Monday, November 16, 1998

The Stranger

by Alfred Camus
translated by Matthew Ward

I continue to find that I still identify very closely with the existentialists and absurdists, and that my fascination in high school was not just a phase.  I identify very much with Meursault, the protagonist of this story; although I certainly can’t see myself allowing evil to become so contagious so quickly, I can see how the world sort of takes us up in its series of events, and things simply happen without us intending them to.  The way in which his girlfriend, Marie, for example, asked him to marry her, and his indifference to the idea either way, struck me as startlingly familiar.  The book says so much in what it doesn’t say: the terse, laconic style speaking pages about Mersault’s state of mind, how he takes everything at face value and sees no need to dissimulate about the world, or make false pretenses.  The theme of man’s helplessness in the face of the world’s absurdity comes through in a much more stark fashion, perhaps more so than in “The Trial,” because of Mersault’s failure to panic and his dismissal of hope.  Quite a profound and moving book in its few pages.

four stars

Sunday, November 1, 1998

The Man In the Iron Mask

by Alexandre Dumas
edited and annotated by David Coward, from an older translation

Well, the mammoth saga of the once-invincibles comes to a rather sad end. Porthos dies because his strength gives out. Aramis flees France in disgrace because his schemes come to ruin. And Athos dies because the one thing dearer to him to God, his son, leaves his company to go die in the Africa campaigns under the Duke of Beaufort. And d’Artagnan – well, d’Artagnan’s star does not decline under the sun king, but that’s only because this once so haughty Gascon spirit humbles itself rather abjectly before the iron will of Louis (chapter 81, simply and appropriately titled “King Louis XIV”). I have one complaint with this action-packed adventure, during which in the course of 570 pages the suspense hardly slackens. Why did Aramis, General of the Jesuits, master planner always with an out at his disposal, admit defeat instantly when Fouquet announced he would denounce him? Up to that point, Fouquet had been a pawn of Aramis. Suddenly, Aramis had to flee for his life on the word alone of Fouquet. Well, maybe it was the onset of age that weakens Aramis’ resolve.

Saturday, July 18, 1998

The Liar

by Stephen Fry

Fry is a very funny comic actor, in Blackadder and the TV version of Bertie & Jeeves, among others.  This debut novel concerns a young lad at a prep school, who later (or is he lying?) becomes a street prostitute and then, under the tutelage of his supremely arch and worldly mentor at Cambridge, becomes involved in an international espionage drama, which turns out to be not at all what it seems – more than once.

Although Fry writes some sharp and funny dialogue, this book never really decides what it’s supposed to be: the coming of age story of an uncertain gay boy?  A bittersweet commentary on street life?  The morality tale of a too-bright student who learns that he can fake his way though life without effort?  Or a tongue in cheek ripping spy yarn?  It’s all of these things and, of course, none of them fully, and so the book is highly dissatisfying to me.  The book won great acclaim from all corners, but I have a feeling that if Fry hadn’t already been famous it wouldn’t have been quite so celebrated.

two stars

Sunday, April 5, 1998

The Big Rock Candy Mountain

by Wallace Stegner

The only word for this 560-page slice of Americana is "saga."  It's a rich, detailed, loving and amazingly authentic portrayal of an American family, the Masons, from the turn of the century to the '30s.  In telling the story of this never satisfied, ever-scheming, gambling liquor-runner and his wife and two boys, Stegner recreates vividly and successfully everything that touches them.  He describes with care and apparent ease the thrill and trouble of working the first cars with cranks; the vast prairies, troubling droughts, deadly blizzards; small towns with their plank sidewalks and dirt roads; the experiences of frontier children and their trapping, shooting and loves; and with keen insight, he captures all the unfair and selfish emotions that the various family members feel as life shunts them about on their voyage.  The novel is about life, and death, and understanding, and carrying on the struggle.  I'd never heard of Stegner before, although he won the Pulitzer Prize for a different work; but I rate him now up with Steinbeck as one of the truly great American writers.

five stars

Tuesday, March 3, 1998

Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn as Told by a Friend

by Thomas Mann
translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter

This 500-page tome is a dense, rich experience detailing the deterioration of Germany from a paragon of culture in the 19th century to a force-worshiping anathema by the ignominious end of WWII.  The narrator, Serenus, is a staid, conservative Catholic bourgeois, who worships his subject, the composer Adrian.  This latter is a Lutheran, possessed with musical genius and detached from the world after a sinful tryst.  Adrian's genius and madness parallel Germany's genius, its symbolic deal with the devil to exchange power for culture, and its fall.  Along the way, Mann expounds at length and at great detail about the state of religion, art, teaching, politics and class structure in modern Germany, explaining how men like Serenus could stand back and let the fatherland they worshiped become such an ugly beast.  This is one of the most difficult novels I have ever read, and I think I have a few problems with the translation, which is nonsensical at points, but it was all worth it.  The tale works on so many levels it's hard to connect them all; still, even as a tale, or even as commentary on the state of arts in war-torn Germany, it's fascinating. 

four stars

Thursday, February 5, 1998

The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind

by Gustave LeBon
Translator not named; with an introduction by Robert A. Nye (my thesis advisor).

There are two ways to approach this polemical rant.  The first is as an historical product: it's a conservative response to the vagaries of the masses, which in LeBon's day were leading to the dangers of socialism, indifference, and decadence.  The primitive crowd mentality was destroying civilization, as LeBon saw it, and this work is meant to address why, and offers insights on how the statesman can control crowds better (not through reason but empty platitudes and obvious imagery).

The second way to look at the work is as a scholarly argument: in this it fails utterly.  Self-contradictory, rambling and perfunctory when it comes to "proving" his notions, LeBon is certainly a shrewd observer of the crowd mentality, but his conclusions are illogical, misplaced, and false.  This book is in fact itself a good example of crowd manipulation as LeBon sees it!  That is, it is repetitive, avoids rational argument and invokes vague causes like race genius and civilizing sentiment. 

three stars

Monday, January 19, 1998

The Fellowship of the Ring

by J.R.R. Tolkien

The "authorized" edition, with a brief foreword by Tolkien about the book's success. Everyone told me to read this classic fantasy, so I have, perhaps late in life. My feelings toward it are ambivalent: while I admire the detail and the craft of the vivid, exceptionally fantastic world and the history Tolkien created, the story didn't blow me away. I feel that the book (500 closely printed pages) gets bogged down at times by geography and obscure genealogy, and is at times a little too caught up in its own wonder at the breathtaking, aloof majesty of Elves and such. While enough happened in the story, and the dialogue was fine, I didn't get a great sense of drama from the book, odd considering the earth-shattering importance of Frodo's quest. When the action did get going, however, it was enthralling. The cliffhanger ending had a lot of drama, for example.

three stars