Tag Archives: book review

The Drooping Hours

In self reproach and loneliness and disillusion he came to the entrance of the labyrinth. (265)
-F.Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise
…Well this side of Paradise!…
There’s little comfort in the wise.
-Rupert Brooke

The sad construction of the life of our Young Egoist, Armory, is told by Fitzgerald with an initially sardonic tone that slowly turns into a tender sympathy. The ground work for Amory’s self discovery at the end of the novel is laid in the wonderfully off kilter childhood, meaningless yet sturdy architecture of his prep-school days and finally the real intellectual awakening of an intelligent man through his college days.

You will admit that if it was not life it was magnificent (8)

The heart of the book is the lead up to and fall from a love affair. That rare thing that we all half-hope isn’t true if we have not experienced it, and then, goodness, if we do,  find ourselves unexpectedly alive with the meaning for living.

“It may be an insane love-affair,” she told her anxious mother, “but it’s not inane” (186)

The affair leaves such a searingly raw wound on our Suffering Egoist that it can only be told in the form of a script. The later sense of unreality, that feeling of did I imagine all that? can only be rendered as a third person theatrical event,  Some distance must be created in order to get the words out.

Rosalind: I’d rather keep it as a beautiful memory – tucked away in my heart.

Amory: Yes, women can do that -but not men. I’d remember always, not the beauty of it while it lasted, but just the bitterness, the long bitterness.  (194)

Fitzgerald constructs a devastating recreation of one of the worst disillusionment known to mankind. The last third of the novel attempts to deal with the despair. The sardonic tone is heroically enlisted, but in the end the novel takes a very somber turn. Armory, turning philosophical, gives an impassioned and intelligent plea for socialism:

“Well,” said Amory, “I simply state that I’m a product of a versatile mind in a restless generation-with every reason to throw my mind and pen in with the radicals. Even if, deep in my heart, I thought we were all blind atoms in a world as limited as a stroke of a pendulum, I and my sort would struggle against tradition; try, at least, to displace old cants with new ones. I’ve thought I was right about life at various times, but faith is difficult. One thing I know. If living isn’t seeking for the grail it may be a damned amusing game. (278)

In Armory’s view life should not be lived for the bags of gold, but for the blue ribbons. He argues for the idea that people prefer to do things for the honor of doing them, for the honor of living and feeling. Living and feeling well, which is obviously within our capacity.

The woman that he truly loved left him for a bag of gold. He comes to see that this is a mistake of epic and tragic proportions. His entire world view, which he puts forward as a sort of political philosophy, is camped at the entrance of what looks to him as a stupid labyrinth: the incomprehensible fact that she left him for the banal safety of a bourgeoisie life.

It’s all a tragic error:  we are conditioned to go along, progress, go forward, collect your bags of gold and ignore the rest. When what we really want is meaning and connection to what makes us human. That connection is the grail; it is the blue ribbon.
For Armory, it is cold comfort to have come to this understanding of who he is: an understanding with his heart.
The blue ribbon is love, and he lost.


*title of post from- The Drooping Hours a chapter heading- Fitzgerald has a near Hugo-ian talent for titles and chapter headings.


Fairy of Fate

As my only answer, I let my head drop on his heart, as I had so often done in my dreams.
-María Luisa Bombal, House of Mist (53)


What took place after that was unquestionably the most tragic experience any woman in love could have had to endure in all her life. (63)

Every morning among my emails a question of the day for SAT practice appears. I only have a couple of weeks left, I really need to practice the math but about three to one are grammar and vocabulary questions. My 17 year-old son and I will take the test together, which delights me and somewhat dulls the anticipated pain.

The other fun part of taking the test is the seemingly random literary references that appear in the grammar sections. Either a Roberto Bolaño reference is wildly inappropriate for teenagers, or perfect. I can’t quite decide.

One of the questions involved the Chilean author María Luisa Bombal. I was intrigued enough to hunt her down. It wasn’t effortless. The librarians I work for relieved me of some of my bottomless ignorance- where I had thought I was doing sweeping state-wide searches for books, I had in fact been trapped in a small consortium of libraries. I was so happy to discover this, that when I went back into the stacks, to finish the shelves I was meant to dust and “read” for accuracy of order, I put my headphones on and danced.

So, victory! I finally found Bombal in the U.S. Coast Guard library of all places. That’s the odd path that led me to this writer. I love an odd path.

“So Serena is engaged?” I inquired, just for the pleasure of repeating their sister’s lovely name.

What a wonderful detail – just for the pleasure of repeating.…. Initially I was unsure what to make of the child-like voice of the heroine, but it’s a beautifully fresh if odd voice. There is a sad mysteriousness at the heart of the tale, the first being how she could possible love the beastly Daniel. But even there I am sympathetic, the arrow of  love is a powerful force and does leave one a defenseless child of Eros. It’s cruel. The book is like a fairy tale – brutal, nostalgic, magical, with a child’s profound capacity for fear and passion.

The word “fairy” can be etymologically traced to the Latin  Fata, the Goddess of fate. Fate is a strange concept: whether or not we are resisting or yielding to something that is real is a plaguing question. Are we fated to be loved or unloved? It’s convenient to think so –it’s not me, it’s fate– is a salve on the heart of the miserable. Never the less, everyone knows fairy tales end happily. Everyone also knows that fairy tales don’t exist -except between the covers of the pages.

And it happened that in spite of myself, I was beginning to hear the precise working of this destructive rhythm hidden at the center of life.
Tic-tac! I could hear, out there in the abandoned tower, the books in the enormous library shriveling up, turning yellow, being blotted out, collapsing in rows…(74)

Life as a library is a favorite theme of mine. Here it is almost a metaphor for being an unloved woman. Bombal was known for writing stories about women who escaped their lives into a dream world ( according to the SATs). Her life took an extraordinarily odd path as well:  there was her suicide attempt, her near murder of one husband (probably had it coming as he didn’t share her love of literature), friendships with Neruda and Borges- is it any wonder that she keeps the story on half-footing in and about reality?

And that night I knew love…that love of which I had had only a glimpse through Daniel’s taciturn passion, the love that gives and receives…the love that is knowledge, exaltation, tenderness… (115)

I confess, I became absorbed in the story.  The orphaned heroine is quite lovely and grows on the reader. Like me, she roots for the love story, even when it is not her own. The Beauty and Beast heart of the tale is complicated by the loose boundaries of the mind. The heroine remains throughout the entire story pure in her love. It seems a fragile, childish thing, but the force of it is unrelenting.

Called La última niebla in Spanish, (which, correct me if I’m wrong, translates as The last mist) still, as a title, The House of Mist works, all fairy tales need a house –  the starting point of the collusion by collision of our inner and outer worlds that clouds our view and tangles the path.

For now, now I knew all was but a dream, life to me seemed no more than a long, dull, purposeless road along which in time I would become old and die without having known love (162)

Life: A Novel

Perhaps we wouldn’t have been so hard on Robson if it hadn’t been for one central, unshiftable fact: Robson was our age, he was in our terms unexceptional, and yet he had not only conspired to find a girlfriend but also, incontestably, to have sex with her. Fucking bastard!
Julian Barnes, The End of TimesDSCI0018Between the philosophically self evident events of Eros and Thanatos is a story. Julian Barnes’ latest novel The Sense of an Ending pokes serious and fun at the self evidence of our philosophically comical lives, as well as the looming retrospective that Thanatos evokes, and our ever-consuming obsession with Eros-  sought, avoided, or remorsed.

I gave her the short version of the short version, leaving out the names of the relevant philosophers. (56)

Barnes unfolds the story as a story. The first third of the book is the life of Tony as explained by Tony; most of which concentrates on his school days when saying things like “philosophically self evident” comes easily to the earnestly cynical pedant of the over-schooled English lad. But that is not the story, it is merely a novella of the life, with the occasional arch comment about whether or not his life or any other makes a good novel.

Does character develop over time? In novels, of course it does: otherwise there wouldn’t be much of a story. But in life? I sometimes wonder. (113)

The story is about life as a history. How things are remembered, or suddenly internally or externally recalled. Finding the reasons for a single event, but aware that the history of the teller matters as much as all the predicating details that led to the actual event.

But we learn something else: that the brain doesn’t like being typecast. Just when you think everything is a matter of decrease, of subtraction and division, your brain, your memory, may surprise you. (122)

Barnes’ prose are terse, witty, and slyly moving. The End of Times is funny but also left me thinking about the sad and all too frequent smothered life.

I have often wondered about the novelistic qualities of my own life, I suppose you have to get to end to see clearly the chapters or parts, ( most lives don’t develop beyond the basic part I of childhood and part II of adulthood).

“Are there any Stefan Zweig titles you would particularly recommend?” (141)

Stefan Zweig – Well, surly that’s a mention far and away enough to recommend this book. Zweig’s books are often tragic. Even so,  I think we should live our lives as novels. Why end up as some banal biography of the sort that lines the shelves in a school library? If only for the simply reason that a novel is always written for a purpose, better to be active – write it. Live it.

Love Is the Infinity of Now

She came and sat at the other end of the bed and we gazed at each other. I could not remember that I had looked at anyone in quite that way before: when one is all vision and the other face enters into one’s own. I was aware too of a bodily feeling which was not exactly desire but was rather something to do with time, a sense of the present being infinitely large.
– Iris Murdoch, The Italian Girl (168)


Close to Updike on the stacks was The Italian Girl by Iris Murdoch. I thought I might read it as the only thing I really have in my head concerning Murdoch is the face of Judy Dench.  It’s a strange little book. Or I read it on a strange little day, but I’m not sure I was entirely convinced of it.

The story is a brief period in the lives of two brothers, Edmond and Otto. Edmund returns to his childhood home where Otto’s wife, daughter, an Italian maid, an apprentice to Otto, and the apprentice’s sister all live. Anyone whom has experienced a little of this wonder we call life will not be surprised by reading in this story the lengths to which people go to complicate relationships and repress past traumas. This deranged family reunion is due to the death of Lydia, Edmund and Otto’s mother.

Perhaps Murdoch felt that the reader would not be interested to understand why the mother of the protagonists was such a monster, instead she focuses her story on the effects of Lydia’s depraved mothering instinct. And maybe that is where I lost a little something. Perhaps I have to disagree with Tolstoy- all unhappy families are alike as well. Certainly there is a greater diversity of action and reactions, but we all know that emotional pain is a sickness, and when a mother or a father is the cause, some sort of great violence or cataclysmic event is required to root it out. Or, we wither away into ourselves (which doesn’t always make great fiction).

Initially that is the path Edmund has chosen. He lives alone. He is alone. He is loath to face the demon of his mother. His experience in the present tense is a litany of what he does not like: “I detest smoking.” “I don’t like drinking,” I can’t abide that smell, or color, or feeling, or whatever it is. There is a lot he doesn’t like.

But he has his moments. Those lovely moments.

The extreme beauty of the scene put me into an instant trance. It was always a trick of my nature to be subject to these sudden enchantments of the visible world, when a particular scene would become so radiant with form and reality as to snatch me out of myself and make me oblivious of all my purposes. Beauty is such self-forgetting.

That last line: beauty is such self-forgetting, is extraordinary. It’s just…I would have liked to know a little more about Lydia. I would have liked to know – why? I always think of healthy babies coming into the world hard-wired to love and adore their parents. One really does have to be quite awful to make it such a horror show. Is it just a banal truth – simply a matter of selfishness? Narcissism?

Going through life forced into wanting to be loved, craving the timeless truth and purity of what was your inherent nature as a human from the start, well, it makes for a difficult experience. It is very hard to process the Lydias of the world. Edmund and Otto take opposite approaches, but both end up at the same place – which is back at the start.

I am in the truth now. And this is a moment for following the truth to whatever folly.(151)

Our Fettle

Are we not all alike, constantly talking and to no one, forever up against the same questions although we know the answers in advance? – Albert Camus, The Fall

This book ran its course through me over the long, weary, on-going (hence my photo free posts) days of the post-hurricane camp out. We started out trying to fortify ourselves against what was coming. We tackled it cheerily, even with some measure of fortitude. I laughed along with M. Camus:

I confess my weakness for that mood and for fine speech in general. A weakness that I criticize in myself, believe me…my consolation is to tell myself that, after all, those who murder the language are not pure either. Why yes, let’s have another gin. (6)

Oh Let’s! Why not? But as the long, dark, weary hours passed it became increasingly difficult. Nothing to do but contemplate the fettle we are in: something I normally work very hard to avoid.

After all, my dream had not stood up to facts. (54)

Camus’ charm and pithy summations of the state of the world and the truth in people’s hearts goes down easy. He is never too cynical for a little self-deprecating humor at any rate.

You know what charm is: a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question. (52)

The protagonist in The Fall has simply come face to face with his own disappointment of who he is as opposed to who he imagined himself to be. His fine rhetoric, good deeds and pretty words disguised from himself his true self, and the disillusion is ripe. When he is truly put to the test, to stand up for the love of his fellow man that he prided himself on, he fails. Where his words act as a sort of subterfuge, his actions cry out the truth, and he knows it. That is his fall.

But I will admit to saving my deepest pity for the girl on the bridge that he ignores.  She knows the answer. Whatever test she confronted has brought her to the brink. The confirmation of her answer is felt in the empty air streaming through her fingers as she finds herself alone, falling. How profoundly sad her feeling must have been, because the truth is, at least at that moment, she is truly  unloved. And that is worse than not loving.

A Master of Bastardy

Sin does not result if one’s natural action is undertaken. As nature ordained it. O son of Kunti! Natural action should not be discarded, even if it is tainted. Because all action is tainted, just as fire is shrouded by smoke. – Tarun J. Tejpal, The Story of My Assassins

There was a nagging feeling of nausea in the core of my body. I mentally ran through my litany of woes – not that, not that, not that either, no, that’s a constant font, same old same old –and then, I remembered the exquisite detail in the telling of a prison interrogation scene in the book I had put down an hour before: The Story of My Assassins.
Ah yes. That’s it.

The story is basically an Indian why done it. Of course, as my favorite character in the book, Hathi Ramji says repeatedly,

If we all began to ask why, there would be only a mountain of whys. (20)

Ramji is sent to protect the sorry life of a journalist who has survived an assassination attempt that he did not know was attempted. Through his inquiry into his near murder, Tejpal tells the story of lives lived at the lowest denominator with a brutality that would make Roberto Bolaño proud, and me nauseated.

I said, ‘It’s about my murder.’
He said, ‘That doesn’t matter.’ (505)

Because in the turmoil and shit storm of survival, it really doesn’t matter. In fact, “to fret was naïve.”  Why give yourself a stomachache? But I suppose I am naïve.

Interspersed between the brutalization of the lives of five children cum  future murderers, is the story of a man trying to decide whether or not to escape, or find, his humanity. His erotic escapades with his mistress are highly charged and very funny. His nonchalant perplexity, leans slightly north of charming, if he weren’t such a bastard. But then, Tejpal has a beautiful way with words and imagery.

He heard the sweet music of rain on a thatch roof amid wet green trees at the end of a world he could never again find. (340)

That line sent me dreaming…It’s a long and epic book that delves into the history of India, hearts of darkness, and a mountain of whys. Never the less, I wish the book had been two pages shorter. It is not that I wanted our protagonist to suffer, or be punished for his deplorable behavior to the people, especially the women, in his life – no, in a way I quite like him. But, even I am not so naïve to buy the note of processed redemption that ends his story. At least not in the way it is expressed.

Sometimes when I read a very long, intense book my head feels a sort of physical pressure of all the words swarming around. I am so immersed in the world of the writer that I can’t help the feeling of creeping intimacy between us. After 528 pages, we are friends now. I have my own way of seeing things, but I know what he meant in the end. And I agree.

All that each stumbling soul wished to know was that there was someone out there who would hear him, hear the story of his darkness, and punish or absolve him. (199)

*Title from line – “the man was a master of bastardy” (274)

Trouble’s Troubles

“He was a man who considered himself easygoing and of gentle good nature, but it was not the sort of gentle good nature that had stood up well, even once, to being tested.”  – Anna Burns, No Bones

What does a fractured people, in a fractured society, in a fractured family, in a fractured person look like? It’s not pretty. Although Anna Burns tells the story from the perspective of the snappy brightness of a youthful protagonist, with all of its dead pan and unintended black humor- the story is brutal. The coming of age tale takes place in Ardoyne, Northern Ireland circa 1960-90.

“There’s ignoramuses and there’s ignoramuses, it seems.”

Ach, poor Amelia. Poor poor Amelia. The world is mad and the accident of birth has brought her into the  full frontal epicenter of the insanity. The incredible thing that Burns leaves the reader with, besides a numbing trauma, is the feeling that the crazies are not to blame. There is a point far beyond blame. Every one in this book is a victim of this tragedy we refer to as human life. Whywhywhy? At a certain point nobody even bothers to get out, get better – can’t remember if there is such a thing anyway.

The sickness of oppression is fatal to all sides. Burns’ story stands witness to the bare bone of a truly disturbing life. Amelia’s story reminds us that if you get to the bare bone too often – soon enough, there are no bones left.