Thursday, August 05, 2010

For Pleasure (summer 2010): This summer's big indulgence (stealing hours from reviewables) is Thomas Pynchon's mammoth Against the Day (Penguin.) I'm at page 415, and so not halfway, but I've gone past the Spock joke, and the time travel-related nod to Jack Finney (I'm speculating.) The Chums of Chance are a marvelous invention, and I'm glad to be back with them after maybe too much of the Wild West. Pynchon is so singular and so fertile that there is nothing I have ever been able to do but read him for pleasure.

Of course there's much more to it, and his choice of era--the 1890s and decades immediately after--are both fascinating (especially in America, where modern cities and technology coexist with the last of the Wild West and original America) and perfect for his themes. I've just read the passages in which refugees from the ominous future when capitalism has finally despoiled and used up too much, raid this past for its innocence...

But the summer's discovery was a shorter and more traditional (but still singular) novel by Alan Sillitoe. He seems to be known primarily in the states as the 1950s author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, not coincidentally both made into fine movies. But judging from Internet info, he's had a longer presence in the UK and is considered a distinguished novelist. On the basis of the 1976 novel I've just read, he should be. (Those are two photos of him above, one from his fame days, the other more recent.)

The novel is The Widower's Son, about the son of a provincial working class army sergeant in World War I, raised to be a soldier, who becomes not only a soldier in World War II but an artillery officer (and hence a gentleman) in the process. The writing is crisp, with what seemed to me to be a few fleeting literary illusions or suggestions (Joyce, Hemingway) but basically an individual style that matches the character of the men he's writing about. The word I kept thinking of was wisdom. There's wisdom in his descriptions, especially of thoughts and character. That he can describe in a few sentences the confusion of an ascendant member of the working class might be expected. But describing so well and so economically the feelings of falling in love? That's a surprise.

He's taken that inner conflict of the "working class hero" beyond the young men he first wrote about into later confusions: "The fact that he had become a colonel had had more effect on him than he wanted to admit. He'd blown gaps into himself with his own guns. While still in the army it was all right. But now with no bounds to hold him, he didn't know where he belonged anymore." But also in writing about war, the military, father and son, youth and age, love and marriage, Sillitoe shows a sure hand, and as a reader I felt confident in him. The end of the marriage has some of the more daring sections--like the tour de force of a couple quarreling by describing military operations--that I wasn't as sure of as I read them, but I will certainly remember them. I was impressed, and I hope to read more of Sillitoe's fiction.

One other note--I forgot a book I finished this spring: Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman. Its short, thematically related stories were perfect for those last minutes of reading before sleep, and so I savored it over time. And since time is its basic subject, and the stories were dreamlike, that seemed to work out fine.

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