Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos

Sometimes it is hard to understand and/or appreciate a book without a background knowledge of the time and circumstances of its writing, and that is certainly the case with this French novel written in 1782, seven years before the French Revolution. It portrays a decadent upper class so idle and bored that they amuse themselves with games of seduction and revenge through sexual intrigue, ruining reputations and lives in the process. Thus, some scholars count this as a book of protest against the social structure of its time; yet it was immensely popular with the same aristocracy it portrayed, included Queen Marie Antoinette. The author has been reported as saying that he had "resolved to write a book which create some stir in the world and continue to do so after he had gone from it." He accomplished this, I believe, by playing both ends against the middle here, so to speak, appealing to the seething resentment of the masses while at the same time titillating the upper classes with spicy intrigues.

Two amoral male and female protagonists, who are former lovers, plan the downfall of a pious young married woman and a 15-year-old convent-educated innocent girl. As they conspire in their complicated schemes, it becomes clear to the reader that the author intends that they be admired for their cleverness. Their downfall in the end seems very perfunctory, almost as if the author "chickened out" of letting them get away with their odious actions.

The plot is revealed entirely through letters, which would seem to be an awkward way to tell a story. However, as it turns out, it is the perfect way to tell this story. Each letter writer reveals his or her own thoughts, actions, and reactions while at the same time revealing character traits to the reader. The letters themselves become part of the plot, serving as a method of exacting revenge. (A message, by the way, to modern readers who use e-mail and social media posts -- beware of leaving written evidence. It can come back to bite you.)

This rather distasteful story is, still and all, deserving of its classic status, mainly due to the author's considerable skill. It did, however, leave me with a vague guilty feeling that I enjoyed it.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Paris Trout by Pete Dexter

It was only by happenstance that I read this National Book Award-winning novel the same week that Dylann Roof killed nine black worshipers in a South Carolina church. Though Paris Trout was written in 1988 and the plot is set in the late 1940's, many of the symptoms of racial bigotry portrayed in the novel are obviously still present in 2015 America.

The story goes like this -- Paris Trout is a white businessman in Georgia, one of his enterprises being lending money at high interest and selling shoddy cars to poor black people. When one of his borrowers refuses to pay because of a dispute over the "insurance," Trout and a colleague descend on the man's house to collect. Although the borrower is not home, Trout shoots and kills a 14-year-old black girl as she tries to escape his wrath.

All this happens at the beginning of the novel; the rest concerns the aftermath of the killing and the reactions of the townspeople. Some overtly display their bigotry by applauding Trout's actions; some suggest approval by manufacturing excuses for him (he was surely just defending himself); most just covertly sympathize by ignoring the fact that he is never punished for his crime. As Trout becomes more and more paranoid and deranged, all continue to look the other way, until he finally explodes with more violence.

Eerily, Trout never believes he has done anything wrong, proclaiming that he was just a businessman collecting a lawful debt and that different rules apply when dealing with black people. Evidently Dylann Roof didn't believe that he had done wrong either, because he left some alive so they could tell of his deed.

The messages and cautions in this book make it as important to read today as when it was published. It is also a page-turner of the first degree. Dexter is not a literary stylist, and, frankly, his prose is too simplistic to be interesting in itself, but the rest makes up for it.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Vivisector by Patrick White

VIVISECTOR - One who cuts into and otherwise injures living animals for the purposes of research.

In this dense and depressing novel, Nobel Prize winner (1973) Patrick White vivisects the life of an artist, Hurtle Duffield (often called Hurt), who himself vivisects the lives of all those who come close to loving him, dissecting their weaknesses and using them dispassionately as subjects and inspirations for his art, while remaining emotionally detached himself. The plot follows him from the age of 6, when he is essentially sold by his impoverished parents to an upper class couple who desire a son with signs of genius, until his death in his 60s, when he has received fame and fortune for his artistic work. Only once, in the declining years of his life, does he form an attachment which is meaningful for him, to a 13-year-old girl whom he sees as his spiritual child. In their relationship, which is sexual as well as spiritual, she perhaps becomes the vivisector, using him as the stimulus for her own career as a musical prodigy.

Make no mistake, I can clearly see that this novel is a work of genius, almost perfect in its execution, but that does not mean that I enjoyed reading it or that I would recommend it to anyone else, except as an intellectual exercise.

The writing is extraordinary. Though the story is told in third person, it is always from the viewpoint of the protagonist, and the style of the prose shifts according to the state of mind of Hurtle Duffield, encompassing the naive thoughts of a child, the straight-forward account of events of a rational adult mind, the stream-of-consciousness of heightened awareness, and the confused thoughts of a stroke victim. Each sentence is carefully crafted and perfect, even if a great many have to be read more than once. All of this can be well appreciated.

I think it's very true that many a genius is also a monster. Some reviewers have indicated that Patrick White was such a person and may have been his own inspiration for this novel. I was significantly reminded throughout this book of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who used his own wife's sexual indiscretions and mental illness as plot elements in his novels. From this aspect, The Vivisector was quite interesting.

At the same time, reading about a thoroughly unlikeable character through pages and pages (about 600) of hard-to-decipher prose is not my idea of a fun time.

True, a thoughtful reader should welcome an author who deals in truth and deeper implications in a masterful manner. But it is possible to accomplish that and still remain highly readable. White does not do that. At least not in this novel.

In summary, this is a great novel, but I didn't like it. A great many did appreciate it and many others will continue to do so. If I were more intellectual and less emotional, perhaps I would have liked it better.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope

This last of the six Barsetshire novels is the best one, in my opinion, perhaps because its plot involves something other than a romance beset by stumbling blocks, as in so many Victorian novels. Yes, we have two courtships here, but the novel's focus is an impoverished curate who is accused of theft. Trollope gives us a remarkably sensitive portrait of the curate, Mr. Crawley, a conscientious and scrupulously honest man, but one who is so fanatically proud that he is often his own worst enemy, rejecting the assistance of the many who would wish to help him in his time of trouble. He is not only under indictment by the law, but also persecuted by the self righteous and domineering wife of the Bishop, Mrs. Proudie. Even though she is one of those priggish villains you love to hate, Trollope leads us to feel a bit sorry for her when she finally gets her comeuppance.

One of the primary fascinations of this series is the continued presence of characters from the earlier novels, much as you would find in your favorite television series or soap opera, so that they become as real to you as the people you actually know. The Mr. Harding from the first in the series, The Warden, is touchingly pictured here in his old age, and his death provides a fitting closure.

Some reasons to read Trollope:
#1 His characters are dimensional and seem absolutely real.
#2 He can be surprising. Not all his plots end as one would expect.
#3 His dialogue sounds very authentic.
#4 He is often quite funny, in a gently satirical manner.
#5 Even though his plots reflect the political and social situations of his time and place, the characters are universal.
#6 He is comforting. Reading Trollope is like gossiping with an old friend.

I will be moving on now to his Palliser series.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Master by Colm Toibin

I've never cared very much for Henry James. His writing is too dry, unemotional, and down-right difficult to read for my tastes, particularly since his characters are people entirely outside my realm of experience, and everybody is just so polite and guarded, only hinting at what they mean. With my favorite Victorian novel being the wildly passionate Wuthering Heights, it is no wonder that I've not liked to read James, because he is at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Thus I am quite surprised that I enjoyed this fictionalized portrait of Henry James as much as I did. By portraying the inner life of his subject, Colm Toibin has miraculously made me want to read James again, because now I feel I can better understand why his characters behave as they do and why he wrote as he did. Toibin has also managed to write in prose very reminiscent of James's (except, thankfully, without imitating his pages-long sentences) to make the novel even more convincing as a true account. In short, this novel is extraordinarily well done.

The account follows James from the 1895 failure of his London play Guy Domville to the beginning of the new century at his home in Rye, with back flashes to pivotal episodes of his life. What emerges is a psychological study of a complex man who was himself guarded and secretive, particularly about his sexuality, one who pulled back from intimacy, failing those who loved him.

I am not a homosexual man, as James apparently was and as Toibin admittedly is, but I found some of the descriptions of restrained passion to be powerfully erotic. Toibin has successfully portrayed James as being cool and intellectual on the exterior, while at the same time being emotionally intense internally. Quite a writing feat.

As a contrast, Toibin also reveals the detached writer-side of James, as he uses his dead sister, his dead cousin, and his dead friend as models for his heroines.

The Master was a shortlisted finalist for the Man Booker Prize (2004) and included in many "Best of..." lists for that year. I highly recommend it to anyone who has read some or many of the novels of Henry James. For those who have not read James, I believe anyone who values good writing would appreciate this, but not as much perhaps.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Little Big Man by Thomas Berger

2nd reading; first read in the late '60s.

Seeing a recent TV broadcast of the 1970 film adapted from this book reminded me how much I enjoyed reading the novel almost 50 years ago. The good news is that I found it just as entertaining and thought provoking today, which is not always true of the books that I liked when I was younger.

Most older folks probably already know the basic plot, even if only from viewing the movie, which was a box office success. The narrator is 111-year-old Jack Crabb, telling the story of his younger self: of his capture at age 10 by the Cheyenne Indians; of his raising as the adopted son of a chief; of his return to the white world and endeavors as a shop keeper, buffalo hunter, gambler, and mule skinner; and finally, of his being the only white survivor of Custer's battle at the Little Big Horn. While jumping from one incident to the next in a picaresque manner and being generally ironically humorous, the novel is also historically accurate as to the details of life in the Old West, based as it is on extensive research. It is, of course, highly improbable that one person could have been present at so many significant events and have known so many noteworthy people, but that is of little matter because Jack is more than believable as an interpreter of the real story of the West, as opposed to the myth.

The thought-provoking aspect comes from Jack's situation as a member of both the Indian and the white world. Through his eyes we can better understand the values and ideas of both groups. It seemingly became inevitable that one viewpoint had to prevail, because the two peoples saw life in such different terms. Neither was all right or all wrong, but obviously someone had to change for co-existence to be possible.

I would go so far as to say that this is the best book ever written about the white man versus Indian problems in the Old West. Little Big Man is one of those under-recognized novels which deserves a place among the classics of American literature.