Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Road to Mandalay, by B. M. Croker

I recorded this book for the MAB library upon special request by an elderly blind retired man.  I hope he enjoys listening to it, at least more than I enjoyed reading it.

Published in 1917 and set in the few years before the beginning of World War I, The Road to Mandalay tells the tale of young Douglas Shafto, an Englishman who takes a position in Rangoon, the capital of Burma.  Douglas possesses many virtues; if he has a flaw, the author neglects to mention it.  On board the ship, he meets Miss Sophy Leigh, who is on her way to Rangoon to tend her ailing aunt, and is similarly without a single deplorable character trait.  I might add that she lacks any character whatever, but it seems harsh, and Douglas loves her as she is.  They muddle through 2 years of dances at the Gymkhana, tennis at the club, brushes with drug-peddlers and German merchants, before returning to England aboard the same ship with plans to marry after Douglas does his part in the Great War.  

When I began, I'd been hoping for something along the lines of Kipling or Orwell, but there's a reason that B. M. Croker's name does not keep company with theirs.  I looked up some biographical information after finishing the book, and what I found explains quite a lot.  Bithia Mary Croker (1847-1920) was the daughter of an Irish clergyman, which may well explain her tendency to sermonise.  She married a Mr. Croker, member of the Scots Fusiliers, and travelled with him to India and for a short while to Burma.  

The sub-plot of the novel features the evils of the Burmese drug trade.  Sophy Leigh's aunt is not, you see, suffering from chronic neuralgia:  she is addicted to a "cocaine-morphia" mixture.  Drug abuse was (and is) a real problem in this part of the world for locals and expats alike, but this novel's treatment of it is a tedious sermon against the evils of Asia, as delivered by a self-righteous, simplistic, middle-aged, British colonial author.  Sophy's aunt is the hapless "victim" of the drug, which her Indian ayah contrives to obtain for her without the family's knowledge.  The drug comes from a predictably dim-lit and seedy shop:
At the far end of the room was an iron-bound enclosure, behind which sat a wily and inscrutable Chinaman...  
The German merchants are, of course, brutish, loud, gluttonous, and amoral.  The Burmans are all fun-loving and lazy, the English refined and polite, and the three Irish characters are simply splendid individuals. 

The title remains a mystery to me.  Although the characters do go on a jolly little junket to Mandalay before returning to England, the place does not figure at all in the story.  Everything takes place in the capital.  I suppose The Road to Rangoon just wouldn't have the same exotic, orientalist ring to it.  It also sounds a bit like "the road to ruin", but that would, in a sense, come closer to what the author intended to depict, when unwary British people travel to the Orient, let down their defenses, and lose sight of their moral rectitude.  One doubts Mrs. Croker ever fell prey to any wily and inscrutable Chinamen.

She did, though, add a new word to my vocabulary:
catspaw (also cats-paw):
a person used to serve the purposes of another; a tool.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

American Psycho, by Bret Easton Ellis

I remember the media furor when Vintage Books finally published this novel in 1991 (after Simon & Schuster dropped it and fled, breaking their contract.)  Critics were veritably screaming about it from both ends of the love/hate spectrum.  Now, 20 years later, Audible has released a recorded version as part of their Modern Vanguard Series.  I've finally gotten around to reading it (in print). I concur with all the critical uproar -- it's a brilliant and revolting book, and I also agree with Audible's editorial team -- it's going to be a classic.

Everyone talks, of course, about the brutal violence.  Check.  Very brutal, very violent.  I will stop short, however, of calling it gratuitous violence.  This character is emotionally and spiritually dead.  He is a walking corpse (in crocodile loafers by A. Testoni).  Whether his sadistic crimes take place only in his deranged imagination, as I'm inclined to believe, or not, they are the primary symptom of Patrick Bateman's utter vacuity.  

What I had not expected to find in this novel was the humor.  Yes, Bateman and his colleagues are parodies of the late '80s Wall Street whiz kids, but the parody only works because Ellis' characterisations are so sharp.  I worked for a NYC-based hedge fund, and I could see shades of Bateman in every trader and analyst I knew there (minus, I sincerely hope, the proclivity to  use power tools as sex toys.)  The obsession with designer labels, the latest gadgets, the coolest restaurants, the hippest gym... whole conversations consisting of run-on name-dropping.  Ellis got it perfectly.  

And the ennui!  It's just such a chore to be young and rich in New York. Bateman goads his girlfriend:
"Why don't you just go for Price?"
"Oh god, Patrick," she says, her eyes shut. "Why Price? Price?" And she says this in a way that makes me think she has had sex with him.
"He's rich," I say.
"Everybody's rich," she says, concentrating on the TV screen.
"He's good-looking," I tell her.
"Everybody's good-looking, Patrick," she says remotely.
"He has a great body," I say.
"Everybody has a great body now," she says.  
Indeed, everybody in their social circle is practically indistinguishable, with designer wardrobes (which Patrick never fails to describe in relentless detail, down to and including the socks) and all the other accoutrements of the wealthy and self-obsessed.  In fact, they are all so uniformly magnificent that they routinely fail to identify each other correctly.  Patrick Bateman runs into a colleague (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) in a club:
Charles Simpson -- or someone who looks remarkably like him, slicked-back hair, suspenders, Oliver Peoples glasses -- shakes my hand, shouts "Hey, Williams"...
Patrick's friends are also remarkably resistant to what he tells them over sashimi or champagne kirs...
"My life is a living hell," I mention off the cuff, while casually moving leeks around on my plate, which by the way is a porcelain triangle. "And there are many more people I, uh, want to... want to, well, I guess murder." I say this emphasizing the last word, staring straight into Armstrong's face.
"Service has improved to the islands as both American Airlines and Eastern Airlines have created hubs in San Juan..." [Armstrong continues.]
He'll tell anyone, in fact.  Anyone at all.
I'm standing in Paul Smith talking to Nancy and Charles Hamilton and their two-year-old daughter, Glenn.  Charles is wearing a four-button double-breasted linen suit by Reaelli, a cotton broadcloth shirt by Ascot Chang...*  Nancy is wearing a silk blouse with mother-of-pearl sequins and a silk chiffon skirt by Valentino and...  I'm wearing a six-button double-breasted chalk-striped wool suit and... Glenn is wearing silk Armani overalls and a tiny Mets cap. As the salesgirl rings up Charles's purchases, I'm playing with the baby while Nancy holds her, offering Glenn my platinum American Express card, and she grabs at it excitedly, and I'm shaking my head, talking in a high-pitched baby voice, squeezing her chin, waving the card in front of her face, cooing, "Yes, I'm a total psychopathic murderer, oh yes I am, I like to kill people, oh yes I do honey, little sweetie pie, yes I do."
* The ellipses in this passage represent  Bateman's head-to-toe inventory of the adults' attire, including Nancy's jewelry.

The platinum American Express card is one of Patrick's fondest accessories.  With it he snorts lines of cocaine, pays for $400 lunches, amuses small children (as above), and distinguishes himself from lesser men who carry only gold American Express cards.

Scenes like this one, provided the reader has a blackish sense of humor, give some comic relief between the descriptions of carnage.  Ellis does much to suggest that the violence is all in Bateman's imagination, but that's small comfort to us, the readers.  His fantasies are putrid, with or without the actual corpses piling up.

Despite his possibly worsening psychosis (his ATM has started conversing with him), Patrick has one lucid and scathing moment of self-awareness, which may be, for me, the novel's single most haunting moment:
...there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an identity, something illusory... I simply am not there...  My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever did exist. There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed. I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed. Yet I am blameless. Each model of human behavior must be assumed to have some validity.  Is evil something that you are? Or is it something you do?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

I patted myself on the back when I finally reached the end of Peter Matthiessen's voluminous Shadow Country.  I felt like I'd been slogging through the Everglades by foot for the 40+ hours required to listen to the book in audio format, and I was just starting to flush Florida's Ten Thousand Islands from my memory, practically wringing the swamp water out of my mind.

Then I spotted a book in Kinokuniya with an eye-catching cover.  Lo and behold, Karen Russell's Swamplandia! was a return ticket, non-stop, straight back to the Ten Thousand Islands.

Apart from the setting, these two novels seemed to have nothing in common, so I once again waded in with the alligators.  By the end of Swamplandia!, however, I've begun to think that you may be able to take the novel out of the swamps, but you can't take the swamps out of the novel.  Or something like that. Basically, the Everglades comes with its own trademark gloom and decay, and no amount of literary whimsy can keep readers from sinking into the muck to a certain extent.

Swamplandia! is a moribund theme park on one of the Ten Thousand Islands; the book's narrator is 13 year-old Ava Bigtree, aspiring alligator wrestler.  Ava's late mother, Hilola Bigtree, perished of cancer, and the absence of her signature show, in which she dives into a pool of alligators and swims coolly amongst them, has kicked off the decline and fall of the tourist visits to the park.  Her husband maintains a perverse optimism, banking on his newly concocted theory of 'Carnival Darwinism' to keep them in business.  Eldest son Kiwi despairs and flees to the mainland; middle daughter Osceola commences a love affair with the ghost of a dredgeman from the 1930s who died whilst trying to drain the Everglades, and Ava tries to keep herself, her family, the park, and her mother's memory alive in whatever ways she can.

While Matthiessen stuck to cold, hard realism in his novel, Russell's free-range imagination floats above the landscape like an airboat.  Eccentricity rules.  Ava describes Swamplandia! in its heyday:
Live Chicken Thursday was a Bigtree tradition dating back to 1942. The ritual was Grandpa Sawtooth's brainchild. I think my family traumatized generations of children and old women. And we girls must have inherited our forebears' immunity to gore, because Ossie and I could eat PB&J sandwiches during a death roll, no problemo.  
After the show, Ava's father, "The Chief", invites guests to visit the Swamplandia! museum:
The entryway to the palmetto-thatched museum burned green in daylight: WELCOME TO THE "LOUVRE" OF THE SWAMP ISLANDS! Sometimes you'd find a disoriented tourist in there, sucking a Fine Lime through a straw and looking mournfully for a bathroom.

But the flow of tourists dribbles to nothing, and Kiwi, fed up with auto-didactic education and Swamplandia!'s imminent doom, leaves for Loomis to earn some money and attend a public school, taping a farewell note to the fridge:
Kiwi had labeled the note for us: the VALEDICTORY NOTE -- like he really believed we might otherwise mistake it for a dollar bill or a horoscope. The VALEDICTORY NOTE informed us in Kiwi's pretty lousy handwriting of his "insuperable horror at the mismanagement of Swamplandia! and the poverty of our island education."  It explained: "I am relocating to Loomis County to raise funds to preclude what will otherwise result in a fiscal cataclysm for our family and certain penury and insolvency."  
Kiwi, upon arrival in Loomis County, takes a job as a janitor at Swamplandia!'s arch-nemesis, the World of Darkness, a theme-park version of Hell.  Not surprisingly, he fails to blend in with the mainlanders.  His minimum wage-earning co-workers don't share his aspirations to attend Harvard nor appreciate his tendency to jot down sociological observations in a pocket notebook; they take to calling him Margaret Mead.

Meanwhile, Osceola follows her ghostly lover, Louis Thanksgiving, to "the gates of the underworld", where she intends to marry him for all eternity.  (Louis tells her that the gates are a couple of Caloosa Indian shell mounds, which also made an appearance in Shadow Country.)  Hoping to find and retrieve Ossie (and perhaps their mother in the bargain), Ava enlists the help of the Bird Man, who agrees to guide her to the underworld:
On the morning that my sister eloped with Louis Thanksgiving, the Bird Man gave me his own version of Virgil's advice -- a swamp aphorism, he said, a maxim commonly uttered by the moonshiners, the glade crackers, the plume and alligator hunters, by the famous bird warden Guy Bradley and the Seminole and the Miccosukee tribes alike, and he was surprised I'd never heard it:  "Nobody can get to hell without assistance, kid."  
Thus, all three Bigtree children journey to various corners of hell and back, but I finished the book with the sense that -- sooner or later, maybe millennia from now -- we'll all concede that the only ones who were ever truly suited to life in the Everglades are the alligators.

Karen Russell, born in Miami, first published a collection of short stories, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.  I  heard someone read the title story on NPR's 'Selected Shorts' podcast, complete with yips and growls.  This woman clearly has a gift for portraying characters whose childhood is, to put it mildly, out of the ordinary.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, by Alison Weir

My father had an on-again-off-again relationship with the television.  When the relationship was off, I don't mean the TV was switched off.  I mean that it was banished from the house, and this was the usual state of affairs.  We did have a TV in 1970, though, because I remember quite clearly gathering in front of it every Sunday night for six weeks to watch each episode of BBC's series, "The Six Wives of Henry VIII".  I was a mere 8 years old at the time, so what did I take away from this program?  I remember liking the costumes: All that bejeweled velvet!  I liked the drama:  And what would happen to this wife?  I'm sure I liked the posh accents, and I liked the series because my father very obviously approved of it.  What I really took from this television program, though, was an unending fascination with Tudor history.  (I might have developed an unending fascination with Sonny & Cher, but Dad's withering stares and scathing remarks put a stop to that.)

I love reading history and well-researched historical fiction.  While I certainly don't limit myself to Tudor England, I find it hard to resist taking up a book on it when one crosses my path.  Years ago, I read Alison Weir's The Six Wives of Henry VIII and admired it, so I was happy to follow along as she focused her attentions on wife #2, Queen Anne Boleyn.  I was curious, was there enough material to justify a book on this one woman's downfall?  Yes, certainly.  Is that level of detail going to hold the interest of a casual reader? It's hard for me to say, but I think Anne's story is dramatic enough to appeal to most readers, whether or not they're hard-core Tudor groupies.

Weir certainly drew my attention to the pitfalls facing meticulous historians.  Everyone carps about the importance of returning to original sources, but Weir reminds us that one must proceed to question the veracity of those sources.  Just because they're contemporary is no guarantee of their reliability.  She cites -- often with disclaimers -- a "Spanish Chronicle" which reads like the National Enquirer of its day, offering very lurid details that other sources either contradict or fail to mention.  (Yet I recognised many of these little fallacies which still made their way into other histories. We do love sordid details.)  What was the political agenda of each source? Much of the derogatory material about Anne came from people who were loyal to her predecessor, Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife.  On the flip side, when such a person spoke approvingly of Anne's demeanor in court, in the Tower, or on the scaffold, Weir is inclined to believe him.  One such source is Eustache Chapuys, the Imperial Ambassador, prolific letter-writer, and devout supporter of Catherine and her daughter, Mary.  He provided a wealth of material, which Weir always examines with a chary eye.  In fact, she seems to scrutinize the credentials, habits and motives of every source, which bolsters her own credibility.

So, did this book offer any startling new revelations?  No, nothing substantial, but it was nonetheless enlightening and well worth reading.  Weir did contradict the commonly held belief that Henry VIII had initiated the scheme to condemn Anne because he had grown weary of her, and she was becoming a political liability, and she had thus far failed to provide him a male heir.  These things were in fact true, and Henry did not jump to Anne's defense when the charges were placed before him, but the plot was not of his own devising.  Weir makes a strong case that Thomas Cromwell was its architect.  Cromwell himself told Chapuys as much.  He had recently fallen out of favour with the King, and his relationship with Anne had turned malevolent, as well.  He realised that one of them -- either himself or Anne -- would perish as a result, and he retreated to his country home for a few days to plan the demise of the Queen and her coterie.

In a stunningly short time, Anne and the five men -- one of whom was her brother -- with whom she was accused of committing adultery and treason, were charged, tried, convicted and beheaded.  Weir reaches the conclusion, well supported by her research, that all were framed.  Many things point to this: official documents show that Anne was not at the location where adultery was alleged on certain dates; Henry had sent to France for a swordsman (to execute Anne, as opposed to the traditional English executioners who used the less efficient axe) before the trial had even begun; the likelihood that Anne could have committed adultery as charged is both logistically and logically slim; Henry married Jane Seymour 10 days after Anne's execution and made it clear to her beforehand that Anne's fate was sealed.

On the other hand, Cromwell was no fool.  Being in bad graces with the King, he took an enormous risk leveling such serious charges against the Queen.  Accusing her of adultery with five men would surely be a blow to the King's notably rotund ego.  Had Henry dismissed these accusations as frivolous, Cromwell would undoubtedly have paid with his life.  The charges had to stick.  Henry, for reasons that we can guess at but probably never know, accepted them as valid and allowed Cromwell to proceed with his purge.  The trials were in fact conducted in public, with 95 jurors, although "care was taken to select those who could be relied upon to gratify the King's will".  Weir points out the various ways in which the trials would be mockeries by today's standards of jurisprudence, but they were at least public and conducted by the legal standards of the day.  Unfortunately, virtually no transcripts or evidential documents survive.  We know the identities of some of the witnesses who spoke out against Anne and the men, but we have no record of their testimony.  Yes, Anne was unpopular and arrogant.  She had few friends or family to defend her, and Cromwell made sure that the one likeliest to do so -- her brother -- was on trial alongside her.  Still, there must have been enough damning material to convince Henry of her guilt, or at least of the likelihood that she would be convicted.

Ironically, people who witnessed Anne's behaviour at her trial and at her execution seemed to believe her innocent of the charges, much as they may have disliked her in the past:
The Lord Mayor of London openly declared, "I could not observe anything in the proceedings against her, but that they were resolved to make an occasion to get rid of her at any price."  ...  As the murmuring spread, Anne began to be seen as a victim done away with on a flimsy pretext, particularly in the wake of Henry marrying Jane ten days after her beheading.
I was very moved by the descriptions of Anne on the scaffold.  Weir cites several versions of her final speech -- none substantially different from the others, and all displaying a dignity and sobriety that belied her earlier carelessness and loose tongue.  She seemed to move the French swordsman, as well.  Perhaps as gestures of mercy, he wore ordinary clothing (not the mask and uniform typically worn by executioners), kept the sword out of her sight, and at the last, distracted her by drawing her attention to something in the opposite direction, allowing him to swing his 3-4' sword to sever her neck while she looked away.  Only those being executed with an axe put their necks down on a block; death by the sword required Anne to kneel upright and hold herself perfectly still.

Hilary Mantel sought to paint a more humane portrait of often-demonised Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall.  She succeeded brilliantly, but he was no saint, as Anne's downfall makes plain.  And so it is with Anne herself:  She's not the insatiable adulteress that her enemies reviled, but she had significant character flaws.  They made a fascinating pair, actually -- allies at one time, later rivals, both power-mad, and in the end, both beheaded.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Last month I wrote that Requiem for a Dream was the first instance of a novel and its film adaptation impressing me equally.  There have been some fine films -- Revolutionary Road, Lost Horizon, Remains of the Day -- but they're crippled by the 2-3 hour time limit.  No matter how splendid they are, they feel to me like visual Readers' Digest condensed versions.  They always lose something.

I can't make a fair comparison of Jeffrey Eugenides' novel, The Virgin Suicides, and the film that Sofia Coppola wrought from it, because it's been over a decade since I saw the film.  I remember thinking it brilliant at the time, though, and the book is stunning.  Unapologetic gushing commences now.

The anonymous narrator is a man reflecting upon his teen-aged years in Detroit, where he watched the simultaneous destruction of the  auto industry, the elm trees, and the Lisbon family, whose five golden-haired daughters had mesmerised him and his friends for as long as they can recall.  The devoutly Catholic Lisbon parents kept their lissome girls on tight leashes.  Over the course of a little more than a year, the boys watched the entire family, following the suicide of the youngest daughter, slide into hell.  The narrator keeps an even tone, almost journalistic, as he moves from descriptions of Cecilia, impaled upon the picket fence-post where she fell after her dive out an upper-story window, to his elegiac sadness as the Dutch elm beetle ravaged the grand old trees that had always shaded their streets.  But no, it's not a journalistic tone -- it's quietly reminiscent.  The narrator and his friends salvaged mementos from the ruined house after the parents had moved on.  As he recalls the story, he might be picking them up off a table or out of an old, musty box, looking at them one more time.

The story is compelling and evocative and would probably be so even if written more carelessly.  Eugenides, however, has a knack for finding the off-beat analogy, the quirky descriptor, the incongruous image, all of which make the text vibrate.  Here he describes Mr. Lisbon:
...he had long harbored doubts about his wife's strictness, knowing in his heart that girls forbidden to dance would only attract husbands with bad complexions and sunken chests. Also, the odor of all those cooped-up girls had begun to annoy him. He felt at times as though he were living in the bird house at the zoo.  
And here, the difficulties of the neighbourhood mothers in writing condolence cards to the bereaved Lisbons after Cecilia's suicide:
...some of the Waspier types, accustomed to writing notes for all occasions, labored over personal responses. Mrs. Beards used a quote from Walt Whitman we took to murmuring to one another:  "All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, / and to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier."  Chase Buell peeked at his own mother's card as he slipped it under the Lisbons' door.  It read: "I don't know what you're feeling.  I won't even pretend."  
While some in the neighbourhood mused that the Lisbons' strictness with their girls might have contributed to the tragedy, Mrs. Lisbon responded by tightening her grasp, suspecting that the era's increasing sexual freedom was the real culprit:
Mrs. Lisbon thought the darker urges of dating could be satisfied by frolic in the open air -- love sublimated by lawn darts.  
She demanded that the girls burn their pop and rock & roll LPs in the backyard barbecue grill in a bizarre 1970s auto da fé.  Thence forward, they were allowed only religious muzack of the sort heard on fuzzy AM radio stations:
Choirs sing in blond voices, scales ascend toward harmonic crescendos, like marshmallow foaming into the ears... Father Moody heard the music the few times he visited for coffee on Sunday afternoons. "It wasn't my cup of tea," he said to us later. "I go in for the more august stuff. Handel's Messiah. Mozart's Requiem. This was basically, if I may say so, what you might expect to hear in a Protestant household."  
Once the Lisbon girls were withdrawn from school and sealed more tightly than ever within their house, which was slowly deteriorating from neglect, the boys tried to carry on, maybe to sample a more normal life for a while:
Like everyone else, we went to Alice O'Connor's coming-out party to forget about the Lisbon girls. The black bartenders in red vests served us alcohol without asking for ID, and in turn, around 3 AM we said nothing when we saw them loading leftover cases of whiskey into the trunk of a sagging Cadillac. Inside, we got to know girls who had never considered taking their own lives...  
 The girls were monstrous in their formal dresses, each built around a wire cage. Pounds of hair were secured atop their heads. Drunk, and kissing us, or passing out in chairs, they were bound for college, husbands, child-rearing, unhappiness only dimly perceived -- bound, in other words, for life.  
The narrator and his friends, too, were bound for life, but he can't seem to let go of the Detroit of his youth, or the Lisbon girls.  Over the years, people inevitably came to conclusions about the suicides, all part of the process of setting the experience down and moving on:
Everyone we spoke to dated the demise of our neighborhood from the suicides of the Lisbon girls. Though at first people blamed them, gradually a sea change took place, so that the girls were seen not as scapegoats but as seers. More and more, people forgot about the individual reasons why the girls may have killed themselves, the stress disorders and insufficient neurotransmitters, and instead put the deaths down to the girls' foresight in predicting decadence. People saw their clairvoyance in the wiped-out elms, the harsh sunlight, the continuing decline of our auto industry.  
The narrator reaches some different retrospective views on the virgin suicides, but it seems unlikely that he'll ever reach a conclusion.  He may never set them down and move on, and he defies his readers to do so, either.

Friday, March 11, 2011

He Who Fears the Wolf, by Karin Fossum

While on a brief trip to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, I bounced back and forth between Flaubert and Fossum.  It was a disorienting combination, but contemporary Norwegian murder made a great foil for 19th-century French foibles.

I wrote last month about the first of Fossum's novels I'd read, Don't Look Back.  I was ready for more of Inspector Konrad Sejer and rural Norway.  He Who Fears the Wolf is the 3rd book in the Sejer series, but only the 2nd to be translated into English.  It was a simpler book than the former in the sense that there were fewer characters and plot threads, but I admired about it the same qualities:  Again Fossum managed to paint a vivid picture of small-town life and behaviours.

As the book opens, a very fat, breathless 12 year-old boy dashes into the local police station to report that he's seen Halldis Horn, an elderly farm-woman, lying dead in her dooryard.  It takes only a moment to see the cause of death:  the blade of her hoe is sunk deeply into her head.  What's more, the boy reported that he'd seen Errki Johrma, the village eccentric recently escaped from the asylum, loitering in the woods nearby.  I looked down at the page count on the Kindle; at the end of 5 pages, we've got the murder victim, the weapon, a witness, and a suspect whose guilt is a foregone conclusion in the mind of everyone who's ever met him.  Motive?  Who needs one?  He's nuts!  Always has been.

Fortunately for Errki (and the readers), Konrad Sejer has never met him and is unwilling to jump to any such conclusions.  I think most small, rural towns anywhere in the world have their Errkis.  He is the boy who has never fit in, who dresses strangely, who hears voices and perhaps converses with them, who has a few family skeletons in the closet, and who tends to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.   He is the definitive scapegoat.  Fossum plays with us throughout the book -- there's plenty to suggest that Errki is the only logical suspect, but Sejer will not take that path of least resistance.  He's forced to look at people who are less bizarre and more likable than Errki.  More normal people, in other words.  And that's the destination to which  Fossum consistently guides her readers:  the place where normal people do horrific things, for reasons that may never be altogether clear.

Dog-lovers' note:  Kollberg, Sejer's Leonberger dog, makes only a brief appearance in this book, but an enticing one.  It's such a great image:  the tall man and his tall dog, both dignified and somber, sharing an apartment in Oslo.  There is a tremendous and detailed description, though, of three tracking Alsatians following a scent trail through the forest.  This woman obviously knows and loves dogs.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Sentimental Education, by Gustave Flaubert

I did not read the original French, published in 1869 as L'Education Sentimentale, but an 1898 translation by D. F. Hannigan.  That's one more advantage of reading e-books over listening to audio -- I like to know  the original publication date, the name of the translator, and the date of the translation.  Audio publishers never seem to include those details.  Maybe they think we're just too illiterate to care.

This was Flaubert's last novel, and it never achieved the acclaim of his best known work, Madame Bovary.  This book is set in the years around the 1848 Revolution, so doubles as a Bildungsroman and a political-philosophical novel.  My knowledge of this period in French history is nil.  In my mind, the French Revolution conjures up images of the guillotine and Madame Dufarge's knitting.  A second revolution?  I'd never stopped to think about how we got from the Restoration (kings again) to Republic (President Sarkozy).  Sentimental Education helped to fill this gap (more of a canyon, really) in my historical awareness.

Flaubert's protagonist is Frédéric Moreau, and Flaubert treats him most unsentimentally.  An alternative title might be Education of a Cad.  We get an early view of him strolling the deck of a ship, feeling melancholy:

He found that the happiness that he deserved by virtue of his sensitive soul was slow in coming.  

The sense of being entitled to happiness never leaves Frédéric, and it does nothing to stop him treating others shabbily when they fail to provide it.  He becomes enraptured of Madame Arnoux, who is, alas, married and faithful to her husband.  When she does not reciprocate his passion, he turns to the neighbourhood courtesan, Rosanette.  Many arm-chair psychologists have diagnosed Flaubert's Madame Bovary as bi-polar.  Likewise, his description of Rosanette would fit any text-book description of manic depression:

Incapable of resisting a desire, she became infatuated about some trinket which she happened to see, and could not sleep till she had gone and bought it, then bartered it for another, sold costly dresses for little or nothing, lost her jewellery, squandered money, and would have sold her chemise for a loge-box at the theatre. Often she asked Frédéric to explain to her some word she came across when reading a book, but did not pay any attention to his answer, for she jumped quickly to another idea, while heaping questions on top of each other. After spasms of gaiety came childish outbursts of rage, or else she sat on the ground dreaming before the fire with her head down and her hands clasping her knees, more inert than a torpid snake.  

While supporting and cavorting with Rosanette, oblivious to her needs and frailties, Frédéric still pines for and courts his "true" love, Madame Arnoux, ever unattainable.

He called her "Marie", adoring this name, which, as he said, was expressly made to be uttered with a sigh of ecstasy, and which seemed to contain clouds of incense and bouquets of roses... 

Meanwhile, the mobs are growing unhappy with the King, and the revolution begins.  Frédéric's loyalties to his male companions are as fickle and shifting as those with women.  Others, filled with passion for the cause of the new republic, go off to fight, yet Frédéric manages to avoid all scenes of conflict.  His total inaction does not, however, stop him proclaiming his lofty opinions. He and his journalist companion, Hussonnet, come upon a raucous and uncouth mob:

"Come away out of this," said Hussonnet; "I am disgusted with the people..."
"I don't care what you think!" said Frédéric; "I consider the people sublime."

Once the king is toppled, the work of republic-building must begin, and Frédéric, "a man prone to every foible," decides to run for election.  The audience at his first speech exposes his utter lack of credentials, and he is unceremoniously ejected.  Does he consider that he might own at least a part of the failure? Not exactly.

He reproached himself for his devotedness, without reflecting that, after all, the accusations brought against him were just. What fatal idea was this candidature! But what asses! What idiots! He drew comparisons between himself and these men, and soothed his wounded pride with the thought of their stupidity.  
Then he felt the need of seeing Rosanette. After such an exhibition of ugliness, and so much maliciousness, her sweetness would be a relief.

So much for the sublimity of the people.   And so it goes -- when life gives Frédéric lemons, he runs to Rosanette for solace and amusement; when it entices him with happiness, he dumps her again, hypocritically reviling her for her promiscuity when she seeks the patronage of other men during his disappearances.  Madame Arnoux comes onto the stage now and then, and Frédéric always falls at her feet, blathering about his one true love of her, then running off to another woman out of spite when he feels rebuffed.  He courts two other women of  rank and wealth, making lackluster efforts to talk himself into love with them; both times he breaks his promises to marry.

At the end of the novel, told as a fleeting anecdote, Frédéric and his on-again-off-again friend, Deslauriers, go into a brothel together.  Thinking that the laughing prostitutes are making fun of him, Frédéric bolts from the place.  Years later, the two men reminisce about the experience:

"That was the best we ever got!" said Frédéric.
"Yes, perhaps so, indeed! It was the best time we ever had," said Deslauriers.  

And that is the end of Sentimental Education.

Flaubert considered this a more mature novel than Madame Bovary.  The political plot-line does give the story more depth, yes, but Frédéric never took hold of me as Emma Bovary did.  She and her husband, Charles, were multi-faceted characters who inspired a wide range of emotions.  Frédéric, by contrast, elicited from me a lot of head-shaking and eye-rolling, never any fondness or sympathy.  I will never feel any sorrow that he likely went to the grave believing an unconsummated flight from a brothel the highlight of his love life.  

That said, however, Flaubert does present an unsentimental view of the second revolution through his characters' eyes, just as Dickens had done in the past (albeit more gently) in A Tale of Two Cities.   Even though critics rank this novel behind Madame Bovary, it's still well worth reading.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Shadow Country, by Peter Matthiessen

Is there a Pulitzer or Booker Prize awarded for readers' endurance?   There ought to be, and I've earned it.

I know I'm committing literary heresy here.  Peter Matthiessen is deservedly revered by nearly all serious readers, and there is much about this book that I admired.  My one grievance:  it's just too damned much book. Matthiessen originally wrote three novels based upon the life and death of Edgar J. Watson, an early 20th-century outlaw-farmer who settled in southwestern Florida's Ten Thousand Islands.  He later combined the three novels into Shadow Country, reducing the original 1300 pages to 900.  In audio format, this amounts to over 40 hours.  

In Book 1, Watson's neighbours, friends, foes, family and employees tell the story of his adult life and death. (A large group of frightened neighbours gunned him down.)   In Book 2, Watson's adult son, Lucius, tries to reconstruct his father's life, returning to talk to many of those who narrated sections of Book 1.  Watson himself tells his life story in Book 3.  Along the way, Matthiessen paints often painfully vivid pictures of the Reconstruction south, the lynchings, the lawlessness, and the devastation of Florida's indigenous populations, both animal and human.   When he writes of "air thick enough to stifle a frog," breath does feel harder to come by.  

The life and story of Edgar J. Watson was a 3-decade obsession for Matthiessen , giving him the fodder for the 3 novels and the fuel to re-work them into Shadow Country.  In retrospect, I could have maintained a 1-novel interest in the man.   Someone (alas I can't remember who, or I'd give due credit) recently described a film character as "bibulous and belligerent."  It struck me that this is never a good combination of character traits, and Edgar Watson was living and dying proof of it.  40 hours was just more time than I wanted to spend in the company of Mr. Watson, his moonshine, his temper, his shotgun, and the suffering they brought to everyone in his vicinity.  Hearing the same story three times over, even as told by different characters, did nothing to mitigate its oppressiveness.  Watson was not entirely unsympathetic; Matthiessen is too skilled to draw a simplistic figure, but his obsession with his protagonist's life just never took hold of me.  By the time Watson died for the third time, I was about ready to go to the grave with him.  

Kudos, though, to Anthony Heald, who narrated this book and did a masterful job with the voices of the novel's "redneck crackers" -- both drunk and sober, "niggras", and southern belles.