‘The American Lover’ by Rose Tremain

‘The American Lover’ by Rose Tremain stories   (2015) – 240 pages

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‘The American Lover’ is a varied convincing group of stories by one of our world’s better novelists.  I don’t want to oversell it.  This book did not change my life. But this collection of stories did not disappoint at all, and that is a lot to say about any work of fiction. Rose Tremain is more a novelist than a story writer, and these stories are not the main point of her career.  However each of these stories is well-written and has an impact of its own.

The range of these stories is wide in time and place.  In one story the main character is Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper in Daphne DuMaurier’s ‘Rebecca’.  In another story which takes place in a Russian village, one of the main characters is Leo Tolstoy.

The first story, the title story, is about a transgressive first love during the 1960s in which a young woman falls deeply in love with a guy who takes her to Paris where he gets her to have three-way sex with a transvestite. (These stories are not for the squeamish.)  The affair runs its course, but ten years later she is still haunted by him.

One story, one of my favorites, is about a couple who escape their hell-raising daughter and her ‘crazy never-ending carnival of woe’ by retiring to a peaceful summer cabin in Canada along the waters of Lakes Superior.

Tremain is very good at mixing lighter moments with tragedy needing only a few sentences to separate them.  That is one of the reasons I appreciate her novels as well as her stories.  Both comedy and death are a part of life, and these stories have their share of both.

Another poignant story is ‘Lucy and Gaston’ about an English woman who lost her husband who was a pilot during the Normandy invasion, and a young Frenchman who lost his father.  Somehow Tremain can conjure up a new time and place for each story using just a few words.

It is a good thing that Rose Tremain has not succumbed to the current fad of writing for a younger audience.  Her stories are by and for adults, and she does not shy away from disturbing topics.

I was very taken with Rose Tremain as a fiction writer early in her career with my interest peaking about the time she wrote ‘Restoration‘ and ‘Sacred Country’.  I thought she could do no wrong.  However after that there were a couple of novels including ‘Music and Silence’ and ‘The Colours’ that did not work for me.  I stopped following her work for awhile.  However I happened to read ‘Trespass’, and I’m happy to say I consider that novel a return to form.  ‘The American Lover’ is a continuation of her return.

 

‘West of Sunset’ by Stewart O’Nan – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Last Years in Hollywood

‘West of Sunset’ by Stewart O’Nan   (2015) – 289 pages

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The author Stewart O’Nan has been called ‘the king of the quotidian’ by fellow author Elizabeth Strout.  That is certainly true of my favorite of his novels, ‘Last Night at the Red Lobster’, which follows the day-to-day running of a Red Lobster restaurant through the eyes of its manager.  That novel was an affecting look at the franchise restaurant business and the people who work in it.

At first glance one would think that the wildly flamboyant F. Scott Fitzgerald would not be the best subject for a writer of the everyday life like Stewart O’Nan.  Scott and his wife Zelda were raucous drunken hell-raisers in the Twenties, dancing on table tops, diving into public fountains, going to cocktail parties in their pajamas with Zelda likely taking even those off, getting thrown out of hotels.

However the F. Scott Fitzgerald in ‘West of Sunset’ is much more subdued.  The novel is about Fitzgerald’s final years starting with his second sojourn as a screenwriter in Hollywood in 1937.  By this time Zelda had been in and out of sanitariums and rest homes for the mentally ill for seven years.  Zelda was actually misdiagnosed with schizophrenia although today her diagnosis would most likely be bipolar disorder.

In 2013 there were three novels that told the Scott and Zelda story from Zelda’s point of view questioning whether or not Zelda was actually crazy and what or who caused her problems to begin with.  Since ‘West of Sunset’ is told from Scott’s point of view, it naturally puts him in a better light than these three other novels.  Perhaps ‘West of Sunset’ over-portrays Zelda as a poor unstable wretch.

Scott’s writing career was floundering as there was no longer much demand for his novels and stories.  He had to pay for Zelda’s expenses as well as for their daughter Scottie’s private school expenses.  Hollywood was willing to pay him $1000 a week, so he returned there.   He hated Hollywood’s team approach to writing scripts which also allowed the directors of the movie to make any script changes they wanted.  But the money was good.

Of course we meet a few famous people along the way.  Humphrey Bogart, Dorothy Parker, and Ernest Hemingway are all characters in the novel.

Scott meets up with the young gossip columnist Sheilah Graham and they develop a relationship even though he is still married to Zelda and occasionally goes back to see her.   Sheilah later becomes disgusted with Scott’s drinking binges.

Scott never could hold his liquor, and although he tries hard to keep it under control, alcohol wound up hurting his Hollywood career as well as his relationship with Sheilah.  On these drunken benders Scott had a nasty violent streak so would frequently wind up with a black eye or broken bones which would make it obvious to all that he had been drinking.

Of the four Stewart O’Nan novels that I have read, ‘West of Sunset’ is my second favorite after ‘Last Night at the Red Lobster’. ‘West of Sunset’ is a poignant and touching portrait of a man who had been on top of the world sliding inexorably downward, a mere mortal.  As the studios fire him or reduce his salary, it becomes more difficult for Scott to make financial ends meet.  The only thing that sustains Scott when he is not drinking is his strong work ethic to keep writing.

As we read along in ‘West of Sunset’, we realize we are edging closer and closer to December 21, 1940, the day F. Scott Fitzgerald died at age 44.  The only suspense is how O’Nan will handle the death scene.

 

Henrietta Stackpole in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ – The New Woman, 1880s Style

 

Mary Louise Parker as Henrietta Stackpole

Mary Louise Parker as Henrietta Stackpole

The quintessential American in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ is not our main young woman Isabel Archer, but instead it is her enterprising friend Henrietta Stackpole. Henrietta, as opposed to any of the novel’s other characters, actually has a job as a reporter for the New York Interviewer She is pushy, highly opinionated, good humored, and a great friend to Isabel Archer. Henrietta is the New Woman in 1880. She is also a breath of fresh air in a novel which may have grown stodgy without her.

Henrietta arrives in England and pushes the interests of Isabel’s former American suitor Caspar Goodwood on her. By this time Isabel has already received and turned down a proposal from Lord Warburton, and Goodwood is out of the question. Goodwood still presses on with his suit, and Isabel turns him down also.

During this time Henrietta gets to know Isabel’s cousin Ralph Touchett, and their comic arguments and teasing banter provide some light humor for the novel.

Henrietta: It’s charm that I don’t appreciate, anyway. Make yourself useful in some way, and then we’ll talk about it.

Ralph: Well, now, tell me what I shall do.

Henrietta: Go right home to begin with.

Ralph: Yes, I see. And then?

Henrietta: Take right hold of something.

Ralph: well, now what sort of thing?

Henrietta: Anything you please, so long as you take hold. Some idea, some big work.

Ralph: Is it very difficult to take hold?

Henrietta: Not if you put your heart into it.

Ralph: Ah, my heart. If it depends upon my heart—

Henrietta: Haven’t you got a heart?

Ralph: I had one a few days ago, but I’ve lost it since.

Henrietta: You’re not serious. That’s what is the matter with you.

Despite their differences, Henrietta and Ralph share an abiding perceptive interest and concern in Isabel’s future.

Henrietta sets off to tour France and Italy with a new friend she has made, Mr. Bantling. We hear that ‘they had breakfasted together, dined together, gone to the theatre together, supped together, really in a manner quite lived together,’ No mention is made of their sleeping arrangements. Later in the novel they are to be married.

In the mean time, Isabel proceeds on her own tour of Italy and winds up in the cynical clutches of Gilbert Osmond. When Henrietta finally meets Gilbert Osmond, it is natural that they mutually hate each other. Anyone who is a good friend of Isabel can see that this scheming man is crushing her spirit. Henrietta and Ralph both do everything they can to help Isabel escape.

Sometimes it almost seems that Henry James is laughing at his own character Henrietta Stackpole, making fun of her pretensions and opinions, but ultimately Henrietta’s heart is in the right place, and she is the modern glue that holds this novel together.

‘The Portrait of a Lady’ by Henry James – Less Brain and More Form than Middlemarch?

‘The Portrait of a Lady’ by Henry James   (1881) – 608 pages

{92A1E96D-8DF2-4854-9DE1-A00801EBE277}Img400‘The Portrait of a Lady’ by Henry James starts out as a sunny drawing room comedy on the order of Jane Austen where the young woman visiting England from the United States, Isabel Archer, quickly turns down marriage proposals from two rich suitors because she wants to see Europe first.   The world is just opening up for Isabel, and she wants to remain independent.

The first suitor is Lord Warburton who owns several huge estates throughout England as well as mansions in France and Italy.  One wonders what kind of knucklehead would turn down an offer of marriage from Lord Warburton.  The other suitor, the American Caspar Goodwood, has the misfortune of owning only one cotton gin company.

Isabel is staying with her banker uncle Mr. Touchett who promptly dies and settles a fortune on Isabel.  In all my years I’ve never been bequeathed a large sum of money by someone I barely knew, but perhaps I’m not as pretty and spirited as Isabel Archer.

Then Isabel begins her travels to the European continent by going to the Touchett’s estate in Florence, Italy, and there she meets the villains of our story, Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond.  Yes, things take a nasty turn and instead of being in Jane Austen’s sunny drawing room we are stuck in a terribly sad George Eliot marriage.

Isabel falls helplessly in love with the superficially charming but calculating schemer Gilbert Osmond.  Madame Merle has told him about all the money Isabel now inherited, and he wants it for himself.  Madame Merle is his partner in crime who introduces him to Isabel.  Soon Isabel and Osmond are married and living near Rome with Isabel’s new teenage stepdaughter, the unfortunately named Pansy.  After the marriage, the cynical Osmond has got the money, and he doesn’t have much use for Isabel except to crush her soul.

The story in ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ is told with passion and energy. The warm and witty repartee between the various characters is simply amazing.  It quickly became apparent that ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ would become my favorite Henry James novel.  The characters and plot are as striking and memorable as a George Eliot novel.

There is some evidence that in writing ‘The Portrait of a Lady’, Henry James was reacting to George Eliot’s novel ‘Middlemarch’ which I consider perhaps the greatest of all English language novels.  Both novels are about a bright young woman making an unfortunate marriage.  It seems to me that her first marriage is a momentous occasion in any woman’s life.  She must give up the life she was leading before for a new life, and it is so easy to make the wrong decision.  Perhaps Isabel reflects James’ thinking with her belief that “a woman ought to be able to make up her life in singleness, and that it was perfectly possible to be happy without the society of a more or less coarse-minded person of another sex.”

After reading ‘Middlemarch, James wrote that his future works are “to have less ‘brain’ than Middlemarch, but they are to have more form’.  I do believe that James succeeded in the ‘less brain’ goal, but I’m not sure about the ‘more form’ part of the equation.

8515505286_9c22d63401_zHenry James makes no apologies about solely writing about the upper class; that is one thing that I find it difficult to stomach about him.  It still annoys me that Henry James apparently considered poor people or even the middle class to be unworthy of inclusion in his novels.  Instead we get the richest of the rich traipsing from one vast estate to another.  Certainly writers must write about those they know, and I suppose James does a great job of pinning down these super rich types, However I do believe that his works are limited by him restricting his subjects strictly to the absurdly rich.

George Eliot dealt with the entirety of her society, and thus I find many of her works more meaningful to me.   So my final advice would be to definitely read ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ but read ‘Middlemarch’ first.

‘What’s Become of Waring’ by Anthony Powell

‘What’s Become of Waring’ by Anthony Powell   (1939)  –  236 pages

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“People think that because a novel’s invented, it isn’t true. Exactly the reverse is the case. Biography and memoirs can never be wholly true, since they cannot include every conceivable circumstance of what happened. The novel can do that.” – Anthony Powell

So far I’ve read three of the twelve novels that make up ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ as well as the separate novels ‘O How the Wheel Becomes It’ and now ‘What’s Become of Waring’ by Anthony Powell.  What spurred my interest in ‘What’s Become of Waring’ was an old fascinating review at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings which described in detail Powell’s sly technique of allowing the reader to figure out what’s coming even before the narrator figures it out.

Anthony Powell was a writer of subtle and dry wit whose sense of humor wasn’t always readily apparent.  When I was younger, I preferred writers like Evelyn Waugh or Kingsley Amis whose humor was broader and more obvious, but now I find myself returning to Powell on occasion.

“It is not what happens to people that is significant, but what they think happens to them.” – Anthony Powell  

 Here is the plot of ‘What’s Become of Waring’.  The publishing house of Judkins & Judkins has recently found out that one of its best selling travel writers, T. T. Waring, has died.  Waring “was the almost perfect exemplar of a form of wooly writing that appeals to uncritical palates”, but of whom no one with literary taste “could stomach those tinny echoes of a biblical style, much diluted with popular journalism.”  Since “there is no way of proving that writing is good or bad”, Waring’s reputation as a remarkable traveler was secure.

In order to cash in on Waring’s celebrity immediately after he died, the publishers hire our narrator to research his life and write a biography.   Soon our narrator, as well as we readers, discovers that travel writer T. T. Waring is a fraud.

Anthony Powell had written four novels before this one so he was quire familiar with the publishing business, and his ironic insights into the business are quite acute.

‘What’s Become of Waring’ is a novel of its time, written just before the outbreak of World War II.  Somehow names like Eustace and Beryl seem out of date.  Several of the scenes take place at séances which were meetings of friends who try to communicate with dead people.  These séances were a quite popular entertainment in England during the 1930s.

Perhaps someday I will again pick up ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’.  For now, this early Anthony Powell novel will sustain me.

‘There Must be Some Mistake’ by Frederick Barthelme – Tacky, Wacky Texas

‘There Must be Some Mistake’ by Frederick Barthelme   (2014) – 294 pages

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Kicked out of his job as a design consultant, Wallace Webster, our trusty narrator in the new Frederick Barthelme novel ‘There Must be Some Mistake’, is in his early fifties, recently divorced, and living in a condominium on Forgetful Bay in south Texas   He stays up all night doing Google searches, watching reality TV shows, and eating saltines.

“I was already a fan of junk culture. every excess, every heartbreakingly bad idea some fool came up with, every pathetic effort we made to clean up our act and our lives, every crummy joke, every dumb gesture, every pretense to profound thought, deep spirituality, or going the other way, low self-loathing.  We were blockheads and ninnies, and I liked that about us, even the grand and miraculous, who knew not this rarefied enlightenment “

As I kept reading ‘There Must be Some Mistake’, I learned to like and trust Wallace’s deadpan view of life in his tacky corner of the world.  Here is his view of young people today:

“It struck me as odd that Rice (University) students would look like gas station attendants but then I realized everyone under thirty looked like a gas-station attendant to me.  Then I realized there weren’t any gas-station attendants anymore.” 

 Of course our restaurant franchise chains come in for their share of abuse.  Here is Wallace on dining at Olive Garden:

“Our food arrived in due course.  Mine was execrable, in the best possible way as usual.  Thick, gloppy, greasy, misshapen, lukewarm, and inedible.  We dined in silence, unless slurps and other sucking noises are to be counted.”

 Then there’s the guy who arrives at the condo in cowboy regalia. “He was cowboyed up.”

Strange things are happening in Wallace Webster’s condo.  One of his fellow condo-dwellers dies in a mysterious car accident, and then there is a possible suicide, and also what appears to be a murder.  Then Wallace must deal with woman detective Jean Darling.  Wallace already has a lot of women in his life with Jilly who was his friend from work, Diane who is his ex-wife, Morgan who is his daughter, and Chantal who is the wild woman from another condo with whom he is having an affair and who previously shot a couple of husbands.

But ‘There Must be Some Mistake’ is by no means a detective novel as that line is dropped anyway by the end.  What makes this novel fun and different is Wallace’s reliable and humorous take on our modern lives, because what Frederick Barthelme is saying does not only apply to Texas and Texans.

 

‘Twilight of the Eastern Gods’ by Ismail Kadare – Days and Nights at the Gorky Institute of World Literature

‘Twilight of the Eastern Gods’ by Ismail Kadare  (1978)   –  185 pages

Translated from the French of Jusuf Vrioni by David Bellos

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The great Albanian writer Ismail Kadare acquired a national reputation for literary work at a very young age, and he was selected for the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow at the age of twenty.  ‘Twilight of the Eastern Gods’ is the lightly fictionalized account of Kadare’s time at the Gorky Institute.

This was a great honor for a college age guy from the small country of Albania, and Kadare had a wonderful time in Moscow playing ping pong, chasing a number of Soviet girls, and walking along the river searching for places with a band and music.

However as for producing literature, Kadare quickly found the Gorky Institute a non-starter.  The Soviet Union was still recovering from the Joseph Stalin tyranny, and it was dangerous to be an independent creative writer there.  Of course Russia has a proud tradition of producing great writers, and the Soviet Union wanted to continue that tradition even under the severe constraints of the post-Stalin era.

In the Soviet Union the style of literature called ‘Socialist Realism’ was in heavy fashion, and Kadare has a great time making fun of it.  The main purpose of Socialist Realism was to advance the goals of socialism and Communism and usually involved proud peasants working in the fields in order to achieve these goals.

“Not only did it contain no mention of the institutions of the state, it did not admit of a single construction in brick or stone. Nothing but gurgling streams, fidelity and flowers, and a few hymns sung of an evening to the glory of the Communist Party of the USSR.”

 What annoyed Kadare most was that none of the writing being produced there contained any real description of how things actually were in Moscow.

The defining event of the time that Kadare spent at the Gorky Institute was when Russian writer Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958.   Pasternak’s novel ‘Dr. Zhivago’ was rejected for publication in the Soviet Union and then was smuggled out of the country in order to be published.  Pasternak’s winning the Nobel Prize humiliated and enraged the Soviet Union authorities, and they denigrated Pasternak and forced him to refuse to accept the prize.  What should have been a proud moment in Soviet literary history became a huge embarrassment.

Gorky Institute of World Literature

Gorky Institute of World Literature

The entire account of the Pasternak campaign is told without any fictional embellishment in ‘Twilight of the Eastern Gods’.  Typescripts of ‘Dr Zhivago’ were passed from writer to writer at the Gorky Institute.

Despite Kadare’s scorn of ‘Socialist Realism’ and the Soviet literary world of the 1950s, ‘Twilight of the Eastern Gods’ is also a light-hearted novel of a young man enjoying his time in Moscow. More than one romantic escapade is fondly remembered.

 

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