Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Death in the Castle by Pearl S. Buck

Little bang in this Buck
Pearl S. Buck won the Nobel Prize for her early novels about China (most notably The Good Earth), which explored the differences between Eastern and Western cultures and the universal humanity that unites the two. After becoming a Nobel Laureate, Buck still had 35 years of career left. She used that time to branch out beyond China into a variety of subjects and settings, becoming a popular historical novelist along the lines of a James Michener. Though she deserves credit for not resting on her laurels, not all of Buck’s experiments were successful. Death in the Castle, published in 1965, proves that amid her prolific output there lies a hacky work or two.

Starborough Castle, one of the oldest surviving castles in England, is the residence of Sir
Richard Sedgley, whose family has lived there for centuries, and his wife Lady Mary. Like feudal lords of old, the Sedgleys preside over the farms of the surrounding countryside, but as modern castle owners they graciously open their home to tourists one day a week. Despite his aristocratic heritage, Sir Richard has fallen on financial hard times. He agrees to meet with a wealthy American, John Blayne, who proposes to turn the castle into an art museum. Due to a miscommunication, the Sedgleys don’t realize until Blayne arrives that what he really intends is to buy the castle and ship it brick by brick to Connecticut. Reluctant to lose his home in this way, Sir Richard refuses Blayne’s offer, but Blayne decides to hang around a while in hopes that he can convince him to change his mind. Blayne’s decision to stay is also influenced by his attraction to the Sedgley’s beautiful servant, Kate Wells, who was born and raised in the castle and is treated as a sort of foster granddaughter.

Like many an old castle, there are rumors of ghosts. The Sedgleys speak of them as a reality, referring to the unseen spirits as they or them (always in italics). Buck never capitalizes on their potential for thrills and chills, however. For most of the novel’s length, nothing much really happens. There are maybe a dozen suspenseful pages out of the 185. It’s all build-up with little payoff, like one of those B-grade horror movies from the ‘70s that takes itself too seriously, where you have to sit through an hour and a half of ominous music before you see any blood. The few shocks the book actually delivers are dulled by being telegraphed far in advance.

Rather than a thriller or a chiller, Death in the Castle reads more like a Harlequin romance novel. I don’t know if I would call Buck a feminist, but she has always had strong female leads in her novels. Here, however, the story is told largely from the perspective of Kate, who comes across as an emotional child, her heart constantly a-flutter over Blayne. Her sole purpose in life seems to be to wait around the castle until a man plucks her from it. She suffers from her servant status, which makes her undesirable to men of quality, yet she’s so beautiful, Buck can’t help but point out, she must have some royal blood in her. While Buck has always backed up her novels with detailed research and intimate knowledge of the countries she’s covered, her depiction of British life here is simplistic and hokey. In a brief author’s note, she says the novel was inspired by a visit she made to a castle in England, and that seems to be the extent of her research.

I’m a fan of Buck’s work, so I kept trying to give her the benefit of the doubt on this one, but the final pages are really cheesy and riddled with clichés. Buck obviously has a good command of the English language, so it’s competently written, but that’s about the best I can say for it.
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Friday, November 18, 2016

Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac

Love, money, and revenge
Cousin Bette, published in 1846, is one of Honoré de Balzac’s lengthiest and most substantial works. In addition to being included in Balzac’s large collection of writings known as the Comédie Humaine, Cousin Bette is paired in a literary diptych with the author’s 1847 novel Cousin Pons, under the heading of Poor Relations. Though both Cousin novels deal with the less fortunate relatives of wealthy families, the stories are unrelated and share no common characters (except perhaps for some cameo appearances in the supporting cast). Of the two, Cousin Bette is a vastly superior book to Cousin Pons. In fact, Cousin Bette may be Balzac’s greatest work, vying for that title with such excellent books as Père Goriot, Lost Illusions, and Eugénie Grandet.

The ensemble cast is large and the plot is quite complicated. The web of relationships between the myriad characters isn’t quite as byzantine as The Count of Monte Cristo, but close. Lisbeth “Bette” Fischer has always envied and resented her wealthier, more attractive cousin Adeline. The two grew up together, and Adeline was always treated like a princess while Bette was regarded as little more than a servant. Now in their forties, Bette is a spinster and embroidery entrepreneur while Adeline is a beautiful baroness. Bette is always welcome for dinner in the Hulot house, and she keeps her ill feelings well hidden. However, when a young man that Bette has had her eye on is stolen by Adeline’s lovely daughter Hortense, Bette resolves to have her revenge on the family that has always looked down upon her. Meanwhile Adeline’s husband, the Baron Hulot, has set his sights on a new mistress, Valérie Marneffe, a married woman whose husband is happy to act as her pimp if it brings him profit. Bette befriends Valérie, and together the two scheme to bring the Hulot family to misery and ruin.

For a man who wrote many cynical books, Cousin Bette may be his most cynical. Everyone is out for money, depravity and corruption are commonplace, and love is just another commodity to be traded. Balzac discusses sexuality with surprising openness, particularly when compared to the puritanical and prudish American literature of the same time period. Valérie is a lot like Emile Zola’s strumpet heroine Nana, but a lot smarter. She juggles multiple lovers, pitting them against one another as competitive bidders for her affection, sucking them dry of funds. Zola clearly read Cousin Bette before writing Nana, and the book may in fact have been an important influence on Zola’s development of literary naturalism.

All this vindictive backstabbing may sound depressing, but it’s not. It’s actually a whole lot of fun. As in Wuthering Heights, the reader derives pleasure from this dysfunctional family’s misfortunes. Balzac strikes the perfect balance of lighthearted naughtiness and serious moral melodrama throughout. Amidst all the sin and degradation, there are nonetheless glimmers of righteousness and hope in humanity. Adeline, for example, demonstrates saintly devotion to her husband, despite his selfish waywardness. There are some truly memorable moments of pathos and poignancy interspersed amid all the ribald humor. The book makes some valid points about how money has eroded spiritual dignity and tainted the purity of love and family, yet Balzac never succumbs to preachiness. Despite its length and complexity, Cousin Bette is so enjoyable it feels like a breezy read, at least by 19th century standards. It is the perfectly satisfying product of a master novelist operating at the top of his game.
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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Last Man by Mary Shelley

Another chapter, another funeral
Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man was originally published in 1826. As the title indicates, it is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel, a category of literature that I usually enjoy. Though technically it does fulfill the requirements of the genre, it doesn’t do so in a satisfying way. Shelly spends so much time leading up to the apocalypse that you barely even get to the post.

The story takes place in the late 20th century. Back when Shelley wrote the book, you couldn’t just tell a story set in the future. You had to come up with some device by which the story could conceivably be read by 19th-century readers. To accomplish this, she opens the book with a silly prologue about how this manuscript was found in a cave in Italy. It was transcribed by an ancient sibyl who prophetically read the future book through psychic means.

The narrator of the story is Lionel Verney. The son of an English nobleman whose father fell from grace with the crown, he has been reduced to herding sheep. For many years he harbors an understandable hatred toward the throne until he meets Adrian, Earl of Windsor, who through brotherly friendship pacifies Verney and wins him over. When England’s monarchical government is dissolved in favor of a republic, an ambitious war hero named Lord Raymond aspires to lead the nation. It’s been said by literary scholars that Shelley based the character of Verney on herself, Adrian on her husband Percy Shelley, and Raymond on their friend Lord Byron. If so, they must have had one strange relationship because Raymond is universally adored as a flawless godhead whose very Christlike downfall causes God to punish the world with cataclysm. At least half of the book is spent on these characters and their love lives before anything interesting happens. After reading through so much overwrought melodrama, this world couldn’t end soon enough for me.

When the apocalypse does finally arrive, it comes with a whimper rather than a bang. The fun part about the post-apocalyptic genre is imagining what the world will be like after almost everyone is gone, but we really don’t get much of that here. It just takes forever for these people to die. For those that remain alive in the devastated world, moments of hope and industry are few and far between. Towards the end, a tedious pattern emerges in which a different character dies in each chapter, and Verney heaps lamentations upon his or her corpse while contemplating the insignificance of man in the face of nature. After the first few eulogies it gets pretty old.

Another annoying aspect of the book is the way Shelly deals with class. She gives some halfhearted lip service to the idea that the end of the world is the great leveler of social status: “We were all equal now.” Yet the same group of aristocrats is still ruling the world until the very end. Even when England forms a republic, the same rich, blue-blooded lords still rule the roost, like father figures to the helpless, childlike plebs. The one character who is designed to represent the commoners ends up branded a coward. Even when the vast majority of the world’s population has perished, people are still working as servants and innkeepers to Adrian and Verney, despite all the surplus property that must have suddenly become available.

I previously had a disappointing experience with Frankenstein, so I should have known better. Bore me once, Mary Shelley, shame on you. Bore me twice, shame on me.
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