Tag Archives: literature

Truth is “Stranger” than . . .

Albert Camus, gagnant de prix Nobel, portrait en buste, posé au bureau, faisant face à gauche, cigarette de tabagisme.jpg

It may sound like the LAST thing you’d want to read right now, but in a weird way it could be the feel-good novel of the year. The Plague, by Albert Camus, is the story of a major city under siege by a deadly virus. Set in Oran, Algeria, in the 1940’s, it’s a graphic portrayal of a city suddenly infested with Bubonic Plague, strictly quarantined and cut off from the rest of the world. With little outside help, the city and its stunned residents must cope with the unreality of their situation alongside its very real threat to their lives. With contagion and corpses around every corner, the moral fiber of the populace is tested to its limits.

La Peste book cover.jpg

As in all his major writings, Camus questions the fundamental nature of life and death. As hard as it is to define those questions, the answers are even more elusive. But The Plague is a beautiful, yes beautiful, frightening and inspiring study of human nature in all its imperfection. And while we all want to escape, somehow, from the sadness and fear that right now bombard us from every direction, perhaps a deep dark look into the mirror of literary fiction is a truer escape, one that might comfort us longer and reflect a bit of light upon our path.

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . The Plutocrat, by Booth Tarkington

” Upon the wine list the General discovered a red Beaune, a dear lost love of his, he said—and not only said, but copiously proved by wearing his lost love’s colours, ere long, as his own complexion.”

BOOK? . . . The Plutocrat, by Booth Tarkington (1927)

WHAT KIND? . . . Novel

BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Romance, but tempered somewhat by a jaded irony

ABOUT WHAT? . . . A 1920’s Atlantic Ocean voyage and North Africa land tour embarked upon by a young playwright named Laurence Ogle (I had a high school math teacher named Miss Ogle. Probably doesn’t mean anything). Well, for Laurence Ogle, this is a case of first love. They are barely out of U.S. waters before he is unwittingly smitten by a co-voyager, a Frenchwoman roughly a decade beyond his years, but what young man cannot relate to Ogle’s puppy-like helplessness, to the torment, the humiliation, the splendor of his infatuation? Ogle is not a simple character but, seeing only her loveliness, he discovers much more complexity in Madame Momoro’s nature than he is equipped to understand. The most obvious obstacle for Ogle is the gregarious Mr. Tinker, who seems to be everywhere that he, and Madame Momoro, happen to be. A ship can be like a prison when there is a ruggedly-handsome Midwestern plutocrat on board who can’t be avoided. Even North Africa can feel pretty small.

SIGNIFICANCE? . . . This book illustrates the difference between realism and romance. Not in literature. In life. Guess which one wins in the end. And guess what the book is really saying about class distinctions in America. And guess how many reversals of fortune you will encounter in its pages. And guess what mysteries will be presented and puzzled over. And guess how many other things you will see in the characters and the plot that I did not see.

SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Uh-huh. Very funny, in parts, but that’s just the icing on the cake. There is sophistication, artistry and astuteness. The Plutocrat is a mislaid American gem of a novel, obscured and overshadowed by Tarkington’s other books only because it is not of very epic proportions. But you don’t find writing like this every day. Hardly ever, nowadays.

YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . I’m gonna get me some more books by this fella Tarkington because I probably shouldn’t even be writing little Two-bit reviews until I make sure I know what I’m talking about.

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

” I think the Church Catechism has a good deal to do with the unhappy relations which commonly even now exist between parents and children. That work was written too exclusively from the parental point of view; the person who composed it did not get a few children to come in and help him; he was clearly not young himself, nor should I say it was the work of one who liked children. . .”

Samuel Butler by Charles Gogin.jpg

BOOK? . . . The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler (1903)

WHAT KIND? . . . Novel

BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Realism/Satire

ABOUT WHAT? . . . This is a multigenerational family saga of 19th Century rural England, but it’s much more than just a story about a family’s historical struggles. The family is a typical one full of ordinary people who make the parish church their means of livelihood and the foundation of their self-identity. But, despite their ordinary lives, the insights Butler gives us about such families are extraordinary.

SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Thanks to its eloquent narration and its depiction of the traditional way the older generation raises and instructs the younger generation, The Way of All Flesh is one of the great novels exposing the cruelty of strict religions and other hypocrisies. The book dared to say things rarely, or never before, said about established religion and Victorian morals. The book was monumental in its impact on modern thinking. It was a work of humanist philosophy that used a fictional story as its vehicle.

SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Maybe. . . The plot is slow but it’s a slow-motion slap in the face. The characters are unremarkable but that’s how Butler needed them to be, and they’re as well-drawn and real as a portrait on a wall. The dialogue is sparse and the prose is unadorned. But Butler’s message is full of sympathy and kindness.

YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . . The finished manuscript sat in a drawer for twenty years until Samuel Butler gave it to a friend and as a dying wish asked the friend to arrange for it to be published, finally. It was published a year after Butler’s death.

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence

” The bruise was deep, deep, deep…the bruise of the false inhuman war. It would take many years for the living blood of the generations to dissolve the vast black clot of bruised blood, deep inside their souls and bodies.”

BOOK? . . . Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence

WHAT KIND? . . . Novel

BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Romance plus philosophical and social themes

ABOUT WHAT? . . . An illicit and potentially scandalous love affair, described in intimate detail, and the emotional conditions leading up to it. The book portrays the sadness and emptiness of the generation that fought and endured World War I. It offers only a glimmer of hope that people so emotionally damaged can find fulfillment in their lives. Clifford, Lord Chatterley, who is left paraplegic from the war, physically personifies the emotional numbness that torments Connie, Lady Chatterley, and leaves her feeling that something is missing from her life and life in general.

The novel also describes the ugliness, the misery of modern industrial society, and laments the loss of pastoral beauty. At the same time the book deplores British class structure, which persists despite the social and economic upheaval all around it.

SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Most people think of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a daringly sexual book that offended large segments of the public. Unlike other books (by Updike, Roth, Irving, etc.) that unfortunately add sexual content merely to shock or titillate, Lawrence’s novel is rich in sex because sex is a symbol and a symptom. It is there to convey serious feelings that matter to the characters. It is described with wondrous respect, and the love scenes place women and men on the same plane, in terms of desires and feelings.

SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Maybe. It may not be a great novel, standing head and shoulders about others. But it’s a very good one, with memorable characters, a lot of remarkable prose and deep disturbing thoughts about men, women, life, love and sex.

YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . Nope. I said what I gotta say.

A short story that somehow choked me up

I’m reading some stories by Guy de Maupassant and they’re all excellent but one in particular put a lump in my throat. It’s called “Mademoiselle Fifi” and it’s set during the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71), when Maupassant was about 20. He wrote it a few years later. That war actually changed Europe forever, because it prompted Prussia and various smaller German states to become a unified Germany. There is something very astute and foreshadowing in the story regarding the events that were eventually to shake Europe in the 20th Century. I don’t get the sense that Maupassant was anti-German per se, but simply that he was anti-war and anti-cruelty in any form.

You can read, online, the very edition of the story that I got from the library. The link is below this photo of the author as a young man. How often do you get to read a story with such distinguished credentials: story by Guy de Maupassant, translation by Mrs. John Galsworthy, and preface by Joseph Conrad! . . . .

Guy de Maupassant fotograferad av Félix Nadar 1888.jpg

https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=inu.32000007503560&view=1up&seq=145

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . “Lady Audley’s Secret”, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (pub. 1861)

“Circumstantial evidence,” continued the young man, as if he scarcely heard Lady Audley’s interruption—”that wonderful fabric which is built out of straws collected at every point of the compass, and which is yet strong enough to hang a man.”

BOOK? . . . Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon (pub. 1861)

WHAT KIND? . . . Novel

BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . “Sensation” fiction, early detective novel or mystery

ABOUT WHAT? . . . An unarguably beautiful young woman (with a “Secret”) who marries into a wealthy English family, one of whose members, an idle bachelor solicitor named Robert Audley, is roused into amateur sleuthing by his unflagging loyalty to a childhood friend in trouble. Not surprisingly, Robert cannot help his troubled friend without boldly piercing the Lady’s veil of secrecy.

SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Lady Audley’s Secret was a popular novel in the early days of the detective or mystery genre (what they referred to as sensation fiction). Wilkie Collins was a better known contemporary of Braddon, although Braddon’s books were very numerous and successful. One of her mentors was Baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton (“It was a dark and stormy night.”).

SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Yes, in terms of pure enjoyment it ranks high on my recent reading list. It’s an excellent detective novel. It does not deal with social issues or deep themes, it’s just for entertainment. But, its style, construction and characterization are on a par with many well-respected Victorian authors who concerned themselves with weightier matters.

YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . The one oddity about the book is its frequent disparagement of women: both by the narrator and the protagonist. Certainly these critical views of women were not the views of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. My hunch is that she incorporated this attitude into the novel either as a sort of private joke, or as a way of appeasing male readers and reviewers who, in those days, often harbored strong prejudices against women writers.

Can Toni Morrison describe Spring? Oh, I think she can manage to find the words. . . .

What can beat bricks warming up to the sun? The return of awnings. The removal of blankets from horses’ backs. Tar softens under the heel and the darkness under bridges changes from gloom to cooling shade. After a light rain, when the leaves have come, tree limbs are like wet fingers playing in woolly green hair. Motor cars become black jet boxes gliding behind hoodlights weakened by mist. On sidewalks turned to satin figures move shoulders first, the crowns of their heads angled shields against the light buckshot that the raindrops are. The faces of children glimpsed at windows appear to be crying, but it is the glass pane dripping that makes it seem so.

Toni Morrison, Jazz