Monday, September 11, 2017

Edith's Diary by Patricia Highsmith

I've loved and cheered for protagonist who were objectively put, awful human beings, (Alex, A Clockwork Orange, Humbert Humbert, Lolita, Holden Caulfiled, Catcher in the Rye, Katniss Everdeen The Hunger Games) I don't know that I'd ever cheered for a character whose actions so clearly brought about her demise. Almost from the very beginning there is a dichotomy within Edith, the title character, as to her real life and how she views things. The diary is Edith's way of hiding; she hides all her truth's she'd rather not admit, dreams, hopes, and suspicions. It is her fantasy life, and at times if very clearly leaves mark on her real world existence.

It's not an epistolary novel written in journal format should anyone reading this have a thing for such presentation; the diary entries themselves were extremely short and equally infrequent. It's also not some grand plot driven narrative with amazing external forces driving things forward. I hate the term character study, but it may apply: it's long, super intimate and very very personal.

Brett, Edith's husband, is her perfect match in the beginning. Cliffie, there son is a monsterous human being from birth and only gets worse. He has absolutely no redeeming qualities and everyone, parents included, know. As she ages, her diary recalls Brett simply fading away from her life instead of leaving with a younger woman and starting a new family; Cliffie isn't a horrible person, but educated, highly intelligent, married and has beautiful children; she expeirences regular visits from non-existent family and life only gets better.

One of the most powerful forces in her life is George, Brett's elderly uncle, who lives with them as his health declines. Brett doesn't nothing, George becomes invalid, and Edith in every way becomes a nurse. It was a pretty easily identifiable starting place for so much of the resentment that mars her attitude toward other people. George and Cliffie have a very peculiar relationship...

Melanie, a distant and favored Aunt whom Edith really loves is her last bastion of rationality. When she finally succumbs to advanced age and health problems, it's not the stark encounter with Drs. Carstairs and McElroy, but Melanie's passing that truly marks the end.

I never believed she was losing it until a few impartial third-party characters started mentioning things that couldn't be ignored and just didn't add up. At that point, I was sad, sad because I really liked her. I was cheering for Edith the entire time. I do feel was short-changed and dealt poorly, and despite those things I do think she handled it all admirably. It was hard to finally admit that yeah, she's slipping. And while I did understand that she felt so many people were prying into her life at the incessant suggestion of 'see a shrink, see a shrink, see a shrink' before the end I certainly found myself saying she may need some help....

Repression; (hiding, as Cliffie hides the diary in the end!) is her main issue. By the end of the book nearly every character we like or don't like that at least knows Edith is begging her in good nature to talk to someone, and share her feelings. And so, I--even as a reader--feel a bit as though I'm betraying her as I sit here psycho-analyzing a fictional character when all that she wanted was to be let alone. She has problems, repression, and a difficulty stating how she feels, but her problems come from real not perceived wrongs, and wrongs that anyone today or then could identify with. I didn't love her because of her flaws, certainly didn't dislike her for them either. I cheered for her because she had them; and how she reacted to them, they endeared me to her because I could see myself, or anyone else for the matter, behaving in similar fashion.

Part of me feels like all her troubles started with Cliffie being such an unrelenting dick. He's not a spoiled brat just a bad egg with no explanation. He tries to smoother the family cat a child, cheats and gets caught on college entrance exams, gets drunk and break both legs of a pedestrian, puts a gun in his fathers face and laughs, and at the least oversaw if not administered George's overdose: all with no remorse. Edith nor Brett spend a lot of time dwelling on Cliffie, how he came to be who he is or what they can do to change him, but his actions certainly have a tangible impact of Brett and Edith's relationship, and every other facet of their lives.

Alcoholism is real in this book. To the point where it may even play a part in Edith's decline. It could be part cultural and indicative of the time; or these people are drunks. 

Edith is a rare character that never 'grows up' or matures. Her political views were always a bit extreme; and she only solidifies them as she gets older, while Brett and her one good-ish friend, soften and relent a bit in older age. (Boy oh boy did Highsmith have a few Nixon rants in her... ) She became more of an extremist and isolated herself the older she got, and the more untenable her life became. She also completely and totally stopped caring about other people. She became a super crotchety old lady.

I see a lot of Patricia Highsmith in my reading future.   

Sunday, August 20, 2017

And Suddenly... Poetry!

Happily for you, it's not my own poetry but someone who was really good at it.  

From C P Cavafy, as translated by Rae Dalven


The days of our future stand before us
like a row of little lighted candles--
golden, warm, and lively little candles. 

The days gone by remain behind us, 
a mournful line of burnt-out candles:
the nearest ones are still smoking, 
cold candles, melted and bent.

I do not want to look at them; their form saddens me,
and it saddens me to recall their first light.
I look ahead at my lighted candles. 

I do not want to turn back, lest I see and shudder--
how quickly the somber line lenghthens, 
how quickly the burnt-out candles multiply.    

An Old Man

In the inner room of the noisy cafe
and old man sits bent over a table; 
a newspaper before him, no companion beside him. 

And in the scorn of his miserable old age, 
he meditates how little he enjoyed the years
when he had strength, the art of the word, and good looks.

He knows he has aged much; he is aware of it, he sees it, 
and yet the time when he was young seems like 
yesterday.  How short a time, how short a time.  

And he ponders how Wisdom had deceived him;
and how he always trusted her--what folly!--
the liar who would say, "Tomorrow.  You have ample time."

He recalls impulses he curbed; and how much 
joy he sacrificed.  Every lost chance
now mocks his senseless prudence.  

...  But with so much thinking and remembering
the old man reels.  And he dozes off 
bent over the table of the cafe.  


Without consideration, without pity, without shame
they have built big and high walls around me. 

And now I sit here despairing. 
I think of nothing else: this fate gnaws at my mind;

for I had many things to do outside.
Ah why didn't I observe them when they were building the walls?

But I never heard the noise or the sound of the builders.
Imperceptibly they shut me out of the world.  

There are many other really really good ones that I like, "Ithaca" and "The City" but I'm too lazy to type them out.  So go find a copy and read Cavafy's for yourself.  

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Clea by Lawrence Durrell

For my comments on Justine, Balthazar, and Mountolive, the first three books of the Alexandria Quartet, follow the respective links.

I've been looking forward to Clea since I finished Justine. I felt it would be my favorite. I was sure it would have the most to offer and be the most substantial in the series. My immediate thought after finishing this book has to be nothing other than, “God damn. There's a lot of exclamation marks in this book....”

The war, which was always in the background and even in Clea never gets main character treatment, is finally such a big deal that it has to get more than merely casual mention as it had in previous entries. Darley, the narrator of Justine, is back as narrator in Clea. He has to come back to Alexandria, and his return is marked by death all around him: as in warships are actively bombing the city as he makes his entrance. Its the same intangible, beautiful rambling narrative and lack of concrete substance that he gives in Justine. Even while the city is being strategically shelled Darley's general oblivion is held in perfect tact. The gravity of the matter is only felt by the reader; why? Because everything we love about the previous experience of reading three books is embodied in the city and all the people too. The city under fire works so well but Durell never indulged it. It was just a thing in the background—we don't read this book for epic descriptions of war. But the next morning characters noticed rubble in the streets, inaccessibility of certain roads, and people died. He in no way painted the picture but he damn sure sold it to me. Lastly, the juxtaposition of everyday life in the city: the call to worship; fishing in the harbor; nightlife, in contrast with the war kinda caused an internal struggle between 'everything is gonna be okay,' and all the drama the actual characters stirred up. Enough of the war and the city; on to the good parts...

In Clea, we see exactly how much of certain characters lives we missed in Mountolive; Justine's had a stroke, Nessim lost an eye and a finger, both are on house arrest and aren't free travel about the city (as if Nessim could be held down). The perfect couple has fallen but I never thought Justine could be a such a bitch, especially not in Darley's eyes! She even defends herself to Darley saying she lied but he lied to himself in deifying her. She's not only bitter, but defeatist, which is kind of a shocker considering... ya know... the other three books....

Oh, and if ever I was gonna have a fictional dad it would be Nessim. Just saying.

There's is a lot going on, and I don't feel bad saying that it took me some time away from the book after having finished it to say so. Everyone who remained behind is falling apart: badly. Justine, Nessim, even Bathazar. His teeth, his terrible and ill-advised love with an actor, he went full cray with the 'drunk, drugs, and brothels' bit. A large part of him also enjoyed suffering; if not that then the being made to endure his self-inflicted wounds. (I'm not gonna talk about periodontal disease right now, but yeah... that too.) I'd go so far as to say 'endurance' is a theme for all the characters that stayed behind. Darley retreated and found some measure of internal peace; everyone else in Alexandria has further flipped their shit (I mean seriously; Scoobie “El Yacoub” has been made a saint, and I even believe it!) which is saying something considering the mental constitution of some of the characters from the start. If you've read Justine, and one should most certainly be strictly doctrinaire when reading this particular series, think of how nutso it is to say Darley of all people is the normal person and everyone else is the train wreck. Yeah, that's where we are...

I felt in Clea there was more to concretely dislike than any in other book in the series. Pursewarden, a voice I most truly felt to be that of the author's, trivialized Justin's rape; even went so far as to say in as many words that she enjoyed it—then he defended his comments. I also felt Durrell just got a bit lazy from time to time.

“The Alexandrians still moved inside the murex-tinted cycloram of the life they imagined. (“Life is more complicated than we think, yet far simpler than anyone dares to imagine.”) pg 65

Those are two very fine sentences but I do wish that the primary characters were experiencing those things first hand than the recap. If only because Darley is the narrator and that was how such details were given in Justine. There is also a supremely heavy over-reliance on Pursewarden; a character that died in the previous book. He is quoted on seemingly every page. The air of, “Pursewarden said...” is likened to the teachings of Mohamed or Jesus as being recited by the Holy. As if by quoting him the speaker admits to wanting to have lived or live the most messed up life ever... If the dude had to be such a force in the book—such a necessary force—then don't kill him; or write a new character to take his place or just finish the series.

I think we can add anti-Semite to the list of bad things as well.

Durell loves to rhapsodize about 'art, writing, and style,” usage and definition of each that to me were tedious from the start and they he only kept going. All were done from the dead voice of Pursewarden. Similar points had been made before but done better as they had previously served to further then narrative. In the “Brother Ass,” Chapter (that I'm sure the author felt would be remembered by history in the same light as “The Grand Inquisitor”) Purewarden, Durell, is being self-indulgent peacock puffing out his chest and tail feathers. The “Great Stylist,” is begging for compliments after bashing other prominent English writers to set himself apart. It was exhausting and more than once I considered skipping that chapter and upon completion of the book don't feel I'd have been any worse for the wear should I have done so.

I'm sure it all made mathematical clarity to Durell but many of his “points” are ramblings with no real meaning that get lost in length and intentionally (artistically; perhaps?) nebulous prose.

“The sexual and the creative energy go hand in hand. They convert into one another—the solar sexual and the lunar spiritual holding an eternal dialogue. They ride the spiral of time together. They embrace the whole of the human motive. The truth is only to be found in our own entrails—the truth of Time. Pg 141.

Seriously? What does he think he's saying in the above?

If I'm to be wholly honest—which I hate doing—I had no idea I actually liked this book until I wrote this commentary.... And, of course, it should go without saying that that goes for the series as well. It doesn't really work; it's not supposed to; it's anything but traditional. It's also not perfect. It's really really good.