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Category Archive for 'Classic Novel'

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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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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