April 16, 2017

More of Lawrence Durrell

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 3:11 pm by chuckredman

I introduced my daughter to Justine (see https://chuckredman.wordpress.com/2015/05/15/learning-about-love-in-alexandria/ ) but she introduced me to The Dark Labyrinth. Though it’s not the artistic triumph that Justine is, The Dark Labyrinth is a fine novel of mystery and the search for answers, both factual and moral. Durrell’s prose is flawless and his characters sharply developed. Their lives and fates converge in what is essentially an allegory.

At a time (1948) when Europe was lost and groping in the post-war twilight, these English travelers sail to the isle of Crete on the ship Europa. They set out upon an excursion into a labyrinth of fabled caverns, where natives believe a deadly Minotaur lurks. Each of the travelers is escaping something and searching for something better. Durrell weaves their pasts, brings them together at a critical point in each of their lives, and then leaves them divided and lost in the labyrinth. The careful and powerful manner in which he does all this is the work of a great novelist. It is the work of a deep thinker, as well, who saw a stormy, uncertain future for Europe, with nations divided and searching for light, beneath an angry cloud of nuclear proliferation. Overshadowed perhaps by Justine and the rest of her Quartet, The Dark Labyrinth is nevertheless a book well worth reading for those who enjoy the vast sub-genre of twentieth century post-war fiction.

 

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May 15, 2015

Learning about love in Alexandria

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , at 7:34 pm by chuckredman

“She lay, staring out those wonderfully expressive dark eyes, as if from a high window in her own memory.” 

I came across it browsing at the library. I had never heard of it, or its author. Had I browsed left toward Dumas instead of right toward Ellison, I may never have discovered Justine. Seldom has a book so intrigued me with its language, flavor, earthiness. By its juxtaposition of intimate detail and vague half-thoughts, the novel builds a mystery in its own world. I was hooked, to the point that I read straight through Justine, then on to her three sister novels Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, which altogether make up Lawrence Durrell’s atmospheric saga The Alexandria Quartet.

Set in pre- and post-World War II Alexandria, Durrell created one of the more existential works around. Much, perhaps, of his close friend Henry Miller, of Camus, of D.H. Lawrence, wanders through its pages, but Durrell colonized a new literary frontier of his own. And when his prose is waxed and polished, which is most of the time, it is stunning.

Now, if you want to read the entire Quartet, be sure you read in the above order, the order in which they were written. The third volume, Mountolive, unlike its two elder sisters, is written in the third person, so it doesn’t grip your shirtfront and pull you into the story with the same intensity. I generally prefer the third person, but as you will see, Durrell’s first person narrative of Justine, et al., is true artistry. Mountolive is a very good book, and it advances the mystery effectively. But you’re almost led to speculate that Durrell brought in James Michener or Leon Uris to write his third part, so that he could take a well-deserved break from the understandable emotional toll of Justine and Balthazar (written in roughly a year or less), and prepare for the climax of Clea.

I have recommended Justine and the Quartet to my daughter, because she is a great fiction reader, and she is a lyricist and artist. She is reading Justine at this moment, and I am anxious to hear her thoughts.

November 27, 2014

A Tree Grows in London, too

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 10:59 pm by chuckredman

You might say that Rebecca West’s 1956 novel The Fountain Overflows is more or less a British version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. They do have much in common, subject-wise. But there is a difference: While A Tree Grows has more warmth and poignancy, more emotion and power, West’s novel has not only that wonderful British cleverness, but it has perhaps as much depth of perception and depth of character as anything I’ve read in recent years (which is about as far back as my dwindling memory goes). I can’t claim to have read much Proust, but it seems to me The Fountain Overflows is almost Proustian in its youthful but sublime sensibility.

The book is quite autobiographical, and Rebecca West was a leading feminist of her day. The mother she depicts is such a strong, loving person, regardless of constant adversity, that she will certainly stick in my mind for many Saturdays to come. Every child should have such a mother (I did, thankfully). And I felt so much in common with this family, their love of books and classical music, and refinement without superficiality. Given that Rebecca West wrote this fine book, and given that she and her real family were its inspiration, I have a pretty good hunch that she was at least as beautiful to know as she is to read.

July 5, 2014

Maybe I’m wrong, but . . .

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 1:39 pm by chuckredman

Should I keep reading? 70 pages into the book and hopelessly intrigued by a neat and clever plot? Or should I dump the book into the return slot at the library first chance I get? That was my moral dilemma. After a brief soul-search, I decided to keep reading, and except for one detail the book is a bright little gem. The book is called Jacob’s Ladder, the year was 1921, and the author was E. Phillips Oppenheim. The detail that stopped me cold in the middle of a paragraph? The thinly-veiled indication that E. Phillips Oppenheim was an anti-semite.

I know nothing about the man except that he was an English writer who published more than 100 novels and dozens of story collections and thus was one of the most prolific and popular writers of his time. And it wouldn’t be the first case of anti-semitism in mainstream literature, by a long shot. What about The Merchant of Venice, or take a look at Oliver Twist. Of course, the Jewish characters in those classics were stereotyped candidly and directly. And, Shakespeare and Dickens both instilled redeeming qualities into the characters to somewhat offset the stereotype. The characterization that bothered me in Jacob’s Ladder was obliquely done and so insidious that it almost went by me undetected. I cannot, even now, be absolutely sure of my theory: it was a hint of racial prejudice, a descriptive word or two plus a stereotyped occupation.

So I would really like to know if others have read Oppenheim’s books and come away with the same impression. Maybe what I saw in Jacob’s Ladder was just a tiny moral hiccup in a vast body of otherwise creditable work.

May 21, 2013

Watership Down

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , at 9:04 pm by chuckredman

As an animal sympathizer, I probably should have read Richard Adams’ Watership Down decades ago.  But somehow I never got around to it until now.  It’s not that it delivers an overriding message about animal exploitation.  But it does subtly dramatize the everyday mistreatment of animals that our society tolerates.  However, simple themes of courage, loyalty, friendship, and freedom were what the book was really about.

And those themes were presented in one of the most exciting, suspenseful plots I’ve ever read.  I was on pins and needles for half the book.

The book is rather sexist, which is strange to say of a book about rabbits.  But most books are sexist.

If you want to come across the names of every conceivable flower, tree and shrub in rural England, Richard Adams is your man.  He’s amazing when it comes to knowing every obscure weed that grows upon the down or heath.  Anyway, all things considered, it’s quite a remarkable and rewarding book.