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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

Monday, November 30, 2015

Why I think Trollope's Dr Thorn is headed for a sad ending

Trollope's Dr Thorne could have a happy ending - Mary Thorne born out of wedlock w/ no title and with no dowry could inherit a fortune and marry Frank, and Frank could marry the love of his life, Mary, and in defiance of his snobbish and narcissistic family and find that - surprise to all - he has married into wealth - but I don't think we're headed that way, something will go wrong, the inheritance is too shaky and open to challenge and, more important, the principal characters, Mary and Frank, are likely to become victims of their own personalities, their strengths becoming a weakness: Mary so scrupulous about giving Frank the opportunity to break the engagement that she finally may have almost pushed him to do so, Frank himself so easily pushed around by his mother and by the Lady Arabella that he might agree to yet another mean proposal like waiting five years before the marriage or maybe - he's not the brightest chap around - his mother might tell him that Mary wants to end the relationship and he could be dim enough to believe her. Their big problem is that everything is so mediated - they are in love and have been in love over the course of their whole lives, but they hardly ever actually speak to each other, almost all their communication is through intermediaries and by letter. Forster famously said "only connect," and that could be an epigraph for this novel as well - if they could just spend time together and talk to each other their love would prosper, but I think that by keeping such a distance and relying so much on go-betweens and listening so intently to the opinion of others they have managed to attenuate whatever love they had.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Dcikens v Trollope in use of coincidence and surprise

The great "secret" in Trollope's Dr Thorne is that Thorne's niece Mary may inherit a huge amount of money - Thorne knows this but keeps it to himself - neither Mary nor her potential husband Frank Gresham know of this possible inheritance - so all the while that the Gresham family is going nuts over the idea that Frank has to "marry money" to protect the family estate (and nobility), the young woman he's in love w/ and whom they spurn is the very one who could bring him the money the family needs. Not sure where the novel will conclude - with a happily ever after in which Frank and Mary get married and also have the money the need - or in which they don't get married and she ironically inherits the money and watches his family go to ruins getting exactly what they deserve - or in some kind of heartbreak and tragedy for Mary (which is what Trollope hints). In any event, it's striking to see how Trollope handles this material - quite differently from the way his contemporary Dickens would have done (and did do). When there's a secret in a Dickens novel it tends to be a secret kept from all of us: Pip's inheritance, for example, if my memory of Great X is accurate. Dickens uses (overuses?) coincidence and surprise for dramatic (melodramatic?) impact. Trollope does not. He reveals to us and to the central character the fact of Mary's likely inheritance, so we know more than most of the characters and we watch the plot unfold (relatively) naturally: the surprise and melodrama will be that of the characters, w/in the novel rather than outside of the novel and encompassing us, the readers. We have a cool and detached stance - though not exactly omniscient, as we share the knowledge with the central character. And it's not exactly a realistic novel either, not compared say with his French (or even Russian) contemporaries; the coincidences involving the ties between the benefactor and the Thorne family - too complicated to summarize but roughly speaking Mary's benefactor killed her father/Dr Thorne's brother, and later became a confidant of Dr Thorne and one of the wealthiest men in England - strain credulity but serve as a fuse to ignite largely temperate plot.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Unharmful gentle soul locked up - Rachel Kushner story

Rachel Kushner has a good story in current New Yorker, 57, a brief account of the sad life course of a man with significant mental disabilities, a horrific childhood, who becomes part of the homeless scene in the underpasses in and around LA, picked up for vagrancy of some sort  - and then his life careens along the downward spiral that so many prisoners endure (or don't) - an all too believable story the inevitable consequence of how we as a society treat the homeless (assuming criminality when in fact they may suffer from mental disorders and addictions, and prison is the worst outcome), the incarcerated, and the recently released in particular, with no support services whatever. Kushner's story is sadly credible and probably based on some pretty intensive research as the experiences recounted - the progress, or regress, from county jail to the frightful Pelican Bay - must be far from Kushner's own immediate experience. What's particularly impressive is how she manages to tell this in close 3rd person, so that we almost vicariously experiences the stumbling thought process and jumbled memories of the protagonist - the story seems confused and confusing for the first few paragraphs, much as he experiences life outside of the prison, and his decline is inevitable: mistreatment by cops and prison officials, victim of bad counsel and bureaucratic mishandling, victim of neglect. What's particularly sad and scary is how he blindly accepts the prison code of carrying out orders, even to kill - he can't see any way out of his predicament nor does he care. At the end, brutally transported in a cage to the most notorious of California prisons, he strangely pauses to observe the pelicans before getting locked away and without question to face much more serious abuse for the rest of whatever his life will be.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Why Trollope translates well to tv

Trollope  is as he would put it d------ good at scenes of perfidy and villainy and although he cannot equal his contemporary dickens at establishing a scene or at physical description of a character he uses dialogue as well as or better than any in establishing and defining character. It's obvious why and how his work translates so well to the screen or more specifically to the tv screen as his work is too sprawling in time and confined in space for movies but is perfect for tv series bbc style. In particular I note the terrific scene in dr Thorne in which at last marynthorne tells off the shallow and oblivious Beatrice who has no idea that Mary actually does love frank. Beatrice completed buys the family line that frank must marry money and has no sense of the cruelty this has been to mary. We see here the shallowness of one character and the subtlety of another. For a contrasting scene the dinner at the Gresham house in which sir Louis gets drunk and says the most malicious things mostly about money to everyone this contrasted w the stoic and mature way in which Thorne responds protecting the easily wounded sensibilities of the Greshams even though they have been cruel and hard-hearted to his niece Mary.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The three dimensions of Babel's Karl-Yankel

Isaac Babel's story Karl-Yankel is a sly story both political and personal though the latter doesn't become evident till the end. At first it seems like a story about life in an isolated Russian Jewish community much like say an I b singer story. Babel describes the village blacksmith - a very small demure and as he says easily frightened man - who fathered two huge strapping boys who take after their mother - big tough and devout. The daughter is small like the father and marries a tough guy and the relationship to everyone's surprise seems to be ok but as Babel notes who knows within any marriage who breaks the pots? So far so good and the the story takes its first shift of gears: they have a baby boy born while father is away on state business - collecting oil cakes or some such thing - and now it's clear that this story is taking place under soviet rule. The father sues the mother in law for having the baby boy circumcised and named Yankee - instead of father's choice Karl after Marx. We see that this Jewish tradition will seriously compromise his desire to rise in the party - a clash of cultural and political values that gets played out on broad comic fashion in the trial. Especially notable is the testimony of the moile- w Babel's gross description of his sucking the blood after the cutting- and the mother's testimony: what do you call the child? Sweetly-pie. Why do you call him sweetly-pie? I call every child sweetie-pie. And so on. And at the very end it opens to a new dimension as Babel the narrator looks at the nursing child and sees some possibility for happiness that he - an outsider in his home town - can never experience or hope to attain.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Trollope's humor and the incredible passivity of some of his characters

Yes Trollope does have a good sense of humor - notable in his many shrewd asides to readers and also in the staging of some of his scenes, in particular I'm thinking of the scene in Dr Thorne when Frank Gresham declares his love for Mary Thorne, as she's riding a donkey, and he stands beside her, embracing her (her knees?) in some awkward way and reaching his hand out for her and all she can do is softly utter "Oh Frank" as she takes one of his fingers in the palm of her hand (hey, this is Victorian literature after all - we'll settle for symbolic sex) and you have to picture the donkey that she's on, drooping its head, maybe nudging the two of them. It's not a moment exactly typical of Trollope, but the kind of offbeat moment that gives this vast domestic drama a bit of color and change of pace. Still struck as noted in yesterday's post by the incredible passivity and indifference of so many of the characters - none of the Gresham children willing to stand up to the mother and dispute her right to ban Mary Thorne from their household and to forbid them even to speak w/ Mary (for fear she will bewitch the precious male heir) and now Frank, though boldly telling his more sympathetic if feckless father that he plans to marry Mary Thorne, meekly acquiesces to the parental demand that he spend a year-and-a-day abroad - just to get him away from Mary in hopes that he will find someone more suitable, that is, someone rich. Why would he go away for a year? Why should he? Show a little backbone, lad.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The despicable behavior of the Gresham children in Trolloper's Dr Thorne

I'm not meaning to be or trying to be xenophobic or exceptionalist here but can you imagine an American - much less a character in an American novel? - acting the way the Gresham children do in Trollope's Dr Thorne? The Greshams as noted in previous posts are a "noble" family fallen on hard times (by their measures; they certainly don't seem to be starving to death) because the pater familias has squandered much of the family fortune and the male hair, Frank, has to in their words "marry money" to keep the family on its feet - even if, god forbid that means marrying a "commoner." Ok, that much we can accept - but the plot revolves around Frank's love for his neighbor, the Dr's Mary Thorne, who has no money (or so they think, ha ha, she may yet become an heiress) and no "name" (born out of wedlock, in fact). So Mother Gresham tells Dr Thorn that Mary is banished from their house, where she has been best friends with one of the daughters (as well as Frank's childhood crush), and then when this doesn't entirely work to cool the ardor she orders that her daughters are not to even socialize w/ Mary outside of the gates of Gresham. Appalling and cruel, right? But the daughters hardly chaff at this, it all seems pretty reasonable if a bit sad to them, boo hoo, poor Mary - but not a one says to the mother what she should hear: Screw you, mother - and they should pack their belongings and move out. Wouldn't you do that? I am not saying that Trollope is wrong in his characterization, but if he is right it's an astonishing condemnation of the entire petit aristocracy English culture in its dying phase - and honestly I think any good American democratic young woman, or man, would know what's right and would asset themselves, whatever the risk. And plenty of characters in English fiction would so as well - but Trollope gets right to the rotten heart of the matter.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Marrying money in Trollope

The underlying assumption that fuels all the plot elements in Trollope's Dr. Thorne, and maybe in his other Barchester novels as well, is that the near-fallen aristocracy of England has to "marry money." There are references throughout to the impoverished state of the Gresham family, though there's no evidence to show that they live in anything but high style - maybe not as extravagant as some of their wealthy peers but they don't seem exactly to be cutting corners much less living the way most of their servants and working-class neighbors (subjects?) must live. They are completely isolated from reality and have no idea what it means to be truly poor or even strapped. They could sell their lands and easily get by. That said, why must the younger generation "marry money" in a misguided attempt to enable the family to maintain the facade and sham of its aristocratic manner? As the male heir, Frank Gresham, notes, he could use his education (Cambridge, no less) to earn a position in the law and make a living, support a family - and what's wrong with that? But no, his family just can't come to terms w/ earning a living based on your knowledge, skills, and ability - and actually, just maybe, contributing something to society. In fact, they even have scorn, disdain, and mockery for those who have made their fortunes through business and trade - constant reminders of the tailor's son, the ointment of Lebanon, and the stone mason who became a railroad baron. I know Trollope stands at some distance from his characters, who do not in any event express his views - but really, why doesn't one of them speak up and recognize that this obsession with marrying money is a chimera - a foolish attempt to maintain status that is going or gone, and at the cost of the happiness and well-being of the next generation, the children? I assume as the novel continues to develop there will be more revelations regarding the hypocrisy of the characters - if Mary Thorne inherits the Stracherd (sp?) fortune, suddenly she will become a desirable mate, but will she still be interested - and will the money ruin her as well?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Wealth v Title - the essential conflict in Trollope's Dr Thorne

As Dr Thorne (Anthony Trollope) reaches its first point of crisis - Dr. T informs Sir Roger that Nancy (Dr T's niece) is Sir Roger's niece also and could be a likely heiress to his vast estate - Dr Thorne faces a few crucial decisions: what to tell Nancy about her parentage (she does not know of her relationship to the crass, blunt Sir Roger and has asked Dr T to bring her to meet him because she finds him quaint and interesting - but he refuses to do so, afraid, no doubt, of losing some of her affection), how to respond to the edict from the Gresham's that he keep Nancy away from their household so as not to ruin young Frank Gresham's opportunity to marry a wealthy (though untitled) heiress to an ointment fortune. He's rightly appalled by this "suggestion" from the Gresham's and must deliciously keep in the back of his mind the possibility that Nancy will inherit and someday boy won't they be sorry - but he's not a vengeful or spiteful man and wants to do what's best for Nancy, but what is that? Telling everyone of her potential inheritance? Could that change her? Could that entice Frank to marry her - and what if she doesn't inherit? We get a few more great scenes in this section of the novel - the comical confrontation between Dr T and his pompous rival, Dr Fillgrave (is that his name? some funny Pynchon-like name in any event), and a terrific description of the very dull de Courcy castle and the out-of-the way town where it's located - much like so many towns even in America bypassed by the railroad and essentially abandoned, forgotten. Much of the conflict in Dr Thorne is between wealth and title - the old nobility on life-support and desperately trying to marry into money to keep its institutions alive, but at the same time scornful of fortunes amassed through crass "commerce" - commerce that's already, in mid-19th century, changing everything about England (and the world). This leads into the parliamentary election - much of which eludes me and I suspect many modern readers who can't tell a Whig from a Tory, but in any event some of the bribery and paybacks will look familiar to any contemporary reader - and in the end Sir Roger, a self-made man and a populist of some sort, wins the seat, defeating the wealthy and extremely dull tailor's son (imagine that!) who's soon to prop up the Gresham fortunes by marrying one of the daughters.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Talkin' bout my generaton: Ann Beattie's short fiction

Good Ann Beattie story in current New Yorker, Save a Horse Ride a Barmaid, exhibiting Beattie's well-known wit, quirkiness (the title alone, drawn from a bumper sticker from a passing car), and shrewd observations of the zeitgeist and in particular of her (my) generation - would be an good study or dissertation for someone to follow the gradual aging of Beattie characters across long arc of her (their) career - from the young, feckless, self-conscious betrayed-by-love in her (I think) first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, to her more recent Maine stories, most of which have protagonists in the 60+ range, although they still have encounters, as in this story, with a people a generation (or two) younger. Beattie seems to be trying something new for her in this story, an unfolding narrative, a style or design pioneered by Alice Munro, a good writer to emulate: the story starts w/ 70-something man who rear-ends a car with two college-aged women aboard. He's upset, and calls his brother, a lawyer (it's his brother's suv he's driving) to extricate him - so for the first third or so of the story we think it will be about the driver but it turns out that all of the rest of the story is about the brother: recently widowed, lonely and angry (wife died when receiving the wrong Rx at a Boston hospital - as happened in a famous Boston case), recalling his service in Vietnam at various points, in process of selling the house they lived in together, spends times spying thru binoc's at the house and sees a reclusive neighbor dancing on the street w/ new, younger girlfriend. Like almost all Beattie stories this one is profusely populated; my only quibble with the story: I wish she hadn't made the neighbor's new girlfriend one of the two women in the car - it's just a little too neat a trick w/out enough payback, an unneeded authorial intrusion. That aside, the story gets at the troubled mind of the lawyer/brother beautifully and effectively, without recourse to cheap tricks like dreams or long confessionals, and we learn about him incrementally - only toward the end do we learn about his military service and his difficult recovery from the trauma of the war. This is kind of a reach-back to the early troubled days of Beattie's people - and really across her whole body of work to one of the founding tenets and traumas of her (my) generation.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Getting to appreciate more of Trollope - if you can accept situations improbable even by Victorian-fiction standards

I am enjoying Trollope's Dr Thorne as I get deeper into it - hoping I can make it thru the 1,700 (electronic) pages! - and have found that I had to go back and re-read large sections of the early chapters to figure out some of the characters and plot developments - he gives so much background at the outset and you just can't tell what info is significant and what is incidental - that's part of what I didn't like about AT at first, but as you get deeper into the novel things start to cohere and the characters start to differentiate, at least the major characters do (the fact that Frank Gresham has 4 sisters does not help matters, I'm still trying to figure out which one's engaged, which one's Mary Thorne's friend, etc.). As w/ so many English novels of the era, the plot is build on the conflict between title and wealth: the old named families believe they are better than others by virtue of their birth and heredity, and they would not dream of diluting their "blood" by marrying a "commoner" - but this is changing, as some of the old families, like the Greshams in this novel, have squandered their wealthy so it's OK to marry someone as long as he (or she) is very wealthy - yet not without scorn, there's much derision about someone's marrying the son of a tailor and about an available singe woman whose family made money through some kind of ointment. These matters converge in the person of Mary Thorne, who is a staunch believer in fixed social class and inherited stature, so much so that she spurns the attention of Frank Gresham because she thinks her stature is too far beneath his - so in effect she isolates herself from anyone to whom she's likely to be attracted. The plot "thickens" around 1/4 of the way through the novel as we meet (or re-meet) Sir Roger, a former stone mason (who killed Dr Thorne's brother in an act of vengeance and served time in prison), now a very wealthy builder or contractor but still a roughneck and alcoholic. In a relationship that truly strains probability even by the low standards of Victorian fiction, Thorne and Sir Roger are now close friends and Sir Roger does not know the secret about Thorne's niece Mary: that she is actually Sir Roger's niece as well (born out of wedlock, mother fled the country leaving daughter behind) - if you can accept that premise there's a very intriguing twist as Sir Roger names in his will his oldest niece or nephew, who he assumes to be someone he's never met living in America - not knowing that Mary is his niece let alone his oldest.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Back to Trollope - and the literary lineage of Trollope characters

After my rant against Trollope yesterday I did decide to plunge in again - I'd thought about returning to some short stories but really do feel I'd rather be reading something long and engaging, just not sure what - and did enjoy last night's reading more so than the previous night's - shows how mood and utter exhaustion can affect our perceptions of beauty and style. No doubt reading Trollope requires a great deal of suspension - not of disbelief but of self-possession, you have to realize you're engaged in a very long process that will carry you through the next days and weeks of reading - an ocean voyage rather than a jet flight. There'll be plenty of longeurous (?)  passages, just filling us in on the gossip of the insular communities of Barchester and Dorset (?) and you have to sit back and let it soak in - these novels are not action packed or even incident packed, as Dickens can be, but they are well populated and, as in life, we get to know the characters slowly and over time. The two main characters, at least based on the first 5 or 6 chapters of the novel, are not the eponymous Dr. Thorne but Thorne's niece, whom he is raising, Mary, and Frank Gresham, the son of the local squire now just "coming into his manhood." Miss Thorne is from a lineage of British lit characters - motherless young women who, perhaps unrestrained (or untutored) by a mother can be a little more sharp-tongued and forceful than their more demure peers: Emma, for one, and most certainly Beatrice would be her literary forebears. It seems that she's destined for some kind of relationship w/ Frank Gresham, and they're so opposite: she's scorned by many others in her society because of her background - a child born out of wedlock, with no rank or station - and he's respected by all primarily because he's from a titled family - though not a wealthy family (the title is from his snobbish mother, a de Courcy; his father has squandered the family fortune in several ill-advised runs for office, urged on by his wife - as in so many British works what he considers to be poverty is far, far from what poverty truly was - and is - in England or elsewhere), and in fact as we see from the dinner scene, in which Frank is welcomed to his manhood - I guess that means he's turning 21? - he is a complete bumbler when it comes to speech-making. He's studying at Cambridge, but it seems clear that in those days getting into Cambridge was a matter of being born into the right family. How will these 2 get together, and get along?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Why I can't read Trollope

I guess Trollope and I were not made for one another - trying once again to read Trollope on suggestion from friend AF who enjoys AT particularly via audiobook, recommended I try Dr. Thorne, so, yes, I'm trying, but I find the lengthy introduction to the many characters and their back stories and alliances and misalliances really tiresome and the looming 1,000 pages or so before me make me think - yes, I would do this for Proust, for Mann, for Joyce, even for Knausgaard, but do I really want to give this many hours to absorb myself in this long-gone world? I don't. Maybe the fact that AF listens to Trollope rather than reads him is telling. Trollope more than any other novelist perhaps is the creature of his age, a time when a large part of the readership wanted to become absorbed in these massive, sprawling novels about a grand swath of their near-contemporary society - novels that were serialized, and for which the author was paid by the word or by the inch. Today few have the patience to read such expansive works that, to me, feel like a lot of high-level gossip (I think Trollope would agree w/ that - he strives for and attains the tone of shrewd, temperate narrator who frequently breaks through the boundaries of the story and addresses his readers directly and familiarly, commenting on his craft and his narrative intentions, as the first chapters of Dr. Thorne include several digressions on why AT's choice of a hero for the novel may not be the same choice a reader would make) - we still have the appetite for such entertainments and digressions today but we feed that appetite through media: audiobooks possibly (which generally do fill vacant spaces of time, e.g., commuting) or more likely TV dramas - and Trollope has translated very well, as has Dickens for that matter, to serial TV.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

A (possibly) great novel that it's (probably) impossible to like

Smart, unusual, funny (add to list from yesterday the darkly hilarious scene in which the Painter interrogates the engineer about the virtues, or not, of building power plants), even significant it may be, I'm giving up on Thomas Bernhard's first novel, Frost, about half-way through - and why is that? Much as I've enjoyed - if that's the right word in regard to a novel so dark and pessimistic - this novel scene by scene, I'm also frustrated by the lack of structure or maybe it's two-dimensional structure. Plot isn't everything but novels need to move along a course in time, something has to happen, something has to change, some conflict has to develop and perhaps resolve, characters have to evolve and get new insight, we have to evolve and get new insight - in short there has to be some arc or direction to the story, even in the most challenging and plotless of novels (Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow) there is movement and direction and evolution. Not in Frost; though Bernhard dutifully divides the chapters by days, there's not much or even any difference from day to day - each is just another series of conversations and encounters between the medical student and the painter, Stauch. In some ways then novel is an homage to the greatest of German novels, The Magic Mountain: a young  many arrives in a remote, wintry village and checks into a lodging where he meets, in this case, one philosophical elderly man approaching death and sharing his world views - but it's an anti-Magic Mountain, not a sanitarium for a wealthy international clientele but a run down inn in an industrial wasteland populated largely by thugs and boors, the intellectual is full of hatred, vitriol, self-loathing, and self-pity - and the young man is, in a sense, a spy, sent on a mission by his supervisor to report on Stauch (the supervisor's estranged brother). So that's another element that's important to this novel, which in part looks back at the Nazi era and guilt that those who lived through that time carry with them, and in part it looks at the Soviet era - the spies, the interrogation, the hideous industrial development, the complete lack of privacy and individuality, the omnipresence of the state. Bernhard was Austria, and the novel is set in an imaginary landscape (I think - none of the place names were familiar to me, anyway), which could be Austria or either E or W Germany, and has elements of all I think. Though sections were great and Bernhard was clearly a writer of high ambition and with a deliberate scorn for the conventions of fiction (and commerce), he makes it deliberately difficult to engage w/ this novel other than in pieces.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Bernhard, Kafka, and the comedy of horror

Thomas Bernhard, the late Austrian writer, one whom I've heard mentioned from time to time but had never read, till now, turns out to be so dark and strange and mysterious as to be comical - in the same way that Kafka can be comical. Everyone remembers hearing with some surprise that when Kafka read his stories aloud to a group of fellow literati they would laugh out loud at some of the stories that most of us tend to find frightening and even terrifying - Metamorphosis, for ex., or In the Penal Colony - and I imagine it would have been the same from Bernhard. I'm reading his first novel, Frost, from the early 60s but not in English till about 10 years ago: it tells of a medical student (he begins by describing in gruesome detail some of the medical routines and procedures, which he says don't bother him at all) who is asked by his supervisor to go on a special assignment out to a remote town and give a report on the well-being of his long-estranged brother, Strauch, a well-known artist - but he must go undercover. The med student heads off and meets Strauch at a very odd inn in what seems to be the most desolate and foreboding town on the planet: everyone is malnourished or malformed, violent and crude, the landscape is awfully, there are frightful sounds and scents everywhere, and there are huge mounds of snow that nobody seems able to clear. Strauch likes to go for long walks in this snow, and it seems that what Strauch really wants is to be separated from his past and from any or all of the comforts and pleasures of civilized life. What's so funny? You just have to read some of the passages and almost think of them as poems in prose: the passage on p 29 describing the village, or p. 70, to give two possibilities if you get the book. So this dark and dour vision of society could, in other hands, seem a pose - but think of the context. Bernhard was born in 1931; I would think the war years are something he and his generation would want to obliterate from memory, bury under the "frost" that pervades their moral and geographical landscape - but that others - investigators, lawyers (he poses as a law student so as not to blow his cover), artists, writers - cannot leave frozen in time, buried. They - Bernhard - recognize the potential horror of our world, they've seen it and lived through it powerlessly - and write not about beauty but about ugliness and despair, approaching the horrors of their history only through indirection, so that we will not forget. BTW he never mentions the war, or really anything to give the book a direct historical context, at least in first 100 pp or so.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Ways to read Mark Haddon's Weir

Mark Haddon's story Weir, in current New Yorker, is a story in two distinct parts, or movements, and I'm not sure the two work so well in concert though others may disagree on this. The first section, which in fact encompasses about 90 percent of the story, tells of a 50-something man, Ian, walking along a remote region of the Thames with his two dogs, thinking at moments about the difficulties of his life - recently separated from wife of many years and unhappy living alone, deeply concerned about his son who has been out of touch for many years and most likely living in an ashram or in some other unconventional situation and very possible deeply disturbed - and he sees a young woman standing atop the weir that spans the Thames and then sees her lean and fall into the rushing water. Bravely, he races ahead, plunges into rough water and, after a struggle, pulls the woman to shore. All this Heddon narrates beautifully (aside from his abundant use of sentence fragments); Ian gets the barely-conscious woman into his car and, yielding to her faint protests, agrees not to bring her to the hospital; instead, takes her home - takes off her clothes, puts her in dry clothes, blankets, etc. OK, you can only imagine how many things could go wrong here - and they begin to do so. The woman wakes up, it becomes clear that she's mentally disturbed (she rambles on about talking stones and hospitals spying on her), eventually dashes out of the house and away. From this point, it looks as if this will be or could be a story about some incredibly bad decisions: does she perhaps report him to the police? blackmail him? But, no, then we are on to the second part - more of a coda - to the story. Unlike the first part, narrated in detail, we now rush through maybe about 5 or 10 years of life - as Ian and the woman (he's never confident that he even knows her real name) strike up a friendship, get together every couple of weeks for coffee, he tells her about his divorce, about this son's return and then disappearance again, and so on - and story ends with an image of life rushing by us and take us with its currents, obviously like the river than nearly swept them both away. Readers who find the closing segment credible or even likely the closing image moving and beautiful will find this to be a great story; I felt a little bit cut off short, however, as the story so suddenly changed gears or pace, and I thought that Haddon for some reason backed away from the situation or condition that he had so carefully established: as if her were faced with the choice of build this into a novel or wrap it up as a story, and he decided to call it a wrap - still a good story but one that for me did not fulfill its promise.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Why Mice & Men was successful and Dubious Battle was not

 Finished John Steinbeck's short novel Of Mice and Men and again impressed by his economy and his attention to old-fashioned literary values of character and plot. Can see why and how this novel translated very well onto stage and screen and why it's been in the canon for so many years, and can also see why it's not often read in classes any longer - the racial issues that Steinbeck treats frankly and accurately - the ostracism of the black man who tends the horses and lives in isolation - would be painful and difficult topics in high-school classes, as would the open sexuality of the novel - the ranchers talking a lot about "cat houses," the lascivious flirtations of Curley's wife. yet for college classes? The characterization may be a little too simplistic and the melodramatic ending a little too evident and heavy-handed. As noted yesterday, the politics of M&M differ greatly from other early Steinbeck works: Though we deeply sympathize with the ranch-hands working hard for a miserly boss and unlikely to ever get together the "stakes" they all dream of accumulating and using to buy a spread and "live off the fatta the land," there's little sense of their exploitation or of their displacement by capitalist society, bankers, absentee owners, conglomerates, hired thugs, and so forth. They're just solitary tough guys who've had bad breaks in life. This may be part of the reason for the enduring popularity of M&M: It really doesn't challenge readers to think about society, to seek change, to do anything - very different from the monumental Grapes of Wrath, which I know changed the thinking of some right-wing readers who'd thought poverty was because of the flaws and shortcoming of the impoverished rather than the design of the system. Contrast M&M with Steinbeck's previous novel, In Dubious Battle, which, despite the great title (drawn from Milton) was far less successful. There are a lot of reasons for that, but one is that IDB is a near-documentary account of labor organizers, the risk and sacrifice they take, the dangers they face - a far less appealing topic to mainstream America, obviously. (Admittedly, from what I've read of it, it's a sprawling and ill-designed novel, whereas M&M is beautifully crafted and concise.)

Friday, November 13, 2015

Why Of Mice and Men has remained popular

Inspired by reading his short story The Chrysanthemums I took a step back farther in time and started reading John Steinbeck's short novel and I guess his 2nd-most-famous work, Of Mice and Men, the sorrowful tale of two guys, George and Lenny, living as itinerant ranch hands in California in the 1930s, George a feisty bantom-weight of a guy and Lenny a guy with some kind of mental retardation, thinks and acts like a child (very obsessed with small furry animals that he likes to hold and pet - and completely bereft of normal judgment, which got him into serious trouble when he wanted to "pet" the red dress a young woman was wearing), an innocent, but also huge and extremely strong. It's quite unusual that the two men travel and work together - many of the other ranchhands remark on this, and there's a hint of homosexuality - if this were a contemporary novel or film that would be played up more, esp in this post-Brokeback era - but it's also possible to just take this as one man caring for the well-being of another guy, a matter only of loyalty and brotherhood. The two have a dram or vision of earning a "stake" from a few months' working at a ranch to buy a small ranch of their own to grow crops, have a warm fire, and, for Lennie, keep a number of rabbit hutches. About half-way through this short novel it's obvious that their vision will never come to be - there are too many forces aligned against them, particularly against the ever-innocent Lenny who doesn't know his own strength and severely injures Curly, the martinet son of the ranch owner. The simplicity of Steinbeck's prose and of his dialog-driven narrative is a wonder to behold - you can easily see why the book was instantly popular and has remained so over 80 years - and you can also see how easily this could be and has been adapted for stage and for the movies - a small, tight drama with vivid characters, strong conflict, and genuine emotion. Unlike many of Steinbeck's other early works,  M&M is largely maybe entirely devoid of politics and contemporary issues: labor struggles, organization, federal aid, etc. - which may be another reasons it's been palatable to so many audiences, unlike the incendiary Grapes of Wrath, e.g.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

A surprising feminest story from Steinbeck

Read a # of good stories yesterday from 3 very different writers of the same approximate era (1930-40s), each totally different, even unique (as are most great writers in any genre, btw): John Stinbeck, Frank O'Connor, Richard Wright; won't post in detail about all three - a white American, an Irishman, and a black American - today most likely but maybe more on ech in coming days. Steinbeck's The Chrysanthemums was the biggest surprise, to me, of the group - had his familiar Central Valley California (Salinas Valley specifically setting) but the surprise was the narrative sensitivity and particularly the viewpoint - it's a pretty strong feminist story, not something see often from American male writers of that era and certainly not from Steinback. His career was firmly established the the epochal Grapes of Wrath, which I know changed many hearts and minds in the country at the time and for years later, helping people to see that farmers, and others, suffering from great poverty were not victims of laziness or ineptitude, and not even truly victims of fate - but of forces that we condone in America, labor exploitation and militant monopoly capitalism, forces we can do something about - we need a 21st-century Steinbeck! Sadly, despite (because of?) the Nobel, his career spiraled downward, with a lot of mediocre novels, and with his jingoistic support for the Vietnam War. Travels w/ Charley was a nice break and career-revival piece, but posthumously there has been lots of criticsm noting how much of this so called travelogue was invented or greatly distorted. Anyway, Chrysantemums focuses on a farm woman very adept at planting the eponymous flowers; a man traveling alone on a "covered" wagon who claims to be lost passes by her farm, seeks directions, and then asks for some work - he sharpens blades. She refuses (but does give him some shoots of the plants w/ instructions on how to lay them in the soil) and later relents, brings him some pots to bang into shape. (There's one sentence in the story that suggests he took off w/ the pots, but I don't understand how that could be.) Later in the evening, as she's riding into town w/ her husband for a rare dinner out and movie, they pass the man's wagon - and she has a deep, romantic yearning to live a free and lonely and independent life, such as his, but realizes she could never do so, and story ends in her soft tears. The feminism is a little heavy handed - the knife sharpener mocks her, doubts her skills and strength - but the mood of the story is an emblem and precursor for so many other stories and novels in which women yearn for a freedom too often, and cruelly, denied to them. The chrysanthemums are a great symbol as well: suggesting that she is confined to decorative chores, not the manly chores (selling cattle) that bring money into the family - and freedom to do things like take a dinner in town (and go to the fights - which the husband jokingly suggests and she dismisses but perhaps wants to do, secretly).

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

In Dreams: The concluding image of Flowering Judas and what it signifies

Flowering Judas, title story in Katherine Anne Porter's first collection, tells of a woman, quite likely modeled on KAP herself?, living in Mexico, from North America - possibly Arizona, where she says she learned to ride - quite good looking, and in Mexico out of a commitment to service, working with some of the leftist political groups (this seems to be during the time of the Pancho Villa and the rebellion?), teaching children in a small rural school, carrying messages and provisions to politically imprisoned - but her devotion to this work, which she can never quite explain or articulate, is hindered by the gallant and intrusive attention of a # of men, in particular the corrupt and unfaithful and cynical head of one of the groups she works with, who comes to her house every night and sings to her - and she's too polite or intimidated by his power to tell him to get lost. His singing, hilariously, is terrible as is his tuneless guitar-playing - a funny send-up of the Mexican troubadour stereotype. The story feels a little aimless and then gets quite serious and pointed in the last page or two, as the woman recollects a man, Eugenio, who has just died in prison - we know little else about him - and, freeing herself from the troubadours attentions she falls asleep and KAP brings us right into one of her dreams. I don't love stories that rely on dreams, esp for the conclusion, but this works very well in the context - her only freedom of thought, it seems, in dreams. She imagines Eugenio leading her somewhere and essentially transforming into a Judas tree, in flower, and she begins to eat the blossoms, and he protests that she is a killer and cannibal eating his body. The religious implications are perhaps too obvious - also, I looked up the Judas tree, which I'd never hear of, and it seems to be like a dogwood with red (blood-like) blossoms -but it's not only the Christ-like death of the prisoner and her animalistic devotion but also the tree itself is an emblem of betrayal and denials (Judas) that she is struggling to devour and overcome - her own denial, her own betrayal of principles and ideals.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Easy to dismiss this New Yorker story - but don't

Easy maybe too easy to dismiss Julianne Pachico's story in current New Yorker, Honey Bunny, as another tale of youth and Brooklyn and cocaine, a dissolute romp among some people with many privileges who can think of nothing but the next fix - but there's more here than that. The story is jarring from the outset - girl meets guy in dance bar, says she has "treats" in her purse, and then we jump ahead a few hours and they're riding together on the subway and surprisingly the girl gets off end of relationship - which shows us suddenly that the only relationship, even in a fling or pickup, is about the drugs, not sex and certainly not love or companionship. Story follow the first through several encounters w her drug dealer - and this is where Pachico shows some skill in some of her influences: she's apparently a Colombian-born writer though living in England and working in English (and story set in NY) - a joke at the outset of the story is when the guy says: Columbia University?, and she says, "sure" - we don't read anything else of the dialogue - he must have asked, where you from, and she says, Colombia. Anyway, the story involves a series of rx purchases that are polluted with various items in packet, which girl painfully and rather disgustingly snorts: a dried leaf, an insect wing, up to increasingly odd objects like a small drumstick - this is a touch of the magic realism native to Colombia (and maybe to Columbia), putting us on edge and giving this story a touch of comedy as well. As the story moves along, she uses Google earth to spy on some of her childhood haunts, stirring memory and desire - we see the great wealth she lived among (acquired by who knows what means) and her current sorrow and dependence, and at the end she makes a gesture toward getting out of her fix and moving on with her life. So there's a lot of dimension to this story - a story of a life in jeopardy and of a struggle for sanity and wholeness, with the ending left open.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Her struggle: The Summer Book and Swedish culture

I was the grumpy one last night at book group, somewhat less enthusiastic than the rest about Tove Jansson's The Summer Book. Though I admired many of the brief sketches that comprise this book - some beautiful passages, especially in the later chapters such as the closing down of the house for the season, and some pretty funny sequences such as Sophia's dictation of the angle-worm book to her grandmother, I felt the collection was too oblique. I wanted it to cover the arc of one summer of the maturation of the young child into a preteen or teenager - but it seemed to me arranged in no special sequence, perhaps the sequence of composition, aside from the first, last, and midpoint stories that did orient around the passage of summer months. BR had a great insight about the angleworms and how they are a metaphor for the young girl - broken but rejuvenating. I spoke probably too much about the isolation and coldness of the Swedish personality, the island - no outsiders allowed, no one good enough to meet our standard - as the perfect metaphor for this and the completely withdrawn father and the odd refusal to say or even think anything about the mother's death (and perhaps the grandmother's approaching death?) great examples of the Swedish closure. (These moods and personalities should be familiar to anyone who's watched Bergman films.) Some debate about whether the grandmother was kind and loving toward Sophia, and while most of the members found her very devoted (in a tough-love way) to the young girl, I found her to be ambivalent at best: insouciant about Sophia's safety at various points, a terrible example to the girl when she breaks into a neighbor's house, nasty to the one other child who visits on the island. There's a real toughness to Jansson herself - she wrote these in her 60s or so and though the may reflect on her own childhood it seems she also ID's with the cantankerous grandmother as much as w/ Sophia. Oddly - intentionally, actually - the book has few if any time markers: It could be the 1920s, 40s, or 60s - and that timelessness is another one of its "island" qualities: we never see the village or the mainland, know nothing about their winter life off the island, these are sketches, some quite beautiful others fairly slight, of a life cut off from others.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Self-reliance, Scandinavian style

Book group tonight will discuss Tove Jansson's The Summer Book; re-reading it I'm trying to make sense of its chronology and it still seems to me it's not a tale of one summer but an almost random assortment of sketches about the life of a young girl and her grandmother (others are all minor presences) on one of the Baltic islands over various summers. It's not so much about the maturation of a single character, learning about herself and her family over a period of months, or years, but about the mentality of living on an island (even as a summer home): independence, self-reliance, all very much Scandinavian traits, much more so at least in the 20th century and beyond than they are American traits, despite what we may wish to think. That said, there's also an incredible isolation and snobbery that goes w/ the island mentality, the sense that no one's as good as this family, that the outsiders have no place among us, that it's OK that we're settlers on this island but anyone who comes after us should be greeted with suspicion and contempt. Not only is the family isolated but each person in the family is isolated: the grandmother's tough love toward the child, her indifference, so it seems, as to child's safety (in the first sketch she seems not to give a damn if the child drowns), the father's withdrawal, the complete refusal to talk about the death of the mother. It's not a style of self-reliance that we should emulate I think - it's a brutal, colonist's sense of self-reliance, this land is my land - but not your land.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Last rites: Katherine Anne Porter's story about a dying woman

Katherine Anne Porter's story The Jilting of Grandma Weatherill is a little more conventional than Theft, which I posted on yesterday, but just a little. It's even tighter in time, space, and scope - the whole story taking place in the course of one day, one of the final days in the life of the title character, and the story entirely from her POV, and what makes it memorable and effective is the way in which KAP captures the fluttering mind of this elderly, dying, sardonic lady: people move in and out of her consciousness, some present in the room with her, some memories from over the course of her life, some of the things she says (or hears) may actually be spoken/heard, others not, KAP is not definitive about this, which is great - it leaves us very much in the dying woman's mind. Interesting to compare stories of death and dying - Tolstoy being the master - but the death in this story is gradual, peaceful, seemingly painless, at least physically - but there is emotional torment - of which we catch glimpses: Grandma's bluntness toward the doctor and toward her daughter, Cornelia, who is caring for her and whom we hear say to the doctor "she was never like this," a plaint familiar to anyone who's tended to a dying relative. Most of all, we are with Grandma as she recalls various moments of and people in her life - most notably the jilting of the title: she was actually left at the altar by an early love, and to her dying day she cannot really get over the shame and humility and sorrow of such meanness. Yes, she had a good life, a good husband who'd died many years previously, good children - but there is something missing and untended in her last moments, so strange her urge to be able to tell the man who left her that yes, she did have a good life without him. Did she really, though?

Friday, November 6, 2015

The meaning of Katherine Anne Porter's story Theft

Another terrific early story from Katherine Anne Porter, Theft, is very short - much shorter than Maria Concepcion, on which I posted yesterday, which was like a novel in miniature - a very small slice in time, just a few hours, and a tighter point of view: we follow a woman over the course of a few hours, she's a young single career woman in NYC, has to be in the 20s or 30s, we don't know exactly what she does and it doesn't matter. At the outset she's in the pouring rain with a man - a gallant Spaniard it seems - who's interested in her and wants to escort her home; she's less interested (and kind of high) and separates form him at the subway (elevated, actually) stop, says she's perfectly able to get home by herself - but then meets another male friend passing by chance who gets in a cab with her and they share the ride home - he telling her of the failure and frustration of his life as an artist. At home, a fellow tenant in her building calls her in for a drank and tells of the woes of his theater career; he owes her $ which he tearfully says he can't pay her - and she's watching every penny. As she's in the bathroom, the "janitress" comes into the apartment to check the radiators and when she gets out her purse - no $ in it - is gone. She confronts the woman who first denies the theft, then admits but says she needs to give the purse to her niece - whom she thinks doesn't have the advantages the young woman has: $, beauty, an education. Sow what's actually been stolen, what was lost? We realize, subtly, and then quite suddenly as KAP summarizes the story toward the end in a powerful paragraph, that there are many types of theft: time stealing life from us, realizing that we are losing youth, talent, ideals, chances for love and for connections with others, that you can take precautions against theft of the obvious sort, you can have stolen property returned to you, but there's another kind of theft that is inevitable and irremediable.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

A story about peasant life with not a note of condescension: Maria Concepcion

Katherine Anne Porter's story - her first published story (1922), in fact, Maria Concepcion - is quite the masterpiece, a flawless work of traditional story crafting, material worthy of a novel, of an epic, told swiftly and efficiently in about 20 pages: set in Mexico in the early 20th century (the war for independence, Pancho Villa, I guess, is going on - I wish I knew my history and could place it better). We're in a small village and as the story opens the title character is carrying a bunch of live fowl, bringing them to the archeological dig in her village (one of the fine touches is how the peasants whom the scientist hires to work on the dig are completely puzzled as to why he should be excited every time they find an old piece of broken pottery). En route, she passes the house of a young (15) beekeeper and finds the girl is having an affair w/ her husband. On confrontation, the two run away - he serves in the army and she follows the troops, we don't learn much about that nor do we need to - but a year passes, he deserts, and he and the young woman (Maria Rosa, I think) return to the village - and he moves back with Maria Concepcion. But she exacts her revenge - neatly foreshadowed by the earlier scene of her killing and dressing one of the live fowl. Oddly, the husband, although he has no intention of being faithful, develops a plan - they both lie and say they were home all night, they can't imagine who killed Maria Rosa, the investigators don't really give a damn they just want to wrap up the case and go home. Maria Concepcion (her name interesting here), who has lost her child by her legal husband, takes Maria Rosa's newborn child as her own, their own - a very strange and sorrowful ending with a bit of uplift, and the story itself a vivid portrait w/ not a note of condescension of life in this remote village. It would take a lot of fleshing out, as there is relatively little dialogue in this story, much of it interior, and a fairly large caesura, but I think this could be - and maybe has been - a good short film.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

What's good and not so good about the conclusion to the first Wallander novel

Some good things and some not so good about the conclusion of Henning Mankell's first Wallander novel, Faceless Killers: on the plus side, Mankell deftly handles many complex plot elements, including two killings (murder of elderly farmer and his wife, revenge killing of a Somali asylum-seeker), and we never lose site of the connection between the two killings: the rumor that the farmer was killed by one of the newly arrived immigrants in Sweden spurred the revenge killing and other social outrages. Mankell also keeps us guessing toward the end and surprises us in the last two chapters as all the clues he's planted turn out to be false leads: we learn that it wasn't the farmer's son out of wedlock who'd done the killing nor in fact anyone who even knew the farmer and his wife. I expected a more simplistic ending and Mankell rose above that - a little. What's troubling about the ending is that he introduces all kids of new information in these last chapters: This is not a novel that a reader could possibly solved based on info in the first few chapters. In that sense, maybe it's more like a typical police procedural and less like typical crime fiction, but it's still somewhat dissatisfying (spoilers!): I mean OK he was killed by two guys who saw him make a big bank withdrawal and followed him home. Shouldn't that have come up much, much earlier? So much of this novel is dependent on ridiculously fortunate circumstances, e.g., a guy in the refugee camp who can ID cars by their engine sound, and most notably a bank teller w/ an extraordinary memory (it seems she could have solved the whole thing at page 50, but that where would we be?); I suspect she will play a role in later Wallander novels. We don't exactly expect crime fiction to be realistic, but I at least expect it to play by the rules: stay w/in the bounds of probability, don't introduce major plot elements at teh finish line, open up a little and let us know what the protagonist is thinking, not just what he's doing.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The phoniness of Kurt Wallander's love of opera

OK so Henning Mankell's detective, Kurt Wallander, is an opera buff. Every detective, or so it seems, have to have some little identifying quirk, an interest, passion, habit, or preference - and that seems to help us identify them and keep them straight. But just because the lead detective likes opera - as opposed to, say, jazz - does that make this a classier book, a work of literary fiction and not crime/suspense? That could be the case - if the author actually did something with the lead character's quirk or defining trait - if, in this instance, the passion for opera played a role in the plot rather than filled time between episodes. All Mankell does with this passion of Wallander's is, from time to time, say something like: He put in a cassette of Aida (this is the early 1990s). The opera references are just name checks, really. For some readers, perhaps, they give the novel a bit of class and a touch of obscurity as well - but, trust me, all of the operas he listens to in this first volume of the series (Faceless Killers) are the chestnuts; there's nothing unusual at all about his taste - and one would certainly expect a 40-year-old who has been devoted to opera his whole life to listen to more esoteric works and not the familiar ones over and over. Worse, Mankell even seems to lose interest in these culture checks: early in the novel he mentions operas by name, but later he just says stuff like: He listened to a Rossini opera. Gee. Which one? And does it make a difference? Yes, it could, if the selection of opera, or even of aria, shed light on Wallander's mood or bore some kind of relation to the plot (e.g., might he listen to Fidelio after visiting a prisoner in his cell?). And the whole theme would seem more authentic and less of a device if he actually had a word or two to say about opera, if he discussed it with someone, or even w/ himself. But, no, not only does this novel read like a screenplay - it's a screenplay with soundtrack. Reminds me of a crappy contemporary Western I once saw in which laconic rodeo rider lived out of a camper in which he kept - shelves of novels, Dostoyevsky et al - so what? He's an intellectual? Not in the entire movie did he say one word about anything he'd read, ever - so what we've got is a screenwriter who's a would-be intellectual.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Why Mankel''s Faceless Killers is still timely 25 years later

The immigrant angle to the story in Henning Mankell's Faceless Killers, the first in his Kurt Wallander series, is what keeps in interesting and, sadly, what makes it meaningful and timely even 25 years after publication: the way in which an ambiguous early clue to the double-murder - the murdered woman muttering the word "foreign" on her hospital bed, when leaked from the police (we don't know who leaked this info or why) to the press provokes a wave of immigrant bashing, threats, and ultimately at least one killing. Wallander's pursuit of the killer and his following up on some clues and tips - some of them that really stretch credibility but never mind for the moment - leads him to a retired policeman who definitely has something to hide, and W follows him one night and quite fortunately for the plot the guy is bound for a meeting with a man who fits the description of the immigrant killer, so we know or presume that the retired cop is a racist and xenophobe who's taken a major role in the attacks on the immigrant community, mostly refugees from Africa and Eastern Europe seeking asylum. Sweden has a long and proud history of taking in refugees, but that open-door policy was strained in the '90s when a new wave of immigrants from the 3rd world showed up at the doorstep - far less educated than the previous waves of immigration, and many of them people of color. Mankell's right on this story and good for him, it lifts typical crime fiction to a higher level. As noted in yesterday's post though, the writing is serviceable but hardly literary - sometimes it feels as if I'm reading a draft of a screenplay, directed action and dialog only w/ little or no introspection, establishment of scene or mood, reflection. I shouldn't expect a novel, esp a crime novel, to necessarily exceed its own goals and ambitions, but I did have hopes that Mankell would be a writer of mood not of crime only. I may go further in the series, however - maybe the first one was more conventional and his style evolved and matured?

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Swedish noir and Swedish blanc - Wallander

Henning Mankell's first Kurt Wallander novel, Faceless Killers, is maybe a notch or two above standard crime/detective fare, mostly in this volume because of the political elements - the way in which the public quickly suspects that the killer or killers who slaughtered an elderly farmer and his wife at night in their remote farmhouse must be connected somehow to the immigrant community, the waves of people seeking asylum and confined to temporary housing, mostly in southern Sweden, where Mankell sets the story. The police - led by Wallander - know that it's unlikely that the killing had anything to do w/ the immigrants but are helpless in preventing public threats and acts of violence against the defenseless immigrants. What makes the novel a little more pedestrian, however, are a few factors: first, as w/ so many crime novels, much of it so far hinges on the rather unlikely possibility that the murdered farmer was leading a double life, that he'd stashed away millions of kroner and that he had a mistress and son in a nearby city - all very hard to accept or believe in the small farming community in which he lived, w/out a car no less. Even if true, the likelihood of a brother in law suddenly coming to the police w/ all this information really far surpasses credibility - though maybe there will be further twists along the way. But in my view a beautifully constructed crime novel gives the readers all they need to solve the crime right at the scene of the crime - that it's not dependent on a "big reveal" that we couldn't possibly figure out ourselves. Second, I know this novel is considered an example of "Swedish noir," and, yes, Wallander is a sad guy who's recovering from a recent divorce and has a dark and pessimistic attitude toward life, but I don't find any great descriptions of the world in which he lives, internal or external for that matter. The prose is serviceable, straightforward, and simple - but is really almost entirely a series of steps and actions and incidents, w/ very little reflection or observation (a la Hammet and Chandler, e.g.). I wonder about the choice of 3rd-person narrration: could the character be more vivid (a la Spenser) had he told the story himself?