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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, February 28, 2015

Norwegian wood: Karl Ove Knausgaard's travels in American for the NYT

Read yesterday and finished this morning the first half of Karl Ove Knausgasrd's cleverly titled "My Saga," a piece the NYT magazine commissioned him to write, as he explains: the editors asked him to travel to various Norwegian pseudo-Viking sites in Canada and the U.S., accompanied (part of the time) by a photographer and to chronicle his journey for the magazine. I find that most often these commissioned magazine pieces don't work out so well - it's an editor's idea, rather than the writer's, and often the writer takes on the assignment as a piece of work, not as part of the core of his or her being. Some of that's true in this piece - KOK's observations about America are pretty shallow and obvious and won't be terribly informative to American readers at least - but the project is saved, at least to a degree, by the ever-engaging narrative style. KOK is more aware than us of the shortcomings or even failures of part of his journey, and, as throughout his great, on-going project, My Struggle, his is both the most honest and disarmingly self-effacing of all writers. For ex., when he goes into a restaurant in Newfoundland and notices that all of the fellow diners are fat, some grossly so, he also has the sense to upbraid himself and realize that if this is the best he can come up w/ in his observations about America his saga will be a failure. He spends a lot of time telling about his "struggle" to get validation of his driver's license, and uses that the parenthetically tell us how he's always losing things, including for ex. a carryon containing passports and a laptop with all of his writings - left in a cab, but recovered the next day - and he's very sanguine about the faux. Other parts of the saga focus on the woes of his hotel room (including a clogged toilet, I will say no more) and his need to find places to smoke: some of course criticize KOK for this "navel-gazing" and concern with the trivial rather than the grand, but I am on his side: I think through his willingness to examine every aspect of his life and being he creates a rich and unexpected examination of character and culture. No doubt, he is more of a novelist than a travel-writer, as his focus is so often internal and private - as he notes, he hates to talk to strangers or even to casual friends, which is not a good trait for a journalist or travel writer - but his personal insights, so unexpected, always life even his work-for-hire to a higher level. Some of the brief descriptions of Detroit, for ex., are excellent - even tho, through part one of this saga, there is no real "conflict of forces" to drive this journey forward.

Friday, February 27, 2015

The life of crime - in Alexanderplatz - Berlin

Book 6 of Alfred Doblin's Alexanderplatz - Berlin (I'm sticking with this title rather than the reverse as it's the one used on the edition I'm reading, from 1931!) starts off well: Book 5 ended with a "cliffhanger," as the "hero," Franz Biberkopf, was left for dead in the street, run over by a car following a bungled burglary attempt. Now we see him in the hospital, seriously injured, and in fact the doctors amputate his right arm. Two friends stand up for him and pay all his medical bills and find a place for him to live during recovery; it's totally unclear to me who these two are or why they have stepped up - but it is clear that nobody wants Franz to rat out the gang that was trying to pull off the burglary, and he remains steadfast. There's a code of conduct and behavior, even among the thieves and low-lifes who populate most of this novel. This section of the book consists of Franz's various drinking bouts and his speculation on how he can resume his life: he doesn't want to go back to hawking newspapers, as he senses it's a fool's game and there's much more opportunity out there, but what? To a modern reader, it seems like there's little opportunity indeed - all of the characters are victims of their time and circumstances. There are no social services, the society is in some kind of tumult - various hints throughout about the imminent rise of Nazism. For those without education (which is linked to social class) or at least a trade, there seems little or no possibility for survival, let alone prosperity. One avenue seems to be the army, perhaps, but the wounded veterans who sometimes walk or stumble across the stage of this novel imply that the army is no route to a better life. So what can become of Franz - will he inexorably move back toward a life of petty crime?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Portrait of the artist: Babel's In the Basement

Tried some time ago to read some Isaac Babel stories, the ones in a military setting if I remember correctly, and couldn't really see what made them so special - seemed to pale compared w/ Chekhov, but who doesn't? - but last night read from European short stories collection his shot piece In the Basement and was really impressed, a nearly perfect story in my opinion. Yet another in the genre of "portrait of the artist as a young man," and it may call to mind for some Mann's Tonio Kroger, as it's about a fledgling artist who befriends the class star (although there are real differences between these two stories as well - there's a class issue in Babel's but not in Mann's, in which both boys are from wealthy bourgeois families). In the Basement, a first-person narration, the narrator (unnamed?) says he was a lousy student because he was such a dreamer, always making things up to entertain himself and others. He becomes friendly with the boy who's the best student in the class, and the boy invites him to the family summer house (Odessa). This is an eye-opener for the narrator, first time he's ever seen such abundance and the lives of this wealthy social class. Boy gets invited back to narrator's house in turn - and the narrator's family makes all sorts of efforts to stow away the family eccentrics and crazies - sending grandpa off to some neighbors' and giving the crazy uncle $ to spend at a pub, etc. Friend comes over - and narrator realizes the tawdriness of his family dwelling (a basement apartment, with a dirt floor in the corridor). Inevitably, some of the crazies gravitate back toward home. When friend leaves, narrator douses himself in the water-barrel (I assume in contains drinking water?); family pulls him out and comforts him. OK, so what we see is of course that the narrator has richness of a different sort - the odd members and sorry conditions of his family provide him with a richness of material that he will carry throughout his life (in Babel's case a tragically short life); his "baptism" in the barrel is a kind of purgatory, and he is rescued or even "resurrected" by his family: they save him in ways he cannot at that age articulate or comprehend. The artist will never fit in - that's the theme of Mann's story more than this one - nor should he.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

More puzzlement about Alexanderplatz - Berlin

Book or section 5 of Alfred Doblin's Alexanderplatz - Berlin focuses on Franz Biberkopf's strange and exploitative relationships with women. We meet a new "friend" of Franz's, a guy who meets women - "janes" in the antique slangy translation from the German - falls madly in love with them and within a few weeks is repulsed by them and wants to get rid of them; this is where Franz comes in - they work out a system in which the women run an errand for the guy and bring something - boots or an article of clothing or something - to Franz, who then seduces the woman and takes her over. They go through a few serial relationships like this - until after a few Franz actually falls for one of the women and doesn't want to ditch her for his friend's latest cast-off. This set of relationships raises a # of questions, such as what do these women see in either of these low-lifes? And what kind of man shuffles through relationships like that - one would suspect maybe a latent or not-so-latent homosexuality maybe? Or some kind of disorder, sexual or psychological? In any event, at the end of this section, which marks the end of volume I of this two-volume novel, Franz goes out for a walk and gets waylaid by a bunch of guys who want him to go on some kind of job - petty theft maybe? - with them and things go wrong and, though it wasn't entirely clear to me, it seems that Franz maybe gets run over by a car? In any event, Doblin notes almost parenthetically that the woman he left at home would never see him again. So this section of the novel ends with everything and everyone in doubt; we still, or at least I still, have no deep knowledge about Franz and what makes him who and what he is - a petty criminal trying to make a go of things selling cheap, maybe pornographic?, magazines and papers. It's a totally strange novel, in that it's an attempt to document a social sphere rather than develop character and action. The great social realists - Zola, Balzac, even the Americans such as, at times, Steinbeck and Dreiser, relied on plot and character, even on melodrama, to tell their tale but Doblin shuttles that off his back - it's a work of high literary ambitions, not always achieved, written in plain style.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Trying to make sense out of Alexanderplatz - Berlin

I'm almost done w/ the first volume (5 "books") of Alfred Doblin's Alexanderplatz - Berlin and to be honest I just am not sure what to make of this novel. Yes, it has some good passages and, yes, it's a document about a time and place - a working-class Berlin neighborhood in the late 1920s - that's not very familiar to Americans and not familiar territory for serious literature and, yes, it's relatively easy to read and, yes, there was enough material here to lead to a famous TV series by Fassbinder and , yes, it was no doubt ahead of its time in its graphic accounts of sex for hire, including a homosexual encounter - and yet - is there anything striking, memorable, or redeeming about the protagonist, Franz Biberkopf? By following him through his various encounters we do get a sense of what life might have been like in that era - and maybe today, to a degree - for an ex-con with no significant family (we know literally nothing about Franz's back story) trying to make it in a tough world of sinners and schemers - but I keep waiting for the various episodes of his life to cohere and to amount to something, to give his life some direction - either up or down, I don't care - but I don't feel, 300 or so pages in - that I know Franz any better now then I did in chapter one. Oddly, I may persist and pick up volume 2 - so something does draw me to this social realism, but I keep wanting more: I know this isn't Ulysses or Mrs. Dalloway, though it shares some of their qualities w/out the high-literary language and referential markers, but is it too much to ask for an arc to a story rather than a series of loosely related episodes, none of which seems to build to a conclusion or resolution, either separate or taken as a whole?

Monday, February 23, 2015

An unsympathetic hero: Alexanderplatz-Berlin

Doblin's Alexanderplatz-Berlin lives to a degree on the shadow of Ulysses (is Doblin a pen name, a pun name?), as it's an attempt to create a portrait of a working-class city, or section of a city, primarily through the vision of one man (Franz Biberkopf, in this case) and his episodic observations, and also including lots of documentary details: street names, tramcar routes, signage, periodicals of the day. It differs considerably, however, in that it's not written in the high literary style by any means, although Doblin does go in for some Joycean-Woolfian streams of consciousness, and it takes place over several months rather than observing the Aristotelian unities. The novel, despite its strengths, feels loose in some ways - we for fairly extended periods of time lose sight of Franz - and in other ways stuffed with baggage: a fairly long description of the cattle yards and slaughterhouses, while pretty engrossing, if not gross, in its own right, has little to do w/ anything else going on in this novel, as just one example - but there's a wealth of ore to be mined, which I guess Fassbinder did when translating this into a German TV miniseries. Biberkopf is a true anti-hero, very difficult to like or even to sympathize with: reminds me in some ways of Bigger (Native Son), and I suspect he may learn and grow from his experiences, as Bigger did - but at the he's far from sympathetic: killer of his girlfriend, exploiter of women, thug and petty thief, irresponsible about money, a serious drinker, and on top of all that a fascist sympathizer. But he's also a survivor and a victim of his times, little education, little opportunity, and no system for social rehabilitation of ex-cons.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A chronogical plot summary of Narrow Road to the Deep North

A chronological summary of Richard Flanagan's Narrow Road to the Deep North in anticipation of book group tonight, weather permitting:

Early life of Dorrigo, first chapter, with his mother, who is consoling a family friend (?) whose wife has abandoned him; D. confused about the meaning of this.

D. goes off on an errand (to his older brother's house?) where he sees older brother kissing a woman, I believe this is the wife who's in process of leaving husband. She's an aborigine; D. again is puzzled by this behavior.

D. goes to boarding school, shows some excellent skill and daring in a form of soccer/football.

D wins scholarship, goes to medical school in Australia  (he's Tasmanian-born); though this part of the story is not dramatized, we learn that he met a woman Ella, daughter of a prominent Australian, and falls in love and they become engaged, though D. is very ambivalent about her and about marriage.

He becomes a military officer, as WWII about to begin; posted (to Tasmania?) waiting for assignment. In a bookshop, a girl, Amy, flirts with him and he's attracted to her. Later, he visits his uncle who runs a shopworn resort hotel on the coast and learns that Amy his his uncle's much-younger wife.

Begins relationship with Amy and increasing estrangement from Ella, back in Australia. Their relationship very passionate, though neither sees a way to make it last.

He is shipped out w/out much warning; brief phone call (?) with Amy, they don't get to see each other.

Amy morose; goes off to the kitchen of the hotel. Husband has told her he's completely aware of the affair. Gas explosion demolishes the hotel.

Dorrigo serves in Syria and near East, then back to Asia (we don't seem much about these years), and his division of Tasmanian soldiers captured by the Japanese and, as POWs, put at forced labor building a railroad from Siam to Burma - these years are the heart of the novel.

Many scenes of POW abuse and suffering from disease and starvation. We meet many prisoners. Dorrigo serves nobly as commanding officer. Toward end of war he is ordered to select 100 men for march into the jungle up the line; he knows he's sending these men to their deaths. During captivity, D receives letter from Ella saying that Amy has died in the explosion.

Soldiers gather after war, with varying degrees of trauma, survivor guilt.

D. returns to Australia. Marries Ella reluctantly; almost immediately begins having affairs.

Japanese soldiers in Occupied Japan wanted as war criminals. One (Goanna) is hanged; another (Nakamura) takes on a fake ID and survives, lives long life and believes he dies as a good man.

D. saves wife and children from a tremendous wildfire in Tasmanian, where they're on vacation.

D. visits older brother on deathbed; learns he has a nephew (by the aborigine woman) - was the nephew a fellow POW? Immediately after, crossing bridge in Sydney, D. sees Amy w/ two young children.

Amy survived (was not present at explosion, which killed her husband); married badly, kids are her nieces. She is dying of CA. 

Later in life, D. becomes a celebrity because of documentary about the POWs. He continues to have affairs and believes he is undeserving of the accolades. Married lovelessly to Ella still.

We see him in bed with a woman (in very early chapter) on what amounts to be the last full night of his life; after he leaves her, he's in a fatal car accident (though he survives for few days as his mind races).

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The German version of The Wire?: Berlin Alexanderplatz

Started Alfred Doblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz, a for-the-most-part forgotten German novel from 1929 about working-class street life in Berlin, mostly known now for the 12-part (?) TV series by Fassbinder, which I'd like to see (but will read book first - I'd rather have it in my own mind before seeing how someone else envisions it - realizing that the film/TV version will then stay in and dominate my recollection of the book - but better than the other way around, my reading the book with the director's vision dominating my own perceptions). Book seems a little quaint (not only because I'm reading a very old library edition), reminding me of Dos Passos and other "social realism" of the era, lots of lists of names of places, stores, etc. and documentary-style inclusion even of logos and signage. The story itself is a bit elusive: we follow the main character Biberkopf, just out of prison (convicted of manslaughter, killing his girlfriend, a prostitute I think - serving only 5 years, kind of incredible) on his first day out of prison - in those days there were no social services, he wanders the city, encounters two Jewish guys who bring him in out of the cold and regale him with some meandering stories, not sure what role if any they'll play later, then he goes out, hires a prostitute, and then visits the sister (?) of his victim, who, surprisingly, is somewhat sympathetic to him though she warns him against her partner, who will take vengeance if he finds Biberkopf there. A jump forward a bit in time, then, and B. is trying to make a go of it selling textiles, smocks, aprons, kitchen stuff - we get a sense of how hard it is to get a footing in this world, and the rough and cut-throat style of the people competing in sales. But what we don't get is any clearly developed narrative arc or even single scenes, all of which read like snapshots, without much real development of action or direction. It does make me curious how this was developed into a narrative series.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Has there been a falling off in Murakami's stye?

I was (at least among American readers) an early fan of Haruki Murikami and have enjoyed many of his novels and short stories over the years but am I alone in thinking that there's been a falling off in recent years, that he's got a certain palette that he works and certain images and themes that emerge in almost every story but whereas in his earlier stories he used the elements to create a mysterious world and to bring his often lonely and isolate protagonists to some type of self-knowledge or revelation in recent stories he just drops in the elements and relies on their presence alone, rather than action, character, or even setting, to create his mood or milieu. It's as if he uses symbols not to enhance meaning but to stand in for meaning, a kind of literary scrip. Story in current New Yorker, Kino, is a case in point: it has the isolated protagonist, survivor of a broken, childless marriage, the small bar or restaurant that the protag runs or frequents (an element apparently drawn from HM's life), cats, mysterious and opaque strangers, injured woman, running, early American jazz - probably other elements, too. In this story the protag and narrator, Kino, runs a small bar in an out-of-the way Tokyo locale; the bar is frequented by a solitary character about whom K knows little; after some inconsequential episodes, strangely he begins to see snakes in the vicinity, which make no sense to him (or us). Then the guy who frequents the bar sends him on a mysterious journey: go away, send me a postcard with no writing on it, at this address, go as far as you can, don't spend long in any one place. OK. So what to make of this? At the end, in a far-off city in a commercial hotel, he writes a postcard with a message - and then comes to the realization that he truly suffered hurt and humiliation when his wife betrayed him with one of his co-workers (ending their marriage). That's a good element in the story - it's rare in an HM story for a character to have insight into feelings - they tend to remain cool and distant and analytic, as Kino is until the last paragraph or two of the story - but what brought him to this point? Is there any explanation - realistic or symbolic - for the man in the bar, the woman with the cigarette burns, the snakes, the seemingly pointless journey? Compare this with Wild Sheep Chase, the first novel of his I read, and I recall - distantly - that it also involved a long a seemingly pointless journey but that the protag learned things along the way and even if the events weren't entirely realistic they formed a logic of their own. Now, it's just a series of tricks and tropes. The writing as always is cool and precise, and the discovery of feelings suggests a new dimension in his work, so I hope he will continue to write and to astonish and surprise me with his next story.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A haiku, and some final thoughts on Narrow Road to the Deep North

Richard Flanagan,
Narrow Road to the Deep North:
Envious of death.

Excellent novel with many complex characters and issues, a tremendous amount of material, beautiful language throughout, my only quibble comes with the concluding some of which are great (many spoilers here) such as the death of the Japanese officer Nakamura, thinking he's a "good man" even though he was a brutal torturer and abuser of those in his control, the Korean lackey Goanna who has no comprehension of his evil and was himself a victim, and at last the protagonist, Dorrigo, a beautifully depicted death scene, as his mind struggles for consciousness and we learn, subtly, that our glimpse of him at age 77 at the outset of the novel was in effect on the last night of his life. One section near the end - Dorrigo rescuing his family from a vast forest fire on the island of Tasmania, is very well depicted but seemed superfluous - I guess it shows that D. can be heroic, though we knew that already, and also that he's not entirely indifferent to his family, at least not when his manhood is at stake. The troubling part to me is the conclusion of the Dorrigo-Amy romance, which seemed very forced and "writerly" to me, a trick of the trade rather than an organic and likely development: Amy after all these years is alive (most readers would sense that, in that Flanagan never explicitly depicts her death) - she believes that Dorrigo didn't survive the war, although one would think she could learn he's alive pretty easily, and D. believes she died in the fire: tricked by a letter (one of the few he received, coincidentally) from his then fiance Ella, who obviously knew of the romance and sabotaged it. It's hard for me to believe that D. would not have tried to find out about Amy on his return - and their passing each other on the bridge in Sydney and not speaking seemed very forced to me - though I was glad that Flanagan didn't go for the romantic-movie ending, that they never re-connect. I'm left a little puzzled by D's reconnecting with his older brother, Tom, and learning that Tom had a son who was a POW like D himself: was he in fact one of D's fellow prisoners? I can't quite make that connection. Anyway, these may be just quibbles, some bumpy passages in a really good novel - one of the few recent Man Booker winner in my view deserving of the award - it can't be all corrupt (St. Aubyn be damned).

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

More surprises and nuances toward the end of Narrow Road to the Deep North

Surprises and nuances continue as I near the end of Richard Flanagan's Narrow Road to the Deep North; it seems what he's doing in the chapters that follow the central events of the novel - the POW slave-labor camp, the brutal treatment of the Australian prisoners by the sadistic and obsessed Japanese soldiers (and their Korean lackeys) - is show the aftermath of the lives of the effected people, and these lives, these fates, are far more nuanced than we would expect or that most novelists could conceive of and delineate. First, the Japanese captors, particularly Nakamura (sp) try to become or try to think of themselves as "good" and moral, just carrying out their sacred commitment to Japan and to the Emperor; of course he is/they are completely deluded and lucky they didn't hang for their crimes (which they would have had they not been officers no doubt), but Flanagan almost - but not quite - makes us feel sorry for them. Then there's the Korean thug Goanna, who turns out to be completely stupid right up till he drops in the gallows, with his bizarre and pathetic obsession with the 50 yen he thinks he's owed as soldier's pay; again, Flanagan almost makes us pity him, as we learn of the abuse he suffered as a child, and later in the Army, but we can't quite do so because he's so thick and ill-natured. Then there's the protagonist, Dorrigo, whom Flanagan clearly shows as a deeply flawed man rather than as a hero - and man who recognizes his flaws and is unwilling or incapable of being "a good man" - contrast with the self-deluded Nakamura - at least Dorrigo knows he's a liar and a cheat - who marries a woman he does not love and then betrays her repeatedly. Finally, there are the other Aussie soldiers - the survivors who get together after the war to drink their pain and sorrows into oblivion. I have a little trouble keeping them straight, but that's probably not necessary to understand the story and feel their emotions; the chapter in which they "visit" the seafood restaurant brought me to the point of tears, very beautiful, and reminded me of the incredible Raymond Carver story about the birthday cake for the dead boy.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The complexity and the intelligence of Narrow Road to the Deep North

Some of the POW camp scenes in Richard Flanagan's Narrow Road to the Deep North are almost unbearable to read, so precise, visceral, documentary - accounts of forced labor, beatings, hospital treatment and surgery under the most primitive and unsanitary conditions - but I have to say that the book is totally engaging and that's in part because it's not an unrelenting chronicle of horrors and abuse but a smart and sensitive novel with surprising twists and unusual character development. A key example is that we see one of the most sadistic prison guards, known to the Australian prisoners only as the Goanna, beating a severely ill prisoner literally to death - but then Flanagan has the courage and the creative ability to show us, in a later chapter, exactly who the Goanna is - we see him not only from the perspective of the prisoners who of course loathe and fear him but later from his own perspective - we see his feelings of inferiority and obeisance, as a Korean serving in the Japanese army and we see his puzzlement at the hatred the prisoners express toward him, as he endured random beatings on his own as he entered the Japanese service; isn't this what's expected of a soldier?, he wonders. When we meet him on his own terms, in a later section of the novel, he's living in Occupied Japan amid the rubble of buildings and he learns that he's wanted as a war criminal; he kills an American soldier and threatens a "pan pan" girl to steal $50 of the soldier's money, with which he buys a false identity and heads north. There are so many elements to this novel, as noted yesterday - the childhood in Tasmania of the central character, Dorrigo Evans, the prewar years of his high romance with the illicit Amy, the postwar years in Occupied Japan, and his later years in London - but it all centers on the years of captivity in the Thai jungle, building the doomed railroad under Japanese command, a time when Dorrigo showed heroic qualities, though he can never accept the role of hero because of his constant self-doubt and his acknowledged serial infidelity. There are no obvious, two-dimensional characters in their novel - each is complex, even ambiguous, in his (and sometimes her) own way.

Have to make correction here: it was the leader of the Japanese division that ran the POW camp, Nokomura, who steals the $ and gets a fake ID and heads north (echoing the title?) - a scheming bastard right to the end; we also meet the Korean thug Goanna, and see his sorrowful perspective, in Occupied Japan, but he's imprisoned and awaiting a death sentence and angry that he's not receiving his military pay of 50 yen. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Several reasons why I'm very impressed (so far) with Narrow Road to the Deep North

Very impressed still (half-way thru+) with Richard Flanagan's Narrow Road to the Deep North for a # of reasons, first, the style is consistently beautiful and precise, poetic at time and at other visceral and sometimes even aphoristic - yet to me it never feels forced or over-written. Second, though the novel by and large evokes a past era (WWII, for the most part) and a specific historical incident (POWs enslaved by the Japanese and forced to build a railroad from Siam to Burma to enable the Japanese to invade India) but it never feels as is this novel is based on research, he doesn't keep scoring historical "points" but it feels, incredibly enough, as if he's lived through this era and is writing from his own soul. Third, it's a very surprising novel: at times it seems to be a brutal POW story, and it is that, but at other times it feels very much like a love story, and it is that, too, and at other times it feels like the unfolding of a man's life over a long period of time - though this aspect is not fully developed (we see the protagonist in his youth, briefly, in the first section, and as a 70+ man even more briefly), at least in the first half of the novel. Fourth, it defies convention: the love story could devolve into treacle like Bridges of Madison County but it doesn't, it's very dark and edgy; similarly, the war heroics could be like a thousand other novels but it's not - nobody's a hero yet many of the characters have heroic qualities. Part of the strength and complexity come from Flanagan's development of the protag, Dorrigo Evans - a man who acts heroically but does not seem - to himself or us - to be a hero because he's deeply flawed, unfaithful to his wife, a betrayer of trust - and yet we're not (quite) sure why he is a serial cheater - clearly, to fill some kind of need, but exactly what that need is Flanagan never spells out directly, we have to gather it by inference (his mother who was uninvolved, his loss during the war of the great passion of his life, his absent father, his social striving - all play some kind of role) - in other words, a novel of many dimensions that, for all that, is surprisingly engaging, relatively easy to follow, and beautifully paced. Hoping he keeps it up!

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Excellent start on the narrow road to the deep north

Very impressed w/ the first 70+ pages of Richard Flanagan's Narrow Road to the Deep North (yes, it's a terrific title, and, yes, he did not invent it), which makes a nice contrast w/ the George Konrad novel that I abandoned this week in utter confusion: Flanagan, too, tells a complicated story with several layers of time through which he moves freely, chapter by chapter, but it's relatively easy to follow his narrative thread as it's all built around a single, clearly established protagonist, Dorrigo Evans and around a central set of events that define his personality and social status. Dorrigo was born in Tasmania in I guess the 1920s, and the novel starts out w/ a few scenes of his early life - an absent father, a sense of sorrow and hardship all around him, a sense that he is poor and provincial; later he becomes a surgeon (we don't see much of his teen years and schooling) and joins the Army during WWII, a medial corpsman attached to Australian regiment, fighting in the Near East and, later, in SE Asia where they're imprisoned and forced by the Japanese to build a railroad line from Thailand north to Burma. The heart of the novel focuses on the horrible prison conditions and slave labor; D. was one of the few to survive, and was a valiant and unselfish leader of his troops (unlike many other officers, who took care of their own needs first, assuming the rights of social class). We also see scenes of D. at age 77, in London I think, and a celebrity of sorts because of a recent documentary about his war service - but he's uneasy with his celebrity status and realizes he is a flawed man in his personal life, heavy drinker and, more significant, serious womanizer who has been consistently unfaithful to his wife (marrying her was a 'step up' in social class, but she is apparently cold and, to him, unattractive). The writing throughout is clear and often beautiful, with a few striking turns of phrase that I marked.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

What's right and wrong about Dinesen's Sorrow-Acres

Isak Dinesen - whom everybody knows at least from the Out of Africa movie, but who's actually read her fiction? - has a story Sorrow-Acres in the anthology of European fiction I've been sampling lately, from her collection Winter's Tales; in some ways it's a great story and in other ways a pretty awful one. She has a very long prelude, describing the feudal landscape of 19th (even early 20th?)-century Denmark (her native land), and describes a lost son returning to his native soil, urged on by his ambitious mother, with the intent of thwarting the plan of his uncle to take possession of the baronial estate: the elderly uncle had one son, he'd arranged a marriage, but the sickly son died, and the uncle then wed the intended bride and still hopes to "sire" a son who will inherit the estate. We think we know where this will lead us - the returning nephew will somehow oust the elderly uncle and win the heart of his young bride and the lineage will continue, in other words, Hamlet becomes a comedy of manners - but Dinesen, an extremely unusual writer, surprises us: In fact, the whole lineage issue is dropped, as the story takes a turn: the elderly uncle is set to severely punish a young peasant living on his estate for some sort of trespassing; the peasant's mother pleads for clemency (it's pretty clear the kid's not guilty of anything anyway), and the uncle says that if she can harvest an entire field of corn in one day by sunset he will free her son. Spoiler, if you haven't read it or figured this out yet: the mother shows superheroic effort, finishes the work, and dies in her son's arms. Essentially, that's the end of the story - it seems that the young man returns to England or wherever he'd come in from, leaving this bizarre punishment and this maniacal tyrant in charge, in other words, leaving the cruelty of feudalism intact. And where is Dinesen in all of this? She obviously recognizes the horror of this form of justice, if that word even applies, but the story is swathed in noble sentiments (are they ironic supposedly?) about the continuity of society and high-minded preaching by the old uncle about how gods - and the nobility - are immune to tragedy because they are omnipotent and that what looks like tragedy to others is for them a form of comedy. Is he insane, or is he Dinesen's mouthpiece here? I don't know enough about her work or life to understand where she stands on these issues, but she seems incredibly blase and indifferent to the fate of the characters she has created: as if she, too, is one of the gods, looking down from above, amused by the behavior of mere mortals. The peasants don't set it that way, however, nor should we.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Giving up on Konrad's The Stonedial: here are my reasons why

People who read this blog will, I hope, accept that I'm not a philistine and that I don't expect every piece of fiction to conform to the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action - however - I throw up my hands in dismay at George Konrad's The Stonedial, after 3 evenings of trying to make sense of the obstinate and willful obscure novel that is about - at least I think it's about - a famous Hungarian writer-intellectual who'd suffered (to an unknown degree or extent - nothing's very specific here) under the Communist regime and now is recognized and honored - he's at some sort of conference in a Hungarian town whose name begins with K (as do most of the characters, except the protagonist, Dragoman, what are we to make of this? some Kafkaesque trope? all versions of Konrad?) where he has encounter w/ a # of friends of his youth, including the current mayor and former filmmaker, who are now all pretty much comfortable in the bourgeois trappings and the intellectual freedoms, and - well, so what? The only interesting passages, to me, in the first 100+ pages were the accounts, relatively straightforward, of Dragoman's youth - not that they were strikingly original or revealing, but we got a little sense of what he was like as a rebellious schoolboy and as a young intellectual in a stifling society - if the whole novel were on that theme, portrait of the artist as a young man under Communism, it would have been worth pursuing, but honestly all the scenes in the "present" (1993) were so confusing, w/ pointless shifts in POV, with many characters introduced and none well delineated, with a proliferation of similar-sounding names. I actually think some day, not right away, I will give him another try and read one of his first 2 or 3 novels, written under the shadow of intellectual repression, but in this novel he seems to be vamping for cover. Just because you can write whatever you want to in whatever style you want to doesn't mean you should.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Out of the miasma, out of the labyrinth: Reading further in The Stonedial and a note on New Yorker story

OK so about 25 pages further in George Konrad's 1998 (set in 93?) novel The Stonedial gets at least a little more accessible; after the muddle and miasma of the first 50 or so pages in which he shifts randomly from first- to third-person narraator and leaves us or at least me in a complete fog as to who the characters are and what they signify, Konrad settles down a bit and has a relatively clear chapter in which I understood for the first time that the main character and sometime narrator, Dragoman, is a literary-intellectual celebrity of sorts returning to his home town (can't remember the name; the town and most of the male characters have names beginning w/ K, for what that's worth) where an old friend, a filmmaker, is now the mayor, and another old friend, Kuno Abe I think is his name, is also on the scene though I'm not sure in what capacity - but at least the delineations of the novel are coming clear: Dragoman begins to reflect on the changes they've lived through, as their world moved from Soviet domination to a brief uprising to eventual "freedom" - and the changes and compromises these men - all 3 of them ? - had to make in their lives to accommodate, survive, and prosper. In the most accessible chapter so far D. reflects on his youth in school, his rebelliousness, which kept him out of army service but also made him somewhat of a pariah and a suspect - constantly under surveillance. It's not a terribly original story by this time, but if he can just stay w/ a straight narrative line for a spell I will stay w/ him and learn more about this character, this author, and his world.

And what's with The New Yorker? Another really short story (Labyrinth) with what seemed to me an amateurish ending: man walks through cornfield labyrinth gets to center and - this is the concluding line - And then he met the Minotaur. Hasn't everyone who's ever judged a fiction contest come across dozens of amateur submissions that end: "And then I awoke and it was all a dream!"? What's the point here? What brings this story to a higher level?

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The problem of "liberated" writers

I shoulda known, but, I'd come across the name George Konrad somewhere as an important European novelist and I'm always looking for new (to me) writers of great style and scope; found that the PPL had 4 of his novels, didn't really know which to select - saw that he had received a lot of attention for his first, written in Hungary under the Communist regime - they didn't have it, but had his 2nd - but I passed on that and instead selected his most recent (or most recent that they had, from 1993), The Stonedial, and that was my mistake. I've come across this phenomenon before, writers living under oppression or occupation do some great novels, forged out of their sense of danger and injustice, and then, when "liberated," it's as if they have nothing more to say, and, worse, that suddenly they can write whatever they want so they confuse freedom of form with freedom of expression, random experimentation w/ innovation, lack of restriction w/ lack of structure. That seems to be the case here: it is extremely rare that I literally had to resort to reading the dust jacket to figure out what this novel is about, and what I learned: it's about a world-famous intellectual visiting a writer's conference (ho hum) in a city where he used to live, and in the process visiting a few of his old friends and comrades from the city. Thank you for that - I could barely tell what was going on in the first 50 pp. Konrad for some reason thinks it's postmodern or form-breaking or something to switch randomly from third person (story is about a writer named Dragoman) to first person - for no reason that I can discern. I did learn a new word: aleatoric, meaning based on randomness and chance. Yes, that was something we used to think was really cool back in, oh, about 1975, but has long since seemed passe and self-indulgent in serious fiction. Tell you what, maybe I was just tired and cranky last night so I'll give it another night's reading, but if it doesn't improve I fold the tent - and maybe some day return to his earlier works?

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A great work of social realism: Bread and Wine

Ok I admit that especially toward the end (of Ignazio Silone's 1937 novel, Bread and Wine) the dialogue begins to read like speeches and the character are more involved in exposition (to the reader) than in communication (with one another), but there's so much in this largely forgotten novel that event the flaws are somehow endearing. This was the height of the age of social realism in fiction, an era stretching roughly from Zola (maybe even Balzac) forward to Steinbeck - but Silone's is among the strongest, not only for his sincere leftist sympathies (Steinbeck's great Grapes of Wrath, important as it was, was pretty much saying government should have a role in helping the oppressed farm workers, all of which is true, but didn't have a lot to say about organizing, let alone socialism or revolution) and for the danger in which Silone lived (he was writing under the shadow of Mussolini, a far more dangerous and precarious position that his American contemporaries), but also for the complexity of the ideas and of the depth of the characters, who are throughout wrestling w/ their ideas and ideals. His main character, the radical exile returned to Italy, Pietro Spina, sometimes disguised as the priest Don Paolo, reminded me a little of Graham Greene's priest in The Power and the Glory - but they are counterpoints: one a real priest trying to commit himself to social activism, the other a real activist disguised as a priest and consequently considering issues of faith an and spirituality. The novel is completely sincere, wears its heart on its sleeve so to speak, and nobody writes this way anymore, not in our age of irony and post-irony, metafiction, cynicism, narcissism, and high literary style; admittedly, some great fiction is written today, especially in the short story form, but a novel like this would probably never find a home: too transparent, too engaged, to polemical - too bad because - despite the challenging plot that moves back and forth among 3 Italian locals (city, town, village), a little hard for a U.S. reader to keep track of - there are some great scenes, not the least of which is the somewhat ambiguous conclusion as Spina cuts through a snow-clogged mountain pass seeking elusive sanctuary.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Note on Ignazaio Silone and Toni Morrisson (in current New Yorker)

Drawing near the close of Ignazio Silone's 1937 Bread and Wine, there's a terrific sequence as Pietro Spina, now once again in disguise as a priest, Don Paolo, returns to the small southern Italian city (town?) Fossa, where there's a huge rally in place in support of the dictator's (Mussolini's, never mentioned by name in this novel) declaration of war against Abyssinia (Ethiopia), scenes filled with demonstrations, patriotic bluster, all a cloak meant to hide the oppression of the people, the repression of any dissent, and the powers of capitalism - all too much for the radical Don Paolo, who by night grabs some charcoal and writes anti-fascist anti-war slogans on the church steps and elsewhere. Now, everyone's looking for the "outsider" who wrote these slogans, and once again Don Paolo, now very ill with what appears to be TB, goes on the run. Some terrific writing about the power of propaganda, and more excellent writing about the suffering of the poor - without being melodramatic, sentimental, or romantic: the impoverished masses are not uniform in behavior, but full of heroes, thugs, cheats, thinkers, the devout, the skeptical, in other words many real people trying to lives their lives in the shadows of fascism - and a few emerging from the shadows to fight.

A brief note on current New Yorker containing a very short Toni Morrisson piece, Sweetness, which is evidently the opening segment of her forthcoming novel: I guess if the Nobelist's publicist, agent, or publisher submits a piece to your magazine you gratefully publish it, no questions asked.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

A novel that makes you think: Break and Wine

The guy disguised as a priest Don Paolo leaves the remote mountain village and heads into town where he privately meets with a  former leftist lawyer who fills him in on the fate that has befallen other anti-fascists and explains why he now has compromised his ideals in order to get along. Don Paolo decides to return to his ideals and to fight fascism and the government - he reflects, wisely, that many priests had thought they were serving a higher ideal but in fact had unwittingly become tools of the fascists (this set in Italy, in the 1930s - Ignazio Silone's novel Bread and Wine) and of the capitalists, sending the message that the peasants were born to their fate and that they should cooperate with the government (many of the leftists initially had thought Mussolini shared their values and backed him - in opposition to the monarchy, I think, only to be disillusioned, at best - Mussolini in this novel is always referred to as Etcetera Etcetera). Don Paolo sheds his soutane and heads for Rome as himself, Pietro Spina, a wanted radical - he hooks up with a few of the remaining and surviving leftists in Rome, and learns of the horrible fate of those who were arrested and imprisoned. Some terrific scenes - his visit to the loft where the girlfriend of a former comrade takes in work as a seamstress, a kind of funny sequence in which he's sheltered by a guy who runs a scam: works with a partner who threatens beautiful women tourists and he jumps in to "rescue" the woman, fighting with his accomplice. He offers to escort the woman back to her hotel and en route "realizes" he's lost his wallet in the scuffle; the grateful women give him money, and often more. Part of the greatness of this novel is the way in which the characters are never two-dimensional - they always seem to be wrestling with ideas and ideals, figuring out how to get by but also how to be true to themselves. Silone doesn't romanticize the peasants and their rural villages, nor are the members of the resistance all heroic (see example above). A rare novel that keeps your interest and consistently makes you think - about the characters, their world, and their ideals.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

A stranger comes to town - in Bread and Wine

Ignazio Silone's 1930s novel Bread and Wine (not to be confused with many cookbooks with the same or similar titles) is a classic "stranger comes to town" novel with a few great twists: the stranger is a political radical who'd moved abroad and now returns to his native Italy a wanted man and in terrible health, he finds refuge in an extremely remote and impoverished (redundancy?) mountain village, posing as a priest - so there are political, sociological, and comic dimensions to this plot, obviously. In particular, Silone is interested in the sociological, and if nothing else this novel is a documentary-like account of life in rural Italy int he 1930s, the incredible poverty and deprivation (for most) and the wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a few, who protect their privilege with vehement efficiency (or maybe inefficiency). The village where the protag., using the name Don Paulo, hides out is so impoverished that there are not even latrines or lavatories; rather, everyone in the village relieves themselves behind some bushes (which are bare in winter), which leads to some skirmishes when some from the peasant bushes encroach on the landholder bushes. With characteristic humor, Silone notes that there's a sign at the edge of the village that says "No rubbish dumping here" and at the sign there's a huge pile of old trash, proving, he notes, that the villagers can at least read. Don Paulo into a few fixes as people ask him for blessings - to which he invariably replies that he can't because he's not from this diocese, which makes no sense. An off-beat love interest begins to develop when a village girl, quite lively and intelligent and bound for the convent, seeks his blessing - and the engage in a thoughtful discussion about faith and commitment to a cause: "Don Paulo" reflects on the idealism of his youth that caused him to oppose the church teachings, but now, a wanted man, he has some second thoughts. These observations, from the first third of the novel, give a sense as to how Silone takes on serious themes but does not present the world in starkly delineated black and white, heroes and villains, but shows characters wrestling with the faith and their fate and sets these internal struggles against a realistically portrayed social milieu. He could not have known at the time how this milieu would be destroyed by fascism and the war - and how these villages today are no doubt homes to the agro-tourism phenomenon and the world's appetite for olive oil, red wine, and the Euro.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Steinbeck of Italy?: Ignazio Silone

Does anyone read Ignazio Silone? Found a copy of Break and Wine in the Providence Public Library so old it looks like a rare book, published (in English) in 37, probably hasn't been taken off the shelf in 25 years - and it's a shame because, at least from the start, it appears to be a really good and straightforward novel about the issues of great importance in its day, and still in ours, though written about less. Story about social class and political resistance in Italy in the 1930s, the era of the rise of fascism and of incredible oppression of anyone of leftist views - yet how could any thinking person in that day not be a leftist? Silone's style is the 30s realism that American readers probably best know through books like The Grapes of Wrath - though too bad that Steinbeck veered every rightward through the rest of his career. Bread and Wine opens in a remote and impoverished village at what I think appears to be the spine of Italy just north of Rome; Silone makes much of the contrast between the city where life is fast-paced and "modern" and the remote countryside where life hasn't changed much since the middle ages. We see a priest, on his 75th birthday, ancient in that age and locale, waiting for some of his former students to arrive from the city to celebrate; two of them come, and bear news about their many classmates, all of whom have suffered bad fate. Life in this era and this area is almost hopeless, with the oppressive monarchy and the wealth controlled tightly by a corrupt and dying aristocracy (Lampedusa wrote about this from the aristocratic point of view in his incredible novel The Leopard, one of the great works of the century.) In next chapters we meet one of their classmates, returned to Italy from a time abroad and a wanted man for his political actions and affiliations. He disguises as a country priest in ill health and heads of to an extreme remote mountain village to hide, at least for a time - but you can imagine the complications that develop for someone posing as a priest (he's asked to administer last rites, for example). Silone wears his heart on his sleeve, so to speak, but even so it's great to see a novel with strong views and sympathies, a realistic approach to narrative, a sense of locale and place, and belief in the importance and integrity of characters - engaged, but not cynical, bitter, or ironic, the great vices to too much 20th-century literature.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The several meanings of Kafka's Jackals and Arabs

A weird (redundancy here?) Franz Kafka story that somehow, at least to my memory, I've never read before,  Jackals and Arabs- though read it last night in a neat little old pb anthology I've got of European short stories, and what to make of this? Seen from our 21st-century vantage, it's in many ways politically awkward at best, probably politically incorrect: the narrator, a European man, is traveling through the desert with some Arabs (his escorts?), they bed down for the night and a herd, if that's the right term, of jackals approaches the narrator and says they have been waiting for years to meet him, he is their savior, he'll understand their plight. As he listens, they talk (yes, talking animals - a familiar and odd Kafka trope) and tell him the Arabs are cruel and crude, they long to escape from them; during the conversation they approach the narrator and essentially pin him in place by biting through his clothing - a pretty precarious situation - but he's rescued by the Arabs who throw the jackals a dead camel, which they greedily consume, and then they begin whipping the jackals into submission. So, first of all, there's the Eurocentric assumption of hegemony: the European man is obviously superior, or so he surmises, to the Arabs. Then, if we think of the jackals as what they I believe truly represent - an oppressed working class, in fact a class of slaves and servants - there's the sense that they are crude and "animalistic," rather than human. But let's try to put that aside and get at what Kafka sees in this brief episode: that the ruling classes control others because of their greed and their need - just throw them a carcass and then beat them into submission. And in a broader sense, isn't this also about consciousness - battle between the animalsitic ID and the controlling super-ego - that we have primitive blood-urges that are always trying to control or "win over" the narrator (i.e., the ego), and they must be lured and then beaten into a submission, or repression? And in the broadest sense isn't this an allegory about our culture: the constant struggle between the abused and oppressed, looking for a "savior," either through politics or religion, and in the end being beaten back into further submission - the threat to the social order, the class structure, the conventional ideology, beaten down and dismissed as the voices of an animal?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Giving up on Dracula - for the 2nd time

I know that when I "read" Bram Stoker's Dracula many years ago when I was I'm guessing about 14 I really loved the book for a while but I think I got bogged down in the many diaries and the scenes in England and never finished reading the novel and, guess what, same thing now: after getting off to a great start the novel just bogs down and slows almost to a halt. It's as if Stoker were paid by the word or by the page - he just drags the story along relentlessly, ploddingly, and we the readers are way ahead of him. Here's the main problem: why are the first 4 chapters so engaging, and the rest of the novel so dispiriting? Because in the first 4 chapters we are closely watching a man in jeopardy: Harker, the diarist, ventures into Dracula's castle with no idea what horrors await him, and over those four tightly written chapters he gradually understands that he's a captive and in mortal danger. In other words, we completely engage with him and his plight. But the many chapters that follow, in London and environs, involve no such jeopardy: we are with characters who are trying to make sense of the strange behavior of the people (and animals) around them - stuff we can easily figure out, though they cannot - and they are by and large never in any particular danger. The tension's gone, the story's deflated, and I - twice now - have lost interest. Too bad - it would have been a great 200-page novel, perhaps - but it has no doubt been influential and, though Stoker did not invent the vampire myth, it has been the source and model for numerous films, books, and parodies that have followed in its tracks.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The creepiness and the clunkiness of Bram Stoker's Dracula

Yes reading or re-reading as the case may be Bram Stoker's Dracula after many years is good, campy fun - up to a point (no pun intended). It was no doubt a smart and daring decision for Stoker to tell the whole tale through diary entries, notebooks, letters, telegrams, and newspaper clippings, giving this exotic vampire tale the sheen of reality - and avoiding the need for establishing a narrative voice because who could really narrate this story? On the other hand, it's a 19th-century novel and feels like one: not that it's too long, although it is (I know there are abridged versions out there and one could certainly red pencil many of the "humorous" passages in which characters talk in various regional dialects) but the biggest problem is that we always know so much more than the characters - partly because we by now are so familiar with the accoutrements of the vampire myth and partly because, well, because Stoker is highly manipulative; for ex., we get pages and pages of narrative in which the famous Dutch physician administers various potions to the dying Lucy and he never, ever sits down with Dr Seward and explains what he's thinking: that bat flapping around out there: It's a vampire! Those marks on her throat, the loss of blood  - let's all put 2 + 2 together, OK? Anyway, that aside, the campy fun is the utter creepiness of the whole vampire conceit: the idea of contagion by mixing blood, the blood-thirstiness of the infected, the transformation into creatures such as bats and werewolves, the sense of the infected among us "disguised" as ordinary folks, the weird alliance between the "infected" and the animal kingdom (werewolves, bats), the connection between vampirism and lunacy (scenes at a lunatic asylum), the boxes filled with Transylvanian soil - these moods are extremely personal and invasive and play at our uneasiness about alien others: think of how this played out in, for ex., Battlestar Gallactica, Night of the Living Dead, The Thing - Dracula is the model on which they're all based.

Monday, February 2, 2015

The original vampire story

Because I read it as a kids and was freaked out and because I saw it mentioned as a childhood fave in a novel was reading of all things I picked up Bram Stoker's Dracula for kicks.One thing that surprised me: Stoker was Irish-born and lived in London and wrote in English, who knew? What I don't know: how much of the legend did he pick up on and memorialize, and how much did he create? In any event, it's a very 19-century, long and over-written by today's standard and, though the narrative style was in some ways ahead of its time - all made up of journal excerpts, letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings, which tend to give the bizarre events of the story the look of reliability and reality - in other ways there's too much belaboring of the obvious points. (There are abridged versions out there that may be more suited for most contemporary readers.) The story itself is as creepy as I remembered, beginning with the young lawyer's journey to Transylvania where he is imprisoned in Dracula's castle and very gradually comes to realize the horror of his situation (we realize a lot before he does, of course - it would be a greater shock and a more powerful experience to read this novel knowing nothing about vampires and werewolves). This of course is the ur-story for the many vampire books and movies that have had a resurgence in popularity over the past decade. Why is that? What can this legend possibly say to people today? There is still something horrifying and primitive about the whole concept of imbibing blood from the living, and there is something lurid and sexual about that as well, and Stoker does not shy away from those stirrings. There's something disturbing as well about the eternal life of the vampire, and about the idea that they may be living among us unrecognized: that's a theme that of course speaks to the contemporary mind, as we think of our various fears of the unknown familiars, terrorists in particular.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Newly anointed "forgotten" author Harrower makes New Yorker debut?

Since James Wood anointed Elizabeth Harrower in a recent New Yorker review I guess the fiction team felt it was time they published something by her, so here we have her story Alice in the current issue, a first for the NZ or Aussie writer I'm guessing? On the plus, I truly admire a story of such economy; she tells the essence of a sad and lonely woman's troubled life in a just a few pages. This story could of course be a sketch for our outline of a novel - but then the question would be: If you could tell us all in a short story, why not just leave it at that? And I agree, being a strong believe in economy and minimalism in all of the arts. (I wrote a story, unpublished, that my then-writers' group said should be expanded into a novel - which was exactly why it shouldn't have been.) On the downside, this story is not just polemical but almost a diatribe against men: I know it's just one particular set of circumstances, one family, but the mood throughout the entire story that all men are shits, though each is a shit in his own way, and of course many are and of course the world - particularly for woman born about 1930 - was and still is tilted unfairly, and I can totally accept that Alice's mother was indifferent to her while doting on her two good-for-naught brothers, that was the cultural bias of the time and persists today. But the story so relentlessly pounds this home, and I think it would have been a richer story had there been at least one man in her life who was sympathetic, even slightly. The ending certainly puzzled me, as Alice experiences a moment of near-enlightenment when a young neighbor goes out of her way seeking Alice's blessing of her pending wedding: I see that this is a moment when Alice realizes a solidarity among women that had eluded her all her life, especially because of her evil and meddling mother, but Harrower's claim that her life was never the same after that moment feels a little forced, or at least unexamined.