Books briefly noted

August 5, 2012

Quick notes on a few novels I have read in recent months:

The Bonfire of the Vanities
Tom Wolfe
(Farrar Strauss Giroux, 1987)
690 p.

Wall Street and the street collide in this tragicomedy about a high flying bond trader’s fall from grace. It could happen to anyone: a wrong turn down the wrong street on the wrong side of town becomes, faster than you can say “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test”, a nightmare that threatens to send Sherman McCoy’s life up in smoke. Wolfe, in his rollicking way, in pretty probing here: how much of McCoy’s troubles are due to his own hasty prejudices and bad decisions, how much to plain bad luck, how much to modern media’s voracious appetite for sensationalism, and how much to the politics of class and race in America? This year marks the 25th anniversary of the book’s publication, and, despite its arguably topical subject matter, it stands up well. It is particularly good, in its frolicsome way, at conveying the psychological devastation of a normal person thrust into the center of a media storm. It is also outrageously funny: it has been years since a book stirred me to gales of laughter, and for that blessing I owe Wolfe humble and hearty thanks.

The Song of Bernadette
Franz Werfel
(MacMillan, 1944) [1942]
575 p.

I will admit that I approached this novel about the life of St. Bernadette Soubirous with some wariness. It is fair to say that most of the art associated with Lourdes leans toward the saccharine, and I was afraid that the novel would do the same. I needn’t have been so worried: it is a surprisingly good, even excellent, book that handles its somewhat difficult subject matter with a sure touch and plain-spoken confidence. The story is not obviously devotional in spirit — Werfel was not a Catholic, and cannot have been expected to have any particular devotion to Our Lady — but neither is it a skeptical novel. In fact, there are skeptics in the novel, and they do not come off well. Werfel seems to have been content to tell the story more or less according to Bernadette’s own testimony — she, you will recall, never did claim to have seen the Blessed Virgin, but only “a lady” — and to leave the reader to make of it what he will. Werfel does a lot of things right: portraying the public controversy, the politics, the popular enthusiasm, and the ecclesiastical turmoil that surrounded Bernadette, but his great triumph is Bernadette herself, who is rendered as a quiet and simple girl whose innocence of spirit disarms and confounds the powerful forces swirling around her. Reading the book has certainly increased my admiration for her.

A few bits of trivia: the structure of the book reflects the structure of the Rosary, being laid out in five sections, each of ten chapters (the Rosary being, of course, a prayer especially associated with Lourdes); Werfel wrote the book because during the Second World War he and his wife had been sheltered by Catholic families in Lourdes while fleeing from the Gestapo; more incidentally, Werfel’s wife was Alma Mahler, the widow of Gustav Mahler. Interesting.

Hannah Coulter
Wendell Berry
(Counterpoint, 2004)
195 p.

This is just one of the numerous books Berry has written about the residents of the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky, but it is the first that I have read. Hannah Coulter is an 80-year old woman looking back over her life and the lives of those closest to her: her two husbands, her children and grandchildren, and her friends, the “membership” of Port William. It is a novel about the importance of family, the dignity of the farming life, our obligations to the people and the places with which we come into contact, but perhaps above all it is about how the world affects the home. Hannah thinks a great deal about the manner in which the pressures of the modern world affect traditional ways of life and thought, such reflections being forced upon her by the events unfolding around her. The book is quiet and thoughtful, but not a sedative. Hannah is a very likable woman: warm and clear-sighted, with a firm moral center and a fine sense of humour. There are pages of great sadness here, and of delighted joy too; the overall impression is of a life being gathered up and regarded with love and thanksgiving. It is a good novel, and I would like to read another of the Port William books as opportunity arises. Recommendations are welcome.

Martin Chuzzlewit
Charles Dickens
(Duckworth, 2008) [1844]
864 p.

If it doesn’t seem quite proper to you that I shoehorn a Dickens novel — Dickens! — into the bottom of this post, I offer this consolation: it doesn’t seem quite proper to me either. The trouble is that I don’t have enough to say to justify giving it its own post. Martin Chuzzlewit is, I think it is fair to say, second-tier (or even third-tier, if there is a third-tier) Dickens. It was written after Dickens’ first trip to America, and it can be considered his “American novel”, in the sense that he sends poor young Martin state-side to seek his fortune, and uses the misadventures of his hero as an occasion to heap disdain on America and Americans. One gets the distinct impression that Dickens had found the United States exasperating, and has here taken opportunity to vent. Not that I am complaining: Dickens in a satirical mood is hard to beat, and the American chapters of Martin Chuzzlewit were my favourites. When Martin and his friend Mark Tapley are duped in a real-estate deal and dumped in a swampy backwater, lodged in a falling down cabin, surrounded by wilderness, the ever-cheerful Mark attempts to make light conversation with a neighbour:

‘The night air ain’t quite wholesome, I suppose?’ said Mark.
‘It’s deadly poison,’ was the settler’s answer.

Meanwhile, back in England, complicated intrigues surround the elder Martin Chuzzlewit — the young Martin’s grandfather — as a variety of parties try to position themselves to inherit his estate. Among them is the simpering Seth Pecksniff, surely one of Dickens’ finest villains, who hides his avarice behind a mask of self-denial. But then there is a cluster of characters — Chuffey, Tigg, Nadgett, Slyme, Spottletoe, Mrs. Gamp — who have given me a good deal of trouble. I honestly cannot tell you what they are doing in the story, nor how they are related to one another. I will readily concede that this is my own fault — I have been reading Martin Chuzzlewit before bed each night, when my powers of lexic retention descend to their diurnal minimum — but, as the books of moral instruction tell us, acknowledging one’s fault does not, in itself, remedy the evil that was done. Sizable chunks of the plot remain dark to me, and this no doubt accounts, at least partly, for what I must acknowledge with regret is my decided lack of enthusiasm for the novel.

Having said that, this is still Dickens, and naturally there is something to enjoy. The open-hearted warmth, jocular affection, and righteous indignation so characteristic of Dickens are here as usual. In Mark Tapley, and perhaps even more so in Tom Pinch, we have examples of that fine Dickensian type: the genuinely good man, whose innocence and cheerfulness are a continual delight. Pity that we didn’t see more of them.

Martin Chuzzlewit was written after Barnaby Rudge, and can be considered “middle-period Dickens”. (Dickens was only in his early 30s, but already had five earlier novels under his belt.) While writing the middle sections of the novel he took on a side project, a little piece called A Christmas Carol which is still read from time to time. His next novel was to be Dombey and Son, and it will be my next (Dickens) novel too.

10 Responses to “Books briefly noted”

  1. Janet Says:

    Bernadette did say that the lady said that she was the Immaculate Conception.

    I love Hannah Coulter. I love the book, but what I mean is that I love Hannah. I want to live next door to her. I think we first see her in A Place on Earth, which is the first WB book that I read, and might be a good choice for you, although it is very, very sad and a couple of things happen that you will hate.

    I would advise you to read Watch With Me and Six Other Stories of the Yet-Remembered Ptolemy Proudfoot and His Wife, Miss Minnie, Née Quinch. You will see a slightly different side of Berry. The stories share a common theme with Hannah Coulter and the other Port William books, but I think there is more humour in them.

    I also really love The Memory of Old Jack and Jayber Crow, but if I start thinking about it too much, I will find myself listing almost all of his fiction.

    I have only seen the BBC version of Martin Chuzzlewit and it only touches briefly on the American journey. Maybe I should read the book and you should watch the video because I think I understood quite well who those people were.


  2. cburrell Says:

    You are right, Janet; I ought not to have overlooked that name which the Lady gave herself. That Bernadette didn’t know what it meant added, of course, to the excitement. Sometimes I am a bit thick.

    Thanks so much for the Wendell Berry recommendations! I like that long title, and will add it to my list, along with the others you mention.

    You know, for some reason I thought that Berry had written a few decades ago, and I was surprised to discover that Hannah Coulter was written only in 2004, which seems like yesterday.

    I have heard of the BBC Martin Chuzzlewit, and I might take your advice and try to watch it. I saw their Bleak House mini-series a year or two ago, and, apart from some annoying stylistic quirks, I enjoyed it. I do think that Bleak House is a considerably greater book though.

  3. Says:

    I also liked Bonfire quite a lot, though I didn’t find it that funny, perhaps because the social pathologies on display are closer to home. And Hannah Coulter is just wonderful. The only other Berry novel I’ve read is The Memory of Old Jack which is also very good, though I didn’t like it quite as much.

    We have a copy of The Song of Bernadette which has been giving me reproachful looks for many years now. I’ve put it off for the same sort of reasons you mention. Glad to hear I may be wrong.

  4. Mac Says:

    Hmm, that was supposed to be just “Mac”. I have to use a bogus email addr on WordPress blogs for complicated reasons having to do with my email addr being attached to a blog that isn’t mine.

  5. cburrell Says:

    I knew who it was. Do you want me to change the name attached to your first comment?

    I laughed pretty much all the way through Bonfire, but there is a chapter in there called “Styrofoam Peanuts”, at the part of the story when Sherman is taken down to the courthouse for his arraignment, that had me doubled up in stitches, tears in my eyes.

    I don’t remember exactly, but I think it might have been something favourable you once said about Hannah Coulter that convinced me to read it. If it was you, thanks.

  6. No, it doesn’t matter, thanks. I vaguely remember that there was something about styrofoam peanuts, but that’s all.

    Let’s see if I ever mentioned HC on my blog….twice, but only briefly in comments. If that was enough to spur you to read it, you’re most welcome.

  7. Adam Hincks Says:

    Agreed on Chuzzlewit—in fact, I would even say it is my least favourite of his novels. In the book note I wrote about it a few years ago, I commented that it fails at being a satire because it is too superficial: it doesn’t provoke the deeper reflexion proper to satire.

  8. cburrell Says:

    Agreed, Adam; that’s a good way of putting it. As much as I enjoyed the American section of the novel, the satirical rhetoric was too heavy-handed and, as you say, superficial. Although I did like how everyone introduced everyone else as being “one of the finest men in the country”.

  9. Grumpy Says:

    I am a big Wolfe fan – I like all his novels. The only book of his I couldn’t get through is the one about the space program. The style seems like self-parody. I must read The Song of Bernadette. One day.

  10. cburrell Says:

    This was the second of Wolfe’s books that I have read; the other was I am Charlotte Simmons, which I thought was terrific (and which I wrote about at the time; maybe I’ll dig that out). At first I found his manner off-putting — his is, at least at first glace, the opposite of polished prose — but clearly he’s a good writer despite the apparent sloppiness of his style.

    I don’t know much about his non-fiction. I had high hopes for The Right Stuff, and am a little sorry to hear that you didn’t like it.

    Did you know that he has a new novel out this fall? I don’t often buy new books, but I’ll probably make an exception in this case.

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