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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December 24, 2016

It Can’t Happen Here — Sinclair Lewis

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , at 10:46 pm by chuckredman

“Aw, shoot, Dad—and you too, Julian, you young paranoiac—you’re monomaniacs! Dictatorship? Better come into the office and let me examine your heads! Why, America’s the only free nation on earth. Besides! Country’s too big for a revolution. No, no! Couldn’t happen here!”

I just read the most amazing book I’ve read since 1984 (the book, not the year). Possibly the most amazing since 1973 (the year, not the book). Actually, Sinclair Lewis’s novel It Can’t Happen Here, which was published in 1935, predated 1984 (the book, not the year) by fourteen years. Which means that Lewis did not have the benefit of hindsight when he recognized what too few people seemed to recognize around the middle of the Great Depression. Sinclair Lewis saw what was happening in Europe. He also heard frighteningly similar rumblings in this country. His book, written half a decade before the true magnitude of European fascism could be witnessed and understood, was a chillingly accurate forecast.

So did Lewis also predict what we in the U.S. have just witnessed and are struggling to understand: the election as President of a populist demagogue, in the mold of Senator Buzz Windrip in the novel? Well, Lewis’s protagonist, liberal journalist Doremus Jessup, listens only half-concerned to the national radio broadcast of the nominating convention, but the similarity is striking:

. . . every delegate knew that Mr. Roosevelt and Miss Perkins were far too lacking in circus tinsel and general clownishness to succeed at this critical hour of the nation’s hysteria, when the electorate wanted a ringmaster-revolutionist like Senator Windrip.

Though Lewis begins his book in satirical tone, we’re not too many chapters in before we realize, along with Doremus, that this story—the rise of a political movement based on anger, hate and false rhetoric—is no joke. It is nearly, in fact, as powerful and sobering as Orwell’s 1984. Here is how Doremus saw Senator/President Windrip’s quasi-official partisans, the “Minute Men”, or “M.M.”, which protected Windrip’s surging popularity by terrorizing the general population and appealing to its basest impulses:

They had the Jews and the Negroes to look down on, more and more. The M.M.’s saw to that. Every man is a king so long as he has someone to look down on. . . . Their mutter became louder, less human, more like the snap of burning rafters. Their glances joined in one. He was, frankly, scared.

Could Lewis have had the Nazi SS in mind? Seems likely.

I just realized that, for better or for worse, many of my favorite books are about the oppression of large segments of society by vindictive, self-righteous governments or ruling classes. A Tale of Two Cities, The Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle, Mother, Doctor Zhivago, Homage To Catalonia, Fahrenheit 451, and the two brave books discussed above. You should probably read these books, all of these books, while they’re still on our shelves. Before they start hurling them into big piles in our city squares and torching them. Which is what happened to Doremus Jessup’s personal collection of books. Which could happen here.

 

September 6, 2016

Follow-up to preceding post re: The Help

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , at 7:25 pm by chuckredman

Kathryn Stockett’s The Help seems to provoke thought by those who read the book and even those who don’t. On my bus ride home tonight, about the time we got to Ventura County, the fellow sitting behind me leaned forward and apologized if his brief phone call had bothered me. It hadn’t. I’d apparently been engrossed in the book. I’m almost finished. We talked about the book and the movie, and he was very familiar with both, despite having personally perused neither. “I don’t wanna read anything about those times. I lived through it, that was enough.”

He’d grown up in Memphis, Tennessee and, being about the color of Minny in The Help, had experienced Jim Crow first hand. “I read Tom Clancy,” he told me. He loves the action and geopolitical intrigue.

I hinted at the irony that he could read about war and the world on the brink of destruction but not about the plight of maids in 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi. He shrugged, and I assured him that I understand completely.

August 24, 2016

Book, film, life

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , at 9:21 pm by chuckredman

Last week at the Los Angeles Central Library, as I entered the Literature department I saw that their monthly display was books that had been adapted for film. Traditionally I don’t like to read the book if I’ve already seen the movie, but lately I’ve changed. I’ve seen too many films based on books well worth reading but that haven’t been read by me. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is one of those that has been in my mind, and there it was on the display shelf. A minute later there was an empty spot in that display.

I’m more than halfway now and it didn’t take many chapters for the book to garner a solid place on my short list of best American novels of the past 25 years. What a remarkable book, on a human level and societal level. It’s as funny as it is thematically groundbreaking. Stockett blends her fictional characters so seamlessly with the historical events of that time and place, and the result is chilling. Besides its insights into Southern society and race relations, the novel is worth the read simply for its exploration of family relationships and child development.

I’m spending this week at a big suburban house. The owner is at work all day and I’m reading The Help. It’s the day that the cleaning lady comes. She’s a petite Salvadorean woman who cleans the huge upstairs while I read downstairs. She seems very sweet and refined. Her English is limited. When she comes down to do the kitchen and family room, I evacuate to the large backyard where the waterfall splashes into the pool. I catch glimpses of her mopping the hardwood kitchen floor. My mind is wandering and I’m stalled on a page of dialogue between Aibileen and Skeeter. I don’t feel much like petting the little dog of the house while she cleans because she might see and taste the irony.

May 30, 2016

The difference between money and Gold

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , at 7:58 pm by chuckredman

“No one can go through the shame and humiliation of the job-hunt without being marked for life. I hated my first experience at it, and have hated every other since. There can be no freedom in the world while men must beg for jobs.”

Perhaps it’s a novel in the very strictest technical sense, but you will find Jews Without Money, by Mike Gold (published 1930), to be pure memoir. And that is fine, because the book is a valuable and unusual piece of memoir that everyone really ought to read, regardless of your religion or ethnic background. The book is not about a particular race or religion. It is about poverty, and all the various immigrant groups that were squeezed onto New York’s Lower East Side shared equally in that tale of misery. In fact, Gold’s overriding philosophy throughout his life as a socialist/Marxist journalist was simply that poverty is the root of all evil, and that its scars never heal. The corollary proven by his book was that money is the root of all poverty. (**My blog entries for April 6, 2014 and January 11, 2015 discuss other fine works of fiction dramatizing the plight of the American working class in the early 1900’s.)

Besides the gritty, unadorned frankness with which Gold told the story of his childhood, all its squalor and heartbreak, there is also artistic value to the book. Gold’s writing style is not just journalistic narrative. He puts things so succinctly and stunningly that his book reminds me more of Walt Whitman than any writer of prose from Gold’s era. Alfred Kazin’s introduction to Jews Without Money admires the book and its effective style greatly, but takes a dim view of Gold’s native intellect, reluctantly calling the author “not very bright”. I disagree: it takes a special type of genius to write something so powerful with such spare language. I think the book was a pioneering achievement, as a piece of history and a literary groundbreaker.

August 30, 2015

Pithy lines from things I’ve read recently. . .

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , at 7:51 pm by chuckredman

We quickly understood each other and became friendly, because I am not capable of true friendship. — Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time (1841)

Sir Ethelred opened a wide mouth, like a cavern, into which the hooked nose seemed anxious to peer. — Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent (1907)

. . . it seems to them the friendly memories of that year and of their whole long life winged visibly through the transparent blue. Herman Hesse, Beneath the Wheel (1906)

The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. — G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)

He grabbed the nickel and legged it away as fast as he could kelter, Molly’s shrill laughing pursuing him as though it ran on feet. — Jack Conroy, A World To Win (1935)

When a man’s overcoat is whiter than flour, why should his shadow be blacker than soot? — Vladimir Korolenko, The Day of Atonement

Not I, old man; nothing that crawls the earth is for my sport. — James Fenimore Cooper, The Prairie

“Stop that, Jim, d’yeh hear? Leave yer sister alone on the street. It’s like I can never beat any sense into yer damned wooden head.” — Stephen Crane, Maggie, a Girl of the Streets

It was a torrid morning, hazy, the sky veiled as if with medicinal gauze. — The Church of Solitude by Grazia Deledda

On another small table stood Zuleika’s library. Both books were in covers of dull gold. — Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson (1911)

You cannot make a man by standing a sheep on its hind-legs. But by standing a flock of sheep in that position you can make a crowd of men. — Max Beerbohm, Zuleika Dobson (1911)

It is not love that is blind, but jealousy. — Lawrence Durrell, Justine (1958)

. . .the shining city of the disinherited—a city now trying softly to spread the sticky prismatic wings of a new-born dragon-fly on the night. — Lawrence Durrell, Clea (1960)

He was a fairly humane man toward slaves and other animals; he was an exceedingly humane man toward the erring of his own race. — Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson

We must make a stand, not for the penny, but for justice. What is dear to us is not our penny, because it’s no rounder than any other penny; it’s only heavier; there’s more human blood in it than in the manager’s ruble. That’s the truth! — Maxim Gorky, Mother (1907)

They’ve turned men into weapons, into sticks and stones, and called it civilization, government! — Maxim Gorky, Mother (1907)

Luka: If you believe—he does. If you don’t—he doesn’t. Whatever you believe in, exists. — Maxim Gorky, Lower Depths (1902)

Our emotional life is shared with the animals; we flatter ourselves that human emotions are so much more complicated than theirs. . .We have to wonder. — Doris Lessing, The Memoirs of a Survivor (1975)

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.

April 3, 2015

Comparative Lit on the brain

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 8:15 pm by chuckredman

Comparative European Lit 101. We all took at least one course in college with a name something like that. But there was always, in the back of my head, a small nagging question: Why do we compare literature? We read it, we enjoy it, we try to understand it. But compare it?

But now as I think about it, I realize that the only way to completely understand books is to analyze the history, culture, language, and personalities that go into them. Besides influencing one another, writers change society, and society returns the favor.

And I find myself, probably more and more as time goes on, doing comparative lit in my head. Spontaneously. Even obsessively. I compare genres, I compare authors, I compare centuries, eras, hemispheres? I need to know where the books I read fit into the world. It means something. It’s important.

But sometimes (oftentimes, really), my mind comes up with pretty goofy groups of books or writers that, for some crazy reason and certainly out of abject ignorance, it wants to read and compare. The silly thing is that these books have no valid reason for being grouped together and being compared. But the surprising thing is that, once in a while, the comparisons turn out to be quite apt.

Well, this is embarrassing, but it won’t be clear unless I give you examples:

Group A: Room at the Top;  Dark at the Top of the Stairs

 

Group B: Lost Horizon;  Teahouse of the August Moon;  The Ugly American

 

Group C: To Have and to Hold;  To Have and Have Not

 

Group D: Samuel Johnson;  Samuel Richardson;  Samuel Butler

 

Group E: The Power and the Glory;  The Sound and the Fury

 

Group F: Rebecca West;  Nathanael West;  Jessamyn West

 

Group G: Thomas Wolfe;  Tom Wolfe;  Tobias Wolff

 

You get the picture. . . Silly, huh? So what I wonder is: am I the only one who makes up these odd, goofy groupings of famous books or authors? If not, I’d be curious to hear the groups that other readers have put together in their own heads. It may be a whole new discipline in the mysterious field of comparative lit.

February 22, 2015

Stephen Crane’s legacy

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 6:08 pm by chuckredman

“Stop that, Jim, d’yeh hear? Leave yer sister alone on the street. It’s like I can never beat any sense into yer damned wooden head.”

That short passage from Stephen Crane’s story Maggie, a Girl of the Streets may seem trivial, at first glance. But after reading Maggie, that bit of banal dialogue proved to be a perfect window into the icy irony and social criticism that Crane put into that classic story, and into his body of work as a whole. There is no question that Crane broke new literary ground in two important ways, at least if we consider this side of the Atlantic.

His prose, in the words of Hamlin Garland, was “astonishing”. He wrote in a style more modern and, I think, more poetic, than any earlier or contemporary American prose writer. He almost certainly inspired the next generation or two of story writers, and they were an innovative bunch indeed.

The other quality that Crane pioneered was the gritty realism of his settings and subjects. He told it like it was, long before that expression became a cliché. He had the most amazing ear for vernacular speech. Add to that a sharp understanding of human nature. The characters and their dialogue are so lifelike that one can’t help but enter their world and identify with their problems.

Despite illness and death at 28, Crane left us a sizable collection of novels and stories. We all read The Red Badge of Courage in high school. I remember nothing about it, sadly, and did not read other Stephen Crane works until now. That is my loss. Besides Maggie, I have now read many of his collected short stories. The Monster was powerful and ahead of its time in social consciousness, and The Open Boat was impossible to put down. In a very few short but prolific years, Stephen Crane made himself into one of the best American writers, of any era.

 

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.

September 21, 2014

Choose your ghetto

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 7:39 pm by chuckredman

If holocaust literature is a genre, then I have recently read some of its best examples. Rachmil Bryks was a holocaust survivor from Poland, who wrote his stories in Yiddish, many of them during the holocaust itself in the Lodz ghetto and even in Auschwitz. They were published after the war, and eventually translated into other languages. The collection I read was titled A Cat in the Ghetto, and included the title story and several other stories. The longest story was “Kiddush Hashem”, a gut-wrenching portrait of life (and death) in Auschwitz. It is never easy to read such stories, but I do recommend Bryks’ stories because of their honesty and authenticity.

For similar reasons, I found The Pawnbroker, the 1961 novel by Edward Lewis Wallant, one of the most powerful books I’ve read in the last several years. The Pawnbroker is the Harlem-set story of a holocaust survivor trying to cope with the pressures of everyday life with a profoundly-damaged body and brain. It has to be a difficult task to describe the innermost thoughts and feelings of a holocaust survivor, especially for a writer who did not have first-hand experience. But in The Pawnbroker, I would say that Wallant came as close to the mark as could be hoped for. With spare, hard language and experimental syntax, Wallant seemed to draw quite effectively from the stylings of Nathaniel West and James M. Cain. Sadly, like West himself, Wallant died young after completing four novels. But his Pawnbroker left us a character as memorable and as broken as Orwell’s Winston Smith, and it’s hard to overlook the parallels between 1984’s dystopian society and the reality of Nazi terror, which left so many broken victims like Wallant’s iconic Pawnbroker.

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.

June 22, 2014

Frank Norris’s Octopus

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , at 3:03 pm by chuckredman

I’ve just finished one of the notable novels about the American West, The Octopus by Frank Norris. Norris, also a talented short story writer, finished the book around the age of thirty and, sadly, only survived the book’s 1901 publication by a year or two. Even so, I believe he proved himself one of the great novelists of his era. In its scope and Naturalism, The Octopus clearly paved the way for later generations of Western writers, like Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, or Wallace Stegner in The Big Rock Candy Mountain.

The Octopus is a fictionalized saga of the conflict between the wheat farmers and the railroad monopoly that raged in California’s San Joaquin Valley in the two decades preceding the book’s publication. Although some critics may be right in finding Norris’s style occasionally too flowery and repetitive, those flaws did not spoil for me the superb storyline and character development. Those wheat farmers and their families became so real and important to me. Much of Norris’s prose is stunning and, though certainly less lyrical than Dickens or Eliot, I believe he may possess as great a command of the English language as any writer in any era – including a fair number of words I had never seen before in my life.

So, if you enjoy reading about the West, right versus might, progressive politics, and even a bit of romance thrown in, The Octopus would be high on my list of suggested novels. As a great novel should, it held my interest continuously, never flagging in its realism and humanity.

May 31, 2014

Didion’s trumpet

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

     I mean maybe I was holding all the aces, but what was the game? — Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays (1970)

     I doubt if any portrayal of the sordid side of Hollywood (the entertainment industry) equals the brutal scathing honesty of Joan Didion’s 1970 novel Play it as it Lays. Certainly Didion built upon Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust, which gave us a gritty, grainy portrait indeed of Hollywood’s fiends, misfits, and lost souls. Presumably other works such as James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice helped lay the appropriate setting and mood for Didion. But she reached new heights (depths actually) in her dramatization of the ruthlessness and decadence that we have come to associate with the so-called Hollywood lifestyle. Play it is a book of intense realism, heightened by its understated narrative. In that respect, and also in its structure and use of alternate narrators, it reminds me of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. But Didion’s prose is much more accessible than Faulkner’s, and nothing is lost by its unadorned frankness. I was altogether “blown away” by this stark little Hollywood gem.

May 18, 2014

Not exactly light reading

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 7:09 pm by chuckredman

I recently read a very powerful and disturbing novel, The Gods Will Have Blood by Anatole France. The story is set in the same historical context as A Tale of Two Cities (probably my first choice for greatest novel of all time). Anatole France does not have Dickens’ wit (who does?), but he crafts an intricate and well-woven drama about the French Revolution and its unspeakable Reign of Terror. France’s comprehensive knowledge of history, as well as theology and ancient mythology, make the novel more challenging to read, but a richer experience. If you appreciate the tradition and style of Victor Hugo, you will probably enjoy The Gods and place it in the same distinguished class.

May 4, 2014

The Trespassers

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , at 5:01 pm by chuckredman

I don’t know what book was the first to be written about Nazi aggression and the Holocaust. Certainly The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank was one of the first. But I would guess that The Trespassers by Laura Zametkin Hobson, which was published in 1943, was also among the earliest. Considering that it was written in the midst of World War II and the Holocaust, Hobson’s novel is quite remarkable. She captures much of the terror and misery that pervaded Europe during the very end of the 1930’s. She also foreshadows the increasing magnitude of that terror and misery, which the 1940’s would spawn through war and genocide.

The book especially dramatizes the plight of Europe’s innocent refugees in the face of worldwide immigration policies fraught with xenophobia. I have to say that that theme struck a personal chord in me and made me do a little soul-searching, because of my work. Although Hobson’s style may be a bit soapy or schmaltzy, her book is a very moving saga and as timely now as it was then.

Just out of curiosity, does anyone know of any earlier-published books about the Holocaust?

April 19, 2014

Zeno’s Conscience

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 9:57 am by chuckredman

My daughter, Rebecca, introduced me to the delightful stories of Italo Calvino. I especially like Calvino’s stories of Marcovaldo, a sweet, bumbling, schlemazel kind of character. Well, I decided to read the other famous Italo: Italo Svevo – his unusual fictional stream-of-consciousness psychological study Zeno’s Conscience. Two years ago I had never heard of these Two Guys Named Italo (why am I suddenly thinking of pizza?). Now I’m reading them and thinking deep thoughts about their work!

Svevo’s subject and style remind me of the little bit of Proust that I’ve read: full of small real-life reminiscences that have secret meaning to their narrator, and add up to a life of inner conflict. Svevo, although years older, was a protégé of James Joyce. Descended from German and Italian Jews, Svevo may even have been a prototype for Joyce’s Leopold Bloom in Ulysses.

Unfortunately, as with Proust, although the writing is rich and full of wit and personality, I simply could not finish Svevo’s book. I wish I had more patience, but the book was just too slow for me, pages and pages of Zeno’s “conscience”: his internal discussions about his day to day life. I appreciate the intelligence and artistry of it, but if the storyline is weak or nonexistent, I can only read so much and then I’ve had enough. Even Shakespeare would become tiresome if his dialogue and descriptions were not plot-driven. I don’t know if Svevo’s other works are stylistically different; Some day I’ll find out.

December 13, 2013

100 years too late

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , at 10:04 pm by chuckredman

We arrived early today for our relaxation class at the Wellness center, and when we walked into the communal kitchen I was instantly transported to an English teashop. A friend of ours, an Englishwoman who has lived here in California for years, was sipping coffee and chatting with an elderly gentleman who looked like something out of Jane Austen. The scene reminded me profoundly of something I have felt for most of my life: I was born in the wrong century and probably the wrong hemisphere.

Where my heart really says I belong is England in the time of Dickens. I should have been born and raised in the English countryside, maybe in Hardy’s Wessex country, or somewhere along the route of Mr. Pickwick’s famous wanderings. Wuthering Heights might have been a suitable habitat for my taste. Or maybe George Eliot’s Middlemarch. I can’t help feeling that those places, those times, with their particular culture, customs, and values, are more my soulmates than these modern American times.

I don’t know whether our English friend or the elderly gentleman with the lilting accent have even opened a Victorian novel since their youth. But they certainly took me back to the world that I love to escape to more than any other literary landscape. I can’t alter my date or place of birth, but I can grab a good book and fantasize once in a while.

December 7, 2013

A book you can put down

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , , at 9:22 pm by chuckredman

I generally like to read one book at a time. Switching back and forth wrecks my concentration, such as it is. But I’m in the middle of a book that I read only infrequently, and I’ve finished dozens of other books, of all kinds, in the meantime. The book is Can You Forgive Her  by Anthony Trollope. I can pick it up after weeks of neglect and feel that it’s all still fresh in my mind. And I intend to finish it. Eventually.

It’s one of those Victorian novels that’s like walking in an English country garden on a day with intermittent spells of clouds and sunshine. It’s all utterly pleasant, the story moves at a snail’s pace but you’re in no hurry because it’s so peaceful and you want it to last. Nothing really bad happens, there’s plenty of English wit and polish. Reading a book like that is therapy, and cheap therapy at that!

If you want a book that’s hard to put down, and, along with Catch-22, might just be one of the two best American novels of the last 50-odd years, you could pick up Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger. I saw the movie with Dustin Hoffman when I was a teenager, but didn’t get around to reading the book until 2 months ago. It’s sensational, a real work of genius. A great movie, and an even better book.

Happy holidays, Happy reading, and PEACE to all.

October 11, 2013

Under the Yoke

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , at 7:45 pm by chuckredman

Since it’s the only Bulgarian novel I have ever read, I’m not exactly in a position to say that Under the Yoke by Ivan Vazov (published 1889) is the greatest Bulgarian novel.  But, if there’s a better Bulgarian novel, I’d like to read it!  Under the Yoke is one of the most powerful and enthralling books I’ve read in recent years.  It is beautifully written, and the translation was excellent, with only a handful of words that may have been imperfectly translated.  Vazov creates a richly real setting and scenario, with wit and sensitivity.  In style, he approaches George Eliot.  The epic subject and story are more akin to For Whom the Bell Tolls.  It is equally powerful as Hemingway’s classic.

After reading Turgenev’s On the Eve recently, which featured a Bulgarian patriot as a leading character, I became interested in that part of Bulgarian history and literature.  The L.A. Public Library fortunately had Under the Yoke for loan, so I borrowed it.  It has taken a day or two to shake the effects of the dramatic ending.

Now, I need something lighter, so, in one of the more extreme reverse leaps that one can attempt on the literary spectrum, I have turned to Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love.  The Yoke is slowly starting to lift.

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