§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: August 2007

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Woman in Jerusalem by A. B. Yehoshua

This is a fast-paced, plot-dominated novel that rings lots of bells and leaves the reader at the end laughing out loud but also seriously exploring the issues it raises.

The main character is “the human resources manager” of a large Jerusalem bakery. He used to be the top salesman but was transferred when extensive travel interfered with his home life. His wife divorced him anyway. The main focus of the novel is a corpse—and oddly the only character with a name—Yulia Ragayev, a non-Jewish immigrant from an unnamed Slavic country who came to Jerusalem with a Jewish lover who abandoned her. Her son went back to his father but Yulia remained, employed as a cleaner (though she is a trained engineer) at the bakery. She comes to the human resources manager’s attention when a weekly scandal rag accuses the company of “gross negligence” in not caring what happened to her. Her body has been in the morgue, unidentified, for a week after she was killed in a terrorist attack. The reporter found a pay stub from the bakery in her possession.

Other main characters include the owner of the bakery who wants his human resources manager to turn around the negative publicity the company will get from the reporter’s soon-to-be-published article, the human resources manager’s assistant (with her husband and baby to say nothing of the human resources manager’s daughter and ex-wife) as well as the owner’s assistant and a night manager who was Yulia’s boss, and who, it turns out, is “responsible” for the fact that Yulia had a pay stub but was not in fact working at the bakery. There’s the reporter and the photographer and eventually the honorary consul (located in the unnamed Slavic country) and her husband. Oh, yes, Yulia’s son and her ex-husband.

The situation escalates as the investigation progresses. It turns out that Yulia was beautiful, fair with unusual Tartar eyes. The night manager had let her go because he’d become obsessed with her and the human resources manager, even though he refuses to look at her corpse, becomes similarly obsessed. He is “blamed” for the situation—he is after all the human resources manager and as such responsible for any irregularities connected with personnel. And it also turns out that he interviewed Yulia—he has his notes on what she told him—without remembering either her person or her plight. The escalating situation raises touchy issues connected with what happens to immigrants and the effects of living with terrorism as well as nationality and what that means. Even more it raises issues of responsibility for what happens to individuals in a complex society.

I won’t give you any more of the plot—you need to read it for yourself. It’s a quick read, but one that will stick with you.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Author, Author by David Lodge

I read Colm Toibin’s book before this one only because it was chosen by a book group. I liked it but liked this one better. Explaining why will be hard since I think most readers have preferred Toibin.

Lodge frames his tale really well, opening as James lies dying in Carlyle Mansions, Cheyne Walk, in December 1915. His sister-in-law, widow of William James comes to “take charge”; a female servant is in love with his man servant who was already wounded in the war and James has used his influence to get him a medical discharge which hasn’t come through yet; James (to the chagrin of his sister-in-law) has taken British citizenship; and it’s just been announced that he’s on the New Year’s Honors List and getting congratulations from his many friends. James himself is a little out of it, but not totally. When he’s told he got congratulations from Du Maurier, he remarks that his friend is dead, as indeed is his friend George Du Maurier. It’s Gerald, his son, the actor, who’s sent the note. The novel ends with the death of James in February 1916, with the same cast of characters in attendance, framing the novel nicely, introducing and tying up its main themes.
The bulk of the novel focuses on the period in James’ life when he begins to think that no one reads fiction seriously—his books in particular—and he tries to turn his talents to the theatre. It also focuses on his friendship with George Du Maurier, an artist turned cartoonist when he lost the sight of one eye in his youth. Du Maurier is not James’ intellectual equal and unlike James he lives in a sprawling Hampstead house with a beloved wife and a houseful of children. James liked to walk out there of a Sunday and walk on the Heath with Du Maurier while the children played. On one occasion, Du Maurier says he has a story James might like to develop. It’s about a young girl who’s an artist model….

"She becomes a famous chanteuse on the Continent under the tutelage of a little foreign Jew, a musician. She was sought out by a young impoverished artist who had known her as the good looking but stupid daughter of his landlady and was intrigued by her success. He heard the girl perform and was overwhelmed by the beauty of her singing. “In fact he begins to fall in love with her,” said Du Maurier. 'But then he discovers that the Jew is a mesmerist and the girl can only perform when she’s under his influence. When the Jew suddenly dies, in the middle of a performance, she becomes totally ordinary again—sings like a crow. I’m not sure how the story should end.'"

James didn’t take it very seriously and he told DuMaurier he didn’t think he knew enough about music to write it.

As James begins to write for the theatre, starting with a dramatization of The American, Du Maurier starts to write fiction. His first novel is published and finds more readers than The Tragic Muse, which encourages James even more to get involved with the theatre. By the time Du Maurier writes Trilby, using the plot James had rejected, and it becomes a runaway “bestseller” (a new American term James hates) as well as a successful play on both sides of the Atlantic, James realizes he is jealous of his friend.

I won’t give away any more of the plot. If you love James you’ll love this book. Lodge has tracked down the germs of many of James stories and novels, following history pretty carefully but adding shape and selecting detail to make a pretty satisfying novel. The focus is on the period when James expected to be able to make his fortune in the theatre until he reorganized his priorities and gave up the theatre to write (eventually) his three last and most famous novels.

The novel does really cover the same period as does Toibin’s novel, including the relationship with Constance Fennimore Woolson.

Daphne Du Maurier, by the way, was the granddaughter of James's friend.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

This is a reread for me. It was well worth rereading because I hadn’t discovered the first time around that Hazzard is best read slowly, paying attention to the texture of the prose. Somewhat like one would read Elizabeth Bowen.

The title reverberates through the novel. It refers obviously to WWII which is just past—all the characters are somehow involved at the beginning in the occupation of Japan. It refers to the love affair which is the heart of the book. It also seems to refer to the bombing of Hiroshima—the setting as the novel begins is near the former Japanese naval base at Kure, in the vicinity of Hiroshima. There’s also a scene where the main character, Aldred Leith, goes home to England and, passing the Monument, recalls climbing to its top as a schoolboy. He mentions that it commemorates the “great fire of 1666” and then remarks something to the effect that “we have gone through our own great fire” referring surely to WWII—he fought in several theatres as an enlisted man, got a field promotion to officer, was seriously wounded, captured and escaped. Referring also to the repeated bombing of the City of London—the Monument must have been the scene of many fires in the fall and spring of 1940-1941 as well as when the rockets fell later.

In the present of the novel, circa 1947, Leith feels old before his time and uncertain of his future (he’s stayed in the Army partly because he doesn’t know what else to do), recognizing also that Britain’s place in the world is drastically changing. He’d spent a year in China and wrote a report on the Revolution Mao would shortly bring to a close. Now he has a similar assignment in Japan. He knows he must go back to Britain soon to get his China book published.

At Kure he meets Helen and Benedict. They sound like a Shakespearean duo, but that Helen is from Love’s Labor’s Lost and that Benedict, from Much Ado about Nothing. In any case, they are brother and sister, not lovers. Their father is an unlikable, unworthy martinet of an Aussie brigadier, and their mother a scheming socialite with questionable taste, but the children are totally unlike them. They’ve been neglected, possibly providentially, and as a result have traveled the world alone, catching up with their parents and reading Gibbon on shipboard. Benedict is ill and it’s increasing clear he will not live long. Helen is devoted to him; the parents show their concern by finding an American doctor who wants to experiment on him.

Leith arrives, somewhat prepared, because of an encounter with Ginger, a British officer, dying as a result of illness contracted in a Japanese prison camp. Indeed he dies within 24 hours, but everything he told Leith turns out to be quite accurate, among other things that the parents were ghastly but the children wonderfully bright and fresh and loving. Helen is 17, inexperienced in everything except books, devoted to her brother. Leith, divorced after the war and hardly looking for love, finds it almost instantly, somewhat to his chagrin, in this very young girl. He is 32.

It’s not immediately obvious that the plot is essentially a love story. Evidently Hazzard based it on her own experience at that age, a love affair broken up by her parents. Wisely, however, she made Leith the main character though not the only point of view in the novel. We do see some from the point of view of Helen and other characters as well as from that of Peter Exley, an Australian Leith had met and made friends with in Cairo, encountered again in the prison camp and who is now stationed in Hong Kong attached to some war crimes tribunals. Like Leith, the war has changed him and left him uncertain what comes next. The subplot focusing on Exley is somewhat unsatisfying because the reader never hears the end of his story, but the interaction between the two illuminates Leith’s character as well as makes the reader care what happens to Exley.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Falling Man by Don DeLillo

I’m still not sure how I feel about this one. I’ve been reading DeLillo—his longest and best known books—and I must admit I was really looking forward to this one but was sort of disappointed. It’s not bad—the writing is fine as usual, but it all seems sort of obvious. A man escapes from the North Tower with an injury to his wrist and a stranger’s briefcase. He knows he lives too close to go home and suddenly finds himself on his estranged wife’s doorstep. There’s a reconciliation of sorts—few words and no decisions—and family life resumes. His son reports on his friends’ concern about “Bill Lawton” returning and refuses to believe that the towers have fallen.

Keith—that’s the man’s name—returns the briefcase, feels a connection with the woman who owned it. They meet because they understand each other as no one who didn’t survive the towers can. They start a brief affair. Liane, Keith’s wife works with a group of Alzheimer’s patients who write journals of their experiences as a way of keeping in touch with themselves. She rails against an editor who assumes she’s too “involved” to edit a book about terror. She realizes she’s more dependent on her group of Alzheimer’s writers than they on her. She realizes her mother’s lover, whose real name her mother never even knew, was a terrorist in Germany in his youth, a “white terrorist, our terrorist” she muses. There are bits about a real terrorist, one who has a girl in Hamburg, eats too much and gains weight, waffles about his decision to fly on one of the planes. There’s the “falling man” performance artists who falls from high places all over town, drawing large crowds and then one day falls to his death.

Keith leaves his family again shortly after meeting one member of the weekly poker game who did survive, following him on the professional poker circuit—though they rarely actually met on the tour. His life becomes flights, airports, hotel rooms, artificial atmospheres like casinos. He’s not happy but he’s not miserable either. He’s sort of drugged by an experience that hasn’t gone away yet.

I’ll read it again I’m sure. For DeLillo it’s short. I think my conclusion is that the writer’s who’ve chosen to take on 9/11 obliquely have done better. Clearly DeLillo doesn’t know what’s going to happen to Keith—there’s not been enough time.