Tag Archives: fiction

Almost 500 pages but worth it

The Bailiff’s wife looked at him as if half expecting that he was about to ask her for something, whereupon the soul within her receded like a star, far out into the frozen wastes of infinity, and only the cold smile remained on earth.

Halldór Kiljan Laxness 1955.jpg

Independent People, by Halldor Laxness (Nobel Prize winner, 1955), is one of the foremost sagas of rural family life. It is the life and times of Bjartur, an Icelandic peasant who becomes a landowner and a human metaphor for mankind’s struggle against nature, hunger, and human evolution itself. Written and translated with such poetic realism, the book makes its reader feel like an honorary Icelander—and not a city-dweller but a citizen of the endless, inhospitable moors.

Sisterhood

Two fine feminist novels from two of the Bronte sisters. Both novels extraordinarily ahead of their time and written with that Bronte elegance of prose that is practically unmatched. And both novels relatively unknown, or at least unappreciated. And my reading both of them within a six month window (and usually within six feet of a window) was unplanned and unexpected. But I am quite unsorry.

Shirley was the novel that Charlotte Bronte (I don’t have those two little dots) published next after Jane Eyre. Naturally Shirley was a bit overshadowed by her older “sister”. And she was a less romantic novel, and less cohesive and way less compelling. Well, Charlotte had just lost a brother and two sisters to illness, which should account for some shortcomings in her written work product. But Shirley was, I think, a more feminist novel than Jane, which is saying something. Shirley, the title character, was a strong-willed independent and outspoken woman. Caroline was her friend, and Caroline was quiet and cautious. But not a pushover. They shared a romantic interest, Robert. Guess which one won. I’m not telling. You have to read the book. That’s not a heavy burden, it’s a beautiful novel, with plenty of themes besides feminism: friendship, love, political and economic struggle, human decency. It deserves to have the Bronte name on it.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was one of Anne Bronte’s novels (Anne was the youngest sister), and the title character could possibly be called the Mother of Modern Feminism. I don’t have the historical facts to back that up, that’s just my gut feeling about how amazing this book was for its time. The reason I got the book from the library is that my sister and brother-in-law loaned us a DVD of the movie and I wanted to read the book first. We haven’t watched the movie yet. Maybe Thursday. Anyway, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall should have made Anne just as famous as her sisters, but it didn’t. It has romance, but that’s not the main thrust of it. It’s really a social and psychological study of three characters, this time two men and one woman. The romance isn’t triangle shaped, it’s a line. Helen, the woman in the middle, is the Tenant. And, though she doesn’t know it, for my money she’s a heroic feminist of the first order. The reason she doesn’t know it is that she’s too busy dealing with the Victorian male chauvinist system and a husband whose character was inspired by the dissolute life and death of Branwell Bronte, Charlotte and Anne’s only brother.

I haven’t mentioned Emily. I read her book in college. Even though this little essay doesn’t give equal time to her book, I don’t think we have to feel too sad about where she stands in the halls of literature. She’s right up there with her sisters.

It makes the world go round

The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye.

We are pawns and puppets. We are pawns of economic forces, we are puppets of misery and want. In his groundbreaking novel Sister Carrie, Theodore Dreiser writes about American capitalism and what it does to its subject citizens. We are pawns and puppets, we make choices but our choices are determined by capitalism and the steel grip it has upon our shoulders. We have basic urges that control us, we want what we see that others have, we want what we admire, what we think we need. We want things we cannot have, and once we obtain them they no longer matter to us. We worship idols, we are impressionable as lambs.

Dramatizing the power that money, or want of money, exerts over us, Dreiser’s novel, published at the dawn of the 20th Century, was one of the early American novels written from a working class perspective and focused upon the class struggle. Following in his footsteps were books like Jews Without Money by Mike Gold, A World to Win by Jack Conroy, Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell, and the works of Steinbeck and John Dos Passos.

The story that Dreiser employs to dramatize his political theme is a love triangle—a young woman named Carrie and two established gentlemen. This sounds conventional enough in many ways but from Dreiser’s angle the love affairs are seen as economic more than romantic. They illustrate how the class struggle shapes our most intimate feelings, usually without our being aware. Dreiser takes us on a rags to riches and riches to rags journey. The bare plot sounds like melodrama, but it’s actually realism. The narration gives us in tiny detail all the circumstances motivating our three lovers, and even some of the minor characters. And, among those motivators, money is paramount.

Some of Dreiser’s prose may sound a bit stiff to our ears, and his characters’ frequent streams-of-consciousness tend to flow for many paragraphs. But his dialogue contains the rich, quirky vernacular of the times, and helps to counterbalance the above imperfections. There is great power in Sister Carrie, and its relevance as a working class novel is no less obvious today than in Dreiser’s own time.

“Thank heaven, for . . .”

Her gaze wandered over Paris, over the sky from which the light drained a little earlier each day, with an impartial severity which possibly condemned nothing.

We saw the movie, recently, about her, and decided we wanted to read one of her books. We had never heard of Colette. But it turns out that we were very familiar with her work. Gigi is one of my wife’s favorite movies. And when I was a kid and began learning to play the cornet, the title song of Gigi was one of the songs in my head that I longed to hear coming out of the bell of my instrument.

So from the library we got Colette’s volume containing her short story Gigi and her short novella The Cat. Reading this mere sample of Colette’s work does not make us experts. It only makes us fans. Here are some thoughts from a fan:

Gigi is a charming story, the movie tracked it pretty closely, just adding a few scenes and characters and a perfect musical score. With refreshing realism and sweet undertone of satire, Colette wrote a story of what one publisher refers to as “the politics of love”. That interesting phrase seems to be a good label for the story, which I would probably have called a comedy of manners. But labels don’t do justice to the story, which is a very special sketch of a very unique romantic entanglement created by the moral ambiguity of early 20th Century Paris. I finished the story with the sudden realization that I had just read a fine piece by a writer of underestimated talent. The Cat did nothing to dispel that opinion and only cemented it.

The Cat gives new meaning to the term “cat lover”. It is a sweet portrayal of human weakness and shortcomings, including awkwardness, jealousy and mistrust between lovers. Colette painted the portrait with a keen sense of observation. And, assuming that the translation is true to the original*, she wrote in language of such rich color and impressive depth that I will keep some of her work in the little gallery in my head where I try to collect bits of artistry, bits of intelligence that may not be masterpieces to others but are priceless to me.

*My brother-in-law could tell me. He used to teach French.

One Flew East, One Flew West

“What the Chronics are—or most of us—are machines with flaws inside that can’t be repaired, flaws born in, or flaws beat in over so many years of the guy running head-on into solid things that by the time the hospital found him he was bleeding rust in some vacant lot.”

Counterculture icon Ken Kesey

I was sitting in the backyard reading the closing chapter of a book. I sat under our dying apple tree where many flowers flourish and hummingbirds buzz right past your head. I looked up between paragraphs and there was a little bunny looking directly at me, not seven feet away. It was looking at me like it wanted to be friends but didn’t know how to start the conversation without sounding awkward. Neither did I. Before I could say something warm and endearing, it turned tail and scampered. The book I was reading was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I don’t know if there’s any significance. Somehow it seemed like the right book to be reading at that moment.

And I hadn’t decided to finally read the book this year because of little rabbits or because I was only waiting for the point at which our political system turns into a national madhouse. No, sometimes I just like to save good things for later. Like a reward, sort of, for being patient.

So what can one say about Cuckoo’s Nest that hasn’t been said already, except “Yup, it’s a great novel. You guys were right.” And I already knew they were right, from having seen the movie when it first screened back in 1975. Jack Nicholson gave a performance like nothing else I’ve ever seen. But most of the credit goes to Ken Kesey. He created R.P. McMurphy, and if there’s a more unforgettable character in all of American literature, let him or her swagger forward. Or, to use his own words, “I’ll eat my hat.”

Another unforgettable character is the narrator. Chief Bromden, tormented by memories, fears and visions, plays a small and silent part in the plot, but is otherwise a keen fly on the wall of the mental ward. The Chief is especially obsessed with McMurphy and the social whirlwind he stirs up in the ward. The Chief’s own mental state, already vulnerable, is caught up in the whirlwind. His impressions, his sometimes streaming consciousness, are racked by machine imagery and terror of something he calls the Combine—a huge greedy corporate/police apparatus that seems to be his personal metaphor for oppression of the working class. Kesey, only twenty-six when he published Cuckoo’s Nest, came straight from a working class environment himself.

Politically correct Kesey is not: women and numerous minorities don’t come out looking too good in this novel. But Kesey isn’t asking you to judge them in a vacuum. He wants you to see everyone, all their cruelty, the pettiness, the weakness, as products of the Combine. And he wants you to see Randle Patrick McMurphy, his fearless individualism and his rowdy zest for life, as the last, best hope for shutting the ugly thing down once and for all.

In case I wasn’t clear before about how I really feel about this book: If you believe there’s an American novel that soars any higher or morally overshadows Kesey’s Cuckoo’s Nest, it better be something by Steinbeck.

Where have you been all my life?

“I’ve always thought,” I said, “that anyone who makes someone else doubt the foundations of his morals hasn’t lived in vain.”

Our daughter loaned us the book. My wife and I both read it. I had never heard of Marguerite Duras. I am glad to have crossed paths with her at last. The Sailor From Gibraltar is an odyssey of sorts, and a strange kind of love story. A nameless disenchanted bureaucrat becomes infatuated with a woman pursuing an endless voyage to find a lost lover. Both loves are one-sided, obsessive, and blind. At the deepest level, the novel is a study in philosophy and psychology. It charts the murky depths of love and, certainly, life as well.

Written and translated in tough, lean prose, the book is a search for something that doesn’t exist. The story and its characters are full of contradictions. They don’t know their own minds—or hearts. And that’s what ultimately touches ours.

“Trip Wires”, a new story collection by Sandra Hunter

“She drowsed and wakened. Surely someone would find them. Was it better to be shot than to watch her child starve? In the cold, she held him close, and he slept and woke through the night, sucking at her dry breasts.”

In her new story collection Trip Wires, Sandra Hunter has an uncanny ability to get inside the heads of ordinary people caught in the widely-scattered wars that have defined, tragically, the beginning decades of this millennium. These are the ones who can get out and the ones who can’t. These are ordinary people who, in desperation to survive, do extraordinary things.

Their stories are disturbing. With harrowing realism Hunter shows us their poverty, their scars, their journeys, their nightmares, their courage. And sometimes their humanity. The above excerpt comes from the story “Borderland”. That story is a full-force punch to the gut, depicting a young mother fleeing a nameless war in a lifeless land. But the young mother discovers human kindness in places and proportions that no one could imagine.

These stories are not for the faint of heart, and it is natural for us to avoid emotional “trip wires” that unleash the shocks and horrors of war. But the suffering is real and, lying just beneath the surface of our world, we can’t avoid it forever. Maybe, with the insights of authors like Sandra Hunter, we can learn why we need to urgently defuse those senseless conflicts that have booby trapped our present and maybe our entire future.