Elegy for April, by Benjamin Black

It is interesting to read Black after having just read Banville. This Black mystery from 2011 moves forward quite briskly, and yet there is Banville’s familiar richness in presenting the setting and the characters. Dublin lives on these pages, as do those who are searching for answers, both to their life and to the mystery behind the disappearance of April.

The friends of April Latimer, the girl of the title, are desperately trying to find out what happened to their unconventional colleague, while her estranged family claims to have no interest, indeed wants the others to stop their search. The friends are five young people and include Phoebe Griffin, the daughter of Quirke, this series’ pathologist hero. She asks her father to help them find out what happeed to April, and Quirke, in turn, seeks the help of his friend Inspector Hackett, the policeman of this series.

The other friends are the newspaperman Jimmy, the actress Isabel, and the black, educated Nigerian, Patrick. Jimmy is not a suspect; he is just curious as a reporter. Nor is Isabel, but she catches the eye of Quirke, and a romance adds a potential new touch to the series. And Patrick is too obvious a suspect to be one. Plus, neither they nor the reader know if April has disappeared on her own, or has died at someone’s hand.

On the other hand, all the Latimers act suspiciously, as they try to forestall the investigation. These include April’s mother Celia; her brother Oscar, a doctor; and her uncle William, a government minister who is the brother of her dead father Conor, an Irish revolutionary. Do they know if April is alive or dead? Were they involved in her disappearance? They all do seem to be hiding behind the desire to protect the family’s reputation.

What makes this work so interesting is not really the fate of April. It is the relationships. Of Quirke with his daughter Phoebe. As well as with Inspecrtor Hackett. And also with the actress Isabel. Plus the relationships among the five young people, first April’s with everyone, and then the black Patrick’s with everyone. Not to mention the Latimer family and their various negtive feelings about April.

And as mentioned earlier, the novel comes alive in its descriptions. From the mists of November to the freezing air of December. From Dublin’s streets and cafes to its parks and waterways. From office interiors to mansion rooms to dark stairs in dingy apartments. All of which becomes richer through the responses of Quirke, Phoebe, and Hackett to both the poverty and the wealth that they enounter.

The least effective section of the novel is the denoument. First, because it stems from Quirke’s sudden flash of memory regarding a moustache. The reader is aware of this moustache but has no reason to recall it, because it is slipped in so casually. And second and more significant, because this is another tale in which, once accused, the villain quickly confesses. So conveniently, author Black. And the confession becomes a long drawn out scene in which the villain keeps flashing a gun. Will he use it? How will he use it? And on whom?

The villain’s motive, on the other hand, reveals evil personified. And makes convincing why the Latimer family wanted to conceal the truth of April’s disappearance. But this powerful motive that tries to jar us at the end seems too much tacked on, as if the author decided to come up with something truly evil to achieve a final impact.

And so, yes, one is interestd in more mysteries by Benjamin Black. But less because of the mysteries themselves than because of the people. And less in the solutions to come than in the relationships inside the Quirke family, as well as their always interesting interaction with the Dublin environment. (May, 2015)

The Golden Bowl, by Henry James

I have been a great fan of Henry James. But for some reason I did not get around to reading The Golden Bowl, written in 1904. Perhaps because I had heard that it was in James’ later style, and was a difficult book.

In any event, I tried reading the novel a few years ago, and could not get past the first 50 pages. They were too dense, and seemed to be going nowhere.

So now, I am trying again. I am up to page 200, and it is difficult going. I am not sure right now if I am going to finish the novel, or give up. I certainly had the same difficulty in reading the first 50 pages. We begin inside the Prince’s head before he marries Maggie, and every sentence seems to have many clauses with multi qualifiers, as James has his hero consider all the possible effects of a particular thought or action. Plus, nothing seems to be happening.

When, finally, the characters begin talking to each other, we leave what has been exposition and interest begins with the interaction of these characters. Finally, the narrative is being dramatized. I have not read or seen any of Henry James’ plays, but I know he turned to playwriting late in his career. I would surmise this was because he liked writing dialogue, and perhaps realized he was good at it. I do know I myself enjoyed his dialogue in his earlier novels.

James follows these interesting dialogues, however, with long pages of more exposition, with some paragraphs lasting more than a page. He does this, I believe, because he has developed a rich knowledge of the contradictions of the mind and of human emotions, and he imparts these contradictions to his characters in order to establish a lifelike richness to his characterizations.

But what he does not realize is that the richness of these contradictions comes between him and his reader, and instead of the dramatic action we seek from his characters we endure endless introspection. His purpose may be admirable: to establish a rich lifelike context, whether of the atmosphere, a person’s thinking, or the ramifications of an action. But in truth, I have found myself skimming over those long paragraphs that freeze the action so that James can probe the complex thinking of these characters—long paragraphs that advance possibilities, but do not advance the story.

The story itself is about two couples. Maggie has married Amerigo, the Prince. Charlotte has married Maggie’s father, Adam Verver. Maggie and Charlotte are longtime girl friends. Charlotte and the Prince were once (this is the 19th century) lovers. Complications ensue among these basically good people. The complications are exasperated by the gossipy Fanny Assingham, who keeps confiding to the reader the ramifications of these relationships, as we listen to her and her husband, Bob, the Colonel.

As we move from Book First, the Prince’s view, to Book Second, the Princesses’ (Maggie’s) view, we learn through Mrs. Assingham the issue that this novel addresses. It is that Maggie has remained close to her father, and is thus withholding her attention from her husband. This appears to result in the Prince renewing his emotional tie to Charlotte, who, in turn, finds herself less attached to her husband, because of Maggies’ caring love of him, her father.

So the issue becomes twofold. Will Maggie realize the reason for the renewed relationship between her husband, the Prince, and Charlotte, and will she trust them? And will her father, Adam Verver, realize that his wife Charlotte is giving her attention to the Prince rather than to him? Finally, how will Maggie and her father react if they discover that her love for her father has reopened that former relationship?

The answers have drawn me into the second half of the novel.

What is initially disappointing is that the first 90 pages of the second half employ what I am calling exposition, which means a narrative of Maggie’s thinking rather than a dramatization of what she is thinking and doing. This raises the question of why James has taken this approach. Yes, it saves space, saves pages, but I think it is because James has so much knowledge of how the mind works that he wants to show its nuances, and thinks that to explore and reveal actions through the mind is the best way to establish the reality of his characters. Whereas, I prefer to reveal character through action, including conversation—rather than through what I would term a more static approach, through the depths of the mind.

Another source of this approach I hesitate to introduce. It is that this is James’ last novel, and that perhaps, perhaps, he has found it difficult to find the concentration to turn a somewhat conceptual concept, his plot, into dramatic action. That he outlined where he wanted the story to go but found it required considerable effort to dramatize where he wanted it to go. And he soon turned to playwriting precisely because he was comfortable with dialogue, and a play does not have the complexity of a novel.

What also may be behind my reaction is that I have not been able to follow the complexity of Maggie’s thinking, or of the Prince’s thinking. There may well be much more to these internal musings than I am aware of, and this master should receive full credit for that subtle treatment. However, given my inability to follow some of these musing has been one reason, I admit, that I have skimmed through those long paragraphs of little action.

On the other hand, there is also the issue of the actual musings of these characters, especially those of Maggie. They are of minor significance in the external lives of these characters. Maggie’s suspicions of the faithfulness of her husband and her best friend arise in her imagination; and her speculations lead to no external action until the end, and then it might be better described as inaction. The subtlety behind her thinking is that she does not wish her father to know her suspicions, for fear it will destroy his marriage, his happiness, as well as her own relationships with both him and her own husband. Thus, she achieves as much as she can by inaction.

What I will grant, however, is that as inconsequential as Maggie’s suspicions are, James knows how to write a scene in which she confronts, first, Fanny Assingham, and then her husband, the Prince, with her suspicions. This may well be the scene that James saw as the turning point of this novel.

The golden bowl of the title also plays a role here, and a very appropriate one. Indeed, it is a symbol of Maggie’s relationship with her father and with Charlotte. For it has a crack. And Fanny Assingham plays a major role in its fate. For Maggie, the issue is why, earlier in the novel, Charlotte was prepared to buy the bowl for the Prince. And the issue for me now is the logic behind how Maggie learns of that earlier encounter in the antique shop, and how she twists it into meaning something significant to her.

Otherwise, this confrontational scene with the vase reminded me of the old, the earlier James, whom I so admired. For it is marvelous dialogue, and truly works as a symbol of Maggie’s psychological fragility.

In passing, I would note that most of the book’s earlier confrontations in dialogue form concern the Assinghams, either between themselves or hers with Maggie; and they clearly exist to explain to the reader the ramifications that so concern Maggie.

The ending begins with final confrontation scenes, in dialogue, between Maggie and Charlotte and then Maggie and her father. It seemed to me to be a perfect ending, with Maggie resolving her situation with each of these people who are important to her. But then we read more than 25 pages of narrative exposition before we get to two more conversations, one again between Maggie and Charlotte that bring a change in all the relationships. It seems to me that James wanted here to give his novel a new twist at the end, but for me it was far from necessary, much less in any way significantly revealing of Maggie. For James, perhaps, it brought a greater sense of completion. On the other hand, I am thinking here of the overall situation, whereas James may have decided that it important that his hero Maggie change from being a person who only reacts to others to one who herself acts on others.

However, I do have to admire the sure, confident technique of the final pages‑—its resolution of the relationship between Maggie and her father and Maggie and her husband. Which, I think, is intended to represent the completeness of Maggie’s portrait. For James keeps us uncertain until these final pages. And even then, those final relationships are elusive to this reader. Yes, Maggie has maneuvered them as she wished, but they have also taken their own initiative in reaching the same conclusion. Indeed, both the Prince and Charlotte agree, in effect, to give up each other. Thus, there is goodness in each of these four characters who have, for various reasons, put themselves into this difficult situation. And for Maggie, what matters is her decision that her loyalty be, first, with her husband, whereas previously it has been with her father.

And yet, it is such a slight obstacle that this novel has resolved. An obstacle that Maggie initially creates in her mind. That is, her view of the relationships among these two couples. Which becomes a greater obstacle when it transforms itself into the tension between her love of her father and her love of her husband. However…it is still an obstacle that lies within their three minds. It does not exist in their external world. Which, in turn, shows us what interested James in this stage of his career: the internal world.

In an introduction, Richard Brett has offered some interesting ideas. He asks: “What is the point of this slight, breathlessly refined action? How does it come to seem both trivial and profound?”

And: “The people are characteristically concerned with the questions of where they are, what do they know, what do others know, what can be said, what can’t be said, what can others say or not say, do or not do” And this certainly captures the narrative exposition that continually turned me off.

He also suggests that the wealthy Maggie wishing to buy a prince for his social ranking and to “buy” Charlotte for her lonely father “may well seem a guiltier thing than the adultery committed against them and which, in any event, they have themselves provoked by the logic of their bargains.”

He continues: “James point, perhaps first, is that no matter what the original appearance of the morality of the Ververs’ bargains, all four characters are mutually implicated in them; all give and all take; and further all are transformed by their interconnectedness.”

In the end, this is a story of love. Of Maggie’s for her father, and of Maggie’s for her husband. Not to forget that between the Prince and Charlotte. Indeed, Maggie realizes, for them all, that giving up one love can be a commitment of love to another. And Brett asks “But how else is love to be conceived…if it is not the allowance to others of as much freedom as one assumes for oneself.”

So what I am evaluating is the effectiveness of this portrayal of love requiring a sacrifice, when that sacrifice is explored too much within the characters’ minds rather than in any external action. Yes, these characters, and most of James’ characters, live through their consciousness more than through their body; but there was too much of that consciousness here for my taste. There was too much subtlety, too much goodness, in the actions of these characters; too much speculating that if I do this to achieve my good end, he or she will do that to achieve their good end.

In sum, this was a novel to struggle through. In part because of its complex style. In part because of its narrative rather than dramatic approach. And in part because the drama is inside these characters rather than, as in most novels, in the physical world. James was obviously drawn here to that internal world, much as Joyce was when he used another format. Perhaps that new knowledge of the mind was an avenue novelists wished to explore at the turn of the 20th century. However, I also wonder whether or not James himself was dissatisfied with this novel. And wonder if that influenced his turning thereafter to the stage. (July, 2014)

Hamilton Stark, by Russell Banks

This early 1978 novel appears to be what is called metafiction. It is certainly Banks luxuriating in the possibilities of fiction. It is also a young author applying all that he has learned about the craft of fiction, as well as much of what he has learned about human relations. One senses that Banks is attempting to stretch the parameters of the novel. Or at least how far he himself can go.

The result is a novel that pays as much attention to technique as to content. That is, an interesting portrait of a middle-aged New Hampshire loner is probed from a variety of geographical, anthropological, psychological, and philosophical viewpoints. Not to mention that author Banks is writing a novel about an author who is writing a novel about a local named A, whom he calls Hamilton Stark in his book, and then learns that the subject’s daughter is writing her own book about her father, calling him Alvin Stock. And from her book Bank’s narrator appropriates much of his own content.            

Nor to mention that the narrator keeps confiding to the reader how he is constructing his novel, how he will provide certain information later, for example. Which in turn is Banks confiding how he is constructing what we are reading. As a result, we are often reading about these characters twice removed, a narrative about a narrative.            

The novel begins with the narrator calling unexpectedly on an old friend he calls A—not wishing to identify him, apparently New England reticence. He does not find A, but does find his car with three bullet holes in the driver’s side window. The rest of the novel consists of various characters speculating about what has happened to A, and in the process creating a portrait of A.            

Banks hints at the elusiveness of this novel by having his narrator immediately postulate three possible explanation of what has happened to his friend; and this, he says, is what prompts the narrator to start his novel. And like many a novice novelist, the narrator thinks it helpful to explain A’s (Stark’s) backstory. Thus, we read the geography and history of his town, then about his ancestors, then the story of his various relationships with his father and mother, his daughter, and finally his five wives. None of this advances the story of A’s fate, of course, and we soon realize that it is really the portrait of the missing man, Stark, that interests Banks.

Indeed, the remainder of this novel is that portrait, that backstory of a man who was selfish, incommunicative, and a loner. And hated by everyone, starting with his 26-year-old daughter Rochelle. As the narrator learns that Rochelle has already attempted to write her own novel about her father, about an Alvin Stock, as he appropriates some of her work with her approval, and as the novel delves further and further into Stark’s backstory, a structural problem surfaces. The story keeps moving backward, rather than forward. And this backstory is largely narrated, rather than dramatized, Which is a pity, for the dramatized sections, with their movement and dialogue, are particularly good.

Of course, this narrative (rather than dramatic) approach allows Banks to have considerable control over how he presents the man’s portrait. He can offer the salient points, without paying attention to the chronological order. Moreover, his narrator frequently tells the reader there is additional information he will reveal later; but if this is in order to create suspense, this strategy did not work for me. Also, inhibiting my interest are a few lists, the most obvious being the chapter, 100 Selected, Uninteresting Things Done and Said by Hamilton Stark. All these lists are simply Banks toying with his subject, and showing off to the reader; and in this particular chapter I skipped the last 75 uninteresting things.

What is interesting, in the absence of discovering what has happened to Stark, are his relationships with his father, his five wives, and his daughter. None of them like him, for he has treated them crudely or unfairly. But the narrator does not feel the same way about him. He admires Stark for being in control of his own life and enjoying that life—his guns, his drinking, his women.

Later, through the narrator’s friendship with a character named C, we probe abstractly, and a little too deeply for me, the intricacy of the relationship between men and women, as exemplified by the life of Stark. This appears to be the author expounding on his own knowledge, as much as it is the characters probing their understanding of human relationships as they apply to Stark. The idea is that women try to raise in men feelings of guilt, and this explains the attitude of Stark’s mother toward him. In fact, Banks gives this theory an ironic twist, when his narrator has an affair with Rochelle, and she then gives him a sense of guilt for using the material from her novel that she had previously agreed to let him do. But one cannot ignore that this irony is developed in a footnote that runs eight pages—as it shows Banks again playing with structure in order to squeeze in a mere sidelight.

While this portrait of small-town New Hampshire life is quite well done, this novel also lacks for me an emotional impact. Because it has been conceived on an intellectual level. This is revealed by its emphasis on both structure and the narrative technique—an approach that interposes that second plane of reality between the reader and Stark—a plane that hinders the reader from identifying with the emotions of Stark, or even that of the narrator. The inconclusive ending also re-enforces this impression, as if the author does not care what happens to Stark, that his point has already been made.

Of course, Banks might reply that the purpose of the novel is the portrait, and not what actually happened to the subject. But for me, that reveals an author too much immersed in his craft, and not enough in his characters. It is as if he understands the complexity of human beings, but is not yet able to, or else does not yet care to, convert that complexity into richly dramatic events. (April, 2014)