Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Mercier and Camier (1970) by Samuel Beckett

Book Review
Mercier and Camier (1970)
by Samuel Beckett

   Samuel Beckett wrote Mercier and Camier, in French, in the mid 1940's, but it wasn't until 1974 that he translated it into English and had it published (he published it in the original French in 1970.)  There isn't much that is hugely notable about Mercier and Camier in relation to his other seven books on the first 1001 Books list, except for the appearance of Watt, the protagonist in his novel Watt, near the end.   Mercier and Camier are two companions, struggling to escape a nameless city (which approximates Dublin).  They are beset by "obstacles" of the sort one expects from a Beckett novel: It rain! They go into a pub! They talk to a prostitute.  To be fair, one of them does murder a police officer near the end.

  The most notable thing about Mercier and Camier were the lengths I went to find a copy- when I flew to Paris earlier this month, I made a beeline for Shakespeare and Company, the famous English language bookstore.  Reasonably, I figured that if any book store in the world would carry a copy of Mercier and Camier, it would be Shakespeare and Company.   And although they had nearly everything Samuel Beckett ever wrote, a copy of Mercier and Campier was not to be had.  Eventually I resorted to having the San Diego Public Library pull it's copy out of storage- and was surprised to learn that it was a first edition of the original 1974 pressing by Grove.

  That leaves one more Samuel Beckett title on the 1001 Books list- the 1983 "work of prose" Worstward Ho.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Book of Daniel (1971) E.L. Doctorow

Book Review
The Book of Daniel (1971)
 E.L. Doctorow

  E.L. Doctorow is an author I firmly associate with the homes of my parents and their friends in the Bay Area in the 1980's and 90's.  I remember seeing numerous copies of his 1989 novel, Billy Bathgate, to the point where I even tried to read it (I was in junior high) unsuccessfully.  Doctorow had a hugely successful career in the United States, both in terms of art and commerce, with his films forming the basis for numerous films and a long-running musical (Ragtime).   He didn't travel particularly well.  If you look at the numerous literary prizes he won- listed on his Wikipedia page-  you will see that they are all domestic awards.

  The Book of Daniel wasn't his first novel, but it was his break through hit.  Written while the author was teaching at the just created UC Irvine, The Book of Daniel is a fictionalized version of the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the impact it has on their two children, Daniel- the narrator- and his younger sister, Susan.  The Rosenbergs were famously tried and executed by the United States government for espionage meant to help the Soviet Union obtain nuclear weapons.  They became iconic figures of the 1960's, martyrs to the "new left", even though they themselves were about as "old left" as they come.

  Doctorow plays many "post modern" type tricks during The Book of Daniel- you've got switching between first and third person narration within the same paragraph, the introduction of invented academic texts about the historical events of the book, transgressive dirty talk about sex.   There is also a lot of very specific talk about the trial of the parents.  It was detailed to the point where it began to evoke my "this is too close to work" response that I often get when watching television shows about the criminal justice system.

  The Book of Daniel is one of the first novels about the "1960's" the way we understand that period today.   The post-modern/modernist techniques don't detract from the conventional narrative of a child trying to come to terms with the "sins" of the father.  Doctorow's writing is undeniably strong and evokes the era, and the era before the 1960's in cinematic color.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Black Prince (1972) by Iris Murdoch

Book Review
The Black Prince (1972)
 by Iris Murdoch

  Iris Murdoch isn't an author I associate with post-modernism or metafictional technique, but there is no other way to describe her 1972 novel, The Black Prince, which combines traditional Murdochian themes:  sex, betrayal and psychology with un-Murdochian strategies like an unreliable narrator and four postscripts where several of the major characters weigh in with their thoughts on the events of the novel.

  Bradley Pearson is the narrator, we are told early on that he has written the manuscript from a prison cell, where he is serving a sentence for murder.  Pearson interrupts the narrative at several points to speak directly to the reader.  It's a technique familiar enough to any 21st century reader, but not something you expect from Iris Murdoch, who is known more for thematic creativity than invention in her narrative technique.

 Pearson is an unsuccessful writer and full-time agent, recently retired, so that he can focus on writing what he feels to be his "great novel."  In the opening chapters, he is packing his bags and getting ready to head on an extended holiday.  Fate intervenes in the form of his miserable sister, who has left her husband and appears near suicidal.  Her arrival is compounded by the arrival of his hated ex-wife, her brother, looking for help from Pearson to ingratiate himself with his sister and the continuous presence of Arnold Baffin, Pearson's frenemy- a more successful author, his unhappy wife Rachel and their 20 year old daughter Julian.

 Readers with even a cursory understanding of Murdoch know what to expect, furtive, unsatisfying sex, allegations of homosexuality, and complicated human emotions.  Murdoch does not disappoint, and when it was published, The Black Prince was hailed as her best book in a decade.

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