Monday, January 25, 2021

Patchett's The Magician's Assistant


The Magician's Assistant seems the most aesthetically satisfying of the Patchett novels I've read thus far.  It has a solid basis in Germanic mythology that remains consistent throughout, and the ending (unlike the other three novels I read) is clever and satisfying -- aesthetically. It is probably especially important to emphasize aesthetics in this novel because there is quite a lot to object to moralistically.

In Old and Middle English Literature from the Beginnings to 1485, George K. Anderson writes on page 39, "As would be expected of any Germanic literature, we find in Anglo-Saxon writings a remarkable predilection for moralizing.  English literature as a whole has been thoroughly impregnated with teaching and aphorism; indeed, English literary criticism has been prone to base judgments more on the sense of a literary work than on its aesthetics."  Patchett free-wheels in her novels, tip-toeing past a bit of teaching, but stuff that is tame for our times.  She is more comfortable with aesthetics.  In The Magician's Assistant, Parsifal is early in the novel seemingly sent off to a reformatory as a boy to cure him of his homosexuality.  Moralizing regarding that sort of thing would be very safe in these times, but as Sabine makes contact with Parsifal's mother and sisters, she learns that Guy/Parsifal wasn't sent to a reformatory for his homosexuality. He was sent there by his mother to prevent his being sent to prison for killing his father with a baseball bat.  The father was kicking the mother while she was on the floor and pregnant at the time.  Guy hit his father with a baseball bat and killed him.   Were boys really sent to prison for that sort of thing?

Susan was ever inclined to take the poor in spirit under her wing -- under our wings I should say because I went along with her.  One such person was Greg, 27 years old who went from church to church looking for one that truly practiced Christian charity.  Eventually he found Susan and we (not our church) took him in.  One cold night in our apartment after a few months, Greg confessed that when he was 17 he had killed his father for the very same reason that Parsifal killed his.  Greg though didn't get to go to a reformatory.  He was sent to prison for nearly ten years.   His story was a bit off-putting when he confided that he had begun to think of me as his father, but he intended that in a nice way.  Though laws, according to Patchett have softened in regard to a mother or one of her children killing an abusive husband or father, Patchett isn't entering into Thomas Hardy territory with the legal abuse of children who kill a parent in self-defense.  And, Sabine learns, Parsifal's mother and sisters adore him and have, ever since he left, wished he would return to them in Nebraska.  Parsifal because he has grown rich has been sending them money.  He still cares about them, Sabine learns, but his becoming a Californian is so thoroughgoing that he could never return to Nebraska.

After his death, his assistant through dreams and hallucinations is encouraged to go to Nebraska, and when she does she does all the wonderful things that Parsifal ought to have done as a loving son and brother, and perhaps would have if he wasn't rendered psychologically incapable of returning to Nebraska which for him would have been very like the occasion when he was locked by his father in a refrigerator.  Though he became a famous magician, he couldn't do any of Houdini's tricks.  He could not lock himself in an enclosed area and escape -- but his assistant could. 

It is nothing today to defend homosexuality.  So what if Parsifal was homosexual.  It isn't preaching to describe him in favorable terms, nor is it unusual to describe his relationship with Pham in gentler and ethereal terms.  It is perhaps strange to learn of the long term, but unconsummated, relationship between Parsifal and his assistant, Sabine.  She loves him as much as he loves her, but as to sex, he has Pham (who also loves Sabine in the same manner that Parsifal does).  Sabine has had some brief affairs over the years, but nothing very enjoyable or long-lasting.  The only satisfying relationships she has had have been with Parsifal and Pham -- very emotional and strong, but sexless. 

The reader has become used to Sabine's sexlessness, even though she is gorgeous and sought after throughout her life.  Then  back in Nebraska as she she becomes immersed in the lives of Parsifal's mother and sisters, she cares for his mother and becomes as well loved by her as his sisters.   The problem sister, Kitty, Parsifal's favorite, the one who looks like him, the one who was his assistant as he practiced his magic tricks as a child, has been incapable of choosing a decent husband.  The current one whom Sabine fends off is an abusive bully.  Kitty one evening, hiding out with Sabine from the husband, intends to kiss Sabine on the cheek goodnight, but she misses and they kiss on the lips -- an electric moment when they both realize something that doesn't need to be discussed or elaborated upon. 

And so at the end Sabine announces that she is taking Kitty and her two sons with her back to Los Angeles.  She is rich and has a huge house.  The mother and other sister can visit as often as they like.  The assistant as she has done throughout her career, has performed beautifully, perfectly, satisfyingly.  And so was the novel's ending -- aesthetically.

Patchett's The Patron Saint of Liars


I saw a similarity in pattern and wondered if she patterned her Bel Canto after Magic Mountain.  Earlier I wondered if she patterned her State of Wonder after Heart of Darkness.  Thus far, as far as I've read in The Patron Saint of Liars I haven't noticed any literary references.

As to Patchett's worth, why would I decide that before I read her?  I might if it were some sort of genre, or what I fancied to be a genre that I didn't like -- but Patchett seems on her own and that is what initially intrigued me. 

In regard to The Patron Saint of Liars.   Rose is describing her husband Thomas, and  probably leading up to explaining why she took the car and drove off to a Catholic convent.  She says "His sadness was a powerful thing then, and he never forgot it, the way my mother never forgot the Depression and so was forever saving little bits of things that might be useful later.  Thomas said he made a promise to God and even though he never said exactly what the promise entailed, I knew it went beyond to love and honor and obey.  This was a promise with desperation in its origin, the kind of deal that Jonah cut in the belly of the whale.  The difference being that I'm sure Thomas kept his promise, in the years I knew him."

I don't relate to Thomas very much.  He was a man of few words and I am not, but I do recall that when Susan first told me she had an incurable disease and gave me the opportunity to  back out of our relationship, I promised that I would always take care of her.  It wasn't a promise like Thomas's -- out of desperation.  I don't know what it was, but I remembered it.  And just a few days before she died she told me, "you said you would always take care of me, and you did"; in which I understood the nuance, "and now you are free to go" even if I didn't want to.  The day she told the doctors she didn't want to try any longer, I was home with severe bronchitis.  I went back to the hospital as soon as I could quit coughing and she told me what she and her sister and brother had decided and asked me, "are you okay with that," and I said, "not really."  At which she said with considerable sympathy, "I'm sorry."

Thomas could have promised something like that; so why did she leave him?  He was a silent type, and that seemed to be part of it.  But he didn't have strength to go along with his silence.  Rose was physically stronger than he was. 

Thus far I relate most to Rose's mother.  I was also raised during the depression and learned to save little bits of things that might be useful later although I've completely given that up in retirement.  It isn't much of a hardship to be 86 and have a crippled leg.  I can get anything I like delivered to my door.  I can get around as much as I need to -- can even cinch up my knee and hike a bit -- I think I have been equipped to live well during the sequestering and feel thankful when I discover someone new to read -- even if I may abandon her later on which will no doubt happen.

Ann Patchett's State of Wonder and Bel Canto


Off and on while reading State of Wonder, I was reminded of William Henry Hudson's Green Mansions.  I probably read that book as a child and not again since and so looked it up on Wikipedia.  The article didn't make it seem like what I remembered, but Hudson was a noted naturalist, especially an ornithologist and so may have described the jungle, the "Green Mansions" in the detail I think I remember. 

Patchett was very clever and perhaps playing with those familiar with Conrad.  When it came time to describe her Kurtz-like character, she gives us Dr. Annick Swenson, a short 73-year old scientist who had experimented on herself with natives fertility drug and was seven months pregnant,  demonstrating to her satisfaction and that of her fellow scientists that the drug would work on non-natives.  Swenson is indeed a powerful personality like Kurtz, but the Charles Marlow equivalent is Marina Singh, a tall powerful woman who quickly loses her fear of Swenson (her former teacher) and becomes quite independent toward the end. 

The end is at first unsatisfying for we aren't explicitly told whether Dr Singh will return to Manaus and the laboratory in the jungle beyond, but Patchett does tell us if we have been reading carefully (or if not then after we have gone back and read the ending again) that Dr. Singh isn't going to remain working at the main offices for the pharmaceutical company Vogel because she has already kept secret the fact that the fertility drug (which will be profitable) is tied closely to a malaria cure (which will not be profitable).  Her boss and lover would (both Swenson and Singh believe) order them to quit working on the malaria cure and work solely on the fertility drug.  The worn-out Swenson needs Singh to become her successor in the jungle and though Patchett leaves Singh enjoying her return home in Minnesota, her real home has become the Amazon rain forest.

In regard to Bel Canto, I am reminded of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain.  In Mann's novel, the action such as it is takes place in a sanatorium up the "magic" mountain during World War I.  Seemingly improbably patients, doctors and incidents create a magic for the reader as well as each other.   In Patchett's Bel Canto, a birthday party has been arranged for a Japanese billionaire industrialist Katsumi Hosokawa.  He it turns out has had a life-long love of opera.  A South American nation wanting him to build factories has enticed him to a birthday party they have arranged by means of the appearance of the brilliant soprano, Roxane Coss.  Hosokawa has been known to arrange business meetings in places she has performed in just so he can hear her sing. 

So there they are in the home of vice-president Ruben Iglesias, listening to Roxane Coss sing, when the lights go out and Iglesias home is invaded by local "freedom fighters" who hope to capture the nations president, who was scheduled to attend Hosokawa's birthday party, but backed out in order to see the current episode of a popular soap opera.  The terrorists aren't clear about what to do next.  The nation's police and army aren't willing to storm the house with so many important people inside; so there is a standoff.  Many of the hostages are released, but the most important people are retained.  The resolve of the terrorists becomes less and less clear.  the hostages become more and more comfortable with their situation.  Roxane needs to resume practicing but she needs a new accompanist.

Roxane's previous accompanist concealed the fact that he was a diabetic, and being madly in love with Roxane refused to leave when the women (other than Roxane) and unimportant or ill men were allowed to leave -- and so dies on the floor next to her.  Later on Roxane has the translator question the various people in the room searching for a pianist who can accompany her while she practices.  At first there is no one, "then Tetsuya Kato, a vice president at Nansei whom Gen [the translator] had known for years, smiled and walked to the Steinway without a word.  He was a slightly built man in his early fifties with graying hair who, in Gen's memory, rarely spoke.  He had a reputation for being very good with numbers . . . then without making a request for anyone's attention Tetsuya Kato began to play.  He started with Chopin's Nocturne opus 9 in E Flat major no. 2 . . . from all over the house, terrorist and hostage alike turned and listened and felt a great easing in their chests. . . There was a delicacy about Tetsuya Kato's hands, as if they were simply resting in one place on the keyboard and then in another.  Then suddenly his right hand spun out notes like water . . . ."

When he finished, they all, hostages and terrorists alike clustered about the piano.  Roxane asked him to play for her while she practiced.  He was willing, but he needed sheet music.  Various avenues were explored, at last the priest, Father Arquedas told them of his friend just two miles away who had the music Roxane and Tetsuya needed.  He calls his friend who sends the box of music over.  The red cross man attempts to deliver it, but a petulant general with a headache declares that no more materials will be accepted that day.  The translator and red cross agent argue with the general but he is inflexible.  The red cross agent "barely started to turn away from the house when Roxane Coss closed her eyes and opened her mouth. . . and in the middle of the vast living room began to sing 'O Mio Babbino Caro' . . There should have been an orchestra behind her but no one noticed its absence . . . their eyes clouded over with tears for so many reasons it would be impossible to list them all.  They cried for the beauty of the music, certainly but also for the failure of their plans.  They were thinking of the last time they had heard her sing . . .  All of the love and the longing a body can contain was spun into not more than two and a half minutes of a song, and when she came to the highest notes it seemed that all they had been given in their lives and all they had lost came together and made a weight that was almost impossible to bear.  When she was finished, the people around her stood in stunned and shivering silence.  Messner (the red cross agent) leaned into the wall as if struck.  He had not been invited to the party.  Unlike the others, he had never heard her sing before."

"Roxane took a deep breath and rolled her shoulders.  'Tell him,' she said to Gen [the translator], 'that's it.  Either he gives me that box right now or you will not hear another note out of me or that piano for the duration of this failed social experiment.'"

"Really?" Gen asked.

"I don't bluff," the soprano said."

So Gen related the message and all eyes turned to General Alfredo.  He pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to push down the headache but it didn't work.  The music had confused him to the point of senselessness.  He could not hold onto his convictions. . . With so little sleep he was in no condition to make decisions.  Every possible conclusion seemed like madness.  Alfredo turned and left the room. . ."

Historians, Political Scientists and novelists


Maybe true historians are being ignored by people of power.  I've gotten at various times into medieval history, the English, and American Civil Wars for example.  I can't think why any of the powerful people of the last century would be interested in them.  But I've also been interested in Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations and Francis Fukuyma's The End of History and the Last Man.  Huntington and Fukuyama are political scientists rather than historians.  Huntington is circular in the sense of seeing the various power centers as being semi-permanent.  The United States is the (I forget his term) leader of the Western Civilization, China of the Sinic, Russia of the Orthodox.  Wars will flare up on the borders and when necessary the leaders will step in and terminate the border clashes in some way.

Fukuyama, a student of Huntington, was more progressive, that is, he followed Hegel in seeing history progressing, but disagreed with Hegel's follower Marx by arguing that the end of history wasn't in Communism but in Liberal Democracy.  Fukuyama's arguments inspired the movement Neo-Conservatism which advocated helping the move toward Liberal Democracy whenever possible, the war against Saddam Hussein was the chief example.  Saddam Hussein was a major holder-back of Liberal Democracy in the Arab world.  Fukuyama, however, was appalled by the Neo-Conservative movement and denounced it in a separate book.  Like modern historians a proper political scientist should should observe what is happening and not become a practical advocate of his beliefs.  He should especially not argue for something like a war.

Fukuyama distanced himself further from Neo-Conservatism by co founding a monthly magazine, The American Interest.  In it a year or so ago he rated his arguments versus Huntington and conceded that history subsequent to the publication of their two books supported Huntington's views more than it did his own. 

Years ago when I was still under the mistaken impression that I would end up in academia, I thought I should choose some novelists to have in mind for future concentration and settled on Hardy, James, and Conrad.   I read all, or almost all of their novels.  I was powerfully affected by such novels as The Mayor of Casterbridge, Jude the Obscure, Tess of the D'urbervilles, and The Return of the Native, but Hardy's pessimism weighed on me.  I didn't want to concentrate on a writer who could be startled that a bird could sing of a beauty he had no conception of.

Being self-programed to continue on even though I was slowly deciding to abandon the idea of academia, I continued to read James and Conrad.  I don't recall that I ever decided between them.  But I believe now it is easier for me to return to Conrad than to James.  I wonder if James hasn't, with his archaic-like style, dated himself.  Conrad on the other hand remains accessible.

And his Heart of Darkness has become his most accessible story, perhaps.  I intended to read Maya Jasanoff's recreation of Conrad's voyage and then follow it by rereading Conrad's novel.  But then in a recent issue of the New Yorker, I read a memoir by Ann Patchett of her "three fathers" which impressed me.  I was further impressed by learning that one of her novels, State of Wonder (published in 2011) seemed influenced by Conrad; so I read that -- and was impressed enough to give up my return to Conrad and instead read another of Patchett's novels, the one said by some to be her best, Bel Canto, which I've just started and am already impressed by her immersion in and knowledge of opera.

British Imperialism

In the Nov. 2, 2020 issue of the New Yorker is a review of Time's Monster: How History Makes History (Harvard) by Stanford professor Priya Satia.  The review was written by Maya Jasanoff who early in her review tells us "A March, 2020 poll found that a third of Britons believed that their empire had done more good than harm for colonies -- a higher percentage than in other former imperial powers, including France and Japan.  More than a quarter of Britons want the empire back."

Historians, the good ones, recognize that it is a major historical sin to judge a previous people by the standards of one's own day.  Both Satia and Jasanoff seemed at times to be doing that -- but maybe not.  They don't argue that the British (in the days when there was an empire) knew that having an empire was wrong.  They find evidence of criminal abuse, and beyond that evidence that the abuse was systemically covered up by burning or otherwise destroying imperial records.  India's first day of independence in 1947 was notable in that there was a clear sky in which a rainbow could be seen.  Prior days were marred by the smoke going up from records being burned by the British -- well that does sort of change things if one has been thinking up until then that the British were operating in accordance with the widely held beliefs of the day and were performing their duties in good conscience.

On Franklin Library’s non-classics

Since beginning a collection of Franklin Library leather-bound books, I’ve read three novels that are not now and may never in the future be considered “literary classics”: Graham Greene’s The Human Factor, Mickey Spillane’s The Killing Man, and Nelson Demille’s The General’s Daughter.  If I manage to read an entire novel, I have probably suspended disbelief for the most part while doing so.  But afterwards I ought to be willing to find words to describe whatever it is I do believe about a novel, taking into consideration that many novels I read long ago have not aged well when I recall them.  For example, I read Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, and thought them at the time  his best.  But now in retrospect they seem heavy-handed social criticism.  The Hardy novel chosen as a Franklin Library classic is The Return of the Native, and I do not (now) disagree.  I have reread that one a couple of times and may read it again.  

The three novels first mentioned are Franklin Library “signed first editions.”  Of the three, Spillane’s seems least likely to live long enough to every be considered a classic.  Spillane began his writing career by writing brief stories for comic books, and this novel seems rather like that.

Graham Greene’s The Human Factor is very well written and as long as Greene was being amusing, the novel was enjoyable, but after revealing that his main character, Castle, is a spy, he becomes less enjoyable.  Castle while stationed in South Africa fell in love with his confidential informant, who is black and not able to get a passport to travel to England.  The only person willing to help him is a Russian diplomat who later asks for seemingly harmless information from time to time.  When it becomes obvious to MI-5 that there is a leak, Castle’s partner who always seems to win at the race track, is thought the spy and poisoned by Castle’s boss.  Castle is outraged and eventually confesses in a round about way to show his boss that he killed the wrong person.  After that Castle is whisked off to Moscow where he is assigned drab living quarters and may not be able to have his wife and child join him for a number of years.  Greene was enjoyable while he was having his characters talk cleverly to each other, but he later became as drab as Castle’s Moscow living quarters.  The novel was written in 1978.  The Cold War ended in 1989.  I doubt that The Human Factor will ever be considered a Classic.

I enjoyed Nelson DeMille’s The General’s Daughter thoroughly, from beginning to end.  However, this novel is in the “detective-fiction” genre.  Will any novel written in this genre ever in the future be considered a “classic”?  I suppose it’s possible.  Hollywood considered this novel good enough to make a movie from it.  DeMille may have elevated this novel above most detective fiction by taking on the inequity of a woman (the general’s daughter) being gang-raped during West Point training and then having it covered up “for the good of the Army.”  Assuming these inequities will have been significantly reduced in the future, much as those Hardy railed against, will Demille’s novel still seem interesting to a first-time reader?  He, at least has an advantage (to Americans) that Hardy didn’t.  The detective in this genre is cleverly and amusingly sarcastic, and Demille’s Paul Brenner is very good at sarcasm.  Even so, when this genre dies, assuming that it one day will, will The General’s Daughter still be there, standing on its own merits, to be declared a classic?  Maybe.