Wednesday, July 3, 2013

544. The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith

History: This book is a 1955 psychological thriller novel which first introduced the character of Tom Ripley who returns in the five novels collectively known as the Ripliad.
Plot: Tom Ripley is a young man struggling to make a living in New York City by whatever means necessary, including a series of small-time confidence scams. One day, he is approached by shipping magnate Herbert Greenleaf to travel to Mongibello, Italy, to persuade Greenleaf's errant son, Dickie, to return to the United States and join the family business. Ripley agrees, exaggerating his friendship with Dickie, a half-remembered acquaintance, in order to gain the elder Greenleaf's trust.
Shortly after his arrival in Italy, Ripley meets Dickie and his friend Marge Sherwood; although Ripley ingratiates himself with Dickie, Marge does not seem to like him very much. As Ripley and Dickie spend more time together, Marge feels left out and begins insinuating to Dickie that Ripley is gay. Dickie then unexpectedly finds Ripley in his bedroom dressed up in his clothes and imitating his mannerisms. Dickie is upset, and from this moment on Ripley senses that his wealthy friend has begun to tire of him, resenting his constant presence and growing personal dependence. Ripley has indeed become obsessed with Dickie, which is further reinforced by his desire to imitate and maintain the wealthy lifestyle Dickie has afforded him.
As a gesture to Ripley, Dickie agrees to travel with him on a short holiday to Sanremo. Sensing that Dickie is about to cut him loose, Ripley finally decides to murder him and assume his identity. When the two set sail in a small rented boat, Ripley beats him to death with an oar, dumps his anchor-weighted body into the water and scuttles the boat.
Ripley assumes Dickie's identity, living off the latter's trust fund and carefully providing communications to Marge to assure her that Dickie has dumped her. Freddie Miles, an old friend of Dickie's from the same social set, encounters Ripley at what he supposes to be Dickie's apartment in Rome. He soon suspects something is wrong. When Miles finally confronts him, Ripley kills him with an ashtray. He later disposes of the body on the outskirts of Rome, attempting to make police believe that Miles has been murdered by robbers.
Ripley enters a cat-and-mouse game with the Italian police, but manages to keep himself safe by restoring his own identity and moving to Venice. In succession Marge, Dickie's father, and an American private detective confront Ripley, who suggests to them that Dickie was depressed and may have committed suicide. Marge stays for a while at Ripley's rented house in Venice. When she discovers Dickie's rings in Ripley's possession, she seems to be on the verge of realising the truth. Panicked, Ripley contemplates murdering Marge, but she is saved when she says that if Dickie gave his rings to Ripley, then he probably meant to kill himself.
The story concludes with Ripley's traveling to Greece and resigning himself to eventually getting caught. On arrival in Greece, however, he discovers that the Greenleaf family has accepted that Dickie is dead and that Ripley shall inherit his fortune according to a will forged by Ripley on Dickie's Hermes typewriter. While the book ends with Ripley happily rich, it also suggests that he may forever be dogged by paranoia. In one of the final paragraphs, he nervously envisions a group of police officers waiting to arrest him, and Highsmith leaves her protagonist wondering, ".....was he going to see policemen waiting for him on every pier that he ever approached?"
Review: Tom Ripley is not above any means of gaining a foothold to his vision of betterment. He extorts random people by impersonating an agent of the IRS and although his endeavor does not bring in any great sum of money, it is more of a glimpse into what Ripley is capable of doing. By targeting unassuming, run-of-the-mill, hard working people most likely to quickly pay a small fee to the IRS, Highsmith brilliantly portrays Ripley as clever, calculating and completely amoral. He knows the difference between right and wrong but he is utterly indifferent to either. This makes for a fascinating protagonist.
Highsmith takes the reader on a dark roller-coaster ride of deception, jealousy, deceit and murder, followed by evasion, more deceit, and more murder. Rather than chilling, senseless violence, Highsmith carefully crafts a mesmerizing tale of pursuit and near-miss as Ripley manages to stay just ahead of capture. He is crafty and calm even when in a panic. For the reader, the result is riveting.
In getting into the eerily empty room that is Tom Ripley’s conscience, I never thought I could sympathize with such a cold and calculating character, yet I was captivated. The story spirals horrifically and the building tension was incredible. There is not one fiber of my being that sympathizes with someone who harms others yet I could not bear the thought of Ripley’s failure. Wow!
Written in the 1950′s, Highsmith exquisitely captures the sense of time and place in New York City and of the enviable life of a wealthy American abroad. She describes in lovely detail the nuances that made life so wonderful for those Ripley admired that it made me want to go back and live there too. Her writing is elegant and clear, simple yet with the depth of distinction to deprive the reader from a restful night’s sleep.
It is not stated in the story whether Dickie or Tom is gay, yet Dickie’s relationship with Marge appears to be platonic due to Dickie’s lack of romantic interest. At one point in the story, Dickie becomes overly sensitive to a comment from Marge that Tom is in love with him. He angrily confronts Tom about this, reminding
us of the Shakespearian adage about protesting too much.
Whether or not the characters are meant to be gay, the attitudes portrayed in the book reflect the 1950s historical setting.
Because the story is set in the ’50s there are elements that will seem dated to the modern reader. For example, Tom takes a boat from New York to Naples, and Mr. Greenleaf sends Tom a telegram. It might be argued that advances in forensic technology and police detection methods mean that Tom would unlikely be able to get away with his crimes today. Nevertheless, the novel remains an exciting suspense thriller with fast-paced action, well-drawn characters and a gripping psychological dimension.
Opening Line: “Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of The Green Cage, heading his way.”
Closing Line: “Amelio. Amelio”
Quotes: “Anticipation! It occurred to him that his anticipation was more pleasant to him than the experiencing.”
Rating: Engaging.

543. Moon Palace – Paul Auster

History: This book was first published in 1989.
Plot: Marco Stanley Fogg, aka M.S., is the son of Emily Fogg. He doesn't know his father. His mother dies because of a car accident when he is eleven years old. He moves to his Uncle Victor, who raises him until Marco goes to a boarding school in Chicago. When he reaches college age, he goes to Columbia University in New York City. After spending his freshman year in a college dormitory, he rents an apartment in New York.
Uncle Victor dies, which makes Marco lose track. After paying the funeral costs, Marco realizes that very little of the money that Uncle Victor gave him is left. He decides to let himself decay, to get out of touch with the world. He makes no effort to earn money. His electricity is cut off, he loses weight, and finally he is told that he must leave his apartment. The day before he is thrown out, Marco decides to ask Zimmer, an old college friend with whom he has lost contact, for help. Zimmer has moved to another apartment, so when Marco arrives at Zimmer's old apartment, he is invited by some strangers to join their breakfast. At that breakfast he meets Kitty Wu for the first time. She seems to fall in love with him. The next day, Marco has to leave his flat, and finds himself on the streets of Manhattan.
Central Park becomes Marco's new home. Here he seeks shelter from the pressure of the Manhattan streets. He finds food in the garbage cans. Marco even manages to stay in touch with what is going on in the world by reading newspapers left by visitors. Although life in Central Park is not very comfortable, he feels at ease because he's enjoying his solitude and he restores the balance between his inner and outer self.
At first, the weather is very good, so where to stay is not a big problem. But after a few weeks the weather changes. In a strong rain shower, Marco becomes ill and retires to a cave in Central Park. After some days of delirium, he crawls out of the cave and has wild hallucinations while lying outside. There, he is finally found by Zimmer and Kitty Wu, who have been looking for him for the whole time. Due to the fever he mistakes Kitty for an Indian and calls her Pocahontas.
Zimmer (the German word for room) is a good friend, hosts Marco in his apartment, bears all his expenses, and helps him to recover. But when Marco has to go to the army physical, he is still rated unfit because of his poor physical and mental state. Marco feels very bad about living at Zimmer's costs, so he finally persuades him to let him do a French translation for him to earn some money. Then he meets Kitty again, and decides to leave Zimmer. They lose touch, and when, after thirteen years, they happen to run into each other in a busy street, Marco learns that Zimmer has married and become a typical middle-class citizen.
After he has finished his work on the translation, Marco searches for another job offer. He finds a job at Effing's, where he is hired for reading books to Effing and driving the old, blind and disabled man through the city of New York in his wheelchair. Effing is a strange man who tries to teach Marco in his own way, taking nothing for granted. Marco has to describe to Effing all the things he can see while driving around. This way, Marco learns to look at the things around him very precisely. After, Effing tells Marco to do the main work he was hired for: Write his obituary. Effing tells him the main facts of his life as the famous painter Julian Barber and his conversion to Thomas Effing. He went to Utah with Byrne, a topographer, and Scoresby, a guide, to paint the vast country. Byrne fell from a high place and the guide flees from the place, leaving Barber alone in the middle of the desert. Barber finds a cave where a hermit used to live and begins to live there. He kills the Gresham brothers, 3 bandits, and takes the money to San Francisco, where he officially takes the name "Thomas Effing". He becomes rich, but one day someone tells him he's very similar to Julian Barber, a famous painter who disappeared. He sinks in depression and fear and begins frequenting China Town, taking drugs, etc. But one day someone attacks him, rushes and hits a street lamp, becoming paraplegic. He stops having such an unhealthy life, and decides to go to France. He comes back to the USA in 1939 fleeing from the Nazis.
Solomon Barber is Marco's father and Effing's son. He is extremely fat (which contrasts to Marco's period of starvation) and didn't know his father nor that he has a son. He inherits most of the fortune of Effing. He meets Marco after the death of Effing to learn about his father and finds a son. Marco, in the family cyclic pattern, doesn't know that Barber is his father. Barber had a relationship with one of his students, Emily, and never knew she was pregnant. Marco learns the truth when he sees Barber crying in front of Emily's grave.
Review:  Both Marco and Solomon are raised without having a father. This has a major impact on them:
Marco completely loses orientation when Uncle Victor dies. He is very upset about not knowing his father. Throughout the novel, Marco tries to find his roots. Shortly after finding his father, he loses him again.
Solomon writes a book that deals with the topic of a fatherless life, showing his own internal quest for identity.
Paul Auster looks at the meanings of the moon in Moon Palace: “The moon is many things all at once, a touchstone. It’s the moon as myth, as ‘radiant Diana, image of all that is dark within us’; the imagination, love, madness. At the same time, it’s the moon as object, as celestial body, as lifeless stone hovering in the sky. But it’s also the longing for what is not, the unattainable, the human desire for transcendence. And yet it’s history as well, particularly American history. First, there’s Columbus, then there was the discovery of the west, then finally there is outer space: the moon as the last frontier. But Columbus had no idea that he’d discovered America. He thought he had sailed to India, to China. In some sense Moon Palace is the embodiment of that misconception, an attempt to think of America as China. But the moon is also repetition, the cyclical nature of human experience. There are three stories in the book, and each one is finally the same. Each generation repeats the mistakes of the previous generation. So it’s also a critique of the notion of progress.”
A more prosaic explanation of the title is that the Moon Palace was a Chinese restaurant (now defunct) in the Morningside Heights neighborhood on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which was a popular student hangout when Auster was studying at Columbia University.
Some aspects of the main character's life in Moon Palace mirror the life of the author. He was a descendant of an Austrian Jewish family, born on the Third of February 1947 in Newark, New Jersey, which is about 15 miles west of New York City. He also attended high school there. In his childhood, Auster's father Samuel Auster was often absent. Samuel Auster was a businessman who left the house in the morning before his son was awake and returned home when he was already in bed. Auster always searched for someone to replace his father. Unlike his father his mother gave Auster very much attention. In fact this may also put a different light on the title as the moon is symbolic of the female or the mother. Paul Auster and Marco Fogg were both born in 1947. Marco's, Solomon's and Paul's father were all absent during their sons' childhoods. When Paul's uncle travelled to Europe he stored several boxes of books at the Austers' home. Paul Auster read one book after the other. The same goes for Marco, who read his Uncle Victor's books.
Opening Line: “It was the summer that men first walked on the moon.”
Closing Line: “I kept my eyes on it as it rose in the night sky, not turning away until it had found it’s place in the darkness.”
Quotes: “It often happens that things are other than what they seem, and you can get yourself into trouble by jumping to conclusions.”
Rating: Very very good.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

542. The Crow Road – Iain Banks

History: This book was published in 1992.
Plot: This Bildungsroman is set in the fictional Argyll town of Gallanach (by its description, reminiscent of Oban but on the north east shore of Loch Crinan), the real village of Lochgair, and in Glasgow where Prentice McHoan lives. Prentice's uncle Rory has disappeared eight years previous while writing a book called The Crow Road. Prentice becomes obsessed with papers his uncle left behind and sets out to solve the mystery. Along the way he must cope with estrangement from his father, unrequited love, sibling rivalry, and failure at his studies.
The estrangement from his father concerns belief in God or an afterlife. Prentice cannot accept a universe without some higher power, some purpose; he can't believe that people can just cease to exist when they die. His father dogmatically denies the existence of God, universal purpose, and the afterlife.
A parallel plot is Prentice's gradual transition from an adolescent fixation on one young woman to a more mature love for another.
Prentice's efforts to piece together Uncle Rory's fragmentary notes and the minimal clues surrounding his disappearance mirror his efforts to make sense of the world, love, and life in general. The narrative is also fragmentary, leaping days, months, years, or decades back and forth with little or no warning, so the reader must also piece things together.
Review: Lots of people take the crow road in this book as we follow the narrator, Prentice McHoan, a student from the fictional town of Gallanach in Argyll and Bute, Scotland. He’s the classic young man on a journey, and he’s got a quest - to find a missing person - but along the way he has lots of sex, drink and drugs, and has his heart broken and mended. Everything a growing boy needs, in fact.
Prentice is drawn into a family mystery involving the disappearance of his favourite uncle, Rory McHoan - a peaceable, bohemian, motorbiking travel writer. When we begin, Rory's been gone for years, but the mystery takes a new twist after the death of Prentice's grandmother brings him back to Gallanach from Glasgow, where he's been studying.
At the funeral, Prentice meets up with his auntie Janice, uncle Rory's partner at the time of his disappearance. After bedding her - and it wouldn't be an Iain Banks book without some form of taboo-busting smut - Prentice comes into possession of some of Rory's papers and a few ancient computer disks. This unfinished writing project is called "The Crow Road".
In deciphering it, Prentice lifts the lid on secrets that plague the lives of his family - including his father, Kenneth, a children's writer and committed atheist, his uncle Fergus, who owns the local glassware factory, and also his childhood friend Ashley, whose uncle Lachlan, you might say, has one eye on events.
There's a mystery story - two, in fact, if we separate the quest to find out what happened to Rory and the struggle to reactivate and decipher his wonky old computer disks - but it's not a mystery novel. And despite the bildungsroman framing, Prentice's journey isn't the sole driver of the plot, either. This book has otherworldly concerns on its mind; in examining very big things in microcosm through Prentice's family, we gain an understanding of sorts about the universe - or at least, we form a truce with our own curiosity as to what it's all about. We miss a lot of things, Banks says. Often the greatest truths are right there under our nose.
Opening Line: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
Closing Line: “I thought of Ashley, on the other side of that ocean, and wondered what she was doing right now, and hoped that she was well, and happy, and maybe thinking of me, and then I just stood there, grinning like a fool, and took a deep, deep breath of that sharp, smoke-scented air and raised my arms to the open sky, and said, ‘Ha!’
Quotes: “People can be teachers and idiots; they can be philosophers and idiots; they can be politicians and idiots... in fact I think they have to be... a genius can be an idiot. The world is largely run for and by idiots; it is no great handicap in life and in certain areas is actually a distinct advantage and even a prerequisite for advancement.”
Rating: Uninteresting

541: Song of Solomon – Toni Morrison

History: This book was published in 1977. The novel has faced several challenges and bans in schools throughout the U.S. since 1993. As recently as 2010, the novel was challenged and later reinstated at Franklin Central High School in Indianapolis, IN. listed Song of Solomon as Barack Obama's favorite book in its list: "40 favorite books of famous people".
Plot: Macon "Milkman" Dead III, derives his nickname from the fact that he was breastfed during childhood (Macon's age can be inferred as he was wearing pants with elastic instead of a diaper, and that he later forgets the event, suggesting he was still rather young). Milkman's father's employee, Freddie, happens to see him through the window being breastfed by his mother. He quickly gains a reputation for being a "Momma's boy" in direct contrast to his (future) best friend, Guitar, who is motherless and fatherless.
Milkman has two sisters, "First Corinthians" and "Magdelene called Lena." The daughters of the family are named by putting a pin in the Bible, while the eldest son is named after his father. The first Macon Dead's name was the result of an administrative error when Milkman's grandfather had to register subsequent to the end of slavery.
Milkman's mother (Ruth Foster Dead) is the daughter of the town's only black doctor; she makes her husband feel inadequate, and it is clear she idolized her father, Doctor Foster, to the point of obsession. After her father dies, her husband claims to have found her in bed with the dead body, sucking his fingers. Ruth later tells Milkman that she was kneeling at her father's bedside kissing the only part of him that remained unaffected by the illness from which he died. These conflicting stories expose the problems between his parents and show Milkman that "truth" is difficult or impossible to obtain. Macon (Jr.) is often violently aggressive towards Ruth because he believes that she was involved sexually with her father and loved her father more than her own husband. On one occasion, Milkman punches his father after he strikes Ruth, exposing the growing rift between father and son.
In contrast, Macon Dead Jr.'s sister, Pilate, is seen as nurturing—an Earth Mother character. Born without a navel, she is a somewhat mystical character. It is strongly implied that she is Divine—a female Christ-in spite of her name. Macon (Jr.) has not spoken to his sister for years and does not think highly of her. She, like Macon, has had to fend for herself from an early age after their father's murder, but she has dealt with her past in a different way than Macon, who has embraced money as the way to show his love for his father. Pilate has a daughter, Reba, and a granddaughter named Hagar. Hagar falls desperately and obsessively in love with Milkman, and is unable to cope with his rejection, attempting to kill him at least six times.
Hagar is not the only character who attempts to kill Milkman. Guitar, Milkman's erstwhile best friend, tries to kill Milkman more than once after incorrectly suspecting that Milkman has cheated him out of hidden gold, a fortune he planned to use to help his Seven Days group fund their revenge killings in response to killings of blacks.
Searching for the gold near the old family farm in Pennsylvania, Milkman stops at the rotting Butler Mansion, former home of the people who killed his ancestor to claim the farm. Here he meets Circe, an almost supernaturally old ex-slave of the Butlers. She tells Milkman of his family history and this leads him to the town of Shalimar. There he learns his great-grandfather Solomon was said to have escaped slavery by flying back to Africa, leaving behind twenty-one children and his wife Ryna, who goes crazy with loss. Returning home, he learns that Hagar has died of a broken heart. He accompanies Pilate back to Shalimar, where she is accidentally shot and killed by Guitar, who had intended to kill Milkman.
At the end of the novel, Milkman leaps towards Guitar. This leap is ambiguous, it is not explicitly stated that either or both is killed. However it brings the novel full circle from the suicidal "flight" of Robert Smith, the insurance agent, to Milkman's "flight" in which he learns to fly like Pilate
Review: Toni Morrison’s first two books -- ''The Bluest Eye'' with the purity of its terrors and ''Sula'' with its dense poetry and the depth of its probing into a small circle of lives -- were strong novels. Yet, firm as they both were in achievement and promise, they didn't fully forecast her new book, ''Song of Solomon.'' Here the depths of the younger work are still evident, but now they thrust outward, into wider fields, for longer intervals, encompassing many more lives. The result is a long prose tale that surveys nearly a century of American history as it impinges upon a single family. In short, this is a full novel -- rich, slow enough to impress itself upon us like a love affair or a sickness -- not the two-hour penny dreadful which is again in vogue nor one of the airless cat's cradles custom-woven for the delight and job-assistance of graduate students of all ages.
''Song of Solomon'' isn't, however, cast in the basically realistic mode of most family novels. In fact, its negotiations with fantasy, fable, song and allegory are so organic, continuous and unpredictable as to make any summary of its plot sound absurd; but absurdity is neither Morrison's strategy nor purpose. The purpose seems to be communication of painfully discovered and powerfully held convictions about the possibility of transcendence within human life, on the time-scale of a single life. The strategies are multiple and depend upon the actions of a large cast of black Americans, most of them related by blood. But after the loving, comical and demanding polyphony of the early chapters (set in Michigan in the early 1930's), the theme begins to settle on one character and to develop around and out of him.
His name is Macon Dead, called ''Milkman'' because his mother nursed him well past infancy. He is the son of an upper middle-class Northern black mother and a father with obscure working-class Southern origins. These origins, which Milkman's father is intent on concealing, fuel him in a merciless drive toward money and safety -- over and past the happiness of wife and daughters and son. So the son grows up into chaos and genuine danger -- the homicidal intentions of a woman he spurned after years of love, and an accidental involvement with a secret ring of lifelong acquaintances who are sworn to avenge white violence, eye for eye.
Near midpoint in the book -- when we may begin to wonder if the spectacle of Milkman's apparently thwarted life is sufficient to hold our attention much longer -- there is an abrupt shift. Through his involvement with his father's sister, the bizarre and anarchic Pilate (whose dedication to life and feeling is directly opposed to her brother's methodical acquisition of things), and with Guitar, one of the black avengers, Milkman is flung out of his private maelstrom. He is forced to discover, explore, comprehend and accept a world more dangerous than the Blood Bank (the ghetto neighborhood of idle eccentrics, whores, bullies and lunatics, which he visited as a boy). But this world is also rewarding, as it opens into the larger, freer sphere of time and human contingency and reveals the possibility of knowing one's origins and of realizing the potential found in the lives, failures and victories of one's ancestors.
Although it begins as a hungry hunt for a cache of gold that his father and Pilate left in a cave in Virginia, Milkman's search is finally a search for family history. As he travels through Pennsylvania and Virginia, acquiring the jagged pieces of a story that he slowly assembles into a long pattern of courage and literal transcendence of tragedy, he is strengthened to face the mortal threat that rises from his own careless past to meet him at the end.
The end is unresolved. Does Milkman survive to use his new knowledge, or does he die at the hands of a hateful friend? The hint is that he lives -- in which case Toni Morrison has her next novel ready and waiting: Milkman's real manhood, the means he invents for transmitting or squandering the legacy he has discovered.
But that very uncertainty is one more sign of the book's larger truthfulness (no big, good novel has ever really ended; and none can, until it authoritatively describes the extinction from the universe of all human life); and while there are problems (occasional abortive pursuits of a character who vanishes, occasional luxuriant pauses on detail and the understandable but weakening omission of active white characters), ''Song of Solomon'' easily lifts above them on the wide slow wings of human sympathy, well-informed wit and the rare plain power to speak wisdom to other human beings. A long story, then, and better than good. Toni Morrison has earned attention and praise. Few Americans know, and can say, more than she has in this wise and spacious novel.
Opening Line: “The North Carolina Mutual Life insurance agent, promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three oclock.”
Closing Line: “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
Quotes: “She was the third beer. Not the first one, which the throat receives with almost tearful gratitude; nor the second, that confirms and extends the pleasure of the first. But the third, the one you drink because it's there, because it can't hurt, and because what difference does it make?”
Rating: Good

540. Sexing the Cherry – Jeanette Winterson

History: This book was published in 1989.
Plot: Set in 17th century London, Sexing the Cherry is about the journeys of a mother, known as The Dog Woman, and her protégé, Jordan. They journey in a space-time flux: across the seas to find exotic fruits such as bananas and pineapples; and across time, with glimpses of "the present" and references to Charles I of England and Oliver Cromwell. The mother’s physical appearance is somewhat "grotesque". She is a giant, wrapped in a skirt big enough to serve as a ship’s sail and strong enough to fling an elephant. She is also hideous, with smallpox scars in which fleas live, a flat nose and foul teeth. Her son, however, is proud of her, as no other mother can hold a good dozen oranges in her mouth all at once. Ultimately, their journey is a journey in search of The Self.
Review: The central relationship is between Jordan and the Dog Woman. It is a savage love, an unorthodox love, it is family life carried to the grotesque, but it is not a parody or a negative. The boisterous surrealism of their bond is in the writing itself. By writing the familiar into the strange, by wording the unlovely into words-as-jewels, what is outcast can be brought home. I have also thought of myself as an outcast, but I have made myself a territory by writing it. Sexing the Cherry is a cross-time novel in the same way that The Passion is cross-gender. The narrative moves through time, but also operates outside it. At the centre of the book are the stories of the Twelve Dancing Princess, each only a page long, written as a kind of fugue. The stories aren't just parachuted in there, they are integral to the whole, in just the same way that the Percival stories are integral to Oranges. That is, they tell us something we need to know to interpret the book.
Opening Line: “My name is Jordan.”
Closing Line: “Empty space and points of light.”
Quotes: “The Buddhists say there are 149 ways to God. I'm not looking for God, only for myself, and that is far more complicated. God has had a great deal written about Him; nothing has been written about me. God is bigger, like my mother, easier to find, even in the dark. I could be anywhere, and since I can't describe myself I can't ask for help.”
Rating: Okay.

Monday, March 25, 2013

539. Ignorance – Milan Kundera

History: This book was written in 1999 in French and published in 2000. It was translated into English in 2002.
Plot: Czech expatriate Irena, who has been living in France, decides to return to her home after twenty years. During the trip she meets, by chance, Josef, a fellow émigré who was briefly her lover in Prague.
The novel examines the feelings instigated by the return to a homeland, which has ceased to be a home. In doing so, it reworks the Odyssean themes of homecoming. It paints a poignant picture of love and its manifestations, a recurring theme in Kundera's novels. The novel explores and centres around the way that people have selective memories as a precursor to ignorance. The concept of ignorance is presented as a two-fold phenomenon; in which ignorance can be a willing action that people participate in, such as avoiding unpleasant conversation topics or acting out. Yet also exploring the involuntary aspects of being ignorant, such as feigning ignorance of the past or avoiding the truth.
Review: Since Milan Kundera stopped writing fiction in Czech, he has produced two slim novels in French, Slowness (1996) and Identity (1998). Both are set in France, where he has lived since 1975. Ignorance, too, is a compact exploration of variations on a theme: that of "home", nostalgia for homeland, and the irony of the Odyssean homecoming. Yet like much of Kundera's fiction, its deeper concern is with memory and forgetting.
Irene is a Czech émigré who has spent 20 years in Paris since the crushing of the Prague spring in 1968, alternating between waking nostalgia and the fearful "emigration-dream" of finding herself back in her native land. With the collapse of communism in 1989, she bows to pressure from French friends to embark on the "great return", the romantic voyage "home", only to rediscover that she had left partly to escape her over bearing mother. "The implacable forces of history that had attacked her freedom had set her free."
At Paris airport she meets Josef, a vet with whom she had a brief encounter in Prague, now a widower living in Denmark and making his first journey back. He too finds his emigration was driven by a need to escape - in his case his noxious, masochistic memory. With excruciating insight, Kundera homes in on the alienation of the returning émigré. Trying on a dress, Irene is momentarily imprisoned in the life she might have led had she stayed. For Josef, seeing his old watch on his brother's wrist "threw him into a strange unease. He had the sense he was coming back into the world as might a dead man emerging from his tomb after 20 years". His mother-tongue is an "unknown language whose every word he understood". Their memories are out of sync with those they have left behind. Encountering resentment and "suffering-contests" over who had the hardest time under the regime, Irene is shocked by friends' indifference to the 20-year "odyssey" that separates her from them but which has become her identity; she is like Odysseus after his 20-year wandering, "amazed to realise that his life, the very essence of his life, its centre, its treasure, lay outside Ithaca". Irene senses that, as a condition of reacceptance and pardon, they "want to amputate 20 years of my life from me".
Kundera also skewers facile assumptions about the émigré. Irene is dropped by a Parisian friend who feels duped by her refusal to confirm her suffering with a joyous homecoming. According to Irene, the French, for whom "judgments precede experience", were "already thoroughly informed that Stalinism is an evil and emigration is a tragedy. They weren't interested in what we thought, they were interested in us as living proof of what they thought".
Their alienation inexorably brings Irene and Josef together. Yet the novel also reveals how the selectiveness of memory, regardless of geographical displacement, can create rifts both with our earlier selves and between people who ostensibly share a past. Finding in his teenage diaries evidence of "sentimentality mixed with sadism", Josef wonders: "How can two such alien, such opposite beings have the same handwriting? What common essence is it that made a single person of him and this little snot?" He remembers next to nothing of his break-up with a girlfriend in his adolescence, but the novel reveals her trauma, which led to a botched suicide attempt that left her frostbitten, her beauty marred by an amputated ear.
Irene too remembers perfectly her first encounter with Josef, while he recalls nothing, not even her name. Their attraction is based on an "unjust and revolting inequality", and is exposed as a delusion in an inevitable sex scene. As Kundera once told Philip Roth, the erotic scenes in which all his novels culminate are the "focus where all the themes of the story converge and where its deepest secrets are located". This is a pity, since the eroticism is banal and tawdry; the couple are aroused by "dirty" words in their mother tongue, while in a parallel scene, Irene's mother seduces her daughter's cuckolded Swedish lover, Gustaf. The denouement, an unravelling of illusion, proves bathetic rather than profound.
There are also inane, inchoate parallels between Irene and Josef's early girlfriend, whose suicide attempt was born of overpowering "nostalgia" for a dawning past, and also resulted in "amputation". Yet the novel is propelled by Kundera's ironic probing of the mythology of home, the delusions of roots. Nostalgia, from the Greek nostos (return) and algos (suffering), is the "suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return". Provocatively, the novel suggests an inverse relationship between memory and nostalgia: lone exiles are amnesiac, for nostalgia "suffices unto itself... so fully absorbed is it by its suffering and nothing else". Memory, however, relies on collective reinforcement. Émigrés in "compatriot colonies" retell tales to the "point of nausea", rendering them unforgettable. Josef opts to return to Denmark, realizing that if he stays in Prague he will lose the memory of his dead wife, whom no one asks after.
Challenging the "moral hierarchy of emotions" laid down when Homer "glorified nostalgia with a laurel wreath", Ignorance tilts at the romantic assumption that separation from the land of one's birth must be a kind of death - just as, for the artist, it is casually and erroneously assumed to be the death of creativity.
Opening Line: “What are you still doing here?”
Closing Line: “Through the port hole, he saw far off in the sky a low wooden fence, and a brick house with a slender fir tree like a lifted arm before it.”
Quotes: “In Irena’s head the alcohol plays a double role: it frees her fantasy, encourages her boldness, makes her sensual, and at the same time it dims her memory. She makes love wildly, lasciviously, and at the same time the curtain of oblivion wraps her lewdness in an all-concealing darkness. As if a poet were writing his greatest poem with ink that instantly disappears.”
Rating: Difficult

538. Clarissa – Samuel Richardson

History: This novel was published in 1748.
Plot: Clarissa Harlowe, the tragic heroine of Clarissa, is a beautiful and virtuous young lady whose family has become wealthy only recently and now desires to become part of the aristocracy. Their original plan was to concentrate the wealth and lands of the Harlowes into the possession of Clarissa's brother James Harlowe, whose wealth and political power will lead to his being granted a title. Clarissa's grandfather leaves her a substantial piece of property upon his death, and a new route to the nobility opens through Clarissa marrying Robert Lovelace, heir to an earldom. James's response is to provoke a duel with Lovelace, who is seen thereafter as the family's enemy. James also proposes that Clarissa marry Roger Solmes, who is willing to trade properties with James to concentrate James's holdings and speed his becoming Lord Harlowe. The family agrees and attempts to force Clarissa to marry Solmes, whom she finds physically disgusting as well as boorish.
Desperate to remain free, she begins a correspondence with Lovelace. When her family's campaign to force her marriage reaches its height, Lovelace tricks her into eloping with him. Joseph Leman, the Harlowes' servant, shouts and makes noise so it may seem like the family has awoken and discovered that Clarissa and Lovelace are about to run away. Frightened of the possible aftermath, Clarissa leaves with Lovelace but becomes his prisoner for many months. She is kept at many lodgings and even a brothel, where the women are disguised as high-class ladies by Lovelace himself. She refuses to marry him on many occasions, longing to live by herself in peace. She eventually runs away but Lovelace finds her and tricks her into returning to the brothel.
Lovelace intends to marry Clarissa to avenge her family's treatment of him and wants to possess both her body as well as her mind. He believes if she loses her virtue, she will be forced to marry him on any terms. As he is more and more impressed by Clarissa, he finds it difficult to believe that virtuous women do not exist.
The pressure he finds himself under, combined with his growing passion for Clarissa, drives him to extremes and eventually he rapes her by drugging her. Through this action, Clarissa must accept and marry Lovelace. It is suspected that Mrs. Sinclair (the brothel manager) and the other prostitutes assist Lovelace during the rape.
Lovelace's action backfires and Clarissa is ever more adamantly opposed to marrying a vile and corrupt individual like Lovelace. Eventually, Clarissa manages to escape from the brothel but becomes dangerously ill due to the mental duress of many months caused by "the vile Lovelace."
Clarissa is sheltered by the kind but poor Smiths and during her sickness she gains another worshipper — John Belford, another libertine who happens to be Lovelace's best friend. Belford is amazed at the way Clarissa handles her approaching death and laments what Lovelace has done. In one of the many letters sent to Lovelace he writes "if the divine Clarissa asks me to slit thy throat, Lovelace, I shall do it in an instance." Eventually, surrounded by strangers and her cousin Col. Morden, Clarissa dies in the full consciousness of her virtue and trusting in a better life after death. Belford manages Clarissa's will and ensures that all her articles and money go into the hands of the individuals she desires should receive them.
Lovelace seems to have moved on but Belford sends him Clarissa's will. He is shattered when he reads it and can live no longer. Col. Morden has gone back to Italy and he knows that there is only one way to atone for his sins. Lovelace asks Morden for a duel (although not directly) and they meet somewhere in Italy. Lovelace fights Morden and keeps on getting injured. He pretends to be not injured and goes after Morden many times — each time receiving another deadly blow. Eventually Morden realizes that he has been injured very badly and might die. The duel ends, Morden leaves and Lovelace is taken to his lodgings. The doctor is unable to do anything and Lovelace dies a day afterwards. Before dying he says "let this expiate!"
Clarissa's relatives finally realise the misery they have caused but discover that they are too late and Clarissa has already died. The story ends with an account of the fate of the other characters.
Review: Samuel Richardson's massive 1747-8 novel, "Clarissa," is much like Richardson's first novel, "Pamela," "Clarissa" deals with the torments of a virtuous young lady abducted by a rake/libertine (in modern parlance, a rapist) who submits the heroine to a series of trials. Unlike Pamela, a lower class maiden, Clarissa is a member of an established and wealthy family. This change in social situation allows Richardson to explore a host of new issues, with the primary goal of moral didacticism remaining intact between the two.
Clarissa Harlowe, the most beautiful and exemplary of her sex, is being imposed upon by her implacable family to marry one Mr. Solmes, a man of no mean fortune, but whose ethics, especially with regard to his own family, are suspect. Simultaneously, Clarissa's sister, Arabella, has just rejected a proposal from one Robert Lovelace, the heir of a nobleman, educated and refined, but known for his libertinism - his tendency and enjoyment of seducing young women and then abandoning them. Lovelace falls in love, or in lust, with Clarissa, and after he and Clarissa's brother James, heir to the Harlowe fortune, engage in a near fatal duel, Clarissa's continued correspondence with Lovelace becomes a major thorn in the side of the Harlowes' plans for Clarissa. The Harlowes continue to urge the addresses of Mr. Solmes while vilifying Lovelace - Clarissa not approving of either - and when her family's insitence becomes insupportable to Clarissa, the utterly demonic Lovelace takes advantage, whisking her away from a seemingly inevitable union with Solmes. Thus begins an absolutely terrifying journey for Clarissa through the darkness of humanity, as Lovelace plots and executes his seduction of the 'divine' Clarissa.
An epistolary novel, "Clarissa" is written in the form of a series of letters spanning nine months, principally between Clarissa and her best friend and iconoclast, Anna Howe, and between Lovelace and a fellow libertine, John Belford. Richardson's 'to the moment' style of writing gives a minute account of everything that happens to the main characters almost as it happens, giving the novel a highly dramatic sense of urgency. The four major correspondents, as well as others, also give the novel a well-developed sense of perspective, as we get not only the events, but biased opinions and readings of all the other characters, making the events at times difficult to follow, but at the same time, marvelously rich and complex.
Some of the most interesting facets of this novel are its interactions with the law, primarily inheritance law, the contrast between history and story, and at the forefront, the debate over gender roles in marriage. Almost of a piece with the novel's legal issues, Richardson examines the vagueries of semantics - what do words mean? How are words regarded and used differently by men and women? Richardson also confronts the way we read and interpret 'truth' - in a book composed of letters, subjectively written and read, where can we look to for 'truth'?
Among the characters in the novel, by far the most captivating and challenging in "Clarissa" is the aforementioned Anna Howe. The ways she clashes with tradition and propriety throughout the novel are entertaining, and very much reminiscent of the eponymous heroine of Defoe's "Moll Flanders."
Opening Line: “I am extremely concerned, my dearest friend, for the disturbance that have happened in your family.”
Closing Line: “But where the contrary of all these qualities shock the understanding, the extravagant performance will be judged tedious, though no longer than a fairy-tale.”
Quotes: “For love must be a very foolish thing to look back upon, when it has brought persons born to affluence into indigence, and laid a generous mind under obligation and dependence.”
Rating: I confess I only skimmed.

537. Dangling Man – Saul Bellow

History: This novel was written in 1944. It is Saul Bellow’s first published work and established him in the literary world.
Plot: At 27, a Chicagoan named Joseph, a university graduate, an intellectual, five years married, leaves his job with a travel bureau, and under the pressure of waiting to be taken to war as a draftee feels himself alienated from society. In his diary between Dec.15,1942, and April9,1943, he objectively describes his quarrels with friends, in-laws, his wife Iva, by whom he is supported in their mean rooming house, and his brother Amos, a go-getting success, as he undergoes intense self-analysis dedicated only to the belief “I must know what I myself am.” Talks with his alter ego, “Tu As Raison Aussi,” finally convince him that man creates his own destiny and send him to volunteer in the army rather than continue to wait indefinitely to be inducted.
Review: Dangling Man is Bellow’s debut from 1944, bringing us into his twin worlds of thought and fascination, and of colourful characters. The book takes the form of a journal kept by Joseph, surname undeclared, as he waits for his call-up by the Army after enlisting, when “there is nothing to do but wait, or dangle, and grow more and more dispirited.” To keep his spirits up he records his thoughts, contrary to the spirit of the day (“Do you have feelings? There are correct and incorrect ways of indicating them.
Pretty quickly Joseph learns that to have all this free time, this freedom, leads him not only into dolour but into mischief, and he manages to start fights during the course of the novel with his wife (“Iva, it’s this situation we’re in. It’s changed us both”), his neighbours, his friends and his precocious niece Etta, who pushes him too far in a superbly ambiguous set piece. He toys with infidelity and it is this “avidity” which is Joseph’s other problem, his desire to experience and record everything.
Opening Line: “December 15, 1942: There was a time when people were in the habit of addressing themselves frequently, and felt no shame in making a record of their inner transactions.”
Closing Line: “Long live regimentation!”
Quotes: “At the root of it all was my unwillingness to miss anything. A compact with one woman puts beyond reach what others might give us to enjoy; the soft blondes and the dark, aphrodisiacal women of our imaginations are set aside. Shall we leave life not knowing them? Must we?”
Rating: Okay

Thursday, March 21, 2013

536. The Book of “O” – James Thurber

History: The Wonderful O is the last of James Thurber’s 5 short-book fairy tales for children. It was published in 1957
Plot: Pirates Black and Littlejack have sailed their ship, the Aieu1, to the island of Ooroo in search of treasure. The catch? (and the source of the book’s title?): Littlejack has declared a vendetta against the letter O, as his mother became stuck in a porthole years before. They could not pull her in, so they had to push her out.While they search, Black, Littlejack and their nefarious crew insist that the island residents no longer use the letter O, either spoken aloud or on paper, a move which affects the population across the board. Group names are partially exempt, but the quest is on for O-less synonyms for all the flowers and orchestral pieces, professions, jobs, and personal names rendered laughable, unpronounceable and flat-out offensive by Littlejack’s vowel phobia. Violin, oboe, viola and bassoon are gone from the orchestra; forget-me-not, rose, violet and hollyhock removed from the countryside; Otto Ott and Ophelia Oliver stutter and flee society. Pigs and sheep are acceptable, but not pork or mutton, bacon or chop; hens and geese are allowed but not poultry or goose, rooster or flock. And so on.
The villagers, led by the lovers Andrea and Andreus, conspire in the forest in the dark of night on how to restore all the necessary things which require O to exist, not least four concepts which make life worth living: hope, love, valor and the fourth one, unnamed until the end of the book. The Wonderful O does have a happy ending, with the pirates driven away by all the things with O, and the islanders free to use all the vowels as needed.
Review: Black and Littlejack are bad men. Littlejack has a map that indicates the existence of a treasure on a far and lonely island. He needs a ship to get there. Black has a ship. So they team up and sail off on Black’s vessel, the Aeiu. “A weird uncanny name,” remarks Littlejack, “like a nightbird screaming.” Black explains that it’s all the vowels except for O. O he hates since his mother got wedged in a porthole. They couldn’t pull her in so they had to push her out.
Black and Littlejack arrive at the port of the far and lonely island and demand the treasure. No one knows anything about it, so they have their henchmen ransack the place—to no avail. But Black has a better idea: he will take over the island and he will purge it of O.
The vicissitudes visited on the islanders by Black and Littlejack, the harsh limits of a life sans O (where shoe is she and woe is we), and how finally with a little luck and lots of pluck the islanders shake off their tyrannical interlopers and discover the true treasure for themselves (Oh yes—and get back their O’s)—these are only some of the surprises that await readers of James Thurber’s timelessly zany fairy tale about two louts who try to lock up the language—and lose.
Opening Line: “The man with the map, and the man with the ship sailed for the island rich with sapphires, emeralds and rubys.”
Closing Line: “The sun went down, and it’s golden glow, lighted with fire, the Wonderful O.”
Quotes: “Taking a single letter from the alphaber," he said, "should make life simpler."
Rating: Not very good even for a fairy tale.  

535. The House in Paris – Elizabeth Bowen

History: First published in 1935, it was well received by critics past and present.
Plot: The novel opens in Paris, early in the morning, as eleven-year-old Henrietta Mountjoy, accompanied by Miss Naomi Fisher, travel via taxi to the house of Mme Fisher, an elderly and sickly lady who for years has taken in well-off girls for a season. Henrietta is traveling to Menton, in the south of France, to spend time with her grandmother, Mrs. Arbuthnot. Henrietta that she will be spending her day with Leopold, a nine-year old boy who is supposed to meet his mother there for the first time; Miss Fisher asks Henrietta to "be a little considerate with Leopold", and "to ask Leopold nothing". After breakfast and a nap in the salon, Henrietta awakens to find Leopold standing before her. The two young children talk about their life: Leopold explains Mme Fisher's illness and his own anticipation regarding the arrival of his mother later that day; Henrietta reveals to Leopold that her mother is dead. Even though Leopold angers Henrietta by spilling the contents of her handbag, the two children develop a rapport.
Miss Fisher leads Henrietta to Mme Fisher's room. While they are upstairs, Leopold rummages through Miss Fisher's handbag, discovering three envelopes. He disregards the first, a letter pertaining to Henrietta. The second envelope, with a Berlin postmark, is from his mother, but the envelope is empty, and he feels like Miss Fisher has "done him down." The third envelope contains a letter from Marian Grant Moody, his adoptive mother, to Miss Fisher. Besides discussing the boy's itinerary, she writes exhaustively of Leopold's delicate and rather unstable constitution, and says more than once that the boy has not had a sex education yet, so any explanation of his birth will have to be handled delicately.
Leopold returns to the first envelope concerning Henrietta, written to Miss Fisher by Henrietta's grandmother, Mrs. Arbuthnot. Referring repeatedly to her old acquaintance and present addressee as "Miss Kingfisher", she informs Miss Fisher that Henrietta is to spend the remainder of the winter with Mrs. Arbuthnot in the south of France, and should only be staying a day in Paris. The tone of the letter is manipulative: Mrs. Arbuthnot subtly chastises Miss Fisher for not visiting her, all the while asking that Henrietta be allowed to spend the day in Paris.
During this time, Henrietta is introduced to Mme Fisher in her upstairs bedroom. As Miss Fisher sits knitting, her mother and the young girl converse, Mme Fisher frequently critiquing her daughter, commenting on her own bad health, and, ultimately, discussing Leopold: Henrietta learns that Leopold's now-dead father at one time broke her daughter's heart.
Henrietta then returns to the salon and discovers Leopold going through the handbag. The section concludes with the arrival of a telegram, summarized by Miss Fisher: "Your mother is not coming; she cannot come."
"Meetings that do not come off keep a character of their own." The novel's second section shift back a decade to the story of Leopold's parents. The introductory pages of the section make clear that this the entire section is imaginary, perhaps a long and dramatic imaginative vision on Leopold's part. The section contains the information that may have been exchanged between Karen and Leopold should she have actually kept her promise to her son and arrived as scheduled that day in Paris.
Karen Michaelis, ten years or so before the day of the previous section, is sailing from her native England to visit her Aunt Violet and Uncle Bill Bent at Rushbrook, County Cork, Ireland. Karen is escaping the pressures of her recent engagement to Ray Forrestier, ambivalent about the wedding; Ray himself is on a business trip. Her time with Uncle Bill and Aunt Violet is rather uneventful and uninspiring until Uncle Bill, a nervous and socially inadequate man, tells Karen that Violet is to have surgery in the coming weeks, a procedure that could prove fatal. Back in England, Karen finds Naomi Fisher waiting for her; she has traveled to London to see to the affairs of her recently deceased aunt, and tells Karen of her engagement to Max Ebhart, whom Karen met years before during while she was one of the girls staying at Mme Fisher's house. Despite Karen's objections—she had always been afraid of Max—Naomi insists the three spend time together before Max and Naomi return home.
During a picnic, Max and Karen come close, sharing a secret touch and holding hands. Afterward, Karen resigns herself to her upcoming marriage, but before too long, the Michaelis family receives news of Aunt Violet's death, and once again things are in a state of disorder. During this chaotic time Max calls and asks to see Karen. They meet clandestinely in Boulogne and spend the day together. Max reveals that Mme Fisher believes her daughter is not good enough for him, but according to Max, Naomi is an acceptable match, simply because she is "like the furniture or the dark", comfortable and reassuring. Ultimately, however, she evokes no passion in him. Likewise, Karen confides that she does not wish to marry Ray. They part, but meet again on Folkestone pier the following Saturday, spending the remainder of the day and evening in a hotel room. Karen awakens in the middle of the night and while examining her and Max's shared circumstances, she develops a type of unconscious awareness of Leopold, despite having no clear evidence he will eventually exist, suggested by the author in second person: "All the same, the idea of you, Leopold, began to be present with her."
The following day, Max writes a letter to Naomi, explaining his relationship with and feelings for Karen. Karen implores him to rethink the revelation, specifically the unreality of the arrangement ("You and I are the dream. Go back to her".) She tears up the letter, and they agree that while Naomi must be made aware of the affair, it is best both to write her and tell her in person. Karen's rendezvous with Max is eventually discovered by Mrs. Michaelis, and while Karen tries to explain the relationship, Mrs. Michaelis cannot understand.
Next, Karen learns through the French newspapers that Max has committed suicide, and Naomi arrives in London, where she explains the circumstances surrounding his death: after receiving his letter and informing Mme Fisher of his intentions, Naomi is quarantined by her mother, who intends to keep Naomi from seeing Max and removing any possibility of spoiling Max's chance for happiness with Karen. Max does visit Naomi, however, speaking to her of the failure inherent in his relationship with Karen: "'What she and I are' he said, 'is outside life; we shall fail.'" He is visibly distressed as Mme Fisher returns to the salon. Naomi returns to her upstairs bedroom. There is a commotion in the salon, and Naomi returns to find her mother strewn across the sofa and blood on the floor. Max has cut his own wrist, making his way out the door into the street, and dying in an alley. In the following days, Mme Fisher will observe that "it was the commendation he could not bear. I was commending him when he took his knife out." At the end of the section, Karen reveals to Naomi that she is pregnant with Max's child, and will leave for Germany to try to avoid any scandal.
The first sentence of the last section repeats the last sentence of the first: "Your mother is not coming; she cannot come." Leopold again imagines how the meeting would have gone if it had occurred. Henrietta senses Leopold's disappointment; she holds him and cries. Miss Fisher reenters the salon, informing Leopold that Mme Fisher would like to see him.
Not unlike the earlier exchange with Henrietta, the conversation between Leopold and Mme Fisher is uncomfortable and at times Mme Fisher is blunt, even cruel. She attempts to explain Karen's unique nature to the disconsolate boy, abandoning any of those delicacies requested in Marian Grant Moody's earlier letter. She explains Leopold his history, including the details of his birth, the death of his half-sibling, his adoption, and his general displacement in the world. Leopold begs to remain in the house, exclaiming, "At Spezia when I am angry I go full of smoke inside, but when you make me angry I see everything." At this point Miss Fisher returns to the room and whisks Leopold away again.
Ray Forrestier is waiting in the salon for Leopold. When the child arrives, their interaction is strained, distant, and uncomfortable. A good portion of the narrative focuses on Ray's conflicting feelings about Leopold, his marriage to Karen, the child's inescapable presence in their shared life, and Ray's own situational obligations. Ultimately, Ray and Leopold leave the house together, dropping off Henrietta at the train station on the way; the two children say their goodbyes and head off in different directions.
Review: ''The House in Paris'' is Bowen's best novel, ''one of those books that grow in the mind, in time.'' It is also a book about the growth of the mind in time. Two children cross paths in this house. One of them, Leopold, is waiting for his mother, who does not arrive. That, in a sense, is all that happens, except that the reason she doesn't arrive encompasses Leopold's paternity, and the nature of passion, and deaths both literal and of the soul, and everything that divides the knowledge of children from the knowledge of adults. It is tragic, exquisite and told in strange and exact sentences that only Bowen could write. Of one bitter character: ''Caring for nothing, she seemed to keep every happening, like rows of sea-blunted pebbles with no character, in her lit-up mind.''
The novel is concerned throughout with betrayal and secrecy. Karen betrayed her mother by not revealing Aunt Violet's terminal illness during her remaining weeks of life; in fact, the narrator reports that "Karen did not even ask herself why she had said nothing." Mme Fisher betrayed Naomi by encouraging Max to choose Karen, enabling Max and Karen to begin their affair and betray their respective fiancés, while Karen betrayed Naomi as well: when Karen admonishes Max, "you cannot do that to Naomi," Max responds, "Did you always think so much of her?" Maud Ellmann even asserts that Karen only loves Max "precisely because he is another woman's". Later, after Karen has conceived her illegitimate child, Mrs. Michaelis betrays her husband by sending Karen on a year of supposed European travel and study, just as Karen further betrays Ray by secretly giving birth to and then giving away an illegitimate son. In the present, Karen still betrays her father, who is desperate for grandchildren, by hiding his grandson's existence. Ultimately, Karen betrays Leopold at the eleventh hour when she refuses to meet him in Paris, a betrayal underscored by the repeated message to Leopold, "Your mother is not coming; she cannot come." Because of Karen's betrayal of Leopold, Bennett and Royle qualified The House in Paris as "Bowen's most rigorous and unremittingly clairvoyant elaboration of the structure and effects of psychic trauma. The House in Paris is what we propose to call a traumaturgy, both a work and theory of wounds." Finally, Ray betrays the Grant Moody foster family by stealing Leopold at the novel's close. There is so much secrecy throughout the text that, according to Marian Kelly, "Bowen forces readers into the position of detective by making constant deduction at the level of both conversational references and character psychology a central element of reading her novel".
Opening Line: “In a taxi skidding away from the Gare de Leon, one dark greasy February morning before the shutters were down, Henrietta sat beside Miss Fisher.”
Closing Line: “The copper night sky went glossy over the city crowned with signs and started alight with windows, the wet square like a lake at the foot of the station ramp.”
Quotes: “...there must be something she wanted; and that therefore she was no lady.”
Rating: Really good.

Monday, March 18, 2013

534. Burger’s Daughter – Nadine Gordimer

History: This book was first published in the United Kingdom in 1979. The book was not published in South Africa because it was expected to be banned in that country. A month after publication in London, the import and sale of the book in South Africa was prohibited, although the restriction was lifted six months later.
Gordimer herself was involved in South African struggle politics, and she knew many of the activists. She described Burger's Daughter as "a coded homage" to Fischer. While still banned in South Africa, a copy of the book was smuggled into Mandela's prison cell on Robben Island, and he reported that he "thought well of it".
Plot: The novel is set mostly in Johannesburg in the early- to mid-1970s during Apartheid. Rosa is the daughter of Lionel Burger, a white Afrikaner anti-apartheid activist, who is standing trial for treason. The court finds him guilty and sentences him to life in prison. Rosa visits him regularly, just as she visited her mother, Cathy Burger when she was imprisoned some ten years previously. Cathy died when Rosa was still at school. Rosa grew up in a family that actively supported the overthrow of the apartheid government, and the house they lived in opened its doors to anyone supporting the struggle, regardless of colour. Living with them was "Baasie", a black boy Rosa's age the Burgers had "adopted" when his father had died in prison. Bassie and Rosa grew up as brother and sister. Both Rosa's parents were members of the outlawed South African Communist Party (SACP), and she was told from an early age that they could be detained by the authorities at any time. When Rosa was nine, both her parents were arrested and she was sent to stay with her father's family in a rural farming community. Baasie was sent elsewhere because, she was told, he would not be accepted there. It was here that Rosa experienced apartheid for the first time and the way black people were mistreated.
In 1974, after three years in prison, Lionel succumbs to ill-health and dies. At 26, Rosa sells the Burger's house and moves in with Conrad, a post-graduate student who had befriended her during her father's trial. Rosa is not in love with Conrad, but their relationship is convenient during this difficult time. Conrad questions her role in the Burger family and the fact that she always did what she was told. He questions whether she has her own identity, because everyone sees her as Burger's daughter, not Rosa. Later Rosa leaves Conrad and moves into a flat on her own and works as a physiotherapist at a hospital.
While some of Lionel's former associates are banned or under house arrest, Rosa is "named", meaning that she is labelled a Communist and is under surveillance. In 1975, despite her restrictions, she attends a party of a friend in Soweto, and it is there that she hears a black university student dismissing all whites' help as irrelevant, saying that whites cannot know what blacks want, and that blacks will liberate themselves. Realising she needs to be somewhere else, Rosa manages to get a passport, and flies to Nice in France to stay with Katya, her father's first wife. Rosa spends several months there and is able to be herself for the first time in her life. She meets Bernard Chabalier, a visiting academic from Paris, and they become lovers. He persuades her to return with him to Paris, where he says the French Anti-Apartheid Movement will be only too happy to organize a flat for Lionel Burger's daughter.
Before joining Bernard in Paris, Rosa stays in a flat in London for several weeks. Now that she has no intention of honouring the agreement of her passport, which was to return to South Africa within a year, she openly introduces herself to others as Burger's daughter. This attracts the attention of the media and she attends several political events. At one such event, Rosa sees Baasie, but he is reluctant to talk to her. She gives him her phone number, and he later contacts her and starts criticizing her for not knowing his real name (Zwelinzima Vulindlela). He says that there is nothing special about her father having died in prison as many black fathers have also died there, and says he does not need her help. Rosa is devastated by her childhood friend's hurtful remarks, and overcome with guilt, she abandons her plans of going into exile in France and returns to South Africa.
Back home she resumes her job as a physiotherapist in Soweto. Then in June 1976 Soweto school children start protesting about their inferior education and being taught in Afrikaans. They go on the rampage, which includes killing white welfare workers in Soweto. The police brutally put down the uprising, resulting in hundreds of deaths. In October 1977, many organizations and people critical of the white government are banned, and in November 1977 Rosa Burger is detained. Her lawyer, who also represented her father, expects charges to be brought against her of furthering the aims of the banned SACP and ANC, and of aiding and abetting the students' revolt.
Review: It's strange to live in a country where there are still heroes.'' The words seem to echo through this book, which is concerned above all with the nature of commitment and heroism in South Africa. But it is not about romantic hero-worship; it is about the problems, the humanity, the ruthlessness and the cost of political involvement, all against a background of love, squalor or boredom.
It is Miss Gordimer's most political and most moving novel, going to the heart of the racial conflict in South Africa. But it does not deal publicly with riots, tortures or crusades: Its politics come out of its characters, as part of the wholeness of lives that cannot evade them.
The hero of the book, whom we never meet, is Lionel Burger, a respected Afrikaner doctor who joined the Communist Party, worked for the revolution, was jailed and died in prison; and the story is that of his daughter Rosa, brought up under her father's spell, waiting outside prisons and living among dedicated Communists, yet trying to escape, alone, after her father's death, from a commitment that was all-enveloping.
For Burger was the kind of South African Communist who was drawn to the party by his humanity and determination to share the cause of the blacks; and in his house blacks and whites came together with a sense of common hope and faith in the future, defying the apartheid surrounding them. With his Afrikaner ancestry and his political understanding, Burger was a man who, as a compatriot describes him, ''could have been a prime minister if he hadn't been a traitor.'' (His story bears some resemblance to the actual story of Bram Fischer, the distinguished Afrikaner lawyer who likewise became a Communist revolutionary and died in jail.)
What is it like to grow up in the shadow of someone so dedicated and so charismatic and then to seek to become a separate, fulfilled individual? Rosa's answer, as it unfolds, tells us not only about South Africa but about the whole nature of commitment. It was Burger's gift to be able to break through ''the closed circuit of self,'' to give purpose to other people's lives; in his house the real definition of loneliness was to live without social responsibility.
The opening chapters describe vividly the splendors and miseries of that commitment; the passionate concern with the future, the moral certainties, the sense of identification with blackness as a way of perceiving sensual redemption, revealed in the magnetic attraction of the beautiful Marisa Kgosana. But on the other hand, there is the bossy narrowness of other white Communists, the jargon of dogma, the lack of escape and the sheer brutalizing effect of the race conflict. When Rosa sees an old black man senselessly flogging a donkey in Soweto, yet cannot intervene, she realizes suddenly ''I must know somewhere else.'' She makes her bid to escape, flying off to the South of France to stay with her father's first wife, in a world of gigolos, lesbians and sun-seekers.
It is a spectacular transition, showing the brittle sophistication and lushness of this cosmopolitan life through the eyes of a South African girl, ''dissolving in the wine and pleasure of scents, sights and sounds existing only in themselves, associated with nothing and nobody. . . .'' The style itself becomes sensuous and multicolored, against the stark background of the Johannesburg past, as Rosa loses herself in the laziness and the waveless peacock-shaded sea.
She falls in love with a French teacher, stays in London and Paris, and finds a new dimension in her love affair that seems to put politics in a neat theoretical pigeonhole. The tolerance, the detachment and cultivation of Europe surround her: To the lesbians in the South of France, the police are no closer than the crime thrillers on television.
Yet the responsibility, the need for identity, remains. The denouement of the novel is too subtle and important to be summarized, for it is about much more than the need for a political cause; it is a whole view of individualism. In her father's house the people had discovered their own kind of individualism, with the liberation that comes from belonging. Her black childhood friend, in spite of her guilt and his bitterness, was still a blood-brother. The political attitudes came from the inside outward: ''It was a human conspiracy, above all other kinds.'' Rosa sees clearly enough the limitations of that conspiracy--the exploitation, the psychological blackmail and the ultimate cost to herself. But she is still Burger's daughter.
It is the combination of political authenticity with sensuous awareness that makes this novel so powerful. Its account of black movements, against the historical background of real people, is harshly realistic; the intense argument in a house in Soweto has the sharp detail of a documentary.
No one has better described the vigor and humor, as well as the misery, of Soweto. Yet the political moments are always illuminated by the intense observation of people and places--tiny details precisely and lovingly described--that brings every incident to life and that give Miss Gordimer's writing such universality. People, landscapes and politics are blended together in this evocative style, and through the eyes of the young, bewildered daughter the wide arc of South African politics comes into sudden focus. It is an integration reminiscent of the great Russian prerevolutionary novels.
It remains extraordinary that such a novel should come out of a country so uncompromising and so increasingly brutalized, where the image of the flogged donkey has such fearful relevance; and it might seem equally surprising that an author of such sensitivity could live there. But this, too, was a Russian phenomenon. The very bleakness of the political predicament and the closeness to suffering seem able not only to provide insights into the political crisis, but to give a heightened awareness of the richness and values of lie.
In one passage the author describes how Rosa and her father's first wife find themselves subtly transformed for each other by their relationship with Lionel Burger, ''like a change of light transforming the aspect of a landscape.'' Coming out of the harshness of South Africa, this dazzling book also brings a new light to the landscape, not only of Johannesburg and its black townships, but of the European cities that have forgotten about darkness.
Opening Line: “Among the group of people waiting at the fortress was a school girl in a brown and yellow uniform holding a green eiderdown quilt, and by the loop at it’s neck, a red hot water bottle.
Closing Line: “But the line had been deleted by the prison sensor, Madame Bagnelli was never able to make it out.”
Quotes: The will is my own. The emotion's my own. The right to be inconsolable. When I feel, there's no 'we', only 'I'.
Rating: Okay.

533. Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

History: Published in 1996, the novel includes 388 numbered endnotes (some of which have footnotes of their own) that explain or expound on points in the story. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Wallace characterized their use as a method of disrupting the linearity of the text while maintaining some sense of narrative cohesion.
The novel's title is from Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1. Hamlet holds the skull of the court jester, Yorick, and says, "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!"
Wallace's working title for Infinite Jest was A Failed Entertainment.
Plot: In the novel's future world, the United States, Canada, and Mexico together compose a unified North American superstate known as the Organization of North American Nations (O.N.A.N.). Corporations are allowed the opportunity to bid for and purchase naming rights for each calendar year, replacing traditional numerical designations with ostensibly honorary monikers bearing corporation names. Although the narrative is fragmented among several years, most of the story takes place during "The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment" (Y.D.A.U.) Directly related to the formation of the O.N.A.N is the fact that much of what used to be the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada became a hazardous waste dump due to federal negligence, an area known as the "Great Concavity" among Americans, and the "Great Convexity" among Canadians.
The novel's primary locations are Enfield Tennis Academy ("ETA") and Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, which are separated by a hillside in suburban Boston, Massachusetts, and a mountainside outside of Tucson, Arizona. Many characters are students or faculty at the school or patients or staff at the halfway house; a conversation between a quadruple agent and his government contact occurs at the Arizona location.
The plot partially revolves around the missing master copy of a film cartridge, titled Infinite Jest and referred to in the novel as "the Entertainment" or "the samizdat". The film is so entertaining to its viewers that they become lifeless, losing all interest in anything other than viewing the film. The video cartridge was the final work of film by James O. Incandenza before his microwave suicide, completed during a stint of sobriety that was requested by the lead actress, Joelle. Quebec separatists are interested in acquiring a master, redistributable copy of the work to aid in acts of terrorism against the United States. The United States Office of Unspecified Services (USOUS) is seeking to intercept the master copy of the film to prevent mass dissemination and the destabilization of the Organization of North American Nations. Joelle and later Hal seek treatment for substance abuse problems at The Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, and Marathe visits the rehabilitation center to pursue a lead on the master copy of the Entertainment, tying the characters and plots together.
Review: Reading David Foster Wallace's latest novel, ''Infinite Jest,'' I couldn't help thinking at times about 7-year-old Seymour Glass's book-length ''letter'' home from camp, published in The New Yorker in 1965 as ''Hapworth 16, 1924.'' I felt a similar feeling of admiration alloyed with impatience veering toward strained credulity. (Do you suppose Seymour's parents actually read the whole thing?) I had previously been a great admirer of Mr. Wallace's collection of stories, ''Girl With Curious Hair,'' and, to a lesser extent, of the loose, baggy monster that was his debut novel, ''The Broom of the System,'' which I confess to not finishing. If Mr. Wallace were less talented, you would be inclined to shoot him -- or possibly yourself -- somewhere right around page 480 of ''Infinite Jest.'' In fact, you might anyway.
Alternately tedious and effulgent, ''Infinite Jest'' is set in the near future, specifically in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, which would seem to be about 18 years from now. The United States has become part of the Organization of North American Nations (ONAN), federated with Canada and Mexico; most of northern New England has been transformed into a huge toxic waste dump and palmed off on the Canadians. Qubcois separatists, many of them in wheelchairs (les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents), prowl the lower, nontoxic states, performing terrorist acts, understandably more bilious than ever now that giant fans along the border blow Northeastern American waste products in their direction. President Limbaugh has been fairly recently assassinated, and the calendar has been sold to the highest corporate bidder, giving us the Year of the Whopper, the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad and so on.
All of this might -- and sometimes does -- feel cartoonish in the extreme. But this skeleton of satire is fleshed out with several domestically scaled narratives and masses of hyperrealistic quotidian detail. The overall effect is something like a sleek Vonnegut chassis wrapped in layers of post-millennial Zola. Mr. Wallace's earlier fiction revealed him as a student of literary post-modernists like John Barth and Robert Coover, flirting with metafictional tropes and self-referential narratives. Here, despite the ''Gravity's Rainbow''-plus length and haute science flourishes, Mr. Wallace plays it straight -- that is, almost realistically -- and seems to want to convince us of the authenticity of his vision by sheer weight of accumulated detail. The weight almost crushes the narrative at times -- as when, for example, we are treated to 10 dense pages about the disassembly of a bed, complete with diagrams.
The two overlapping microcosms of this nonlinear narrative are the Enfield Tennis Academy, a Boston-area institution founded by the mad genius James O. Incandenza, whose clan of athletic and academic prodigies still resides there, and Ennet House, a residence for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics just down the hill. James O., a former tennis prodigy, physicist specializing in optics and avant-garde film maker, has by the time the story opens killed himself by sticking his head in a microwave oven. Surviving him are his sons: Orin, a pro football kicker; Hal, a 17-year-old student at the academy who is as gifted mentally as he is physically; and Mario, who is severely deformed and mildly retarded.
The details of day-to-day life at the academy are rendered in something very close to real time, as are several matches between the junior athletes; Mr. Wallace knows his serve and volley from his baseline game: readers may feel qualified toward the end to march down to the court and challenge the club pro to a match.
Opening Line: “I am seated in an office surrounded by heads and bodies.”
Closing Line: “And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of the low sky, and the tide was way out.”
Quotes: “The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.”
“You will become way less concerned with what other people think of you when you realize how seldom they do.”
Rating:  Amazing

532. The Girl with Green Eyes – Edna O'Brien

History: This book was published in 1962 with the title of “The Lonely Girl” It is the second in the “Country Girls” trilogy .
Plot: The Lonely Girl continues the story of childhood friends Kate and Baba, now both twenty-one, as they navigate the rocky, sometimes treacherous pathways of urban life. With hearts as big as Dublin, and hopes as bright as new pennies, they move bravely and eagerly toward the future. Yet the two couldn't be more different. Kate toils in a grocery shop and lives out her romantic fantasies in books. Baba entertains more earthbound dreams. Kate becomes involved with a much older and married man, a writer named Eugene Gaillard, who eyes her and ignores her more worldly roommate.
The relationship is much opposed by her father and the village she had run away from. Her father comes to get her and imposes her to the house to get her away from Eugene. But Kate is determined to go back to Dublin, and she eventually escapes from her father and the rural village.
Eugene and Kate consummate their relationship and Kate moves in with him in the country. Unfamiliar with him, his friends, and his life with his wife, trouble is inevitable. They argue and make up numerous times. Until Eugene pushes her away finally, she moves out and goes back to Baba. He eventually goes back to his wife, and Kate is heartbroken.
Review: Published in one volume, the three books known as “The Country Girls Trilogy” – were what put Edna O’Brien on the map. Her first novel was “The Country Girls”, published in 1960. True to Irish tradition, her book was banned. Not just that book – but all the subsequent Country Girls books, as well as many of her other books. O’Brien just wasn’t “playing nice” with Irish sensibilities, and wrote openly about sex and the life of Dublin girls, and marriage, and religion – and so stepped right into hot water. As a young girl, Edna O’Brien read James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and it changed her life. She didn’t know what she wanted to do – but it had to be something to do with literature. She recently wrote a biography of Joyce (one of my favorite quotes from it: “He would carry his work ‘like a chalice’ and all his life he would insist that what he did ‘was a kind of sacrament.’ Father, Son and Holy Ghost along with Jakes McCarthy informed every graven word. On a more secular note he liked blackberry jam because Christ’s crown of thorns came from that wood and he wore purple cravats during Lent.”), and I believe at one point she also wrote a book about the marriage of James and Nora Joyce. Her artistic mentor, the star she followed. There’s a funny line in The Country Girls – Kate and Baba, the two best friends, hang out in Dublin in pubs (and this is 1950s Dublin) – and at one point Baba pulls Kate aside and says, “Stop asking the boys if they’re read James Joyce’sDubliners.” Like – that is NOT a good courtship technique!
Opening Line: “It was a wet afternoon in October, as I copied out the September accounts from the big grey ledger.”
Closing Line: “What Baba doesn’t know is that I’m finding my feet, and when I’m able to talk I imagine that I won’t be so alone, or so very far away from the world he tried to draw me into, too soon.”
Quotes: “We all leave one another. We die, we change - it's mostly change - we outgrow our best friends; but even if I do leave you, I will have passed on to you something of myself; you will be a different person because of knowing me; it's inescapable...”
Rating: Good.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

531. The Leopard - Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

History: Published posthumously in 1958 by Feltrinelli, after two rejections by the leading Italian publishing houses Mondadori and Einaudi, it became the top-selling novel in Italian history and is considered one of the most important novels in modern Italian literature. Tomasi was the last in a line of minor princes in Sicily, and he had long contemplated writing a historical novel based on his great-grandfather, Don Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, another Prince of Lampedusa. After the Lampedusa palace was bombed and pillaged by Allied forces in World War II, Tomasi sank into a lengthy depression, and began to write Il Gattopardo as a way to combat it.
Plot: The Leopard is the story of Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, at the time of the main action a man in his forties, with several children. He is a sort of benevolent tyrant in his household, a man of a very old family, accustomed to knowing his place and to having those about him know their places. The Prince is also a man of great sensual appetites, careless with his money (though not wasteful or dissolute), politically knowledgeable but completely apolitical in action, and also an amateur astronomer of some note.
When the story opens, the Risorgimento is ongoing, but it is clear that it will be ultimately successful, and that the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies will be absorbed into the newly unified, somewhat more democratic, Italy. Don Fabrizio, out of loyalty, is nominally supportive of the old regime, but he realistically stays out of the conflict. His favorite nephew, Tancredi, the penniless but charismatic son of his sister, is an ardent supporter of Garibaldi (leader of the revolution).
Several long chapters, separated by months, follow the progress of the Risorgimento at a distance, and more closely follow events which impinge directly on Don Fabrizio's life, yet which reflect the coming societal changes. These include the plebiscite to confirm popular support for the unification of Italy, his nephew Tancredi's love affair and eventual marriage to the daughter of a wealthy but decidedly lower class neighbor, his daughter's reaction to the attentions of a friend of Tancredi's, and Father Pirrone's visit to his home village. Finally, the action jumps forward some decades to the Prince's death, in a very moving and beautiful chapter, then still further forward to the household of his unmarried daughters in their old age.
Review: The Leopard was published 50 years ago, following a war that had devastated Europe. The aristocrat di Lampedusa wrote it as an elegy to past times amid the ruins of the capital city Palermo, smashed by Allied bombing raids. It tells the story of the noble Salina family in the late 19th century, as the shoots of democracy sprout in the parched feudal island. It richly evokes the sights, sounds and smells of Sicilian high life, the parties, the rabbit hunting, the vendettas, the courting, the politics.
The 'Leopard' of the title is Don Fabrizio, patriarch of the family, a measured, middle-aged Hamlet. He ponders the fleeting nature of life, the nobility's loss of power to Garibaldi's revolution, and muses melancholically on the way the nobility have squandered that power.
But the book is not only about political change, far from it, but tells many human stories, not least the marriage of his nephew Tancredi who makes what at first seems to be an unsuitable match which causes considerable upset among his relatives. We read of the family’s chaplain, and the impact of change on his own life, and also of the effects on the peasants and townsfolk too, as their fortunes go up and down.
Perhaps the main character after Fabrizio is Sicily itself. Lampedusa describes the arid summers and the almost desert-like landscapes of this baking country. The city of Palermo features in all its squalor, and also the smaller towns on which most of the narrative occurs.
Opening Line: “Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.”
Closing Line: “Then all found peace in a little heap of livid dust.”
Quotes: 'They had passed through crazed-looking villages washed in palest blue; crossed dry beds of torrents over fantastic bridges; skirted sheer precipices which no sage or broom could temper. Never a tree, never a drop of water; just sun and dust.'
Rating: Not that good, sorry.  

530. Tropic of Capricorn – Henry Miller

History: The novel was subsequently banned in the United States until a 1961 Justice Department ruling declared that its contents were not obscene. It was also banned in Turkey. It is a sequel to Miller's 1934 work, theTropic of Cancer.
Plot: The novel is set in 1920s New York, where the narrator 'Henry V. Miller' works in the personnel division of the 'Cosmodemonic' telegraph company. Although the narrator's experiences closely parallel Miller's own time in New York working for the Western Union Telegraph Company, and though he shares the author's name, the novel is considered a work of fiction.
The book is a story of spiritual awakening. Much of the story surrounds his New York years of struggle with wife June Miller, and the process of finding his voice as a writer.
Review: Miller's two tropics – Cancer and Capricorn- are essentially manuals for the creative life. They present Miller's transformation from lay-schmuck working in the belly of the beast that is the American economy - jobs such as his position with the Western Union Telegraph company, which he refers to as the "Cosmococcic / Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company" - to his evolution as en expatriate writer living in Paris. The books are really designed to be read together to magnify the metamorphosis, the rite of passage. While Cancer chronicles the latter portion of Miller's experience abroad, the prequel, Capricorn, written five years later in 1939, is the more developed and more seminal of the two and elucidates with much greater detail the affects of his epiphany.
Most artists will immediately recognize the struggle Miller endures. Married to the "wrong" woman and with a young child in tow - a relationship which he finds stifling to his creative development - Miller faces tenable employment situations to support this life. Those jobs he does find do little to allow him to prosper; rather he finds himself as a cog on a wheel of Hell. His transformation from the morass of what society deems sound and true is painful. Anyone who has ever made such sacrifices to pursue the unspoken dreams to create from what grows inside of them will sympathize with Miller's dilemma. To pursue a life of an artist is frightening enough: to do it behind the rancorous veil of the American dream is horrifying. Miller recognizes the banal existence of modern America with its machines, its backward corporate policies, its worship of the unthinking and mechanical and he also knows he must break from its fetters.
Part of Miller's disenchantment with America is organic to his being just as much as it is experiential. As a child, Miller feels a unique disassociation with his peers and even his family. This self-possessed knowledge of his unique intelligence leaves Miller with a feeling of disorientation. As an adolescent, he sees his drunken father convert to piety when wooed by the charisma of a local minister. Miller, Sr. then falls from grace when the minister is called to another location and as a result of this perceived abandonment, cycles back to his earlier state of crapulousness. The event seems to have intimated to Miller the importance of being self-reliant upon a constant wellspring of inspiration so that disappointment in other people does not interrupt the flow of creativity.
Miller describes the evolution of the artist as riding "on the ovarian trolley." In fact, those very words are what preface Capricorn. For Miller there are really two births the artist experiences before his final descent into a world riddled with isolation, hunger and anticipation. Of course, there is the physical birth but this is more a symbolic representation than Miller's actual recognition of his square-peg, round-hole emotional relationship with the world at large: this is the first stage of birth. The second stage comes years later out of the "Land of F@ck" as Miller coins it, the place where the "spermatozoon reigns supreme". These phrases, as they would first seem (and were seen for many years that the book was banned from U.S. publication), are not some sordid and gratuitous account of Miller's perceptions of the world or his conquests. Rather, he uses the extended metaphors and kennings to give the reader an understanding to the visceral almost primordial conditions from whence the artist arises. For Miller, spiritual ascension is a process biologic as well as intellectual.
"Once this fact is grasped there can be no more despair. At the very bottom of the ladder, chez the spermatozoa, there is the same condition of bliss at the top, chez God. God is the summation of all the spermatozoa come to full consciousness. Between the bottom and the top there is no stop, no halfway station" .
There is an almost funereal quality about Miller's cognizance here: this idea of exploring one's complete "Annihilation" before metaphysical resurrection. Miller understands the need for an eradication of the former self before the rebirth of the artist as he moves from the "terra firma" to the "terra vague." Along with this laying waste of the individual comes the erasure of connections to the self: friends, family, lovers - all abandoned to pursue the freedom to express unhindered utterance*. To this point, Miller's use of "Tropic of" in the titles of Cancer and Capricorn now begins to make more sense as he asserts himself to be on the boundary between this land of the physical and the spiritual; the place where men aspire to be God for a period of time just before the flash-point of creative impulse.
Tropic of Capricorn should be standard reading for anyone in the arts, for any artist who has ever felt the pang of isolation, who truly believes in the necessity of sacrifice, a higher calling and commitment to one's creative endeavors. Miller's importance to world literature is vastly underrated and in many cases. Writers are simply too intimidated to face the truth in what he espouses. Miller operates as an Overman and as such, it is right that he should pose a certain condition of tremulousness in his readership: he has forged his own society, he has forged his own being into something closer to what history had intended for him since his first phone call into the horn of the fallopian. This is discomfiting for most and is intended to show how the application of introspection for an artist can lead to becoming an acolyte of unconventional philosophy: how a writer emerges as "e pluribus unum." Henry Miller's doctrine is reserved for the initiate, the mad few who choose separation from the masses as a means for creative growth. Miller's epitaph should simply be, "My name? Why just call me God - God the embryo."
Opening Line: “Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos.”
Closing Line: “Tomorrow. Tomorrow.”
Quotes: "History may deny it, since I have played no part in the history of my people, but even if everything I say is wrong, is prejudiced, spiteful, malevolent, even if I am a liar and a poisoner, it is nevertheless the truth and it will have to be swallowed."
Rating: Difficult