Tuesday, November 30, 2010

376. The Monk - M.G. Lewis

History: This book was written by Matthew Gregory Lewis, published in 1796. It was written before the author turned 20, in the space of 10 weeks. Sensationalistic and graphic in its depiction of violence and human sexuality, the novel created a scandal in England soon after its publication, and caused its author, then a member of the House of Commons, to be branded licentious and perverse. Extravagant and melodramatic in style, the work details the exploits of Ambrosio, a wayward monk whose excessive pride and vanity lead to murder, a pact with Satan, and his eternal damnation. The Monk is said to be composed from a variety of sources, many of them German, while its main plot comes from the story of Santon Barisa, which appeared in The Guardian in 1713. Lewis acknowledged his debts on many of these accounts, partially to divert possible charges of plagiarism, and included in his novel several pieces of original and translated verse, including the ballad "Alonzo the Brave and Fair Imogen." Although this and other poems are largely overlooked by modern scholars, The Monk is generally considered Lewis's masterpiece and one of the most fully realized visions of Gothic horror.The first edition sold well, and a second edition was published in October of 1796. The good sales and reviews of the first had emboldened Lewis, and he signed the new edition with his full name, adding “M.P.” to reflect his newly acquired seat in the House of Commons. The book continued to rise in popularity, but in February 1797 review by a writer for the European Magazine, the novel was criticized for “plagiarism, immorality, and wild extravagance.
The Monk is one of the more lurid and of Gothic novels. It is also the first book to feature a priest as the villain.
Plot: The story concerns Ambrosio - a pious, well-respected monk in Spain - and his violent downfall. He is undone by carnal lust for his pupil, a woman disguised as a monk (Matilda), who tempts him to transgress, and, once satisfied by her, is overcome with desire for the innocent Antonia. Using magic spells, Matilda aids him in seducing Antonia, whom he later rapes and kills. Matilda is eventually revealed as an instrument of Satan in female form, who has orchestrated Ambrosio's downfall from the start. In the middle of telling this story Lewis frequently makes further digressions, which serve to heighten the Gothic atmosphere of the tale while doing little to move along the main plot. A lengthy story about a "Bleeding Nun" is told, and many incidental verses are introduced. A second romance, between Lorenzo and Antonia, also gives way to a tale of Lorenzo's sister being tortured by hypocritical nuns (as a result of a third romantic plot). Eventually, the story catches back up with Ambrosio, and in several pages of impassioned prose, Ambrosio is delivered into the hands of the Inquisition; he escapes by selling his soul to the devil for his deliverance from the death sentence which awaits him. The story ends with the devil preventing Ambrosio's attempted final repentance, and the sinful monk's prolonged torturous death. Ambrosio finds out by the devil that the woman that he had raped and killed, Antonia, was indeed his sister.
Review: Featuring demonic pacts, rape, incest, and such props as the Wandering Jew, ruined castles, and the Spanish Inquisition, The Monk serves more or less as a compendium of Gothic taste. Ambrosio, the hypocrite foiled by his own lust, and his sexual misconduct inside the walls of convents and monasteries, is a vividly portrayed villain, as well as an embodiment of much of the traditional English mistrust of Roman Catholicism, with its intrusive confessional, its political and religious authoritarianism, and its cloistered lifestyles.
The Monk is about veiling and disguise and it is possible to read into the novel a possible expression of the “open secret” of Lewis’s homosexuality through the characters of Ambrosio, Rosario/Matilda, and Lucifer. In the end, Ambrosio’s desires are insatiable... But Ambrosio’s desire may be insatiable because it is denied its true object. The closest the text gets to disclosing what this object might be is an elaborately staged event which obfuscates as it reveals. In the centre of the text, in quick succession, Matilda performs two acts of conjuration. In the first, Antonia’s coy, modest, naked body is displayed before Ambrosio in Matilda’s magic mirror. In the second, in labyrinthine caverns beneath the monastery, Matilda invokes an androgynous, decidedly camp ‘Daemon’: ‘a Youth seemingly scarce eighteen, the perfection of whose form and face was unrivalled’. The ‘beautiful’ figure, ‘perfectly naked’, with ‘silken locks’ and surrounded by ‘clouds of rose-coloured lights’, appears as the key to Ambrosio’s possession of Antonia. The figure, at Matilda’s strident behest finally relinquishes the ‘myrtle’ which will enable Antonia’s seduction. The parallelism of the stagin raises the question of causation: is the Daemon the key to the sexual possession of Antonia, or is Antonia’s image a screen for Ambrosio’s true object of desire, the epicene devil?”
Scholars observe that the thematic character of The Monk departs somewhat from that of the traditional Gothic novel. And while it favors the evocation of grotesque horror rather than the rendering of a sentimental theme of justice based upon divine Providence, Lewis's novel nevertheless presents a critique of human vice and explores the conflict between religion and human sexuality. This conflict is dramatized in the character of Ambrosio through the juxtaposition of the monk's pride and destructive sexual appetite with the innocent virtue of Antonia and the forthrightness of Lorenzo. Many commentators note, however, that the dullness of the novel's virtuous characters fails to match the depth and complexity of Ambrosio and Matilda, and instead locate evidence of the novel's primary theme in the psychological exploration of its fallen protagonist and his accomplice. Likewise, many have observed that Matilda's strong will and intelligence make her far more compelling than her counterpart Antonia, despite her manipulative behavior and demonic nature. Others have commented on Lewis's attempts to establish an unsettling parallel between the violence of the riotous mob in his novel and that of the French Revolution, or on his deft integration of legends and folk tales, such as those of the Bleeding Nun and the Wandering Jew, in order to illicit terror and add universal appeal to his story.
Opening Line: “Scarcely had the Abbey Bell tolled for five minutes, and already was the Church of the Capuchins thronged with Auditors.”
Closing Line: “They reached the spot where Ambrosio lay, and when they abated carried with them into the river the Corse of the despairing Monk.”
Quotes: “His unsatisfied Desires placed before him the most lustful and provoking Images, and he rioted in joys till then unknown to him.”
“Wild and desperate, She threw herself upon the ground, beating her bosom and rending her veil in all the delirium of despair.”
Rating: Very Good.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

375. Jacob’s Room – Virginia Woolf

History: This book was published in 1922. The novel centres, in a very ambiguous way, around the life story of the protagonist Jacob Flanders, and is presented entirely by the impressions other characters have of Jacob. The book is primarily a character study and has little in the way of plot or background, the narrative is constructed as a void in place of the central character. Motifs of emptiness and absence haunt the novel and establish its elegiac feel. Jacob is described to us, but in such indirect terms that it would seem better to view him as an amalgamation of the different perceptions of the characters and narrator. He does not exist as a concrete reality, but rather as a collection of memories and sensations.
Plot: Set in pre-war England, the novel begins in Jacob's childhood and follows him through college at Cambridge, and then into adulthood. The story is told mainly through the perspectives of the women in Jacob's life, including the repressed upper-middle-class Clara Durrant and the uninhibited young art student Florinda, with whom he has an affair. His time in London forms a large part of the story, though towards the end of the novel he travels to Italy, then Greece. Jacob eventually dies in the war and in lieu of a description of the death scene, Woolf describes the empty room that he leaves behind.
Review: We follow the life of a promising young man through glimpses of him given by female friends and relatives. From childhood to youth and manhood, we watch Jacob grow and mature in the eyes of the women in his life. When World War I breaks out, Jacob goes away to war and the women who love him must stay behind, trying to hold on to their memories of him. This is a haunting story about hope and tragedy in a time of devastating conflict.
Opening Line: “So of course,” wrote Betty Flanders, pressing her heels rather deeper into the sand, “There was nothing for it but to leave.”
Closing Line: “She held out a pair of Jacob’s old shoes.”
Quotes: “Each had his past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart; and his friends could only read the title.”
“In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows.”
Rating: Very Good.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

374. Miss Lonelyhearts – Nathanael West

History: This book was published in 1933. The general theme of the novel is one of extreme disillusionment with Depression-era American society, a consistent theme throughout West's novels. However, the novel is a black comedy, characterized by an extremely dark sense of humor and irony.
The novel can be treated as a meditation on the theme of theodicy, or the problem of why evil exists in the world. The novel's protagonist is psychologically and "spiritually" overwhelmed by his perception of Evil. He then tries different approaches to tackle this question (religion, logic, love, existentialism) but they are all ultimately proven inadequate.
Although the characters of Miss Lonelyhearts are grotesque caricatures, the periodic letters sent to Miss Lonelyhearts, which describe real people with real insoluble problems, serve to ground the novel's Expressionism in reality.
Many of the problems described in Miss Lonelyhearts describe actual economic conditions in New York City during the Great Depression, although the novel carefully avoids questions of national politics. Moreover, the novel is particularly important due to its existential import. The characters seem to be living in an amoral world. Hence, they resort to heavy drinking, sex, and parties. Miss Lonelyhearts has a "Christ complex", which stands for his belief in religion as a solution to a world devoid of values. However, he approaches the status of an absurd hero insofar as his religious convictions further his depression and disillusionment. Ironically, he is shot at the moment he thinks he has had a religious conversion.
Plot: In the story, Miss Lonelyhearts is an unnamed male newspaper columnist writing an advice column which is seen by the newspaper staff as a joke. As "Miss Lonelyhearts" reads letters from desperate New Yorkers, he feels terribly burdened and falls into a cycle of deep depression, accompanied by heavy drinking and occasional barfights. He is also the victim of the pranks and cynical advice of his feature editor at the newspaper, "Shrike" (a type of predatory bird).
Miss Lonelyhearts tries several approaches to escape the terribly painful letters he has to read through religion, trips to the countryside with his fiancee Betty, and sex with Shrike's wife and Mrs. Doyle, a reader of his column. However, the Miss Lonelyhearts efforts seem to sink him more and more into a "dismal swamp of despair." After his sexual encounter with Mrs. Doyle, he is invited to dine at the Doyles' and ends up beating her up in an effort to fend off her sexual advances.
In the last scene, Mr. Doyle hides a gun inside a rolled newspaper and decides to take revenge on Miss Lonelyhearts. Miss Lonelyhearts, in turn, is in the grips of what he understands to be a religious enlightenment (but which seems like religious mania), and he simply runs toward his doom. Mr. Doyle shoots Miss Lonelyhearts, and the two men roll down a flight of stairs together. It is implied, but not stated outright, that Miss Lonelyhearts dies in this encounter.
Review: Miss Lonelyhearts receives hundreds of letters every week--it's his job to respond to them for his newspaper column. At first, he took the job because it seemed easy and the other newspapermen treated it like a joke, but now he finds that the letters, which detail an amazing panorama of human misery, are haunting him and pushing him to the brink of an existential breakdown. To make matters worse, he is hounded by his editor, Shrike, who torments him with elaborate jokes at the expense of his religiosity and inner turmoil. "The Miss Lonelyhearts," says shrikes, "are the priests of America," but Miss Lonelyhearts is a priest who lacks any answers to the question of why evil exists in the world. Miss Lonelyhearts looks to art, love, sex, and religion to temper his misery, but finds that he cannot escape the horrible emptiness of the letters.This is a brief but savage attack on the emptiness of modern life. Nathanael West here addresses the central dilemma facing modern man; having abandoned God, where do people turn for answers?
Opening Line: “Miss Lonelyhearts, help me, help me.”
Closing Line: “They both rolled, part of the way down the stairs.”
Quotes: "He crushed its head with a stone and left the carcass to the flies that swarmed around the bloody flowers."
"He had learned not to laugh at the advertisements offering to teach writing, cartooning, engineering, to add inches to the biceps and to develop the bust."
Rating: Good but depressing.

Friday, November 19, 2010

373. The Quiet American – Graham Greene

History: This book was first published in Great Britain in 1955. The book draws on Greene's experiences as a SIS agent spying for Britain in World War II in Sierra Leone in the early 1940s and on winters spent from 1951 to 1954 in Saigon reporting on the French colonial war for The Times and Le Figaro. He was apparently inspired to write The Quiet American in October 1951 while driving back to Saigon from the Ben Tre province. He was accompanied by an American aid worker who lectured him about finding a “third force in Vietnam”. Greene spent three years writing it.
After its publication in the U.S. in 1956, the novel was widely condemned as anti-American. It was criticized by The New Yorker for portraying Americans as murderers, largely based on one scene in which a bomb explodes in a crowd of people.
Plot: Thomas Fowler is a British journalist in his fifties who has been covering the French war in Vietnam for over two years. He meets a young American idealist named Alden Pyle, who lives his life and forms his opinions based on the books written by York Harding, whom Pyle has met twice in his life. Harding's theory is that neither Communism nor colonialism are the answer in foreign lands like Vietnam, but rather a "Third Force," usually a combination of traditions, works best. Pyle is thoughtful and soft-spoken; Fowler finds him naïve.
The two men meet accidentally at the Continental, a popular Saigon hotel. Pyle dances with Fowler's live-in lover, Phuong. Only twenty years old, Phuong is considered the most beautiful girl in Saigon. Her sister's goal in life is to marry Phuong off to a rich American; she does not like Fowler because he is married. Fowler and Pyle meet again at the Continental. Some vulgar Americans and British who have been drinking too much go off to the House of Five Hundred Women. Pyle goes with them, but Fowler rescues him. Later that night Pyle seems protective of Phuong.
Fowler goes to the city of Phat Diem to cover a battle there. Pyle travels there to tell him that he has been in love with Phuong since the first night he saw her, and that he wants to marry her. They make a toast to nothing and Pyle leaves the next day. Fowler gets a letter from Pyle thanking him for being so nice about Phuong. The letter is annoying because of Pyle's complete confidence that Phuong will choose to marry him. Meanwhile, Fowler's editor wants him to transfer back to England.
Pyle comes to Fowler's place and they ask her to choose between them. She chooses Fowler, her lover of two years. She does not know that he is up for a transfer. Fowler writes his wife to ask for a divorce in front of Phuong.
Fowler and Pyle meet again in a war zone. They end up captive in a tower, and spend an extraordinary night talking about everything from sex to God. As they escape, Pyle saves Fowler's life. Fowler goes back to Saigon where he lies to Phuong that his wife will divorce him. Pyle exposes the lie and Phuong moves in with Pyle. After receiving a letter from Fowler, his editor decides that he can stay in Indo-China for at least another year. Fowler investigates Pyle's activities more closely and finds out that Pyle is importing military supplies into Vietnam from the United States. Fowler goes into the war zone and does some serious reporting.
When Fowler returns to Saigon, he goes to Pyle's office to confront him but Pyle is out. Pyle comes over later for drinks and they talk about his upcoming marriage to Phuong. Later that week there is a terrible explosion and many innocents are killed. Fowler puts the pieces together and realizes that Pyle is behind the bombing. Fowler decides that Pyle must be eliminated. His naive theories and interference are causing innocent people to die. Fowler takes part in a murder plot against Pyle. Although the police believe that Fowler is involved, they cannot prove anything. Phuong goes back to Fowler as if nothing had ever happened. In the last chapter Fowler receives a telegram from his wife. She says that she has changed her mind and that she will start divorce proceedings.
Review: This book stands as the definitive, though fictionalized account of the terrible confrontation between moral dissipation and dangerous naivete that plagued Vietnam for so many decades. Though written in 1955, is still a biting indictment of American foreign policy.
Pyle is the stereotypical American terrorist. Pyle doesn't see the harm in doing what he thinks has to be done. When the terrorist bombings he was behind don't kill their intended targets, but instead women and children, yet are blamed on the Communists he considers it a success. The target enemy parade was cancelled, and the standard everyday business of the public square took place. Aside from warning any Americans he saw (and his and Fowler's mistress Phuong) to stay away from the area, Pyle did nothing and didn't even seem to be particularly affected by the deaths of the Vietnamese civilians. Pyle is also a real character, and Fowler, himself, isn't exactly perfect. Fowler doesn't particularly care about Vietnam either and has no particular politics -- and is a bit of a cynical, egotistical jerk. The fact that Fowler isn't a perfect being of light exposing the terrible American makes the novel compelling and makes Greene's points go down a bit easier.
The unreality of war--the emotional distance between military and civilian is captured by this theme of innocence. Actions performed without regard to effect show the lack of understanding. Chilling imagery is conjured by Greene’s sparse writing style. A metaphoric depiction of bodies strewn in a ditch as an irish stew haunts the reader. It represents a hodgepodge cross-section of society who have unwittingly become part of bloodshed. The love relationship between Phuong and the two journalists highlights the impact of French colonialism and the reality that no matter how impartial Fowler seeks to be, neutrality is unattainable where human emotion is involved.
The prescient pessimism that pervades this book is it's most interesting feature. Greene, writing well before we really got involved, seemed to sense that Vietnam was a tar baby that we idealistic Americans would not be able to resist embracing. Pyle's bloody blundering seems to presage the well-intended but disastrous mess that we would make of the entire country in the decades to come.
Opening Line: “After dinner I sat and waited for Pyle in my room over the rue Catinet; he had said, ‘I’ll be with you at latest by ten,’ and when midnight struck I couldn’t stay quiet any longer and went down into the street.”
Closing Line: “Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.”
Quotes: "'...I had better look after Pyle.' That was my first instinct to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection, when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world meaning no harm."
"I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings."
Rating: Very Good.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

372. Midnight’s Children – Salmon Rushdie

History: This book was published in 1981 and won the Booker Prize, Great Britain's equivalent of the U.S. Pulitzer Prize; in 1993, the novel was awarded the "Booker of Bookers," a honor accorded to the best novel to be published in the competition's first twenty-five years. In 1984 Indira Gandhi brought an action against the book in the British courts, claiming to have been defamed by a single sentence in chapter 28, penultimate paragraph, in which her son Sanjay Gandhi is said to have had a hold over his mother by him accusing her of contributing to his father's death through her neglect. The case was settled out of court when Salman Rushdie agreed to remove the offending sentence.
In the late 1990s the BBC was planning to film a five-part miniseries of the novel with Rahul Bose in the lead, but due to pressure from the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, the filming permit was revoked and the project was cancelled
Plot: Midnight's Children is a loose allegory for events in India both before and, primarily, after the independence and partition of India, which took place at midnight on 15 August 1947. The protagonist and narrator of the story is Saleem Sinai, born at the exact moment when India becomes an independent country and has telepathic powers, as well as an enormous and constantly dripping nose. The novel is divided into three books.
Midnight's Children tells the story of the Sinai family and the earlier events leading up to India's Independence and Partition, connecting the two lines both literally and allegorically. Saleem Sinai, an obscure thirty-year-old pickle factory worker who writes the fantastic story of his life each night, reading it aloud each night and having it commented on by a doting woman named Padma. He is born at the exact moment that India becomes independent. He later discovers that all children born in India between 12 AM and 1 AM on 15 August 1947, are imbued with special powers. Saleem thus attempts to use these powers to convene the eponymous children. The convention, or Midnight Children's Conference, is in many ways reflective of the issues India faced in its early statehood concerning the cultural, linguistic, religious, and political differences faced by such a vastly diverse nation. Saleem acts as a telepathic conduit, bringing hundreds of geographically disparate children into contact while also attempting to discover the meaning of their gifts. In particular, those children born closest to the stroke of midnight wield more powerful gifts than the others. Shiva of the Knees, Saleem's evil nemesis, and Parvati, called "Parvati-the-witch," are two of these children with notable gifts and roles in Saleem's story.
Meanwhile, Saleem must also contend with his personal trajectory. His family is active in this, as they begin a number of migrations and endure the numerous wars which plague the subcontinent. During this period he also suffers amnesia until he enters a quasi-mythological exile in the jungle of Sundarban, where he is re-endowed with his memory. In doing so, he reconnects with his childhood friends. Saleem later becomes involved with the Indira Gandhi - proclaimed Emergency and her son Sanjay's "cleansing" of the Jama Masjid slum. For a time Saleem is held as a political prisoner; these passages contain scathing criticisms of Indira Gandhi's overreach during the Emergency as well as what Rushdie seems to see as a personal lust for power bordering on godhood. The Emergency signals the end of the potency of the Midnight Children, and there is little left for Saleem to do but pick up the few pieces of his life he may still find and write the chronicle that encompasses both his personal history and that of his still-young nation; a chronicle written for his son, who, like his father, is both chained and supernaturally endowed by history.
Review: Despite light moments, Midnight’s Children is not a light read. I really struggled to finish this book – and my feelings about it are mixed. Rushdie’s prose is full of symbolism, analogies, magical realism and the complex history of India. The book has multiple themes (the individual vs. the masses and destruction vs. creation to name two). It is also full of numerous characters – some minor, some major and everything in between.
Midnight’s Children is indeed full of meaning. And symbols. Symbols cut out of a perforated, blood-stained sheet. A sheet through which Aadam Aziz examined the patient which would one day be his wife. A sheet which would one day be used as a Halloween costume of a ghost, the symbol of walking death. A sheet that can even hide truth, as the sheet which cloaked the Brass Monkey, alias the Voice of Pakistan, a beautiful voice that did not speak of inner realities. A sheet stained in blood – is Rushdie symbolizing the nations of India (nations, for there are three, not one) that were bloodily cut out of a large, blanketing empire?
The story was planned. Created. The fact that Shiva was named Shiva was no coincidence. That Parvati the witch was named Parvati. And that their offspring had the ears of an elephant, a human Ganesh. (I certainly hope you’ve read the book, and that I’m not giving anything away.) This is all transparent to anyone of even a cursory background of Hinduism.
Rushdie has an imperative to show the reader that he is well-versed and well-read. "...by the buzzing in my left, or sinister, ear" (201). Yes, Rushdie knows a bit of Greek, for sinister is indeed the Greek word for left. Is there something sinister about what happened to Saleem’s left ear? What is Rushdie trying to tell us? Or is he merely telling us that (and what) he can tell?
For it all fits together almost perfectly. The Widow and her black and white hair. Drainings above and below, causing a dryness that leads to cracking. Do we really need anyone to tell us that the children of midnight represent the birth of a multitude of ideas of freedom, a land full of dreams – in short, a new nation that has, as many before it, caught the optimism bug. And of the ones who want to exterminate this bug once and for all.
Rushdie can take any sentence, any word, and dive into its definition, constructing links, making analogies, playing with meanings. Rushdie masterfully has every number and statistic in place – in place and ready, a skeleton ready for a body, and Rushdie readily provides the body. The allusions and plays on words are everywhere.
Opening Line: “I was born in the city of Bombay, once upon a time.. no that won’t do.”
Closing Line: “Yes, they will trample me underfoot, they will trample my son who is not my son, and his son who will not be his, and his who will not be his, until the thousand and first generation, until thousand and one midnights have bestowed their terrible gifts and a thousand and one children have died, because it is the privilege an the curse of midnight's children to be both masters and victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and to be unable to live or die in peace.
Quotes: “Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, , of everything done-to-me.”
“One day, perhaps, the world may taste the pickles of history. They may be too strong for some palates, theur smell may be overpowering, tears may rise to eyes; I hope nevertheless that it will be possible to say of them that they possess the authentic taste of truth….that they are despite everything, acts of love.”
Rating: Masterpiece. Important but typically boastful

Monday, November 15, 2010

371. Group Portrait with Lady – Heinrich Boll

History: This book was published in 1971 as Gruppenbild mit Dame. A sweeping portrayal of German life from World War I until the early 1970s, the novel was cited by the Nobel Prize committee when it awarded Boll the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972.. Group Portrait with Lady was an instant success in Germany, holding the top spot on the bestseller list for several months. It was singled out in the laudation accompanying the Nobel Prize. However, it almost goes without saying that Boll would certainly not have received the award on the strength of this novel alone.
Plot: The story's anonymous narrator gradually reveals the life--past and present--of Leni Pfeiffer, a war widow who, with her neighbors, is fighting the demolition of the Cologne apartment building in which they reside. Leni and her illegitimate son Lev become the nexus of Cologne's counterculture; they spurn the prevailing work ethic and assail the dehumanization of life under capitalism. In a larger sense, the work attempts both a reconciliation with the past and a condemnation of the pursuit of affluence in present-day Germany.
Review: Similar in context to most of his mature fiction, the novel reiterates Boll's major thematic concerns and reaffirms his moral chastisement of modern Germany. Written in the mode of documentary, Group Portrait with Lady is elaborately devised as an investigative study undertaken by an ostensibly objective narrator, referred to in the novel as the author or "The Au." The subject for examination is Leni Pfeiffer, nee Gruyten, the celebrated "Lady" of the novel's title. Developed through a series of interviews with numerous individuals having some familiarity, connection, or past association with the narrator's subject, the novel is at once an in-depth character portrayal as well as a social history of Germany.
This is a piece of music composed by Heinrich Boll which at the beginning sounds non-harmonic and confusing and as the story continues it turns into a magnificant symphony of rhythms and melodies; in fact a death march for the Third Reich era. Heinrich Boll takes us to the Nazi Germany era and lets us see the world through the life of an interesting woman, a very normal human being who is actually too normal for those abnormal days of war and savage.
Opening Line: “The female protagonist in the first section is a woman of forty eight, German: she is five foot six inches tall, weighs 133 pounds (in indoor clothing), i.e., only twelve to fourteen ounces below standard weight; her eyes are iridescent dark blue and black, her slightly graying hair, very thick and blond, hangs loosely to her shoulders, sheathing her head like a helmet.”
Closing Line: “Well, there remain the “still unexplained reflections,” there also remain some dark thunderclouds of foreboding in the background: Mehmets’s jealousy, and his recently announced aversion to ballroom dancing.”
Quotes: “I’m an old maid and I’ve never had nay direct experience with men, but I’ve observed them pretty closely, you know, and I ask you, what must it be like when a man turns up with his return ticket in his pocket and is always thinking of the timetable and the barracks gate he has to go through before a certain hour, or the remustering depot?”
Rating: Okay