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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Why Richard Stern's Other Men's Daughters gets better in its final chapters

Credit where it's due: The last third (haven't quite finished reading it yet - there's a short part 4, something like a coda, still to come) of Richard Stern's Other Men's Daughters (1973) is the best part of the novel. Why? I think because in this section he more or less forgets about protagonist Robert Merriwether's love interest, Cynthia (who one imagines will inevitably toss Merriwether aside eventually), a beautiful and brilliant undergrad who falls for/seduces/bewitches the Harvard prof twice her age, and focuses on Merriwether and his family: the icy hostility of his wife, Sarah, and his guilt about breaking up their marriage and his pathetic attempts to rationalize and to be kind; the difficulty of explaining their pending divorce - and the reasons for it - to children, colleagues, neighbors; the legal mechanics of the divorce and the attendant troubles, such as selling the family house and finding new lodgings for all. Stern does a fine job with a few of the scenes, especially the painfully awkward last xmas the Merriwethers will celebrate together. He's not a great stylist, a la his contemporaries Roth and Updike, who have similarly examined marital despair and academic rites, but he has a great eye of what Wolfe called "status details," the many objects and acquisitions and decorations that mark a space and from which we, like anthropologists, can determine gender, race, class. Stern builds toward the climactic scene in which the parents tell the two youngest children - they seem to be in high school or maybe middle school - of the impending divorces. Improbably, they wait till the last possible moment, virtually on the eve of moving out of the house - but it's still a sorrowful moment, and we even feel some pity for the dad, even though he brought all this about through his own infidelity and ego. This novel, as one might deduce from the title, is entirely from the male point of view, but in fairness to Stern we feel more sorrow and pity for his wife (and children) than for the male protagonist; I almost wish that he's written a companion piece - like the Mr. and Mrs. Bridge novels - covering the same period of time and the same ground in close 3rd person from Sarah's POV.

Friday, April 20, 2018

An attack on an academic colleague, in fiction and in life

In the second and third parts (about the middle third of the 1973 novel) of Richard Stern's Other Men's Daughters the protagonist, Robert Merriwether, begins to get what he deserves, or at least what he should have expected. At this point he has taken Cynthia, the college student half his age (she's 20) with him for a summer conference in Nice (he's a physiology professor at Harvard). How he in any way thought he could maintain the secrecy of their relationship - for a year or so they'd been meeting regularly in and near Harvard Square, which as Stern makes clear is an insular, gossipy academic community - is beyond me, but he's outed when a Newsweek reporter interviews Merriwether and for some not likely reason references his pretty young assistant, Cynthia Ryder. The folks back on the home front in Cambridge can read between the lines! On another front, Cynthia's father, a prominent, self-made, competitive Carolina lawyer, comes to pay a visit; I expected fireworks and an ultimatum at the least, but Merriwether charms Atty Ryder and he departs wishing them well though encouraging Cynthia to get some counseling. Well, so much for the protective dad. A good sidelight, however, is the complete breakdown and furious personal attack on Merriwether from an eccentric lesser light at the conference, a guy from the Univ of North Dakota (such a condescending novel), which some may find to be unlikely and over the top but I can attest that such attacks do happen and even wonder whether Stern was present (as I was) in Buffalo in the early 70s when the cantankerous Lionel Abel similarly trashed cerebral colleague Angus Fletcher? On returning to Cambridge, Merriwether has to deal now w/ the confusion he's caused the children (Stern writes little about these 4 children) and the estrangement and extreme (and justified) bitterness and anger from wife, Sarah - all while trying to continue this unlikely relationship w/ Cynthia, setting her up in an apartment, spending most nights there, sometimes enduring her wrath. Stern depicts her as highly intelligent, beautiful, athletic, well-mannered, wealthy - one would think she could do better than a married man twice her age, but I guess love is strange.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

A novel that's easy to dismiss, and yet ... Richard Stern's Other Men's Daughters

Richard Stern's almost-forgotten1973 novel, Other Men's Daughters (recently reissued by the great NYRB though I'm reading a library copy of the old Dutton hardback) can easily be dismissed as a middle-aged intellectual's fantasy novel: 40-year-old Harvard physiology professor Robert Merriwether, living in one of the old Harvard Square mansions passed down from his aunt (the M's are a classic Boston Brahmin family), married to the stereotypical faculty wife - genteel, from DownEast Maine, gave up her literary studies to settle into the marriage), marriage a little dull and stale, 4 kids of at or near college age who play almost no role in the novel at least through the first 1/3 or so, encounters a beautiful 20-year-old summer student (she comes to him while he's working at an doctor at one of the Harvard clinics, seeking a scrip for the pill) who literally flings herself at him and in a short time becomes involved in a passionate relationship; the novel opens as he's about to leave his family for this young woman - whose behavior doesn't even register on the scale of credibility. No surprise that the edition I'm reading has a back-cover blurb from Philip Roth - literally the longest jacket blurb I've ever seen (I have not, though, read the blurb - never do). Stern at the time was a prof at Chicago, where Roth also taught, so this seems to be a case of some log-rolling, though I believe Roth's praise was sincere: The two authors cover a lot of the same ground, w/ the academic novel of infidelity (see When She Was Good) as do a # of other writers from in or near their generation (see Malamud, and earlier see the great novel Stoner and Wharton's The Professor's House). The difference is that Roth's characters (and the others referenced above) are far more nuanced and more credible and their dilemmas far more complex and fraught. In Other Men's Daughters (even the title is off-putting) we don't really care what happens to Merriwether as, first of all, he doesn't care for anyone but himself and, 2nd, there's not a lot at stake: He leaves the marriage or he doesn't, and either way he's a creep. All that said, Stern's writing is excellent and his intelligence is manifest: Merriwether is a scientist, and Stern goes to great lengths to discuss many facets of his scientific work (his specialty is the nature of thirst - biological what determines thirst, what signals are sent to the brain, and why) - so he gets props on this, as almost all of the academic novels focus on English professors. He also does a pretty good job establishing the tone and milieu of Harvard Square in the 1970s, w/ a bit of overemphasis on the "hippie" culture (which must have seemed to Stern so odd and overwhelming, compared with the staid climate of U-Chicago in that era); I don't know what connection if any Stern had w/ Harvard, but he certainly taps into the Harvard elitism - even putting down the "second-rate" school the young woman (Cynthia) ttends (Swarthmore! - it would have made more sense had Stern placed her in a public university rather than one of the most selective colleges in the country). One odd note: when Merriwether first encounters Cynthia after her clinic visit, she offers him a lick of her ice-cream cone. Note only is this odd, but I think it's exactly the way Roth first encounters a young woman in NYC in the recent novel that's clearly based on aspects of Roth's life. Odd.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Promising first chapter of a novel by Keith Gessen in current New Yorker

Keith Gessen has a fine fiction entry in the current New Yorker (I cannot call it a short story as it obviously seems to be the first chapter of his forthcoming novel, A Terrible Country) that gives us some insight into a place most of us have never been: contemporary Russia as seen from the POV of a 30-something American, i.e., the narrator - who was Soviet-born, came to the U.S. at age 6 so feels fully American, unlike his sibling, an older brother who was 16 at emigration. At present the narrator is at a career deadlock, academic Ph.D. w/ no job prospects, and he gets a message from his brother asking if he can to the Moscow to take care of their only relative, their elderly grandmother. W/ nothing to keep him in the U.S., the narrator obliges. In essence this story/chapter introduces us to these two main characters and their tender if strained relationship; the grandmother has significant dementia, in fact cannot at times recall how she "knows" her grandson, though she recognizes her love for him (the awkward title of the piece in the NYer is a quote from the grandmother, that is powerful and sad in its context: How did we come to know you?). Through the chapter we get some insight into Russian medical care (the g-mother falls and hurts her head and goes to a neurology clinic, seedly looking place where families are expected to provide "gratuities" to the various staff members, though care is free) and a bit into the scary current state of Russian political an social life: the g-mother is in a desirable apartment, and there's a looming sense that elderly people in nice apartments find themselves unexpectedly injured or ill - perhaps not w/ nerve gas but it's possible g-m's fall on the steps involved a push? All told, this is a promising beginning, but Gessen will have to get a plot in motion soon; at this point there's no real central conflict or issue. The narrator (like the author?) is a journalist who took on this trip in hopes of writing a series of essays or articles - notably, the mysterious absence of the older brother who's supposedly in London cooking up a business deal (he's said to have made and lost a few fortunes since the collapse of the USSR).

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The tables turn by the end of Tanizaki's Naomi

Though I never felt I could like either of the lead characters in Junichiro Tanizaki's Naomi, it was gratifying to see the tables turned at the end of the novel. What started out as a story of the complete exploitation of a young woman - the sleazy narrator, Joji, pretty much adopts an attractive 15-year-old girl (he's 28) to have her live as his housekeeper but essentially to make her his concubine and later his wife and to dominate her in every way, sexually, financially, intellectually, socially. But his "creation" grows beyond his control and becomes a powerful and alluring young woman - good - but also a serial philanderer, a spendthrift, probably an alcoholic, a totally unsympathetic character. Eventually, they fight and she walks out, leaving the narrator devastated and suicidal. Oddly, he strikes up a friendship with one of Naomi's many lovers and they tell each other tales of woe and console each other. But oddly Naomi comes back to Joji, at first as a "friend," using his house as a place to recover between assignations and eventually moving in - but for a long time resisting his advances and attempts to renew their marriage, sexually and emotionally - until she at last has him at a point of despair. He literally grovels at her feet - and then we jump forward a few years and see that he has set bought a beautiful suburban house for them and devoted his whole life into meeting her every need and whim, even allowing her to continue to see other men - in particular, "Western" men to whom she is so attracted (as is he to "Western" women - frequently noting Naomi's pale skin and Western features): the situation at the outset has reversed, Naomi is in complete control of the relationship, he is at her mercy. He gets what he deserves.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The characters in Tanizaki's Naomi: They each deserve better

Of course what eludes the narrator is painfully obvious to all readers, as we can see what he blinds himself to: His much-younger wife is carrying on an affair, in fact several affairs, w/ the young men (her age) who hang around w/ her during the many hours her husband is at work and she's kept at home like the proverbial bird-in-cage. Unwilling to face the truth, the narrator (in Junichiro Tanizaki's Naomi, 1925), Joji, keeps believing that his wife, Naomi, is like a child, a toy, a Pygmalion whom he has rescued from a life that would have led her into prostitution, who will continue to perfect her social skills as she studies English and the piano and that she will be content to sit home all day and wait upon him when he returns from work: Prostitution by another name. In fact, she's spirited and lively and, as it turns out, a terrible housekeeper and spendthrift. But he still won't believe or perceive the worst about her until he catches her in the act of deceiving him - and even then it takes him a few episodes (he catches her drunk in the street w/ her friends when he'd thought she was at home waiting for him; he comes home unexpectedly one day and finds one of her "friends" lying on their futon) before he realizes that she has no respect for him, that she stays w/ him only because she is financially depending on him, that their marriage is a sham that will never work, and they get in a fight and she leaves. And then her pursues her once again! Tanizaki does a great job in a creating a narrative in which our emotions and sympathies are always mixed: On that one hand we hate the narrator because of his controlling nature, his smugness, and low attitude toward women in general and Naomi in particular, his oblivion, his perverse view of marriage. And yet: While we sympathize w/ Naomi the captive, married to a much older man, product of a terrible family, facing few choices in life beyond prostitution and poverty, iot's hard to excuse her willful extravagance, her slovenly behavior, and most of all her brazen infidelity. In a way, they deserve each other - but more to the point they each deserve a better life and a suitable partner. They each deserve better, but then there would be no story.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Waiting for the narrator in Tanizaki's Naomi to get what he deserves

We continue to loathe the narrator, Joji, in Junichiro Tanizaki's 1924 novel, Naomi; we hate his snobbery, his obsession with "Western" beauty, his selection of a young and vulnerable woman (girl, actually - Naomi is15 at the start!) to be his "housekeeper," his obvious need to dominate Naomi (whom he marries), his creepy insistence that she call him Papa. And things start to turn: Naomi, as she matures, begins to chafe at the bit so to speak and seek some kind of independence, or perhaps even revenge. She begins spending recklessly, which really gets to Joji, a careful and methodical man who for the first time finds himself in debt and sees no way out - aside from asking his mother for money (which she provides - he doesn't really level w/ her, telling her he needs the money because of a higher cost of living, not because of Naomi's extravagance); she begins hanging out w/ people her age who are interested in music and dance. Joji agrees reluctantly to go to dancing lessons, and develops a crush on the instructor, an exiled Russian aristocrat (his obsession w/ Western beauty and his undue respect for the "upper" class are his undoing) and he feels his age and incompetence when N persuades him to go a dance hall, where he dances with an actress and No dances w/ an American man - and where, it seems, he ends up fronting for all the drinks. In other words, he's headed for a fall - as he indicated at the outset of this narrative -. There's a long history of this kind of plot - the duping of the old man by the young romantic hero (even in opera - think of La Boheme for ex.) - but there are many variations, which keeps us wondering how this will play out over the course of the narrative. Neither of the lead characters is sympathetic, but we can't wait to see the narrator get what he deserves.