§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: August 2008

7th Decade Thoughts

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

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Great Man by Kate Christensen

The novel begins with the newspaper obit of Oscar Feldman, an influential painter whose work consisted entirely of female nudes, and it ends with a newspaper review of two just-published biographies of Feldman. Most of the action in the novel takes place five years after Feldman’s death, with detours into the past and the future.

Feldman had a wife, Abigail, and a retarded son to whom she was devoted and whom Oscar pretty much ignored. They lived in an apartment on Riverside Drive purchased by her wealthy parents when they married. He also had a long-term mistress, Claire (Teddy) St. Cloud, who lived in Brooklyn and with whom he had twin daughters, Ruby and Samantha. The other major player in the novel is his elder sister, Maxine, an abstract painter who’s got far less attention from the art world than Oscar. Abigail and Teddy have never met, though both know a great deal about the other. Maxine—a formidable elderly lesbian in her 80ies—supports Abigail but doesn’t like her and thoroughly disapproves of Teddy. Enter the two biographers to interview all these women: Henry, a college professor with a busy wife and infant son, who’s obviously not getting enough attention from his wife. Ralph is black and gay, but not “out”. There’s also a long-kept secret, known to the women, that will come out and make a splash in the art world.

The biographers’ questions and the secret they don’t really care to keep bring the women together and move them to deal finally with Oscar’s death. Teddy and her best friend Lila, both in their seventies, start affairs, Ruby has an affair with one of the biographers, and Abigail develops a different relationship with the other. Maxine’s career gets a boost when the secret comes out and she reconnects with a lover she let pass her by. One of the author’s stated aims for the book was to write about love and relationships among older women, one of those subjects novelists usually ignore—sex over seventy.

Christensen writes well and I laughed in a number of places, especially as Maxine characterizes (satirizes) a young woman who explains her work in contemporary art world terms. I liked it too that Maxine comes later to like and admire that same young woman. I laughed "review" of the two biographies at the end, but won't tell you why.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Theft by Peter Carey

Michael Boone, alias Butcher Bones, is a once celebrated Australian artist who’s just got out of jail for various crimes that resulted from his divorce and what he sees as the appropriation of his work as marital property. His reputation is in the toilet and he’s broke. His only benefactor, a collector named Jean-Paul, provides a rundown rural house in the far north of New South Wales and, there being no alternative, Michael and his retarded brother Hugh (for whom he’s legal guardian) light out for the territory to become caretakers. Once there Michael leverages Jean Paul’s property and credit to provide himself with minimal art supplies and begins to paint.

The novel is narrated by Michael—and sometimes by Hugh—and those voices are almost as great an achievement for Carey as was that of Ned Kelly. Michael and Hugh are both big men, violent and crude and funny. If you start the novel disliking them, chances are the further you read, the bigger fans you’ll become. Michael is a careless guardian but staunch defender of Hugh. Hugh, whom Michael frequently calls an Idiot Savant, provides commentary, often moral commentary, on Michael’s activities as well as carrying out his own shenanigans, which include the need to carry a chair with him at all times. They come from a pretty violent working class family (father a butcher; mother hid the knives at night) and haven’t modified their attitudes or behaviors much since entering the “art world” which seems artificial and anemic in comparison.

One rainy night a sleek sophisticated New Yorker (as Michael assumes) Marlene Liebowitz turns up looking for a neighbor’s house which is virtually inaccessible across a flooded creek. Captivated, Michael manages to get her there with Jean Paul’s mowing tractor. Turns out she’s come to authenticate a genuine Liebowitz owned by the neighbor. From there the plot twists are truly gargantuan. Marlene is not a New Yorker but an Aussie girl who burned down the high school after she was expelled and married the son of the famous painter in New York where she influenced him to use his droit moral (hereditary right to authenticate his deceased father’s work) to financial advantage. The Liebowitz owned by the neighbor is stolen that very night and because Michael’s current canvas turned out to be the exact same size, he’s soon raided by the art police who confiscate his work on the assumption that he’s hidden the valuable work underneath. And that’s only Act 1.

The major theme is the value of art and how value is determined. A difficult enough question in itself but complicated immensely by the fact that the entire art world in this novel is out to maximize profits and schemes to do so are perpetrated, usually at the expense of the artist. Marlene is clearly one of the thieves, but she’s a refreshingly candid one, and Michael’s obsessed with her—until she goes too far.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Black Dogs by Ian McEwan

I have always been somewhat suspicious of Ian McEwan. I first read Amsterdam which I disliked intensely since it was obvious to me what would happen very early in the novel and I didn’t particularly enjoy seeing it work out just as I predicted. Since then I’ve read a good chunk of his fiction and I’ve had this complaint: that he comes off as a more-than-usually-sophisticated thriller writer who focuses on the intrusion of gratuitous violence into the lives of the characters and watches how they deal with it.

Recently I read On Chesil Beach which I saw as very well put together and moving away from the usual formula (to which he returned, disappointingly in Saturday after attempting much more in Atonement) in that there was no physical violence and the dramatic plot development where the lovers separate on their wedding night never to see each other again grew out of their own psychology; it was not a crisis imposed from without.

Then I went back and read Black Dogs (published in 1992) and found it not nearly as “accomplished” especially in writing style as any of his last three, but not “just a sophisticated thriller” either. The narrator’s parents were killed in an accident when he was 8 and he grows up in the chaotic and unsupportive home of his elder sister. He makes a habit of interacting with the parents of his friends even as his friends rebel against them. Then he marries Jenny Tremaine and takes over the relationship with her parents, June and Bernard. As the novel starts, June and Bernard are elderly and the narrator, Jeremy, is interviewing June for a memoir he plans to write. The couple—both lapsed Communists—have lived their lives mostly apart, not because they don’t love each other, but because they disagree ideologically, June believing in both good and evil and in the possibility of unseen powers while Bernard remains the complete scientist/rationalist. Jeremy focuses on their philosophical differences and wonders if he’s better or worse because he has no philosophical passions.

June lived most of her life in a bergerie in France where she sought a spiritual life while Bernard was an active scientist, writer, journalist and politician in England. The event that marked their irreconcilable difference occurred on their honeymoon in France when June, wandering ahead of Bernard who stopped to examine an unusual caterpillar, encountered two large and vicious black dogs and during the confrontation experienced what seemed to her absolute evil (in the black dogs) as well as a visitation (evidenced by an unusual light event) from God who allowed her to survive.

The novel is set against the background of WWII. The “black dogs”, who turn out, appropriately, to be remnants of those trained by the Nazis during the occupation, are what separate June and Bernard. Bernard is proud that she defended herself with a knife and survived; June is sure she was allowed to survive in order to explore the spirituality inherent in human life. June believes in good and evil; Bernard believes in the infinite perfectibility of humans. Jeremy starts out feeling superior to both of them because he has no beliefs.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips

What a powerful novel! I’d never even heard of this one till it was picked for an online bookgroup I belong to. I couldn't put it down. Really a well conceived and imagined novel.

The novel begins with a father explaining how the crops failed and in desperation he sold his three children—Nash, Martha, and Travis—to a slave trader. The four sections that make up the center of the novel focus on each of the children as well as one a young ship’s captain on his first trip to bring slaves from Africa to America—the one who picks up the “2 strong man-boys and a proud girl” from their father. The focus of each section and its language is completely different and appropriate to the content. There is tragedy but also triumph in each life. Nash is conceived as an educated American Negro whose master sent him back to Africa in the 1820s—to the new nation of Liberia—to educate his people and to teach them Christianity. We read his letters to the master, increasingly despairing because he doesn’t hear back (his master’s wife has intercepted and destroyed the letters). Martha is a slave, sold away from her husband and daughter when the master of a Virginia plantation dies, who goes first to pre-Civil War Kansas which is not a slave state and then, when her owner intends selling her across the river (into Missouri which is a slave state) she runs away and joins a wagon train of free blacks going to California, but dies on the way, in Colorado. Travis is an American GI in WWII, stationed in England who carries on a delicate courtship with an Englishwoman, fathers a child, comes back to marry her, and then is killed on the beach in Italy. Nash’s and Martha’s voices are appropriate to their time and place; their thoughts are on freedom and on love. Travis is seen through the eyes of June who loves him though she’s never really known love before. There’s also a section focused on the captain of the American slave ship—consisting of excerpts from a ship’s log and letters to his wife.

Phillips doesn't handle each section the same way, nor are the voices exclusively those of the African disapora. Captain Hamilton's view point is important because he's not a hardened slave trader, though possibly his father, who captained the ship before him, was. But making the last section from Joyce's point of view was brilliant. Had he made it from Travis's, we might have gone over territory that had already been covered, but that of the woman who loved him brought something new.

I loved how Phillips tied it up at the end, in the voice of the distraught father who sold his children, quoting from each of the voices and relating their stories to black soldiers in Vietnam who "had no quarrel with the VietCong”, to Toussaint L'Overature, to those struggling with Papa Doc and other dictators, to Jazz and dance and James Baldwin (who in Paris wrote Nobody Knows My Name) and Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

I feel like the last person in the universe to read this one: I was turned off by the topic and besides I usually end up really angry with McEwan after I’ve finished one of his books, partly because I resent his “formula” of violence intruding into the lives of interesting people which has seemed to me not all that different from the series mystery writer who writes the same story over and over again. I’ve always admitted, though, that McEwan is a talented writer and that his books do get better and better. Although I haven’t read all his early books, my sense is that McEwan began to break out of the violence intruding pattern with Amsterdam. That book however really irritated me because it was clear early on what would happen—and when it did I was furious. Atonement I liked until I came to the end. There I was furious that he’d left us completely unprepared for Briony as novelist at the end—I’ve been meaning to reread it but haven’t. Still I think what irritated me so much is that McEwan couldn’t let go of his “surprise” technique—and he butchered his excellent novel trying to include it. Saturday seemed to me negligible as a novel—some interesting writing but back to the old violence intruding technique he’s so good at.

On Chesil Beach is a departure. No violence intruding from the outside. There is a surprise—though like most people I knew what it was before I started—and it was also not an intrusion from outside the lives of the characters, but a “bomb” contained in their relationship. I found it extreme but believable, possibly because while not British, I was born within a year of the characters and was also married at 22 in the early Sixties (one difference: the pill was available in the US in 1963 when I was married, though you could only get it if you were married). I had almost forgotten how different were attitudes toward sex.

Once I began reading, I was no longer “turned off by the topic”. Actually I couldn’t put the book down and read until 2AM to finish it. I was fascinated by the characters and interested in their backgrounds. I found the encounter in the wedding night hotel far more effective than I expected. If anything was wrong, it was the trailing off at the end. It is believable (though unlikely) that a couple could separate on their wedding night and never meet again. I was surprised, though, that the final chapter focused almost exclusively on Edward and attributed his scattered talents to the breakup with Florence. His unsuccessful relationships—clearly that’s a result we’re prepared for, but why did he not succeed academically without Florence?

The only detail from Florence’s point of view at the end is the fact that she looked for Edward in the seat where he promised to be when her quartet first performed at Wigmore Hall—though perhaps that detail tells us all we need to know about her afterlife: she followed her musical star successfully but never succeeded with a relationship. But was it a failure of nerve that McEwan didn’t get into her head at the end as he did early in the novel?

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I've always thought of The Great Gatsby as the quintessential "well-made novel". The characters are fully realized. The narrator is used incredibly effectively. The plot is neat. The images and symbols are clear, effective and grow naturally out of the descriptions. There's nothing irrelevant, no asides or distractions or meandering sub-plots. It's short and it works. And the writing is exquisite—there's a quote I've heard in another context on almost every page. In my opinion, Fitzgerald was the stylist of his generation, though possibly a bit backward-looking (while Hemingway's style was forward-looking, by which I mean Fitzgerald's style had more in common with Robert Louis Stevenson while Hemingway's pointed the way to the stylist of my generation—Joan Didion).

The story is about the American dream—and I suppose non-Americans read it to understand what that's all about—how a youngster from the Lake Superior shores could go from nothing to a major in the US Army in wartime to that fabulous house in West Egg with all those lovely shirts, but could still gaze achingly at the green light across the bay on the dock of a much less fabulous house owned by "real" rich people. Gatsby's money didn't come clean, but then neither did John D. Rockefeller's. But Gatsby was "worth the whole damn bunch put together"; even though Nick disapproved of him thoroughly, he shone in comparison with Tom and Daisy who "retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was than kept them together, and let other people clear up the mess they made".

"Gatsby believed in the green light, in the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us," says Nick, and—in case you don't buy the American Dream story—Nick is reminded of "the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world…when man must have held his breath in the presence of the continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

Fitzgerald didn't live long enough to see the moon landing….