Saturday, 30 December 2017

Dangling Man


Saul Bellow was a terrific writer – a Nobel Prize winner, no less – and occasionally I have the urge to read all of his books, one after the other. Then I remember all the other books I have on my shelves crying out for attention, and “shelve” the idea. But this year, I did go back to Square One and purchase, and read, Bellow’s first novel, Dangling Man (1944). Out of order, I can add it to Herzog (1964), Seize the Day (1956), Humbolt’s Gift (1975), Henderson the Rain King (1959) and Ravelstein (2000).  There’s a bunch I’ve missed, and a few on my shelves I’ve never got to, and since I read Herzog as a teenager, a lot of water has passed under the Du Sable Bridge. I feel I ought to start again. One needs more than one life to read – and at least one, to live.
On the other hand, Joseph – the “hero” of this particular novel, has more than enough time on his hands as he ‘dangles’ between employment (he has lost his job) and recruitment into the US Army. In the diary format, Joseph reflects on his self, at times using the third person to do so – so detached does he feel. December 18, for example: ‘Joseph suffers from a feeling of strangeness, of not quite belonging to the world, of lying under a cloud and looking up at it’ (p.30). At other points, matters seem more urgent: ‘I feel I am a sort of human grenade whose pin has been withdrawn. I am going to explode and I am continually anticipating the time, with a prayerful despair crying “Boom!” but always prematurely’ (p.148). Between these two feelings – detachment, and let’s call it, potential unrealised – Joseph’s life is on hold, like Joseph K in Kafka’s The Trial. He remembers a time when he was a passionate intellectual, as he enters a cafĂ© where ‘you could hear discussions of socialism, psychopathology, or the fate of the European man’ (p.32). He has an affair with Kitty but ends it when he realises his double life has at its cause his ‘unwillingness to miss anything [since] a compact with one woman puts beyond reach what others might give us to enjoy’ (p.101). In his unemployed state, Joseph asserts himself among friends, relatives, and fellow boarding house residents – sometimes violently – and gradually finds himself more and more on his own.
Saul Bellow’s novels appeal to me because they are centred on troubled intellectuals, men in crisis, and connect everyday matters with the larger issues of the times in which Bellow wrote. The question of whether such characters can speak for humanity – as the Nobel Prize committee presumably decided they could – or a privileged, educated class of male – is a fair one to ask today, with other relevant voices out there to consider. So, I go back to my earlier point. I’d like to read all the Saul Bellow novels, in order, but I somehow doubt I will, since choice as well as discipline is at play. Maybe I, too, need a stint in the army, as Joseph concludes his diary (April 9): ‘Hurray for regular hours! And for the supervision of the spirit! Long live regimentation!’ (p.191).

Friday, 29 December 2017

Brighton Rock


Graham Greene’s 7th novel, re-released in 2004 as a vintage classic, came into my hands via a book bucket in Katoomba and sat on my shelf for a few years before I got started. I read it in a few days. Compulsive reading. The question is – what’s so appealing to the reader about a ruthless, 17-year old killer? Why has it been adapted into different forms (including a 1944 play, a 1997 radio drama, a failed 2004 musical, and two films – 1947 and 2010)?
I think the answer is, in part, the spectacle of the slow-motion-train crash. The opening sentence of the novel is a brilliant example of foretelling: ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him’ (p.3). He doesn’t make it out of Chapter 1, this journalist. Chapter 2 then introduces ‘the Boy’ (later known as “Pinkie”) whom we soon figure is Hale’s killer. The story is not a traditional crime story, however -- the primary crime happens so quickly and we know the murderer. What becomes fascinating is how Pinkie attempts to cover his tracks, and remove those who might convict him, and how Hale’s temporary female companion, Ida, acts as a detective-figure when the official police are even incompetent or bought-off by the mafia. Then there is Rose – a poor working girl who falls for Pinkie’s abrasive, brash charms (if there are any) and whose life is soon in danger because of what she knows.
Along the ways, much of what is interesting is to read a British hardboiled novel – I’d previously swallowed the line that this type of writing came from the States. Here it is, in 1938. I was reminded of John le CarrĂ©’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – another (later) novel to adopt the American hardboiled style and create a hybrid spy story. But this novel is much earlier – The Big Sleep, for example, was published in 1939, after Brighton Rock. Of course, Marlowe as laconic detective is much more central and the corrupt world written on a bigger scale, but I still say – this is interesting, to read this early British mafia story. To follow the lives of smaller players; to understand something of the terrible need to grasp at something beyond the poverty and banal world in which they exist.
After trying and failing to get something out of “Mr Colleoni” – a successful Mafia figure – the narrator tells us that ‘the poison twisted in the Boy’s veins. He had been insulted. He had to show someone he was – a man’ (p.91). That’s as much motive as Pinkie seems to need – to be a boy who would be a man, and to live his life as though it mattered – itself a brazen act one thinks for his type (Catholic working class) in the 1930s. This, I think, is what makes the novel captivating – to follow the existence of this cruel, egotistical child, more than capable of murder, as he goes about his own demise and brings down with him anyone who lowers his opinion of them by showing loyalty.
It might be time for another go at that musical.