Book Review: The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy

Sally Jay Gorce, the protagonist of Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, is motivated by a desire to prevent the following nightmare from becoming reality:

It takes place in sort of a vast hall, in the center of which sits a girl behind a desk….The closer I get to this girl, the older she becomes, until she turns into a middle-aged spinster librarian. Then I see that it’s me. People keep coming up to her from every direction asking her for books. They are all going somewhere….Everyone is in a hurry. They are all going somewhere except me. I’m trapped….When I awaken…my space urge is upon me stronger than ever. (pp. 198-199)

The urge for space and motion might have compelled SJG to join the French Foreign Legion, but alas she settles for immersion in superficiality, which, I guess, is a pretty good way for her to avoid getting involved in anything heavy. Her escape does in fact proceed through France, but it is the France of the floating, expatriate fashion show, where the insipid competition for status is de rigueur. The following passage is typical:

We were driving along toward Saint-Germain. Jim asked me if I wanted to stop off and have a drink there. Would I rather have a drink there, was the way he put it. I saw what he was getting at, of course. The subtle distinction between the cafés of Saint-Germain at l’heure bleue, and his own preferred watering hole, the Select in Montparnasse, was not lost on me. Saint-Germain is only five minutes away from Montparnasse, and they are both everything that is meant by ‘bohemian’ and ‘left-bank,’ but they are not interchangeable. Ho-ho. Far from.

[Ooh la la!]

The floating Saint-Germainian – and by that I mean the type of expatriate we were likely to run into, not the rooted French Intellectual who is too protectively colored to be winkled out – was cleaner, shrewder, smarter, more fashionable, more successful, more knowing; in brief more on the make, than his Montparnassian contemporary….What Jim was trying to find out by this question was if I was that sort of person. I decided for the time being that I wasn’t. (pp. 84-85)

Mon dieu. Thanks for clearing that up.

All right. I can see that the distinction between Saint-Germain and Montparnasse is of critical importance in this refugee librarian’s world and that its importance conveys a lot about her world, but it still isn’t important to me or, I daresay, at all.

En fait, all this is very New York, très, très New York – so New York that it’s let’s-not-even-bother-to-think-of-an-adjective New York.

Vous pensez que j’exagère?

It was really funny to see how his well-here-I-am-let’s-see-what-this-little-old-burg-and-its-natives-has-to-offer attitude was quickly caught by the natives and just as quickly resented by the natives. (p. 89)

Pfui!

Speedboat Dream

I dreamed I was playing what I thought was a video game but which turned out to be a real-life intercontinental remote control, piloting a super-fast speedboat as it coursed down a river in Europe, while watching on my living-room TV. The object was to beat the clock and to avoid obstacles, especially canoes and kayaks. For the most part, my “game” was going well, as my speedboat only occasionally veered too close to the unpowered craft, swamping them and spilling their passengers into the drink.

The remote system was preposterous: a Playstation 2 controller for steering, which I had to operate entirely with my left hand; and a sphygmomanometer bulb for my right hand, to control speed. The turning point of the game came between rounds, when I set the controller down for a moment and accidently pressed a button that selected an alternate subject vehicle without changing the video feed. When I resumed play, I was still watching my speedboat on the Danube but actually driving an 18-wheeler on the New Jersey Turnpike. Without understanding what had happened, I grew desperate at the controls, looking on in panicked impotence as my river-skimming meteor careened into clusters of kayaks and canoes, launching them skyward in cartwheeling comets of cedar, fiberglass, aluminum, paddles, and people.

God knows what havoc I wreaked on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Book Review: Skylark, by Dezső Kosztolányi

Dezső Kosztolányi’s Skylark is pure delight. It depicts a week in the life of a provincial Hungarian town at the fin de siècle, when the unassuming protagonists, a Father and Mother in their late fifties, are deprived of the company of their homely daughter, Skylark, who goes to visit relatives. The town’s aristocratic bourgeoisie supplies the supporting cast and completes the book’s charm.

In a smart introduction, contemporary novelist Péter Esterházy quotes Kosztolányi’s diary:

I have always really been interested in just one thing: death….For me, the only thing I have to say, however small an object I am able to grasp, is that I am dying. (pp. xiii-xiv)

The result, quite logical if you think about it, is a “love of life” (Esterházy’s phrase) that permeates Skylark’s every page. No one dies in the course of the story. However, it brims with what the Japanese call aware, a sense of the impermanence of all things, felt most acutely when it emerges from a feeling of pleasure, sweetening it by cutting it short. In Skylark, the aware is on one occasion, an evening of cards at the club, made explicit:

One game spilled into another, with Ákos [the Father] shrewdly holding his own, uncovering every plot and scheme, averting every ambush. It was a long, long game.

But not for Ákos or the other players. What did they know of time, since falling captive to the magic of the cards? For all card players enjoy the intoxication of complete forgetting, and enter a separate universe whose every contours are defined by the cards….

Ákos gave them all a thorough thrashing. Only then did he glance at the clock ticking away on the wall before him. It was already after half past nine. He was suddenly seized by an inexplicable melancholy.

For a moment he hung his head, crestfallen after his unaccustomed frivolity. (p. 140)

A few pages later, Kosztolányi drives the point home:

Ákos suddenly picked up a tumbler full of schnapps they had set before him and downed it in one. The alcohol warmed its way through his body and lifted him to his feet. There was an enormous knocking in his old brain and he felt such delight that he really wouldn’t have minded in the least if there and then, in this moment of giddy ecstasy, when he felt his whole being, his whole life, was in his grasp, he were to fall down and die on the spot. (p. 147)

Et voilà: Life and death are yin and yang, ever-present in equal measure, at the taroc table, in a glass of schnapps, in everything.

Rounding out his study of cosmic paradox, Kosztolányi inserts exquisite portraiture of the oddity of human behavior, as in:

They met secretly in their lodgings, scoffing at everything, disparaging everyone, especially one another. An amber-tipped cigarette holder or a silver cigarette case could fill them with such unspeakable envy, and the good fortune of one of their number with such loathing, that they would immediately conspire against him and (remaining within the bounds of friendship, of course) contemplate causing him fatal injury, denouncing him in an anonymous letter or simply wringing his neck. (p. 19)

and:

In the end, he did what he always did in such situations: the opposite of what he’d originally intended. (p. 22)

Again, pure delight.

Book Review: Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin

James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain is exquisitely written and filled with poignant truths. Here’s one concerning the resentment of children toward dutiful parents:

Through a storm of tears that did not reach his eyes, he stared at the yellow room; and the room shifted, the light of the sun darkened, and his mother’s face changed. Her face became the face that he gave her in his dreams, the face that had been hers in a photograph he had seen once, long ago, a photograph taken before he was born. This face was young and proud, uplifted, with a smile that made the wide mouth beautiful and glowed in the enormous eyes. It was the face of a girl who knew that no evil could undo her, and who could laugh, surely, as his mother did not laugh now. Between the two faces there stretched a darkness and a mystery that John feared, and that sometimes caused him to hate her. (p. 22 of 1963 Dial Press edition)

Here’s one concerning the resentment of wives toward dutiful husbands:

Sometimes it occurred to him to do the Saturday shopping on his way home, so that she would not have to do it; in which case he would buy a turkey, the biggest and the most expensive he could find, and several pounds of coffee, it being his belief that there was never enough in the house, and enough breakfast cereal to feed an army for a month. Such foresight always filled him with such a sense of his own virtue….She would sit in the kitchen, cold with rage and staring at the turkey, which, since Frank always bought them unplucked and with the head on, would cost her hours of exasperating, bloody labor. (pp. 93-94)

Upon the whole, though, the book is dominated by the binary relationship between sin and salvation. “‘You think that’s all that’s in the world is jails and churches? You ought to know better than that, Ma.’” (p. 25) Somewhat monotonously, few characters in the book do know better than that. The existence of a third way is hinted at very occasionally, as in “Perhaps his life had been wicked, but he had been very good to her” (p. 177); but Baldwin never suffers his characters to elaborate upon it, nor does he ever do so as narrator, for the result, no doubt, would be didactic. Rather, Baldwin lets the binary stand, leaving it to the reader to lament.

Even if the fork in the road offers only two choices, one path should lead to redemption…shouldn’t it?

What I’m Working On

My current book project is a little hard to explain, but I’ll try:

  1. I translated a seventeenth-century Chinese text, a detailed account of a tedious political imbroglio, into English.
  2. I extracted an intriguing subplot concerning a despicable family, resulting in a snappy 6000-word text.
  3. I transplanted the setting to contemporary Baltimore. My impulse was threefold:
    • Chinese settings seem to discourage would-be readers, and Baltimore may prove more accessible;
    • Chinese names are especially off-putting to would-be readers, so  rendering Zhang Qi as Tinus Juckman, Gu Xiangtai as Morgan Schwartzenberg, and Chen Luqian as Ruckleshaus Schumacher will hopefully yield more memorable characters;
    • Transplanting Chinese institutions such as eunuchs and public floggings to Baltimore produces a keen jarring effect.
  4. For fuller length and depth (and for the challenge) I am now employing an Oulipo method called larding, which means inserting one new sentence between every two sentences of a given text. The baseline translated/edited/transplanted 6000-word text has, as of this posting, been subjected to almost two full rounds of larding and currently stands at 22,000 words. I plan to lard it a total of three times.

I call it Meet Me at the RASCAL. Here is a choice sentence: “Tinka Klein and an oud player named Ashurbanipal, both naked and dreadlocked to the pubes, leapt back and forth between the modules of Goldie’s Italian leather sofa, trying to avoid collateral damage.”

Book Review: Abigail, by Magda Szabó

The passage from childhood to adulthood is marked by an exchange of cares from the petty to the existential. A certain reorientation of perspective occurs as well: The child lives inside her petty cares; the adult views her existential ones from a certain sensible distance.

In Magda Szabó’s Abigail, Georgina Vitay must make the transition all at once, at the command of her father, the General: “From this moment onwards, Gina, your childhood is over. You are now an adult, and you will never again live as other children do. I am going to place my life, and yours, and that of many other people, in your hands.” (p. 121)

It is war, of course, that forces the General’s hand and compresses Gina’s adolescence into a moment. Instantly, her involvement in the world of schoolgirl pranks and grudges is ended, replaced by a series of life-or-death crises. She is now “the new Gina” (p. 126), and her transformation is noted frequently thereafter in such sentences as “They could not shake off the impression that she was playing with them…playing the way an adult does when joining in with the children.” (p. 134)

World War Two has become such a common setting for coming of age books and films that I wonder how anyone has been able to grow up since 1945. Maybe we haven’t. At any rate, Abigail is not only superlative in the subgenre but is a gem in its own right.

Book Review: Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset

Kristin Lavransdatter narrates the epic romance of a serious woman and an unserious man. The latter is just serious enough to resent the former’s resentment of his unseriousness, resulting in the main crises of the storyline.

One such crisis produces the following masterpiece of hurt:

Certainly she had been wrong many times before, and in anger she had often spoken mean and vile words to her husband. But what offended her most bitterly was that Erland would never offer to forget and forgive unless she first humbled herself and asked him meekly to do so. She didn’t think she had let her temper get the better of her very often; couldn’t he see that it was usually when she was tired and worn out with sorrows and anguish, which she had tried to bear alone? That was when she could easily lose mastery over her feelings. (p. 864)

Here is my favorite sentence:

Each time she glanced over at him she would lower her gaze, overwhelmed, when she saw in Erland’s face how young she was. (p. 922)

There’s also a lot of religious stuff.

The pacing undulates, which is perhaps inevitable in such a long book. Engaging episodes punctuate long spells of reflection.

Book Review: Iola Leroy, by Frances E.W. Harper

Frances E.W. Harper’s Iola Leroy is a portrait of slavery and its aftermath in mid-19th century America. It focuses on two protagonists of mixed race, the mother and daughter Marie and Iola Leroy, to illustrate the absurdity of American slavery: One moment, the two light-skinned women are paragons of gentility – with Iola going so far as to defend slavery at her Northern girls’ school – the next moment, they are slaves.

Covering the Civil War and emancipation, Iola Leroy is an inspiring story of liberation. As Harper narrates, “The lost cause went down in blood and tears, and on the brows of a ransomed people God poured the chrism of a new era, and they stood a race newly anointed with freedom.” (p. 138)

As one of Harper’s characters recounts:

‘When de war war ober an’ de sogers war still stopping’ yere, I made pies an’ cakes, sole em to de sogers, an’ jist made money han’ ober fist. An’ I kep’ on a workin’ an’ a savin’ till my ole man got back from de war wid his wages and his bounty money. I felt right set up an’ mighty big wen we counted all dat money. We had neber seen so much money in our lives befo’, let alone hab it fer ourselbes. An’ I sez, “John, you take dis money an’ git a nice place wid it.”’

(In fact, Aunt Linda and husband John do manage to buy a plot of land from some friendly Jews.) (pp. 154-155)

A third observer is “delighted at the thrift and industry” well in evidence in the postbellum South, as its people taste their first draft of freedom. (p. 153)

However, even as the freedmen adapt to liberty with manifest “thrift and industry,” Harper’s more elite protagonists remain convinced of their need for shepherding. At a meeting of self-appointed black leaders, described in the chapter called “Friends in Council,” one speaker laments “‘the fearful grinding and friction which comes in the course of an adjustment of the new machinery of freedom in the old ruts of slavery.’” (p. 255) Another poetizes, “‘Oh, children of the tropics, / Amid our pain and wrong / Have you no other mission / Than music, dance, and song? / When through the weary ages / Our dripping tears still fall, / Is this a time to dally / With pleasure’s silken thrall?’” (pp. 251-252) Discussing the possibility of freedmen emigration, yet another speaker warns against “‘emptying on the shores of Africa a horde of ignorant, poverty-stricken people.’” (pp. 246-247) More than one participant at the meeting voices alarm at the freedmen’s susceptibility to drink, an ironic echo of the argument against black enfranchisement then being made by the unreconstructed.

Naturally, these intellectuals see themselves as the rectifiers of their people’s supposed defects. “‘I do not think,’” says one, “‘that we can begin too early to teach our boys to be manly and self-respecting, and our girls to be useful and self-reliant.’” Iola agrees: “‘We must instill into our young people that the true strength of a race means purity in women and uprightness in men.’” (pp. 253-254) Another concerned person characterizes this civilizing we as “‘a union of women with the warmest hearts and clearest brains to help in the moral education of the race.’” (p. 254) This note of paternalism (or maternalism) is sounded with breathtaking self-confidence and presumption, in ways that harken (again, ironically) to the old paternalism of the planters.

It is the opinion of the reviewer that the new birth of freedom in the mid-19th century, which affected not only America but also such places as Russia (where serfs were emancipated in 1861), inspired great panic on the part of the elite. On the one hand, deposed masters such as the gentry of the American South contrived to recover their position. On the other hand, intellectuals, often the same people who had welcomed servile emancipation, now regarded the newly liberated masses (or newly enfranchised masses like Irish immigrants) as unfit for self-rule. They either looked the other way when the aristos returned to power or, more adventurously, sought to take the aristos’ places under the guise of enlightened (or even revolutionary) leadership.

Iola Leroy is a case study of this latter approach. Civil War liberation epic that it is, Harper’s novel actually becomes rather preoccupied with the reimposition of hierarchy; it is more representative of the thermidorian reaction of the postbellum Reconstruction or Gilded Age years, when new elites sought to supplant old. The book was published in 1892. Significantly, one of its characters, during the above-mentioned friendly council, takes stock of the recent years’ broken chains in a somewhat dispirited way (““Millions of slaves and serfs have been liberated during this century, but not even in semi-barbaric Russia, heathen Japan, or Catholic Spain has slavery been abolished through such a fearful conflict as it was in the United States.’”) before turning his attention to alcohol (“‘The liquor traffic still sends its floods of ruin and shame to the habitations of men.’”), implying that the freedman remains in a degraded state, from which only a redoubled effort, no doubt by those with the warmest hearts and clearest brains, can redeem him (for as yet “‘no political party has been found with enough moral power and numerical strength to stay the tide of death.’”). (p. 250) The reader will have noted that ordinary freedmen are shown by Harper to speak in dialect, while their aspiring redeemers orate in formal English, as though the author were suggesting almost-organic differences between them, justifying the need for guidance.

Even before the friendly council, Harper’s heroine aspires to fill the need. She hopes, in plain language, to become a teacher, but she spreads her enthusiasm a bit thick:

‘To be,’ continued Iola, ‘the leader of a race to higher planes of thought and action, to teach men clearer views of life and duty, and to inspire their souls with loftier aims, is a far greater privilege than it is to open the gates of material prosperity and fill every home with sensuous enjoyment.’ (p. 219)

In fact, Iola feels well qualified for the role. “‘I should be very glad to have an opportunity to teach,’ said Iola. ‘I used to be a great favorite among the colored children on my father’s plantation.’” (p. 145)

Thus does yesterday’s mistress become today’s missionary, retaining her seat at the head of her constituency, with the relation of superior to subordinate preserved.

Book Review: Farnsworth’s Classical English Style, by Ward Farnsworth

The main argument made in Farnsworth’s Classical English Style is that good writing involves the balancing of contrasts. Many of these contrasts are rhythmic, and one good way to vary rhythmic flow, treated extensively in the first part of Farnsworth’s book, is to set off polysyllabic Latinate words from monosyllabic Saxon ones. Other contrasts that distinguish good writing are those between abstract and concrete imagery and front-loaded and back-loaded sentences. Farnsworth’s general watchword, however, is variation.  

This stress on ebb and flow as a hallmark of good prose counts as a rebuke to the modern arbiters of style who have instilled in recent generations of writers the imperative always to compress and economize. While efficiency in writing is certainly an object, Farnsworth argues, it should not be pursued to monotonous extremes. Doing so, he laments, is like removing some of the instruments – long words, long sentences, and formal language – from the orchestra a writer conducts, altogether a “rhetorical misfortune.” (pp. xiv-xv) In another musical simile, Farnsworth asserts that “skilled writers, like musicians, don’t always play at the same speed.” (p. 12) Summing up the rule of variation, Farnsworth notes:

Good writing has variety in the sounds that it makes, in whether it is more or less refined, in whether it is abstract or concrete, and in whether it appeals to the heart or mind. All those variations create rhetorical energy that can be put to various uses, as by enabling a writing or a speech to convince, inspire, or scathe. (p. 12)

As easily as I’m convinced by Farnsworth’s argument, and as illuminating as I find his book, I am almost sorry I read it. To maintain the musical analogy: We should simply recall the words of Duke Ellington – “If it sounds good, it is good” – and be confident that the goodness of a piece of writing is self-evident. I would hate to lose my instinct for a pleasing cadence while self-consciously debating between the anapestic and the dactylic. I guess the important thing is to be clear about how the book is to be used (maybe “approached” would have been a better word). Farnsworth’s is a pleasure to read, and the examples of good writing it provides may establish themselves in the reader’s mind in such a way as to inform, subliminally, his choices as a writer; but its terminologies, while helpful for purposes of discussion, will be of no aid to creativity. “If I Fell” is a catchy Beatles song, in part because of the tritone substitution in its intro, but John Lennon didn’t necessarily know what a tritone substitution was, much less read about it in a reference book and decide to write a song with one. Such a notion is – how should I put it? – risible, nonsensical, horseshit.  (I wanted a parenthetical interrupter with a strong Saxon finish.)

This is a good book.