Wednesday, February 13, 2008


In this and the next two posts I will cover other books from 1952; books that I rather arbitrarily decided to put on my list because I am interested in the authors or because they were representative books of the times.

The Soft Voice of the Serpent, Nadine Gordimer, Simon & Schuster, 1952, 244 pp

Nadine Gordimer's first book is a collection of short stories set in South Africa. I read the stories at the rate of a few each day; a much better method of reading than going straight through the book, because I can start each story with the expectation that it will be just a nugget of writing that will end very soon. Historically, I wonder if Gordimer or Doris Lessing would have had careers had the riots against apartheid not erupted in the late 1940s, made headlines and drawn world attention.

I was not as entranced with the writing here as I was by that of Doris Lessing. This is highly well-constructed prose but more distant, less deep when it comes to emotion. Gordimer covers race, love between man and woman, marriage, infidelity and social class conflict.

I ended up with a picture of South African life in that era. The white people there are of English and Dutch descent and have ties to those societies and nations, though they were not as shaken or influenced by WWII. This time in South Africa was a calm before the storm.

Martha Quest, Doris Lessing, Simon & Schuster Inc, 1952, 248 pp

This is her second novel and was not nearly as powerful as her first, The Grass is Singing (1950). It is the first of what she calls the Children of Violence series, of which there are five books. She depicts the strain of growing up female in the highly conventional society of English people who farm in South Africa. Martha Quest is that female and she has a high intelligence but no experience of life except what she has read in books.

When she finally breaks away and goes to the city to work, she falls in with a fast, young crowd who are in fact just as conventional in their own youthful way. After a love affair with someone outside that circle, which shocks them all, she impulsively marries the first man who asks her.

Martha is a young woman who never shows her true feelings, so the reader is told over and over how bad Martha feels but how differently she acts. I found this supremely annoying but reflecting on it now, I believe I did the same when I was young. It is almost an automatic response to an upbringing that attempts to groom a woman to be "what a man wants."

Doris Lessing is a writer who does not mince words, who gets under your skin. Perhaps she intended for Martha Quest to upset the reader. If so, she succeeded.

Arrow in the Blue, Arthur Koestler, The Macmillan Company, 1952, 353 pp

Arthur Koestler is one of my favorite authors and wrote powerful novels like Darkness at Noon, The Scum of the Earth, Arrival and Departure. This first volume of Arthur Koestler's autobiography covers the years 1905-1931. He was born in Budapest of Jewish parents. His father was of Russian descent, his mother Prussian/Austrian. She was approaching middle age when Arthur was born and suffered from chronic headaches, among other ailments. They lived in boarding houses and Arthur was cared for by nannies and governesses. He grew up feeling guilty and fearful, never had any friends but was extremely bright and studied science.

He became a newspaper man, lived in Israel, Paris and Germany. In 1931, at the end of the book, he has just joined the Communist party. He describes how he became a seeker after utopias, how he learned to make his living by writing and how psychoanalysis became his tool for understanding life.

His writing here is perceptive, intelligent and moving as it is in his novels but with a good deal more humor. There were sections that I found dry and boring but overall I was drawn, as I always am, into a writer's life story. The best parts for me were his descriptions of the fears and misconceptions of childhood; also his analysis of the stages a person goes through when becoming involved in any sort of ism or religious system.

The Judgment of Paris, Gore Vidal, EP Dutton & Company Inc, 1952, 374 pp

I did not like this one much. Supposedly he is retelling the legend of Paris and the Golden Apple in modern terms (I looked up the legend in Bullfinch's Mythology) but I think it was pretty much a stretch.

Philip Warren is an American, a recent college graduate, spending a year in Europe to "find himself" and decide what to do with his life. He meets up with all sorts of odd people, gets involved with three women (as does Paris in the legend) but decides nothing and returns to America.

Read as a spoof or piece of irony, it sort of works but I don't like getting to the end of a book and thinking, so what?

Men at Arms, Evelyn Waugh, Little Brown and Company, 1952, 342 pp

Two ironic novels in a row. This author is English so the irony is more deeply imbedded. For most of the book, I thought he was being serious. Guy Crouchback comes from an old English family of declining fortune and social standing. He has not been successful at much so when WWII comes he decides to join the army even though he is in his late 30s.

After much rejection, he gets into a historical regiment called The Halberdiers and then the story is about army life. Well, I've read plenty of those stories now and I like the American ones better. Being a pacifist, I don't exactly get the allure of armies and battles. Couldn't those urges be satisfied by team sports?

So I liked the character studies. I got the ridiculous waste and inefficiency involved in training and moving men around. Waugh is a good writer no matter what he is writing about. Otherwise I was not excited, enlightened or enriched by this novel.

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