Day 1046: The Whale: A Love Story

Cover for The WhaleIt seems as if I’ve read several novels lately where Herman Melville is a character or Moby Dick a theme. Such is the case with The Whale, a story about the relationship between Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The novel begins with a literary outing. Melville is invited along with Oliver Wendell Holmes and others by Melville’s editor while Melville is vacationing in the Berkshires. The reclusive writer Hawthorne is also of the party, and Melville falls in love with him at first sight.

Melville is also dealing with Moby Dick. He is supposed to be nearly finished with it, but he is unsatisfied with the ending. His philosophical and literary discussions with Hawthorne inspire him to massive rewrites. In a way, Ahab’s pursuit of the whale represents Melville’s pursuit of a meaningful relationship with Hawthorne.

For, there is a mutual spark, but as a friend, Jeannie Field, tells Melville, Hawthorne is a Puritan. While Melville tries to get Hawthorne not to deny his true feelings, Hawthorne is determined to avoid an entanglement. Yet, he gives Melville a certain amount of encouragement.

Although I enjoyed this novel very much, I felt it was a little too modern in this regard. I couldn’t imagine a man in the mid-19th century trying to convince another man not to deny these feelings and being so obvious as Melville was at times. At this time and place, Melville would have been trying to hide it. I also have no idea what basis in reality this story has, although the author cites affectionate letters between the two. I was not sure whether Beauregard was aware that at this time men expressed themselves more affectionately than they do now. It’s fiction, though, which does not require any basis in reality.

Still, with language sometimes echoing that of Moby Dick, with really exceptional dialogue, with a fully realized Melville in all his self-absorption, this novel was really a treat to read.

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Literary Wives! Day 1005: Mrs. Hemingway

Cover for Mrs. HemingwayToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Ariel of One Little Library
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Kate of Kate Rae Davis
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

My Review

Although I liked Mrs. Hemingway better than many of the books we’ve read for Literary Wives, I still wasn’t that fond of it. Perhaps my reaction has more to do with my dislike of Hemingway.

Mrs. Hemingway purports to be about each of Ernest Hemingway’s four wives, particularly about the periods when each of them split from Hemingway (or in the case of Mary, when Hemingway died). As it is such a short book, it can’t really deal with their relationships in depth. And, I used the word “purports” advisedly, because this novel shows more insight into Hemingway than into his wives.

In fact, none of the wives seem like a distinctive character except Martha Gellhorn, and she, interestingly, is depicted with the least sympathy. She alone seems serious about her own writing career, even though two of the other wives are also writers, and she alone breaks with Hemingway.

Not that Hemingway actually breaks with anyone. Instead, he manipulates his wives and mistresses into impossible situations without making a decision, until something gives.

This novel did nothing to change my opinion of Hemingway as a loud, macho bully, so overtly masculine as to perhaps reflect an unsureness about his own sexuality. But I’m over-analyzing. An alcoholic, and a person who alternates charming and brutish behavior. In other words, a jerk.

What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?

Literary Wives logoIt says, don’t marry Ernest Hemingway. But seriously, I don’t think we see enough of these marriages to understand them. We start out at the end of each one, with flashbacks. But it’s hard to understand what draws these women in. I didn’t really feel the charm as described. What I saw was manipulation, cruelty, and a combination of self-regard and self-hatred. Clearly, Hadley thinks he is unbelievably handsome, which he was when he was young. The others are to a certain extent attracted by his fame.

If we are to believe this book, these marriages consist of swimming, fishing, hunting, and drunken parties. We don’t really see the characters in a day-by-day existence. Maybe we see more with Mary, Hemingway’s last wife, but she is dealing with depression and madness along with the alcoholism. Still, we don’t learn very much about what makes any of these characters tick.

The most we can say is that a wife of Hemingway’s can’t rely on him to be faithful, even when he seems at his most tender. Also, that marriage is a one-way street. Everything is for the benefit of Mr. Hemingway.

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Day 1003: Classics Club Spin! Look at the Harlequins!

Cover for Look at the HarlequinsI was supposed to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada for the latest Classics Club spin, but after attempting to read it, I substituted Look at the Harlequins!, the last novel published before Nabokov’s death. Sometimes I encounter a novel that really makes me feel stupid, or perhaps intellectually lazy, and such was the case with Ada. It was so full of literary allusions and wordplay that I felt I didn’t know what was going on half the time. In addition, it focuses on some of the same themes as Lolita, and while I found Lolita fascinating, the delights of prepubescent girls are not really what I want to read about.

Look at the Harlequins! is a more straightforward fictional autobiography. Many critics consider it a parodic biography, in which Nabokov twists the events of his life to make them meet public expectations of his character. For example, his family’s exit from Russia after the Revolution was relatively uneventful, while Nabokov has his alter ego, V. V., shoot a Red soldier on the way out. Similarly, although in life Nabokov was monogamous, he gives V. V. four wives and a salacious extra-marital career.

His literary career, however, is reflected in the novel, as is, to some extent, his academic career. I believe he transfers events involving his wife Véra to characters such as his fictional daughter Bel and a briefly mentioned assistant. In any event, he addresses his novel to an unnamed “you,” who we may assume is Véra’s alter ego.

We still don’t avoid the theme of prepubescent girls, though, as V. V. fondles an 11-year-old daughter of friends (whom he has an affair with when she is in her 20’s and he is in his 70’s), has such a questionable relationship with his daughter Bel that friends advise him to send her away to school (he fatefully decides to remarry instead), and ultimately marries a woman his daughter’s age. Obviously, this sexual focus on girls was a motif for Nabokov, but I find it disturbing.

It’s hard to evaluate this novel on a literary level. It has none of the beautiful language of Lolita. It is told in a facetious manner and focuses several times on what the narrator considers a mental aberration. Each time we have to endure a description of the problem, which actually seems like a silly one that obsesses the narrator more than it should. V. V. opens the subject each time he decides to marry but describes the problem over and over. I’m not sure what the point of it was.

Because of its facetious tone, however, the novel lacks highs and lows. Instead, it is full of puzzles, anagrams, and self-references. It is entertaining enough but ultimately unsatisfying.

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Day 941: Let Me Tell You about a Man I Knew

Cover for Let Me Tell You About a Man I KnewLet me first get this over with. I have rarely encountered a book title that seems so inappropriate to the actual book. This title, which seems so similar to the opening of a 60’s Ray Charles song, is for a historical novel about a fictional relationship between an ordinary woman and Vincent Van Gogh.

That over with, the book itself is another matter. Susan Fletcher’s Corrag was one of my favorite books a few years ago. Even though I have missed some of her others, I was excited to hear about this one. It did not disappoint.

Jeanne Trabuc is the wife of Charles, who runs the mental asylum in Saint-Rémy. She finds herself in a lonely time of life. Her best friend has left town, and her boys have gone off to lead their own lives. She and her husband sleep separately, and she feels unloved. He has many rules about how the house should be run. She feels separate from the other women in the village, whom she feels gossip too much.

link to NetgalleyThere have been no arrivals at the asylum in years, so Jeanne’s interest is piqued when she hears a Dutch painter is coming. Charles does not allow her near the asylum, but she sees the man in the olive orchard painting and begins talking to him. Slowly, she finds herself wondering how she became what she is, instead of the adventurous girl she was.

This novel is more about Jeanne than Van Gogh, but it is touching and compelling. Jeanne Trabuc and her husband were actual people that Van Gogh painted, but Fletcher tells us that the lives she has created for them within the novel are entirely fictional. This novel is about the silences that can grow between people.

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Day 931: Horses of the Night

Cover for Horses of the NightHorses of the Night seemed like a good choice for me, because it’s about Christopher Marlowe, and I do enjoy novels about literary figures. I just never developed much interest in this novel, however, and gave it up after 100 pages or so.

The novel concentrates on Marlowe’s spying career, involving him right away in the Babington Plot. Although Marlowe is alleged to have been a spy, nothing is known of his activities. At least as Aggeler depicts it, Marlowe seems to have little role in the case, sent in at the end of the plot with only a few lessons in how to be a Catholic. He is involved long enough, however, to become sympathetic with one of the alleged plotters, Margaret Copley.

link to NetgalleyAggeler appears to be previously an academic writer. For this novel, he has adopted a pseudo-Elizabethan writing style throughout, even for descriptive passages. This is an interesting approach, and it is not inherently irritating, but I found the writing overblown at times.

I also felt as if I was seeing a Marlowe who was not the actual person I would expect from my admittedly limited reading, a man more conventionally likable than Marlowe probably was.

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Day 918: Ghost Light

Cover for Ghost LightBest Book of the Week!
The Irish playwright John Millington Synge was engaged to marry an actress, Molly Allgood, when he died in 1909. Their relationship was of several years’ standing, but it was considered scandalous because of the difference in their ages and stations. Synge was nearly twice as old as Molly, and Molly was from a poor and uncultured family.

Ghost Light is a fictionalized account of this relationship, and O’Connor freely admits to taking liberties with it. The novel begins in 1952, when Molly is an old lady, nearly destitute and living in a cheap rooming house in London. The story follows her for one night and day of her life, during which she remembers the events in her love affair with Synge.

This novel is beautifully and atmospherically written, poetic at times, and partially in different flavors of Irish vernacular. It eloquently tells a story of frustrated love and loss. This is a compelling characterization of Molly and her view of the character of Synge. Ghost Light has been another interesting experience from my Walter Scott Prize list.

Day 906: Enchanted Islands

Cover for Enchanted IslandsEnchanted Islands is a novel based on the lives of Frances and Ainsley Conway, an American couple who lived on the Galapagos Islands in the late 1930’s and the 40’s. Although based on two memoirs written by Frances Conway, Amend has expanded the novel to cover most of Frances’s life and her friendship with Rosalie Mendel, all presumably fictional.

This book is a rather odd one. It begins with Frances and Rosalie in their old age and then returns in time to their childhood in Wisconsin. It spends some time there, following them until Frances’s late teens, when she discovers Rosalie with her own boyfriend and flees. Then it glosses over the next 20 years until Frances meets Rosalie again in California and later marries Ainsley. After that, Frances and Ainsley go on a spying mission for the Navy, something Frances is never able to tell her friends about.

The result creates a sort of divided effect. First, sections of the novel are either full of Rosalie or have no Rosalie, which made me wonder, why even bother with her? Why not just write about Galapagos? The other parts seem to belong to a different novel.

Then there is Galapagos, which Amend simplifies to the island Floreana when actually the Conways lived on three different islands. The existence there seems harsh, bleak, and lonely. There is little description of scenery or anything else to make us understand why, according to Amend, they came to love it. In fact, there is very little going on there, even including the spying.

I felt a distance from all these characters. Although we learn a lot about Frances, we don’t ever feel as if we understand her, and Ainsley is a sort of charming enigma. Most of the time, we don’t even like Rosalie.

link to NetgalleySo, a middling reaction to this novel. I was interested enough to finish it, but only mildly interested. I thought there was no sense of place in any of the settings. The characters didn’t seem like real people. The cover of the novel is lovely, but the islands seemed in no way enchanting. Did Amend bother to visit them, or is she just not good at description? Or are they not lovely?

Amend comments that she is a novelist first and only a mediocre historian. That remark irritated me, because I think that’s what’s wrong with with many historical novels. If authors aren’t willing to do the research to bring a time and place to life, maybe they should stick to contemporary fiction.

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