Recently read—yes, I know it's been a while.
Bhowani Junction by John Masters
This 1954 novel, which made it to the screen a couple of years later starring Ava Gardner and Stewart Granger, centers on the unsettled months immediately before India’s independence. It is common knowledge that the caste system operates in Indian society, but before 1947, things were complicated considerably not only by the native classes, but also by the presence of the British and the Anglo-Indians (or Eurasians). Masters is intimately acquainted with India during this period and his use of argot, railway terminology, and military concepts gives this story an unexpected depth. The significance of the railroad for India—as a symbol of progress and oppression—is one that Masters utilizes skillfully as he does the collapsing boundaries between black and white.
Elizabeth Taylor, author of Angel (see October 2013), clearly has a soft spot for idiosyncratic, stubborn females—and Cressida Bretton is no exception. Cressy declares at a young age that she has lost her faith and is leaving the family compound. (This compound with its famously scandalous artistic patriarch presiding over a docile extended family, all Roman Catholic converts, was surely modeled on Eric Gill’s communes in Sussex and Wales.) Taylor’s particular gift as a novelist is the rueful, yet merciless character portrait: Cressy is naïve and bumptious, equaled only by the calculating and manipulative Midge. When these two become mother- and daughter-in-law, the result is a delightful collision impossible to ignore.
Flowers on the Grass by Monica Dickens
Dickens has slipped into undeserved oblivion, but she was an accomplished and witty writer as this lovely book will attest. (She was also Charles Dickens’s great grand-daughter and is rather better known across the pond.) The first chapter ends with a punch to the gut, but it sends us off on an adventure with Daniel who, we soon learn, meets the most interesting people. Daniel himself is a loner and a wanderer. He has a home, but won’t live in it. He is an artist, but is content to sketch sentimental family groups at holiday camps. His haphazard lifestyle even leads at one point to being mistaken as a serial murderer. In some ways, Dickens’s Daniel reminds me of Erik Linklater’s Magnus Merriman (see January 2014), an irresistible scamp who isn’t quite as self-sufficient as he thinks.
A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
Like much of Truman Capote’s fiction, this novella is strongly autobiographical. Buddy and his “friend,” a distant cousin who seems to be the family oddball, live together for several years during the Depression. They scrimp and save throughout the year in order to be able to make their Christmas fruitcakes—secret ingredient: bootleg whiskey from Mr. HaHa Jones. The simplicity and sweetness of this story never descend to sentimentality. For a short time, Buddy and his cousin share a particular kind of understanding and friendship, that is, until they are torn apart by the frailties of health and the cruelties of Those Who Know Better.
This impressive book offers a comprehensive look at the state of Russian society and government in the 25 years (and more) before the revolution. A respected historian of Russia, Lincoln canvasses Russians from all classes—peasants, serfs, artists, government officials of all ranks, terrorists, and tsars—covering cultural, political, economic, and religious themes in a style that is lucid and well-paced. This book first came out in 1983 and much has happened since then, not the least of which is the fall of the Soviet Union and an opening of archives that has dramatically transformed scholarship about Russia. One such recent book that might offer new insight into this period is Orlando Figes’s Revolutionary Russia, 1891–1991.
The Three Clerks by Anthony Trollope
Perhaps lesser known among Trollope’s prodigious output, The Three Clerks is replete with the novelist’s wit, sharply observant eye, and fine sense of composition. One of the novel’s subplots involves speculation and the stock market, making it a sort of warm-up for Trollope's masterpiece The Way We Live Now. However, the latter is a large-scale dramatic novel, while The Three Clerks is considered one of Trollope’s comic novels. It is his sixth and was written mostly in railway carriages while Trollope traveled for his post office duties. As is often the case with Trollope, the female characters range from dull and intelligent to gently comic and tiresomely sentimental, but the male characters are much more substantive. One genuinely feels sorry for Alaric Tudor when he finds himself in dire straits due to his own boundless ego. This novel is also remarkable for its introduction of the formidable Mr. Chaffanbrass, a barrister who reappears in several Trollope novels.
There is no shortage of remarkable characters in Russian fiction and Sologub's Peredonov must be in the top ten. In this symbolist work, Peredonov is beset by his paranoia, his sexual desire, his ambition, and ultimately by a plainly visible grey demon; Sologub's portrayal is so vivid that his rural schoolmaster took on a life beyond the pages of the book as the very embodiment of the concept of poshlost’, a mix of banality and evil. He and his associates—one can’t say he actually has any friends—exist in a provincial world that is relentlessly uncouth, perverse, and violent. Harrassed by a petty demon—real or imagined—Peredonov’s descent into madness is fantastic and harrowing.
The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy
Have you ever found yourself among a group of people who seem incapable of formulating a plan of action and following through on it? If you find this kind of personality annoying, then you will wonder why Percy’s protagonist Williston Bibb Barret—an intelligent young man with a self-described nervous condition—can stand to be around the Vaughts. Granted, Barret and the Vaughts share similar backgrounds (genteel Southerners living temporarily in New York). Sure, it is true that Barret is looking for a better job than being night janitor at the YMCA, so he is ready to act as driver and chaperon for Jamie Vaught. And being unaffiliated, Barret is ideally situated to fall in love with Kitty Vaught. Sadly, however, it is only Percy’s considerable skill as an engaging writer that propelled this reader through the seemingly endless fits and starts of the Vaught family saga.
Zweig never saw The Post Office Girl published during his lifetime; he committed suicide in 1942. The novel appeared in 1982 and tells the story of Christine, a young woman who runs the post office in her provincial Austrian town. Christine and her mother live a bleak existence, suffering privations and shortages common during World War I. The novel’s original title, Rausch der Verwandlung, translates as “the intoxification of transformation,” which indeed describes Christine after she is summoned by her aunt to a ski resort in Switzerland. Although she arrives a country bumpkin, Christine is soon transformed into a beautiful and chic young woman sought after by men of all ages. The Cinderella story ends abruptly, however, and Christine returns to the post office. Act two of her life is a deeply sad, possibly even tragic, alliance with a mercenary young man who capitalizes on Christine's disaffection and pessimism.
The Distracted Preacher by Thomas Hardy
Part of Melville House's fine Art of the Novella series, this tale is vintage Hardy: naïve young man falls in love with surprisingly worldly woman in a village untouched by modernity. Like many of his short stories and novels, this one include mysterious events, odd characters, comely country lasses, and thwarted love. Strong on atmosphere and suspense, it is too short to sustain a highly emotional story line. This may or may not be a fault, depending on one’s tolerance for Hardy, but it is an interesting glimpse into the preacher's character and how he must reconcile his moral and civic duties.
Part history, part devotional, this outstanding book proves that even in the depths of socialism, Orthodox Christian witness continued. Yazykova’s book tracks the history of Russian iconography from its earliest centuries up to the present and how this art form endured during the dark years of Soviet rule. It is worth noting that many of the greatest iconographers of the modern period have been women religious. Yazykova explains not only motifs and techniques, but also the motivation of iconographers who do not paint but rather “write” their work, taking instruction, as it were, from divine teachers.
Brother Jacob by George Eliot
In this lesser-known novel, George Eliot proves that she has a sense of humor as well as a sweet tooth! Witty and at times even caustic, Eliot’s story of David Faux (note the last name) and his ambitions as the town confectioner eventually become a rather dark tale of brother robbing brother. It probably won’t be difficult to guess the true identity of Edward Freely—a confectioner who shows up in the village some years after Faux disappears—but Eliot is not interested in such cheap suspense. Rather, she is using the story to experiment with tone and voice. This is not the breathless horror of The Lifted Veil, but rather a a spirited exploration of the darker side of humor and ego.
Percy's highly-acclaimed first novel has been lauded for its light touch and poetic style, qualities which perfectly complement its character and setting. Binx Bolling is a scion of a decayed Southern family, making an unenthusiastic living as a stock-broker in New Orleans. An existential character study, Percy’s novel tracks Bolling through his daydreams, his traumatic memories, his stillborn love affairs, and his philosophical meanderings. For Bolling, the movie theaters he seeks out in the neighborhoods of New Orleans offer an oasis, an escape from the glaring light of his own confused identity.