Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Dance to the Music of Time 3rd Movement by Anthony Powell

Novels 7, 8, and 9 from Powell's 12-novel opus about the British upper class. I read and reviewed the first parts of this series in November.

These three books cover the years of World War II, as narrator Jenkins serves his country in the military.

Novel #7, The Valley of Bones, follows Jenkins as he goes through training exercises while stationed mainly in Ireland. It is the most overtly humorous of this set, as it gently lampoons various military "types." Nick Jenkins's brief leave-visit to his wife and family allows him to catch up with gossip about his numerous pre-war acquaintances. And guess who shows up at the end--Widmerpool, the odd guy who was the butt of schoolboy ridicule in novel #1, and who is always showing up. It is apparent now that he is going to show up somewhere in every novel, always in more (surprise, surprise)influential positions.

In novel #8, The Soldier's Art, Jenkins has been assigned to Divisional Headquarters and works under the ubiquitous Widmerpool. Another old school friend also shows up--Stringham, recovered from alcoholism and serving as a lowly waiter in the Officers' Mess. At the forefront here is the conflict between officers, as they plot for advancement (especially Widmerpool), often at the expense of others. Nick Jenkins's brief leave in London portrays the consequences of the war to civilians, as his sister-in-law (who is having an adulterous affair with an army acquaintance of Jenkins) and her husband are both killed in separate blitz bombings.

Novel #9, The Military Philosophers, finds Jenkins toiling at the War Office, dealing diplomatically with Allies. Jenkins's old acquaintances keep turning up, including Templer, the womanizing student first encountered in novel #1. A new character, Pamela Flitton (the niece of Stringham), is introduced, who seems to be the ultimate femme fatale. She has romantic flings with Odo Stevens (the army acquaintance of Jenkins who had an affair with his sister-in-law), Templer (Jenkins's friend from school days), and Widmerpool (appearing again), among others. At the end, the war is over and Jenkins is immobilized.

Coincidentally, another novel I just read (Flaubert's Parrot) included this quote: "In the more bookish of English middle-class society, whenever a coincidence occurs there is someone usually at hand to comment, 'It's just like Anthony Powell.'" Of course, it is pretty unbelievable that every stray acquaintance of Jenkins would turn up again in his life, but that is actually not a criticism. Powell is really revealing the times and social situations, subtly satirizing character types and social conventions. I believe the constant coincidences and reappearances of characters are meant to be part of the fun.

Again, recommended for those who appreciate all things British.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes

This is a peculiar book, for sure. It is classified as a novel, but the plot is sketchy and fragmented. The narrator is a retired doctor who is an amateur expert on the French author Gustave Flaubert, who wrote Madame Bovary. While touring museums devoted to Flaubert, he comes upon two different stuffed parrots purported to be the inspiration for one of the author's greatest short stories. He becomes obsessed with discovering which parrot is the "real" one, and in the search process reveals details about his own life which seem to mirror the events in Madame Bovary.

The majority of the book is given over to a recounting by the narrator of events from Flaubert's life, including quotes from his letters to friends and lovers, and quotes about him from people who knew him and from critics. One chapter contains three different chronologies of Flaubert's life, each offering a different viewpoint, even though covering the same facts. Another chapter is a playful "Dictionary of Accepted Ideas" about Flaubert. Still another chapter is an examination, with a list of discussion questions to be answered.

This all coils together to make observations on such subjects as how art mirrors life and vice versa; on literary criticism and critics; on the futility of ever really knowing the "truth" about another person.

Barnes is clever and witty. I learned some very interesting information about Flaubert. I admire the author's skill in accomplishing his purpose. But I did not like the book that much. I must confess that I prefer my novels to have more plot and less intellectual preening. I felt all along that the author's main effort was to impress with how clever and knowledgeable he is.

Recommended for more "high brow" readers who appreciate novels on a strictly intellectual level.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake

#2 of the Gormenghast Novels

This book did not consume me as completely as did the first of the series. (See previous review.) The overwhelming presence of the castle itself is largely absent, along with the claustrophobic atmosphere and the lengthy descriptions of light and dark. Instead, Peake concentrates much more on plot and the development of his main character, Titus Groan. This places it much more in the realm of an adventure, coming-of-age novel, more accessible to the average reader, I would expect. Ironically, the lessening of description and of the use of words for words' sake decreased my absorption, although the plot was suspenseful and the character development masterfully done and logical.

As to plot: A great deal happens here. The coldly calculating Steerpike continues his schemes to become master of Gormenghast, including the planned seduction of Fushia, Titus's sister. Titus becomes fascinated by The Thing, an exiled child who lives in the forest and represents, for him, freedom from the stultifying adherence to traditional observances that is his heritage. A chase through the labyrinths of an uninhabited portion of the castle results in a horrifying discovery. A flood of almost biblical proportions brings the action to a climax.

Peake did not plan this as a trilogy, but as a series of books following Titus from birth to death. These first two novels form a unit. The next one, according to the end-notes of my edition, takes off into an entirely new direction, and was not actually totally finished by the author, because of his illness and death. I may stop here.

These two Gormenghast novels are recommended for those who really love words--their sounds, their meanings, their combinations. I cannot resist including here an admirable example.

"He no longer wanted to kill his foe in darkness and in silence. His lust was to stand naked upon the moonlit stage, with his arms stretched high, and his fingers spread, and with the warm fresh blood that soaked them sliding down his wrists, spiralling his arms and steaming the cold night air--to suddenly drop his hands like talons to his breast and tear it open to expose a heart like a black vegetable--and then, upon the crest of self-exposure, and the sweet glory of wickedness, to create some gesture of supreme defiance, lewd and rare; and then with the towers of Gormenghast about him, cheat the castle of its jealous right and die of his own evil in the moonbeams."

Now, that's writing. I stand in awe.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

When I finished this novel I had to take a deep breath and blink several times before I could readjust myself and realize I was alone in a small house on an ordinary street, and not in an immense crumbling castle under the shadow of a darkly looming mountain, surrounded by characters both grotesque and (sometimes) quite mad. Marvyn Peake took me away to an alternate reality through a veritable deluge of words, but it was an oppressive and surreal world, and often not a comfortable place to inhabit.

Titus Groan is often compared to The Lord of the Rings, most probably because it is also part of a long trilogy (The Gormenghast Novels)which takes place in an alternate universe, and because the comparison and the labeling of it as a fantasy would attract readership. But the two are very dissimilar. We have no elves or wizards or orcs in Gormenghast Castle. No Ring Wraiths or Dark Lord to defeat. Rather, we have a cast of people with exaggerated eccentricities and names, much like those in Dickens. We have echoes of Poe, in the descriptions of sounds and in the images of darkness to create a sense of dread. Most of all, we have the very sounds of the words used, which I can only compare to the writing of Lovecraft in his horror novels. It is Gothic in the extreme, and could even be compared to the Southern Gothic of Faulkner.

The story begins with the birth of Titus and ends less than two years later, with his "Earling" as the new head of the Groan kingdom. This first volume of the trilogy is not really about Titus at all, but rather about his surroundings, his relatives, and some of the servants who inhabit the castle. Most of all, its plot concerns the Machiavellian and ambitious Steerpike, whose schemes lead directly to the "Earling" of Titus.

Despite expectations, Titus Groan is also very darkly humorous, primarily because of the characters, most of whom display unique and ludicrous speech patterns and habits.

But in the end, it is the writing itself which takes center stage. Through words alone Peake has created a mood, an image, a ponderous reality. For example, this is the closing of the book:

"There would be tears and there would be strange laughter. Fierce births and deaths beneath umbrageous ceilings. And dreams, and violence, and disenchantment.

"And there shall be a flame-green daybreak soon. And love itself will cry for insurrection! For tomorrow is also a day--and Titus has entered his stronghold."

I don't doubt that many would hate this novel; it is certainly unusual reading, even for fans of fantasy literature, to whom it is marketed. It is long; it is grotesque; it contains pages-long descriptions. But those who love it will really love it. I did.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington

This excellent novel has many facets. It is the engrossing story of George Amberson Minafer, the spoiled heir-apparent of the richest family in a Midwestern Town just after the turn of the last century. It is also a nostalgic and sentimental remembrance of a slower and more elegant time, when well-to-do young people courted by taking carriage and sleigh rides, attending frequent formal dances, and writing letters. Finally, it is an examination of how "progress" and the changes it brings affect society as a whole, and can, in fact, bring an entire way of life to an end.

If Tarkington had ignored the last two aspects of the novel, this would still have been a compulsive read, because of his skill in delineating the character of George, who is so insufferably prideful and arrogant that many who know him long for the day "when that boy would get his come-upance." Yet, the reader still feels some sympathy for George, because Tarkington reveals that his actions have been almost predetermined by his family members, particularly his mother, who "just fell down and worshipped him from the day he was born." If nothing else, this novel contains a powerful lesson about spoiling a child and letting him believe that he can do no wrong and is the center of the universe.

In many ways this novel is somewhat dated, particularly in the tone, which is somewhat humorous and mocking, but in a very fond way, as one would talk nostalgically about a beloved dead family member, remembering faults and eccentricities along with admirable qualities. This is not a tone I see in today's novels.

In another way, this novel is very pertinent today, because once again America has gone through a "revolution." The Industrial Revolution and its most obvious product, the automobile, changed George Amberson's world. The Information Revolution and its most obvious product, the computer, has changed our world. In George's world, the change led not only to the disappearance of the horse and carriage, but also to a change in society as a whole. In our new information world, many of the old aspects of society are also passing away. Can we adapt, keep up?

Back to the plot of the novel for a moment: the ending seems weak, almost as if an editor had said, "Booth, you must have a happy ending." A very strong plot and strong characterization seem to fall through in the last pages.

Still, highly recommended. This is #100 on the Modern Library list

Friday, January 6, 2012

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

Jim Dixon, the "hero" of this novel, is a young man with some serious problems. He teaches a subject he doesn't much care about at a second-tier British university; nevertheless, he doesn't know what else to do and he is constantly afraid of being found unworthy and losing his position. He is romantically involved with an unattractive colleague against his will, held by pity and a sense of duty. He despises the pretentiousness of his Head of Department but must hide it at all costs. He has fallen for the girlfriend of the Head's equally pretentious son and that will never do, of course. He has been scheduled to give a general lecture on "Merrie England" and has no original ideas on the subject whatsoever.

What's a young man to do? Jim responds to his problems by playing practical jokes, making outrageous faces when he thinks no one is looking, and drinking too much at just the wrong times. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, but, in the end, he turns out to be "lucky Jim" after all.

This is a very, very funny book, in a very British way. Some of the humor is pure laugh-out-loud slapstick in the Monty Python vein. Some is more subtle, through understatement and unexpected observations. I think it would be even more humorous to people familiar with the English class system, which this novel seems to be lampooning. It reminds me very much of some of the British comedies I watch on PBS.

Lucky Jim is included on the Time's Top 100 Best Novels list. Recommended.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Raven by Marquis James

If a novelist had created the character Sam Houston, the story would have been considered outlandish, picaresque, too fantastical to be realistic. But this fully-documented biography of a Texas legend is proof that larger-than-life heroes sometimes appear in real life.

Before Houston even stepped foot in Texas, he had carved a name for himself in Tennessee. He lived with the Cherokee, and was adopted as a citizen of that nation, which gave him the name "The Raven." He founded a school. He acquitted himself with honor in the War of 1812, surviving wounds which were considered fatal. He became a protege' of Andrew Jackson. He became an attorney. He represented Tennessee in the U. S. House of Representatives. He was elected governor of Tennessee, with the backing of Andrew Jackson. And then he married. And everything changed.

After only eleven weeks of marriage, Houston's new bride, Eliza, returned to her family. For the rest of their lives, neither Houston nor Eliza would explain their separation. Houston resigned his governorship and retreated to his Indian family, living with the Cherokee for three more years before going to Texas.

It is in the unfolding of Houston's life in Texas that author Marquis James really hits his stride in revealing the cunning and intellect of Houston, as he orchestrated battles and later led his new Republic into eventual annexation by the United States. Twice President of the Republic of Texas, once elected to the U.S. Senate to represent his new state after annexation, and once elected as Governor, Houston shaped the destiny of Texas as no other ever did.

Houston's final act as a political figure demonstrates his continued adherence to his own code of honor: He resigned as Governor rather than take an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy.

This Pulitzer Prize-winning biography portrays Sam Houston in a most favorable light; other biographers have not been as kind. The writing constantly seems to straddle the ground between a history for historians (which tend to be dull, even though describing exciting events), and a history for non-historians (which tend to include flights of fancy). Nevertheless, it is essential reading for all true Texans.