Review 1634: Palace of Desire

The three books of Naguib Mafouz’s Cairo Trilogy are all named after streets in Cairo. The home of al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad is located on Palace Walk, the name of the previous book. His oldest son Yasid’s home is on the Palace of Desire, and desire is certainly a theme for this novel.

The novel is set five years after the last one, beginning in 1924. Since his middle son Fahmy’s death, Ahmad has stopped his nightly drinking and womanizing, but fairly soon in the novel he decides to go out with his friends again. Now a middle-aged man, he finds he has lost his confidence. Instead of flitting from woman to woman, he is soon spending a lot of money setting up his mistress, Zanuba, in a house boat.

Kamal, definitely a portrait of the writer himself, as I suspected in the last book, is now 17 and in love. He is entranced by Aïda, the sister of one of his school friends, who was raised in Paris. This girl belongs to a relatively aristocratic family, and Kamal seems to have no hope but just wants to worship her.

Yasid, having been divorced by his wife in the first book, now decides to marry Maryam, the girl from next door that his brother Fahmy wanted to marry. Also a terrible womanizer, Yasid only decides to marry her because she won’t sleep with him. His choice causes some family problems. His mother Amina and his sisters have broken with her because they think she slighted Fahmy by becoming acquainted with an English officer after Fahmy’s father refused to let him marry her. They also think Yasin should leave alone the girl Fahmy loved. His father cannot admit that he doesn’t approve because he himself had an affair with Maryam’s mother, Bahija.

So, Yasin must go to ask for Maryam’s hand himself instead of sending a relative. When he does, he complicates matters more by starting an affair with Bahija. At this point, I almost wondered if I was reading a farce except that Mahfouz is so deadpan serious.

I wasn’t sure how much I liked Palace Walk, but I liked Palace of Desire less. For one thing, Mahfouz doesn’t spend much time with Kamal’s sisters, Aisha and Adijah. But frankly, I found Kemal’s obsessions and long internal dialogues tedious. Either he’s rhapsodizing about Aïda, whom he seriously doesn’t want to be a real girl, or he’s philosophizing about some other subject. In Mahfouz’s attempts at realism, he frequently interjects a character’s thoughts into the middle of a conversation to show what the character is really thinking. When overused, this technique slows things down too much. Finally, Kamal’s conversations with his friends seem terribly formal and artificial, and the other characters’ flirtacious and joking comments seem clumsy and crude, but this just might be a cultural difference. I was most bothered by Kamal’s interactions with Aïda. Without saying too much about what happens, I’ll just say that he comes off as a bit of an idiot and a prig.

I still plan to read the third novel, Sugar Street, but I hope to like it better.

The New York Times reviewer comments that Mafouz essentially invented the Egyptian novel form with reference to Arabic poetry. I can see that in some of Kamal’s musings, but I don’t have much patience for it.

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Review 1632: Memories of the Future

When reading Hustvedt, I am always aware of an intelligence far greater than mine as well as a quality of being frighteningly well read. I especially noticed these attributes in Memories of the Future, an apparently autobiographical novel.

In the novel, the narrator, S. H., has found her old diaries from when she was a young adult and moved to New York City to spend a year writing a novel. She breaks up the story to reflect on her thoughts and actions of the time, provide a few updates on her present life working on this novel and visiting her elderly mother, present portions of the novel she was writing back then, and even take on a sort of third persona, the Introspective Detective.

S. H., who acquires the nickname Minnesota, is thrilled to move into her tiny, dark studio apartment, because she is starting a new life. Next door, her neighbor, Lucy Brite, has intriguing dialogues with herself that S. H. begins eavesdropping on, trying to figure out what she’s talking about, as it seems to involve violence.

Minnesota is given her nickname by her new friend, Whitney, who attends the same types of poetry readings and lectures, and soon Minnesota is part of a lively group of young people. She is already running out of money, however, and has some dark times ahead of her.

Hustvedt muses on some interesting topics, such as the nature of memory and the effects of aging, but most of her anger centers around women’s learning of acceptance. In an incident that turns out badly, she asks her younger self why she was more concerned with politeness and going along than with her instinct to resist what was happening. As in the wonderful The Blazing World, she tells the real story of a woman whose work is claimed by a man, Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven, an artist and poet whose sculpture was claimed and attributed to Marcel Duchamp after her death.

I found this novel more difficult and not as engaging as the other two I have read, but still, she is always inspiring and fascinating. I just wish I understood more of her allusions and philosophical meanderings.

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Review 1620: Beatlebone

Judging by the description, Beatlebone is a novel I never would have picked up if not for my James Tait Black project. Often, these projects I’m pursuing have led me to discover wonderful books that I never would have thought to read, but this is not always the case.

Further, I think that reviewers sometimes get jaded, which causes them to give a book rave reviews just because it is different. Certainly, the newspaper and magazine reviewers raved about this one.

The premise is that John Lennon, in 1978, decides, in an attempt to renew himself, to visit an island he bought off the west coast of Ireland. He doesn’t want to be followed by the paparazzi, however, and he can’t remember exactly where his island is. He ends up being taken around by a man named Cornelius O’Grady, who hides him at his farm, takes him to pubs, and so on. During this time, Lennon has what are described on the jacket as surreal experiences.

The novel was lauded for its writing, and the writing is good, but it is full of Joycean monologues that sometimes go on for pages. One Goodreads reviewer mentioned that a novel needs more than good writing, and I’m with him there. I’m not one to say about a novel that nothing much happens in it if something else keeps my attention, but nothing much happens here, and what does happen, I didn’t have much interest in.

Several newspaper reviews mention Barry’s daring act of inserting himself into the novel. This act consists of inserting about 20 pages into the back end of the novel that would normally go in an Afterword. I found this section simply interrupted what little forward movement there was, as did a five-page rant at the end. The whole thing struck me as well-written fanboy fantasy.

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Review 1615: Swimming Lessons

Best of Ten!
I was interested in reading Swimming Lessons when it came out, but I never actually got hold of a copy. Then I read Fuller’s next novel, Bitter Orange, and liked it so much that I had to read Swimming Lessons.

Gil Colman, a famous writer who hasn’t written anything for years, is now elderly and dying of cancer. He has discovered letters from Ingrid, his wife who was presumed drowned years ago, tucked away in his thousands of books, many of which were removed from his house by his daughter Nan and sold to a bookstore. He is in the bookstore, having discovered one of the notes, when he thinks he sees Ingrid out in the street. Rushing after her, he gets injured.

That is the setup of the novel. From there, chapters alternate between the letters telling the story of their marriage from Ingrid’s point of view and Gil’s daughter Flora’s point of view as she returns home because her father is in the hospital. She tries to learn more about Ingrid, who she believes is alive. Although the sections about the current time and Flora’s struggles are interesting, most enthralling are Ingrid’s letters to her husband, describing a marriage in which, as a naïve girl thirty years Gil’s junior, she falls into a life she does not want, of marriage and children, to a husband who is serially unfaithful, and who, in a way, co-opts her past.

This is a fascinating and haunting story about the secrets of a marriage.

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Review 1611: Flights

Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead was unusual, but Flights is in another category altogether. It is an attempt to escape the boundaries of the conventional, linear novel.

It is written in snippets. Some of them are stories, some little vignettes or descriptions, some philosophical discursions, some lectures. Some of the snippets are observations from the narrator, an unnamed Polish woman who likes to be constantly traveling, often to visit museums of curiosities, particularly those that show the workings of the human body. Others are stories about people she meets on her journeys or just stories about people. Some of the threads recur in the novel; most do not.

Anchoring all this is the theme of movement. Most of the stories are about people on their way somewhere else, occasionally to another stage of being.

This novel was widely acclaimed by reviewers and won the Man International Prize. How it will strike ordinary readers is hard to guess. It’s not easy. I found parts of it interesting and other parts, particularly the lectures on travel psychology, which I doubt anyone would ever listen to, incomprehensible, as if someone were reading from a dense professional manual.

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Review 1599: The Mayor of Casterbridge

At a small county fair in the early 1800’s, a drunken Michael Henchard sells his wife and child to a sailor. Twenty years later, his wife and her daughter come seeking him, the sailor having disappeared at sea and the two being nearly destitute. When they arrive at Casterbridge, they find he is wealthy and the town’s mayor.

To his credit, Henchard looked for his wife and child twenty years ago, but they had emigrated to Canada. Wanting to make amends, he suggests that Susan Newson, as his wife calls herself, and Elizabeth Jane stay in Casterbridge. He will appear to court Susan and will marry her.

At the same time, he meets a young Scotsman, Donald Farfrae, and likes him so much that he offers him a job. But Henchard has a hasty temper and a jealous, unforgiving nature, and as Donald becomes successful, Henchard takes a dislike to him that grows into enmity. A final issue is caused by another incident from Henchard’s past.

Henchard is not a likable character. Although he is often repentent of his actions, his temper creates situations, like the sale of his wife, that lead to his downfall. This is an interesting novel for Hardy, whose main characters, although flawed, are usually more sympathetic. Still, it is an absorbing and dramatic story about a man who is his own worst enemy.

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Review 1586: Literary Wives! The Age of Innocence

Cover for The Age of Innocence

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in 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!

Cynthia of I Love Days
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

I reviewed this novel, one of my favorites, back in 2015, and I find I still agree with my original review. So, I will not re-review it, but instead am providing the link to the original review. Then I will go on to consider our usual question for this club.

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

“Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!” So thinks Newland Archer in contemplating May Welland, his fiancée. But of course, that’s the kind of innocence May has, as he is too slow to discover, just as he is too slow to discover he is actually in love with May’s cousin, the Countess Olenska. Newland has fastened on May’s shining purity, so that even as he hopes never to live a life of sameness, to teach May to appreciate the arts and travel, he hasn’t seemed to notice the sameness that the Wellands pursue as they cater to their hypochondriacal patriarch, spending the late winters in St. Augustine and the summers in Newport, carefully following the dictates of society.

In this novel, we don’t so much see what it’s like to be Newland’s wife as to be May’s husband. On their honeymoon, after May has dismissed the tutor Newland wishes to invite for dinner as “common,” with her limited, provincial thinking, Newland “perceived with a flash of chilling insight that in future many problems would be thus negatively solved for him, but . . . he took refuge in the comforting platitude that the first six months were always the most difficult in marriage. ‘After that I suppose we shall have pretty nearly finished rubbing off each other’s angles,’ he reflected; but the worst of it was that May’s pressure was already bearing on the very angles whose sharpness he most wanted to keep.”

Two years into the marriage, he makes plans to take flight with Ellen Olenska, thinking he can talk her into it when she is resolved not to betray her family. Wharton has just explained that Newland has given up reading poetry in the evenings because May “had begun to hazard her own [opinions], with results destructive to his enjoyment of the works commented upon.” In that scene, where he finds himself literally stifling, “As she sat thus, the lamplight full on her clear brow, he said to himself with a secret dismay that he would always know the thoughts behind it, that never, in all the years to come, would she surprise him by an unexpected mood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an emotion.”

The other important marriage in this novel is only hinted at, but it underlies all of the action. That is Ellen’s marriage to Count Olenski. We are told the man is a brute, that he is a womanizer. When the Count’s secretary comes to make Ellen an offer to return to her husband, he tells Newland he has seen a change in her—that she must not go back.

Literary Wives logo

Ellen herself is reticent about her marriage, and I am actually not sure what Olenski’s brutishness is supposed to consist of, but I think we are to understand that she has found, despite its faults, New York society possesses a fineness and honesty that is not present in her former milieu. She wants to become a better person, so she will not go back and she does not wish to betray May and the rest of the family despite her love for Newland. And May, despite her false assumption that the two are having an affair, finds the best way to thwart Newland’s plans.

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Review 1577: There but for the

I have enjoyed most of what I have read by Ali Smith, but at first the premise of There but for the seemed a little too absurdist for me. The novel is really four separate stories that are related to the event in the first story and share characters.

In “There,” Anna is summoned by Gen Lee to Gen’s house, because Gen found Anna’s contact information in Miles’s jacket pocket. At a dinner party at Gen’s, Miles, whom Gen does not know, locked himself in a guest room and refuses to come out. At first, Anna barely remembers Miles from a trip to Europe when she was 18, 30 years before, but then she remembers his act of kindness.

In “But,” Mark Palmer, who took Miles to the Lee’s dinner party, recounts his initial meeting with Miles, notable for Miles’s kindness, and invites him to Lee’s party. Some of the conversation of the party is marked by astounding stupidity, rudeness, and bigotry by some of the guests, so much so that I found it hard to believe, especially as a mixed-race child was there.

In “For,” a dying old lady is determined not to be sent to a depressing nursing home she visited long ago. After the death of her youngest daughter, she has been visited every year by one of her daughter’s friends, even though she doesn’t like him. This year he doesn’t come, because he is Miles, locked up in the Lee’s spare room, outside of which has formed a circus-like gathering of observers. But Miles has sent a substitute.

In “The,” Brooke, a precocious nine-year-old who also attended the party, recounts her ideas and memories, particularly a meeting with Miles.

Almost despite myself, I got caught up in this novel even when impeded by its verbal gymnastics, which were sometimes amusing but often annoying. I had a great deal of trouble, though, with the semi-stream-of-consciousness approach to the last section. At first, it was fun, but eventually I got tired of it and felt it could use some editing.

I read this book for my James Tait Black project and found it inventive but a bit overwhelming. Too many ideas are thrown out to us, in the end.

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Review 1576: Smile of the Wolf

Best of Ten!
During a long winter night, Kjaran, a skjald, or poet, tells his host, Gunnar, about stories of a ghost on the farm of the recently deceased Hrapp Osmundsson. Gunnar, a Viking who retired to a farm and family, decides they should go kill the ghost.

At Hrapp Osmundsson’s farm, they find a ghost and challenge him to a battle. Gunnar kills him, and only then do they realize he is a neighbor, Erik Haraldsson, dressed as a ghost. He had been conspiring with Vigdis, the widow, to scare the neighbors off their lands so they could take them.

According to Icelandic law, the death would call for blood money paid to the man’s relatives, perhaps followed by a feud. But Vigdis urges the men not to report the death because of the shame to Erik of his deception. To not report the death is a worse crime than the killing, but Kjaran and Gunnar agree.

They soon learn what a mistake they’ve made, because Vigdis comes to Gunnar’s house and demands he put aside his wife and children and marry her. Gunnar refuses, and Vigdis begins making trouble that results in a feud and outlawry for Kjaran.

This gripping tale set in 10th century Iceland is modeled after the Icelandic sagas. Kjaran tells his story to someone who remains unidentified until the end. It is beautifully written, a memorable novel that is heart-breaking and powerful.

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Review 1568: The Cross

The Cross, the final book of Kristin Lavransdatter, begins after Kristin’s husband Erlend Nikulaussön’s political intrigue has resulted in the loss of all his property to the crown. Kristin and her family have resettled on her farm, Jörundgaard, which she inherited from her father. Erlend is no farmer, however, so Kristin and Ulf Haldorssön must see to everything. Kristin despairs because her sons are not learning how to keep the estate. Instead, they go running off with Erlend to hunt and occupy themselves as knights do. The likelihood of their being able to lead a knightly life is little, though, because of Erlend’s disgrace.

Although Kristin believes that her relationship with her sister, Ramborg, and brother-in-law Simon Andressön is good—in fact, she turns to Simon when she needs help—she finds that Ramborg is jealous of her.

This novel is the last volume of the series, and I found it more touching in several places than I did the other two. Kristin has found that her headstrong insistence on marrying Erlend has brought her to a life of unending care, and she must somehow resolve this.

This is a really interesting series which endeavors to show the  whole of this medieval woman’s life.

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