1. Christopher Moore, A Dirty Job. 1/1. When his wife dies after giving birth to Sophie, Charlie Asher becomes a death merchant, a collector of souls that he resells at his secondhand shop in San Francisco to people who have no soul. He is one of several death merchants in SF (there are others throughout the world). Opposing him are the forces of darkness. After several misadventures, ending in a fight to the death with the FOD, he discovers that Sophie is Death with a capital D. Asher is labeled a 'beta male' ad nauseum--this phrase is repeated at least once every five pages, and Moore tries too hard to be funny.
2. Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm. 1/2. Flora Poste would probably be hell to live with, but she makes for a great holiday read.
3. Charles Stross, Glasshouse. 1/3. In the distant future, replicating machines can produce anything, including new bodies for sentient beings. Memories and consciousness, or at least as much as the being wants to carry over into the new body, are lodged in a new form, thus allowing something like eternal life. Combined with travel through wormholes accessed through replicating-machine technology, this means that physical ills, the impact of aging, and unwelcome memories can be filtered out. But there have been problems. Robin has had most of his memories removed, and society as a whole suffers from a analogous loss of historical memory. A computer virus in the replicators has destroyed all knowledge of a particular era of the past. He joins or is conscripted into an experiment to recover a lost era of history, the period 1950-2040. When he arrives at the site of the experiment, he discovers that the travel machinery has transformed him into a woman. Gradually he recalls more and more of his former life, even as the experiment turns ugly. Peer pressure and the urge to conformity produce some monsters. Some nice work on the role of memory in our construction of who we are and the role of conformity in modern life.
4. Terry Pratchett, Snuff. 1/5. The latest in the Discworld series. Commander Vines is persuaded by his aristocratic wife to take a holiday at her family's ancestral estate. Feudalism proves not to the Commander's liking. The murder of a goblin leads him to uncover a traffic in slave labour, a drug ring, and various other villainies. In the end the goblins are recognised as fully sentient beings, the culprits are punished (almost). Vintage Pratchett. Whimsy and magic mixed with sharp observation: 'Bouquets of flowers were hurled into the air, and then picked up again carefully, because waste not, want not.' Eloquent on the law but realistic about how it is applied. Nice bits with wife and son. I like Pratchett but have no trouble putting him down. Amusing but there's no great impetus to turn the page.
5. Jasper fforde, The Fourth Bear. 1/8. Part of fforde's Nursery Crime series. I found this more tolerable than the books in his Tuesday Next series. It doesn't invite readers to congratulate themselves on recognising literary allusions as often as the Tuesday Next books, but it still depends on getting the point and liking the fact that you are capable of doing that. It's meant to be whimsical, but it's too self-conscious of attempting that--unlike Pratchett, who does produce whimsey quite well and apparently effortlessly. It misses as much as it hits the mark.
6. Graham Greene, The End of the Affair. 1/9. A reread. A tale of love and hate among Maurice Bendrix, Sarah and Henry Miles, and God. Sarah is an object of desire for the characters in the book--Maurice her former lover and hater (and present hater and lover), Henry her husband, the detective Bendrix hires to discover the identity of her next lover, the detective's young son, the rationalist who attempts to persuade her of the non-existence of God, the priest who meets her shortly before her death and wants her for the Church, her mother, who makes a brief appearance towards the end and relates how she used the infant Sarah and wants to use the dead Sarah as a means of atoning her lapses of faith. Even many of the minor characters--a waiter, her husband's colleagues, the rationalist's sister--reveal a desire for something of or from Sarah.
Sarah is in turn a complex desiring subject, and it is her desires and actions that set in motion the other characters and serve as the wellspring of the story at the centre of the book. She loves Bendrix, who is jealous and insecure and hence an argumentative and hurtful lover who views their relationship as doomed. They are spending the night together late during WWII and are in bed when the first V1 raid on London begins. Bendrix goes downstairs to check that his landlady has taken shelter. One of the rockets explodes outside the house, burying Bendrix in rubble. She goes downstairs, discovers his body, and returns upstairs to his bedroom, thinking him dead. There she kneels and prays to God to revive him and vows that if he does, she will give him up. Bendrix recovers and runs upstairs to check on Sarah. He discovers her naked (perhaps a symbol of her innocence and rebirth at this point? a nice touch if it is) and kneeling in prayer beside the bed they just shared. When she sees him alive, she dresses quickly and runs out. Subsequently, in accordance with her vow, she refuses to see him and, to his eyes, abandons him. At several points in the story, she says that she is a 'phoney and a fake' in reference to both her inability to abandon her vow as she doubts the existence of God and her inability to honour her vow completely given her belief in God.
It is only a chance encounter between Bendrix and Henry Miles that leads to a resumption of their history together. Bendrix hires the detective to spy on Sarah. This in turn leads to Bendrix's discovery of her motives and a renewal of his love for her. Bendrix's attempts to meet her and persuade her to return to him lead to her contracting pneumonia after she becomes soaked during a rainstorm and then to her death. Things falling from the heavens (rain, rocket bombs) precipitate many events in this novel.
Most of the novel is a first-person narrative by Bendrix, but Greene has the detective steal Sarah's diary and give it to Bendrix. This allows Bendrix to follow the development of Sarah's view of their relationship and her turn towards God. She is not sure and remains unsure if God exists and whether she has to continue to honour her vow. Her uncertainty leads her to try to remain distant from Bendrix, whom she still loves, and to seek out others (the rationalist, the priest) who can help her think about God. (The diary also allows Greene to expose her thoughts directly to us readers rather than indirectly through the surmises of the other characters as filtered through Bendrix.)
The detective's son is an interesting character--he is innocent but gradually being introduced to the world by his protective father; Bendrix uses his alleged innocence as a means of meeting the rationalist, who he thinks is Sarah's lover. The father suggests that the boy comes to view Sarah as his dead mother. After her death, Henry gives the detective a book that belonged to Sarah as a child as a gift for the boy, and the book links the boy even more closely to Sarah. The boy develops pneumonia but is apparently cured by a dream visit from Sarah's ghost, who writes something in the book. After his son's recovery the detective sends the book to Bendrix and asks him to return it to Henry because he doesn't want his son to read what Sarah had written on the flyleaf of the book during her childhood, which foretells the miracle of the boy's recovery. This is one of several apparent miracles wrought by the dead Sarah, and Greene suggests the question of whether these are religious or psychological in origin or even just coincidences.
This follows a scene in which Bendrix discovers a hoard of Sarah's childhood books in a wardrobe. Sarah had written all over the books--scribbles in the earliest ones, comments in the later ones. Only one book is not defaced: a book she won as a prize for excelling in algebra at school, an edition of the collected poems of Thomas Hood. Apparently she never opened the book and read the poems of this Victorian humourist. Her writings in the books are a record of her maturation and abandonment of wonder and belief.
Bendrix is a novelist; he imagines his affair with Sarah and his own and her relationships with Henry and God in terms of storytelling, which allows Graham to make points about narratives and the crafting of stories and also about what he calls 'God's plot'. These comments reveal Bendrix's character even as they make points about writing fiction. Bendrix sees himself as a craftsman, and Greene's craft is much on display--perhaps in the device of the diary a bit too much on display, but even that may be intentional. After Sarah's death, Bendrix dismisses his books as 'scribbles', much like Sarah's scribbling in her childhood books.
Bendrix ends by asking God, 'as though You existed,' to leave him alone. He has suffered enough.
The title is ironic in that the affair hasn't ended. Bendrix continues to love and hate Sarah after her death. 'A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.' This is the opening sentence of the book, and it suggests both the writer's quandary (how to tell a story) and the feeling that the affair began long before Sarah and Bendrix met. Later we begin to wonder if the affair is?/may be? part of God's orchestration of the lives of all those involved. The book's epigraph similarly hints at the same theme: 'Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence.'
Who owns the narrative of this story? Bendrix, who tells it? Or God, who plotted it?
This is a more ambiguous and open, questioning novel than Brighton Rock, and hence more to my taste. I also think Greene is more successful at describing the internal states of these characters than he is those of the characters in Brighton Rock.
7. Peter Carey, His Illegal Self. 1/10. Che Selkirk is the young son of two 1960s American revolutionaries. Both parents are living underground after a murderous bank robbery. Che is being raised by his maternal grandmother, a wealthy and eccentric New York matron. Anna Xenos, who has just been hired as an assistant professor at Vassar, is recruited to escort Che to see his mother surreptitiously and then return him to his grandmother. Anna, who goes by the name of Dial, babysat Che during the first year of his life and knew his parents at Harvard. Things go wrong, and Dial ends up fleeing to Australia. Che thinks she is his mother and that she is taking him to join his father. The two end up in Queensland, living in a community of hippies. There they become associated with Trevor, rather of a lost soul himself. In the end Dial and Trevor try to return Che to his grandmother, but they re-kidnap him and carry him off before the police can pick him up. The story ends with the three driving off, but there are flashforwards throughout the novel that reveal Che as an adult in New York. So presumably at some point in the future he returns to take up the Selkirk inheritance.
Che is advanced for his age, but he is still a little boy. Adults make the arrangements, and he has little choice but to go along with them. An odd sort of love story--of Che for the parents he never meets, of Dial and Trevor for Che, of Che and his grandmother, and of in the end of Che for Dial and Trevor.
Not Carey's best work, but still miles ahead of others' efforts.
8. Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin (1780-1838), Cín Lae Amhlaoibh (Amhlaoibh's journal). 1/11. The diary of Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin covers the years 1827-1835. Ó Súilleabháin was a small merchant (he had a draper's shop) in Callan at the time he wrote this. He had been a hedge-school teacher and, for a few months during the period covered by the diary, ran a small school or was employed as a teacher at another hedge school. He was a supporter of O'Connell and was a local collector for O'Connell and spoke (in Irish, he proudly noted) at some of O'Connell's rallies in Kerry and Kilkenny. The diary coincides with the period of O'Connell's first election, the campaign for Catholic emancipation, and the Tithe War, although these are more background events than the subject of the diary. Ó Súilleabháin seems to have been a successful merchant (at least he had no money worries during the period covered by the diary--he noted that he paid cash on his trips to Dublin and Waterford to restock his shop), an avid naturalist (he paid particular attention to birds and plants, often giving their Latin names), an Irish patriot following the moderate, O'Connell line, a Catholic, and an advocate of Irish (he wrote down categories of Irish words for the times of day or names of cows, for example, and collected or copied books and manuscripts in Irish, and his library of Irish works posthumously became part of the Royal Irish Academy library).
Ó Súilleabháin was apparently an important person locally. He served on municipal committees and in municipal posts in Callan, collected for the poor, circulated petitions, served as a spokesman for the Irish community to the local C of I and to the local landlord, etc. He was about as well read and educated as a person in his situation could be at the time. He was married, although his wife died in 1832, and had several children. In addition to his shop and school, he also farmed a small plot, growing potatoes and vegetables, and raised and sold pigs and poultry. He was an active dispenser of charity to the poor, of whom there were many in Callan, although he disapproved of their tendencies towards rowdiness, drunkenness, and civil strife. He liked to take long 'nature walks', was not above a drink or two, and for one two-week period had to neglect his diary because a local doctor had given him two black eyes in a bar brawl. He recorded prices for goods and wages--although apparently only when they rose or fell beyond the norm. He spoke of the English occupation and its impact on Ireland in terms that are still used today.
The diary is a direct, unmediated picture of Irish middle-class life in a country town in the early nineteenth century. Ó Súilleabháin commented on events of larger import, such as the resistance to the collection of tithes and the activities of the 'peelers'. For the most part, however, he recorded the ordinary events of his life--the amount of time it took the mail coach to travel from Dublin to Cork, how much he had to pay labourers to spade his potato patch, how long it took him to walk to Kilkenny, the weather and its impact on crops, the number of fires on St John's Eve, what the priest ate for dinner, how much he had to pay for an overnight's stay in an inn and what they fed him, wage payments to his servants, his children's schooling. He comes across as a likeable, intelligent, alert person.
I imagine that his life was not unlike that of my own ancestors--the nascent Irish lower middle classes, better off than the peasantry but still living in a precarious economic situation that might at any moment fall apart. He commented, for example, that the widow of a well-off farmer had been reduced to penury after her husband's death and that a fire had rendered another family destitute overnight.
Ó Súilleabháin didn't discuss why he kept a diary. If I understand the introduction correctly, it was written on random scraps of paper. It is not a daily record. Nor was he methodical about the things he recorded. It was written during a turbulent time but it doesn't seem as if the events of those time are the reason for the diary--Ó Súilleabháin mentioned them and commented on them as part of his daily life but not as the focus of the diary. I wonder if any adult diarist is innocent of the hope that the diary will later be read and serve as a record of an otherwise unnoted life. There are what seem to be self-conscious 'set pieces' and small essays in the diary, the sort of thing we write for other people. But for the most part the diary is a random jotting down of small events.
10. Charles Stross, Accelerando. 1/15. A sci-fi novel of the near future. This was published in 2005 and the earliest chapters deal with the 2010s. Subsequent sections occur about a decade apart, with a leap two-three centuries into the future at the end. In the beginning human beings can access the Internet and information through personal devices with a direct link to their brains. The next step involves implants. Then mergers of the mind and the computer-driven world. Nano devices busily convert the inner universe into more and more minds until beings that are still more human than machines are pushed/flee farther and farther out into the universe. Minds can be stored in memory and then resurrected in physical form by supplying them with manufactured bodies. Along the way, humans come into contact with remnants of other civilisations that have followed the same path. They find wormholes and routers that allow them to travel intergalactic space. This is the ancestor of the world explored in Glasshouse (no. 3 above). One very chilling note: the president of the United States in the 2010s is named Santorum. Stross is English and the book was published in 2005, which likely means that it was written in 2003-4. Was he simply pulling a name out of thin air or is he that skilled at predicting the near-future?
This novel is dense with ideas. The characters are familiar with them and hence accept them as part of daily life. They do not explain them to one another, and there is no narrator to explain them to the reader. Many of these ideas are common speculations about the near-future, but the very density of these ideas in the narrative makes the earlier part of the novel difficult to read for those of us less familiar with these speculations. Stross's problem as the author was to find a way to present them intelligibly without breaching the reality of the world he is describing. He does this by inventing a family who lives through all this history--since none of them terminally dies (everyone can be resurrected in some form), he has the first generation covered in the book living at the end of the book. There is also a cat who engineers the history of the family. Lots of ideas in this book but they don't add up to a coherent novel--the ideas and what plot there is don't connect.
11. Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter. 1/16. Re-read. Major Scobie is the second-in-command of the police forces in a British colony in West Africa during World War II. He is in a loveless marriage to Louise, whose unhappiness grows when she discovers that he has been passed over for promotion. She begs him to send her to South Africa, but he does not have the money to do so. He borrows the money from Yusuf, a Syrian merchant engaged in many shady dealings. After his wife leaves, he goes up-country to escort the survivors of a German U-boat attack back to the colonial capital. Among them is Helen Rolt, a young woman whose husband of a few weeks was killed in the attack. He commences an affair with Helen, which threatens to replicate many of the problems of his marriage to Louise. When Louise suddenly returns, he has to deal with his relationships with her and Helen. He is reluctant to harm either woman's feelings and because of his pity for them he cannot end either relationship. Meanwhile, his dealings with Yusuf entangle him further in questionable acts. His faithful servant of many years, Ali, sees him in compromising situations with Helen and with Yusuf. Scobie reveals his worries about Ali to Yusuf, who has Ali killed. Wilson, who is a British spy checking on the members of the British colonial bureaucracy, thinks he is in love with Louise, who spurns his advances. Wilson confronts Scobie about his affair with Helen and his treatment of Louise.
Louise is a Catholic and Scobie converted when they married. Scobie feels a growing conflict between the Church's teachings and his behaviour. Louise, after her return, insists that the two of them take communion together. Scobie goes to confession but finds that he cannot repent of his adultery with Helen. Nor is he willing to accept Helen's offer to end the affair. In the end he conducts an elaborate ruse to convince others that he has a bad heart and he commits suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. As he hoped, his death is initially attributed to his bad heart.
After his death, Wilson uncovers the ruse and reveals it to Louise. It also becomes apparent that Louise (and everyone else) has known all along of his affair with Helen.
The title appears in a passage midway through the novel: 'If one knew, he [Scobie] wondered, the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets? If one reached what they called the heart of the matter?' Pity is one of Scobie's problems. He cannot confront his situation because of his feelings of pity (not love) towards Helen and Louise. He doesn't seem to love anyone, although he often tells Helen and Louise--for instrumental reaons--that he does love them.
Catholicism is a major presence in this novel. The Church's dictates on behaviour and suicide are forces in Scobie's life, even as he violates most of them. In the end, his inability to deal with his problems leads him to place the feelings (or, rather, what he imagines to be the feelings) of Helen and Louise above the Church's teachings on God's infinite mercy and its strictures against suicide. The question Greene poses is whether one's personal sense of duty justifies a violation of Church law.
The characters believe that their secrets are hidden, but in reality others know them. Wilson is simply the most overt spy, just as the diamond smuggling that occupies much of Scobie's official attention is the most obvious secretive activity that everyone knows about. Helen and Scobie mistakenly believe they have concealed their affair. Wilson loves poetry but hides that from others. Everyone lies, but everyone else knows what is really happening. Everyone also thinks he or she understands the others and him/herself, but in truth they do not.
A complex work written in the most straightforward prose. Outside the dialogue, there is hardly an example of a figure of speech in the entire novel.
12. Wilderness Tips. Margaret Atwood. 1/19. A collection of ten short stories. Perhaps it's unfair to an author to read collections such as this in which stories written over a period of several years are brought together and can be read in a few hours. The shared themes and tricks of writing become too apparent. With Atwood, however, the writing is so first-rate that this is an asset rather than a liability. In all but one of these stories the narrator or character through whose experience the story is presented is a woman. In most of the stories the protagonist is looking backward at a time when her character was formed and ossified and reveals how that character impacted her subsequent life. In the title story, a brother, three sisters and George, the husband of the youngest sister, are staying at a lodge built by the siblings' grandfather, a tycoon. Wilderness Tips is the title of a book George finds at the lodge. It was published early in the twentieth century and is a guide to surviving in the wilderness for those unskilled in living in that environment. George, who is a Hungarian refugee, is married to the youngest sister, has had an off-and-on affair with the middle sister for several years, and in the course of the story has sex with the oldest sister. The brother outwardly ignores George but inwardly compares his lack of success (he is the caretaker of the family fortune rather than a creator) with his brother-in-law's ruthless and successful pursuit of wealth. He, too, has read Wilderness Tips but, unlike George, did not benefit much from it. The middle sister is trying to restart her affair with George. The youngest sister knows of the affair, but has ignored it in the interests of remaining married. She goes in search of her husband and overhears the oldest sister and George going at it in the boathouse. She walks away to a secluded beach, undresses, and submerses herself in the lake. It's her trick for surviving the wilderness that is her marriage.
Each of the characters is in a wilderness and has found ways to survive. Atwood is skilled enough to draw no parallels between the book and the characters' actions. The parallel is just there. The book is woven into the story unobtrusively. It is one of the many books at the lodge. It pops up in the narrative because on his first visit to the lodge, the recently arrived Hungarian is lacking in English skills and has to puzzle out what 'tips' means in that particular context. At first, it could be mistaken as simply an illustration of the difficulties he faced in dealing with life in Canada. But nothing is accidental in an Atwood story. The siblings take turns doing the housekeeping at the lodge. Early on, they tried to enlist the brother-in-law to help them but he ended up breaking things and now they no longer ask him to do chores. George's apparently intentional vandalism gets him off the hook for the housework. The siblings think he is clumsy, but he has apparently manipulated them into refusing to let him help. He thus avoids the onus of an outright refusal. It's a wonderful detail that reveals the nature of the relationships between George and the siblings. (I say 'apparently' because Atwood never says if the breakage was intentional. George recalls it with relish, however. At the very least he makes no attempt to be less destructive and he is happy with the result.)
'Isis in Darkness,' the one story with a male lead, begins with Richard shuffling index cards and pondering the mystery of Selena. He is a middle-aged man, an unsuccessful and soon to be unemployed teacher of literature at a college in Toronto. As a graduate student, he wrote poetry and read it at a local coffeehouse (in pre-Starbucks days when North American coffeehouses were hangouts for beatnik poets and folk-song singers). One night after he has read his own poetry, which is received without enthusiasm, Selena reads a poem and is a success. Her poem concerns Isis's journey to the underworld to gather up the pieces of Osiris's body and put them back together and restore him to life. Richard becomes friends with Selena. She parries his attempts to become lovers, rather kindly. To his surprise, the spurned Richard proposes to his girlfriend. They marry and have children and Richard soon becomes embroiled in the life of an untenured professor. He loses direct contact with Selena, who meanwhile becomes a successful poet. One night she knocks on Richard's door and requests his help. Richard is willing but the wife chases Selena off, who disappears. Richard and the wife divorce. Years later he meets Selena by accident. She has become an alcoholic and stopped writing poetry. Eventually she dies and then becomes an object for study. Richard returns to his desk and begins arranging his index cards trying to piece together her, and his, life. Again there is a quietly introduced parallel--this time, the poem about Isis's labours and Richard's attempt to create a life out of the shards that remain of his and Selena's lives.
In 'Bog Man,' Julie incessantly revises the story of her relationship with Connor. As a university student, she begins an affair with Connor, an archaeologist and a married man with two children. Connor takes her on a trip to Scotland as his assistant. A well-preserved bog man has been discovered, and Connor is investigating this. Julie breaks up with Connor and returns to Canada. He pursues her and says he will divorce his wife, but she tosses him out. Years later, after her husband has died, she trades stories with her friends about their relationships with men. The history of her affair with Connor is her set piece. But the Connor of the story becomes less and less like the real-life Connor. Julie turns him into her own bog man.
These parallels and the attention to telling details are tricks of writing. They are the shortcuts on which short stories depend. As is often the case, the titles draw attention to the aspect of the story that serves as the crux. That is one thing I find annoying and what I mean by saying that it can be unfair to read an anthology of a writer's works written over a period of years. This habit of titling makes me wish that Atwood trusted her readers enough to allow them to get the point instead of underlining it right at the start. That aside, Atwood is a skilled writer and has mastered this craft. She makes the craft create the story, not overwhelm it, not dictate it, certainly not draw attention to itself and offer itself as the clue for the clever reader. The crux emerges naturally. It grows out of the story and is not imposed on it. There are no histrionics, no drama, nothing out of place, nothing untoward. The destruction is sedate and unhurried and fatal.
13. Tomás Ó Criomhthain, An tOileánach. 1/20. Ó Criomhthain (1856-1937) lived on Great Blasket, an island a mile or so off the coast of the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. The hundred-plus inhabitants of the Blaskets survived by fishing and farming.
Ó Criomhthain received an intermittent education in a school on the island, which ran for a few months at a time whenever a teacher was available. (Ó Criomhthain doesn't say, but at the time by law instruction in schools had to be in English, which would have been a foreign language to him.) The book speaks of four such periods of formal education. He mentions receiving prizes for his schoolwork, and he was obviously quick and intelligent. He last attended school when he was 19. The islanders did their trading on the mainland, but the weather could strand them and prevent a return for several days. It was during one such period, in the early 1900s, that Ó Criomhthain first encountered written Irish. He was staying in a relative's home and the children of the family were studying Irish in school. They showed him their schoolbooks and introduced him to basic Irish orthography. When he left, he took books written in Irish with him and taught himself how to read and write Irish. He was then in his fifties.
Great Blasket became known among linguists as a place where Irish was preserved in a form almost untainted by English, and Ó Criomhthain became the native informant for many scholarly visitors to the island. One of them, Brian Ó Ceallaigh, encouraged him to write about life on the island. In the 1920s, he published two books. Allagar na hInise (translated as Island Cross-Talk), first published in 1928, is a diary that Ó Criomhthain kept for five years, in the form of daily letters to Ó Ceallaigh. An tOileánach (first published in 1929 in Irish; English translation, The Islander) is an autobiography.
An tOileánach chronicles a hard life, only a few steps above subsistence. The islanders lived in stone huts with thatch or tarred roofs, which they shared at night with their cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, dogs, and other animals (he mentions a stoat kept to help with rabbit hunting). Their primary diet was milk, eggs, potatoes, fish, and shellfish, supplemented by purchased meal (by which I think he means ground Indian corn) and flour. Rabbits and seals were hunted for meat. The seals also supplied oil for lamps. Sugar, tea, alcohol, tobacco were luxuries purchased only for funerals and holidays. The islanders earned money by fishing and selling the pigs they had raised. Occasional shipwrecks off the island could result in windfall acquisitions of goods. Their markets and church were on the mainland, and purchasing supplies, selling their goods, and marrying and burying required an expedition to the market towns there. The island could support only a limited number of people and many emigrated to the United States, including three of Ó Criomhthain's sisters and, for a number of years, his brother. Life was also dangerous. One of Ó Criomhthain's sons died after falling off a cliff. Another drowned trying to rescue his sister and a friend. Diseases took several other of his children. Ó Criomhthain was by necessity skilled in a great many occupations, and he described many of them.
An tOileánach is now considered a classic description of peasant life in Ireland and is often mined for anthropological and historical data. As with any autobiography or series of personal reminiscences, however, the question of the author's objectivity has to be raised. I assume none of us can be completely objective about ourselves and others. In a history such as this, with its portraits of the author and other people, one has to ask if these are 'true' (whatever that might mean) or tweaked, perhaps to add interest or to even old scores. Are these characters in a story or historical figures? At this remove, these aren't questions that can be answered.
Besides himself, the other notable personages in the book are his parents, his brother, his uncle Diarmid, the old woman in the house opposite his parents' house and her husband Bald Tom, and the 'poet'. Oddly his wife is barely mentioned, and his children are noted mostly as examples of mortality. Most of the other islanders are not named.
Ó Criomhthain often mentions that such and such a person is lazy, with the implication being that he works harder than that person; he explicitly claims that his father was hard-working and occasionally makes the same claim of himself but he also complains that his brother often kept him at work when he wanted to rest. The character known as the 'poet' intrudes into the narrative at several points to interrupt Ó Criomhthain's work by asking him to write down his poems for him. Ó Criomhthain complains of the interruptions in the book, but then he never refuses the poet. By any standard of physical labour, all the islanders worked hard. They had to. Ó Criomhthain also presents himself as less of a drinker than the others. Again this may be true, but then there is his rather passionate apology for drinking as a means of escaping the toils of their lives. But he could also be self-deprecating--he writes that most people began wearing shoes when they got married. As a teenager he came into some money and bought a pair of boots on a trip to the market town. He writes with a wry humour about the image he presented on the boat trip back home and how no one recognised the 'fine gentleman' who came ashore. My impression is that Ó Criomhthain is generally a reliable witness.
In the last section of the book, Ó Criomhthain says in a much-quoted passage that he wrote the book to preserve the memory of the islanders and their lives. The writing is such that one wishes he had written more.
14. Jonathan Lethem, The Ecstacy of Influence, Nonfictions, etc. (2011). This is a collection of pieces written from around 1990 to 2010, supplemented with an introduction and occasional pieces written especially for the collection. The subject matter ranges from writing and reading to working as a clerk in a bookshop, plagiarism (of ideas not of words) as a form of composition, science fiction, the literary world, music, movies, comics, popular culture, and Brooklyn among many others, presented with much personal information. There are reprints of reviews of books and appreciations of writers Lethem feels are underrated, and music journalism. He includes a few short pieces of fiction to illustrate points he makes in the essays. They range in length from a few hundred words to several thousand. The longest is an essay on James Brown.
The introduction carefully frames these works as approaches to the questions of an author's influence as a public intellectual and the influences on an author both from the writings of other authors and the cult/culture of literature (or cult of Culture). Lethem borrows the distinction between white-elephant art and termite art. White-elephant art is big formal art with boundaries; termite art is a borrowing from within process that crosses and subverts boundaries. The introduction is definitely the white elephant in this book; the individual essays the termites. Forearmed and forewarned, one can see Lethem at work pondering the questions posed in the introduction. I don't think they would be as apparent if he hadn't called attention to them. For example, he includes some short pieces written just after 9/11 giving his reaction to the events. Absent the introduction, these might be read as simple 'what I was doing when x happened' essays, but in light of the introduction it is possible to read these as meditations on the artist's response to such events and the impact of his response in forming others' responses. He argues in the end for a generous, unbounded approach to fiction, one that doesn't replicate received boundaries, either in art or in life--literature and life form 'a dishonest world worth inhabiting honestly'.
After finishing the introduction, I didn't expect to enjoy the essays as much as I did. In the introduction and a few other pieces throughout the book, Lethem indulges in an exuberant "whee, gosh folks, look at me, what you're seeing is a WRITER at work, isn't this some sentence?" style that grated (on my sensibilities at least). I found the introduction so off-putting, in fact, that I didn't expect to finish the book, but I was so captivated by the essays that I read the entire 400-plus-page book today. Have to admit that I was also cheered to discover that Lethem admires many of the authors and musicians I like, and that of course made me feel well disposed to this perspicacious fellow who validates my own tastes.
15. Shirley Jackson, The Lottery and Other Stories. 1/23. An anthology of 26 stories, written in the late 1940s. According to the blurb, this is the only collection of Jackson's stories assembled by the author herself.
One essay reprinted in Lethem's book is an introduction to an edition of Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle. He mentions that when asked to name a favourite author, he always says Shirley Jackson. Most of his interlocutors don't recognise the name until he reminds them of 'The Lottery'. Lewis's niece Emily visited us one summer. She must have been 14 or 15 at the time. She was examining my bookshelves and pulled out a book with a little gasp of pleasure. She held it so that I could see the cover and asked, 'Is this the same person who wrote "The Lottery"?' When I said yes, she took the book away. It was The Haunting of Hill House. She finished it in a few hours and then asked me if I had other of Jackson's books. She finished all the novels, as well as this collection of short stories, before she left. The collection was the only one she didn't like.
I think the reason may have been that so few of these stories have that eerie, unheimlich quality of things not quite right that characterise 'The Lottery' and the novels. Most are simple domestic tales that depend for their interest on the un-self-conscious (to the inhabitants of the story) and unhurried exposure of a character or attitude. Most of them concern adult women and their interactions with husbands or lovers, children, mothers, and friends. There are no plots. They are slices of middle-class life, their problems for the most part quite minor and quotidian. They are simply well-wrought stories, not unlike hundreds of other such stories that are the fodder for The New Yorker. They are what we have been trained to read as 'serious' short stories.
For readers acquainted with Jackson's novels and 'The Lottery', however, these must seem very tame and un-Jacksonish. There are no quasi supernatural oddities, no murders, no daft women, no imperious old women trying to survive the end of the world. But one reads these stories with bated breath, waiting for the true nature of each story's horror to be revealed. We can't seem to read them without expecting another version of 'The Lottery'.
My niece's reception of these stories betrays an expectation we have of writers--that they will continue to produce what we expect of them. This must seem like such a straitjacket to many authors. Some like John Banville attempt to distance themselves from their 'popular' works by publishing them under a pseudonym, as if that would insulate Banville's serious works from being seen as the works of a hack, even as the dust jackets for his mystery novels revel in revealing the author's 'true' identity. Iain Banks pretends to be different from Iain M. Banks. Behind this I suspect is the dead hand of the Romantic notion of the artist's relationship to his or her works, namely that they are an outpouring and reflection of the writer's genius and personality, and that their value lies in their being true to the author's personality and experience. Somehow one can't write both science fiction and The Wasp Factory. One can't write The Sea and then turn around and churn out mystery stories unless one hides behind the name of Benjamin Black (but even those rather pedestrian mysteries are assumed by critics to partake of Banville's genius, as if that gave 'serious' readers a license to read his low-brow novels). There must be examples as well of well-known authors of mass-market books who publish serious books under a different name.
This collection also raises another point for me. Would it have been published if Jackson hadn't become famous for 'The Lottery'? Was her publisher interested in it because her notoriety following the publication of that story made an anthology of her earlier stories commercially viable?
There are a few memorable stories here: 'Charles', the story of a boy named Laurie who has just started kindergarten and reports back to his parents on the antics, often punished, of Charles, who turns out to be an invention of the boy to hide his misbehaviour from his parents; 'Afternoon in Linen', which chronicles the agony of a young girl being exhibited to the neighbours; 'Dorothy and My Grandmother and the Sailors', about two young girls who misunderstand a mother's and grandmother's strictures about avoiding sailors and react with terror when two sailors take the seats next to them in a crowded cinema; 'Men with Big Shoes', about a young bride's life being taken over by a maid. The collection's a mixed bag--I suspect some of these stories would not survive in print if Jackson hadn't become JACKSON.
16. Conchobhar Ó Síothcháin, or Conor O’Sheehan (1866-post 1940), Seanchas Chléire (roughly, The story of Cape Clear Island; trans. The Man from Cape Clear by Riobárd P. Breatnach). 1/24. This was written in the 1930s and first published in Irish in 1940.
17. Joe R. Lansdale, Lost Echoes. 1/25. I have decided to select one book randomly at the library each visit. The rule is that it has to be by an author unknown to me. I have allowed myself the out of not picking romance novels. In the Lethem anthology I read last week, there was an essay on an American writer named Thomas Berger, whom I had never heard of. There are unjustly neglected writers (and justly neglected ones as well). I don't know if I will find any in the unjust category, but I am going to try.
Lost Echoes crosses the genre border between the supernatural and the murder mystery. After a childhood bout of mumps followed by an ear infection, the hero develops the ability to see visions of past violence in a particular place when he hears a loud sound. Since he lives in eastern Texas, where there is apparently a lot of violence, he has a tortured childhood. Now in college, he takes to drink; is rescued by and helps save a fellow drunk, who schools him in mental control through a martial art; comes across an ancient crime; and solves it with the help of an old girlfriend and the former drunk who is teaching him self-control. In the end he gets the girl and loses his ability.
Lansdale can write, although he occasionally opts for a down-home, country narratorial voice. According to the jacket blurb, he has been nominated for and won several important awards in his chosen genres. Given its goal and its intended audience, this is a decent bit of writing. Like most such books, however, this one relies heavily on stereotypes and stock subplots. Along the way, the hero becomes entangled with a sex-crazed rich girl, who uses him and then dumps him in order to snare a man from her own class; she has a drunken, sex-crazed mother and a powerful father not above misusing his friendships with the local police chief to harass the hero. The drunken friend spouts orientalist cliches about being one with nature. Of course, like all such novels, the good guys win. It's not so much that this is badly done as that it's familiar.
18. Jonathem Lethem, Girl in Landscape. 1/26. Another genre-crossing work--this time, science fiction, the coming-of-age novel, and the Western. Pella Marsh is a teenage girl. In the first part, she and her family (parents, two younger brothers) live in New York City. The ozone layer has been depleted and people live indoors or underground, protecting themselves from sunlight. Her father, a politician, recently lost an election. The family has decided to move to another planet, the recently discovered Archbuilders' World. While they are preparing to leave, her mother dies during an operation to remove a brain tumor. The family leaves after her funeral.
The second and much longer part of the work deals with life on the new world. Most of the original inhabitants left the planet long ago, leaving only two species of animals: their descendants, who call themselves the Archbuilders in English; and the 'household deer', a species of agile, nearly invisible deer-like creatures who flit about the landscape and apparently spend most of their time observing other creatures on the planet, including the humans. The Marshes settle in a small community of humans: three families, and five individuals--an anthropologist, a painter, a shopkeeper, a handyman, and Efram Nugent, the local bad guy/bully/informal leader. Clement, Pella Marsh's father, sees his role in the community as imposing the rule of law and civilisation, but he is resisted by Efram. There are as well several of the Archbuilders, an odd lot in appearance and behaviour.
All the humans except the Marshes take pills to prevent themselves from an unnamed infection from the environment. The nature of the infection isn't revealed at first, but it turns out that without the pills, some of the humans can temporarily become household deer. Pella develops the ability to become a deer and joins them in observing the others.
After a round of violence directed against the Archbuilders and initiated by Efram and opposed by Clement, the anthropologist, painter, handyman, and one of the families leave the community, and Efram is killed by a teenage boy, who is his acolyte. During this time, Pella begins to develop sexually. She rejects her father as too weak to prosper in this environment and finds herself both fascinated and horrified by Efram's violence, much of which is borderline sexual. She eventually stands up to Efram and her false accusation that he has molested her leads to his death. She takes over his house and moves in with one of her brothers, another young boy, and several of the Archbuilders.
After the death of her mother, Pella moves into a new world, both literally and figuratively. Her ability to become a deer and observe the others mirrors the child's study of adults and the semi-invisibility of children to adults (it is also a neat device that allows Lethem to present details that the human Pella would probably not witness). When she and the other humans with this ability become deer, their human forms sleep. The deer are almost like vehicles for daydreams and bouts of thinking that take us out of our bodies. There are in this small community several varieties of men, and Pella's interactions with them mesh with her growing awareness of her own sexuality. There are, for example, two teenage boys: one is good husband material, the other is Efram's acolyte, who will end up another Efram. By the end of the novel, the good boy has left with his family to return to Earth. The bad boy runs off after killing Efram, but Pella looks forward to his return. The Archbuilders' radical difference contrasts with the humans' familiar personalities and problems. Their comments and reactions also allow Lethem to comment on human society and psychology.
Unlike the author of the previous item, Lethem is in total control of this narrative. He may resort to cliches about frontier settlements, but he uses them for his own purposes and does not let them take over the narrative and force it to run along familiar lines. Lethem also differs in his awareness of the complexity of human motivation and psychology. His characters are both representatives of types and realised individuals. This is not a long work, but it is a complex one.
19. Abe Kōbō, Beyond the Curve. 1/28. A collection of twelve stories written between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s.
The stories spring from an unsettling twist--the dead body of a stranger lying in the genkan of a man's apartment, a business card that takes the place of a salaryman, a man who turns into a plant, the experiences of the souls of dead soldiers, an architect who is asked to design an impossible building, a man who cannot remember what is around the curve of a road, the true history of Noah. All of them illustrate what one character calls the 'monstrosity of modern life'.
The lead character in each story is oddly passive--things happen and he responds without comprehension and accedes to the course of events. He has an interior life, but outside forces--the state, his employer, strangers--determine his exterior life and leave him without choices. The manager of a botanical garden offers the man who is turning into a plant a choice that is typical for these stories: he can either reside in a pot in the state-run botanical garden or he can become a commodity to be bought and sold. The state or capitalism--neither lets the individual be an individual except in the interior monologue in his own mind. The dead soldiers appear to escape constraint and experience freedom but end up trailing after the ghost of a dead general. Even Noah, who appears to be the decision maker in his village, turns out to be only a pawn in the grand game between God and Satan.
The writing in these seems sparse, perhaps because Abe was writing for a Japanese audience and didn't feel the need for detailed descriptions that we foreigners need to make these stories less 'foreign'. There are only a few dialogues, however. Most of the stories are interior monologues and descriptions of the character's internal state.
20. Tomás Ó Criomhthain, Allagar na hInise. 1/29. Between 1918 and 1923, Ó Criomhthain kept a diary about life on Great Blasket. From time to time he would send the accumulated pages to Brian Ó Ceallaigh. In 1928 a selection of passages from the diary were published as Allagar no hInise. Allagar means 'shouting', 'argumentative talk', not a full-blown argument, more like chaffing and disagreeing, talking at cross-purposes. I suppose today we might call some of this craic,
There are some 175 selections from the diary, arranged chronologically, averaging 200-300 words each. This amounts to about a third of the full diary. Most of the selections relate conversations among the islanders, dealing with the weather, the fishing, prices, their animals, work, the stuff of daily life. Bad events were greeted with stoic resignation; the good ones were enjoyed, in the expectation that they would not last. Outside events, particularly the war with England in 1919-1921, the treaty negotiations, and then the Civil War, figure mainly as causes of disruptions in the market for fish and of inflation in the prices of , and scarcity of, the goods the islanders purchased. There seems to have been little sentiment for or against the treaty on the island--at this early stage the islanders were reserving judgement until they could tell if the new arrangement would benefit them or not.
This is a less systematic work than An tOileánach and the anecdotes often are aimed at the sharp or witty comment that rounds out the story. It's an interesting work and of value as a history of the lives of poor people on the west coast. The ongoing debate over the value of including Peig in the curriculum raises the question of whether these people can be identified as the ancestors of present-day Irish and their works as part of Ireland's national heritage. No doubt the Gaelic League romanticised these people. They did have a hard life--there's no denying that--but their hardships have been, I think, more celebrated as 'what our ancestors suffered' than understood as the central fact of their life. O' Criomhthain had a subscription to Misneach, and either read the contents to other islanders or circulated his copies to other islanders who could read Irish. I wonder how the League's perceptions of the peasantry affected the actual peasants.
21. Adam Roberts, Gradisil. 2/2. A nation-founding history told as a family saga spanning three generations, with speculations on the Great Man vs. macro-forces theories of history, the nature of god and belief, and some near-future sci fi. I read this because I happened upon Roberts's blogs and became interested in them and curious about his novels.
The richer and/or more independent-minded inhabitants of Earth are colonizing near space. The USA objects to their independence, starts a war, and is outsmarted by the woman leader of the space dwellers (the Gradisil of the title). She secretly orchestrates her own martyrdom by having her husband, Paul, betray her; her intent, which is fulfilled, is to unite the space dwellers around a heroic founder. Twenty years later, her sons take revenge on their father, who is seen as the traitor who killed Gradisil.
The first section of the story is told by Gradisil's mother, the daughter of one of the space pioneers. The second part is an autobiography composed by Paul, interspersed with a narrative by an American military officer. The third part tells the story of the sons' revenge. The first section takes place in the mid-21st century; the second the end of the 21st and beginning of the 22d; the third the 2230s.
One grumble: English orthography has changed by the second half of the 21st century; 'what' has become 'wat' and the 'ck' is now spelled as just 'k'. The latter created such forms as 'bak' for 'back', so that 'he backed up his files' would come out 'he baked up his files'. It's a nuisance to read these forms; there is a reason for differentiating 'ck' and 'k' in spelling. Roberts leaves the 'kn' initial intact, thus giving 'knak' and 'knok'. Surely if spelling were ever to be simplified, the silent initial 'k' would get axed.
See http://lavietidhar.wordpress.com/2011/12/14/shall-i-tell-you-the-problem-with-adam-roberts/ for an interesting take on Roberts's works.
22. Justin Evans, A Good and Happy Child. 2/3. This was the random pick of the last trip to the library. Someone had left it atop a bookcase for reshelving and the cover caught my eye, and the blurb made the book sound worth a try.
George Davies and his wife had just had a child, their first. George cannot bring himself to touch the baby. He seeks help from a psychiatrist and then begins remembering an event from his childhood. When he was eleven, his father died. In the aftermath of that he began to dream and then to see a boy not unlike himself. The boy rouses his curiosity about his father and the manner of his death. The boy becomes more and more of an obsession for George. When his mother realizes that he is having visions, she arranges for him to see a psychiatrist. When George (or the boy of his visions) cuts the brake line on the car of a family friend, George is taken for a psychiatric evaluation at a state hospital. Arrangements are made for him to be treated at a residential psychiatric hospital as soon as a space becomes available. In the interim, he is returned to the care of his mother and given drugs. George's father was a mediaevalist who researched demons. In his father's view (or perhaps this is only George's reconstruction of his father's view), he was possessed by a demon and that led to his death. The father had three colleagues who shared his beliefs in demons and who convince George that a demon is trying to possess him. George grows more and more uncontrolled. He beats his mother and then murders her boyfriend in the belief that he is the demon. The murder 'cures' George, and he and his mother move away. When the adult George remembers all of this and processes it, he finds that he can touch his infant son. But he also sees the demon again.
The mother and the various psychiatrists represent a rational approach--the demon is simply an imaginary vehicle that allows George to deal with his father's death. Unfortunately George loses control over this vehicle and ends up damaging others and himself. In this view, George's father died of malaria contracted during a trip to Central America. The father and his three colleagues and ultimately George represent a more religious, more mystical approach. The demon is real and deadly. George's attempt to recover this childhood experience mirror the efforts of many adults to explain their adult predicaments and problems in terms of their personal history, especially the events of childhood.
Neither of these tactics is new in storytelling. There is that story by Henry James, for example, in which a mother and father represent different approaches to life as they struggle for the soul of their son. The retrospective visit to childhood is a basic explanatory device in psychological novels. Evans handles these themes with skill, however, and leaves the central mystery unresolved--was George simply psychotic or was he genuinely possessed? This falls into the category of a good read.
23a. William Dean Howells, A Foregone Conclusion. 2/4. I'm reading this in the Library of America series. This is first of four novels included in the volume.
In 1862 an Italian priest, Don Ippolito, visits the American consul in Venice, Mr Ferris, with an idea for a new form of cannon. The priest reveals that he is more an inventor than a priest and asks for passage to the United States in exchange for his idea. Ferris quickly points out a flaw in the priest's idea and explains that in any case he cannot underwrite a trip to the United States. But Ferris, who is also a painter, finds himself drawn to the priest both as a friend and as a painter. He visits the priest's home and discovers many more such inventions, all of them fatally flawed in some way.
Ferris is also squiring about two American visitors to Venice, a Mrs Vervain, a wealthy widow, and her daughter, Florida. Mrs Vervain is one of those imperiously helpless women common in fiction until recently, and as usual more imperious than helpless. She charges Ferris with the task of finding an Italian tutor for her daughter. Florida is seventeen and by turn adult and child, haughty and prickly, solicitous of her mother's needs, protective of her self. Ferris proposes Don Ippolito as a tutor, and the priest and Florida and the mother get along well.
At first the novel seems headed in a Jane Austin direction of sparring between a young man and young woman, whose fated marriage is clear to everyone but the two principals. Ferris protects himself against his attraction to Florida by badinage and mock seriousness; Florida is rude towards Ferris.
The four take a day's excursion to the mainland to view what had been the country seats of the Venetian aristocracy in the days of the Republic. On the way Ferris sketches Florida. Mrs Vervain says that the sketch makes her daughter look too proud and appeals to the priest for his opinion. When the priest begins dissecting Florida's personality, the girl loses her temper at the way she is being discussed and accuses the priest of presuming on his position and taking liberties. This ruins the sightseeing tour, and on the return trip the group is harassed by the police and military patrols. The daughter apologises to the priest for her behaviour and dismisses Ferris curtly.
The next day, the priest confesses to the daughter that he never wanted to be a priest, that he is much more interested in being an inventor, that he has doubts about God. All three Americans are Protestants and inclined to view the Catholic Church with suspicion, although all three like Don Ippolito. Florida encourages Don Ippolito to leave the priesthood and return to the United States with them. She promises the priest that they will support him until he can earn his own living. She falters at the end of their conversation, however, and encourages Don Ippolito to seek Ferris's advice, since he is older.
Ferris is not as encouraging as Florida. He is far more aware of the problems than she is. In the course of their discussion, the priest confesses that he has fallen in love with Florida and wants to marry her. Ferris is horrified, not the least because he has the same hopes. He tells the priest to abandon these plans.
In the meantime, Florida has told her mother of the priest's plans. Mrs Vervain approves and begins preparing to leave Venice and return to the United States. The priest visits the Vervains and reveals to Florida that he loves her. She reacts with disbelief and confesses that she loves Ferris. The priest realises his mistake and takes his leave. During the tete-a-tete between the two, Ferris arrives and speaks with the mother, who lauds Florida's plan. The mother sends Ferris to get Florida. Ferris, unseen by Florida and Ippolito, witnesses their final leave-taking. Out of pity, Florida embraces the priest before sending him away. Ferris misinterprets this as a declaration of love and runs off.
The Vervains leave Venice the next day. Several weeks later, Ferris learns that Don Ippolito is ill. Ferris visits and discovers him on his death bed. Don Ippolito tells Ferris that Florida loves him. Shortly thereafter, Ferris loses his post as consul and returns to the United States. He visits the Vervains' house but learns that they are still in Europe. He enlists in the Union army and is injured. He is impoverished and agrees to exhibit a portrait of Don Ippolito in hopes of earning money to survive. The portrait doesn't sell (it's not very good), but it does reunite Florida and Ferris. They soon marry, and Ferris and she live quite happily on her inheritance.
All of this would be bad melodrama were it not for Howells' skill at creating multifaceted characters--the focus is always on the clash between their personalities and inclinations and the larger social forces constraining them. None of these people is free to act as they wish. There is much admiration voiced by Ferris and Don Ippolito and the narrator for the Vervains' propensity for directness and speaking the truth, but in reality all the principals hide their true feelings behind the conventions.
Like most nineteenth-century novelists, Howells sometimes intrudes himself into the narrative to make judgements and statements of 'universal truth'. The Italians, for example, are held up as chatterers with a ready fund of disingenuous stock remarks to hide their inability to think deeply (unlike Americans). The three Americans hold similarly self-congratulatory and disdainful views of the Italians as lightweights.
All three see priests in general and Don Ippolito as being womanish. His soutane and the posture it forces him to adopt is described as female. He cries a lot. He is passive. He has renounced those aspects of life that make a man manly. Florida points out that we accept renunciation in a nun because she is a woman and women's lives are full of renunciations, but we find the same renunciation in man distasteful because it is contrary to what we expect of men. None of the three Americans is able to see past their stereotypes to understand Don Ippolito as anything more than a suspect and slightly ridiculous cleric. His suffering and doubts are not part of their world. It is part of Howells' skill that he can tacitly let the reader see these shortcomings in their views of Don Ippolito even as he presents the narrative in terms of the Vervains' and Ferris' views.
In an epilogue, Ferris and Florida return many years later to Venice. This prompts a discussion between them of Don Ippolito. In their memories, the priest has faded into a puzzle--they cannot understand what prompted his behaviour. The novel ends: 'Thus lapsing more and more into a mere problem, as the years have passed, Don Ippolito has at last ceased to be even the memory of a man with a passionate love and a mortal sorrow. Perhaps this final effect in the mind of him [Ferris] who has realized the happiness of which the poor priest vainly dreamed [i.e., the marriage to Florida] is not the least tragic phase of the tragedy of Don Ippolito.' The 'foregone conclusion' is the inevitability of this. A neglected work, even its flaws are interesting.
23b. William Dean Howells, A Modern Instance. 2/10. A novel about the dissolution of a marriage.
Marcia Gaylord is the only child of Squire Gaylord, a lawyer and landlord of a town in Maine. Her father has brought in a promising young man, Bartley Hubbard, to run his newspaper. Hubbard is an orphan who attended college on a scholarship. Marcia falls in love with him and they become engaged, but in a fit of jealousy at the attention the flirtatious Hubbard directs towards other women, she breaks the engagement. Hubbard leaves town. Marcia has a change of heart and runs after him. She is mad for him; he is flattered that she loves him enough to leave her family. The two elope and travel to Boston. Hubbard takes up journalism and succeeds, becoming the managing editor of a major paper.
Their marriage has its ups and downs. Marcia was indulged by her father and expects the same from Hubbard. She nags him and is parsimonious. He is liberal in his spending and not always scrupulous in the methods he uses to get ahead. Among the people he meets in Boston is Ben Halleck, a friend of his from college, and Halleck's family. The Hallecks take up Marcia, while disdaining her passion for Hubbard. Ben and others in Boston take a less generous view of Hubbard. Ben falls in love with Marcia and decides to flee Boston for South America. When she and Hubbard quarrel and she leaves their house, she goes to the Hallecks. Ben does the 'right thing' and returns her to her home before leaving for South America the next day. Meanwhile Hubbard has decamped and left for the Midwest.
Marcia refuses to admit that she has been deserted. She struggles on for two years, supporting herself by taking in boarders and with the help of her father. Ben returns. He discusses with Atherton, a lawyer-friend, the possibility of encouraging Marcia to get a divorce and marry himself. The lawyer is incensed at this breach of propriety. Ben desists in this plan but receives by mistake a package containing a newspaper meant for Marcia. The newspaper, published in Indiana, contains a legal notice of a divorce initiated by Hubbard charging Marcia with desertion. Marcia, Ben, her father, and Ben's sister confront Hubbard in Indiana. In a dramatic courtroom scene, Marcia consents to the divorce, her father has a stroke, and Hubbard flees in embarrassment. Marcia and her father return to Maine. Ben becomes a minister. Years later, word reaches them that Hubbard has been killed. Ben writes his lawyer-friend asking if, now that Marcia is a widow, he might legitimately ask her to marry him.
Like A Foregone Conclusion, this flirts with melodrama. Towards the end, there are many long speeches on divorce and the dangers it poses to 'civilisation'. Atherton stands on the side of order and civilisation; Ben flirts with passion and the righting of wrongs. Howells makes it clear, however, that Atherton speaks from a position of wealth and privilege; the gentleman himself admits that he might hold other views were he not a pillar of society and a lover of order. Ben continually does the right thing even though he wishes to do otherwise. He knows what his duty is, but he doesn't like it and wishes to escape it.
There are problems here. Throughout Hubbard is accused of being amoral, yet he is seldom shown being so. Rather, Squire Gaylord, Ben Halleck, and Atherton assert that he is, one suspects because they cannot conceive of penniless orphan being a gentleman. Hubbard does take shortcuts, but he also works hard and is relatively abstemious. Despite Marcia's jealous suspicions and his flirtation nature, he is not adulterous. He cares more for show than for substance, but with a few twists he could have been an Horatio Alger character. Ben, on the other hand, is the son of a rich man. He is introduced as someone who wanted to go to Harvard but was instead forced by his father to attend a lesser college in Maine, and who feels that this has blighted his life. His love for Marcia is based on a teenage infatuation--he once saw her at a summer resort and conceived a passion for her. He drifts from plan to plan, accomplishing nothing.
So the characters are rather a mixed bag of motives. Howells did not, I suspect, intend for them to be sympathetic characters and they are not. Again social forces constrain all of them. According to the introduction, this was the first American novel to deal with divorce. James or Wharton would have made a much better novel from this.
23c. William Dean Howells, Indian Summer. 2/17. Colville, an American journalist, returns to Italy after an interval of twenty years. He is now 41 and never married. On his earlier trip he fell in love with an American visitor, proposed, and was turned down. In Florence, he meets Mrs Bowen, who was the best friend of the woman who refused him and witnessed the affair. She is now a widow with a young daughter, living in Florence. Staying with Mrs Bowen is a young woman, Imogene, who is also an American and in her late teens. Imogene is impetuous and a romantic. She falls in love with Colville. He is flattered, and despite the differences in their ages, they become engaged. After a series of mishaps, she realises that she is not in love with Colville so much as in love with the idea of being in love with Colville, and he comes to understand that his consent to the engagement owes more to the situation and the chance of having a love affair come out right this time than to his feelings for Imogene.
Complicating all this is the fact that Mrs Bowen is in love with Colville. She is jealous but determined to behave well. So she does not interfere in the affair and behaves scrupulously to Imogene and coldly towards Colville. In the end, Imogene returns to the US. Colville realises that he really is in love with Mrs Bowen, declares his love to her, and proposes. She acknowledges her love for him but refuses to marry him. After much speechifying and and discussion of their motives, she relents and they marry.
This is a much better work than the two previous ones. It avoids melodrama and works through the personalities of the three principals. There is some nice discussion of their predicament, which is entangled with their ideas of the proper way to act. Imogene is very much a teenage girl, with more sensibility than sense; Colville, a middle-aged man who is enamoured of his youth; and Mrs Bowen, a moral woman determined to do the right thing but still hoping for what she wants.
I often found myself speculating how James or Wharton would have presented this situation. James, of course, would have killed it with endless labyrinthine dissecting of thoughts and feelings, and the relief that always accompanies the conclusion of a James novel would have rendered the question of whether the two marry of less moment than the words 'The End'. I suspect Wharton would have treated this as an example of the claims of duty and would not have allowed Colville and Mrs Bowen to marry, but would have brought them together many years later to discuss their younger selves. Howells strikes the middle course; the characters try to do what they regard as the noble thing but somehow desire ends up triumphing. His is perhaps the more realistic course.
23d. William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Latham. 2/18. I read this many years ago and remember not being all that impressed by it. I've grown into it (just as, for example, I have grown out of Jane Austin, who I now find unreadable).
Through hard work and a fortuitous deposit of clay on the ancestral farm in northern Vermont, Silas Latham becomes a successful and wealthy manufacturer of paint. He and wife and two daughters move to Boston, where they live in an unfashionable part of town. They are simple, unsophisticated, plain-spoken honest people, the sort of person many New Englanders like to imagine themselves to be or their ancestors to have been. By chance, Mrs Latham helps a Boston society matron, Mrs Corey. Mrs Corey introduces Mrs Latham and her two daughters to her son, Tom, a recent Harvard graduate who is at a loss for a career.
The younger, prettier daughter, Irene, conceives a passion for Tom, who on his own and without knowledge of Irene's feelings, persuades Latham to employ him. Tom begins to visit the Latham household and secretly becomes enamoured of the older daughter, Penelope. Both the Lathams and the Coreys suppose Tom to be interested in Irene rather than the acerbic Penelope. When the truth of Tom's affections is revealed, Irene breaks down and leaves Boston. Penelope is horrified and turns Tom away, not because she doesn't return his affections but because she is convinced that the right thing to do is to sacrifice her happiness in sympathy with Irene.
Meanwhile, Latham becomes entangled with a schemer, and his business flounders. He is tempted at several turns to take unethical steps that will restore his fortune, but in the end he, too, opts to do the right thing. He loses his fortune and returns to Vermont. In the end, Tom and Penelope wed and leave for Mexico.
The plot is complicated by several subplots, as well as disquisitions on houses, style, Boston society, American manners, marriage, women and men, business. The main theme, however, revolves around morality. The love triangle serves to introduce the question of moral economy. As a minister puts it, Is is preferable that one person (Irene) suffer and the other two (Tom and Penelope) be happy or that all three suffer? As a businessman, Latham confronts the question of business and personal ethics. His rise is not so much the growth of his fortune but the triumph of his moral sense.
There are some nice bits of psychological realism--when the Lathams learn the truth of Tom's affections, they are said to quit discussing it a hundred times in the course of an afternoon's drive, which is precisely what one does with problems with no easy solutions. The Lathams are finely drawn, as are the Coreys. Throughout the groundwork is laid for the impetuous, romantic and immature Irene to become the wiser and more practical sister.
Howells is clearly opposed to the type of sentimentalism that would demand that Penelope sacrifice her happiness to Irene's. He also foregrounds the codes (puritanical, Yankee, Boston, social, religious) by which these characters live and shows how they complicate their lives. He isn't necessarily opposed to these codes, but he does show how they lead to to the Coreys' dismay at the direction of Tom's affections and the Lathams' financial downfall. That is the one point at which the novel seems to me to be unrealistic--Were there ever businessmen like Latham who sacrificed their wealth to honesty, when, as other characters point out, he is being overscrupulous? In the end, Tom and Penelope have no trouble sacrificing their standards to their passion. What makes one action impermissible and the other acceptable?
In the end, I was left wondering whether Howells was being description or prescriptive. I don't know enough about contemporary New England personal and business morals and behaviour to say. In many ways, the actions of the characters seem true to what we think about late Victorian moralistic behaviour, but that may owe more to its description in fiction than to life. I am far more familiar with the fictional versions of this age than I am with its history, and that biases me. Howells is generally said to be a realistic novelist and his presentation of contemporary business ethics is echoed in Edith Wharton's descriptions of old New York business mores. But, on the other hand, this was the era of the Robber Barons and ruthless capitalists. Trollope's The Way We Live Now, at least its first part, seems a more realistic of business than this work. Still, of the four novels in this collection, this is the best.
24. Robin Flower, The Western Island. 2/19. Flower was a Celticist and a collector of Irish poetry and tales. He worked at the British Museum and, beginning in 1910, paid several visits to Great Blasket. It was he who encouraged many of the islanders such as Tomás Ó Criomhthain to record their life stories. This short work, published in 1944, is a series of reminiscences on his experiences on the island and recordings of stories he heard the islanders tell. Flower had a fondness for the travel writer's florid prose and a weakness for indulging in the scholar's melancholy regret at the passing of the subjects of his study. He included several examples of his unfortunate poetry in the book. It pales when set against the natural poetry of the islanders, one of whom characterises their lives in a beautiful phrase as lived 'beneath the mercy of the world'.
The tales collected in this work are fascinating. Tomás Ó Criomhthain relates the story of Helen of Troy and the Trojan Horse. In his version, Helen is a Jezebel seducing visitors to Troy. Another inhabitant caps a story with a proverb he heard someone read from a book by Thomas à Kempis. Where did they learn of such things? Flower was, among other things, a folkloricist, and he collected tales. It would be interesting to know if tales figured as strongly in the islanders' lives as in his account of their lives. What we know about these people depends so strongly on the interests of those who wrote about them.
25. Quentin Bates, Cold Comfort. 2/21. This week's random pick from the library. A police procedural. The twist is that this takes place in the Iceland of 2010 and the lead cop in the story is a middle-aged woman. This ranges over a wide swath of society--lowlifes, the newly impoverished middle classes, the rich who aren't as rich as they used to be but still as nasty. There are a lot of stereotypes--the incompetent, nasty police boss with an eye on media coverage, the cop and the journalist who exploit each other for information, the rich man with friends in high places, betrayed wives, etc. This is a very slow work built out of small, hurried segments. It must run to 100,000 words, but it seems longer. At times it reads like a script for a movie, a very complicated movie, that needs a great cast to bring it to life. I kept reading it out of a sense of duty to this game I'm playing, but I just skimmed the last twenty pages or so to put an end to the experience. It's good at what it is, but it's not the type of work that interests me.
26. Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go. 2/23. Seemingly another of Ishiguro's elegaic stories on the theme of nostalgia and loss, but this time with an awful twist that is only gradually revealed. The story is set in 1990s England. Kathy H. has been a carer for eleven years, since the age of twenty. She has received notice that her stint as a carer will end soon. This prompts her to review her life, particularly her schooldays at Hailsham and her relationships with Ruth and Tommy, which lasted from their youth through Ruth's and Tommy's stints as 'donors'.
This is a first-person narrative, and Kathy is writing for a world that understands itself. She doesn't explain what it means to be a carer or a donor, because her contemporaries will know what those are. What she knows and what we eventually realise is that she and the other children being raised at Hailsham are clones, created to provide replacement parts for 'normal' humans. 'Carer' is simply a stage on the way to becoming a 'donor'; in Kathy's case this stage has lasted much longer than the average. A carer provides post-operative support to donors following removal of an organ. Many donors die after two donations (this is Ruth's fate); some make it to four (Tommy). They are said to 'complete' rather than die, the sense being that they have completed their function in this world.
This isn't a new theme. Medical clones are a staple of science fiction, and there are memorable stories on this subject. What makes Ishiguro's novel unique is that, rather than the technology (which he never discusses or even alludes to), he concentrates on the psychological impacts of the clones' knowledge of their fate and of 'normal' persons' responses to their existence.
The clones react in various ways to the knowledge of their fate. They become angry (Tommy) and mean-spirited (Ruth). They aestheticise their experience (Kathy). They ignore their fate and plan futures that cannot possibly happen. They create elaborate mythologies and indulge in fantasies of deferring their period as donors. Chief among the last is the belief that if two clones fall in love, the managers of this society will grant them a dispensation and allow them to postpone the beginning of their time as donors.
The normal people ignore the clones' existence, treat them with revulsion or extend to them the sort of charity that distances the giver from the recipient. We learn at the end that Hailsham was founded by two women who wanted to prove to society that the clones have souls and should be treated with dignity while they are alive. They are not agitating for the clones to be treated as normal human beings--they recognise the medical necessity of clones, and Miss Emily, the head 'guardian' at Hailsham, appears at the end of the story to have benefitted from a donation--but for kinder treatment while they are alive.
Hailsham is a 'sham'. In Kathy's memories and on the surface, it is (or she hails it as) an idyllic place, whose students are encouraged to express themselves through art and literature. In reality it indoctrinates and prepares the clones for their mission, while providing them with comforting lies.
The title 'Never Let Me Go' is taken from a banal love song Kathy hears. The full line is 'Baby, baby, never let me go'. She ignores the romantic love in the song and understands 'baby' not as a term of endearment between adults but in its literal sense. She sees the song as a mother asking her child not to let her go. In her imagination, she alternates between being the child and being the mother. The smaller irony is that she has no mother and, because the clones are sterile, she cannot become one. The closest Kathy will get to motherhood is to care for others. The greater irony is that letting her go is precisely what society intends to do to her.
Since this is a first-person narrative, we are limited in our certain knowledge to what Kathy chooses to tell us and to what we can infer from that. Was Hailsham the Eden of Kathy's memories or is her story of her life there simply a mechanism for coping with the awful realities of her life? There are hints in her accounts of Ruth and Tommy that their memories of the place differ from hers. Certain of her and their recollections hint at a darker, much more dishonest side of Hailsham. But Kathy either overwrites or tries to overwrite these memories and insists that hers, not theirs, are the truth. What is the truth here? Who is dissembling and trying to protect their vision of themselves by constructing a version of the past that bolsters their self- and world-view? We can't know for sure, because in the end we have only Kathy's version of the past, but we can suspect that her version is questionable.
Kathy has an interesting quirk as a narrator. She is not the skilled narrator often found in first-person stories. She gets ahead of herself and has to backtrack to pick up another strand of the story. She remembers additional details later. In an odd way this both bolsters and weakens her claim to be an accurate narrator. Her imperfect narrator mimics the way most of us tell anecdotes. She makes the same mistakes in narrating that we all do. As speakers we do not have the luxury of being able to revise. Thus she seems 'more real', more colloquial in her storytelling. On the other hand, this mode of narration introduces doubts about the truth of the overall narrative. Is she inventing details to convince us of the truth of her narrative? Are her memories true? Ishiguro doesn't stress this aspect of the narration. It simply lies their quietly, contributing to our sense that Kathy's nostalgia is suspect.
In the end, Kathy becomes Tommy's carer, and the two fall in love. They try to claim the fabled prise of lovers in this world, but discover that it, too, is a sham. Tommy dies, and Kathy continues as a carer. What she has now, however, is the history of their love as another ingredient in her past. It can't save Tommy and it won't save her, but it at least comforts her. She won't let her memories go, and they don't let her go. She is both the mother and the child of her memories.
At the end, Miss Emily reveals that this world of medical clones has been in existence since the 1950s. She sees it as a world of science triumphing over a more humane world. Her project for Hailsham was an attempt to reassert humanistic values over more rationalistic, scientific values. She fails not only because science proves stronger but also because she and others want the benefits of that science. So the nostalgia in this world is both personal and social. Kathy and Miss Emily hunger for the impossible Hailsham. Society as a whole hungers for its idyllic vision of the pre-rational wolrd.
So this becomes a meditation on the role of our private and invented histories in our lives and our use of the past, a carefully selected past, as a coping mechanism.
There is much more in this novel. Ishiguro's straightforward, unemotional prose here is a perfect match for the emotionally stunted, analytical Kathy's voice. The bureaucratic language surrounding the clones is appallingly right. The characterisation is detailed and creates authentic people. This strange world is realised in detail--at one point Kathy and Tommy have to dodge pushchairs on the pavements as they walk along the streets of a small village in Norfolk. Again Ishiguro doesn't stress this point--he just slips it in--but it reinforces the fact that, even in this out-of-the-way place a lot of people continue to be alive well into old age because of the clones. This is why fiction can be such a joy.
27. Michael Connelly, The Fifth Witness. 2/25. A legal thriller in Connelly's Mickey Haller series. This follows the usual story arc for a legal thriller. Defense Attorney Heller has a client accused of murder. He gets her acquitted after all signs point to her guilt. The outcome isn't ever the issue; the drama in this work lies in the courtroom tactics and their success or lack of it. The personalities of the lead characters play an important role. But as in all Connelly novels, the victory isn't pure. Haller is a skilled lawyer, which is to say that he isn't always honest. There is a nice twist at the end. This is one of Connelly's strengths. Both Heller and Harry Bosch are less than stellar people. Heller wins his cases, and Bosch gets the criminal in the end, but their triumphs are never unalloyed. Connelly is one of the best writers in his chosen genres. It's not great literature, but it is excellent entertainment.
28. Michael Connelly, The Reversal. 2/26. This brings together Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch. Haller is a special prosecutor working for the LA County district attorney's office. His first ex-wife is co-counsel, and Bosch, who happens to be his half-brother, is his chief investigator. A man convicted of the kidnapping and murder of a young girl twenty years earlier has his conviction reversed by DNA evidence and is retried for the crime. Connelly displays his usual excellent storytelling skills. The story alternates between a first-person narrative by Haller and a third-person narrative to chronicle the activities of Bosch. The juxtaposition between the two allows Connelly to bring out the different attitudes towards the law of his two main series characters. Students in writing classes are warned against switching points of view during the course of a story. That has become one of the new three unities. This novel is an example of why that advice is silly. As always, Connelly is a good way to pass the time.
29. J. M. Coetzee, Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II. 2/27. A sequel to Coetzee's Boyhood, this is a fictionalised account of his life, roughly from his university years in South Africa. to his first three-four years in England. The novel is set in the early to mid-1960s. The protagonist "he" (nameless except for one mention that reveals his name is John) is convinced that he will live as an artist, a poet or a writer (his models are Eliot and Pound, Ford Madox Ford and James). To do so, he must suffer and find love and passion. Unfortunately he seems sadly lacking in talent in either writing or love or suffering. He flees the racial unrest and threat of conscription in South Africa only to find himself adrift in London. He finds work in the new field of computer programming, working first for IBM and then for a British computer company. He feels that he is no great success at work either. Meanwhile he goes to movies, reads, listens to BBC 3, and worries about his inability to write, to find a niche in British society, and to get laid. He is unable to form relationships with women or friendships with men. At the end he seems to be unconscious of the fact that he is apparently performing well at his job and is successful in other areas such as cricket and chess. They are not the standards by which he wants to judge himself. The young man is inept at life and spends most of his time worrying about that. He lacks even the will to Will himself to be something. The subtitle points to his provincialness. In London, he is even more provincial than he was in South Africa and even more unconnected to anyone else or to society. He is like the drifters--poetasters and hippies--that he deplores.
This is written in Coetzee's spare unemotional prose, and here it really fits this character. He ascribes to the romantic notions of authorship but his soul is blighted and straitjacketed. Towards the end he begins to see himself more clearly and realistically, a change symbolised by the discovery that he needs glasses. With glasses, he realises how blurred his vision has been for many years.
This is an extended narrative, if a bit jumpy in places; O’Sullivan attempts to set the scene and describe the natural or lived environment; he sometimes extends a narrative line over several chapters. He uses external habits and conversation to reveal character. It’s very much a first work, but it’s an impressive first work. A good editor might have helped him with narrative bridges and encouraged him to provide missing explanations. If we had only this mémoire of life on Great Blasket, however, we would have a very different impression of life there. The other writers emphasise the grimness and the harsh beauties of the place; O’Sullivan celebrates life on the island.