of his novels were put on the Roman Catholic Church index of works that Catholics were forbidden to read because of his frankness in dealing with issues relating to sex and marriage.

This thought strengthened in me my belief that all men, without exception, deserve to be pitied, if only because they are alive.” ― Alberto Moravia, ‘The Woman of Rome

Two of his best novels have very simple titles, ‘Boredom’ and ‘Contempt’. Both of these novels would serve as a good introduction to Moravia’s work with his accurate depiction of unsettling feelings in intimate relationships.

Alberto Moravia was always trying to get to the bottom of the human imbroglio.” – Anthony Burgess

I have read almost all of Moravia’s novels and found them all to be strong and moving works. He was also an excellent short story writer as exemplified by his ‘Roman Tales’ and ‘More Roman Tales’.

Friendship is more difficult and rarer than love, so we must save it as is.” – Alberto Moravia

‘Late in the Day’ by Tessa Hadley – Drowning in a Sea of Elegance and Exquisite Taste

‘Late in the Day’ by Tessa Hadley (2019) – 273 pages

I was bowled over by Tessa Hadley’s previous novel ‘The Past’ as well as her latest collection of stories, ‘Bad Dreams and Other Stories’. However after praising Tessa Hadley to the skies twice, I must now don my critical hat, and write about what bugs me most about the writing of Tessa Hadley.

I found the elegance and sheer perfection of these characters’ every move and thought quite annoying. Hadley lays it on quite heavily. To me this seemed like a form of over-writing that I did not care for. Sure these are all wonderful people with their own special talents and personalities, but I grew tired of Hadley pointing out these characters’ magnificence in every little detail.

The refinement of these folks’ clothing, furniture, houses, backgrounds, and all else is something to behold.

‘Late in the Day’ starts with a death. Lydia’s husband Zachary has just died. They are only in their forties so the death was entirely unexpected. Lydia calls her friends Alexandr and Christine to tell them what has happened and they rush to the hospital where they meet Lydia.

She had her air of a disgruntled queen, haughty and exceptional in a sky-blue velvet jacket with a fake leopard-skin collar; when Christine turned to embrace her, people turned their heads to stare.”

Apparently no one is distraught enough not to note every detail of Lydia’s precious clothes. And so it goes.

After this first scene, we get alternating chapters of these two couple’s lives from their early days just after college until the sad present time. In the present day, each couple’s single child, Grace and Isobel, is also brought into the story. I found all of these characters somewhat off-putting.

Everything is pristine perfection. When Zachary wants to buy and open an art museum (because his family has plenty of money), it is not just any old art museum: “A red-brick chapel, built by the Huguenots in a modest backstreet of terraced eighteenth century cottages in Clerkenwell.” Hadley goes on and on detailing the subtle furnishings of this chapel. She describes “the arched side windows which still had their original thick flawed greenish glass”. “The interior with its floor tiles worn by human passage into a shallow relief landscape, its dreamy underwater light, its gracefully curved upper gallery supported on iron pillars.” Hadley continues in excruciating precision:

An arched gateway wide enough for a wagon, fitted at some point with corrugated iron doors now rusted fantastically, gave access to a cobbled courtyard overgrown with buddleia and nettles and filled up high with junk – old chapel pews ripped out when the chapel was used as storage for a builders’ merchant, heaps of rotted drugget, plastic sacks of hardened cement, abandoned steel scaffolding poles and bolts, an ancient Gurney stove, hymn books rotted down to a pulp.”

Even the rust is fantastic. This is an overload of exquisite detail. Enough already. It is enough to make me regret my own miserable surroundings.

At a later point in the novel, the character Lydia gives the game away. “Lydia said she thought things were better when travel was restricted to the upper classes. – At least they had taste and good manners.”

Being very much descended from the lower classes myself, this remark offended me. I hope that this was Hadley’s attempt to show Lydia’s snobbish attitude and not Hadley putting her own thoughts in Lydia’s mouth. I found these characters laughable in their pretensions, but Tessa Hadley wasn’t laughing.

Otherwise, the story in ‘Late in the Day’ held my interest, despite the elegance overload.

 

Grade :    B

 

‘November Road’ by Lou Berney – On the Run Across the Southwest after JFK was Shot

‘November Road’ by Lou Berney (2018) – 299 pages

Among my first forays into the adult world were my Kennedy scrapbooks. I was only 12 years old when John F. Kennedy was elected President, but I was entirely fascinated with Kennedy and his family and put together a meticulous scrapbook of the 1960 election using pictures cut out from Life and Look magazines. Then I made another scrapbook of his first year in office. These scrapbooks are buried somewhere in my basement, but I hope they are still intact.

Of course I still recall the devastating report that came over the loud speaker at my high school on noon on November 22, 1963 that President Kennedy had been shot.

‘November Road’ is a thriller and road adventure story that is driven by the Kennedy assassination. Frank Guidry is a low level operative for his crime boss Carlos. One of his last assignments was to park an unlocked car with its key in the ignition near Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. When Guidry hears the news of the assassination, he quickly realizes that the car he parked was the get-away car for the real murderers of Kennedy, and that Lee Harvey Oswald was just a decoy in the murder conspiracy.

The suspicious circumstances of the murder and the ensuing murder of Oswald lead one to suspect there was a conspiracy. ‘November Road’ assumes it was an organized crime conspiracy, but there are definitely other possible political conspiracies.

Guidry realizes that his organized crime boss will want to cover his tracks by getting rid of anyone who was involved in the crime, and that includes Guidry himself. He leaves his apartment in New Orleans and heads west through Texas. And Guidry is right; there is a paid assassin named Barone chasing after him.

In Oklahoma Guidry encounters a small town woman named Charlotte and her two small daughters. She has left her drunk husband. Guidry figures the woman and her kids would provide a good cover in his efforts to escape the hired assassin who is behind him

A love story across the west to Las Vegas ensues. Will our small-time playboy organized crime operator fall for this poor wife with her daughters who represent everything that is nice and decent in this world?

I usually don’t read thrillers, but ‘November Road’ got particularly good reviews. I listened to it on audio, and it was very exciting in that format. We follow Guidry and Charlotte and the girls on the run with the hired assassin Barone right behind them.

‘November Road’ certainly does not have the depth of good literature, but as a thriller and road adventure it was entirely enjoyable and compelling.

 

Grade :    A-

 

 

A Ladder to the Sky’ by John Boyne – What Would You Do in Order to Write a Prize-Winning Novel?

 

‘A Ladder to the Sky’ by John Boyne (2018) – 362 pages

 

‘A Ladder to the Sky’ is a captivating jaunty thriller about wicked literary politics. Our sole resourceful villain is one Maurice Swift, a man of limited talent who will stop at nothing to write a prize-winning literary novel.

I think Maurice is whatever he needs to be, whenever he needs to be it. He’s an operator, that’s for sure. And I don’t much like him, Gore, if I’m honest. Sometimes I think I might hate him. He’s rude and unkind, utterly self-centered, and treats me like a dog. But I can’t seem to break away from him.”

Yes, the American writer Gore Vidal is a character in this novel. Vidal is the only one who sees through the evil machinations that Maurice Swift uses to get his next novel. We follow Maurice’s career from when he is an aspiring young writer working as a waiter in West Berlin in 1988 up until today.

This is a dark, dark story and I won’t spoil it for you with too many details.

Can the quest for an outstanding literary career really be this mean and cruel? We tend to view our prestigious authors as magnanimous human beings perched high above us in some literary Valhalla of refined manners and good taste. But what cruelties and misdemeanors did these writers have to perpetrate along the way to get there? Perhaps “misdemeanor” is too feeble a word for what they did.

Mostly we see Maurice Swift as others see him. These poor souls are won over by him, and they never see the real Maurice Swift until it is too late.

Reading ‘A Ladder to the Sky’ was a very enjoyable experience for me. The story is very well framed and captures entirely what a person with limited talents might have to do in order to become a distinguished prize-winning novelist. The hardest task for the talent-less is coming up with those succeeding novels after that first success.

This is a lively fiction, and I guarantee you will have a good time reading it.

 

Grade :   A

 

‘The Order of the Day’ by Eric Vuillard – The Raving Lunatic Takes Over Germany and Austria

 

‘The Order of the Day’ by Eric Vuillard (2017) – 132 pages Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti

“Great catastrophes often creep up on us in tiny steps.”

Two significant events in Germany’s lead-up to World War II are discussed in the 2017 Prix Goncourt winning novel ‘The Order of the Day’ which is probably as close to non-fiction as a work of fiction can ever be. The events in the novel really happened, and the characters were all real people. Nothing is made up. In fact the novel strives to be entirely historically accurate. The only reason ‘The Order of the Day’ could be classified as fiction is that the author Eric Vuillard recreates private conversations that we know took place but do not know exactly what was discussed.

The first event is a meeting of twenty-four major German business owners on February 20, 1933 where they all agreed to lend their support to Adolf Hitler. These were the Krupps, the von Siemens, the Opels, and others.

And the twenty-four gentlemen present at the palace of the President of the Reichstag that February 20 are none other than their proxies, the clergy of major industry; they are the high priests of Ptah. And there they stand, affectless, like twenty-four calculating machines at the gates of Hell.”

Without the support of these major business leaders, the Hitler nightmare would never have happened. Later Vuillard mentions that some of these same companies were not averse to using slave labor: “BMW hired in Dachau … IG Farben … operated a large factory inside the camp at Auschwitz.”

Just as we are settling in for an account of this horrific meeting, Vuillard switches his focus to another significant event leading up to World War II, Germany’s annexation of Austria which is now known as the Anschluss on March 12, 1938.

First there is a calling into account of English diplomat Lord Halifax who along with Neville Chamberlain were architects of England’s appeasement policy toward Hitler and Germany.

The English aristocrat, the diplomat standing proudly behind his little line of forebears, deaf as trombones, dumb as buzzards, and blind as donkeys, leaves me cold.”

Lord Halifax caving to the Nazis reminds me of the attempts by politicians and diplomats to appease and placate Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Then we proceed to the futile attempts by the leaders of Austria to keep its national integrity despite the German onslaught.

On the day of the takeover of Austria, Hitler ordered a tank invasion – a Blitzkrieg – of Austria. However some of the heavy artillery vehicles stalled in the middle of the road. An entire line of German tanks sat motionless.

What was supposed to be Hitler’s triumphant return in a Blitzkrieg to his hometown and the towns where he spent his childhood turned into a total deadlock standstill with no vehicles moving. It was bitterly cold. Hitler was in his Mercedes behind the stalled vehicles.

Hitler was fit to be tied: what was supposed to be his day of glory, a swift spellbinding passage, had morphed into a traffic jam. Instead of speed, there was congestion; instead of vitality, asphyxiation; instead of a surge, a bottleneck.”

However, Austria was then under the control of a raving lunatic, and the Austrian people along the way cheered.

‘The Order of the Day’ is very fine as an indignant look back at crucial events in modern history, but I am still not sure it qualifies as fiction.

 

Grade : A-

 

 

‘Certain American States’ by Catherine Lacey – Modern Stories with Some Wicked Twists

 

‘Certain American States’ by Catherine Lacey (2018) – 190 pages

The loneliness of certain American states is enough to kill a person if you look too closely.”

If you are searching for something new and different in fiction, you might try Catherine Lacey. I’m at the point where I would rather read her disordered unpredictable stories in ‘Certain American States’ than the simpler more straightforward sincere stories of someone else. This is my first encounter with Lacey’s work, but it won’t be my last.

It is not that her subject matter is so weird or different. These stories usually start out as direct stories of modern life. Perhaps Lacey describes her subject matter best in her story “Small Differences” with the phrase “the conditional and imperfect nature of human-on-human love,”

It is clear now that Nathan and I have always had just enough respect for each other to withstand a mutual disrespect.”

You only learn who you’ve married after it’s too late, like one of those white mystery taffies you have to eat to find the flavor, and even then, it’s just a guess.”

So what makes Catherine Lacey’s stories so peculiar? It is the outlandish unpredictable twists that occur along the way. None of the stories are written in chronological order but skip around as needed to heighten their impact. Also Lacey writes superb, occasionally extraordinarily long, sentences. These are the kind of sentences and stories you want to read more than once to capture their full meaning. In fact the first sentence in the first story is nearly two pages, nearly perfect except the editor of my edition left out a ‘to’ early in the sentence.

But sometimes Lacey uses short sentences effectively too. Here is a fine example of Catherine Lacey’s unique voice from her story “Because You Have To”. Here is a young woman’s interior monologue to the guy who has recently left her:

You have been calling and hanging up.

I know it’s you. The telephone rings differently when you call.

You can’t tell me I don’t recognize this. You have no idea what I hear, but it is so like you to doubt me, to assume I’m wrong. It is so like you to not be here, and to call as if to point out your absence and to say nothing just to frustrate me.”

A reader can never tell if Catherine Lacey is serious, and it is probably wise for you to assume she is not.

My main complaint with Lacey’s works here is a a lazy one. These stories each contain so much that they are simply exhausting. A reader shouldn’t have to work this hard in order to enjoy a story. These are the kind of stories that you may want to re-read, but that you may also need to reread in case you have missed a key point. Even in the stories that misfired for me there were a sense of humor and plenty of interesting ideas.

I am going to end with a quote about Catherine Lacey’s stories from novelist Anne Enright:

Although Lacey’s work can be sad, it is rarely monotone, never earnest. Her stories are profoundly playful and piercingly good. You don’t have to read them, but you really should.” – Anne Enright, The Guardian

 

 

Grade : A-

 

‘A Different Drummer’ by William Melvin Kelley – A Major Rediscovery

 

‘A Different Drummer’ by William Melvin Kelley (1962) – 205 pages

I have found that some of the finest fictions that I have read have been rediscoveries. These are novels or collections of stories by authors who have been near totally neglected and forgotten for decades but are finally rediscovered by some admiring peripatetic reader with exquisite taste. Suddenly a previously neglected author joins the pantheon of classics.

I search out articles which rediscover almost forgotten novels or writers, because these have usually proven to be among my best reading experiences.

My first experience with one of these rediscoveries was Christina Stead and her 1940 novel ‘The Man Who Loved Children’ for which poet and author Randall Jarrell wrote a famous introduction in 1965 which brought that novel back from obscurity to justified fame. I didn’t discover the novel until about 1980, but Randall Jarrell’s article was still famous then.

Since then there have been a number of authors who have justly come back from the missing. Here are a few of them: John Williams (‘Stoner’), Dawn Powell (‘Angels on Toast’, ‘The Golden Spur’, and just about everything else she ever wrote), Maeve Brennan (‘The Springs of Affection’, stories), Irene Nemirovsky (‘Suite Francaise’), Hans Fallada (‘Every Man Dies Alone’ aka ‘Alone in Berlin’), and Lucia Berlin (‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’, stories). All of these forgotten writers have now assumed their rightful places in literature.

Now a new name to be added to that list is William Melvin Kelley (‘A Different Drummer’). William Melvin Kelley wrote ‘A Different Drummer’ in 1962, and after reading it I find it worthy to be included on this list of forgotten classics. It has already been praised to the heights by articles in the New Yorker, the Guardian, and the Irish Times this year, so don’t blame me for rediscovering it.

Forget the portentous fictions of William Faulkner. William Melvin Kelley writes in the open magnanimous humorous spirit of Mark Twain.

This is a story of black people in the Deep South, but it is told through the eyes of their white neighbors. Some of these white people have been brought up as children alongside their black neighbors and have developed an understanding and affection despite their differences. However there is a hard cruel uncomprehending crew of white racists who have no understanding or affection. These white people have “a gaze that signals the flickering off of the switch that controls the mechanism making man a human being .”

The white landowning Willsons in 1957 sell a piece of land to steady worker and family friend Tucker Caliban who is a descendant of their former slave. This is a transaction many of their white neighbors and townspeople can’t understand.

Tucker Caliban proceeds to destroy the land and farm by salting the land, slaughtering his horse and cow, and setting fire to the farm buildings and then leaving. This sets off a mass migration of all of the black families in the area to the North. Soon there are no black people at all left.

At first the white Governor of the state claims, “We never needed them, never wanted them, and we’ll get along fine without them.” However the other white people are angry because they won’t have anyone to boss around and look down on anymore.

‘A Different Drummer’ captures the full range of white characters from a white boy who recognizes that Tucker is different from him but admires him anyhow to the Willsons who grew up alongside Tucker and his new wife Bethrah to the vicious redneck and white supremacist townsman Bobby Joe.

I like to think about the professional football, basketball, and baseball teams. The white players and coaches on these teams must realize that their teams would be nowhere without their black athletes. Any white racism would be detrimental to any one of these professional teams. Yet the United States and its President persist in their ugly white racism.

But getting back to this excellent novel by William Melvin Kelley, it is Kelley’s light touch in telling his story that impresses me. He captures these people as only the finest writers do. Kelley has a homespun way of telling his story that reminds me of Mark Twain.

 

Grade : A

 

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