Long Novels and Me

 

 

I do not take the matter of reading extremely long novels lightly. I do read long novels, but will do everything within my power to make sure that I will treasure and enjoy the many hours I will spend reading the book.

Perhaps the first long novel I read was ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce. Of course I had already read and valued ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ and ‘The Dubliners’, but ‘Ulysses’ was supposed to be his finest so I just had to read that. I am happy I did and will never forget the adventures of Leopold Bloom and his wife Nora Barnacle during that one day in Dublin. I still have not attempted Finnegan’s Wake.

My history with George Eliot is somewhat more complicated. First I read the short ‘Silas Marner’ and really didn’t like the story about this old country weaver and the little baby daughter he adopts. I thought it was somewhat sentimental and schmaltzy. I stayed off Eliot’s novels for a few years until I read a lot of good things about her fiction. Then I read ‘Adam Bede’ and ‘Mill on the Floss’, and loved them both. So I was ready for ‘Middlemarch’ which is a bit of an undertaking. ‘Middlemarch’, the story of an unfortunate marriage, was wonderful. I consider ‘Middlemarch’ one of my very favorite novels of all time. Eliot’s portrait of the dry husband Casaubon will stay in my mind forever. Later I read the equally long ‘Daniel Deronda’ which I did not find quite as rewarding as ‘Middlemarch’.

By the time I reached Leo Tolstoy, there was no question. I absolutely had to read ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina’, both monster novels. Of course both are easily appreciated masterpieces.

Perhaps the most humorous long book I have ever read is the 800+ page entire ‘The Good Soldier Schweik’ by the Czech novelist Jaroslav Hasek. This novel, being about the ineptitude of authority figures, was right up my alley and certainly is relevant today.

As far as humor goes, ‘Don Quixote’ by Miguel de Cervantes is right up there, but ‘Don Quixote’ has both charm and humor. ‘Don Quixote’ checks in at over a 1000 pages, but the time spent reading them just flies by. I will never forget Sancho Panza and his mad boss Don Quixote.

My experience with Henry James has been inconsistent. Sometimes I really like his work, sometimes I don’t. In 2015, I finally decided to read ‘Portrait of a Lady’ which checks in at over 600 pages. I don’t classify it as one of the finest novels I’ve read, but I did really like it.

Deep River’ by current author Karl Marlantes is a long 700+ page novel that has tempted me since I consider his ‘Matterhorn’ one of the classics of recent years, but I still have not succumbed, having not read enough positive reviews yet.

The four novels that make up Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels probably could be considered one long book, but I prefer to think of them separately.

I have not approached ‘Ducks, Newburyport’, perhaps if it is still talked about in a few years.

Other long novels I have read and treasure:

‘The Crimson Petal and the White’ by Michel Faber (834 pages)

‘An American Tragedy’ by Theodore Dreiser (934 pages)

‘The Magic Mountain’ (838 pages) and ‘Buddenbrooks’ (731 pages) by Thomas Mann

‘The Vivisector’ by Patrick White (640 pages)

‘The Man Without Qualities’ by Robert Musil (1774 pages!)

I am writing all this about long novels because I am embarking today on a 628-page novel with small print, ‘The Maias’ by José Maria Eça de Queirós. I have much appreciated three of his previous works, so now I am ready for the big one. I plan on writing a couple of articles about this novel in the upcoming weeks. Famed author Jose Saramago said of ‘The Maias’ that it is “the greatest book by Portugal’s greatest novelist”. We’ll see how that goes.

What is your favorite long novel?

 

 

‘Such a Fun Age’ by Kiley Reid – Emira and Her Friends and Little Blair

 

Such a Fun Age’ by Kiley Reid (2020) – 320 pages

‘Such a Fun Age’ has a light touch. During the onrush of situations, there is no time for preaching or pontificating. The story just moves on to the next predicament. This gives the novel a speedy feel.

Plus this author’s enthusiasm for her own story rubs off on the reader.

Going along with the lightness is a delight with dialogue. One of the main strengths of ‘Such a Fun Age’ is capturing the talk of people socializing, whether it be a group at a party or dinner or just two people alone. Rather than an individual character contemplating a problem or situation, we get the interplay of many voices. When an attitude or a view is expressed in a conversation, it is just one of several attitudes.

What this novel really excels in are exchanges between groups of young women, whether young mothers or young single women.

This novel tackles persistent racial issues which are not normally confronted in novels. Our views about white people and non-white people go much deeper than we think. Even when we try to treat everyone the same, there is so much hidden subconscious stuff that keeps us from doing so. Our attitudes are so deeply embedded in us that we might believe we are doing good when it is obvious to others we are not. Each of us, including myself, has to carefully examine his or her own attitudes and behavior.

I don’t need you to be mad that it happened. I need you to be mad that it just like… happens.”

Another outstanding feature of ‘Such a Fun Age’ is its original unique plot. It all starts with our young woman Emira leaving her friends’ party to take the three-year-old girl Blair whom she is babysitting to the corner Market Depot store at the request of the girl’s well-to-do parents. At the store they are stopped by a security guard who confronts Emira and accuses her of kidnapping the little girl. A white man films the whole incident, and Blair’s mother thinks Emira should publicize the video. Emira doesn’t want that at all.

But more than the racial bias, the night at Market Depot came back to her with a nauseating surge and a resounding declaration that hissed, You don’t have a real job. This wouldn’t have happened if you had a real fucking job, Emira told herself on the train ride home, her legs and arms crossed on top of each other. You wouldn’t leave a party to babysit. You’d have your own health insurance. You wouldn’t be paid in cash. You’d be a real fucking person.”

Babysitting is not a real job for Emira because she doesn’t get health insurance, a major issue for many people. She has a special relationship with the little girl Blair, but Emira sees her friends progressing in their careers, and she knows she can no longer stay on her parents’ health insurance when she turns 26 which will be soon.

But as I said before ‘Such A Fun Age’ has a light touch. The interplay between Emira and Blair is one of this novel’s many pleasures, and Emira and her friends are a fun group to hang around with.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘The Farcical History of Richard Greenow’ by Aldous Huxley – School Days

 

‘The Farcical History of Richard Greenow’ by Aldous Huxley (1920) – 54 pages         #1920Club

In the twentieth century there was a grand tradition of male English novelists writing fiction satirizing academic life. These novels include ‘Lucky Jim’ by Kingsley Amis, both ‘Decline and Fall’ and ‘Brideshead Revisited’ by Evelyn Waugh, the Campus Trilogy (‘Changing Places’, ‘Small World’, and ‘Nice Work’) by David Lodge, ‘The History Man’ by Malcolm Bradbury, ‘Anglo-Saxon Attitudes’ by Angus Wilson, and others. Usually these novels were written early in the authors’ writing careers while their school experiences were still fresh in their minds. ‘The Farcical History of Richard Greenow’ is Aldous Huxley’s academic satire about his years at Eton and Oxford which he wrote when he was 26. It was part of his first published work, ‘Limbo’.

This short novella is a parody of Huxley himself and his friends and instructors. The stand-in for Huxley here is of course Richard Greenow who even while still in school is struggling to be a writer. One night a feminine spirit takes over Richard and he completes a story overnight which he is able to sell to a woman’s magazine. Soon this spirit takes over Richard every night, and he is serializing an entire novel for the woman’s magazine for a nice sum of money. He gives this woman writer inside himself the pen name of Pearl Bellairs.

Thus Richard is leading a double life, a politically engaged male student during the day, and a writer of women’s stories by night.

It was there that he solved the problem, perceived the strange truth about himself. He was a hermaphrodite.”

Later World War I breaks out, and Richard becomes a conscientious objector for pacifist reasons. However his alter-ego Pearl convinces him to become a land girl instead of going to prison.

One requirement that these academic satires must have is malicious irony. Here is an example of this malicious irony concerning one of his instructors:

His knowledge was enormous; but he possessed the secret of a strange inverted alchemy – he knew how to turn the richest gold to lead, could make the most interesting topic so intolerably tedious that it was impossible, when he talked, not to loathe it.”

I found the language and the attitude in this short novella quite delightful throughout. Here is one particularly delectable example concerning the headmaster’s wife at Eton:

Mrs. Cravister received her guests – they were all of them boys – with stately courtesy. They found it pleasant to be taken so seriously, to be treated as perfectly grown men; but at the same time they always had with Mrs. Cravister a faint uncomfortable suspicion that all her politeness was an irony so exquisite as to be practically undistinguishable from ingenuousness.”

I should finally also mention that two of the very best academic parodies were written by United States writers: ‘The Groves of Academe’ by Mary McCarthy and ‘Pictures from an Institution’ by Randall Jarrell.

 

Grade:   A-

 

 

‘The King at the Edge of the World’ by Arthur Phillips – The Question of the King after Elizabeth I

 

‘The King at the Edge of the World’ by Arthur Phillips (2020) – 265 pages

In ‘The King at the Edge of the World’, Arthur Philips tells a rollicking story that takes place during the reign of Elizabeth I in England.

The time is 1601. Elizabeth I has had a long peaceful and productive reign and has grown old; now her health is rapidly declining. Who is going to follow her to the throne? According to the traditional royal lineage, next in line to follow Elizabeth to the English throne is James who is already King James VI of Scotland. However James is the son of Mary Queen of Scots who was put to death by Elizabeth in 1587 for Catholic plotting against the English throne. There is widespread concern among the English nobles that James might have Catholic beliefs. This would be the perfect time to send a spy up to Scotland to find out the truth about James: Protestant or Catholic?

Nearly all the royal families in Europe at that time were fervent Catholics. The Pope and other Catholic royalty across Europe were constantly plotting and conspiring to return England to the Catholic Church. The English already had a terrible experience with their earlier Catholic ruler Mary I, Bloody Mary, who had had 280 Protestants burned at the stake.

Geoff Beloq runs a network of secret agents for Queen Elizabeth to uncover and foil secret Catholic plots against the Queen. It is his mission to determine whether or not James is a Catholic.

Extracting James’ religious views is a necessarily delicate operation, one that is suited for neither a Protestant or a Catholic, so Beloq recruits a well-educated Muslim doctor, Mahmoud Ezzedine, from the Ottoman Empire who got stuck in England through no fault of his own.

There was something amusing, and reassuring, in his foreign perspective: He was unlikely to be led astray by emotional confusions.”

Dr. Ezzedine has a Muslim perspective on Christian doctrine:

And now, to distinguish between Christian madmen? This one is confused because he kneels or does not, or reads Latin or does not, or trusts his priest to perform the magic bread spell or does not. Therefore this fellow or that one must be burned alive.”

James I of England

Although ‘The King at the Edge of the World’ would fall into the category of historical fiction, it is on the wild, creative, and unpredictable side of historical fiction. It uses the real historical backdrop of Elizabethan times to tell a fanciful frequently humorous tale.

Arthur Philips is an imaginative enthusiastic storyteller whose each novel is vastly different from his others. I have read and enjoyed all his work and will be looking forward to his next.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

‘Daisy Jones & The Six’ by Taylor Jenkins Reid – A Seventies Rock Band

 

‘Daisy Jones & The Six’ by Taylor Jenkins Reid  (2020) – 351 pages

 

Billy: Karen was just a great musician. That was all there was to it. I don’t care if you’re a man, woman, white, black, gay, straight, or anything in between – if you play well, you play well. Music is a great equalizer.”

 

The golden age of rock and roll was the late 1960s and the 1970s. Back then the music was everywhere with new young bands forming constantly and plenty of live venues in every town and city where these acts could grow and develop musically. There was excitement from the ground up, and all the record companies had to do was sign the best of these young acts. How times have changed.

Now it all seems so calculated, totally driven by a few record industry executives who pretty much manipulate their artists. The originality, the creativity, the excitement, the enthusiasm seem to have disappeared. The music now is over-produced and too calculated to quickly sell records rather than to produce anything original, creative, or lasting.

‘Daisy Jones & The Six’ is about one of those bands that formed in the late 1960s and achieved huge success in the 1970s traveling throughout the United States, Europe, and even Japan. The entire novel is written as an oral history with each member of the band as well as the producers, agents, etc. interviewed, and their words are written down verbatim.

Starting out, the band is The Six with Billy Dunne as its lead vocalist and band leader. Circumstances lead to Daisy Jones joining the band as the co-vocalist, and then the band rises to stratospheric heights and a number one album, Aurora.

The author Taylor Jenkins Reid says she was influenced by the real band Fleetwood Mac in writing her novel. In actual fact, the story of Fleetwood Mac and its members is even more wild and improbable than ‘Daisy Jones & The Six’.

‘Daisy Jones & The Six’ uses just about every cliché for a rock band in the Seventies that you ever heard of, but that doesn’t mean the novel doesn’t work. It is all about the drinking, the drugging, the sleeping around, occasionally interrupted by musical interludes.

Eddie: L.A. Was a trip. Everywhere you looked, you were surrounded by people who loved playing music, who liked to party. The girls were gorgeous. The drugs were cheap.”

We have Billy, the intense talented lead singer and defacto band leader who falls into heavy partying with groupies and drugs who is saved by a beautiful caring woman.

Warren: And then it always ended with Billy going back to his hotel room and the rest of us staying out partying until we found somebody to screw.”

Then Daisy Jones joins the band.

She is the free-spirited female singer who lives on Sunset Strip and parties constantly taking more pills, uppers and downers, than she can keep track of, who has no musical training, but who has a beautiful angelic voice and a natural instinct for singing songs.

There is the Rolling Stone article with the headline “Daisy Jones & The Six: Are Billy Dunne and Daisy Jones Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Biggest Foes?”.

Try singing a love duet with someone you hate. It is the mutual disdain that Billy and Daisy have for each other that put their album Aurora over the top in sales, not the quality of the music.

The lyrics to the songs are rather dopey like most rock songs.

Perhaps for the TV series that will be based on this novel, it is a good thing that the novel is rather cliched and formulaic.

Will the TV series be a success? It depends on if the music and the performers are as inspired as some of the performers and much of the music of the 1970s were.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

‘The Splendid and the Vile’ by Erik Larson – The Battle of Britain and the Blitz

 

‘The Splendid and the Vile’ by Erik Larson (2020) – 503 pages

 

I generally don’t read a work of non-fiction like I do a novel. For non-fiction, I usually skip around looking for interesting parts. However, for the non-fiction works of Erik Larson, I read them straight through from beginning to end.

Erik Larson is a popularizer of history, not an original source. His works are not original or rigorous or deep. Larson writes for enthusiastic novices like me.

It helps that in ‘The Splendid and the Vile’, he is writing about one of my own personal heroes, Winston Churchill, during the time of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz when England was under severe attack by Nazi Germany’s air force. Larson does write about all the major players, but the emphasis always returns to Winston Churchill.

Here, as in other speeches , Churchill demonstrated a striking trait: his knack for making people feel loftier, stronger, and, above all more courageous.”

Besides the war coverage, the book covers many personal scenes of Churchill and his family and his friends such as Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production, and Frederick Lindemann, Churchill’s scientific advisor. Larson captures the vivid personalities of the major players.

Embarrassed officials would often encounter Winston, robed like a Roman emperor in his bath towel, proceeding dripping from his bathroom across the main highway to his bedroom…Churchill strutting about in his gold-dragon nightclothes and jabbing the air with a dead cigar, savoring the sound and feel of words. ”

We have the horrific results of the German bombing raids in London and other places in England juxtaposed with idyllic garden scenes of “sunny loveliness and perfect peace”.

Midst the havoc, life goes on. We get party scenes, one where Churchill’s daughter Mary dances with a Frenchman, Jean Pierre Montaigne.

I felt incredibly gay – I waltzed with Jean Pierre incovertly, wildly and very fast – great fun. I missed only a few dances.”

It helps to capture the spirit that quite a few individuals kept personal diaries during that time.

So much for the splendid; Larson also captures the vile, the Nazi leaders such as Herman Göring, chief of the German Luftwaffe, and Rudolf Hess, the Deputy Fuhrer.

But we always come back to Winston Churchill, “his vast knowledge of history, his power of expression, and his huge energy”.

Somehow, through it all, Churchill had taught them the art of being fearless.”

 

Grade:    A

 

The Yellow Sofa’ by Jose Maria Eca de Queirós – “No Digressions, No Rhetoric – Everything is Interesting and Dramatic and Quickly Narrated”.

 

The Yellow Sofa’ by Jose Maria Eca de Queirós     (Sometime during the 1880s) – 112 pages                                                         Translated from the Portuguese by John Vetch

As ironic as it might seem, there are still new developments occurring in 19th century literature. There are almost-forgotten writers finally being rediscovered for the virtuosos that they really were. Perhaps the biggest recent development is the ascendancy of the Portuguese writer Jose Maria Eca de Queirós to the upper echelons of the literary world.

José Saramago, no slouch of a writer himself, called Eca de Queirós ‘ novel ‘The Maias’ “the greatest book by Portugal’s greatest novelist.”

Eca ought to be up there with Dickens, Balzac, and Tolstoy as one of the talismanic names of the nineteenth century.” – The London Observer

I am going to quote a long paragraph from V. S. Pritchett, because I believe it captures the essence of Eca de Queirós :

The making of this novel and indeed all the others, is the restless mingling of poetry, sharp realism and wit. Queirós is untouched by the drastic hatred of life that underlies Naturalism; he is sad rather than indignant that every human being is compromised; Indeed that enables him to present his characters from several points of view, and explore the unexpectedness of human nature.”

‘The Yellow Sofa’ was not published during Queirós lifetime. In 1925 his son found it in a desk among other miscellaneous writings, and his son had it published then. We almost lost a short masterpiece.

‘The Yellow Sofa’ is a novella that is a vivid thoughtful thorough argument against rash action. In Eca de Queirós’ own words, he wrote ‘The Yellow Sofa’ with “no digressions, no rhetoric – everything is interesting and dramatic and quickly narrated”. I won’t go into any of the details of the plot of ‘The Yellow Sofa’ because it is full of surprises, and I don’t want to spoil any of them for you.

One of the reasons I always enjoy reading Eca de Queirós is because I find his novels always upbeat. His main characters are strongly etched and always fascinating in their approach to their own situations.

In 2009, ‘The Yellow Sofa’ was turned into an opera by British composer Julian Philips and attracted wide critical notice.

‘The Yellow Sofa, being a novella, would be a great place to start to get to know this important yet delightful author.

Now with the epidemic lock down upon us, I may take the time to read Eca de Queiros’ 628-page masterpiece ‘The Maias’.

 

Grade:   A+

 

 

‘Writers and Lovers’ by Lily King – Torn Between Two Lovers

 

‘Writers and Lovers’ by Lily King  (2020) – 324 pages

I was quite interested in what Lily King would do next after her novel ‘Euphoria’ which was spectacularly well done. Now King’s follow-up novel, ‘Writers and Lovers’, has arrived.

Whereas ‘Euphoria’ takes place in the wilds of the island of New Guinea in the early 1930s, ‘Writers and Lovers’ has a much more conventional setting in Boston in 1997. The two novels are much different from each other, and about the only characteristic that they share is a love triangle.

I almost hesitate to tell you the plot of ‘Writers and Lovers’ for fear of putting you off the book entirely. It is about a young woman in her late twenties who is having difficulty completing her novel which she has been working on for six years. She works in an upscale fashionable restaurant as a waitress and lives in a former potting shed in order to support herself and her writing.

She has just broken up with her last boyfriend.

I’m usually better at protecting myself from this kind of thing.”

From heartbreak?”

Yeah.” My throat is closing. “I can usually get out of the way before it hits me straight on.”

That’s not really heartbreak then, is it?”

Early on, she meets two new men. One is a somewhat famous writer in his forties whose wife has recently died leaving him with two preschool children. The other man is closer in age to her and is also a writer but so far not remotely successful.

As you can see, this novel is all about the struggles and triumphs of characters writing their fiction and poetry, a theme which is usually a death warrant for a novel. Here is yet another novel by a female writer about a female writer and the problems she encounters. We have an author searching for an adequate subject but not finding it so she writes about her former life. Yes, writing fiction is a struggle, but who wants to read about it?

In ‘Writers and Lovers’ favor, it does have the formidable writing talents of Lily King. She captures exactly what it must be like working in a fashionable expensive restaurant, the painstaking efforts to present the exotic menu items to the customers perfectly and the camaraderie of the restaurant workers. In the dating scenes, King captures the small nuances and the intensity or lack of intensity in her feelings about these two men. King is especially adept in relating female desire.

My whole body responds to his hand in mine.”

The desire to press up against him is on a short loop in my head.”

However after the wild and adventurous ‘Euphoria’, ‘Writers and Lovers’ was a bit of a letdown. Like its title, this novel is rather amorphous and prosaic. I did like quite a number of the scenes and attitudes of ‘Writers and Lovers’, but for me it did not quite reach the perfection of ‘Euphoria’.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

‘Liber Amoris or The New Pygmalion’ by William Hazlitt – More a Rant Than a Novel

 

Liber Amoris or The New Pygmalion’ by William Hazlitt (1823) – 112 pages

William Hazlitt was the great essayist and critic of the Romantic era in the early 19th century. He was an adept prose stylist and is regarded as the finest arts critic of his age.

However his one foray into fiction is a one-note rant of a novel dealing with his real-life obsession with Sarah Walker, the daughter of his landlord at one point. The story of William Hazlitt and Sarah Walker has been well documented, and there is little in the novel that has not been registered as fact.

H: “Tell me why you have deceived me, and singled me out as your victim?”

S: “I never have, Sir. I always said I could not love.”

H: “There is a difference between love and making me a laughing-stock.”

Hazlitt does not even disguise the first letters of their real names.

It all started when Hazlitt moved out of his family’s house, leaving behind his wife and son. He moved into this rooming house, and the landlord’s 19 year-old daughter Sarah would serve him breakfast. Hazlitt was 41 at the time. Soon this turned into something more than breakfast and Sarah would be “sitting and fondling a man sometimes for half a day together”.

…that you come up here, and stay as long as you like, that you sit on my knee and put your arms round my neck, and feed me with kisses, and let me take other liberties with you, and that for a year together; and you do all this not out of love, or liking, or regard, but go through your regular task like some young witch, without one natural feeling…”

Hazlitt went off the deep end over Sarah Walker.

Am I mad or a fool?” The correct answer would be “Yes”.

Hazlitt began making all these plans about marrying Sarah. Then Hazlitt finds out that Sarah is doing the same fooling around with one of the other guys who is staying at the rooming house. This unfortunate circumstance does not change Hazlitt’s intention to marry Sarah.

I gave way to all the fury of disappointed hope and jealous passion.”

‘Liber Amoris’ is a chronicle of Hazlitt’s “self-tormenting folly”. Most of the novel is in epistolary form consisting of letters to his friend regarding the Sarah Walker episode. At one point he actually has his friend rent a room at the same rooming house and try to seduce Sarah.

There is nothing in the world that can afford me a drop of comfort – this I feel more and more. Everything is to me a mockery of pleasure, like her love. The breeze does not cool me: the blue sky does not cheer me.”

I suppose William Hazlitt should get points for being honest, for letting it all hang out. However ‘Liber Amoris’ is a sad obsessive spectacle of “a half-disordered mind”.

S: “I have always told you I have no affection for you.”

H: “She was my life – it is gone from me, and I have gone spectral.”

 

Grade:    C-

Some More Fiction Writers Who Were Too Good to be Forgotten

 

Here are some more fiction writers whom I consider just too good for us to forget about them.

 

Henry Handel Richardson (Real Name: Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson) (1870 – 1946) She chose a male nom de plume, because woman fiction writers weren’t accepted in her time. The trilogy ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahony’ (comprising the novels: Australia Felix, The Way Home and Ultima Thule), which is based on her traumatic but colorful early years and her childhood family in Australia, is up there as one of the finest works of fiction in English ever written.

Her Must-Read Fiction: The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, The Getting of Wisdom

José Maria de Eça de Queirós (1845 – 1900) He was the first of Portugal’s great triumvirate of literary virtuosos: Eca de Queirós, Fernando Pessoa, and Jose Saramago. He had a wicked sense of humor. Himself a Portuguese diplomat, he wrote the following: “The number of dolts, dullards and nincompoops who represent us overseas is enough to make one weep. This really is a most unfortunate country.” But you can tell by his writing that he loves Portugal and especially its women.

His Must Read Fiction: The Maias, The Relic, The Sin of Father Amaro

Nella Larsen (1891 – 1964) She worked as a nurse and a librarian in New York, but Nella Larsen got caught up in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and she wrote and published two short novels and a few short stories. Then she went back to being a nurse. She died in obscurity, but her work has now achieved the status of classic and is taught in many literature courses. I have read all of her fiction and consider it wonderful. ‘Passing’ was probably the first novel ever to deal with being of mixed race in the United States. I was moved by the efforts of Heidi Durrow to get a proper gravestone for Nella Larsen which you can read about here.

Her Must-Read Fiction:  Passing, Quicksand, The Short Fiction of Nella Larsen

Theodore Dreiser (1871 – 1945) If you have ever watched the great classic movie ‘A Place in The Sun’ starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters, you are familiar with Theodore Dreiser’s work. That movie is based on Dreiser’s novel, ‘An American Tragedy’. Who can ever forget the scene in the movie where he rows his fiancée out to the middle of the lake and then pushes her out of the boat into the water, knowing she cannot swim? All because he had found a beautiful new love from a rich family. Some critics found Dreiser’s work crude and rude, but I have found his fiction to be vivid and powerful.

His Must-Read Fiction:  Sister Carrie, The Financier, An American Tragedy

Arnold Bennett (1867 – 1931) – He wrote the best novel ever about a second-hand bookstore, ‘Riceyman Steps’. To the Bloomsbury Group including Virginia Woolf, Arnold Bennett was considered one of the Old Guard whose work was so prosaic that they were rebelling against it. However from my later vantage point I recommend Bennett’s work for its fine eye for detail and his strong empathy for the lower classes.

His Must-Read Fiction: Riceyman Steps, Anna of the Five Towns, The Card, An Old Wives Tale

Jean Stafford (1915 – 1979) – She was seriously injured and facially disfigured when she was 23 in a car accident in 1938. The reckless, angry, and intoxicated driver was the mentally unstable poet Robert Lowell whom she would soon marry and 8 years later divorce. She suffered from alcoholism and depression for much of her life. After publishing only three novels, all of which won critical acclaim, she wrote only short stories, many of which were published in the New Yorker. Of her work, ‘The Mountain Lion’ is my favorite.

Her Must-Read Fiction: The Mountain Lion, The Catherine Wheel, The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford

Francois Mauriac (1885 – 1970) – In early Mauriac, Evil is so attractive and Good is so smug that a winner is by no means assured. After those early novels, in 1928 Mauriac turned to Christianity and Catholicism with a vengeance, and the critical consensus was that he then stacked the deck in his fiction in favor of Good, and that his work weakened due to his new-found religious fervor. However one of his novels that I most admire, ‘The Vipers’ Tangle’, was written in 1933 after his conversion. One of the qualities that make Mauriac’s earlier fiction so appealing is how he depicts the life of Evil as quite delightful, just like it is in real life.

His Must-Read Fiction: The Desert of Love, Thérèse Desqueyroux, Flesh and Blood, Vipers’ Tangle

 

Here and here are two earlier lists of writers who wrote some mighty fine fiction.

‘Divide Me by Zero’ by Lara Vapnyar – Of Mathematics and Lovers

 

‘Divide Me by Zero’ by Lara Vapnyar (2019) – 354 pages

‘Divide Me by Zero’ starts out strong. I thought I was going to love this novel.

And then wasn’t life itself a perfect dark comedy too, with its journey to an inevitable tragic ending interspersed with absurd events providing comic relief?”

Each chapter of ‘Divide Me by Zero’ starts with a handwritten note from an in-progress mathematics text book. That was fine with me because long ago in 1970, I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a BA in Mathematics. In my younger days, I was considered somewhat of a math prodigy. However my downfall came when for my sophomore year in college I signed up for a Contemporary Literature course to fulfill my Humanities requirements. We read James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, etc. Unfortumately I had to drop the course when I couldn’t make it through ‘Absalom, Absalom’ which is probably the densest of all William Faulkner novels. However by that time I was so enamored of literature that I took the course over again. This time we were assigned ‘Light in August’ by Faulkner, and I was able to complete it successfully and actually enjoyed it. I did stick to completing my math major figuring that was the better way to ensure my financial future, but my main passion had become literature.

So ‘Divide Me by Zero’ should have been a good fit for me, combining as it does both mathematics and fiction.

The first third of ‘Divide Me by Zero’, the part that takes place while our narrator Katya still lives in Russia during the late 1980s and 1990s, could be entitled ‘Perestroika and the Sexual Revolution Come to Russia’. Throughout the entire novel Katya expresses an enthusiasm and openness for sex reminiscent of the early stages of the sexual revolution here in the States during the 1960s and 1970s.

After going through a couple of boyfriends in Russia, Katya and her new husband Len emigrate to the United States.

In seventeen years of my marriage, I have spent 330 happy days with Len and 6,240 days ranging from desperartely unhappy to simply uncomfortable. I wonder if this math is terribly sad or if this is how most marriages work.”

One of the nice features in the novel is when the author injects notes to the reader interrupting the narrative such as the following:

Note to a cynical reader, I was twenty then, I didn’t know a whole lot about how life works!”

I found these occasional notes meaningful and fun.

However the novel is mostly the story of Katya’s long history of relationships with various men, with the only novelty being her upbringing in Russia. I felt that there was little that was original or noteworthy in these encounters that hasn’t already been done in countless divorce novels.

In the last 60 pages, Lara Vapnyar switches gears, shortens the chapters, and devotes these pages to Katya’s mother’s last days with cancer. These pages are poignant and sad but not particularly original either.

 

Grade:    C+

 

Get To Know William Hazlitt

Although little remembered today, William Hazlitt is considered one of the finest arts critics and essayists in the history of the English language. In his published writings, he reviewed drama, literature, and art. He lived from 1778 to 1830 and was friends with such literary figures as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Stendhal. All of the quotes which I use in this article are from William Hazlitt.

Books let us into their souls and lay open to us the secrets of our own.”

If I have not read a book before, it is, for all intents and purposes, new to me whether it was printed yesterday or three hundred years ago.”

Sometimes the talent of recognizing genius in other writers is as important as being a genius oneself.  Hazlitt is probably the most reliable critic of William Shakespeare ever.

Among Hazlitt’s works are ‘Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays’, ‘A View of the English Stage’, ‘On the English Poets’, and ‘On the English Comic Writers’. Two of his most famous books of essays are ‘Table Talk’ and ‘The Plain Speaker’.

Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be.”

There was a major scandal in the life of William Hazlitt. In 1819 Hazlitt was unable to pay the rent for his family, so his wife left him taking their son. On his own at age 42, Hazlitt rented a couple of rooms in London from a tailor named Micaiah Walker. Walker’s 19 year old daughter Sarah would serve Hazlitt his breakfasts, and soon Hazlitt became infatuated with her. Then Hazlitt’s infatuation turned into an obsession. Hazlitt, wanting to marry Sarah, asked his wife for a divorce which was no easy matter at that time, but his wife finally agreed to a Scottish divorce which would allow him to remarry.

Meanwhile another lodger named Tomkins came along, and Sarah also became romantically involved with him. When Hazlitt found out, he became intensely jealous and suspicious of Sarah. Hazlitt alternated between passion, rage and despair.

Love turns, with little indulgence, to indifference or disgust: hatred alone is immortal.”

In order to determine Sarah’s real character, Hazlitt persuaded an acquaintance to take lodgings in the Walkers’ building and attempt to seduce Sarah. The seduction appeared to be succeeding although ultimately did not.

Hazlitt told his tale of romantic woe to his friends and anyone else who would listen. He even wrote a novella, ‘Liber Amoris’, which was a thinly disguised fictional account of his personal romantic woes. This novella was panned more for moral reasons than on aesthetic grounds. I plan to read and review it here soon.

Let me end with a few additional quotes from William Hazlitt:

Any one may mouth out a passage with theatrical cadence or get upon stilts to tell his thoughts. But to write or speak with propriety and simplicity is a more difficult task.”

We are never so much disposed to quarrel with others as when we are dissatisfied with ourselves.”

The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves.”

He will never have true friends who is afraid of making enemies.”

Prejudice is the child of ignorance.”

The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.”

Look up, laugh loud, talk big, keep the color in your cheek and the fire in your eye, adorn your person, maintain your health, your beauty, and your animal spirits.”

 

‘The Cactus League’ by Emily Nemens – A Dramatic Fun Baseball Novel for Adults

 

‘The Cactus League’ by Emily Nemens (2020) – 272 pages

Like many young boys, I was a huge baseball fan from about age ten to fourteen. I knew the name and batting average or earned run average of every player on every club and had a huge baseball card collection. I was such a fan of baseball that I would actually listen to the game on the radio if it wasn’t on TV.

Most baseball novels are written for kids like I was or overgrown adult kids who still love baseball. They are simplistic, innocent, suffused with hero worship, and concentrate mostly on the actual play on the baseball field, They are nostalgic, male-centric.

‘The Cactus League’ is different. The author Emily Nemens knows that baseball is much more than the game and the players on the field, and her novel deals with many of the behind-the-scenes circumstances that are going on. Her novel covers all of baseball: the players, the baseball wives, the coaches, the managers, the agents, the groupies, the other hangers-on, the new rising stars, the falling stars, the owners, the washed-up. Even the concession stand workers at the park.

It takes place in Scottsdale, Arizona where the Los Angeles Lions do their spring training each year before the regular season begins. A lot of players are invited to try out for the team during spring training, but only a select few will actually make the team. Those select few pretty much have it made, while the others will get sent back to a minor league club where they will get a subsistence wage.

In a lot of ways, baseball players are like other men. Some of them are dummies, some of them are mad, some of them are suspicious, shallow, arrogant. Some are so driven they’ll just about forget there’s a woman in the room, even if she’s dressed up sexy or screaming her lungs out, even if she’s the mother of their children. But the difference separating ballplayers from everyone else is that they care about something tremendously, and have since they were little.”

In many ways, ‘The Cactus League’ deals with the social etiquette of the entire baseball subculture. Emily Nemens has a dramatic way of presenting these baseball stories from a more complex sophisticated angle than most baseball novels dare. Since all of the stories are interconnected, together they form a novel.

Sometimes when the baseball wives are not busy with shopping and restauranting, they will come to the game to watch their husbands play.

That row, usually reserved for the more senior baseball wives, a line of skinny white women with too much makeup and fake-looking hair, is empty.”

The Los Angeles Lions do have a superstar named Jason Goodyear who makes millions in product endorsements as well as an exorbitant salary. No wonder so many women – baseball groupies – hang out at the park to entice these men, much to the indignation of the baseball players’ wives.

They look familiar, but he’s not sure if it’s because he’s seen them before or if it’s because they look like every dolled-up divorcee in town.”

Even a superstar can have problems and get into trouble, and then we get an owner’s lament:

No, he definitely has not heard their $150 million dollar investment had a run-in with the law.”

‘The Cactus League’ is a vivid fun baseball novel for adults by an obviously talented writer.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘Nothing to See Here’ by Kevin Wilson – Preposterous

 

‘Nothing to See Here’ by Kevin Wilson (2019) – 254 pages

 

‘Nothing to See Here’ has a preposterous plot. Our female narrator Lillian is taking care of 10-year old twins Bessie and Roland who automatically catch on fire. Yes, the two kids spontaneously combust when they get upset. The fire does not hurt the kids themselves, but it can start furnishings and buildings on fire. Thus they must be watched constantly and carefully.

Of course this is absurd (Why doesn’t the kids’ clothing start on fire?), but somehow the plot seems to work.

My experience with listening to audio books rather than reading has been varied. I give up on a lot of audio books that I lose interest in or I just don’t follow the story well enough. (But I also frequently give up on novels that I’m reading.) I find I have the most success in audio with novels that have well-defined plots, and my greatest audio success was probably ‘News of the World’ by Pauline Jiles. ‘Nothing to See Here’ also worked well as an audio book. Sure the plot is preposterous, but it is clever and well-defined.

In this novel Kevin Wilson has, as I mentioned, a female narrator. Wilson pulls this off well as we become involved in her story.

Lillian is from a poor family, but her good grades get her into an elite college. At college she meets a girl named Madison who is from a rich and renowned family. They become best friends, so when Madison gets into trouble and is about to be kicked out of school, Lillian takes the fall for her instead after Madison’s father offers to pay Lillian some money.

Lillian could have been successful if she had stayed in college, but since she was kicked out, she works at a Tennessee Save-A-Lot store.

About twelve year’s later Madison calls up Lillian to ask if she will take care of her step kids. By this time Madison has married a Senator whose wife has died and who has these twin kids who spontaneously combust. Lillian agrees to do this, and that she does so is nearly as preposterous as the twins’ catching on fire.

Madison and her husband are more concerned about their political family image than about the welfare of these two kids, so they offload their kids on Lillian.

They were me, unloved, and I was going to make sure that they got what they needed. They would scratch and kick me, and I was going to scratch and kick anyone who tried to touch them.”

Perhaps because ‘Nothing to See Here’ is a rather simple story with a simple point, it does work in the audio format despite the plot being preposterous.

 

Grade:   B

 

 

‘Processed Cheese’ by Stephen Wright – “Well, reality is not as real as it used to be.”

 

‘Processed Cheese’ by Stephen Wright (2020) – 392 pages

Who would want to read a novel entitled “Processed Cheese” except for one or a dozen random mice? I would. There is no modern writer whose novels I await with more happy anticipation than Stephen Wright.

One could read ‘Processed Cheese’ solely for its demented humor. One could also read ‘Processed Cheese’ for its devastatingly deep insights into today’s over-cluttered money-crazed world. ‘Processed Cheese’ is a mad look into the United States in free fall.

The main subject of ‘Processed Cheese’ is money, what it can buy, and what it does to people who have it. MisterMenu is a multi-billionaire who lives with his wife in a penthouse apartment fifty-two stories above the street. He keeps huge canvas bags of his money around him, because they make him feel good. One afternoon his wife MissusMenu gets angry with him for screwing around with one of his several female friends, and she tosses one of the bags of money out of the window.

The bag of money falls on this flat-broke guy Graveyard who is out looking for a job. As soon as he recovers from the impact, Graveyard takes the bag of money home to his small apartment and to his girlfriend Ambience, who works in a toll booth.

Graveyard and Ambience go on a buying spree. At first, it’s just small stuff.

They liked snacks. All things salt and sugary. They had SnookerChips. They had BangoNuts. They had CheesySubs. They had ToastedPepperWhackers. And FruityPatooties. And LoopyCrisps. And FudgieWudgiePugies. Their favorite. A cookie inside a cookie.”

But soon Graveyard and Ambience move on to buying bigger things. Of course they buy a brand new giant 103″ HootchieCootchie flat screen TV. Soon their small apartment is crowded with deluxe packages of new merchandise from boutique shops. Stephen Wright has a lot of fun with all these product names. Ultimately they buy a brand new car, “The HomoDebonaire 3000. Top of the line. Runs on sunshine and fresh breezes. It’s greenly green.” Wright does make fun of how advertisers use people’s environmental concerns to sell their products.

Graveyard also buys guns including a MadderRose114 with moonscape sites and an insect-shell finish. Also a HyperSniperM98 bolt action with a CosmicHiBeam scope and adjustable check piece, of course. He gets his ammo at the BulletBoutique.

Graveyard’s attitude toward his cell phone is quite similar to mine.

Graveyard had a what-me-worry? relationship with his cell phone. He would never have even bought the damn thing if he hadn’t been told repeatedly by friends and utter strangers he absolutely had to own one of the irritating devices in order to participate fully in the modern carnival. He didn’t care. He could be in or out.”

Of course MisterMenu wants his big bag of money back.

At first it all seemed cartoonish. It felt like Stephen Wright is sacrificing empathy for his characters and coherence in his story for humor. It took me awhile to come to the conclusion that this comic strip of a novel is a brilliant study of our modern so-called society.

I trust Stephen Wright. I have read all of Stephen Wright’s novels. I trust he will ultimately provide a supremely meaningful narrative. And he does here.

But some essential ingredient had gone missing from his life, something lighter than air that had helped elevate the leaden chain of days you drag behind you like an anchor.”

Many of Wright’s riffs on various facets of contemporary society hit home for me. Of course there’s all that fun about buying stuff. Then there are set pieces about Graveyard and Ambience visiting a garish casino, visiting their relatives who still live out in the boondocks, internet dating sites, etc. Stephen Wright is a perceptive observer of the way things are today.

Yes, ‘Processed Cheese’ is a cartoon, but isn’t much of modern life cartoonish?

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘The Dry Heart’ by Natalia Ginzburg – “I Shot Him Between the Eyes.”

 

‘The Dry Heart’ by Natalia Ginzburg (1947) – 88 pages              Translated from the Italian by Frances Frenaye

‘The Dry Heart’ has a dramatic opening as a woman confronts her husband of four years:

I shot him between the eyes.”

Yes, in this short novella an unnamed woman tells the entire circumstances from the time she first met her husband Alberto until this final shot. This is an unsentimental angry account of how she came to shoot her husband.

At the beginning our unnamed young woman is living a lonely isolated life in a boarding house room and working as a school teacher.

When she meets Alberto who is somewhat older than her, she imagines how wonderful it would be to be married and have a house of her own.

When a girl is very much alone and leads a tiresome and monotonous existence, with worn gloves and very little spending money, she may let her imagination run wild and find herself defenceless before all the errors and pitfalls which imagination has devised to deceive her.”

Alberto seems like a nice enough guy, but she doesn’t delude herself into believing she is in love with him.

A girl likes to think that a man may be in love with her, and even if she doesn’t love him in return it’s almost as if she did. She is prettier than usual and her eyes shine; she walks at a faster pace and the tone of her voice is softer and sweeter.”

Nor does she fool herself into believing Alberto is in love with her.

Before we were married, when we went for a walk or sat in a cafe, Alberto enjoyed my company even if he wasn’t in love with me.”

Alberto does tell her that there is another woman whom he has been in love with for years, but he couldn’t marry her because she was already married. But finally Alberto does ask our young unattached woman whom he doesn’t love to marry him.

Soon after they are married anyway, Alberto begins taking unexplained business trips for weeks at a time, and our young wife begins to suspect that he is seeing this married woman friend again.

I won’t go into any further detail on this simple plot.

– Natalia Ginzburg –

I write about families because that is where everything starts, where the germs grow.” – Natalia Ginzburg

‘The Dry Heart’ is impressive in that it avoids all sentimentality and is written in a restrained personal style. Natalia Ginzburg wrote in a genre that was known as neorealism which she called “a way of getting close to life, of getting inside life, inside reality”.

‘The Dry Heart’ raises the question, why don’t more wives kill their husbands?

 

Grade:    A

 

 

Alice Adams – One of my Favorite Writers of the 20th Century

 

Alice Adams

Born:  August 14, 1926                Died: May 27, 1999

A lot of my reading in the 1980s and 1990s centered around two Alices and an Anne – Alice Munro, Alice Adams, and Anne Tyler. They were probably my three favorite contemporary writers at the time, each of them brilliant and dependable in her own way. Anne Tyler was solely a writer of novels, Alice Munro wrote mainly long short stories, and Alice Adams wrote both novels and stories.

Whereas Alice Munro’s stories are expansive, Alice Adams’ stories are compact. Her long-time editor Victoria Wilson said of Alice Adams’ writing thus:

She was sort of a magician, she managed to give you a dimensional quality of people and place and situation in a very, very condensed amount of space. You’d be reading three simple sentences and have the whole resonance of a person.”

As I went about writing this article, I was quite gratified to find out that a 508-page biography of Alice Adams, ‘Alice Adams – Portrait of a Writer’ by Carol Sklenicka has just recently been published. Not many fiction writers warrant a 508-page biography, and Alice Adams is one. Thus I had no lack of material for this article.

What makes her writing special?

Adams got stuck in an unhappy marriage at a young age and was divorced in her early thirties. She had one son from the marriage and never remarried although she had a number of intimate relationships with men. One of her main themes in her fiction is women searching to find ways to live lives free of controlling relationships. Divorce is usually a positive event in her work. She was born in North Carolina but lived most of her adult life in San Francisco. From a young age she knew she would be a fiction writer, worked hard at her craft, and made a lot of friendships among other writers.

Her first novel was not published until she was forty.

I think I probably am a good example of life begins at forty – I’m forty-eight – [Those eight years after forty] have all been a vast improvement. I began to come together after a long period of floundering.”

In her work she explores ways that her characters can break free of those things that can deprive them of their individual freedom. A story of hers first got published in the New Yorker in 1969, and she ultimately had 26 stories published there.

No one wrote better about the tangled relations of men and women or about the enduring romance of friendship,” said Fran Kiernan, an editor, who edited her New Yorker stories for 10 years, beginning with ”Beautiful Girl” in 1977. ”She was a great romantic, with the highest expectations of life. As a writer, she was unfailingly wise.”

Where to start with the author Alice Adams?

For me, the first novel that I read of Alice Adams was ‘Listening to Billie’.  Several other novels by other writers have evocations of Billie Holiday singing live in her prime in the 1930s and 1940s, and ‘Listening to Billie’ probably outdoes them all. That novel got me started and I wound up reading quite a few of her novels including ‘Families and Survivors’ and ‘Caroline’s Daughters’ as well as several of her story collections. If you are more interested in stories than novels, read the collection ‘Beautiful Girl’ or ‘Return Trips’.

A Quote about her

What Adams accomplishes in a rather slim, two-hundred-page novel is a representation of the complicated story of a main character’s movement toward strength and independence over a thirty year period in which virtually all the details come together in a mosaic of contemporary American life.” – Bryant Mangum discussing Adams’ novel ‘Families and Survivors’

Quotes from Alice Adams herself

I really have no imagination at all, just a terrific memory.” She took real people and events from her own life and transformed them into fiction. This made for some interesting and strong, sometimes irate, reactions to her work.

But, Jack, you know I don’t care for plot at all!” Adams’ work is very much character-driven rather than plot-driven.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Lives Other Than My Own’ by Emmanuel Carrère – When Bad Things Happen to Good People

 

‘Lives Other Than My Own’ by Emmanuel Carrère (2009) – 243 pages       Translated from the French by Linda Coverdale

Is this book a memoir or an autobiographical novel? I’ve seen it called both. Carrère writes with such verisimilitude that I usually equate with the telling of facts. For me, that is not a particularly good thing as I much prefer fiction to non-fiction, the reasons for which I will not go into here.

However Emmanuel Carrère is one writer for whom I pay attention even to his non-fiction. Notice that even the famous French translator Linda Coverdale will translate his books.

‘Lives Other Than My Own’ is Carrère’s personal reaction to two tragedies.

One of the tragedies is the tsunami tidal wave caused by an Indian Ocean earthquake on December 26, 2004 that killed about 280,000 people, mostly in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Carrère and his family happened to be vacationing in Sri Lanka at that time, and they escaped unscathed. However a French couple which are their friends lose a four year-old daughter who was swept away in the giant wave.

The wave carried away her future along with her past.”

Carrère is quite eloquent in describing the devastation of this mother and father. As my mother used to say, “life goes on for the living”.

At least the deaths in the tsunami were quick and relatively painless deaths. The next death that Carrère discusses is a death due to cancer, a slow and painful death. His wife’s younger sister dies at age 33 of a recurrence of the cancer she had as a child.

This woman was a French judge, and a secondary theme of this book seems to be the handling of bad debts, debtors, and creditors by the courts. Altogether too much time and effort in the book is spent in explaining the intricacies of French consumer law.

Most people who have lived long enough have experienced a few personal tragedies during their lives, someone in their family or a close friend dying or becoming gravely ill at a relatively young age. “I can’t go on; I will go on.” Carrère deals with the two families’ grief in a heartfelt and empathetic manner.

Every day for six months I deliberately spent several hours at the computer writing about what frightens me the most on this earth: the death of a child for her parents and the death of a young woman for her husband and children. Life made me a witness to these two misfortunes, one right after the other, and assigned me – at least that’s how I understood it – to tell that story.”

Here Carrère is plain-spoken with little artistic embellishment. It does not always make the most interesting reading, but his heart is always in the right place, and he makes sure you know that.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

‘Gargoyles’ by Thomas Bernhard – A Doctor’s Rigorous Unsentimental View of His Patients and His Neighbors

 

‘Gargoyles’ by Thomas Bernhard (1967) – 208 pages             Translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston

‘Gargoyles’ is a rigorous accounting of people’s lives rather than a sentimental accounting.

Our narrator in ‘Gargoyles’ is a young man who accompanies his doctor father on his rounds. The doctor sees the sometimes ugly truth in his patients’ lives. He sees people get sick and die close up, and sometimes it’s their own fault. He sees people’s families during these rough times in their lives and sees the breaking points within the family. In his village many of the men are cruel and spend all day drinking in the bar and then come home to beat their wives and children. These men are frequently anti-Semitic. There are two doctors in his town and the only Jew in town, Bloch, has “relieved the other doctor of the lasting shame of having to treat a Jew by consulting my father”. Now Bloch is one of the very few men in town in whom the doctor can confide.

‘Gargoyles’ begins with a senseless barroom murder of one of our doctor’s patients.

All these long drinking bouts end badly,” my father said. “And in this region a high percentage of them end in a fatality. The innkeepers’ own wives are often the victims.”

This doctor is familiar with the underside of townspeople’s lives, not the false fronts people put forward but the reality. There is the daughter-in-law who has only scorn for her mother-in-law and barely speaks to her.

Her daughter-in-law had always hated her. It had started as spontaneous dislike at their first meeting and had grown ever stronger over the years. “My son doesn’t dare to love me any more because of the way his wife hates me.” And by now, Frau Ebenhöh said, she was “crushed” by the more and more revolting stories her daughter-in-law concocted about her.

Another patient is a father who is depressed about his son’s slowness in school. The doctor is even willing to confront the difficulties in his own family. The doctor’s wife died five years ago when his son was 16 and his daughter 13, and he has now noticed that his daughter has become increasingly sullen and uncommunicative.

Among cheerful people who take life easily she was wretched. Pleasant surroundings irritated her. A bright day plunged her into still deeper melancholia.”

The doctor tries to instill in his own son this rigorous sense of reality.

I found the doctor’s words to his son to be brilliant, some of the deepest and most meaningful passages in all of literature. That is the first third of the novel.

However then the doctor and his son visit another patient, the Prince Saurau of Hochgobernitz in his castle. The Prince goes into a long deranged rant which is sustained over many pages. This rant is difficult to follow perhaps because it is so deranged. The actual German name for this novel was not ‘Gargoyles’ but instead was ‘The Derangement’ which is a much more meaningful name.

Over half of this novel ‘Gargoyles’ is taken up with this insane rant by the Prince Saurau. I must say this diatribe is for the most part incoherent and nearly impossible to follow. Because of this long, long incomprehensible rant I would not recommend ‘Gargoyles’ to readers who are new to Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard is one of my very favorite writers, but the last one hundred pages of ‘Gargoyles’ are extremely difficult to follow. ‘Gargoyles’ is one of Bernhard’s early novels, and in my view he had not yet perfected his techniques for getting deeply inside people and society.

I can strongly recommend at least four Thomas Bernhard novels which unlike ‘Gargoyles’ are complete successes. Those novels are ‘Extinction’, ‘The Loser’, ‘Woodcutters’, and the short novel ‘Wittgenstein’s Nephew’. Thomas Bernhard is one of the most original distinctive novelists of the twentieth century, and I would strongly recommend you read his works, but save ‘Gargoyles’ for later after you have developed some familiarity with his method.

In ‘Gargoyles’ Thomas Bernhard has succeeded all too well in capturing this rant of a deranged man. Most of the rant is incomprehensible to a reader, and I don’t think it is only to just this one reader.  But be sure to read one of the other Bernhard novels that I recommend above.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman – The Reclamation of a Woman

 

‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman (2017) – 325 pages

‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ is a phenomenon. Why do I say this? The main gauge I use to determine a book’s popularity is the number of holds it has on it in the Hennepin County Library system. Hennepin County contains all of Minneapolis, Minnesota as well as many of its largest suburbs. The number of holds are the number of people who are waiting in line to check the book out. Currently ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ has 510 holds on 90 copies of the book. This is comparable to the number of holds there would be for a brand new novel by a famous author. Yet ‘Elizabeth Oliphant is Completely Fine’ is a first novel written way back in 2017. Only such phenomenons as ‘Gone Girl’ have these kind of numbers after three years. And best of all, ‘Elizabeth Oliphant’ qualifies as substantial literature.

The fictional character Eleanor Oliphant and I shared a similar problem. We were both standoffish. Both of us went about our business quite competently but avoided other people as much as possible. Eleanor had much better reasons for her standoffishness than I ever did. You will have to read the novel to find out her reasons. Eleanor has built a psychological wall around herself which effectively keeps most other people out. Eleanor has poor social skills and unrealistic expectations.

I had no one, and it was futile to wish it were otherwise. After all, it was no more than I deserved. And, really, I was fine, fine, fine.”

For me, I gave off these vibrations to others indicating that “If you really knew me, you wouldn’t like me.” I kept myself at a distance from others as does Eleanor.

This is the story of a young woman awakening from her standoffish life.

Your voice changes when you’re smiling, it alters the sound somehow.”

‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ is refreshing because it contains something you don’t find often in modern fiction, a good man. A good man is hard to find in modern novels or stories. At times like these, it is difficult to remember that there are still any decent people in the world. Raymond is a positive force in this novel.

I suppose someone could argue that the story in ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ is not very sophisticated. I do not see sophistication as a necessary or even desirable attribute of literature. Rather I see stating situations as simply and clearly as possible as one of the hallmarks of good literature, and that Eleanor Oliphant does.

‘Eleanor Oliphant’ is a poignant and affecting story.

 

Grade:   A+

 

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