Thursday, April 30, 2020

Letter from Peking by Pearl S. Buck

Misplaced delivery
Perhaps more than any other writer who’s won the Noble Prize, Pearl S. Buck is often accused of being a “romantic” novelist. That’s not meant as Romantic in the sense of Victor Hugo or Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, but rather as romantic in the sense of Harlequin Romance novels and the Hallmark television network. While in past reviews I’ve always defended Buck against such criticism, it is harder to make a case for her 1957 novel Letter from Peking. This is the 15th Buck novel that I’ve read, and it is one of her least successful and more melodramatic books.

Set in the early 1950s, Letter from Peking is narrated by Elizabeth MacLeod from the Vermont family farm she inherited from her parents. She is separated from her husband Gerald, who is in Peking, China. Gerald was born in China, the son of an American man and a Chinese woman. Elizabeth and Gerald met at college, when he was studying at Harvard and she at Radcliffe. After marrying against the wishes of her parents, they lived together in Peking where they had a son, Rennie. When war broke out and the communists started taking over China, Gerald, the president of a university, decided to stay in Peking to do his duty to his institution and his country. He sent Elizabeth and Rennie back to America, however, because being white Americans they would not have been safe from the communists’ hostility towards westerners. In the opening pages, Elizabeth receives a long-awaited letter from Gerald, in which he tells her that he loves her very much, but this will be the last letter she receives from him. Although neither divorced nor widowed, Elizabeth must deal with the fact that her loving marriage may be over for good.

The first half of the novel flashes back to the couple’s early courtship in an era when Americans didn’t want their daughters marrying a Chinese, and the Chinese didn’t want their sons marrying an American. Elizabeth describes how even though they shared love at first site, each had to come to terms with the other’s foreign-ness. The second half of the novel deals mostly with son Rennie having to come to terms with his own Chinese heritage, which is not looked upon favorably in America. One frustrating aspect of the novel is that although one sentence of Gerald’s letter is revealed in the first few pages, you have to wait another two-thirds of the book to find out the entire contents of the letter and the reasons behind his giving up on the marriage.

What I dislike most about Letter from Peking, however, is the narrator’s voice. Although this book is intended for adults and deals with adult issues like marriage, sex, parenthood and race, for some reason Buck chose to write the narrative in short, choppy sentences and a vocabulary suitable for a fifth grade reader. That might be appropriate for a poorly educated Chinese farmer whose second language is English, but it is certainly not appropriate for a blue-blooded Vermont woman who went to Radcliffe. One thing I like about Buck’s writing is that she doesn’t indulge in verbal gymnastics or pretentiously throw around ten-dollar words. Her prose is always clear and articulate, but I don’t recall it ever being as dumbed-down as it is here. In addition, Elizabeth McLeod just really isn’t all that likable or sympathetic. Her narration makes her sound haughty and conceited, and one pities her son for having to put up with such a domineering mother.

Letter from Peking is by no means a terrible novel, and like any of Buck’s books, you do learn a thing or two about Asian culture from a writer who lived in China for many years. This is a better novel than some of the potboilers she wrote under the pseudonym of John Sedges, like The Townsman or Death in the Castle. Compared to great novels like The Good Earth or Dragon Seed, however, this book is a disappointing soap opera.

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Friday, April 24, 2020

A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books by Nicholas A. Basbanes

Too much about sales, not enough about scholarship
More than any other book in recent years, A Gentle Madness by Nicholas A. Basbanes, first published in 1995, grants the outsider a comprehensive look inside the secret world of book collectors, those bibliomanes (as in -maniacs) who hunt and hoard literary treasures, thus aiding in the creation of some of the world’s greatest research libraries. As a lifelong lover of books and libraries, I found much to enjoy in this book collecting exposé, but not without some reservations.

Even for an avid bibliophile like myself, this book is a long haul that sometimes feels more like a chore than a treat. The extensive and often tedious chapters fall into two categories. The first is the chapter comprised of dozens of short anecdotes or profiles of various collectors, each three or four paragraphs long, sometimes arranged chronologically and sometimes not. This rapid-fire format gives Basbanes license to go off on whatever tangents strike his fancy and lead the reader on wild goose chases of digression. The best thing about such chapters is that if you come across a snippet about a collector or library that interests you, you can consult the bibliography to track down the original book or article from whence it came.

The second type of chapter is the kind in which Basbanes focuses on one topic and explores it at great length. These often end up being morasses of details, dates, and dollar amounts. One chapter regards a mysterious book collector named Haven O’More. What’s mysterious about him is that no one knows where he came from or where he gets the money to buy such expensive books. Though Basbanes turns over many stones, by the end of an interesting but lengthy chapter the answers to these questions are still most disappointingly inconclusive. Another hefty chapter focuses on Stephen Blumberg, one of the most rapacious book thieves in American history. Basbanes’s telling of his story is fine, but Blumberg’s library crimes really don’t belong with the rest of the book’s content and should have been a book of its own.

From reading A Gentle Madness, it becomes clear that there are two types of collectors: those who acquire books for their antiquity, rarity, and monetary value, and those who collect books for their content and research value. Most of the 20th-century collectors Basbanes profiles fall into the former category. One gets the feeling that many of them never even open their books. Basbanes himself seems more interested in the wheeling and dealing and the price tags of the books than in their historical, literary, or intellectual importance. He devotes a great deal more ink to booksellers and auctioneers than he does to scholars and librarians. There are exceptions, of course. One of the most inspiring stories is that of Aaron Lansky, who founded the National Yiddish Book Center, thus preserving a language that was headed for extinction. Basbanes interviews a few other collectors who value research and scholarship, but too many of the characters in this narrative are just shopaholics who never peer inside their elaborate bindings.

Despite such complaints, this really is an interesting look into rare book and manuscript collections, particularly the history up to the early 20th century. I admire and appreciate the fact that Basbanes doesn’t dumb this down for the general reader. I have a master’s degree in library science and an avid interest in book history, and at times A Gentle Madness challenged my limits of literary and historical knowledge, but Basbanes’s prose is clear and articulate throughout. I don’t have the bank account to collect rare books like the high rollers that Basbanes profiles, but thanks to digitization one can now “collect” many of the world’s finest books for free. They may not come with fancy bindings, but the intellectual riches are there for the taking.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Monsieur Hire’s Engagement by Georges Simenon

Fails to engage until the very end
Specific estimates vary, but it is a fact that Belgian author Georges Simenon published at least a few hundred novels during his career. Cranking them out with such rapidity was no doubt a lucrative strategy while he was alive, but now that he’s gone the prolificity of his output makes it difficult to tell all his books apart, much less figure out which are worth reading and which are not. Most critics just seem to give up, as if all of Simenon’s books are of equal merit, and resort to an oft-quoted line from William Faulkner, who compared Simenon to Russian great Anton Chekhov. The fact that Simenon’s novel Monsieur Hire’s Engagement has spawned three film adaptations seemed a decent indication of literary quality, but this turned out to be not one of his better works. It was originally published in 1933 under the French title of Les Fiançailles de M. Hire and has also been published in English as Monsieur Hire or simply The Engagement.

In the Parisian suburb of Villejuif, a prostitute has been found murdered. In the eyes of the police and many denizens of the neighborhood, the primary suspect is Monsieur Hire, who occupies an apartment near the scene of the crime. A solitary bachelor, Hire is known to engage in shady business dealings and visit a prostitute himself on occasion. As the novel opens, the police have him under constant surveillance and shadow his movements around the city, hoping for some proof of his guilt. The reader doesn’t know whether Monsieur Hire committed the crime or not, but given Simenon’s penchant for criminal protagonists it is certainly a possibility.

The better part of the book chronicles the mundane comings and goings of Monsieur Hire’s lonely and depressing existence, as followed by the police. Hire barely ever says a word, and Simenon never really lets the reader inside his head. There is little to like about the man, and therefore little reason for the reader to care what happens to him. Hire repeatedly peeps through his window into a neighboring flat, where dwells an attractive woman whom he likes to watch undress. Since he’s described as flabby and unattractive, it is difficult to understand why a beautiful young woman would throw herself at him. Because Simenon allows him to display almost no personality, it is hard to believe that Hire has charmed the members of his local bowling club, among whom he is a popular guy. About two-thirds of the way through the book some interesting events start to happen, and the reader finally gains some insight into the mystery of the neighborhood murder. By that time, however, it’s a little too late to sympathize with such a character.

Simenon is best known for his Inspector Maigret series of detective novels, but Monsieur Hire’s Engagement is one of what he called his “romans durs.” These “hard novels” tend to be dark noir tales of crime, often with existential undertones reminiscent of Albert Camus or Franz Kafka. As in many Simenon novels, Monsieur Hire’s world is a futile and indiscriminately pitiless place where everyone gets worse than they deserve. The book is so relentlessly bleak that it becomes tedious. The final chapter, however, is quite surprising, and delivers the novel’s only memorable scenes. Monsieur Hire’s Engagement is the 20th Simenon novel I’ve read, and after a while they tend to blend in to one another, this novel being no exception. Of the romans durs I’ve read, the ones that I would recommend as outstanding are Dirty Snow and Tropic Moon.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist by Anne Distel, et al.

The quintessential painter of French Naturalism
Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894) may not be a household name like Monet, Renoir, or Degas, but he was nonetheless one of the most important artists of the French Impressionist school. Caillebotte had a leading hand in organizing the group’s exhibitions, and, having been born into a wealthy family, he provided financial assistance to his fellow artists by loaning them money, buying their paintings, or, as in the case of Monet, paying his rent. Beyond his role as the Impressionists’ greatest booster, Caillebotte was also an excellent painter in his own right, and one who has enjoyed a resurgence of interest in recent years. Stylistically, Caillebotte did not always toe the line of the movement he championed. Unlike Renoir and Degas, who specialized in scenes of refined leisure and feminine beauty, Caillebotte often chose unconventional subjects and uncomfortable compositions to not only illustrate but also critique modern Parisian life.

The book Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist was published in 1995 to accompany an exhibition of the same name jointly organized by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Art Institute of Chicago. That exhibition featured 117 Caillebotte paintings, all of which are reproduced in color and given individual critical consideration. The book also contains many black and white images of Caillebotte paintings not included in the exhibition, works by his contemporaries, and photographs of Caillebotte and his family. Everything this book does, it does thoroughly, perhaps too thoroughly for the casual reader, who can still enjoy the pictures nonetheless. The book is really intended to be an authoritative text aimed at art history scholars and museum curators. As such, it delves deeply into the chronology of when and where each painting of Caillebotte’s was created and exhibited, how his work was reviewed by critics during his lifetime, and which scholarly monographs and exhibition catalogues have referred to it since.

The reader of this book will not only become well-versed in Caillebotte’s work but will also learn a great deal about Caillebotte’s personal life. In addition to biographical content and photos, the book contains not one but two detailed chronologies, one being solely devoted to Caillebotte’s accomplishments in sport sailing and boat design, at which he was an expert hobbyist.

The book is divided into chapters by subject, according to the recurring motifs of Caillebotte’s career, such as boating, the streets of Paris, views from a window, interiors and portraits, still lifes (mostly of food), floral still lifes, and his later works painted in Normandy and Petit Gennevilliers, where he owned country houses. The authors point out that Caillebotte’s paintings of interior spaces, laborers at work, and food on display were quite unique to the Impressionist movement, as were his realistic depictions of unglamorous women. His style was a cross between the blatant brushstrokes of his colleagues and the more polished contours of academic painting. More than any other artist, Caillebotte’s paintings epitomize the style, vision, and philosophy of French literary Naturalism, the movement spawned by novelist Emile Zola that emphasized frank empirical realism over romantic pretensions and idealizations. Though Impressionism and Naturalism were concurrent rather than conjoined artistic movements, one can clearly see that Zola and Caillebotte are depicting urban and suburban France with the same protomodern approach.

I was fortunate to see a 2015 retrospective of Caillebotte’s paintings at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth. That more recent exhibition has its own catalogue, entitled Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye. One can also view a 1994 catalogue raisonné of Caillebotte’s paintings online for free at the website of the Wildenstein Plattner Institute (but the text is in French).

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Paintings by Gustave Caillebotte, from the book:

 Floor-Scrapers, 1875

 Périssoires [Skiffs], 1877

Young Man at His Window, 1875

Le Pont de l'Europe, 1876

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Notes from Exile by Emile Zola

Diary of a fugitive
At the end of the 19th century, France was embroiled in the political scandal known as the Dreyfus Affair. A French army officer named Alfred Dreyfus was wrongfully accused, tried, and convicted of espionage, largely on the basis of anti-Semitism. High-ranking officials in the French military fabricated evidence and even protected the real perpetrator of the crime, another officer who was not a Jew. This divisive scandal was the cause of great outrage in France. Among those who spoke out publicly against the miscarriage of justice was Emile Zola, who published his incisive editorial “J’accuse . . . !” in an 1898 Paris newspaper. Because of comments he made in that essay about three handwriting experts who helped to convict Dreyfus, Zola was charged with slander. On July 18, 1898, the Assizes Court at Versailles found Zola guilty. Rather than face a prison term and hefty fine, Zola fled the country that very same night. Notes from Exile is Zola’s diary of his life as an expatriate in England.

An English translation of Notes from Exile, edited by Dorothy E. Spiers and Yannick Portebois, was published by the University of Toronto Press in 2003. This edition includes 43 photographs taken by Zola himself of the English countryside, villages, and churches. These photos are as murky as one would expect of photos from 1898, and they don’t really add much to the narrative. Zola’s diary is a brief work, and only occupies about 33 pages of this 120 page book. Notes from Exile is really more of an article than a book, but it is educational and quite successful in giving the reader a glimpse into Zola’s personality. The editors also provide a detailed chronology of the Dreyfus affair, as well as an informative introduction, notes, and a bibliography.

Zola fled France with nothing but a nightshirt wrapped in a newspaper, and he barely spoke a word of English. He was aided by a few friends, primarily French painter Fernand Desmoulin and Englishman Ernest Alfred Vizetelly, who had previously translated most of Zola’s novels into English. With their assistance, Zola settles into his new life and eventually rents a series of country houses in Surrey. In this rural setting, Zola enjoyed exploring the English countryside by bicycle and taking photographs of the landscape. Still practicing his craft, he wrote his novel Fruitfulness by meeting a self-imposed quota of five handwritten pages per day.

His stay in England, however, was not entirely a pleasure trip. Since this is Zola’s personal journal, he is very candid in expressing his feelings, even though the entries are brief. Upon arrival he is troubled by his inability to speak English and plagued by anxieties. He worries about being recognized, for fear that he might be beset by journalists, attacked by anti-Dreyfus fanatics, or accosted by a process-server. Zola frequently laments his forced absence from the country he loves, but also curses the shameful corruption that has led to his unjust persecution. He sees himself as a victim, but not a helpless victim, and the indignation expressed in his journal entries sometimes rises to the strident tone of his socially conscious novels.

Zola’s last entry in his Notes from Exile is dated October 21, 1898. He did not return to Paris until June 5, 1999. A 33 page diary covering a year of Zola’s life may not be very thorough, but it is nonetheless revealing. Thanks to the fine presentation by the editors, one does learn a great deal about Zola’s involvement in the Dreyfus Affair.
If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Eye by Frank Herbert

The disappointing dabblings of a master artist
I’ve been a fan of Frank Herbert’s science fiction for decades, going back to when I first read Dune in high school. The Dune saga may be his crowning achievement, but it is certainly not the sum total of a literary career that includes fine novels such as The White Plague or those in the Destination: Void series. I had read very few of Herbert’s short stories, however, until I stumbled upon a copy of Eye. This collection of 13 short stories was published in 1985, shortly after the release of David Lynch’s motion picture adaptation of Dune. In fact, the book opens with an introduction by Herbert in which he basically apologizes for the Dune film and opines that it would have worked better as a five-hour miniseries. In order to capitalize on renewed interest generated by the film, Eye also includes a piece called “The Road to Dune,” which is like a brief illustrated tour of the planet Arrakis, featuring illustrations by artist Jim Burns and brief captions written by Herbert. Burns provides illustrations for all the stories in the book, but his drawings are so dark and detailed that they do not read well on the rough paper of a mass-market paperback.

Eleven of the remaining selections in Eye were previously published in science fiction magazines from 1955 to 1973. They are presented in chronological order, followed by a new piece, “Frogs and Scientists,” which is like a one-page joke without a punchline. The majority of the stories in Eye are mediocre at best and rather disappointing when compared to the quality of Herbert’s novels. For the most part, he retains the intellectually challenging tone one expects from the author of Dune, but in short-format fiction Herbert seems to bite off more than he can chew. In each story, he drops the reader into these incredibly complex worlds but fails to provide the reader with enough guidance to orient himself to the fictional surroundings. These stories call to mind the work of H. Beam Piper (active in the ‘50s and ‘60s) who could likewise create incredibly complex worlds in a few pages. Piper, however, gave the reader enough bread crumbs to find his way, and he never lost his sense of humor. Herbert’s short stories, on the other hand, get bogged down in technical details and imaginary jargon. Often he devotes so much effort to world construction that there is little space left for plot, and the endings are often vague, New Agey, and anticlimactic.

Herbert’s choice of subject matter is often puzzling as well, as he ventures into bizarre corners of science fiction that just aren’t all that interesting. If you’re curious about the legal system of a government that employs saboteurs to attack itself (“The Tactful Saboteur”) or the mechanical minutiae of futuristic nuclear submarines (“Dragon in the Sea”) or the importance of dance and gesture in human communication (“Try to Remember”) or the difficulties of harnessing spherical amoeboid livestock for plow work (“A Matter of Traces”), then Herbert’s your man. Such weird premises, however, are more mystifying than interesting, and on the few occasions when Herbert tries to be funny he is not successful.

There are maybe three good stories here. The best, by far, is “Seed Stock,” about a colony of interstellar emigrants who took a one-way trip to a new home, only to find themselves trapped in a difficult and precarious existence. “Murder Will In” is an intriguing story about two symbiotic incorporeal entities who possess living hosts to survive. “Passage for Piano,” another tale of an Earth mission to colonize a distant world, is a surprisingly warm and human story for Herbert, but to the point where it gets a little corny towards the end. Other than these few exceptions, reading Eye is more of a chore than a joy. “Seed Stock” is the only outstanding entry, and the bad stories clearly outweigh the good.

Stories in this collection

Rat Race
Dragon in the Sea
Cease Fire
A Matter of Traces
Try to Remember
The Tactful Saboteur
The Road to Dune
By the Book
Seed Stock
Murder Will In
Passage for Piano
Death of a City
Frogs and Scientists

If you liked this review, please follow the link below to and give me a “helpful” vote. Thank you.