The “Comedies of Menace”

The Writer’s Almanac recently featured some biographical details about Harold Pinter. Of particular interest was Pinter’s memory of the opening night, in 1967, of The Homecoming as “one of the greatest theatrical nights of his life.” The audience hated the play, but as Pinter said, the actors “hated the audience back even more….By the end of the evening, the audience was defeated…There’s no question that the play won on that occasion.”

Given our experience with this play, I can vouch for the hatred we felt; however, I have since reconsidered, as in this post from 2006:



The Emperor of Ocean Park

A waste of time. It’s too bad because there are some decent plot elements, and the viewpoint of an upper-crust black man, a law professor (as is the author) and son of a judge, with homes in DC and Martha’s Vineyard, is a welcome one. There are some dramatic moments, what with the horrific murder of the Pastor; the unjust arrest of our Professor by local police after he is attacked by thugs (reminiscent of the incident involving Henry Louis Gates); the intriguing car chase on the Vineyard; and the denouement during the hurricane. Unfortunately, any drama built into the story is muffled by the plodding narrative style. Time and again, the author tells us what this person is like, tells us what the men in his family are like, tell us what his marriage is like (over and over again) – he never shows us through dialogue or actions. The consequences of this type of writing are cardboard characters with no life in them. He tries to tie Kimmer’s affair to his own obsession with the mystery his father left behind, but, by my reading, there are problems with the marriage from the beginning of the book. I don’t believe in Kimmer, nor in Mariah, the sister obsessed with the idea that the Judge was Mariah, nor in Addison. The best characters are the law school faculty members, but even there, the relationships seem forced, as well as inconsistent, and motives do not appear to flow logically from character. I also wish the chess analogy had been more elegantly done – it seems like a fine idea tortured to fit the story. Perhaps a decent editor could have helped streamline the novel and improve the author’s style. Once there were great editors who helped writers achieve their vision – no more, it seems.

The Future of Reading

As one who treasures and reveres books, who grew up reading and rereading the classics of childhood (Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, Little Women), I often wonder if kids will continue to read these books, or indeed any books. Thus, I was heartened by a 10-year old houseguest who came with her I-phone, of course, but also with three library books:  The Art of Racing in the Rain, Small as an Elephant , and another that she was disappointed in so I didn’t get the title. We agreed that is usually worthwhile when you enjoy an author to seek out other books by that person, but sometimes you just don’t like the other books as well.

C.L., a young person of strong opinions, was forthright about not feeling that she has to finish a book if she’s not liking it. (I should take her advice as I am still struggling through The Emperor of Ocean Park.) Despite having red hair, she was never able to get into Anne of Green Gables, and admitted to not liking “the classics.” I mentioned how all the kids have Kindles now, and she informed me that for her age group, that fad has passed. “Sure, back in third grade, a lot of kids had them, but now? No Kindles, no Nooks, they are all back to carrying regular books around.” Another of her rules for living is not to keep books. She never rereads a book, she declared, so is happy to pass them on to others. Mi caro esposo who had just moved my library of 25, or possibly more, boxes of books for me, gave me an expressive look. I am still planning to reread most of my library if I live long enough, so I was unmoved.

I read half of The Art of Racing in the Rain during C.L.’s visit, and she, saddened by my lack of a large library in my new town, generously offered to leave it for me. As it turns out, my library does have the book, so I put a hold on it and am looking forward to finishing it off, and hopefully discussing it with my bookish young friend during a future visit. In the meantime, I have a feeling that the next generation may reject some of the technological advances embraced by their elders (Facebook, for example), which may include the e-book.

Peter Pan

Short-story Thursdays recently supplied a pair of short stories by J. M. Barrie (“A Powerful Drug” and “The Inconsiderate Waiter”). I enjoyed both, especially the latter, which is funny and charming and ultimately heart-warming.

Barrie’s whimsical writing, buoyant and sly, both cynical and not (this last insight borrowed from another SST reader), is a delight. He lets his characters show themselves, which is a writerly gift (exemplified by Jane Austen) that cannot be over-praised. So many authors pound away at their material, deadening the senses with their heavy-handed pronouncements and creaking plot machinery (sadly I’m thinking of the book I am currently reading, or enduring, “The Emperor of Ocean Park.”) In any case, thinking of Barrie got me thinking of Peter Pan and my favorite quote therein:

“What’s your name?’ he asked.
‘Wendy Moira Angela Darling,’ she replied with some satisfaction. ‘What is your name?’
‘Peter Pan.’
She was already sure that he must be Peter, but it did seem a comparatively short name.
‘Is that all?’
‘Yes,’ he said rather sharply. He felt for the first time that it was a shortish name.
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Wendy Moira Angela.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Peter gulped.
She asked where he lived.
‘Second to the right,’ said Peter, ‘and then straight on till morning.’
‘What a funny address!’
Peter had a sinking feeling. For the first time he felt that perhaps it was a funny address.

It makes me sad that children don’t read Peter Pan anymore, thanks to Disney, I guess.

Fitzgerald and Friends

I’m not really writing about Fitzgerald, but, in fact, he and Zelda make an appearance in The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, which I just finished, and they seem more interesting than the subject of the novel which is, of course, Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, and by extension, Hemingway himself. I disagree with the author’s choice to use the first-person narrative to tell Hadley’s story, it comes across as unoriginal and banal, as if she took the known facts and connected them like a dot-to-dot drawing. I started to think, yes, Hemingway was a cad, but Hadley just isn’t that interesting; in fact, without her relationship with him, why would we care about her? By contrast, Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, told in the third person, is both more nuanced and satisfying. McLain can write and there are some poignant moments as the marriage unravels (Pauline was quite a character!), but, on the whole, I couldn’t wait to get it over with. It felt to me as if the writer hit upon this great idea for a novel and then just went through the motions, not truly caring about her subject. Even Paris comes across as dull and uninviting. Enter the Fitzgeralds, with their brittle, bright spirits, adding some much-needed drama and intensity. The gatherings at Cap d’Antibe are well rendered, bringing to mind Tender is the Night. A recent New Yorker article by Giles Harvey (Cry Me A River, 032513 issue) details several recent tell-all memoirs by young published writers who went off the rails after early success. Harvey makes the point that this approach has actually led to renewed interest in and opportunities for these authors and adds that Fitzgerald tried the same tactic in 1936 when he wrote a personal essay, “The Crack-Up,” about his flagging career prospects. (Of course, Fitzgerald managed to confess his sorry state in a philosophical way, with an “urbane, self-inspecting tone,” a far cry from the contemporary examples). Within a year, he was invited to Hollywood to try, unsuccessfully as it turned out, his hand at screenwriting. Sad to think of Scott and Zelda so diminished, but the seeds of tragedy were there at Cap d’Antibes, as McLain is able to show in her novel. Perhaps she just chose the wrong subject for her talents?

The Invisible Bridge

This novel by Julie Orringer is gripping in an old-fashioned, George Eliot kind of way – a lot of characters that you begin to care about rather quickly begin rather quickly to get into difficult situations, namely World War II. The main character is a Jewish-Hungarian architect student studying in Paris who meets the love of his life, a woman 10 years his senior living in somewhat mysterious circumstances. The reader knows what is on the horizon, but the hero and his friends and family do not, of course. This agonizing suspense – don’t stay in Paris! Don’t go back to Hungary! – keeps the pages turning as the noose of anti-semitism tightens around the protagonists, with their hopes, dreams and expectations gradually diminishing until merely surviving is all that is left – and, of course, all do not. The author has a wonderful sense of place as I felt myself on the streets of Paris throughout the first half of the book and envisioning Budapest as it was in the second half; she also stays within the moment, within a very individual context, even as forces of hate and history are unfolding all around. This is a book that has stayed with me for weeks as I turn over the forces of circumstance, personality and luck that go into one person’s journey through life.

Russell Redux

I’ve been planning to read Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy left to me by my Father (philosophy being one of the interests we shared) and recommended by my nephew, the Philosophy major. On Brain Pickings today, I watched a fascinating video of a BBC interview with Russell which has me even more motivated to tackle this tome. I had some sense of Russell as a great thinker and philosopher, but was not clear about how radical he was for his time. I also got the impression of a great humanist and overall charming fellow. The interview is delightful and his message to all of us is profound and stirring.