Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Fiction round-up

This is a round-up, with brief comment, of novels I've read in recent months but not discussed here yet. (The recent "clearing my throat" and Kindred posts began as part of this one, but I went on longer than I intended with both.)

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. My father bought this years ago, I think because it's on that Modern Library best English-language novels of the 20th Century list. He wasn't thrilled, didn't see what the point was, so he gave it to me. It sat on my shelves for years; on a whim, this January I decided to read it. I thought it was quite good, but I don't have much to say about it at this point. There's some beautiful writing in it, none of which I noted or wrote down. I remember a diverse array of Arab characters, the desert, a white man succumbing to madness in a closet, his wife held against her will, attempted escape.

The Sportswriter and Independence Day by Richard Ford. I had never considered Richard Ford as a writer I needed to bother with. A friend had expressed distaste, because he said he didn't care about the characters, lumping him in with Don DeLillo. Since this is not something I would ever say, it's not clear why I let that influence me, other than the fact that there's a lot to read, and I hadn't come across any compelling counter reason urging me to read Ford. Until, that is, Steve Mitchelmore's excellent piece at Ready Steady Book about the new The Lay of the Land, which, with these two, completes the Frank Bascombe trilogy. I'm grateful to Steve for that piece: I loved these novels, and I look forward to the The Lay of the Land coming out in paperback when I will read it, too. In his essay, Steve set out to answer what is for him the key question of the books, a question which occurred to me at various points while reading the books, but which I forgot had occurred to me until I re-read the essay: "why is Frank Bascombe writing this?" Steve's conclusion is typically interesting. Anyway, I enjoyed these books immensely. I'm not sure whether I'll have more to say about them, hence the notice here.

Reality and Dreams by Muriel Spark. This is the first Spark novel for me. I gather they get better than this. I wasn't blown away by it. I wasn't bored, either, but the novel seemed to be a sketch of a book. There is a large cast of characters, complexly involved together, which she manages to keep straight without much apparent difficulty. Tom Richards is an aging movie director who has been injured in a crane accident on a shoot. Relatives and friends interact with him, with varying degrees of irritation for him (and he laments the loss of dead friends he once had, such as W.H. Auden, who would have known the right way to do certain social activities), there is some rumination about the nature of reality and dreams (as the title indicates there might be), but it doesn't seem to add up to much. Nevertheless, the nature of the praise I've seen of Spark means that I still look forward to reading other novels of hers. I know some of the famous titles (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Ballad of Peckam Rye), but I wonder what some of you think might be the best ones to read next?

The Enigma of Arrival by V. S. Naipaul. Gorgeous. Simply wonderful. Of Naipaul's other work, I'd previously read only The House of Mr. Biswas, which I liked, but this book is nothing at all like it. The middle-aged narrator (Naipaul?), from his vantage point living for years in an English cottage, explores the nature of experience, the nature of writing--including how as a young man he set out to acquire those experiences that are worthy of his writing talent, all the while missing the actual experiences he was having, his actual topics as a writer. He is able to observe other people with great empathy. There are some beautiful portraits here. I think, of all the novels I've read this year, this is the one I'd most want to urge people to read. I think I will have more to say about this book, but for now apparently all I can do is gush.

Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon. Aimée loves mystery and crime novels, and I gave this to her as a birthday present, in the attractive NYRB edition. I thought it looked interesting, too, and thought I'd read it at some point, but it was a packing snafu that forced me to read it on the flight back from California (I had inadvertently checked the book I was reading). It took me a while to get into, but the second half of the book is quite good. The novel takes place in an unnamed country under occupation (Simenon was Belgian, writing in French, and lived in France during World War II). Frank Friedmaier is nineteen and essentially amoral (as the book opens he decides to kill a man for no particular reason). He lives a life of comparative luxury amid general poverty because his mother runs a whorehouse frequented by occupation officers. By the middle of the book, after a series of reckless and often cruel actions, he ends up in custody, where he resolves to "hold out"--he's not going to give them what they want, though he doesn't know what that is. This is when the book becomes most interesting. Frank spends his time thinking (what else has he to do?), ruminating about words, what they mean, what his actions have meant, wondering what is wanted of him, wondering who knows where he is, what has happened to people he knows, discovering joy in unlikely places (a woman who he sees appearing at a window across the yard every morning at the same time--who is she? is she happy? does her husband appreciate her?), and he finally discovers something about himself--he is "a piece of shit" and deserves to die. This is one of Simenon's so-called "psychological novels" and it's a good one (it is compared, on the back of the book, to Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, as "a study of the criminal mind"). The narrative is in the third person, and Simenon's prose is simple, yet hypnotic, especially in this latter section.

Frost by Thomas Bernhard. Of course, I have already posted about this novel. As I discussed in those posts, Frost is recognizably Bernhard, both in theme and method, if the latter seemed not as refined as in the later Bernhard. But ultimately, I did not like this one as much as the other Bernhard novels I've read; I had a hard time finishing it. The final third of the book was tough for me to wade through, and the aesthetic effect was muted.

Tainted Love by Stewart Home. I received this for my birthday--turned out it was on my wish list, and I'd forgotten all about putting it there. I went online to remind myself why: it was this interview with Home, also at Ready Steady Book. Tainted Love purports to be the assembled diaries of Jilly O'Sullivan, a veteran of the 60s underground, who died of a drug overdose in 1979. It ends up being a detailed account of the seedier aspects of the counterculture. I'm not usually drawn to such accounts anymore (I'm weary of stories of the 60s; I may have overloaded on things like Hammer of the Gods, the unauthorized Led Zeppelin biography), but Tainted Love kept me interested. Sullivan's stories are by turns appalling, funny, tedious. And as much as stories of debauchery bore me (and they do), I was not sorry to have read the book. It's mostly entertaining, and I do feel like it presented a fuller picture of what the 60s counterculture was like than what the standard accounts provide. The diaries are introduced and afterworded (?) by Lloyd O'Sullivan, Lilly's son who she was forced (literally) to give up for adoption, in one of the seedier parts of the book. There are three other non-diary segments in the book: two weird "transcripts" of sessions between Lilly and R. D. Laing, the famous psychoanalyst, but in which she acts the part of Patty Hearst to satisfy bizarre fantasies of his; and a chapter, my favorite in the book, that begins with the description of an image from a short film (a man lying on a bed, if I recall correctly), followed by the transcripts of the various voice-overs, which seem to recount events surrounding Lilly's death, as well as discuss history and certain critical ideas of film, such as "the essential falsity of 'realism'".


Stephen Mitchelmore said...

"The Enigma of Arrival" is a favourite of mine. Haven't read it for years though. It was this one that turned Paul Theroux against him.

And I attended a Stewart Home reading the other day. It confirmed my prejudices.

Anonymous said...

A Far Cry from Kensington is Spark at her sharpest.

If you like Spark, try Hilary Mantel, especially her latest from a couple years ago, Beyond Black.

Richard said...

Steve - What about Naipaul's book turned Theroux against him?

And I take it that your prejudicial attitude toward Home is negative? I can see that. He doesn't strike me as a writer I'm going to pursue beyond this book, though, again, I'm not sorry I read it. I was significantly into the book by the time we arrived in California, and I saw used copies of two other Home novels, but I didn't feel any urge to get them based on what I'd read to that point, and having finished this one, I don't regret not having bought the others.

bdr - Thanks for the Spark (and Mantel) recommendation.

Lars said...

I *really* didn't like Spark's A Far Cry From Kensington. Hothouse by the East River is good, as is The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Girls of Slender Means is an absolute delight - I loved it. Peckham Rye is okay, and the others ... well, Kensington put me right off.

Richard said...

Thanks, Lars.

Anonymous said...

Theroux had a problem with the symbolism of the monkeys as far as I know.

Richard said...

"symbolism of the monkeys"? I'm afraid I don't know what you're talking about... that sounds like a different book.