Friday, April 21, 2017

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara (80 down 20 to go)

Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

Julian English sat there watching him, through eyes he permitted to appear sleepier than they felt. Why, he wondered, did he hate Harry Reilly?

This is the first time I’ve read Appointment in Samarra or John O’Hara. The book is a modernist novel, third-person narrative of Julian English, a young society man in Middle America, early 1930s.

My Rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars


This novel satisfies 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge, Category #2: A 20th Century Classic (but published before 1967). Appointment in Samarra was published in 1934.

Julian English is a member of the social elite in Gibbsville, Pennsylvania. He is the privileged son of a Doctor, an Ivy League graduate, Cadillac dealer, and happily married man – no children. Early in this short novel, you would never guess it is the Great Depression, or Prohibition, for all the money that is represented and all the alcohol that flows at the opening country club party. Julian English fantasizes about throwing his drink in the face Harry Reilly, an wealthy society man English despises, seemingly simply because Reilly is bombastic and popular – presumably due to his high social (financial) standing – that and English is slightly drunk.

Julian English sat there watching him, through eyes he permitted to appear sleepier than they felt. Why, he wondered, did he hate Harry Reilly? What was there about Harry Reilly that caused him to say to himself: "iIf he starts one more of those moth-eaten stories I'll throw this drink in his face."

Unfortunately, English does more than fantasize, though O’Hara reveals it in a very clever way. The omniscient narrator reveals English’s thoughts about throwing his drink in Reilly’s face, but he also seems to talk himself out of it. The next morning, English awakes only slightly hungover. His wife’s cool attitude suggests that he embarrassed himself and her at the party, and English eventually realizes, if not quite remembers, that he did indeed throw his drink in Reilly’s face.

That one act, seems to set off a series of self-destructive actions which cause English’s picture perfect, American dream to quickly unravel.

SPOILER ALERT:

This is the second novel in a row, wherein the main character commits suicide. That is undoubtedly why I didn’t love either. I hate to see people driven to despair, even in fiction. But, like The Heart of the Matter, this novel is well written. I empathized with English and was urging him away from his foolish and destructive path. The setting is a complex era in American history, and O’Hara portrays an intriguing picture of people and lifestyles – that have no relevance for me otherwise. That’s a large part of why I read – to be a student of humanity.

Interesting fact I learned reading this: An REO Speedwagon was an early pickup truck produced by the REO Motor Car Company. I only knew it as the band - never thought about the meaning of the band's name.

And an interesting story behind the title. It comes from a play by W. Somerset Maugham. The appointment - is an appointment with Death. Writer Dorthy Parker showed O'Hara the reference, and he chose to use it for his title. He related that Parker, his publisher, his editor, everybody hated it but O'Hara. I like it, so now there's me.


Have you read Appointment in Samarra? What did you think?
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Monday, April 17, 2017

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (79 down 21 to go)


The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

In our hearts there is a ruthless dictator, ready to contemplate the misery of a thousand strangers if it will ensure the happiness of the few we love. ~ Narrative from The Heart of the Matter

This is the first time I’ve read The Heart of the Matter or Graham Greene. It is a modernist novel, third-person narrative of Major Henry Scobie, deputy commissioner of police in a West African, British colony, sometime during WWII.

This novel satisfies 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge, category #11: An Award-Winning Classic. With this novel, Greene won the 1948 Tait Black Memorial Prize for Literature – one of England’s oldest literary prizes.

My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars
 


Major Scobie is an honest cop, in a climate of corruption. He could also be a contented man, maybe even a happy man, if not for his own perceived inability to provide contentment and happiness to his wife, and later to others. I would argue that Scobie’s wife Louise is responsible for her own discontent, but Scobie blames himself. As I say, he might be happy if not for this. He is good at his job, he seems to like it, and he claims to like the unnamed colony where he serves. He is not bothered that he is passed over for promotion, except that it upsets Louise. Scobie longs for peace and solitude. He is not likely to enjoy either with Louise – not in Western Africa at least. She longs to get out of the place, even for a short vacation. In spite of his sense of duty towards Louise, failed duty, Scobie does not appear to love her, and Louise is quite aware of this.

One day in the commission of his official duties, Scobie commits a small, and probably harmless, violation of official protocol. He destroys evidence, out of kindness, for a man he believes is innocent. It is hardly worth mentioning. It is never discovered, does no one any harm, and actually helps a scared and innocent man.

But it is the first minor compromise in Scobie’s character.

The next is still rather small, but not completely benign. Unable to pay for Louise’s vacation to South Africa, but desperately wanting to please her, and escape her for a while, Scobie borrows the money from a local scoundrel, the black marketer, Yusef. It is not illegal or even precisely unethical. It is just something Major Scobie would never have done before.

Yusef was the Devil – in an allegorical sense. He is one of the most unctuous characters I’ve encountered. He always comes with flattering words, tokens of friendship, and peaceful reassurances. Scobie knows that Yusef is a villain – and yet, he is slowly seduced.

The loan puts him a position that could easily result in a conflict of interest.

It does.

These first compromises lead to more and greater infidelities, and ultimately to drastic measures.

Greene has been described as a Catholic novelist, though he disliked that distinction. I understand why it’s applied though, as there is a strong Catholic theme throughout this novel. Scobie’s slow corruption leads to an intense inner turmoil relative to his Catholic faith. I imagine there are more allegorical elements, perhaps a parallel intended between the strict codes of British Imperial bureaucracy and Catholic doctrine. I admired Scobie in the beginning when he was a suffering paragon of virtue, felt physically ill when he first bent the rules, and miserable as his “sins” degenerated to the unforgiveable.

I didn’t love this story – though it is superbly written. Greene does a wonderful job creating his characters, and describing the dismal setting. I imagine it might resonate more if I were Catholic.

Have you read The Heart of the Matter? What did you think?

Excerpts:

It seemed to Scobie that life was immeasurably long. ~ Major Scobie

O God, give me death before I give them unhappiness. ~ Major Scobie


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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (78 down 22 to go)

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
      (translation by Constance Garnett)

The candle-end was flickering out in the battered candlestick, dimly lighting up in the poverty-stricken room the murderer and the harlot who had so strangely been reading together the eternal book. ~ Narrative

This is the first time I’ve read Crime and Punishment, and the second work I’ve read by Dostoyevsky (The Brothers Karamazov). Crime and Punishment is a realist novel, with existential elements; it is the third person narrative of Rodion Raskolnikov, a troubled young intellectual, mid 19th Century, Petersburg, Russia.  Crime and Punishment is considered part of the Western Canon of Literature.

This novel satisfies category #12, a Russian Classic in observance of the 100th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution, from the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge.

My rating:  4 of 5 stars
 


SPOILER ALERT – This following contains spoilers.

Rodion Raskolnikov is an unemployed, impoverished, former student, wasting away in near squalor in Petersburg. He is also a self-satisfied intellectual/philosopher. In my humble opinion, he thinks too much.

When the novel opens, Raskolnikov is in dire straits financially. He speaks to himself frequently, and through this, the reader becomes aware Raskolnikov is planning, but not firmly committed to some desperate act.

I mentioned the spoiler – which may be unnecessary. If you’ve ever heard of this novel, you are probably aware that it involves a murder. So, this reader at least, was fairly certain that Raskolnikov was plotting a murder/robbery. He even goes through a sort of dress rehearsal, visiting a vile old, female pawn broker, his intended victim.

He does indeed carry out his desperate plan. At first things go smoothly, until the victim’s sister shows up and he murders her as well. Raskolnikov makes off with very little, and shortly after the crime, he falls into a delirium sickness that lasts several days. This is probably due to combined effects of malnourishment and emotional shock.

The rest of the novel is Raskolnikov’s inner turmoil over his crime. This can certainly be considered a crime novel – part of the title after all – but it is different than most crime dramas. This is not about “who did it?” That is never in doubt. It is about “why”.

And Raskolnikov comes up with some pretty disturbing answers to that question. In the beginning, the reader believes it is all about getting some money to relieve a desperate condition, but as Raskolnikov wrestles with his demons we learn there was much more to it than that. A bit more about the why in a moment.

The other principals: Raskolnikov’s beautiful, devoted, and sensible sister Avdotya (Dunia), his simple, loving mother Pulkheria, and his faithful friend Dmitry Razumikhin.

Then there is Dunia’s fiancé, Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin, a conceited, selfish, and ambitious lawyer. The engagement will not last – one good thing Raskolnikov accomplishes in the novel.

Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigaïlov – a depraved, but unpretentious hedonist, once Dunia’s employer and aspiring lover.

Porfiry Petrovich – a police detective who suspects Raskolnikov, but has no proof.

And Sofya (Sonia) Semyonovna  – a desperately poor young woman, with a drunkard father, rather stupid, ill, and abusive mother, and three young siblings. Sonia is forced into prostitution to provide for her family. She is pitiful and virtuous – the glaring contradiction notwithstanding.

In the beginning, Raskolnikov is seemingly motivated by terrible financial need. He was behind in rent, had dropped out of school for want of money, and his sister was marrying a cad for money. Money seemed the only and obvious reason.

But once the deed is done, Raskolnikov begins his slow, agonizing, debate with himself…not over his guilt. He didn’t believe he was truly guilty.

Raskolnikov believes that great men, like Napoleon, are above the law because they are achieving greatness. Raskolnikov, wants to test his own mettle. Killing the old woman would almost convince himself, that he was great – that he was greater than most men. (Yes, he actually compares himself to Napoleon.)

He reasons to Sonia:

I wanted to find out then and there whether I was a louse like everybody else or a man. Whether I can overstep barriers or not, whether I dare bend down to pick up or not, whether I am a trembling creature or whether I have the right…

To kill? Have the right to kill? Sonia clasped her hands.

And then at other times, he deludes himself that he did the world a favor.

Crime? What crime? He cried in sudden fury. That I killed a vile noxious insect, and old pawnbroker woman, of no use to anyone! . . . Killing her was an atonement for forty sins.

As I said earlier, Raskolnikov thinks too much. He was also probably quite malnourished and not of completely sound mind when he makes the rash, and yet quite deliberate decision to carry out the crime.

I’ll admit, he was pitiable at times – but never guiltless. I had no sympathy for his intellectual indignation. I don’t believe Dostoyevsky intended the reader to sympathize. Indeed, someone will probably soundly refute this, but I suggest Raskolnikov represented Russian nihilism, and Dostoyevsky was offering a striking indictment.  

This would seem to mesh with the initially confusing image of Napoleon as an example. Certainly, Napoleon achieved extraordinary things, but I doubt many in Russia would ascribe to him greatness. Later, I felt this made better sense. If Dostoyevsky meant to show the error of Raskolnikov’s ways, Napoleon – a villain by Russian reckoning – as his idol only accentuates Raskolnikov’s misguided philosophy.

If you like nice tidy endings, with satisfying closure – you probably won’t care for Dostoyevsky. The ending is not entirely unsatisfying – but neither is it completely satisfying.

If you like flawed and complex characters, and moral dilemma – you will probably enjoy this novel.

That’s The Wander’s thoughts anyway. Have you read Crime and Punishment? What did you think?

Other excerpts:

The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth. ~ Raskolnikov

And now I have come simply to say (Dunia began to get up) that if you should need me or should need…all my life or anything…call me, and I’ll come. Goodbye!

Perhaps it was just because of the strength of his desires that he had considered himself a man to whom more was permissible than to others. ~ Narrative regarding Raskolnikov

But that is the beginning of a new story – the story of the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his transition from one world into another, of his initiation into a new, unknown life. ~ Narrative, second to last sentence of Crime and Punishment.


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