Sunday, February 20, 2011

Wrestling with Henry James

Since I am using the Modern Library Top 100 English-Language Novels of the Twentieth Century as one of my book-recommenders, I picked up The Golden Bowl by Henry James (#32 on the list) the other day. I had previously read two or three of his other novels, and found them to be relatively enjoyable, particularly The Wings of the Dove. This book, however, may "eat my lunch," as they say. I have read to page 133 of 568 pages, and I frankly don't know if I can finish it.

I keep hoping that I will find the rhythm of the language and sentence construction--this happened to me with Faulkner, who seemed difficult to understand at first, until I entered his flow. The problem, for me, with The Golden Bowl is the sentence construction and punctuation, with makes the sentences jerk along. A sample sentence I just read has ten comma's, a semi-colon, and a dash. And the language is difficult, with unfamiliar words and words used in unfamiliar ways. Since I usually feel compelled to consult a dictionary when I encounter a word I don't know, I was spending an inordinate amount of time looking up words, until I just gave it up and tried to just get the sense of the words through context.

I have read a great many books if my lifetime, and I have never actually put one down because I found it too hard to read. I even slogged my way through Ulysses by James Joyce one summer and eventually even liked it. But this one may have "pinned me to the mat." I'm going to try to give it 100 more pages first. Wish me luck.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

This action of this novel takes place in one day in London, recounting the thoughts and actions of several people, primarily Clarissa Dalloway, who is preparing for a party. It employs stream-of-consciousness to convey information about the characters' backgrounds, current situations, and secret desires through their rambling thoughts. With the exception of one character, nothing much really happens to anybody. All this is cleverly done, so that, by the end, the reader feels he knows the characters better than their friends and lovers do; indeed, perhaps better than they know themselves.

I had never read this book before, because I was so annoyed by her novel To The Lighthouse. I liked this one much better, but it still annoyed me. What would have been wrong with putting a little space or dividing device between the thoughts of different characters, instead of switching characters with no warning, so that I tended to read a couple of paragraphs before catching on that the "thinker" had changed? And what's up with this punctuation? Woolf uses semi-colons with great abandon, sometimes six or eight in one long sentence. And these aren't just used to separate independent clauses, as is customary. Sometimes the semi-colons separate words or phrases or sometimes a mixture. I felt the urge to take a red pen to the text and clean it up for her.

I would not recommend Mrs. Dalloway to just anybody for general reading--for a student of literature it would be worthwhile, I think. It provides considerable psychological insight, particularly into subjects unusual for the time, such as homosexuality and post-traumatic stress.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Taking place in the early 1900's in New York City, this novel tells the story of Lily Bart, who is beautiful, formerly rich, and determined to marry well so that she can be rich again. To accomplish this, she moves in the highest levels of the smart society, all the while running up debts. However, she is more aware than she should be of the shallowness of her endeavors, and consequently (and often subconsciously) sabotages her own efforts, just when a man is ready to propose. Her one "spiritual" match is not rich enough to allow her to be a part of the world she has been schooled to desire. Through circumstance and her own unwise actions, she falls down the rungs of the ladder of society, until her only opportunity for redemption is to blackmail her chief adversary. And then....

Edith Wharton is so subtle, so understated, that it is difficult to understand how she creates sympathy for this character, but she does. The reader comes to understand that Lily has been created: "Inherited tendencies had combined with early training to make her the highly specialized product she was." I was reminded of child stars of television and movies, who achieve fame early and undoubtedly are treated like royalty. Then, when they are not so cute anymore and fall from popularity, they quite often self-destruct.

This novel tells an interesting and suspenseful story, but what makes it classic is the writing, which is elegant. (That's the most appropriate word for it that I can come up with.) The pace is slow, but the sentences are perfect, revealing so much through nuance and suggestion. This is not fast reading--I often had to read passages twice to understand what actually happened. Thus, I would not recommend it to those who are pressed for time or who are not accustomed to reading "pre-modern" literature.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut

This is a Vonnegut novel I had not read before. He is, of course, most famous for his novel Slaughterhouse Five. This one tells the story of Walter F. Starbuck, who, at the beginning of the book, is being released from prison for his very minor role in the Watergate scandal. In the typical Vonnegut style of conversational first-person narrative, Walter tells the story of his past and of what happens to him after his release. In the process, Vonnegut satirizes big government, the justice system, corporate greed, and a myriad of other aspects of American life. Vonnegut is very funny, very easy to read, and it's amazing that he can do this while pinpointing very serious issues and sometimes tragic events. This is not his best book, but it is better than most books, even so. Recommended.