Archive for the ‘Literary’ Category

dust jacket of John Updike's 1968 "Couples"

Couples’ jacket art reproduces William Blake watercolor  “Adam and Eve Sleeping”

John Updike’s 1968 bestseller,  Couples,  is about a clique of 10 couples, which is roughly five times as many as any self-respecting novel should have.

The couples live in a small New England village called Tarbox, somewhere within a longish commute of Boston.

The couples are the usual Kennedy presidency era suburbanites in the 1960s novels that pretend to be literature: hard-drinking, social climbing, sexually voracious.

Updike focuses main on local contractor Piet Hanema, who doesn’t let his devotion to his wife, Angela, interfere with his sex life.

When a new couple come to town, Piet takes up with the already pregnant wife, named Elizabeth but called Foxy, while still obliging other wives of the couples in their clique.

After Foxy has her baby, she’s less interested in her husband than before.

Within weeks, she’s pregnant again, this time with Piet’s child.

Other members of their clique arrange an abortion for Foxy, who promptly confesses all to her husband.

Updike writes delightful sentences, such as, “She studied him as if he were an acquisition that looks different in the home from in the store.”

But delightful sentences don’t make a novel, especially one with character-less characters all of whom look alike with their clothes on.

Couples by John Updike
Alfred A. Knopf, 1968. 458 p. My grade: C-.

© 2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni


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In Mr. Britling Sees It Through, H. G. Wells gives an account of World War I from the perspective of an intellectual with an optimistic view of human nature.

The title character, Mr. Britling, is a moderately well-known writer, who pens essays and articles from his study in Essex, England.

Mr. Britling Sees It Through by H. G. Wells

Macmillan, 1916. Project Gutenberg ebook #14060.
1916 bestseller #4. My grade B+.

Close up photo of HG Wells shows bushy eyebrows, tired eyes, and stubby mustache

Up until the German invasion, Britling tells anyone who will listen that the German people don’t want war.

When war is declared, Britling has to confront both the German support for the war and the British lack of preparedness for that war.

Soon he has to face harsher realities.

Britling is turned down for military service.

Members of his household, including his eldest son, enlist.

Britling’s understanding of war morphs from pins on a map into a girl delivering a telegram.

His political opinions change coincidentally.

Wells based Mr. Britling on his own experience. Indeed, the development of Britling’s thought as events unfold in Europe suggests reportage rather than imagination.

The plot, too, seems determined by historical events rather than story requirements.

Instead of fictionalizing, Wells follows the war so readers can have a sharp, nuanced perspective on one of the most significant events of the 20th century.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Menelaos was understandably upset after Paris violated the sacred laws of hospitality by running off with his wife, Helen.

The Private Life of Helen of Troy

by John Erskine

Bobbs-Merrill, 1925. 304 p. 1926 bestseller #1. My Grade: B.

Menelaos and his pals followed Paris to Troy, hell-bent on revenge. After a 20-year siege, they sacked the city.

Helen was still so beautiful Menelaos couldn’t bear to kill her.

All that happens before John Erskine’s story begins.

In The Private Life of Helen of Troy, Erskine explores what happens when this beautiful and maddeningly frank woman is back under her husband’s roof again.

Daughter Hermione, age 1 when Helen ran off with her lover, wants to marry her double-cousin Orestes.

The parents quarrel over what’s best for their child, forgetting that Hermione is no longer a child.

Meanwhile Orestes mother, who is Helen’s sister, murders his father, who is Menelaos’ brother.

Orestes and his sister murder their mother and her lover to avenge their father.

Hermione marries Orestes, leaving her parents to figure out what their attitude to the newlyweds will be.

All the sex and violence is off stage.

Erskine’s interest is not in what happens but in how people react.

Erskine makes Helen and Menelaos come alive—a remarkable feat since these people don’t do anything but talk about what they did years before.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Aldous Huxley wrote extensively in a half dozen genres, making a name as a literary virtuoso.

His 1936 bestseller, Eyeless in Gaza, is a literary novel by a literary man. The book’s chapters are dated; readers have to figure out the sequence of events from the dates.

Eyeless in Gaza by Aldous Huxley

Chatto & Windus, 1936; 620 pp. 1936 bestseller # 10. My Grade: D+.

Samson pushes pillars apart, collapsing building. Engraving by Gustave Dore shows Samson pushib

   Death of Samson by Gustave Dore

The novel’s focus is the emotionally homeless Anthony Beavis.

The boy’s mother dies when Anthony is a lad at boarding school; he has no affection for his eccentric father.

Anthony grows up to become a professional social scientist, a moral midget interested in life as a spectator sport.

Anthony has repeated chances to behave ethically and ignores every one of them.

He has affairs with a woman and her two daughters.

He’s indirectly responsible for the suicide of his best friend.

The story ends with Anthony fearlessly going off to face a hostile audience at a political rally.

The title suggests Huxley intends readers to see Anthony as a second Sampson, ending his life in one redeeming dramatic gesture when he gains spiritual insight.

Nothing in the novel makes that seem plausible.

Huxley doesn’t tell us what happens at the rally, but whatever tomatoes are thrown at Anthony are no less than the rotter deserves.

And the same could be said of Huxley’s novel.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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Robert Briffault packed Europa with wise and witty sentences. Unfortunately, he neglected to include a plot in the novel.

What story there is concerns Julian Bern, a deep thinker.

Europa: The Days of Ignorance  by Robert Briffault

Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1935. 510 pages. 1935 bestseller #10. My grade: C-.

"Europa" cover shows woman riding bullJulian spends a lot of his time thinking deep thoughts about God, beauty, truth, social justice and sex.

Julian has a wide range of acquaintances who do not think as deeply as he, but who have far more extensive knowledge of sex in all its perversions.

In his late teens, Julian acquires a girl friend. Zena’s parents rush her into an arranged marriage with a Russian homosexual lest she be tainted by Julian’s middle class values.

A decade later, Julian and Zena link up again just as Europe plunges into World War I.

Most of the novel consists of party gossip about who is sleeping with whom, but the tittle-tattle lets Briffault get in some good lines. For example, Julian’s aunt complains to her brother,

Julian reads far too much, and I’m afraid it puts ideas into his head.

The theme of the novel appears to be that education prevents people from perceiving ideas.

Perhaps it does.

At any rate, my education prevents me from perceiving any value in this novel.

© 2015 by Linda Gorton Aragoni


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Thomas Wolfe is one of the great exemplars of the “writing is rewriting” school of literature.

Wolfe’s editor appears to have gotten tired of waiting for him to finish reworking the material in Of Time and the River and published several rewrites before Wolfe figured out what he wanted to say.

 Of Time and the River   by Thomas Wolfe

A Legend of Man’s Hunger in his Youth. Charles Scribner, 1935. 886 pages. 1935 bestseller #3. My grade: C-.

Dust jacket for "Of Time and the River" by Thomas Wolfe: white type on wave-like pattern.A southern boy, Eugene Pentland, is studying play writing at Harvard. After his father’s death, Eugene returns home.

On that slender thread, Wolfe hangs odd bits of writing, but there’s no actual plot.

Eugene attracts, or is attracted to, eccentrics, weirdos, and nutcases. Wolfe tells their stories without weaving them into Eugene’s.

While the stories are often compelling — the description of Eugene’s father’s death is a prime example — the stories cannot stand alone and serve no clear purpose in the overall book.

Some of Wolfe’s writing is sure and clean, but large portions are sluggish and bloated: I counted 149 words in one sentence.

Certain descriptions, like that of the Boston train station, appear more than once, giving the impression that Wolfe hadn’t decided where to put it.

The novel is an “interesting” book rather than a good one. In the last analysis, Of Time and the River accomplishes nothing except to prove that great writers don’t necessarily write great books.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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In Ten North Frederick, John O’Hara presents a fictional history of the upper echelons of society in a small Pennsylvania city in the first half of the twentieth century.

When the novel opens, it’s 1945 and Joseph B. Chapin has died.

Ten North Frederick  by John O’Hara

Random House, 1955. 408 pages. 955 bestseller #5. My grade: B-.

Dust jacket of Ten North Frederick shows imposing closed door.Chapins have lived at 10 N. Frederick since 1881. The family is at the top of the local social ladder by virtue of old money and old virtues.

Joe had the personality to succeed in Philadelphia or New York, but he felt—wisely, it turns out—his talents were only Gibbsville-sized.

Joe married a local girl who saw Joe’s limitations as an asset: She could own him.

By Gibbsville standards, Joe and Edith had a happy marriage.

Nobody on the outside saw how miserable they were.

O’Hara’s revelations of the secrets of “the best families” wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in most circles today. Even by 1950’s standards, O’Hara was not a pornographer.

At the end of the novel, Joe Chapin is buried, and people are wondering what his widow will do now.

Readers are no wiser.

They know a lot about Edith Chapin that she wouldn’t wish known, but they don’t know Edith Chapin.

For all his skill in plotting and dialogue, O’Hara never is able to make Edith more than a character in a history book.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

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