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Category Archive for 'Classic Novel'

Magda Szabo (1917 – 2007), one of Hungary’s most celebrated authors, lays bare her own values and her soul in The Door, a rich and intensely intimate examination of the relationship between a character named Magdushka, a writer whose point of view controls this novel, and Emerence, her housekeeper-servant. As suggested by the choice of the main character’s name and occupation, much of the story here parallels aspects obvious from the author’s own biography, and she has admitted in an interview that much of the content here is based on similar experiences from her own life. How much is actually true and how much is an elaboration becomes irrelevant once the book gets underway, though it is difficult to imagine the author recreating Magdushka’s unwavering commitment to the temperamental and prideful Emerence, her affecting sense of responsibility, and her overwhelming guilt regarding her betrayal of a secret, if she herself had never experienced similar feelings under very similar conditions. In a brief opening chapter, Magdushka, now in old age, describes the continuing nightmare which has loomed over her adult life. In it she is behind the front door of her own house, unable to open it for rescuers and unable to call for help. Magdushka sees parallels between this nightmare and her experiences with Emerence at the climax of their relationship many years earlier. Since what happened then is now in the past, she knows that “none of that matters, because what happened is beyond remedy.”

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I for Isobel, written in 1979 and first published in Australia in 1989, focuses on a tough main character, a child who fills the novel with a kind of mental violence against both herself and those who “cross” her, as she endures a coming-of-age essentially alone. All her possible role models – parents, teachers, family, and contemporaries – damage her more than aid her as she grows up. “Her mother’s anger was [like] a live animal tormenting her,” and when Isobel says she knows her mother hates her, the reader will have no problem actually believing her – her mother does hate her, for reasons unknown. The one area in which Isobel is able to achieve some kind of escape and happiness is through books. Even as a nine-year-old, she is a voracious reader, and the reading gives her a kind of personal outlet, too, when she soon turns her attention to her own writing. As Isobel slowly begins thinking beyond the specifics of her day-to-day life, she comes to conclusions about the grand themes of life, death, friendship, creativity, and social responsibility. A classic novel by one of the grandes dames of Australian writing.

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A View of the Harbour (1947), author Elizabeth Taylor’s third novel, employs the broadest focus of the four novels I have read by Taylor. Whereas the last and most famous novel published in her lifetime, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont(1971) concentrates on the relationship of one elderly woman, Mrs. Palfrey, who, nearing the end of her life befriends a callow young man who does not understand love, this much earlier novel reconstructs an entire community, the author’s goal being the depiction of its citizens and the values they celebrate. This creates challenges for the reader, initially, since s/he must try to remember the specific identities of a wide variety of townspeople, along with the relationships among them. Once the reader becomes familiar with this large cast of characters, the action devolves into an unusual kind of farce in which the author is more interested in illustrating the society and the people who must live in it as they search for love and connection, than in laughs for the sake of laughs. In fact, the humor involved in this farce is often bittersweet, more ironic than overt, with characters facing unhappiness and dashed hopes in their searches for happiness as often as they may find some kind of minimal happiness. The conclusion comes as a total surprise and provides the final irony.

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Published in Germany in 1932, when author Irmgard Keun was only twenty-two, The Artificial Silk Girl, a bestselling novel of its day, is said to be for pre-Nazi Germany what Anita Loos’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925) is for Jazz Age America. Both novels capture the frantic spirit, the eat-drink-and-be-merry ambiance, and the materialism of young people like Doris – and Lorelei Lee in the Loos book – who haunt the urban clubs as they try to work their way into a lifestyle much grander and more vibrant than anything their mothers could ever have hoped for. Doris, the “artificial silk girl,” has no politics, focusing almost completely on her own ambitions – finding wealthy men who will improve her life by financing a better lifestyle for her. She cadges a desired wristwatch from one potential suitor, extols the virtues of chocolates and fine clothing to others (and is sometimes rewarded), but fastens her clothing with rusty safety pins in case someone too unattractive gets too carried away. By the age of seventeen, she has already had a year-long affair with Hubert, her first and most lasting love, but when he ignores her birthday after she’s saved up for a new dress, and fails to produce a present, she retaliates. The authorities in Germany were not pleased with Keun’s published depiction of Berlin life as Hitler and the Nazis, preparing to take power, envisioned it. Within a year, Keun’s books were confiscated and all known copies were destroyed. Though she continued writing after World War II, it is this novel, rediscovered and republished in 1979, for which she is best known. Fun and funny and very important for its depiction of women in pre-Nazi society.

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For those who have read the recent prizewinner H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, the powerful, genre-bending memoir of the author’s decision to tame and train a fierce goshawk as a way to deal with her grief following her father’s death, this novel by Glenway Wescott (1901 – 1987) may feel more civilized and stylistically much tamer. This is by no means a criticism. The [marvelous] Pilgrim Hawk, a thoughtful, often symbolic novel, deals with much more than a woman’s relationship with a wild hawk and her agonizing search for herself, which we saw with the Helen MacDonald book. The pilgrim hawk here serves as the impetus to the action, but she is only one of several “characters” who participate in a broad examination of love and passion, and love’s closely related effects involving pain, pettiness, anger, self-doubt, and, in an ideal world, forgiveness. Ultimately The Pilgrim Hawk considers the grandest theme of all – the relationship of love to personal freedom and whether it is possible to have one without the other, a theme for which the hawk becomes a foil. Regarded by critics as one of the best short novels of the twentieth century, The Pilgrim Hawk has been compared to William Faulkner’s The Bear in its importance, though the foreign setting, the well-to-do American characters, and the visiting Irish gentry mitigate the raw realities of Faulkner’s masterpiece in favor of a more mannered, more continental approach.

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