Saturday, October 31, 2015

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

This novel's been on my radar ever since it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009.
Woman and the Sea,
by Will Barnet

As I looked at its entry on Goodreads, I noticed that reader reviews were almost entirely at the opposite ends of the spectrum -- one-star ("If I could use one word to describe this book, it would probably be boring. Awkward is a close runner-up. I think Elizabeth Strout must be the type of person who is less of the entertainment school of writing and more of the vitamins school of writing...") or five-star ("... this book gives us a new female heroine. Not meant to be liked, not meant to be revered, not meant to fit in, but totally and absolutely real.")  

When Carolyn Chute published her all too realistic and none too flattering novel, The Beans of Egypt, Maine in 1985, it received similar love-hate responses. My father felt it was painfully realistic but had no redemptive value.

I wonder how many of the adverse reactions come from people who feel defensive of a state that they cherish as a summer holiday destination -- crystal clear skies, rugged coastlines, steamed lobster! They may well be reluctant to consider the Maine of a dismal February, when elderly people die in their living rooms of hypothermia because they can't afford enough heating oil, or a Maine with skyrocketing addiction to prescription painkillers thanks to all the workplace injuries among fishermen, loggers and other blue-collar workers. Maine has always had a dark, grim aspect. One artist that captures both its beauty and somberness is Will Barnet. His lithograph, "Woman and the Sea", is hanging in my living room now. It hung for many years in my mother's living room before that, and it drew much the same responses from our friends, who have found it either serene or morbidly depressing.  I think it's both.  It is fundamentally Maine. Exactly like Olive Kitteridge and the other characters that weave in and out of Elizabeth Strout's 13 interconnected short stories. 

Olive is the thread that connects them; she's central to some, peripheral to others. When her husband hires a young woman to work in his pharmacy, Olive shares her opinion, which is, as always, deadly blunt.
"Mousy," his wife said, when he hired the new girl. "Looks just like a mouse." Denise Thibodeau had round cheeks, and small eyes that peeped through her brown-framed glasses.
"But a nice mouse," Henry said. "A cute one."
"No one's cute who can't stand up straight," Olive said.

In another story, Angie has decided that she can no longer carry on with her married lover. After two decades.
She went to the phone and dialed Malcolm's number. Not once, in twenty-two years, had she called him at home, although she had memorized his number long ago. Twenty-two years, she thought, as she listened to the buzz of the ring, would be considered a very long time by most people, but for Angie time was as big and round as the sky, and to try to make sense of it was like trying to make sense of music and God and why the ocean was deep. Long ago Angie had known not to try to make sense of these things, the way other people tried to do. Malcolm answered the phone.
It was a curious thing -- she didn't like the sound of his voice. "Malcolm," she said softly. "I can't see you anymore. I'm so terribly sorry, but I can't do this anymore." Silence. His wife was probably right there. "Bye, now," she said. 
She phoned Malcolm from the pay phone in the lounge where she played piano.  After hanging up the phone, she returns to work.
She drank, with one hand, all the Irish coffee. And then she played all sorts of songs. She didn't know what she played, couldn't have said, but she was inside the music, and the lights on the Christmas tree were bright and seemed far away. Inside the music like this, she understood many things. She understood that Simon was a disappointed man if he needed, at this age, to tell her he had pitied her for years. She understood that as he drove his car back down the coast toward Boston, toward his wife with whom he had raised three children, that something in him would be satisfied to have witnessed her the way he had tonight, and she understood that this form of comfort was true for many people, as it made Malcolm feel better to call Walter Dalton a pathetic fairy, but it was thin milk, this form of nourishment; it could not change that you had wanted to be a concert pianist and ended up a real estate lawyer, that you had married a woman and stayed married to her for thirty years, when she did not ever find you lovely in bed. The lounge was mostly empty now. And warmer, since the door wasn't being opened all the time. She played "We Shall Overcome" she played it twice, slowly, grandly, and looked over at the bar to where Walter was smiling at her. He raised a fist into the air.
"Want a ride, there, Angie?" Joe asked as she closed the top of the piano, went and gathered her coat and pocketbook.
"No, thank you, dear," she said as Walter helped her into her white fake fur coat. "The walk will do me good." Clutching her little blue pocketbook, she picked her way over the snowbank ...
Mainers tend to be loners; some by choice, others less so. The weather is harsh.
Bessie Davis, the town's old maid, stood and talked for a long time while she bought a new dustpan. She spoke of her hip problems, her bursitis. She spoke of her sister's thyroid condition. "Hate this time of year," she said, shaking her head. Harmon felt a rush of anxiety as she left. Some skin that had stood between himself and the world seemed to have been ripped away, and everything was close, and frightening. Bessie Davis had always talked on, but now he saw her loneliness as a lesion on her face. The words Not me, not me crossed over his mind.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Quiet American, by Graham Greene

Phat Diem cathedral
[photo mine, March 2015]
I reached for The Quiet American after visiting the Phat Diem Cathedral in Vietnam's Ninh Binh province last March.  Besides being an enigmatic place in its own right, the church figures heavily in the novel.  Published in 1956, the story is set at the time the French army was battling the Vietminh guerrillas.

The narrator is one of Greene's classic types -- a long-term British correspondent in Saigon, possessively attached to Phuong, his Vietnamese lover who prepares his opium for him. Fowler is weary, bitter, jaded and dour. One day he meets Alden Pyle, who appears to be his precise opposite -- a young, earnest and open American. From the moment we meet him, Pyle seems to personify his country's naive idealism, and Fowler has been around long enough to recognise it and to foresee what will come of it.
"How did you meet him first?" Vigot asked me. Why should I explain to him that it was Pyle who had met me? I had seen him last September coming across the square towards the bar of the Continental: an unmistakably young and unused face flung at us like a dart.
As I read this book in 2015, I couldn't help but draw comparisons to what drew the United States to invade Iraq. That equally disastrous move was perhaps less idealistic and innocent, but it was surely as ill-informed.
Why does one want to tease the innocent? Perhaps only ten days ago he had been walking back across the Common in Boston, his arms full of the books he had been reading in advance on the Far East and the problems of China. He didn't even hear what I said: he was absorbed already in the dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West: he was determined -- I learnt that very soon -- to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world. Well, he was in his element now with the whole universe to improve.
Fairly early in the novel, Greene makes clear that Pyle has been killed, and the French and American authorities are hectoring Fowler for information. He lets them have it.
"Have you any hunch," he asked, "why they killed him? and who?"
Suddenly I was angry; I was tired of the whole pack of them with their private stores of Coca-Cola and their portable hospitals and their wide cars and their not quite latest guns. I said, "Yes. They killed him because he was too innocent to live. He was young and ignorant and silly and he got involved. He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affair's about, and you gave him money and York Harding's books on the East and said, 'Go ahead. Win the East for democracy.' He never saw anything he hadn't heard in a lecture-hall, and his writers and his lectures made a fool of him. When he saw a dead body he couldn't even see the wounds. A Red menace, a soldier of democracy."
"I thought you were his friend," he said in a tone of reproach.
At one point, both Fowler and Pyle go north, to the conflict zone near Ninh Binh, where they're nearly killed.  (Graham Greene himself sought sanctuary from the fighting in the cathedral, which is a jolting mix of western church and Vietnamese temple architecture.)
All that was left of the Bishop's army brass band led the procession, and the French officers, pious by order of the colonel, followed like choirboys through the gateway into the Cathedral precincts, past the white statue of the Sacred Heart that stood on an island in the little lake before the Cathedral, under the bell tower with spreading oriental wings and into the carved wooden cathedral with its gigantic pillars formed out of single trees and the scarlet lacquer work of the altar, more Buddhist than Christian. From all the villages between the canals, from that Low Country landscape where young green rice-shoots and golden harvests take the place of tulips and churches of windmills, the people poured in.

While they are hiding out from the Vietminh, Pyle shares some of his history with Fowler, much, in fact, like a dog who's desperate to please. I think this is one of Greene's most brilliant moments, capturing the very nature of both men without damning or ridiculing either of them.
"The first dog I ever had was called Prince. I called him after the Black Prince. You know, the fellow who.. ."
"Massacred all the women and children in Limoges."
"I don't remember that."
"The history books gloss it over." I was to see many times that look of pain and disappointment touch his eyes and mouth, when reality didn't match the romantic ideas he cherished, or when someone he loved or admired dropped below the impossible standard he had set...
Pyle had been silent a long while, and I had nothing more to say. Indeed I had said too much. He looked white and beaten and ready to faint, and I thought, 'What's the good? he'll always he innocent, you can't blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.'
In 1995, Robert Strange McNamara (and yes, that was really his middle name), who was Secretary of Defense at the time the United States entered the Vietnam War, published a memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. I remember when the book came out, middle-aged anti-war protesters were sad but gratified to see that the book bore a heavy tone of regret. The Quiet American made me want to read McNamara's book. I wonder whether he ever read Greene's novel (probably), and if so, what he made of young, dead Alden Pyle.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Severed Head, by Iris Murdoch

If you want a dark, ironic, insightful novel about infidelity, this is your book. Martin's wife has left him for her American psychoanalyst, Palmer. Given that he's having an affair with a younger, free-spirited academic, Georgie, one wouldn't think he would mind so much, but Palmer is more than a little aggrieved. Add to this Palmer's "demonic" sister, named Honor (of all things) and you've got a real mess.

London just seems to lend itself to these gloomy tales of doomed, illicit love.  (I'm thinking of Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, which was also mired in fog, mist, rain and sleet, except Graham one-upped Iris Murdoch by adding war to the mix.)
Outside the window and curtained away was the end of the cold raw misty London afternoon now turned to an evening which still contained in a kind of faintly luminous haze what had never, even at midday, really been daylight.
Ah, poor Martin. He's genuinely distraught when his wife rejects him in favour of her shrink, though not for the reasons one might assume.
I possessed Antonia in a way not totally unlike the way in which I possessed the magnificent set of original prints by Audubon which adorned our staircase at home. I did not possess Georgie. Georgie was simply there.
To make matters worse, Antonia and Palmer have connived to ensure that Martin cope with his loss in the best possible manner.
Palmer stood looking at me for a while, serene and detached and tender with only a very little anxiety in his look. He pulled at the top of his dressing-gown where a snowy white shirt emerged, and bared a little more of his long neck. Then he resumed his pacing. He said, as if confidently testing something out, 'I knew you'd take it well, I knew you'd take it splendidly.'
'I'm not aware that I've yet revealed how I'm taking it!' I said. But as I said this I realized with a bitter clarity that I had already fallen into my role, my role of 'taking it well', which had been prepared for me by Palmer and Antonia. I had put my head straight into the halter which with care and concern and even affection was being held out. It was important to them that I should let them off morally, that I should spare them the necessity of being ruthless. But if I had power, I was already surrendering it. It was already too late for violence. I was indeed facing something big and formidably well organized.
Georgie, for one, questions how well Martin's really managing after the split from his wife. He points out that Palmer was, and still is, one of his friends. In this passage, Murdoch makes plain how badly Martin reads others (and himself). Georgie points out his lack of self-awareness to him, his vulnerability in letting others make his decisions for him, but he only laughs.
'Knowing him has made a lot of difference to me.'
'In what way?'
'I can't say exactly. Perhaps he has made me worry less about the rules!'
'The rules!' Georgie laughed. 'Darling, surely you became indifferent to the rules long ago.'
'Good heavens, no!' I said. 'I'm not indifferent to them now. I'm not a Child of Nature like you. No, it's not exactly that. But Palmer is good at setting people free.'
'If you think I don't worry - but never mind. As for setting people free, I don't trust these professional liberators. Anyone who is good at setting people free is also good at enslaving them, if we are to believe Plato. The trouble with you, Martin, is that you are always looking for a master.'
I laughed.
Felicity. There's a word that's evocative and happily under-used.  (Martin is speaking of Palmer, convincing himself that he wishes his rival no ill.)
He worked hard; and as I saw him, he was and deserved to be a being of an exceptional felicity. 
Honor, Palmer's sister, is fierce, blunt, intellectual. She sounds like a bit of a beast, and she appears to have no use for Martin whatever, yet he develops  bizarre obsession with her. Slinking into a room to be in Honor's presence sounds like textbook Martin-think. Slinking is his nature; can one slink into honour's presence?
In any case I did not relish a head thrust from a window, a confused encounter at a street doorway. What I really wanted was to slink quietly into some room and find myself at once in Honor's presence.
Selfish. Self-serving. Self-absorbed. That's our Martin.
There is a time limit to how long a spirited young person can be kept in cold storage. Georgie's time must be approaching the end. But there was nothing I could do, I could not face seeing Georgie just now. If I saw her I could not tell her the truth -- and neither could I bear to lie to her face-to-face. It was true that I didn't want to lose her. I wanted her love. I was not so flush with love that I could afford to dispense with it. But I did not yet want to make the effort required to decide that I could not merit, and therefore could not ask for, that love. I wanted, frankly, not to have to think about Georgie at all for the present. 
Need I mention that the novel does not have a happy ending?