Sunday, September 27, 2015

Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan

Two countries must learn how to coexist

In the first half of this book, World War I approaches, and Athanase Tallard, the leading citizen of Saint Marc, Quebec, has a meeting with Huntley McQueen, Montreal banker. The town’s French speaking population is immediately suspicious of the English speaking outsider. McQueen has a plan to use the great Saint Lawrence river to power a factory, though a capitalist outpost would insidiously destroy this traditional farming community. Athanase, something of a freethinker, goes for the plan, thereby earning the enmity of the town’s priest and the uncooperativeness of the farmers. His older son, Marius, fully French, draft dodger, incipient separatist, is completely against the idea. Paul, the younger half brother, (also half English), still a child, has his life turned upside down by his father’s actions. In the second part of the book, World War II approaches, and Paul, now grown, an aspiring novelist, is unable to get work in Depression-era Canada. Torn between his two cultures, he falls in love with Heather, the wealthy WASPy goddaughter of Huntley McQueen.

This novel was a bit too musty for my tastes. The story was laid out in huge concrete blocks – everything is explained. But at least MacLennan wastes no time with the plotting – the reader is immediately plunged into the conflict. Although the characters never really felt like real people, they feel like placards. The only unpredictable character was the old sea captain, who has the ability to access both cultures. The writing was old fashioned, fancy schmancy, with some scenes deliberately shocking (but not really). And the female characters annoyed me – the women were defined solely in terms of their relationship with men. At least this was explicitly a Canadian novel about an essential Canadian dilemma.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

Does one woman having it all, mean another must lose it all?

In this final installment, at the peak of their successes, Elena and Lila are reunited in Naples as mature mothers. This time Lila bails Elena out, helping with childcare to allow her friend the time to organize her life as a famous writer and social critic. But then vicissitude follows vicissitude, as the pair struggle against the unfaithful nature of men, drug addiction, the Mafia, inertia and just plain evil. Eventually, as older women, suspicious of betrayal, the pair is bitterly separated. Elena, in the waning years of her life, possesses the trappings of worldly achievement and three confident successful daughters, with Lila just another crazy old crone wandering the wrong side of the stradone.

It’s a shame this work of art had to be marketed as four separate books when it is truly one integrated volume. The only way to understand the ending is to reread the opening of the first book. And don’t even try reading this installment without reading the others. You won’t get it. The first part of The Story of the Lost Child was a little confusing, although soon I was sucked into the game between Lila and Elena, the old fashioned plotting, the hooks and the threats at the end of each chapter. At times it felt slightly ridiculous, one operatic event after another, reminding me of the fotoromanzi I used to inherit from my Italian cousins. The first three books of this series handled the girls from age six to thirty – the last book zips through thirty-five years, concluding the Odyssey they are on (I use that term deliberately). The good girl gets rewarded and the bad girl gets punished. There is one critical scene in the book, the scene that changes everything, and the interpretation of that scene can be very different. Lila and Elena certainly have different views of it. Things conclude pretty bleakly - when you are old time runs out. There is no hope. Best to have money and a Labrador you can amuse yourself with.

Throughout, the unreliable narrator Elena is afraid of being found out that she is not such an intellectual after all, not such a great writer. Elena fears Lila is writing a book about Naples, a great book about Naples, one that will outshine whatever Elena has written. Did Elena wrote the book of Lila or did Lila write the book of Elena? And yet, this entire world has been summoned into being by Elena. Right? The end makes you wonder if these determinedly realistic books even took place in the plane of reality.

The book is not just about the relationship between the two friends. That is the frame in which Ferrante discusses modernity, the status of women, and recent Italian history. She makes it a point to show that Elena’s sex life at fifteen and her daughter’s sex life at fifteen are totally different. Supposedly liberated, Elena falls into becoming some jackoff’s mistress. At other times, some culturally Italian things don’t translate well – the whole cuckoldry thing, the Mafia guy falling in love with the gay guy.

Lila’s fear is taking the tunnel leading out of the stradone. Elena is spurred on to conquer that fear, to escape. A key question is: who is the lost little girl? (La bambina perduta) It’s Lila, I think her potential crushed by an overbearing culture that crushes women and the poor and the uneducated.  Maybe her potential crushed by something inside - something inside that Elena rejects.  The story is about two dolls, two little girls, two women, two new little girls. And at the end, back to the two little dolls. 

The people seemed so real to me, their travails affected me and I thought about them in the middle of the night, almost have to forcibly remind myself – you don’t need to worry about them, they are made up.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Confessions by Saint Augustine

A sophisticated Roman is torn between worldly things and God

Augustine, living around 350 AD, a smart kid, is urged to be successful by his devoutly Christian mother and his pagan rather dickish father. In an early important scene, he maliciously swipes some pears with a gang of other boys. Little by little Augustine expands his provincial horizons, leaving Africa to make his mark in the big city, finally ending up in Milan, running a school of rhetoric. Urged on by his saintly mother, he is attracted to Christians by their earnestness, their seeming happiness, but intellectually looks down on them for the crudeness of their beliefs. Also, Augustine likes girls and finds the concept of celibacy to be at first strange, then, obviously, impossible. One day, in a garden, in a moment of despair, he hears a child in the adjoining yard sing a child’s song (although a children’s song he had never heard before), Tolle Lege (Take and Read). There is a book on the ground, the New Testament (natch), he takes it up and reads. An inner peace fills him and he spends the rest of his life firmly committed to the Church.

Is this considered the first memoir? It certainly is constructed in an artistic manner, with early chapters filled with insightful comments about education and childhood. What really struck me is that this life of an ancient Roman, which I expected would be utterly alien to me, filled with atavistic beliefs, did not seem alien at all. (For the most part.)  Apparently humanity, the family, ambition and the search for meaning hasn’t changed all that much. Another thing I thought was interesting is how he discusses addictions – sex, alcohol and interestingly enough, addiction to gladiator contests. The conversion, a powerfully dramatic scene, is the climax. The last couple of chapters are very metaphysical and hard to read. Or at least hard to read quickly.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Barney's Version by Mordecai Richler

A faux memoir by a thrice married Canadian television producer

Barney Panofsky, a Jewish guy from Montreal with a huge chip on his shoulder, sits down to write his memoir after getting offended by the contents of a "friend’s" memoir. Meanwhile, clues abound that Barney suffers from memory loss. Time, therefore, is of the essence. The book is divided into three sections, named after his three wives. Clara tells of his Bohemian years in Paris, The Second Mrs. Panofsky tells of his time as a rich successful businessman. And Miriam relates the years of his marriage to the beautiful love of his life, and how, because of his own prideful misjudgments, he lost her. Meanwhile, Barney’s trial for the murder of another old friend is interspersed throughout the sections, its solution withheld until the very last page.

At first I was thinking, this is kind of a budget Philip Roth, straining for laughs, but as the story went on I was able to appreciate more its deliberate structure, and I realized that the book is a genuine work of artistry, a character study of an obnoxious very deliberately politically incorrect braggart, loosely attached, maybe even mockingly attached, to a halfhearted murder mystery and a social critique of Montreal’s hidebound francophone anti-Semitic society. Here's another novel driven by the voice – a grating narrator, more than a little misogynistic, who gains sympathy because there are things he cares deeply about, namely Miriam and the kids. And even though he cares deeply about Miriam and the kids, he is unable not to alienate them. Perhaps he cares most of all for the Montreal Canadiens. A lost world, peopled by lively unique characters, is recreated. Finally, the narrative has postmodern footnoting, by Barney’s son, who makes several corrections to small errors of fact.