Friday, February 26, 1999

Yvette And Ten Other Stories

by Guy de Maupassant
translated by Majorie Laurie

"Yvette," a novella.  A courtesan’s daughter, Yvette enraptures a handful of suitors, in particular Servigny; her flippancy masks true innocence, however, and she becomes horrified by the life her mother lives.  An engrossing psychological portrait; the gaps between classes, between generations, between the sexes are made all too clear, helped along by the characters’ unwillingness to acknowledge them overtly.  Even at the end when Servigny seems to have won Yvette’s love, he tells himself no woman is to be trusted; the reader knows it will end with someone hurt.

"Lost At Sea."  A woman’s horribly abusive husband is eventually lost at sea.  Then she buys a parrot that imitates his swearing and abuse.  She beats it to a pulp.  Uh, okay.

"The Olive Grove."  An old Abbé, living as a respected, vigorous man in a small village, is surprised by his lost, illegitimate son.  The gap between their worlds is made explicit: “Between him and this creature, who was his son, he began to realize there lay a trench brimming with moral filth, with a foulness, that is mortal poison to a healthy mind.”  It ends violently.  A stark tale of immorality and moral repercussions.

"The Hostelry."  Two men keep an inn going for the winter, alone with a dog; then one goes out hunting and never returns.  The remaining caretaker, whom the owner’s daughter loves, develops a severe case of cabin fever and goes mad.  A compelling story, though overly depressing.

"A Portrait," a very short story.  A man wonders what his friend’s attraction is to women, until he sees a portrait of his friend’s mother, who appears artless and aloof and beguiling.  Hmmm.

"The Apple Dumplings."  A farmer couple waits as her father wastes away on his deathbed.  They show callousness and selfishness, resenting his extended survival, hoping he’ll die so they can get on with their busy, scant lives.  A very good demonstration of the human tendency to be insensitive and to live for the moment.  “Every man has his turn," it is noted.  “It was their turn, they reflected, to be eating dumplings."

"Shali." A French Navy man goes to India, where he is given, among other gifts, an eight year old girl as a slave.  Disgusted by most of the Raja’s other entertainments, he grows overly fond of her; but she meets a bad end.  A rather horrifying and morbid story which suggests that there are just too many chasms of misunderstanding for people to find love.  If indeed love is the right word for a relation that smacks of pederasty.

"Idle Beauty." A Countess is made pregnant by her husband seven times in eleven years, because, she says, he wants to ruin her looks out of jealousy.  So she tells him one of the children is not his, subjecting him to tortures of worry and resentment.  A tale steeped in anti-Romanticism, claiming (with extended commentary by two observers) that humans deserve more refined aims than the base and natural urge to procreate.  But at the end, when the Count has come round to this view as well, he is gripped by a new “strange emotion” (understanding that his wife has her own dreams and desires independent of his own?) which riles him as much as his “primitive passion of earlier days."  One just can’t win, can one?

"The Murderer,” a five-page story.  It consists of a lawyer’s defense speech for his client, an upstanding man whose murder of his second, perfidious, wife is excused on grounds of righteous passion.  Like a lot of Maupassant’s stories, the putative jolt lies entirely in the event rather than the telling.

"An Encounter,” a brief story.  A Baron separates from his wife because of her treachery; he encounters her years later on a train, seemingly by chance.  Actually, she has planned it, but not to effect a reconciliation: she is having a baby and wishes to avoid scandal.  This is one of Maupassant’s more gratifying stories, although the last lines – "He never saw her again.  Was she lying?  Was she speaking the truth?  He never knew" – seem unlikely given the established fact that they live in a hotbed of Parisian gossip.  Would he really never hear word that his estranged wife, separated or not, had a child?

"The Horla."  A man finds himself under the influence of some supernatural, invisible, and malevolent force, which he calls the Horla.  Its presence is so disturbing that he resolves to kill it.  An early example of the horror genre; Maupassant felt the need to explain the flight of fantasy by pointing out how much of the natural world is invisible to the naked eye.  Quite chilling, especially at the beginning; a good idea well told in diary form.

three stars

Thursday, February 25, 1999

The Great Shark Hunt: Strange Tales from a Strange Time

by Hunter S. Thompson

The Gonzo Papers, Volume One, apparently.  Cazart!  Six hundred and eighty pages of articles by the man himself on a variety of subjects is enough to make anyone believe that bad craziness is our only inheritance.  A lot about Nixon.  Some sports writing: hilarious observations on the Super Bowl, practically reverent analysis of Ali.  A defense of Carter.  The hippie movement in Haight-Ashbury at its inception.  The McGovern "juggernaut."  The horror that was Hubert Humphrey.  Rough stuff in South America, and rougher stuff with the Hell’s Angels.  The sheer bulk of the weirdness attests to Thompson’s skill as a writer: of course he’s hilarious, painting a surreal picture of Vegas or the inanity of a fishing competition in Mexico, but he is also a consummate reporter who goes for truth, the story, the facts, and does whatever he can to get a feel for the thing.  He only makes it look easy. 

four stars

Monday, February 22, 1999

Dictionary Of the Khazars

by Milorad Pavić
translated by Christina Pribicevic-Zoric

I read the female version - though this differs from the male version in only one paragraph.  Anyway, an original "novel," told as three different dictionaries: the Christian, the Muslim, and the Jewish versions of entries roughly concerned with the Khazars.  Some entries are in all three versions, such as the Khazar polemic, in which representatives from the three religions visited the Khazar kaghan to convince him, by clever repartee and dream interpretation, to convert to that faith.  But there are independent stories as well: the egg that contained days, the Khazar jar without a bottom...

The book’s language is compelling and poetic, a otherworldly text-scape in which days are physical things and everything is a language and languages are alive and time goes backwards and forwards.  At times this drifts into tiring quasi-poetic babble, but for the most part it’s a fascinating construction, as the lives of the key players (the Khazar princess, the three polemic representative, the three chroniclers, the three 10th-century scholars studying the polemic) converge in reincarnations over space and time and especially dreams.  Probably bears another reading.

four stars

Friday, February 19, 1999

South Of Heaven

by Jim Thompson

In 1920s Texas, a smart kid named Tommy Burwell is living the hobo life, looking for work.  He gets a job laying a gas pipeline with his friend Four Trey and hundreds of other rough characters, when he falls for Carol, a girl who hangs around the camp.  When suspicious things happen, Tommy begins to realize a crime is about to go down and tries to get Carol out of it.

The novel sets up a gritty, suspenseful atmosphere; the reader never knows who to trust.  Thompson’s language is great, mixing slangy dialogue and descriptions of rough men and boozy fights with commentary on how the hoboes get exploited and mistreated by the company to save a few dollars.  He paints a lucid picture of the work, back-breaking and dangerous, as well as the fights and drinking and the chow.  His characters are so sympathetic and real that the Hollywood-style happy ending is easily forgiven.

four stars

Tuesday, February 16, 1999


by Paul Johnson

The purpose of this book is to question the moral right of intellectuals over the ages to counsel people on how to behave; to this end Johnson examines several so-called “intellectuals” from Rousseau to Normal Mailer: their private lives, their regard for truth, and their skill in public affairs.  It is a fascinating and at times irritating book, made all the more amazing by the fact (never mentioned here) that Johnson, although a profoundly conservative thinker, was a socialist for a part of his life.  Thus his attacks on intellectuals’ credulity in dealing with the Communist Party is somewhat ironic.  Leaving that aside, when he exposes the blatant hypocrisy and even cruelty of some supposed champions of the people and self-proclaimed moral paragons (Marx and Rousseau, especially), he is admirable.  It is also perfectly legitimate to expose the lying of a Hemingway or a Lillian Hellman.

But I have several objections to the book as well.  First, there is no separate intro or conclusion, no preparatory definition-setting.  So what is an intellectual, exactly?  It seems to be a thinker who believes that intellect alone can change the world, rather than time-honored traditions.  Well, maybe, but then it seems Edmund Wilson is a “man of letters,” then an intellectual, then a man of letters again.  An intellectual actually seems to be a bright left-winger.  Second, who ever said Hemingway or Shelley or Sartre, for example, were paragons of virtue?  They might well be exposed as awful people, but their excoriation does not make as much sense as Marx’s.  Johnson seems to simply hate creativity, bitterly resenting the fact that 50,000 mostly young people attended Sartre’s funeral (and dwelling rather unnecessarily on his ugliness).  Third, his attacks are inconsistent: he berates most of his victims for their adulterous affairs, but also attacks Ibsen for his platonic relations with girls, accusing him of using people as archetypes rather than individuals.  Would he rather Ibsen slept with them?  Or he will imply that an intellectual’s change of allegiance is a flaw, but also deplores Brecht for remaining loyal to the CP.  In any case, this is obviously an utterly absorbing series of essays, thought-provoking and lucid. 

three stars

Thursday, February 11, 1999

The Epic Of Gilgamesh

by anonymous
translated and edited by N.K. Sandars

The hero, Gilgamesh, befriends Enkidu, a man brought up by animals, and they seek immortality through great deeds.  After Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh tries to acquire true immortality, but realizes the quest is futile.  It’s a rather pessimistic tale, emphasizing the inevitability of death and the unpredictability of this world.  The edition I read is not a translation, apparently, but a rendering from other translations.  The intro, giving the literary and historical background, is longer than the epic itself, which is a mere 60 well-spaced pages.  Since the intro was written in 1960, it may be out of date by now, and mentions some literary discoveries which were even then under way.  In any case, I found the epic less than thrilling, more interesting as historical document than literary work.  This is due to the fact that we don’t understand some of the symbolism the Mesopotamians used, and to the fragmentary or contradictory aspects of the epic, though Sandars does her best to present it as an unbroken narrative.

three stars

Tuesday, February 9, 1999

King Harald's Saga

by Snorri Sturluson

translated and annotated, with an introduction by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson

This book is comprised of a brief excerpt from Snorri’s Heimskringla, his complete history of Norway.  It tells the story of Harald Sigurdsson, half-brother of St. Olaf, who through cunning and treachery became king of Norway, then in 1066 vied for the English throne with Harold of England, just before the latter was defeated by William the Bastard.  Although Snorri doesn’t preach the moral of the story, it becomes clear that Harald is not a noble man.  He breaks his word several times: for example he promises his enemies safe passage and then murders them; and he tests his co-king and nephew Magnus by insisting (unjustly) on his right to use the royal jetty.

It is a quite vivid picture of what men had to do in those conditions to gain and keep power, although other personages in the saga can be chivalrous, and are evidently disgusted with Harald’s duplicity.  My sympathies never lay with Harald, even given his context.  The editors note, interestingly, that Harold might have defeated William if he hadn’t been drawn into the mass slaughter with Harald at Stamford Bridge.

four stars

Saturday, February 6, 1999

Brighton Rock

by Graham Greene

A small time Brighton gang, led by Pinkie, a nasty youth with ageless eyes, kills a man.  But this man just befriended Ida, a breezy, confident woman, who determines to set things Right.  Pinkie must kill again, and marries a very young girl to prevent her being a witness.

The “detective” story gives way to an eerie condemnation of the modern world, with its automated machines and various perversions.  There’s an (unfought) battle for moral superiority between Pinkie’s twisted Catholic urge for damnation and Ida’s righteous, amoral sense of justice, living life for fun without hurting innocent people.  I liked the bleak tone of the book, but the pacing is plodding.  There are bits of dark genius, but I found the whole overlong and far from engrossing.

two stars

Monday, February 1, 1999

Blue Highways: A Journey Into America

by William Least Heat-Moon

The author, an English teacher of Sioux descent, loses his job and his wife, and decides to tour the small towns of America.  The blue highways, as he calls them, are the back roads, compared to the red highways on maps (that’s changed now, of course).  Taking along nothing much, he sleeps in his truck, talking with the people about their lives, the past, their local history, their philosophies, etc.

Quoting Whitman and American Indian creeds every few pages, he makes his own views pretty clear: progress brings loss as well, military buildup is tragic, burger chains are boring as well as bad, etc.  He reports at great length the conservationist tirades of old folks and local lore experts, but doesn’t stop to talk with people with whom he disagrees, letting their brief unbidden comments about those maniacs in Moscow represent their thoughts.  All of which would be off-putting enough, but the book is way overlong at 420 pages. I realize it was a long journey (the circumference of the continental USA), but about three quarters of the way through I’d quite gotten his point about treasuring the past and traveling in order to find oneself.

two stars