DAWN POWELL: A BIOGRAPHY (1998)
12 November 2011
DAWN POWELL: A BIOGRAPHY (1998)
After reading a couple of works by Dawn Powell, I wanted to know more about her, and this biography is a comprehensive account of her life. It also provides a fairly thorough discussion of her work.
Whether she deserves lasting fame or obscurity is still an open question, apparently. In her lifetime she knew many important people, including Edmund Wilson, who championed her work, and John Dos Passos, a good friend of hers for many years. Her adult life was spent in New York, where she seemed to many to be the embodiment of Greenwich Village.
Life wasn't all beer and skittles for Dawn Powell, however. Though her marriage to a successful man lasted until his death, the couple's one severely autistic child was born at a time when autism wasn't yet recognized or treatable.
This book was an eminently readable and responsible study of a 20th century American writer.
12 November 2011
JUST AS I THOUGHT (1998)
This book is a compendium of Grace Paley's essays and talks spanning the years between 1950 and the 1990s, and through them we can form a well-rounded picture of the author, who died in 2007 in her 80s.
She grew up in the Jewish tradition in the Bronx, and came from a family of socialists. She became a well-known writer of fiction and essays, published often in such publications as the New York Review of Books.
An energetic participant in the anti-war movement, the women's movement and the struggle for racial justice, she never hesitated to speak out and to appear at rallies and demonstrations. She spent time in jail--and the book contains information about these experiences.
It also includes brief tributes to some writers like Kay Boyle and Isaac Babel.
She concludes with an account written by her father of his time spent as a political prisoner in Russia that is informative and grimly humorous.
She concludes with an account written by her father of his time spent as a political prisoner in Russia that is informative and grimly humorous.
21 February 2011
COMPLETE STORIES (1995)
Dorothy Parker's fiction might have been expected to seem dated nowadays, since she has so often been thought to exemplify the spirit of the 1920s-1930s. But her stories have held up amazingly well over the years, in my opinion. This collection, which includes the well-known "Big Blonde," contains many interesting gems of stories that are more than mere period-pieces. Dorothy Parker takes aim at hypocrisy and the monied classes in the US, at smugness and triteness and insensitivity.
"Arrangement in Black and White" (1927) is probably a fictionalized account of an incident involving Paul Robeson--and she skewers the liberals who strain to prove their lack of race prejudice while revealing the same stereotypical thinking that they deplore.
The author may be at her best when portraying drinking people--the repetitiousness of their conversations, the sadly tiresome behavior.
Dorothy Parker's wit and perception are unique.
17 September 2004
PASTERNAK, BORIS LEONIDOVICH
Boris Pasternak, painting done by his father, the artist Leonid Pasternak
DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1957)
This highly acclaimed novel was made into a rather inferior movie some years after the tumult of its publication. A reader approaching the book with a certain amount of detachment, both from the political firestorm created by its publication and from the movie version, is probably best equiped to form an accurate impression of the work and of the author's intentions.
It is a highly romantic story in some ways, tinged with mysticism and suffused with a sense of the vastness of the Russian land. There is considerable snow throughout, and now and again we are reminded of the ornate luxuriance of the Russian Orthodox religion.
There is a love story--or, in a way, there are three love stories, for the central character, Yuri Zhivago, has three women in his life at various times. But it is Lara who is the most important to him. Unfortunately, Lara is perhaps the least successful character in the book. She comes too close to being the stereotypically overly dramatic heroine. There isn't much to her beyond the facts we find out--especially her having taken a shot at her lover and hit someone else instead.
But scenes involving Lara are just a small part of this novel, which is probably largely autobiographical. Though Pasternak was not a doctor, and many of his characters have been found to be composites of real people, the times and places in the story seem to be drawn directly from real life.
We are in the period just before, during and after the 1917 Revolution. Most particularly, the book focuses on the civil war that raged in Russia between 1917 and 1923. If one has thought of the Russian Revolution as "happening" on a date in 1917, one will think again after reading this book. The Revolution, which actually "began" in 1905, was a process lasting for years after the events of 1917 and involved suffering, chaos and famine as well as acts of extreme cruelty, with much bloodshed.
It is this world that the author has documented splendidly in Doctor Zhivago, a work that was many years in the making. There haven't been many records of these times and these places. The USSR was making sure that literary works emanating from its authors toed the Party line with its dictates about socialist realism, and so what has been available has been mainly these somewhat skewed accounts.
Sometimes there are creaky plot devices, as when Yuri Andreevich returns from being a captive doctor in the civil war and find a note from Lara left for him in a secret hiding place and for quite awhile wonders at what the note fails to say--without noticing that there is more writing on the back of the paper.
There is a tendency to use some characters--Yuri and Lara, notably--as mouthpieces for what are probably the author's own views on politics and philosophy but the tendency is kept in check. At one point Lara overhears Yuri discoursing to the effect that "God became man so that man could become God," for instance, but the thought is not given any further elaboration, and that is probably good, for the narrative is filled with many characters who pop up suddenly, then vanish, then reappear much later, and there are murders, changed identities, diseases, and suicides.
There are many memorable sequences in this book, but one of the most poignant ones may be the suicide of Strelnikov/Antipov, found by Zhivago in the snow, with his blood drops frozen in the snow, resembling rowan berries. Shortly before this scene, there has been a section called "The Rowan Tree," calling attention to the tree and its berries. The scene seems to encapsulate the desolation of the life Zhivago, Lara, and the others have been driven to by events beyond their control.
And what are we to make of a novel that appends the central character's poems at the end? Since Zhivago dies rather young but has begun writing poetry, perhaps this is the author's way of letting us know more about him: These are his poems, this is what he was, this is the distillation of the experiences you have just been reading about.
The Volokhonsky-Pevear English translation of Doctor Zhivago may have been intentionally quite literal, but sometimes its literal quality can sound awkward, as in "that low, already-setting sun." Apparently the translators were intent on preserving the flavor of the original, but they have leaned over backwards in the attempt sometimes.
The author may have intended to provide a panoramic record of a very significant, intense time in the Russian experience--and only incidentally have overlaid it with an intricate love story that is as intricate as the interior of a Russian Orthodox church. He has made us see what those times and those places were like.
10 August 2017
BEL CANTO (2001)
In this novel we have a group of people from various parts of the world thrown together in the home of the Vice President of a Latin American country, who is the host for a recital by a world-famous operatic soprano in honor of the birthday of a Japanese businessman who is one of her enthusiastic fans.
The festive occasion is ruined by the appearance of a group of young terrorists who take the entire group hostage at gunpoint.
The story revolves around the changes that occur during the many months of captivity, and at the point where the terrorists become humanly lovable and love affairs start blossoming among the trapped people, the story starts to come unglued.
Patchett can't seem to dislike any of her characters. It is her insistence on sweetness and light that grates on my nerves. Her Roman Catholic orientation, showing up in the form of an almost saintly priest among the group, who stays on of his own free will, and in the form of frequent references to the Catholic practices of many of the characters, does not bring Graham Greene readily to mind, either. Greene grapples with the problems involved in being a Catholic in modern times. Patchett grapples with the protocol of the confessional, the sign of the cross, and all of the other paraphernalia of the religion--the frills and furbelows, as it were.
Roxanne, the diva, is almost too good to be true. She is kind and generous to a fault, loving, admirable--and possessed of a superior talent and training.
By some peculiar twist that is left unexplained, the man with whom Roxanne has been having an affair during the captivity is not the man who marries her in the end, but by the time the reader reaches the end of this sad excuse for a story, there is only a sense of relief at being rid of this insufferable cast of characters.
22 April 2008
CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY (1948)
It is difficult to talk about a book that has become so well-known just in one's own lifetime. It rose to best-seller lists and now enjoys a place on many a school and college required reading list.
I had never read it. But before I'd finished it I was wondering if the author might have set out to write an Important Book. Of course, most authors would like for their books to receive acclaim, but some set about achieving that acclaim far more assiduously than others.
My hunch is that Paton was pretty assiduous about it. But that is by the way.
Working undoubtedly from his background working with South African reform schools, he lays out the story of the son of a South African black pastor whose father is trying to find him. The Reverend Stephen Kumalo is at the center of the story, in his heart-breaking quest for his only child, who has gone to Johannesburg in search of an aunt there.
The author pulls no punches, gives us no tidy happy ending. And as the story unfolds, we are becoming keenly aware of the sharp racial divide in South Africa.
That the Reverend Kumalo's son is guilty of the crime he's been charged with makes the story far less simplistic than it might have been. The theme of Cry, the Beloved Country is not racial injustice but the race problem runs through the story like a thread that is never far from view.
I found Paton's style annoying, however, almost to the point where it ruined the book. The late Roger Ebert once called his style in this book as a cross between Ernest Hemingway and the King James Bible, and that just about sums it up.
In the sections focusing on the black African characters, Paton's style has pronounced Biblical overtones, and he is apparently trying to capture some of the nuances of the Zulu language in the dialogue. Whether or not he has succeeded is best left to someone familiar with the Zulu language.
3 July 2013
CHICAGO DAYS, HOBOKEN NIGHTS (1991)
This is an amusing collection of brief essays by a National Public Radio commentator. The essays amount to an autobiographical sketch, including the information that Pinkwater began by studying to be a sculptor.
17 November 2004
IN MY BROTHER'S IMAGE: TWIN BROTHERS SEPARATED BY FAITH AFTER THE HOLOCAUST (2000)
This family memoir is one of the most revealing Holocaust recollections I have come across. The author has compiled everything he could find out about the lives of his father and his uncle, the twin brothers who were separated by faith.
The book deals as calmly and logically as is probably possible with the interface between Judaism and Roman Catholicism as it was reflected in Hungary during the Second World War and specifically in the author's family.
The family was Jewish but not particularly devout. They were among the many Hungarian Jews who regarded themselves as Hungarians first and as Jews only very secondarily. Like many German Jews and Jews in other European countries as well, they were bewildered and stunned as anti-Semitism began to flourish in their homeland.
This memoir goes back to the days before World War I. Gabriella, the twins' mother, and her husband Bela convert to Christianity for seemingly practical reasons. Bela as a veterinarian finds it difficult to get a civil service post because he is Jewish. Becoming a Christian makes it possible for him to find employment. But the couple were not just converting to Christianity for convenience. They were entirely sincere, and raised their twin boys as well as their daughter to be Roman Catholics.
Miklos, the author's father, wanted to become a priest at one time. Later his brother Gyorgy did become a priest. When the Jews of Hungary found themselves in increasing danger of being sent away, Miklos, as a baptized Christian, was given a special dispensation of sorts--an assignment to a Christian labor camp. Gyorgy meanwhile was in Italy for health reasons, easily obtaining an indefinite extension of his stay there from his religious order--and finding a niche for himself by serving a very saintly Padre Pio, who was thought to be destined for beatification and who had received the stigmata.
In spite of her Christianity, Gabriella was sent to Auschwitz, where she reportedly died in a gas chamber, clutching a wooden crucifix. Miklos survives Bergen-Belsen--but emerges having lost his Christian faith and returned to Judaism.
Many years go by, and the twins do not meet. Miklos moves to the United States with his family, and his twin brother remains in Italy. Through the author's urging, the brothers meet late in life when the priest makes a visit to New Jersey. The author also urges his father to return to the Hungarian towns that were familiar to him--hoping that his father will dredge up some of the emotions that have been so long suppressed.
Whether this was wise on the author's part is questionable. His father was in his 80s when he made the trip to Hungary and visited his parents' graves--Gabriella's "grave" being merely a headstone with her name on it.
Miklos and Gyorgy never settle their differences but can at least debate them. Miklos can no longer believe in a benevolent God or in some mysterious divine purpose behind the Holocaust that would have made it understandable. Gyorgy takes the traditional Catholic view and cannot see that the Church's non-response to the Holocaust was as damnable as Miklos claims.
The book presents the facts objectively, but the evidence is too clear to be denied. It wasn't just the Germans invading Hungary who were responsible for the vicious treatment of Hungary's Jews. It was the Hungarians themselves, only too glad to help the Nazis in their anti-Semitic campaigns (and to avail themselves of whatever they could steal from the terrified Jews who were fighting for their lives).
This kind of story needs to be told--again and again.
25 May 2009
PORTER, KATHERINE ANNE
PALE HORSE, PALE RIDER (1939)
Rereading these three beautifully constructed novellas after many years, I'm struck by how well they've held up over time. In one way or another each is about a currently not very fashionable segment of society--white southerners, using the language they would have used at the time, and some readers might object to finding the words nigger and Negro cropping up in them now and then. But, as with the controversy surrounding Huckleberry Finn on this score, one has to look at the context. Who is using these words, and why? The character using the words is always someone who would have used no other words. We can't pretend that these people are any different from the way they really might have been if we're talking about verisimilitude, and in fiction we usually are talking about verisimilitude.
Race is not really a theme in any of these novellas. The one I liked least, "Old Mortality," concerns a well-heeled Southern family and has the earmarks of an autobiographical tale. It's well known that "Pale Horse, Pale Rider" is largely autobiographical, but I found it much more interesting and satisfying.
A young woman who has recently met and fallen in love with a soldier about to be sent off to fight in World War I falls ill in the flu epidemic and is near death. The young man comes to her aid in every way he can. The story has a bit of a political subtext too. The woman has been upset by being pressured at her job to buy Liberty bonds, and indeed the pressure to buy these bonds, with an emphasis on patriotic duty, is powerful and ubiquitous, we see as the story unfolds. Like at least one of her colleagues at work, she doesn't make enough money to afford a Liberty bond, and yet she is worried that she might lose her job if she doesn't comply.
The author doesn't wear her politics on her sleeve. Instead she weaves it into the fabric of her stories.
Similarly, in the stark economics of the Texas farm where "Noon Wine," the best of the three stories in my opinion, the reader can see how grimly thoughts of money have to dominate the lives of the characters--Olav Helton, the hired man with no known past from North Dakota, and the farm couple who are very fortunate to have found such a hard working helper.
The tragic unraveling of this story proceeds at a measured pace but the groundwork for every incident in the story has been carefully set up.
We get a glimmering of a problem with Mr. Helton when he is found violently shaking one of the Thompson children. The Thompsons' reaction to this is not to be upset about child abuse (as might have been the case nowadays) but to want to be the ones who discipline their own children. They are angry at Mr. Helton for seeming to usurp their power.
That there could be a lone man arriving at a farm from North Dakota with only a small collection of treasured harmonicas is entirely believable in the Texas of the 1920s-1930s. That there could be a farm family like the Thompsons is especially believable.
The novella is a notoriously difficult form in which to write. It is hard to provide enough detail about your characters to make them live in the reader's mind. In these three tales, Katherine Anne Porter has wisely chosen to limit her cast to a few people. If "Old Mortality" is less successful than the other two, it may be because there are more people to keep track of in it.
A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME (in 12 volumes) (1951 - 1975)
Anthony Powell's 12-volume series of novels, A Dance to the Music of Time, has autobiographical elements, and over twenty of the 400 characters have been identified as real persons--George Orwell and John Galsworthy among them. However, one can read through the dozen volumes with appreciation without this knowledge.
Powell lived from 1905 to 2000, and Dance goes up to the 1960s.
It is the story of a generation of Britons, mostly upper-class and often involved in arts and letters.
Powell has no axes to grind. These twelve novels are not a reflection on a dying breed, nor do they hark back nostalgically to any good old days. The "theory" underlying Powell's series, if there is one, is implied in the painting by Nicholas Poussin of the same name--or at least in Powell's interpretation of that painting. He seems to regard life as a dance in which, as time passes, the people with whom you have been connected keep reappearing and disappearing.
The narrator, Nick Jenkins--standing in for Powell himself, we can assume--is a decent person who, like Powell, is pushing no special agenda of his own. He tells what happened--and helps us to keep track of the characters. He is an actor on the stage, too, of course, and his actions show a consistently decent and modest person, not given to introspection.
Though a modern writer, Powell keeps violence and sex off the stage. They happen, and he doesn't attempt to pretend that they don't--but he spares us the details. I found this refreshing after exposure to many novels and television programs where nothing is left unsaid or unshown.
World War 2, for example, is covered in Dance without a battle scene. For the most part, we are shown the world of the officers and their jockeying for status and promotion. Powell/Jenkins neither rails against the British upper class nor defends it. He just shows it--warts and all, but without dwelling on the warts. Other worlds do keep intruding, and as we move closer to the present, these other worlds seem to be about to triumph.
Widmerpool is the character who occupies the center of the stage, doing so increasingly as time passes. In the earlier volumes he seems the least likely to do anything remotely unconventional. Stuffy, inclined to play it safe, even to be a snitch when it is to his advantage, and to disregard any harm he might be doing to others in his ambition and zealous attention to rules and regs, Widmerpool is the quintessential bureaucratic stickler. It isn't so very out of character when he later joins a cult with rigid rules--although the rules dictate conduct that would be unacceptable in his more traditional social setting.
These books are well written and beautifully paced. They capture an era, and they embody a fascinating theory of time, experience, and character. There is an Anthony Powell Society Website, where you learn that in 1979-1982 the BBC did a radio adaptation of three of the novels, and in October 1997 BBC's Channel 4 ran a dramatization of the entire twelve novels in four two-hour episodes.
14 August 2003
A Dance to the Music of Time by Poussin, c. 1636
volume 1: A QUESTION OF UPBRINGING
A group of English schoolboys launch this series of twelve novels. These boys will be followed through the next several decades of their varied lives.
8 July 2002
volume 2: A BUYER’S MARKET
Here we follow the narrator, Nick Jenkins, into early adulthood and his resumed association with Stringham, Widmerpool, and other school acquaintances.
1 August 2002
volume 3: THE ACCEPTANCE WORLD
volume 4: AT LADY MOLLY’S
volume 5: CASANOVA’S CHINESE RESTAURANT
It is the time of the Spanish Civil War. Nick Jenkins is now married.
19 June 2003
volume 6: THE KINDLY ONES
The "kindly ones" is a translation of the name for the Furies, the Eumenides. Set in England just before the outbreak of World War 2, this segment involves a suicide--as well as the death of Nick's Uncle Giles.
26 June 2003
volume 7: THE VALLEY OF BONES
With World War 2 continuing, Kenneth Widmerpool reappears, now outranking Nick in the military.
3 July 2003
volume 8: THE SOLDIER’S ART
This segment continues the characters' Second World War experiences--with no battle scenes whatsoever. We see Widmerpool’s nonstop rise to prominence.
6 July 2003
volume 9: THE MILITARY PHILOSOPHERS
The war ends, and Widmerpool's relationship with Pamela Flytton is explored.
10 July 2003
volume 10: BOOKS DO FURNISH A ROOM
This volume deals with postwar experiences. The title is a nickname for Bagshaw, one of the characters. Pamela ditches Widmerpool for a writer, whom she eventually ditches too, destroying his manuscript as she leaves. Pamela is such a bitch that Widmerpool begins to look increasingly tolerable and sympathetic.
volume 11: TEMPORARY KINGS
Here there is more obnoxion on Pamela’s part.
8 August 2003
volume 12: HEARING SECRET HARMONIES
Climaxed by the death of Widmerpool, which is reported to Nick as having occurred while Widmerpool was running in one of the events peculiar to the mystic cult he belonged to, this last novel treats the characters as they reach their seventies.
14 August 2003
MY HOME IS FAR AWAY (1944)
A largely autobiographical novel about three sisters growing up in the Midwest, their mother having died and their father a fun-loving alcoholic who vanishes and reappears in their lives, as they are bounced around among various relatives. A really good book, especially in delineating sibling rivalry and human foibles.
27 July 1998
This short novel is narrated by a 13-year-old girl, Nico, whose sister has drowned. We see how she and her parents respond to this shattering event--and how she goes along with her sister's boy friend's delusion that she can replace her sister Margaret in his life.
Aaron, the boy friend, is about 18 and has just finished high school. As Nico and Aaron have their brief but uneasy relationship, the reader probably becomes keenly aware of the vast emotional gulf between a 13-year-old and an 18-year-old. Otherwise, their transactions with one another border on the smarmy and unnatural, and we can only breathe a sigh of relief when the association ends.
The story leaves too many important loose ends to be very satisfying. For instance, although an autopsy is apparently done, we never find out just what caused the sister's drowning. Was it the heart condition she already knew she had? Or did she drown for some other reason? In the light of subsequent events in the story--Nico's chest pains and visit to a heart specialist, for instance--it would have been better to establish the exact cause of her sister's death.
Then too there is the connection with the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem beginning, "Margaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving?..."
So far as I can tell, the "connection" comes down to the sister's name and the fact that the father's bookstore is named Goldengrove. At various points in the book it sounds as if the connection is about to have some significance, but it doesn't. Nico tries hard to wring some emotional resonance from it but it doesn't quite succeed. For one thing, the Margaret in the poem is mourning, not dead.
Most of the narrative focuses on the summer following the drowning, but then suddenly Nico is wrapping things up by telling about a few incidents involving her husband and children, many years later. The book ends on an upbeat, life-affirming note, but have we learned much about this particular loss and the grief that these people felt? Or does what we have learned matter?
14 August 2011
THE SWEET DOVE DIED (1978)
This novel is about the way in which aging women can make fools of themselves over much younger men. Here there is an aging woman who is in love with a man twenty years younger, who inevitably hurts her because he thinks of her as a mother.
28 December 1987
QUARTET IN AUTUMN (1977)
The author calls attention to the way people feel obligated to one another while not really wanting to associate with one another—prompted by a sense of duty that often gives rise to many common social interactions.
3 December 1986
JANE AND PRUDENCE (1953)
This is a quiet novel about two women friends--one a clergyman’s wife, the other a younger, unmarried woman.
SOME TAME GAZELLE (1950)
This is Pym’s first novel, about two middle-aged sisters, Harriet and Belinda Bede, both spinsters, who care about each other.
A FEW GREEN LEAVES (1980)
This is Pym’s last novel--she died in January 1980--about life in an Oxfordshire village, with older and younger characters, rectors, widows, and others.