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Saturday, December 20, 2003

Book reveiw by KJR

Couples by Jophn Updike

Another look at the American Dream and the pursuit of wealth and hedonism gone sour. Though I am only a quarter of the way through this book, you just know that there isn't going to be a happy ending, since in all the ways we judge people to be deserving of happiness, such as having wisdom, good intentions, generosity of spirit, and charity of heart, these characters are lacking, however prosperous, well-bred and educated.

When I first tried to read this book in the late spring, early summer of 1969, I was in my junior year at Harvard, and smoked unfiltered cigarettes. I could identify with the description of the Radcliffe woman who woke up one morning after a late night of smoking to find that her lungs hurt. There is an element of grittiness, ala Keruoac's "On the Road" to this novel.

Possibly ironically, I was engaged to a Radcliffe woman at the very time I was reading this book. One day while we were on the Boston subway to a subrub like Tarbox where all the Peyton Place action occurs in the book, she turned to me, pointing to the book in my lap, and shrieked, "How can you read that disgusting trash about middle class adultery and wife-swapping?" She was near tears.

She must have read the book's cover, since I hadn't got to any parts like that yet, and hadn't, therefore, been able to tell her about any such incidents. But that was the book's reputation, with large displays proclaiming such things in the papberback book stores in Harvard Square. Having read one of Updike's "Rabbit" books for a Harvard seminar the summer before my freshman year, I was at least partly intrigued by the prospect of reading more graphic descriptions of adultery.

Two weeks later, this same woman, citing irreconcilable differences, presumably one being my reading of "Couples," broke off our engagement, saying to me, "You don't own me you know!" Blaming the book for what was an unhappy moment for me at that time, I never read further than about a third of the way through. I have now decided to revist those beginning passages I had read way back then, with a view to finishing "Couples" this time.

As an English major at Harvard then, I had been steeped in a fairly rigorous diet of Hemingway, Conrad, Henry James, William Dean Howells, Thomas Hardy, Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forrester, Ford Maddox Ford, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Lawrence Durrell, Edward Gibbon, and Sir Walter Scott among others for the prior five years. I recall thinking that Updike's writing was thin, somehwat like Elia Kazan's "The Arrangement," a best-seller in 1968, in which the prose does not rate being called such, but should rather be called, text, by which the potboiler, best-selling plot is told. At that time however, I found, Durrel to be thin as well, a judgement I rescinded less than two years later.

Updike's prose is a bit like Hemingway's I think now: it is modern and sparse, and can lapse easily into and out of lyricism at a moment's notice.

As for the woman I was engaged to in 1969, two years later I received a letter informing me that she had married a man from my sophomore English class, and about fifteen years ago, I silenlty thanked my lucky stars that she had broken it off with me, since we were truly not right for each other. With the memories of that time flooding me now, I offer another silent prayer of gratitude, wishing that it would have been possible that I had never met her.

Kritik [ ] Send article

 

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Crime and Punishment by Feodor Dostoevsky

Review by KJR

The major preoccupation of Crime and Punishment is fairly nightmarish, being a ruminaton about committing a grisly crime in order to steal money; and then an even more intense, fearful obsession that the crime has been discovered. As a crime novel, this book may be among the very first detective fictions, other than the even earlier Edgar Allen Poe works, that delve into both the psychology of the criminal and of the detective. As a crime story, or "Policier" as they say in French, it is fairly engaging. The character of Porfiry Petrovitch prefigures that of the TV detective Lieutenant Columbo, and there is even a discussion on the circumlocutions of investigation and interrogation.

This work, like all of Dostoevsky, really brings out the peculiarly obsessive nature of the Russian personality. Many of the characters are portrayed very colorfully and humorously as excessively emotional, verbose, mercurial, violent and abusive. I found myself laughing out loud at some of the antics described in the party and bar room scenes. Very comic, and as classic as Chaucer's Tales, if ultimately tragic.

My major fascination upon rereading it recently three decades after having taken a course on Dostoevsky at Harvard and only reading half of its 750 pages at the time, is that it prefigures both modernism and post modernism, by several decades, more so than any of the American or English fiction of that time. The characters discuss the new philosophies of biological and social evolution, socialism, utopianism, and psychology, even pre-figuring Freud, as well. More astonishing, the novel is post-modern to the extent that the main character, Rodion Raskolnikov, concludes that for all the advancement of mankind's new ideas, most people in society, and certainly most leaders, are only interested in power and money, and will do whatever it costs in terms of bloodshed to attain those ends. Raskolnikov sounds much like the veterans of World War I, who some 45 years later with the surrealists, would declare that there is nothing heroic or glorious at all about war, but that war can be described only as the most horrific, inglorious, degrading experience imaginable, both in spite of and because of all propaganda to the contrary.

However, you could also say that Dostoevsky believes that his main character is too cynical, and that life after all does offer redemption and even moments of self-discovery and bliss, particularly to those fortunate enough to be well-educated and of strong character. This theme was the main topic I recall from the Harvard lectures in the spring of 1969.

Some of these contrasts might be due to the fact that like Chekhov after him, Dostoevsky was ill and knew that he was dying. Some of the outbursts of Raskolnikov and the alternately cynical and hopeful outbursts of other major characters are perhaps permitted to a novelist, a dying man, who wants to say what is within him, regardless of what anyone else may think.

Of course, this book also contains several fascinating and touching love stories, the main one of which builds the sense of redemption, hope and faith. Two of the love stories could have been broken out as separate romantic novellas, and while the main plot line is exciting and interesting enough, some of the sub-plots, particularly those involving the elderly rake Svidrigadlov, could have easily been expanded upon.

Finally, the book works as historical revelation about the conditions of everyday life in 1870's St. Petersburg, Russia. The abysmal poverty everywhere is described graphically, without the sense that it is being thrown up in contrast to the safe, secure, clean lifestyles of the presumably bourgeois reader. As in other Dostoevsky novels, the descriptions are replete with detail: we know the color and condition of the wallpaper of every room we enter, and how the upholstery is finished, as though being shown a socioeconomic barometer as to the inhabitants' place on the spectrum from privileged, to comfortable to desperate. Then there is the middle-aged office worker who frets about getting fat, not going to the gym and not being able to quit smoking, despite his doctor's advice.

Crime and Punishment is a manyed-layer metaclassic in every sense, a coherent and engaging multi-plot novel from the very beginning, until the last few sentences of the somewhat contrived ending.

Kritik [ ] Send article

 

Saturday, December 06, 2003

Call of the wild

Guardian Unlimited Books | Review | Call of the wild
Derided and marginalised, nature writing in Britain has been in decline for 70 years. But the winner of this year's Guardian First Book Award, Robert Macfarlane, detects signs of a renaissance

Saturday December 6, 2003
The Guardian

In or around November 1932, nature writing in Britain was dealt a death-blow by Stella Gibbons. Cold Comfort Farm, one of the finest parodies written in English, took as its target the rural novels of Thomas Hardy, Mary Webb, the Brontë sisters and DH Lawrence. Mercilessly, Gibbons sought out and sent up the hallmarks of the rural genre: all those characters called Amos or Jeb, all those idiots savants, all that loam and, especially, all those gushingly naïve descriptions of "nature" and "landscape". Gibbons's book was such a wickedly brilliant skit it became that rare literary object; a parody that remained standing once the genre it mocked had collapsed."

I often heard someone at home referring to Cold comfort farm....

Kritik [ ] Send article

 

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