Thursday, May 14, 2020

The last of my April reading - novels, stories, travel, a play - the winter evening was darkening into night and the image of buttered toast loomed large in the mind

The rest of my April reading.  Novels and stories and such.

Herman Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund (1930) and Lao She, Rickshaw (1937), already covered.

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (1930).  A titanic novel.  Some big changes in the history of the novel occur more or less here.  I read Michael Gorra’s Norton Critical Edition, which was itself outstanding.  The biggest surprise in it was how well reviewed – not merely positively, but with understanding – Faulkner was from the beginning, for all the good it did him.  Well, it worked out eventually.

The first Faulkner novel that made it into French was the next one, Sanctuary (1931), but the French saw what was going on immediately.  That is one of the big changes, maybe the first one.

I suppose it had been thirty years since I really read As I Lay Dying, really read it, not just looked into it.  I have read a lot more books since the last time.  Faulkner’s novel still appeared to be full of brand new things.

Frank O’Connor, Guests of the Nation (1931).  His first book, mostly stories set during the Anglo-Irish War and the Irish Civil War.  At some point, it occurred to me that the only precedent was Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry (1926), although O’Connor is not as cold-blooded as Babel, and it was no surprise to learn that Red Cavalry was O’Connor’s direct inspiration.  Only two of the fifteen stories are in the 1981 Collected Stories, perhaps because they work well together, certainly not because they’re not good enough.

Somerset Maugham, Ah King (1933).  Six stories set in Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and the like.  I find Maugham more interesting for his subject matter, the odd British people who find themselves in the colonies, than his careful, casual storytelling, and with three books of stories left, he says these are the last ones from Asia.  What the heck is he going to write about?

A favorite bit from “The Book Bag,” where the narrator is distracted while being told a melodramatic tale of Byronic incest – I do like Maugham’s casual narration, just not as much as his subjects:

My eye was caught by a chik-chak, a little brown house lizard with a large head, high up on the wall.  It is a friendly little beast and it is good to see it in a house.  It watched a fly.  It was quite still.  On a sudden it made a dart and then as the fly flew away fell back with a kind of jerk into a strange immobility. (p. 795 in East of West)

Perhaps the Maughamish narrator is identifying with the lizard.

Dashiell Hammett, The Glass Key (1931).  I’m still rooting around in crime novels, covering the basics.  Here we have more gangster nonsense.  The “detective” is a mob fixer in an utterly corrupt town, solving a murder mystery for the mob boss even if it ruins his life – the boss’s, or his own, or both.  It is all pretty nuts, but only maybe half as nuts as Red Harvest (1929).

So-called Nicholas Blake, Thou Shell of Death (1936).  Since Cecil Day-Lewis was a poet, I expected his prose to be a little better, even in a detective novel, and sometimes it is, but he seems just as happy with clichés.  The single best character who gives the novel a lot of energy is the main murder victim, and the second-best character gets clonked on the head soon after.  If you want to solve the mystery, just catalogue every moment where you think “Wait, that makes no sense.”  And maybe read The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606), which is a good idea regardless.

I’ll try another “Blake” novel.  This is my kind of detective: “They talked for nearly an hour more, until the winter evening was darkening into night and the image of buttered toast loomed large in the mind” (Ch. VI).  He has his priorities straight.

César Aira, Shantytown (2001).  Another one of these, an Aira novel.

An adventure and a play:

Valerian Albanov, In the Land of White Death (1917).  An Arctic adventure, a trek across the ice to from a doomed ship to safety, notable especially because it is Russian.  Albanov’s only map, his great guide, was a copy of Fridtjof Nansen’s Farthest North (1897); I recommend reading Nansen first.

Mark Rylance, I Am Shakespeare (2007).  A play, brilliant, hilarious.  A “who wrote Shakespeare” nut accidentally summons the candidates, including Francis Bacon and Mary Sidney and, you know, Shakespeare (the actor) to his internet show.  Rylance does a terrific job undermining his premise,  but as much as I enjoyed the play and would love to see it performed, I loathe the entire subject.  I’m just sick of it.  But if you’re going to ask these tedious questions, I Am Shakespeare is the way to do it.

All right, that was April.


  1. I seem to remember a pretty harsh review of Sanctuary in the TLS, though largely on conservative moral grounds. Also Joyce's Dubliners wasn't particularly well received in the same paper.

  2. Too perfect really.

    English reviewers: How horrible! We hate it!
    French reviewers: How horrible! We love it!

  3. Of all these interesting things (though I confess my last reading of As I Lay Dying left me completely unimpressed), those Frank O'Connor stories interest me most. The Babel connection makes tons of sense.

  4. It is nice to have hunches confirmed. "You know, some of this sounds surprisingly like Babel." (Google search) "Well, yes, there we go."

    O'Connor, though is warmer, not half as cruel as Babel. Or ruthless or whatever the right word is.

    The collection is clearly worth reading as a book, like Red Cavalry. Aside from the time and place, some stories have recurring characters.

  5. I just need to find it--interlibrary loan, I guess. Why do you think only a couple are in the selected/collected, whatever?

  6. I would love to know the story about Collected Stories. The 1952 Selected Stories has nothing from Guests, which is why I lean towards "works as a book," so don't chop it up. But I don't know.