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Category Archive for 'Classic Novel'

Author Elizabeth Taylor, who failed her entrance exams to university, never let that get in the way of her writing career. Like Angel in her novel of the same name, she began writing as a teenager, finishing her first novel before she was sixteen, and writing constantly ever after that. Unable to get any of her work published until she was in her early thirties, she made up for lost time, however, publishing six novels between 1945 and 1953, and five more between then and 1971. A Game of Hide and Seek, published in 1951 and recently republished as a New York Review Book Classic, is one of her most intensely psychological novels, the story of two young people who spend their time in self-imposed isolation, their paths crossing briefly when, as teenagers they find themselves sharing summer vacations. By the time Harriet Claridge and Vesey Macmillan are eighteen, they are being encouraged to play with Harriet’s younger cousins to keep them busy during their summer vacation in the country, and they sometimes use hide-and-seek games to be together in the loft where they wait for the younger children to find them. They are, however, shy, innocent, and self-conscious, despite Vesey’s uncontrollable malicious streak (which Harriet sometimes thinks she deserves), and so they sit in the loft or the barn “in that dusty stuffiness, among old pots of paint, boxes of bulbs, stacks of cobwebbed deck-chairs, rather far apart and in silence…The only interruption was when one of them timidly swallowed an accumulation of saliva.”

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The Temple of Dawn, the third novel in Yukio Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy, takes place in the years immediately preceding World War II, just after the “China Incident” of 1936, and Shigekuni Honda, having abandoned his formerly altruistic ideals, is still trying to develop his own beliefs about life, death, love, the transmigration of souls, and reincarnation. War is imminent now, as Japan, Germany, and Italy have signed a treaty against the Americans. Having given up his judgeship, Honda lives in partial retirement, but he takes a business trip to Bangkok, where he also hopes to meet Prince Pattanadid and Prince Krisada, former school friends from his youth. The Thai royal family has gone to Switzerland, however, and the palace is empty. The only person there is a “mad princess,” age seven, who lives as a virtual prisoner, claiming publicly that “I’m not really a Siamese princess. I’m the reincarnation of a Japanese, and my real home is in Japan.” Having been exposed to the idea of samsara, Honda eventually becomes certain that this little princess, “Princess Moonlight,” is the reincarnation of Kiyoake/Isao. A total believer in the old samurai traditions, Yukio Mishima despaired of the western influence he saw appearing in post-war Japan, and he never forgave the emperor for denying his divinity in the capitulation which ended the war. Just after author he finished the final novel in this “Sea of Fertility” tetralogy, the Decay of the Angel on November 25, 1970, he disemboweled himself in a ritual suicide—seppuku—committed in the presence of four members of his private army.

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With its quick narrative pacing, its unusual story lines filled with ironies, its wounded characters (appealing in their vulnerability), and the novel’s inherent charm, this newly reprinted novel from 1975 may be the perfect answer for lovers of literary fiction looking for a great book to read on a hot summer day. Russell Hoban is in fine fettle here, creating a novel which raises big questions while focusing on two quiet characters whose lives are about to change in significant ways. The “ends” they have been seeking have been present in their “beginnings,” as the review’s opening sentence (from T. S. Eliot) indicates, though until now these characters have not recognized this, spending their middle age dreaming and second-guessing – and ruing the fact that they have missed their chances for happier, more satisfying lives. In their separate narratives, William G. and Neaera H. share their lives and their thoughts. William G., the divorced father of two, now works in a bookshop and lives in a small room. As the novel opens, he is at the zoo, but he concludes, petulantly, that “I don’t want to go to the Zoo anymore.” Neaera H., a writer of children’s stories, is sick of writing about Gillian Vole and birthday parties, and has been contemplating using a predator as her next character. As her first commentary opens, she has just purchased a home aquarium, not for fish, but for a Great Water-beetle, which she has ordered by mail. Eventually, both speakers come together in a plan to release the sea turtles into the ocean, an event which changes their lives. A great book for a book club.

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Winner of three major Japanese prizes during his long writing career, author Teru Miyamoto is still virtually unknown to English-speaking audiences. Sadly, Kinshu: Autumn Brocade, published in Japan in 1982 and translated into English by Roger K. Thomas in 2005, remains the only one of his novels available in English. In this quietly elegant novel focusing on the effects of a failed marriage on the two participants, Miyamoto explores the importance of marriage and its ramifications in Japanese society, emphasizing the characters and their culture rather than the kind of plot development and grand climax expected by most western readers. Readers interested in the effects of culture on character may find, as I did, that Miyamoto’s focus feels completely honest, true to life in ways that many plot-based novels do not, and this novel’s concise form allows him to explore serious themes without being didactic or held captive to plot. Immense sympathy is evoked as these two people find their lives permanently affected because they have been unable to surmount the barriers placed by tradition. As Aki and Yasuaki continue their new lives and try to understand the past, the reader also realizes that though the culture in which these new lives unfold differs from that of western readers, the human qualities of these individuals and their feelings are universal, not bound by culture.

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Shortly after World War I, Philippe Marcenat is writing a journal trying to explain to his second wife, Isabelle, his personally devastating past life with Odile, his first wife. He believes that if the quiet and accommodating Isabelle can only understand his life with the vivacious and exciting Odile, that Isabelle will be even more understanding of his often thoughtless behavior during their own marriage. Starting his journal in the years immediately following World War I, Philippe reflects the pomposity and vanity with which he, and others of his time and class often treat the women in their lives. Though he wants to be honest, Philippe is limited by his own attitudes and those of his culture, however. He is unable to identify with women in any meaningful way, except as property, and is at a loss to understand why the most beautiful woman he has ever met – his first wife, Odile – has abandoned him for another. Isabelle’s story begins halfway through the novel. As Isabelle reveals their post-war courtship and marriage from her own point of view, the true nature of the marriage and the respective limitations of the two characters become even clearer. “What I want from love,” Isabelle remarks “is a warm, caressing climate, something my family refused me.” The novel, aided by the new translation, moves swiftly and smoothly through time, revealing much about the culture of France between the two wars.

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