§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: May 2010

7th Decade Thoughts

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

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín

I have liked all the books I've read by Tóibín. Not as enthusiastic as most about The Master (I suppose I think an emphasis on homosexual tendencies detracts from Henry James' accomplishments. I liked David Lodge's novel about James better--though I think absolutely nobody agreed with me.) I loved Blackwater Lightship. Tóibín's take on the psychology of all the characters is perfect in this novel about a family crisis when the mother, grandmother and sister of a young man come to terms with his homosexuality and ultimately his final days with AIDS. That emotional authenticity I found also in Brooklyn: A Novel.

Eilis Lacey is the main character and it just occurs to me that Tóibín handles this point of view with a technique "the master" called Centre of Consciousness, meaning it's a third person narrative but one that sees the world only from the character's point of view. James described it as looking through a hole in the head of the character so you see the world as that person sees it.

It's the 1950ies in a small town of Enniscorthy in Country Wexford, Ireland. Eilis lives with her mother and older sister, Rose. She's shy and awkward and feels insecure because she's not been able to get a job. Rose on the other hand has a responsible job, dresses well, is socially assured and plays golf every weekend. She advises Eilis on clothes and boy friends and jobs. Eilis looks up to her so when Rose talks to a priest from Brooklyn about job possibilities for her, Eilis goes along and before she knows it she's on the ship in third class and sick as a dog in the worst storm of the season. 

Eilis' story must be a typical one from a single woman coming from Ireland, supported by an Irish priest in an Irish parish where "strangers" are mostly those from different parts of Ireland. It's a narrow world, but not as narrow as the small town in Ireland for she meets Jews and Italians and other immigrants. The priest finds her an Irish landlady and a job as a shopgirl. Initially Eilis is nearly overcome with loneliness and home sickness until the priest enrolls her at Brooklyn College learning bookkeeping and commercial law. She's bright and does well and her studies provide the interest she hadn't initially had. 

At a parish dance, Eilis, still shy and gawky, meets Tony, born in Brooklyn of Italian parents. He's gentle and respectful and obviously in love with her, though there are hints that what Tony has in mind for the future (marriage, a house and construction business on Long Island, raising Dodgers fans) might not be enough for Eilis who's got more intelligence and more curiosity than Tony.

When Eilis returns to Ireland after a family tragedy, Tony persuades her to marry him secretly before she leaves. But back home, no longer so shy or unsure of herself, with American clothes and a tan, Eilis, who hasn't told her mother about her relationship with Tony, is a social success, courted by the very man who'd ignored her before. Now she is in danger of really falling in love and a role for her at home in Enniscorthy lies open before her. She doesn't open Tony's letters. Until a gossip who's been on the phone with her landlady threatens to spill the beans. 

The emotional truth of this novel is perfect. It's what I've come to expect with Tóibín.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

This book didn't get great reviews, but I've liked every one of Kingsolver's books since I started reading them with The Poisonwood Bible. I haven't read her earlier works. And I liked this one a lot, though not unreservedly.

This one is the story of a lonely boy who grows up to be a lonely man. He is imaginative and kind and he becomes an historical novelist, picking up on the subjects that fascinated him as a child. He ends up in Ashville, North Carolina, more or less by accident, and he is different from the average citizen of that or really any American city and he's persecuted for being different.

Harrison Shepherd is his name. He was born of a Mexican mother and an American father working for the US government in Washington. He was self educated because after his mother took him back to Mexico when he was 12, he never went to school—unless you count two cheap but totally inappropriate schools in Mexico City and in Washington. (We really know nothing of his life before he was 12—Kingsolver doesn’t characterize his life before that and there’s no retrospective on his early childhood. His father as a personality is virtually unknown, even though he figures briefly in the novel.)

The novel opens in 1929 with the diary of the young boy living in isolation on Isla Pixol with his mother, Salomé, and, some of the time, her married lover, a Mexican businessman always negotiating with American oil companies. He doesn’t go to school and for awhile the only thing he has to read is an Agatha Christie novel he reads over and over. He swims and with the village children’s searches for “the lacuna” the occasional cave in the rocks along the shore where one can get trapped by an incoming tide.  One can survive by waiting out the tides, but only Shepherd has the nerve to do it. His only friend on the island is a cook who teaches him how to make the dough for “pan dulce” a skill that gets him a job when he and his mother leave the island and hit harder times in Mexico City. The job is mixing the plaster for a famous painter and eventually the boy prepares plaster, cooks and acts as secretary in the house of Diego Riveria and Frida Kahlo.

It is there he meets Lev Davidovitch Trotsky, whom he admires and loves, and acts as his secretary and general factotum until the house is attacked and Trotsky killed with an icepick wielded by an agent of Stalin’s. The Mexican police arrest everyone in the house, at least temporarily, and confiscate everything, including all the boy’s journals.

It is 1940. The boy, in his early twenties,  has nothing of his own and with Diego and Frida leaving, he decides to go back to the US and find his father. Frida commissions him officially to deliver crated paintings to a gallery in NY. She also specifies one crate which is a gift to him—a gift which he doesn't open for two years and which turns out to be the push he needs to get him started on his vocation.

At this point the novel changes directions drastically and one Violet Brown takes over the narration. She is a marvelous creation. A woman in her late 30ies, Violet comes from what we now call Appalachia and speaks an antique sort of English that sets her apart from the rest of the people in Ashville. She’s a widow whose husband died in a flood after less than a year of marriage, a woman who lives in a boarding house and does secretarial/bookkeeping work for the city of Ashville, one of those incredibly efficient woman who seem to most to have “no life”. But Mrs. Brown had left her restrictive life in the hills with dreams of education and travel and finding a broader world.  A woman open to new possibilities, she stands in stark contrast to Harrison Shepherd’s fun-loving but selfish and irresponsible mother. When he ends up in Ashville writing historical novels about ancient Mexico, Violet Brown comes to work as his secretary.

After Mexico, the narrative is mostly Violet’s, with her quiet efficiency, open- yet tough-mindedness, and interest in art and in the world beyond Ashville. And her quaint and charming method of talking. It’s clear that Harrison Shepherd is dead and that she’s left this manuscript to be published after her death—and that the narrative includes some diaries written by Shepherd. That she loved him is clear. It’s also clear that she feels a need to “set the record straight” though, at first, about what is not at all clear.

The weakest part of the novel, I think, is actually the subject—how the life and work of a gentle, thoughtful, generous and open-minded man is turned into the worst kind of menace and degradation by his association with “known Communists” in his youth.  Kingsolver also makes Shepherd  homosexual—basically to provide a “psychological” excuse for his not having been drafted in the war—and also to cause him to isolate himself even more—and make him even more suspicious to the FBI investigators for the House Un-American Activities Committee. The reviews of his books are taken out of context. Statements made by characters in his books are attributed to Shepherd talking about the leaders of the US. The fact that Trotsky was killed by Stalin having spent the last part of his life trying to rescue Russia from what Stalin had done to Communism is not something the FBI understood so Shepherd’s respect and sadness at Trotsky's death is seen as proof that he advocates the violent overthrow of the government of the United States. Even though Shepherd is completely apolitical, never even having exercised his right to vote.

Kingsolver makes the evidence against Shepherd completely absurd: because a reviewer said his books were so popular they were probably being read in China, he’s accused to consoreting with the Chinese Communists. Not that absurdities like those dreamed up against Shepherd didn’t occur. Not that innocent and productive citizens were not ruined by the Communist scares of the late 40ies and early 50ies. Imprisoned and driven to suicide. But for the reader, the building up of phony evidence gets boring and predictable.

What’s not predictable and therefore thoroughly enjoyable is the ending.