Books, 2015 (4)

130.  Robert Randisi and Marilyn Wallace, eds., Deadly Allies. 10/3. A collection of twenty short stories, mostly detection stories. None memorable.

131. Shakespeare, Othello. 10/4. Arden ed., ed. E.A.J. Honigmann. Honigmann's introduction focuses on the trivial question of whether Othello is S's greatest play. Unlike the other introductions in the Arden 3d series, it largely ignores the performance history of the play.

Iago is the most fully rendered villain in S's plays. His motivation is clear, and like many villains his revenge for the slight to his ego encompasses many bystanders, innocent and guilty alike. He is even more manipulative than Richard III, and S was able to convey that quality without the asides to the audience that Richard employs to make it clear what he is doing. The long scene in Act III in which Iago seduces Othello to suspect Desdemona and Cassio is masterly.

132. Shakespeare, All's Well That Ends Well. 10/8. Bertram is one of the great cads in literature. Why does Helena persist in trying to win him? Parolles is at least an honest liar; he knows that he lies. Bertram is a man so besotted with his own honour that he dishonours himself without realising he does so. Being a comedy, the play ends as it must, but one senses the narrowly averted tragedy will continue after the end of the play and end as it must.

133. Ellen Gilchrist, Collected Stories. 10/12. A collection of 34 stories selected by the author, many of them featuring Rhoda Manning and her extended family. Well written, but Gilchrist relied a bit too much for my taste on "interesting," eccentrics of the southern variety.

134. V. S. Pritchett, Essential Stories. 10/14. A collection of 16 stories spanning Pritchett's career. A wide variety of characters and situations and approaches. He had an extraordinary ability to present characters without intruding on them.

135.  Shakespeare, King Lear. 10/20. So many fools. 'Never, never, never, never, never,/Pray you undo this button.' Reason enough to read Shakespeare.

136-37. V. S. Pritchett, A Cab in the Street and Midnight Oil. 10/23. Pritchett's autobiographies. The first covers up to around age 20; the second focuses on his twenties and early thirties, with some details from his later life. Many of the details appear in his short stories. Pritchett's family was dominated by his often absent and frequently insolvent father. The 'cab in the street' was a signal that his father was fleeing his creditors yet again and the family was being transported to a new home by cab. Pritchett was largely self-trained; he didn't finish grammar school and had to work from age 16. His father was a Christian Scientist and much of Pritchett's early life revolved around an initial adherence followed by a falling off from that sect. Oddly, much of his early employment was a journalist for the Christian Science Monitor, in Ireland and Spain in the 1920s. He tends toward generalizations about classes and nations.

138. Shakespeare, Timon of Athens. 10/28. This is thought to have been written around the same time as Lear, and it shares many elements with that play--a foolish old man gives away his possessions and then goes mad when the beneficiaries of his largesse fail to support him as he expects. Timon proves too generous and goes bankrupt, and his invective outstrips even Lear's. A subplot features the military leader Alcibiades turning on Athens because its civilian rulers sentenced one of his men to death (justly). Both Timon and Alcibiades charge their foes with ingratitude. Both fail to see themselves as the causes of their own woes. Not the greatest of S's plays, but not without moments of pleasure.

136.  Shakespeare, Macbeth. 11/1. This always strikes me as one of the more straightforward of S's major plays.

137. Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra. 11/5. Contains many of the same themes as other plays. The impart of lust and love on men; the treachery and selfishness of political life; rhetoric versus reality. Anthony and Cleopatra veer between trust and distrust--each is quick to accuse the other of infidelity and betrayal. Both live life larger and more histrionically than others. Both seem fated to die tragically. Shakespeare, like other playwrights, finds drama in the lives of the defeated. We admire our heroes most when they die well.

Anthony's bravado as he faces defeat---

       Let's have one other gaudy night. Call to me
       All my sad captains. Fill our bowls once more.
       Let's mock the midnight bell.

138.  Frederick Exley, Last Notes from Home. 11/6. The last book in the trilogy featuring a fictionalised Frederick Exley as the narrator. The fictional narrator claims he is not identical to the author, but that simply begs the question of whether he is.  Exley doesn't strike me as the sort of post-modernist author who would play with such devices and raise questions about the nature of authorship, but he is playing with readers. The other major characters are as prone to self-invention as the author/narrator, and they are so outrageous that they make him seem almost normal. Their justifications for their treatment of the fictional Exley are plausible enough, however, that they undercut his comments about them. In the end there is no way to tell who is conning whom and to what degree each character is delusional about him/herself. Perhaps that's the point--we all create fictional versions of ourselves to get by.

I read this work with great delight when it first appeared in the late 1980s. The re-read left me less enamoured. The characters are so over the top and exaggerated that they are comic actors and entertainers rather than people. The New Left rants haven't aged well either.

139. Iain M. Banks, Excession. 11/9. The Affront is a nickname given to an aggressive species that delights in cruelty. Several centuries earlier a debate took place in the Culture over the desirability of a pre-emptive strike against the Affront, and it was decided to let them alone and try to guide them toward more desirable behavior. A rogue faction of ship/minds decides to maneuver the Affront into attacking the Culture. They ultimately fail but not before many die.

An excission is the name given to an event so excessive that it cannot be understood. In this case, the excission is a black body that defends itself by making threatening things disappear. The rogue faction uses it as a bait to tempt the Affront into agression.

The point is to raise the question of how far the 'good' may ethically go to destroy 'evil.' Can the deaths of dozens or hundreds . . . or billions be justified if the result is the destruction of the bad guys? As usual, it is a question that can't be answered.

As in other works by Banks, the cheerfully destructive Affront are insouciant, boisterous and hearty,

140. Iain M. Banks, The Algebraist. 11/13. A long, convoluted work on the question of what constitutes sentience. The main religion in the galactic civilisation of this book is the Truth, a doctrine that holds that 'reality' is a computer simulation; once enough people come to accept this fact, the simulation will become pointless for its organisers and they will end it. During his journey of discovery, the protagonist is exposed to a seemingly impossible event. He runs several tests on it and concludes that it may be real, but even if it isn't, it is so complete and convincing that he can only treat it as if it were real. This particular society is also opposed to artificial intelligence and hunts AI machines down and destroys them. The hero ends up in extensive discussion with a ship's computer core that denies that it is an AI yet possesses memory, decision-making capabilities, the ability to reason and think, and a personality, all characteristics associated with sentience.

141. Iain M. Banks, Look to Windward. 11/15. One of the Culture books.

'The universe does not have have our own best interests at heart, and to assume for a moment that itdoes, ever did, or ever might is to make the most calamitous and hubristic of mistakes.
     'To hope . . . hoping against likelihood, against statistical probability, in that sense against the universe itself, was only to be expected, but it was also almost certainly forlorn. The animal in him craved something that his higher brain knew was not going to happen. That was the point he was impaled upon, the front on which he suffered, that struggle of the lower brain's almost chemical simplicities of yearning pitched against the withering realities revealed and comprehended by consciousness. Neither could give up, and neither could give way.'

The book is a working out of this theme.

142. Shakespeare, Pericles. 11/16. Arden credits George Wilkins as a co-author of this. The play takes place in different locales and widely separated times. It utilizes a narrator, the late medieval poet John Gower, to summarize the action taking place between locales and to transport the audience from one place to the next. These narrative bridges are highly self-conscious and sometimes apologetic; Gower also resorts to mimes and dumbshows on occasion to portray the characters' actions and reactions. This is classified as a romance, but it sometimes barely escapes farce and melodrama.

143  Frederick Exley, A Fan's Notes. 11/17, It took me almost two weeks to finish this. It's a painful, appalling novel. 'In writing a book,' Exley the narrator argues, 'hate is as valid a departure point as love.' This is a hate letter to the United States, written almost until the end with that easy disdain with which literary Americans customarily view their society. Exley the narrator makes no attempt to try to understand the people he rages against and is apparently blind to the fact that his hatred arises from his almost unacknowledged sense that he's just like them--that like them he is doomed to be a fan, not a player.

144. Shakespeare, Coriolanus. 11/21. In the last 'political' play authored wholly by S, he returns to his theme of the motives behind political actions. In comparison to other historical characters in Shakespeare, he is less a self-aware actor and more a blunt, straightforward military man. Coriolanus is not at all an ambiguous, tortured soul. He is a consistent and an honourable man, to be sure, but he is a man so enamoured of his personal honour that he betrays his country. To the very end, Coriolanus' senses of entitlement and worth blind him to political realities and indeed his own treacheries. Shakespeare had other historical examples of military men making poor political leaders to choose from in his source texts, and yet he chose a man whose sense of aristocratic privilege and disdain for the masses, whose inability to bend, make him unfit for the roles he feels are his due. Shakespeare foregrounds these traits right at the beginning and only then shows us the more admirable sides of Coriolanus as the fighter and leader. There is no doubt that Coriolanus is a superb military leader, but the very superhia that makes him a good soldier also make him a poor politician. For all their conniving, the tribunes are much more successful politicians and accomplish more than Coriolanus. Yet no one comes off well in this play--all the political actors are politicians in the worst sense, and as Aufidius shows, military leaders can also be scheming politicians. And Volumnia is a harridan, the horror-film version of Lady Macbeth, Goneril, and Henry VI's Queen Margaret.

Macbeth comes in the end to understand how his foolishness led him to his end. Coriolanus is still deluded even as he is assassinated.

145.Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale. 12/2.  Shakespeare the playwright is as much a swindler as Autolycus the con-man. Since Autolycus is largely irrelevant to the main plot--the small role he plays in putting the Shepherd and the Clown with their box of proofs of Perdita's identity on the same boat as Florizel and Perdita could easily have been assigned to someone else--the outsize of his role and the emphasis on his ability to fool high and low alike make me wonder if S is not intentionally drawing a parallel with his own verbal sleight of hand in this play.

Of course in S's day, Polixenes' anger over a marriage between his crown prince and a woman he things to be a shepherdess would not have seemed so outrageous, but then S's audience knew who Perdita was. With their knowledge, did they view Polixenes' acts as ironically humourous? Polixenes makes for an interesting parallel with Leontes. Leontes goes mad with jealousy and injures those around him. Polixenes threatens to go to similar extremes.

Somehow the marriage that heals all the rifts in The Tempest is better than this cobbled together romance. It took S a few tries to get that right.

146. James Crumley, The Wrong Case. 12/6. I read this first over twenty years ago. I was impressed by it then, less impressed by it now. It took me almost two weeks to read this short book. The characters strike me as relying heavily on stereotypes of the private eye, the dame, the police, the town drunks.

147. James Crumley, The Last Good Kiss. 12/8. Better than the above. Still it depends on a husband going to great lengths to get a private eye to investigate his wife's background--even stranger is that the husband already knows the background. Oddly, like the previous work, it features a manipulative mother convinced that all men are children who reduces her son (the husband of the previous sentence) to a child. Hard-boiled private eye dependent more on luck than skill, ruminations about life, tough dames, alcoholic writers, Mafia types who have seen too many movies, earth mothers, disaffected former hippies, female bar owners with a tough exterior but a soft center--all the cliches trotted out and put in motion.

148. James Crumley, Dancing Bear. 12/9. The best of the lot.

149. Andre Dubus, Dancing After Hours. 12/13. A collection of fourteen short stories, all of them superb. Most deal with middle-aged people confronting the problems of marriage, love, and sex. Except for one story in which a wife thwarts an attempted rape, there is no violence. There are, however, regret, melancholy, sadness, and frustration in goodly quantities. The language is as muted as the emotions of these characters. Happiness and contentment don't seem to inspire a lot of short stories.

150. Franz Kafka, The Castle. 12/23. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir, with additional sections trans. Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser. The Muirs translated the first published edition back in the 1930s; the other two were responsible for translating a revised German edition that added about eighty pages to the text proper and included addenda with an alternate beginning and two possible continuations as well as segments apparently deleted by Kafka. The first version ends with Frieda's rejection of K; the continuation features a long monologue by Pepi, Frieda's temporary successor as barmaid at the Herrenhof, a rejoinder by K., an agreement by Pepi and K. that they will move in together, what appears to be an attempted seduction of K. by the landlady of the Herrenhof, and a proposal by one of the coachman at the Castle that K. move in with him. Of course, since Kafka never finished the novel, it's impossible to tell if any of these story lines would have been developed or abandoned. They do have the effect of undercutting the novel that precedes the continuations. Pepi's rambling version of Frieda's history, especially, undermines the Frieda and K. story. It's another instance of Kafka muddying the waters and leaving us unsure of reality. Nobody can see beyond his or her story. K. is  particularly unreliable and is as guilty of treating others instrumentally as the Castle is.

The alternate and apparently discarded beginning is much at variance with the final version. It presents a even more aggressive and feisty K., who is welcomed with the best room at the inn but inexplicably upbraids the landlord and the maid who are showing him the room.

Whatever the Castle may symbolise, it's clear that Kafka is presenting three reactions to it. K. begins by trying to deal with the Castle as any rational person would and then gradually succumbs to its spell in his efforts to get answers from it. The natives of the town accept the Castle as a reality and have so internalised its code, or what they believe to be its code, that they live by its strictures--although if Pepi's version of Frieda is correct, Frieda exploits those strictures for her own gain. Briefly, in the person of one of Castle's minor functionaries who serves as a connection between the villagers and the Castle, Kafka shows us how those who work at the Castle regard it.

In a letter Kafka mentioned that he intended to end the novel with K.'s death. That's the only way out once the Castle gets its hands on you.

151.  Kafka, The Trial. 12/26. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir; rev. and translation of additional materials by E. M. Butler. This supplements the Muirs' translation of one of the early editions prepared by Max Brod, with translations of unfinished chapters, deleted materials, and Brod's prefaces to the three editions he prepared.

This follows the same story arc as The Castle, but since Kafka finished more of the novel, including the chapter in the cathedral in which the priest tells the parable of the man waiting at the doorway to the Law and the scene of K's execution, it's easier to see this (and The Castle) as an allegory of life and the promise of enlightenment/salvation than a story about a man caught in an inexplicable bureaucratic tangle.

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