domingo, 13 de octubre de 2013

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009)
by Muriel Spark
Scotland, 1961

Considering the ridiculous # of times I've put off hooking up w/reputed brainy vixen Muriel Spark despite the enthusiastically proffered introductions of high class book pimps like Frances of Nonsuch Book and Séamus of Vapour Trails, I guess I only have myself to blame for this long-overdue admission: man, am I terms more properly suited to this quick-reading but thorny morality tale set in 1930s Edinburgh at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls, what I'm trying to get at is that I found The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to be a superb, surprisingly complex novella that actually manages to live up to its massive hype with a spare, low-key style and an unpredictability that feels organic rather than forced--and even though Spark's authorial voice was every bit as recognizably distinctive as advertised ("flattening their scorn beneath the chariot wheels of her superiority," on page 56, will have to serve as the soundbite du jour), I so enjoyed the rest of her prose while immersed in it that I was variously reminded of Robert Walser's Jakob von Gunten for its unconventional but intensely felt characterization, Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse for a deft but devastating fast-forwarding storytelling technique that's used on occasion throughout the work, and Marguerite Duras' Moderato cantabile for the novelist's complete command of her material amid a stripped-down economy of scale...of course, perhaps the easiest way for me to xmit my newfound appreciation for some of the more aesthetically fetching aspects of Spark's contempo classic is to contrast her high degree of difficulty portrayal of the title character, a charismatic and influential teacher who will suffer a betrayal less for her "experimental" pedagogy or for being an open admirer of some of the fascist changes taking place in 1930s Germany, Italy, and Spain and more from the personal animus of a couple of moral fascists including one from within her inner circle, with the light touch evident in this miniaturized portrait of one of Brodie's impressionable young students: "Eunice Gardiner discovered the Industrial Revolution, its rights and wrongs, to such an extent that the history teacher, a vegetarian communist, had high hopes of her which were dashed within a few months when Eunice reverted to reading novels based on the life of Mary Queen of Scots" (87-88).  Intellectually speaking, a hot date.

Muriel Spark (1918-2006)

domingo, 6 de octubre de 2013

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro

The Tragedy of Fidel Castro [A tragédia de Fidel Castro] (River Grove Books, 2012)
by João Cerqueira [translated from the Portuguese by Karen Bennett and Chris Mingay)
Portugal, 2008

"A novel," it says on the front of the book, "alternative history," it says on the back--and who am I to quibble over such a contradictory pair of descriptions?  Lightweight but frequently laugh out loud funny novelization of the history of the surprisingly little known war between JFK and Castro that was mediated by Fátima, Jesus, and, in a scene-stealing cameo, the devil.  While the garish cover and a couple of translation infelicities (the expression "hawks and doves" is repeatedly translated as "falcons and doves," the modern U.S. poor are apparently unironically referred to as "peasants," both of which sound strange to these yanqui ears) probably don't do novelist João Cerqueira any favors, that's too bad because the guy's comedic sensibilities deserve a wider audience--although perhaps the less said about the absurdist plot the better.  Still, it's hard to complain about the gentle ribbing that the bearded characters Castro ("He was always a crook, a hypocrite.  Why does he have a beard in that tropical climate?" [162]) and Christ ("He sat down for his first supper since his last" [134]) take from the clean-shaven Cerqueira or about the medieval barber like bloodletting perpetrated on Castro's Cuba ("Pharmacies empty of medicine, attesting to exemplary levels of public health" [21]) and on churchgoers suffering under "the stony gaze of the malevolent beings imprisoned in the granite of the church walls" ("Resigned, they left the church with little will to reflect upon why some lambs were mystical while others were roasted in the oven with jacket potatoes" [67]).  For readers who like to mix their political satire with their theological satire, there's also a nice two-paragraph disquisition on how "the second coming of Christ was different from the first [other than] that it occurred in another historical period."  Among the similarities: "Women continued to have more faith than men despite being excluded from religious functions; the many religions never agreed on the majority of metaphysical and political matters, despite being in agreement that sex is a great sin; [...] prodigal sons returned home when their money ran out."  Among the differences: "People now fled by plane instead of by donkey; [...] the price of treason was below thirty coins; [...] and people now considered cousins and siblings to be different from each other" (125-126, ellipses added).

João Cerqueira
Thanks to the author and his publisher for providing a review copy of what was often a very amusing book.  To keep the Portuguese comedy/realism theme rolling, I'm happy to note that I'll be reading Eça de Queiroz's 1878 Cousin Bazilio [O Primo Basílio] next.

martes, 1 de octubre de 2013

Angle of Repose

Angle of Repose (Penguin Classics, 2000)
by Wallace Stegner
USA, 1971

Considering the degree to which the award-winning American novelist and nonfiction writer and self-proclaimed "westerner for life" [xiii] Wallace Stegner is revered in certain circles today, a disinterested observer might well suspect that John Leonard's 1972 New York Times smackdown of Angle of Repose as "a Pontiac in the age of Apollo, an Ed Muskie in the fiction sweepstakes,"  while undeniably a great piece of trash talk for anybody old enough to appreciate the period insults, is probably a bit harsh in its condemnation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.  However, I'm not so sure that Leonard wasn't on to something.  There is, to be fair, plenty to like about Angle of Repose even if its sprawling, 557-page multigenerational family drama set in various places in the 19th and 20th century American West and Mexico tends to wear mighty thin at times.  I enjoyed, for example, Stegner's fine eye for the surprising but perfectly observed detail ("the hand that held the lines were freckled like tortillas" [173]), his evocation of place and space on both a local and a grand scale, and his curmudgeonly emeritus history professor Lyman Ward's ongoing interrogation of the nature of historical sources (here, musing about his taciturn grandfather's probable response to a key event early in his marriage):  "Or I suppose that is what he felt.  The fact is, I don't know.  He is the silent character in this cast, he did not defend himself when he thought he was wronged, and he left no novels, stories, drawings, or reminiscences to speak for him.  I only assume what he felt, from knowing him as an old man" (223).  In a work that's been both praised and vilified for its uncredited interpolation of first-person historical sources lifted from the letters of the 19th century western writer/illustrator Mary Hallock Foote, though, I found it all too ironic that what should have been the most real life character in this ambitious historical fiction hybrid felt like the most fictional of all regardless of how much her high maintenance ways, her "Quaker 'thee'" grating talking quirk (333), and her quest to bring Eastern civilization to the uncultured West might have mirrored the historical reality.  More to the point re: Stegner's artistic choices, I also felt really let down by the way this initially unpredictable novel of place eventually devolved into a rather pro forma tale of two dysfunctional marriages.  In other words, I'll have to get back to you on whether "a Pontiac in the age of Apollo" actually tells it like it is or is really more like coded 1972 speak for "Jodi Picoult called, and she wants her fucking book back."  Disappointing.

Wallace Stegner (1909-1993)

The underwhelming Angle of Repose was read as part of a conversation with the mighty Séamus of Vapour Trails.  His review can be found here.