The Thinking Reed not worth a second thought

Rebecca West took her 1936 novel title from Pascal’s Pensées in which he says man is only a feeble reed, but a thinking reed, ennobled by knowing that he will die.

West’s Isabelle certainly knows she will die; that fact is quite possibly the only thing she does know.


The Thinking Reed by Rebecca West

© 1936, 1964. Compass Books ed., 1961. Paper, 431 pp. 1936 bestseller #8. My grade C-.


cover of 1961 paperback edition of Rebecca West's The Thinking Reed shows cherubic statue holding flowersIsabelle is a beautiful, rich, young widow, on the loose in Paris between the wars.

Isabelle prides herself on her thinking—she spends some time every day thinking—and on her rejection of impulse.

Isabelle decides to drop a lover who brings out her impulsive side and marry a thinker, but the cerebral guy she’d like to marry thinks she’s too emotional.

Isabelle rebounds and marries industrialist Marc Sallafranque the next week.

Marc is good in bed and good at making money, so Isabelle tolerates his deficiencies in the thinking department.

Eventually her toleration turns to love, and the book ends.

Isabelle’s thought processes are every bit as ridiculous as those of George Brush in Thornton Wilder’s Heaven’s My Destination, but West takes her ridiculous character seriously.

As one reviewer quoted on the back cover says, The Thinking Reed is “among the best novels in the short memory of modern man.”

The shorter your memory, the better this novel is.

©2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

 

The Disenchanted shows nothing destroys like success

Shep Stearns  is thrilled when studio mogul Victor Milgrim pairs him with his hero, Pulitzer-winning novelist Manley Halliday, to turn Shep’s screenplay concept into a Hollywood blockbuster.

Halliday hasn’t produced a novel in years, is over his eyebrows in debt, diabetic, and hanging on to sobriety by his fingernails.

Shep doesn’t know any of that. To him, Manley is the epitome of youthful success, an embodiment of the beautiful life Shep wants for himself.

Unwittingly, Shep provides an audience for Manley’s recollections of his life as a  ’20s celebrity and gives him enough booze to ruin both their screenwriting careers.

The character of Manley is a fictional amalgam of the big name writers of the 1920s when the cult of celebrity — idolizing the famous for being famous — began.  However, Budd Schulberg’s allusions to writers, actors, politicians who were household words in the years between the great wars make The Disenchanted feel more like creative nonfiction than a novel.

Schulberg’s plot is packed with Hollywoodish implausabilities, but his depictions of a would-be writer and a has-been writer make the book can’t-put-down reading.

The novel suggests dozens of reasons why promising writers don’t fulfill their promise, but concludes, “There is never a simple reason for not writing a book or not writing your best.”

The Disenchanted
By  Budd Schulberg
1950 bestseller #10
My grade: B+

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Compulsion is can’t-put-down reading

Compulsion covers much of the same ground as Crime and Punishment, but with a far more American tone and faster pace.

Novelist Meyer Levin was a young reporter in Chicago in the 1920s when two brilliant college students from wealthy homes kidnapped and killed a younger boy. Thirty years later, Levin set out to explore through fiction the question that was never answered at the time of the murder and the subsequent trial: why did they do it?

Why indeed?

Was it a genetic flaw? Or did their environments make them murderers?

Maybe Judd really believe he was a superman, above the law, as he sometimes said.

Or maybe Artie was demon-possessed.

Perhaps the sexual abuse inflicted by his nursemaid unhinged Judd.

Or perhaps, as the reporters said, they were just perverts.

Levin writes with the precision of an accomplished journalist. He puts nothing unnecessary down, omits no needed detail. Even the discussions of philosophy are so deft that Nietzsche becomes a plausible influence on the murderers. And, despite the horrific subject matter, Levin never stoops to any language unsuitable for a family newspaper.

Compulsion grabbed me with its first page and didn’t let go.

See if it won’t do the same for you.

Compulsion
By Meyer Levin
Simon & Schuster, 1956
495 pages
# 3 on the ’57 bestseller list
My grade: A

© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni