Wednesday, June 03, 2009

In Brief: Five novels from the shelves

We've been trying to weed out books, clear out shelving space, etc., so I've been taking a look at books we've had for years and, well, reading them (I know, I know, this utter lunacy, and possibly dangerously irresponsible: Isn't there a book industry to support? An economy to repair? Ha!). This is how I ended up finally reading Olive Moore's excellent Spleen (which I blogged about previously). Here are five more, none of which I loved.

Passing by Nella Larsen
This has sat on my shelves for well over a decade, since my mother gave me all of the books she'd acquired in the course of getting her continuing ed. Master's degree. For years I'd filed it with my non-fiction books, assuming that it was a study about the phenomenon of African-Americans passing as white in the early 20th century. I later realized my mistake and dutifully filed it with the fiction, but still it sat. Fiction it may be, but I feared that it might be only of interest for what it was about and that its actual literary merit was slight. I was prompted to read the book by Andrew Seal's enthusiastic post on it earlier this year. And. . . and I wish I could share Andrew's enthusiasm. More than once he refers to the novel's subtlety, but I didn't find it terribly subtle. The melodrama is heavy, the events are predictable, and the "passing" isn't really explored or much depicted, but rather asserted. If the novel weren't extremely short, I doubt I would have been able to plow my through to the end.

Hunger by Knut Hamsun (in the translation by Robert Bly)
This one doesn't really fit the category, I suppose, since I'd had it on my bedside pile for a while. I include it nevertheless, since I don't expect to be saying much else about it. Again, I expected to like it more than I did. You see a lot about Hamsun influencing various Modernists; some, such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, calling him the "father of modern literature", primarily for his focus on the pyschological; and so on. Be that as it may, my experience reading Hunger felt akin to my experience reading Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. As with that novella, I wasn't nearly as engaged by the voice as I'd hoped to be. I sort of wanted him to shut up.

Sula by Toni Morrison
Back in the old days, in the days of despair, I read and more or less enjoyed several Toni Morrison novels. I accepted her without question as a literary giant and would have been surprised to learn that there were serious readers who disliked her fiction. My favorite was Song of Solomon. I liked Beloved but was confused by its glittering reputation (I didn't understand why it was, it seemed, universally hailed as her best, and as a masterpiece). I even liked the knottier and much-maligned Paradise. In the time between that novel and her next work, my reading interests had changed dramatically and I stopped paying attention to her. In the meantime, it appears to me, that silly New York Times best-novel-of-the-last-25-years thing notwithstanding, that Morrison's star has rather fallen. It seems fashionable to attack her writing. My instinct is to come to her defense, based on past enjoyment (I liked, for example, what Andrew Seal said, somewhere at his blog, about the importance of the oral tradition for Morrison's writing; I'd link to his remarks if I could find the exact post). In this context, I thought it would be interesting to read her again. In the event, Sula is a vivid tale centering on two childhood friends, one who grows up to marry and lead a conventional, socially approved life, the other (Sula) who leaves town, only to return years later as a free spirit, and is a misunderstood, disruptive force in the town. In a sense, she acts as an organizing principle for the town, with her disruption, her wrongness, her "evil", as the other characters have it, prompting more responsible behaviors in the rest of the town. I'm not usually one to call for novels to be longer than they are or to fill in details, but a bit more would have been nice here.

My Old Sweetheart by Susanna Moore
I don't know anything about this writer. The novel is another entry in the aloof-father/over-emotional-and-possibly-a-little-crazy-mother genre. Chapters alternating between third-person account of the past, on a plantation in Hawaii, mostly through the vantage point of the daughter Lily, and a first-person, present-day narration by Lily herself. Descriptions of Hawaii. Thematic backdrop: Adultery; imperialism; the war. A major character is Japanese, friend and companion to Lily, born to a woman already dead from the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, taken by the white American doctor on the scene, who happens to be said aloof father. Well-written, fairly conventional, compelling enough to read to the end, not otherwise terribly memorable. The novel comes with a blurb from John Hawkes, of all people (perhaps Moore was a student of his?), which I admit helped pique my interest in reading the book.

Homo Faber by Max Frisch (translated by Michael Bullock)
First-person account (a "report") by Faber, who is an engineer of some kind (I've already forgotten; I remember he refers a number of times to turbines), a self-described technocrat, scornful of all manner of mystery or religion or the like, hyper-rationalist, given to expounding thus on the nature of truth, etc. Yet his account is rife with unlikely coincidences, as if he were subject to a certain fate beyond his control. Stranded in Mexico after an emergency plane landing, with the brother of his best-friend from 20 years earlier, who he learns had married his then-lover, who had been pregnant by Faber; later he cancels at the last minute flight plans to Europe from New York, taking a ship instead, where he just happens to run into a young woman who he doesn't yet know is his daughter, tragedy ensues, etc. Inessential.


Andrew said...

Sorry to hear you didn't like Passing. I guess what I meant by the book being subtle was that I felt that, while the plot was melodramatic and, as you say, the idea of passing very straightforward (even to the point of assertion), Larsen does things in each scene which draw them out of the melodrama momentarily, so that they become not just stock characters or hooks for obvious ideas to hang on. Felise, for instance, I thought was a really vibrant character. But I can definitely see why these things--the melodrama and the assertiveness--could put you off the book.

Richard said...

Hi Andrew. I didn't hate the book. And I should say that there were these little moments here and there where I felt something more interesting was happening, but they were brief.