A Literary Cavalcade

Literary comments by Robert A. Parker on a wide range of serious 20th and 21st century novels

Leaving Home, by Arthur Cavanaugh

This is an old-fashioned novel from 1970. It begins beautifully with a prologue that describes a cemetery scene and a subsequent repast at the Connerty family home in Brooklyn. These events are narrated by Robbie Connerty, the family’s youngest child. He will then recall for the reader his family history, which will become the main body of the book. We will learn how this family survived the Depression, World War II, and the travails typical of a lower middle-class family. But before he begins that story Robbie reveals that he harbors a secret—he does not say what it is—that has troubled him his entire life. And we deduce that he is recalling both the happy and sad events in his family’s history in order to relieve himself of a sense of guilt that he has carried with him his entire life.

The chapters that follow cover distinct periods of Robbie’s life, from the uncertainty of youth, to a sense of responsibility when his mother contracts tuberculosis, to his brief flirtation with art, to his growing understanding of family life and family love, to his eventual decision to become a writer, and finally to his discovery of love and marriage. These various narrations also deepen his relationships with his parents and his siblings as his family struggles to survive in the era’s floundering economy.

But while these events concern the same characters, they are often disconnected. Thus, many chapters reach their own conclusion, rather than lead to developments in the next chapter. As a result, this novel does not flow naturally. Which may explains how most chapters originally appeared separately in women’s magazines in the 1960s. What is not clear is how much these chapters were planned as separate short stories, and how much they were planned as continuing chapters in a novel. That is, were financial concerns behind publishing so many of these chapters originally as short stories. One reason that they probably appeared in such magazines, however, is that readers could identify with the mother, Catherine, who is the most deeply drawn character and is at the heart of most family decisions.

One also wonders how much this novel may be autobiographical. It certainly reads as such, and, as Cavanaugh states at the beginning, Catherine “was” his own mother. But it is his third novel, whereas autobiographical works are usually an author’s first or second novel. I lean toward autobiography, however, because the Brooklyn atmosphere is so deeply felt, and because the family relationships are so carefully rendered. And after all, it is the story of one life, Robbie’s, as well as the story of a family, that rings so true here. Moreover, if events in one chapter do not lead to the next, is this not how life is truly lived, even if not how novels are usually constructed.

Of course, these chapters do work as separate entities. There is a chapter on Robbie’s failure to climb a wall to prove himself. There is a chapter on his fights with his sister Roseanne, and another on their reconciliation, and still another on her departure to train as a missionary. There is a chapter on Hanna, a cleaning lady whom the family loves. There are chapters on his mother leaving home for a sanitarium upstate to recover from tuberculosis, and more chapters on how the family survives without her, such as planning for Christmas, and then, in another chapter, on preparing for her return. Not to forget a chapter on Robbie’s Aunt Tillie, who is the first to fill Robbie’s life with art. Or chapters on Robbie’s awareness of death, and then the discovery of love by brothers Daniel and Vinnie, as well as that of his other sister, Margaret. There are, finally, chapters on Robbie meeting his wife, on their marriage, and then on his impending fatherhood

Robbie’s secret, however, does not flow naturally to the surface. Indeed, when it is resurrected in a dramatic scene at the end. It seems rather arbitrary to me, as if the author sees it as the time to reveal the key to Robbie’s character. The secret concerns whether or not Robbie, the youngest child, has been wanted by his parents, and his doubts about it. And the justification of his doubts lies in a collection of photographs, which are resurrected just in time for the novel’s conclusion. But I do grant that the scene in which he discusses his doubts with his mother is indeed moving. It might even be the final scene in the book. For there is a sense of completion in this mother and son discussion that rounds off both their characters.

But the author follows this with an emotional bookend, with a return to the funeral repast for his mother. And we witness these grown children departing the family home in order to return to their own separate lives. This scene is quite moving as well, as we sense the separation that every family endures, when its members return to their own lives after many years as a close family unit.

Julian Moynahan closes his 1970 review with these words: “It takes the hand of an artist in remembrance like Robbie—that is, like Arthur Cavanaugh—to keep time at bay and the miracle intact through the registrations of a narrative art that is always faithful to historical detail and the integrity of persons, and draws its finest energies from love and a deeply felt acceptance of the inevitability of death.”

These comments indeed reflect the intent of the author, and are also belong to the era in which the reviewer wrote them. But I have called this an old-fashioned novel, because I do not believe such qualities are celebrated today. Or, rather, accepted as ideal elements in a literary work. Few literary stalwarts write today of family love, of family integrity, of a family’s acceptance of poverty and death. And critics also do not accept today obvious symbols—like a collection of photographs, particularly when they so blatantly rise to the surface, in this case fortuitously from beneath a blanket in the Connerty basement.

I was drawn to this novel because this family is both Irish and Catholic. But if their nationality is evoked here, their religion is not. And so as deeply as this family experience is felt, it is missing a spiritual element, and does not encourage me to seek out further Cavanaugh novels. They belong to a different era. Today I prefer novels that explore the heart and the soul’s inner life. And certainly not one where the absence of photographs raises a character’s internal doubts. (May, 2018)

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Apostles of Light, by Ellen Douglas

This 1973 work is an old-fashioned novel, for which it might be difficult to get a publisher today. Primarily because nothing much happens in its opening chapters, which is filled with family member talking extensively as they decide what to do with their surviving older generation. We follow long speculative conversations as they discuss their responsibilities when Aunt Elizabeth dies, and their elderly Aunt Martha survives. They convince themselves that they want to do what is best for Martha, and yet they are also concerned with the financial implications of what they do decide.

This is a tedious process to follow, as the younger generation decides to convert Martha’s house into a home for old people, called Golden Age Acres. Martha agrees, on the condition they accept her long-time boyfriend Lucas as a resident. The idea for the home originates with smooth-talking cousin Howie (keeping it in the family), who managers the facility and who hires Mrs. Crawley as its nurse. These two characters become the villains of the novel, as they pursue their personal success and the home’s financial success at the expense of its residents. Meanwhile, the responsible family members, Albert, George, and George’s son Newton persuade themselves of the benefits of offering a home for a half dozen or so older people, for it both contributes to society and brings companionship to Aunt Martha.

But this is not the life Martha wants. She wants to be independent and to enjoy life with Lucas. He is a doctor with whom she has been romantically linked for decades but has never married. Indeed, their search for companionship and happiness becomes the emotional center of this novel, and the suspense builds as we read to learn whether or not this elderly couple will indeed assume control of their own lives. For independence to them means they will leave Golden Age, which, in turn, means that it will likely fail. And, of course, Howie and Mrs. Crawley oppose this. Indeed, they lie to the family about their careful care of the elderly and resort to drugging not only Lucas but other patients in order to control the situation.

And so, the novel’s main issue is: will Lucas and Martha find happiness together? It is unusual to have a novel centered on such elderly characters, but the work creates considerable power as they pursue their independence. The couple even seeks the aid of Homer, a black caretaker, which complicates the novel, since this story is set in Mississippi. We delve rather deeply into Homer’s mind, in fact, as he plots not only to help Martha and Lucas but also to protect his own black family. And this is not a sidetrack, because he eventually becomes their only hope.

At this point, I decided that, given the tone of the novel, Douglas was more likely to come up with a positive ending. But that she would create a more powerful work if Martha and Lucas failed. Without giving away the solution to their problem, I must say Douglas’ ending does not work for me. Basically, it fails my standards of humanity. First, it introduces too much violence. It is dramatic, yes, highly dramatic, but this reader was completely unprepared for the direction it took. And second, a major individual, for me, acts completely out of character. The author seems aware of this, given some internal dialogue, but such musing does not succeed with me.

One must be familiar with the Bible to grasp the significance of the title. As the book cover says, “Trapped in a nursing home, [the couple] are the victims of the biblical ‘apostles of light,’ the deceitful do-gooders who profess righteousness.” For me, however, the purpose of this title is not to suggest that Howie and Mrs. Crawley are major characters, but to emphasize the situation that these righteous do-gooders put Martha and Lucas in. That is, the title is intended to be ironic.

The blurb goes on to day: “In subtle, elegant prose Ellen Douglas recounts a gripping story of their brave attempt to free themselves from a dreadful plight. They must confront both their corrupt and evil custodians and their well-meaning younger relatives who are tempted by greed, ambition, cowardice, and indifference.” Thus, the family also plays a major role in this situation, seeing itself doing good, when it truly is not. As a result, Douglas draws an effective portrait of a Southern society striving to get ahead on one level, and yet still locked into its old traditional attitudes. That is, it truly captures the texture of Southern society.

To review, even with its slow beginning, much more typical of a novel of 45 years ago than of one today, I was willing to give full attention this family. Because its people were well grounded. I grasped their relationship to one another, their sense of responsibility, their individual priorities, and their sincere effort, even if misguided, to resolve Aunt Martha’s situation. And then, as they tried to adjust to the villainies of Howie and Mrs. Crowley, the author creates the tension that any novel, any drama needs. And so, by the time Lucas and Martha realize that they need to act, the suspense has reached a fever pitch. This is no longer the quiet novel of the opening chapters.

And the literary world recognized this achievement, when it nominated Apostles of Light as a finalist for the National Book Award in 1973. It did so, I believe, because its portrait of Southern society recognized the relationship between whites and blacks, because it created a viable family that worked together even when at cross-purposes, and because the novel as a whole dealt with the responsibilities of both individual families and society for the elderly.

Did it offer this recognition despite the ending, or because of it? For me, it was an ending I was unprepared for—in fact, a cop out. As if the author could not come up with a logical and dramatic success, or a logical and dramatic failure, for the couple, and decided to resort to high drama instead—to go for a surprise. And my personal reaction is that the tone of this surprise and the tone of the violence violated the prior tone of the entire novel.

This novel does not encourage me to look into more of Douglas’ work. (April, 2018)

Redemption Falls, by Joseph O’Connor

O’Connor is a difficult novelist to appreciate. I tried, and failed, to finish his predecessor novel, Star of the Sea, which told of Eliza Mooney’s family and their voyage from Ireland to New York City at the time of the potato famine. In this work’s opening pages, Eliza is front and center, walking north from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, many years later, just after the Civil War, in search of her brother who has been a drummer boy in that war of rebellion.

However, the author quickly abandons her, and focuses on General James O’Keefe—a Northern hero of the Civil War with a disreputable past—who has been named Acting Governor of the vaguely positioned region called “The Territory” and whose base is the town of Redemption Falls. He is estranged from his wife, Lucia-Cruz McLelland of a prominent New York family, but has enticed her to join him out West; and the tension between them became the initial bedrock to my understanding of this novel.

But O’Connor is clearly interested in more than their relationship. And his goal becomes much more complicated. He is really writing about the complexity of O’Keefe, both his violence and his tenderness, plus the impact on him of the Mooney’s complex world, the Irish experience in America, the undisciplined West, and the residue of emotions from the Civil War.

The opening pages, in fact, distract us from O’Keefe by introducing other significant characters: Jeddo Mooney, the girl Eliza’s brother; Elizabeth, a freed slave; Winterton a former lover of Lucia; and McLaurenson, an outlaw Confederate soldier—as well as the story of O’Keefe’s past, when he was exiled by England to Tasmania, fathered a child, and then arranged a dramatic escape. All of which leaves the reader at sea. What is he to focus on? What do these characters have in common?

As Max Byrd writes in the New York Times, the novel “sprawls across a vague, unmapped space that resembles mid-19th century Montana and has no more linear clarity than a swatted beehive.”

In seeking a common element, one looks beyond these characters being Irish, as well as the unruly atmosphere of the West. More significant seems to be the literary ambition of the author—as if he wishes to create a grand opus. By entering the psyche of these many different characters. And by reaching toward their many disconnected horizons. Plus, he enhances this by exploring many literary styles, from poetry and song to dialect and foreign languages, even to slang and the brash headlines of yellow journalism. As Byrd adds: “On virtually every page, O’Connor’s hyperkinetic prose throws up a dancing screen of rhetoric that obscures both plot and character.”

Unable to get a grasp on what this novel was really about, I even considered abandoning it. But because of O’Connor’s reputation, I became determined to understand what he was all about. And came to a conclusion that he is driven to attain literary fame as much as to achieve an emotional impact. As Terry Eagleton writes favorably about this ambition in The Guardian, “It is a huge disheveled monster of a book, crammed with all matter of typographical stunts, [which] has a venerable Irish pedigree. From Laurence Sterne to Joyce, literary experiment by Irish writers often includes playing around with the book itself as a material object.”

Within that desire for literary exploration, O’Connor makes legitimate reference to the various, and often conflicting, history of the Irish in America. As well as to the variety of human experiences in the chaotic West. Thus, he has made considerable use of valuable research into the post-Civil War era, the American West, and our literary and journalistic past.

But despite the considerable praise he has received from critics like Eagleton, he is too conscious for me of the methods he uses, and for me the literary and structural frills he employs come at the expense of his story.

One senses, moreover, that this novel—as it brings together a violent general, a revengeful outlaw, and a desperate family member—will reach a strong, and perhaps bloody, climax. And it does. And yet, we do not experience this climax directly. Not as we have the travels of Eliza, the outlaw McLaurenson, or the freed slave Elizabeth. Instead, we read subsequent reports of what happened. We are no longer at the scene, even though we were on the way to that final, fatal ambush. As Max Byrd writes, the author achieves “his violent climax…at the cost of immediacy and drama, as if we were observing the action through the wrong end of a telescope.”

But why this change in the narrative structure? It is not clear. Instead of high drama, the drama is muted. Is the reason to be found in the redemption of the title? That is, O’Keefe is not the harsh, cruel general and administrator that so many of his actions betray. That in his attitude toward the boy, as toward his wife when he entices her West, he is someone to empathize with, that somewhere in his soul he is a kind man, even though the temper of many of his actions indicates otherwise. And we realize this contradiction when his final actions bring a sacrifice—and even redemption? It seems to be an effort by the author to create a grand, tragic figure.

Indeed, one of the problems of this novel for me has been not understanding the role of each of the characters, and their relationship to one another. These relationships are slowly revealed, but the delay inhibits my getting into this book. And the revelations at the end are not enough to justify this reticence. In fact, even the major reveal in the very last paragraph does not have for me the impact that the author apparently intended. That is, the shifting narrative structure has kept me too aloof from the events to enable me to feel an emotional tie to any of these characters.

And, no, I am not tempted to seek out more of O’Connor’s work. Which is a pity, since I do share some Irish blood. But I do not share his Irish pursuit of “experiment and exploration,” that Eagleton cites…[where] “bending the rules of realism is as Irish as emigration.” Nor do I share the Irish sense of history that Eagleton calls “dark and fragmented.” I prefer to concentrate instead on a character’s interior, rather than on the confusing and conflicting world outside, and even less on an author’s verbal and ironic pyrotechnics. (March, 2018)

However, the author quickly abandons her, and focuses on General James O’Keefe—a Northern hero of the Civil War with a disreputable past—who has been named Acting Governor of the vaguely positioned region called “The Territory” and whose base is the town of Redemption Falls. He is estranged from his wife, Lucia-Cruz McLelland of a prominent New York family, but has enticed her to join him out West; and the tension between them became the initial bedrock to my understanding of this novel.

But O’Connor is clearly interested in more than their relationship. And his goal becomes much more complicated. He is really writing about the complexity of O’Keefe, both his violence and his tenderness, plus the impact on him of the Mooney’s complex world, the Irish experience in America, the undisciplined West, and the residue of emotions from the Civil War. The opening pages, in fact, distract us from O’Keefe by introducing other significant characters: Jeddo Mooney, the girl Eliza’s brother; Elizabeth, a freed slave; Winterton a former lover of Lucia; and McLaurenson, an outlaw Confederate soldier—as well as the story of O’Keefe’s past, when he was exiled by England to Tasmania, fathered a child, and then arranged a dramatic escape.

All of which leaves the reader at sea. What is he to focus on? What do these characters have in common? As Max Byrd writes in the New York Times, the novel “sprawls across a vague, unmapped space that resembles mid-19th century Montana and has no more linear clarity than a swatted beehive.”

In seeking a common element, one looks beyond these characters being Irish, as well as the unruly atmosphere of the West. More significant seems to be the literary ambition of the author—as if he wishes to create a grand opus. By entering the psyche of these many different characters. And by reaching toward their many disconnected horizons.

Plus, he enhances this by exploring many literary styles, from poetry and song to dialect and foreign languages, even to slang and the brash headlines of yellow journalism. As Byrd adds: “On virtually every page, O’Connor’s hyperkinetic prose throws up a dancing screen of rhetoric that obscures both plot and character.”

Unable to get a grasp on what this novel was really about, I even considered abandoning it. But because of O’Connor’s reputation, I became determined to understand what he was all about. And came to a conclusion that he is driven to attain literary fame as much as to achieve an emotional impact. As Terry Eagleton writes favorably about this ambition in The Guardian, “It is a huge disheveled monster of a book, crammed with all matter of typographical stunts, [which] has a venerable Irish pedigree. From Laurence Sterne to Joyce, literary experiment by Irish writers often includes playing around with the book itself as a material object.”

Within that desire for literary exploration, O’Connor makes legitimate reference to the various, and often conflicting, history of the Irish in America. As well as to the variety of human experiences in the chaotic West. Thus, he has made considerable use of valuable research into the post-Civil War era, the American West, and our literary and journalistic past. But despite the considerable praise he has received from critics like Eagleton, he is too conscious for me of the methods he uses, and for me the literary and structural frills he employs come at the expense of his story.

One senses, moreover, that this novel—as it brings together a violent general, a revengeful outlaw, and a desperate family member—will reach a strong, and perhaps bloody, climax. And it does. And yet, we do not experience this climax directly. Not as we have the travels of Eliza, the outlaw McLaurenson, or the freed slave Elizabeth. Instead, we read subsequent reports of what happened. We are no longer at the scene, even though we were on the way to that final, fatal ambush. As Max Byrd writes, the author achieves “his violent climax…at the cost of immediacy and drama, as if we were observing the action through the wrong end of a telescope.”

But why this change in the narrative structure? It is not clear. Instead of high drama, the drama is muted. Is the reason to be found in the redemption of the title? That is, O’Keefe is not the harsh, cruel general and administrator that so many of his actions betray. That in his attitude toward the boy, as toward his wife when he entices her West, he is someone to empathize with, that somewhere in his soul he is a kind man, even though the temper of many of his actions indicates otherwise. And we realize this contradiction when his final actions bring a sacrifice—and even redemption? It seems to be an effort by the author to create a grand, tragic figure.

Indeed, one of the problems of this novel for me has been not understanding the role of each of the characters, and their relationship to one another. These relationships are slowly revealed, but the delay inhibits my getting into this book. And the revelations at the end are not enough to justify this reticence. In fact, even the major reveal in the very last paragraph does not have for me the impact that the author apparently intended. That is, the shifting narrative structure has kept me too aloof from the events to enable me to feel an emotional tie to any of these characters.

And, no, I am not tempted to seek out more of O’Connor’s work. Which is a pity, since I do share some Irish blood. But I do not share his Irish pursuit of “experiment and exploration,” that Eagleton cites…[where] “bending the rules of realism is as Irish as emigration.” Nor do I share the Irish sense of history that Eagleton calls “dark and fragmented.” I prefer to concentrate instead on a character’s interior, rather than on the confusing and conflicting world outside, and even less on an author’s verbal and ironic pyrotechnics. (March, 2018)

Echo House, by Ward Just

I have long been a fan of Ward Just. Not least because he often writes about Washington, about the government, politics, and the people who serve in that interesting world. In this novel, it is the Behls, a truly insider family, who lead the reader through a complex behind-the-scenes view of how Washington works.

We meet first Senator Adolph Behl, who anticipates being nominated as a vice-presidential candidate, and feels betrayed when he is not. Then we encounter his son, Alex, a military hero in World War II after he parachutes into occupied France to help the underground and is later co-opted by Patton’s army and severely injured. He recovers to become a power broker in Washington, but patriotism ignites a moral fervor that becomes corrupted by arrogance. With both these stories bringing one to the edge of history, one anticipates a powerful novel.

Then onto the scene arrives grandson Alec Behl, a lawyer who also works behind the scenes and who becomes the main character in the book. The game of politics also subverts him, as codes of duty and loyalty are sacrificed as the cost of doing business. Like his grandfather and father, Alec lives in the family home, Echo House, a mansion overlooking Rock Creek Park just outside downtown Washington. The novel’s many scenes in that house, including the first with Adolph and the last, a birthday party with Alex and Alec, serve also to support the work’s unity.

The main problem with this novel is that as it moves into Alec’s longer story, it tries to portray too much, presenting two dozen characters in the foreground. Initially, Alex’ generation acts to achieve either good or power, but then son Alec’s generation, in addition to their own political plotting, resorts to commenting on the activities of their predecessors. While in the background looms the context of most of 20th century history, such as the New Deal, World War II, the Cold War, JFK, the Vietnam War, and then Nixon and Reagan. An accompanying problem is that as many of the two dozen characters age in the second half of the novel, and as they lose power, they become observers more than power brokers. As a result, they both comment on the action, rather than influence it, and are subjects, as I said, of comment by the younger generation—all of which inhibits the novel’s momentum, even as it enriches the Washington scene.

Just captures this lost power very well, and through these men and women offers interesting commentary about the ambitions and the foibles of the past. But the novel, as I said, loses the drive it once had. For the real action occurs offstage, and the reader is no longer a witness. Moreover, the personal lives of two of the Behls, their loves and their failed marriages, offer no substitute. Perhaps this is because of the women they meet, Sylvia and Leila, the wives of Alex and Alec. They seem as interesting to us on being introduced, as they do to father and son, but they do not become part of their husbands’ involvement in the Washington scene, or even, as their marriages collapse, let us see the emotional side of these Behls, father and son.

The novel’s other failure is its ending. It features a highly dramatic birthday celebration, with an unnamed President attending. But the event becomes merely a dramatic scene that substitutes for an ending. Instead, the novel needed to bring closure to a story line, for example an issue that Alec is facing. But Alex’ friends are out of power, and there is no major issue that his son Alec has inherited or is facing.

What the novel has going for it is that extended portrait of Washington life. We meet lawyers and bankers, senators and staff, journalists and adventuresses, diplomats and spies. They are young and old, male and female, honest and dishonest. And they all bring reality to this portrait. They all discuss what is happening behind the scenes in the political world the general public never sees. They comment on how power is used, how reputations are destroyed, how people are manipulated, how image is paramount. But, as David McCullough says in his New York Times review, their comments reflect a disconnect: “The new generation sees their predecessors—the Venerables, Mr. Just calls them—only as a tedious reproach, while the Venerables see the new people as self-absorbed money grubbers. The generations face each other, immobilized, across a great gulf.”

What does re-enforce the truth of these Washington conversations is the actual historic environment that these fictional characters are dealing with. There is no encounter between Just’s fictional characters and actual historic characters—except for the brief presence of Adlai Stevenson early on. But Just’s characters do convey the atmospherics of the FDR, McCarthy, Kennedy, and Nixon eras.

There are, fortunately, no fictional characters here who seem to stand in for actual historic figures. These characters have their own lives. If only, by the third generation, they had become more interesting. If only we had known more about not only their marriages but also their failures or accomplishments as power brokers. If only there had been less insider conversation and more action. We were there in the room when Adolph anticipated his nomination, and on the ground in France when Alex encountered the results of a massacre. But the manipulations and power moves in Washington are commented on rather than dramatized.

Just as the President joins in honoring Alex Behl at his birthday party, but does not know what Behl has actually achieved on the Washington scene, so the reader feels he must honor this portrait of Washington even though he does not really experience it from within. He hears the talk, and it is convincing, but he does not see the action. This reads like a work by an author who has heard all the conversations, all the gossip, of his fellow observers, but has not been in the rooms when actual power was exercised. Which describes the limits that even an esteemed journalist must work under.

Yes, I shall read more Just. But I enjoy his novels more when he takes me inside his characters, inside journalists, for example, rather than uses his characters to explore and comment on a world in which he is more an observer than a participant. (March, 2018)

The Ninth Hour, by Alice McDermott

This tender novel works on two levels. It is the story of a Catholic family, of mother Annie and daughter Sally, as they each seek happiness after the loss of husband and father. It is also the story of an order of Catholic nuns, featuring Sister Lucy and Sister Jeanne as they take over from the elderly Sister St. Saviour. And within both stories is an awareness of death, along with a striving for happiness in one’s life.

The emotions that carry this novel belong to the family story, as wife and daughter seek to overcome the disgrace of a suicide. The richness that fills this novel comes from the spiritual life of the nuns, and the sacrifices they make to care for others. These literary qualities join when both the family and the nuns confront death as the inevitable human destiny.

And yet the telling of these two stories does lack cohesion. The action does not flow from one chapter into the next. Instead, each chapter isolates a separate stage in the family story. After a harrowing opening scene of suicide, the narrative settles on the funeral arrangements, with the issue of whether a suicide can be buried in hallowed ground and the reaction of these nuns who are more open-minded then doctrinaire.

Then follow separate chapters that introduce a widow’s love affair, life in the nuns’ laundry room, the pain of a sick and dying woman, then a disillusioning train ride, followed by the funeral of a figure from the past, then a return to the sick invalid. Each chapter is beautifully written, but each is self-contained and could stand on its own as a short story. (One does appear in The New Yorker.) The continuity stems from daughter Sally’s thinking: whether or not she should join these sisters whose dedication to the unfortunate she has been exposed to.

Contributing also to the lack of cohesion are interruptions in the narrative, which suggest we are being told this family story by a character who does not exist in the novel. Every so often, that is, this narrator jumps into the third person narrative, and refers to “my mother, or “my father.” And we realize that this narrator is a child of the daughter Sally. A child who, as I said, never appears. Why is this person present? What is his or her purpose? It is conceivable that Sally, as mother, may have told this figure much of her own thinking, but certainly not that of the nuns or the other characters.

The ending also may be problematic for some. It introduces a death, a death which may be natural, but there is a suggestion that it has been triggered by one of the characters. The author does not say this, but she does leave us with the strong possibility. And it is also in keeping with the human motivations of these characters. The closest the author comes to stating this is when one character talks of heaven. “Out of love, I lost it. Which sounds funny, doesn’t it. You’d think you could only lose heaven out of hate.” And later: “But you’ll pray for me, won’t you…You’ll pray for this lost soul.”

It is the presence of life’s spiritual frame of reference that provides the strength of this novel. The actions of all these characters, even of the nuns, are human actions, but there are consequences to those actions, consequences that originate in the religious convictions that govern the Irish society to which these characters belong. The primary conviction is that the meaning of human life is not limited to the physical world, but is found, more significantly, in the spiritual world. And the conflict between these two worlds is introduced from the start of the novel, when a nun and a bishop debate whether a suicide can be buried in consecrated ground. It is also reflected in the novel’s title, for the ninth hour becomes the time for both the nun’s mid-afternoon prayers and the love affair of a lonely woman.

But what lends this novel its substance is that all its nuns realize that their daily lives are circumscribed by a physical, humanistic world. And that they must adjust their spiritual decisions accordingly. Which means that they lean toward practical considerations. And lean quite far, if one woman’s confession is to be believed.

The order these nuns belong to is The Little Sisters off the Sick Poor. So the richness of the novel also stems from the lives of the poor victims that these nuns encounter. Which highlights both the physical needs the nuns fulfill and the spiritual motives that inspire them. That is, they serve both worlds. And yet there is also that tension between these worlds, illustrated when Sally rejects a spiritual vocation after being confronted by the world of reality on her train ride. As well as, later, when both she and a nun conclude that enabling love, enabling a physical affair, is justified, even though it would deny them their spiritual destiny.

It is this coexistence between the physical world and the spiritual world that characterizes much of McDermott’s work. But with this probing of the nun’s world, perhaps an inevitable extension of the Irish culture, she has raised her explorations to a new level. She has kept the family environment, with its Irish culture, and here the Irish shame of suicide, but also made a family’s spiritual considerations more tangible by introducing the nun’s worldly perspective.

If only she had offered smoother transitions between the two worlds. Had told the story through a decade or two of one generation (Sally’s), instead of through two generations, with the suggestion of a third. Had made her witness of her mother’s love affair even more central to the conflict between the two worlds. (Or would that have veered too much toward melodrama?) Because I see a richness in the many considerations that Sally was faced with, especially the wall of innocence both the nuns and her mother had built around this young girl.

Overall, this does not reach the heights of McDermott’s better novels. But I do give her credit for exploring more deeply its spiritual dimension, not always an easy assignment. (March, 2018)

Group Portrait with Lady, by Heinrich Boll

Heinrich Boll won the Nobel Prize in 1972, soon after publishing this novel in Germany. I bought this copy shortly afterwards, not least because I knew the author was Catholic, and believed he would write from a frame of reference that I was familiar with. However, on checking out other novels of his, I found them difficult to relate to. So this novel has been on my shelf for a long time.

Another reason it sat there was my understanding that it did not probe the interior of its characters, neither the psychological nor the spiritual side. But given Boll’s enduring reputation, I finally decided to give it a try.

And immediately discovered that here was quite an unusual novel, one that broke a familiar rule: show, don’t tell. For although this seemed to be a story about Leni Pfeiffer and her family and friends, we were not directly watching her or her friends as they lived through World War II in the Rhineland region of Germany. Instead, we were observing them at a distance, because their story was being told to us by an Author, who, in turn, has earlier interviewed these characters and is now relating to the reader how each of their lives had intersected with the life of Leni.

And yet, even with a major rule broken, I found myself fascinated.

As I recognized that I was in the hands of a master. Who had given this work a very appropriate title. It is indeed a portrait. In which the focus is on the group, even as it pretends to focus on Leni. That is, the novel has the feel of a documentary, as if an objective portrait of Germany during and after World War II is being conveyed through these personal narratives.

However, Richard Locke in the New York Times has cited a much grander achievement. “By going into biographical detail, Boll dramatizes the impossibility of generalizing about people, makes us feel the vast gaps that exist between political slogans and moral actualities, between those who slyly ride with the times and those who, like Leni, may lose their wealth, their family, their social position in the world, but gain their souls.”

The Author opens this work with Leni at age 48 in the 1960s. He describes her circumstances. She is indeed in debt, under threat of eviction, and her son is in jail. The Author then introduces the people who will tell her story, family and friends, co-workers and professionals, all of whom will become part of her life—especially during World War II, but also after.

But, fascinated as I was, I did not find Leni’s story that interesting. Overall, she is too passive, accepting rather than resisting her circumstances. She is far from a rebel—more a romantic focusing internally on love in order to survive. Indeed, a commentary in Kirkus Review calls this work “an elaborate dossier-type anti-novel all about a somewhat dreary heroine suffering pangs of the Zeitgeist.” On the other hand, Locke cites Leni as “a figure of beleaguered virtue shining in a world of vice, misery, destitution, a world vigorously portrayed with comedy, bitterness, sorrow and tenderness.” My only reaction: to each his own. I prefer characters who react to their fate, not a detailed portrait of the circumstances they are reacting to.

Nor did I find interesting the interactions between Leni and those she lived among—even though this novel attempted to offer a comprehensive portrait of life inside Germany during World War II, with all its contradictions, and with its citizens struggling for survival amid the madness and destructiveness of war. The Kirkus review, however, is more critical: “Leni’s school days with the nuns, Leni’s bad days with the Nazis and the Russians, Leni’s amours and marriages, Leni’s complicated adventures during the war and after the war (the reader never did get them straight), Leni’s slightly paranoid middle age—the fortunes of Leni’s life are meant, of course, to represent the dehumanizing effects of history on a free soul. But Leni’s ‘informants,’ though varied, are a toneless lot, and Leni herself a bit dim.”

What fascinated me more, that is, was not the story but the method behind Boll’s story telling, a method that slowly portrays the hard life of Leni and the sixty other characters—characters not always easy to differentiate—whom the Author interviewed because their lives intersected with her own.

And yet, of course, this story of civilian life in Germany during World War II earned its own interest. Even as some details in Leni’s life did not, such as her brief marriage with Alois, who is killed in Poland three days later, or her brief love affair with her cousin Erhart. What was much more interesting is Leni’s long affair with Boris, a Russian prisoner of war who is released to work alongside her at a local nursery. The novel’s narrative high point occurs when they conduct their affair in a cemetery vault, primarily during air raids. Such circumstances emphasize the complexity of their affair, and the emotional link between these two people drawn together despite different life experiences and separate national loyalties. And while this allows Boll to explore her friends’ mixed reactions to their affair, it does lead to an arbitrary decision by him to continue her portrait as a victim.

The World War II experiences comprise about 75 percent of the novel. The 25 percent that follows is much less interesting, even confusing at times. One reason is that it switches from personal interviews to professional reports with all their purported objectivity, all their jargon; and this jargon holds the reader at an even greater distance than do the Author’s interviews.

Much time is spent at the end telling the story of Lev, Leni’s son that she had with Boris. Lev is now in jail for forging checks in order to provide his mother with funds to pay for her home. There is little, however, about Leni herself, about her involvement with her son or her concern for his problems. There is more, in fact, about her friends’ struggles in post-war Germany. Indeed, the novel seems more interested in wrapping up the lives of these friends we have met through the Author—and providing this information through official reports that eliminate any drama—rather than bringing us back to Leni herself, and any issues she is facing in adapting to life after the war.

This complex novel and its objective approach certainly does not encourage me to look up more of the author’s work. (February, 2018)

To the End of the Land, by David Grossman

This is a marvelous novel from 2008. Nothing happens, yet the reader is fascinated. Because life is created, a family is created, and history lurks in the context.

This is the story of Ora, her husband Ilan, her lover Avram, and her grown sons Adam and Ofer. It is the story of their youth at one level, when as two young boys, best friends, they fall in love with the same girl. Both Avram and Ilan are in the army, whereupon a weekend pass is offered, but to only one, and they agree to have Ora draw the winner from a hat. She does, and draws Ilan’s name, whereupon Avram, left on duty, is sent into battle, becomes a prisoner, and is tortured.

Caring for the discharged Avram, whom they both love, Ora and Ilan are thrown together and conceive a baby they name Adam. But it is a difficult relationship, and Ilan leaves Ora, leading to her having an affair with Avram, which produces the other son, Ofer. However, Avram’s war experiences have turned him into a recluse, and he refuses any contact with Ofer, just as he has separated himself from all human contact following his torture.

And now, on the second level years later, Ora, has persuaded Avram to join her on a long hike. She is separated again from Ilan, and when her youngest, Ofer, is sent into battle instead of being discharged, she decides that she can assure his safety if she is not home to receive a message he has been wounded or killed. She also thinks if she talks to Avram about him she will make the boy come alive to his father, which will also keep him safe.

We learn all this background during Ora’s and Avram’s long hike that comprises the bulk of the novel. It is a fascinating concept, for nothing happens on the novel’s surface except their talk about her family and their own past. With the fascination coming from both the slow revelations that deepen for the reader the complex emotional relationships among the three, and the reader’s gradual ability to get to know each of these characters.

Meanwhile, Ora’s and Avram’s long discussions are grounded in the details of their hike down half the length of their country. With them, we encounter the changing weather, the rocky obstructions, the insects and animals, the rivers crossed and the mountains climbed, and the physical toll their journey takes. It is so detailed that this reader was convinced the author must have based such detail on an actual hike. And, indeed, he did. On his fiftieth birthday, as he was writing this novel, Grossman made a similar hike half the length of Israel—just to get those precise details. And it is through the details that he not only communicates the demands of such a hike but also conveys the military tension within Israel that the two lovers are also trying to forget through discussing their family history.

This is a memory novel, a novel that explores the meaning of love within the emotional complexities of life, a novel of talk instead of action and yet a novel in which the exploration of character is the substitute for action. Its story is driven by birth and death, by fear and hope, by openness and withdrawal, by the onset of love and the threat of violence, by both a female and a male perspective, by both external movement and introspection, and by time past and time present. But, above, all, it is a story about connections, especially between Ora and Avram. As Grossman has written: “What interests me most is the nuances of what goes on between two people, or between a person and himself.”

George Packer summed up this novel in the New Yorker: “Ora mainly talks and Avram listens, her words leading seamlessly to scenes from the past. Her story, which emerges slowly and out of chronological order, encompasses both the complex fullness of one life and the broader history of Israel’s modern conflicts.” He writes that this “is not an apolitical novel; it is antipolitical—a protest against history and its endless incursions” into private lives. In sum, he cites Ora’s “awareness of the randomness of life.”

Colm Toibin has equal praise for Grossman in The New York Times Book Review: “He weaves the essence of private life into the tapestry of history with deliberate and delicate skill; he has created a panorama of breathtaking emotional force, a masterpiece of pacing, of dedicated storytelling, with characters whose lives are etched with extraordinary…and unexpected detail…about the shapes and shadows that surround love and memory, and about the sharp and desperate edges of loss and fear.”

Toibin describes Ora, the main character of this novel, as “emotional, introspective, filled with…an ability to love.” Avram is her foil in literary terms and represents the love she seeks. He is, Toibin says “impulsive, brilliant…larger than life,” Ilan, whom Tobin describes as “rational, vulnerable…oddly needy and nerdy” has meanwhile left her and represents the absence of love, and perhaps its risks. While Adam and especially Ofer are there to receive the motherly love that sustains her. On another level, the hiking trail represents both the unity of this story and the diverse complexities that color the history of Israel.

The ending also merits discussion. Like history, like Israel’s fate, it is both inconclusive and elusive. And yet the reader understands it, even as Grossman deliberately does not reveal it. It is undoubtedly why even Israeli critics have called this an anti-war novel. For it has an ending the characters do not want, and the reader does not want, but it offers a reality that the author insists upon. That his entire novel insists upon. That mankind’s pursuit of happiness is subject to the whims of others—and to the whims of history.

Even the title reverberates with the novel’s theme. The end of the land suggests, indirectly, the possible end of Israel as a result of the wars her sons are fighting, as well as, more directly, the end of the hiking trail that will bring Ora back to her home—and perhaps to news of the death of her son. Which is the end that she fears most. It is a much more evocative title than the Hebrew version, whose literal translation is “Woman Flees Tidings.”

While I could not finish David Grossman’s first novel, The Smile of the Lamb, and did not fully appreciate See Under: Love, I did enjoy the simpler Someone to Run With. And now with this masterpiece, I am committed to reading more of Grossman. (February, 2018)