Saturday, February 25, 2012

L'Affaire by Diane Johnson

A rich young American woman goes to Europe to acquire some culture.

You would think that in the third of Diane Johnson’s Franco American misunderstanding novels, (all with related sounding titles), the plot or the settings or the characters would start to feel hackneyed or cranked out. But L’Affaire felt fully realized, standing on its own with insights about sudden dot com millionaires, death by avalanche and an exploration of the legal and the emotional side of inheritances. Luckily L’Affaire drops the frenetic plotting of Le Mariage, Johnson's previous book, and proceeds at a statelier pace. The story therefore felt more concentrated and moving.

The plot is presented as frivolous though it’s not frivolous at all. This time we stay pretty much fixed in the mind of Amy Ellen Hawkins, a dot com executive from Palo Alto, California. After collecting her millions, she intends to widen her horizons, get some polish, and learn about things she is deciding could possibly be important. But before she begins her serious education in Paris, she takes time out to ski at a French resort. 

Amy approaches situations in a characteristically American way. She’s nice, she wants to help, she blunders. When a fourteen year old American boy at the ski resort is effectively abandoned after his sister and her elderly husband are injured, Amy gets involved, motivated by the theories of Prince Kropotkin and his Mutual Aid book. She tries to put them into practice. (This trait reminded me of Dorothea in Middlemarch.)

The second plot concerns the victims of the avalanche and the heirs of the husband, a British very rich publishing cad.  He has four children, two legitimate English, one illegitimate French and a legitimate American toddler. He lies in a coma and the geographic location of his death will make a huge impact on the fortunes of his children.  So what is the proper thing to do?  Humorous cross cultural misunderstandings abound.

Diane Johnson’s novels are ostensibly comic, but horrible things happen to the characters, horrible things with no solace. It’s the case here as well. In addition, it’s beautifully written. Among other things, it’s a meditation and an observation on anti Americanism, and, as always, sexual attraction between a man and a woman.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Middlemarch by George Eliot, Part II

Marriages in Middlemarch

Middlemarch is a study of a provincial English town in the 1830’s, at a time before the railroad when people stayed put --  most of them preferring it that way. The society in the novel is viewed through the prism of several marriages, and the progression of those marriages plays a key part in the plot. At the core of the novel is a study of two marriages – the Casaubon’s and the Lydgate’s. Both marriages, which end up crushing the husband and wife’s hopes, are based upon each partner’s mistaken apprehension of what the other will bring –that the other will fulfill them, propel them to their highest possibility. The ideal view of marriage is as a partnership. When times get tough, two are stronger than one. But the four are blinded by immature egoism, and so come to sorrow. What makes the book interesting and what gives the characters depth is that Dorothea and Lydgate accept their mistakes and try to make the best of a bad situation by sacrificing their dearest dreams and apply themselves to figuring the weaker spouse out.

Dorothea and Casaubon – Dorothea imagines herself a handmaiden to genius, and then she realizes her husband is a terrified little man with no intention of letting her get close, poking around his unfinished, indeed, unstarted Key to All Mythologies. She presented herself as a wonderful gift and he doesn’t even understand. But she doesn’t completely lose heart – she resolves to give him what he needs.

Lydgate and Rosamond – Once Lydgate realizes that Rosamond is never going to be supportive, he abandons his dreams of pure research and becomes a gout doctor. I guess that would be sort of like plastic surgeon or dermatologist in Beverly Hills nowadays. He gives up his dreams for his duty.
Mary Garth and Fred Vincy – Fred is a wastrel, but Mary is wise and won’t fall into the same romantic mistake as Dorothea and Lydgate. She doesn’t rush into anything but waits until Fred has swallowed his pride and lowers his expectations (improving his upper class illegible handwriting, for example)and starts making some money.

The Bulstrodes. Bulstrode is the villain but at the end he gets the comfort of a good marriage, because his submissive wife is prepared to suffer with him, and to stand by him and ease his suffering. This is contrasted with his first marriage in which he behaved like a criminal in order to inherit money from his wife.

What’s even more remarkable is that the novel is set at a time when women had not very much legal power and even less economic power. The only power they had was influence over the men in their lives. And it seems to this modern reader that many of the women have a significant amount of influence. However, the plot is bound by those old strictures. Like why doesn’t Dorothea run off to Vegas and get a divorce? And why doesn’t Rosamond go out and get a job so she can have some spending money? You might as well as them to fly.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Middlemarch by George Eliot, Part I

In a small town, egotistical pride blinds people's judgement, leading them to unhappiness

Well, this book took me on a journey. A journey of eventual understanding and education (a bit like the theme of the novel). The other classics I’ve read invaded my imagination quickly, filling my brain with thoughts of the book.  Their stories were all I could think about. Middlemarch was different, very tough going at first, for the first half of the book, actually, as Eliot created this world, family by family, plot point by plot point.  The sentences needed to be savored and intellectually decoded versus the instant rush of emotion in the other classics.  I felt like I was tasked with eating 100 bowls of unsweetened oatmeal.  I was beset by anxiety – oh jeez I have to get through 800 pages! I read only one book at a time and Middlemarch was so offputting that I was reading 3 pages a day which meant 2012 would be devoted to single novel. Uh oh, I thought, you gonna pull the ripcord on Middlemarch? I felt only profound boredom and a cold admiration for the technique – the multiplicity of characters, the plotting, the social analysis, and the variety of scenes and tones. I sensed the message was, They’re all fools every one of them. Dorothea’s a fool, Casaubon’s a fool, Mr. Brooke is a fool, Lydgate is a fool. I got it. THEY ARE ALL FOOLS.

But I gave the book one last shot on a flight from Spokane to Boise to Oakland to Burbank, assisted by Southwest’s terrible red wine. Something happened on that flight. I started to get it. The novel revolved around Dorothea. Her tragedy is the glue holding the scenes together. Because once she realizes she was deluded by her egoism, her foolish idealism, she still tries. She still tries to help. There are no villains here.

It’s a meditation on marriage, of course, and a careful picture of humanity, an observation of society. Dorothea offers Casaubon the beautiful gift of herself, only he’s too afraid and egotistical to accept it. He is afraid of being judged as he is avoiding the fact that his Key to All Mythologies is a folly. Dorothea is the last one to figure that out. Like many stories in the novel, it’s tragic and funny at the same time.

Next week: Marriages in Middlemarch.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Jackson by Max Byrd

A young man attempts to write a life of Andrew Jackson while a pretty young woman flirts with him

I have not read much historical fiction because I am not particularly drawn to it. Doesn’t the author feel constrained in the building of the story? Is historical fiction art? Or is it more like an educational textbook? What is its purpose? To delight? To instruct? My guess is that most people read historical fiction to learn something. The veneer of fiction makes the history part go down as easier, as when you give the child a tablespoon of cod liver oil followed quickly by a tablespoon of M&Ms.

For the most part Jackson is delightful, more fiction than history. The author does this by inventing a few characters who are quirky – whose actions cannot be predicted, unlike the historical characters who cannot deviate from what they did in life. David Chase, the invented young man, has a clear motivation. His actions move the story along-- he is hired to write a life of Andrew Jackson and hopefully find some disgraceful dirt about Andrew Jackson’s wife. David Chase serves as a detective and every novel needs a detective.  

The dialogue and descriptions are light and easy, not didactic. Max Byrd is a skillful writer. But the story had some drawbacks and started to drag. The meat of it, Andrew Jackson’s life, is a Procrustean bed for a plot. The reader has to waste time at the Battle of New Orleans with its fortifications as that was Andrew Jackson’s most significant achievement. However, the Battle of New Orleans and its fortifications are not very dramatic. Also, I’m not sure if in this type of traditional historical fiction we can ever see Andrew Jackson as a living breathing person, he can never be quirky, his actions are always completely predictable. His spine is always ramrod straight, there’s always a steel blue glint in his eye and a tender vulnerable love for his woman in his heart. The interesting thing for me was the fact that Andrew Jackson kept dueling people right and left. I needed to hear more – that sounded wonderfully crazy.

In some ways this novel reminded me of Stations of the Cross – no irreverence allowed and you must hit all the high points. Almost like a James Bond movie. Is all historical fiction like that?