Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Le Grand Meaulnes, by Alain-Fournier

A magical book. I started it in French and, unfortunately, had to switch to English because my renews ran out at the library (I was going pretty slow). I wish I had stuck with it in the original language, because I could always feel when the English was inadequate; things that had a certain enchanting vagueness in the French (the word "domaine," for example, comes up again and again) just felt goofy in the English.

But the spell remains, in the end, even in translation. Le Grand Meaulnes is a story of childhood and adolescence, lost worlds, schoolyard fights, love at first sight, and that sort of thing. I don't want to describe the plot, because it would sound ridiculous. And the book is always, in fact, threatening to become silly. But one of the marks of its genius is that it succeeds in creating a mood in the reader where she doesn't have the slightest inclination to protest that the plot is ludicrous. You pass through it like a dream, and it seems to be telling you the truth about a certain period in your life like no other book.

I noticed something while I was reading it: one of the marks of works of adult literature that deal primarily with childhood -- David Copperfield, for example, and My Antonia -- is a narrator who is almost tangential to the plot. In so many of these books, the narrator is continually on the sideline while other people act out their dramas, and never seems unhappy about it. Perhaps this is because children feel this way when looking at adults, or maybe it is just a characteristic of the sort of people that tend to read and write books. I remember being in thrall even to slightly older or bigger children, happy to help them succeed in their own adventures with no thought to my own. Part of what makes these books magical is the fact that they are not happening to the narrator, who is only looking in and experiencing it all second hand; this might also be what gives all of these books an air of impossible nostalgia. It is as if all of these events, the show that other people put on, have already become memories which we can only deal with as spectators, and never change.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Rebel Angels, by Robertson Davies

I read The Deptford Trilogy several years ago, and remember being absolutely enchanted, especially at the end of the first volume, but a little disappointed at the end. The first novel (Fifth Business) ends with a fascinating mystery the solution to which is, perhaps inevitably, far less interesting that the possibilities generated by the unresolved situation. It is also not really convincing.

The real pleasures of the novels, in any case, are elsewhere -- the observations on human nature, the prose style, the beautiful pacing and construction, and to some extent the characterization -- but one can't help feel let down when a trilogy of novels is built around a single question.

The Cornish Trilogy -- or at least the first novel -- provides many of the same pleasures without putting too much weight on a single plot point. It is again ingeniously told, alternating between two narrators: Simon Darcourt, a pastor, and Maria Theotoky, a beautiful half-gypsy graduate student (I know that sounds terrible, but believe me, it's a good book). There is a fair amount of plot involving unhappy loves and stolen manuscripts, but filled with long detours into pre-modern science, violin repair, gypsy love potions, the importance of excrement, and the Greek of the New Testament.

This may seem like one of those awful information-stuffed novels designed to show off the author's intelligence, but Davies's erudition didn't annoy me the way it can in some books, perhaps because this is a book about a university and the discussions of scholarly pursuits are, in a way, a form of characterization. Or maybe just because I found them interesting.

A note on characterization: this novel reminded me of something Orwell said about D. H. Lawrence, that he avoided the "novelist's problem" simply by making all of his characters equally sensitive. The same could be said of The Rebel Angels, but I'm not really sure that it is a genuine problem. A novelist is not obligated to feature characters with varying levels of intelligence. A book full of characters capable of fascinating insights is just a different kind of book. I actually felt a real connection between Davies and Lawrence: even with drastically different narrative styles, both of them wrote novels that are (perhaps primarily) vehicles for a philosophy of life. It is telling that Davies is an admirer of John Cowper Powys, who at least in the one book of his I've read appears to have a similar inclination.

There is one problem with this attitude towards novel-writing; the author seems to be everpresent, regardless of what character we are dealing with. For example, virtually everyone in The Rebels Angels talks in the same way; only the barest attempt is made at differentiation. I frequently had to doublecheck a passage to figure out who was speaking. The things they say are often interchangeable as well, and one can imagine a whole handful of insights in the mouths of any of four major characters. Even our beautiful young gypsy sounds like a crusty old novelist.

But, finally, who cares? I enjoyed this book immensely. I actually looked forward to my daily subway ride because of it. Like the single novels of The Deptford Trilogy, it is clearly designed as part of a whole, and the ending is far from satisfying. I'm taking a break at the moment, but I'm very much looking forward to dipping back into it.