MY JUNE 2012 READS
THERE WAS A TIME (1947) by Taylor Caldwell.
Another of Caldwell's 1940s novels that I've had on hand for years but never gotten around to reading. Having been in another 'Caldwell Phase' lately with THE BALANCE WHEEL and MELISSA, I gave this one a shot. It started out very slowly (even more slowly than MELISSA,if that's possible), as is typical of Caldwell novels from this period - the story starts in England in 1904, with our young main character around 3 to 4 years old. The opening chapters have a vague, almost dream-like quality to them, and reminded me of John Galsworthy's short work "Awakening," the second of the two 'Interludes' in THE FORSYTE SAGA.
I think the early chapters were based on Caldwell's own memories of England, particularly Manchester (where Caldwell was born) - Like her character Frank, she, too, was about seven years old when she emigrated to the US in 1907 from England. This was one of Caldwell's most relentlessly bitter books, especially in its depiction of the poor relationship between Frank and his parents. About half-way through, Caldwell moves her main character to Kentucky to seek his fortune drilling oil - things there end rather violently, and, shaken, he returns to Bison, NY (Caldwell lived much of her life in Buffalo, NY) for the remainder of the novel, where he achieves some moderate success writing 'trash' for magazines. He then embarks on writing a novel about "a family of 'international bankers,' men of long, sober American backgrounds, who, from the time of the War of 1812, had cunningly and sedulously plotted wars for their own profit. This was what the American people wanted. Insecure, frightened, mysteriously terrified, they wished a scapegoat for their fear. He, Frank Clair, would give it to them. He would not exhort them to cry 'mea culpa!' He would put into their mouths the hateful shout 'Lynch him!'”
Caldwell’s first published novel was DYNASTY OF DEATH, about a family of munitions-makers. I can't help but wonder if, through her character Frank Clair, Caldwell was 'winking' slyly at her critics: "Sound and fury, rage and excess, anger and despair, defeated dreams, filled every page of the novel. In rereading portions of it, Frank was sometimes faintly embarrassed by the wealth of adjectives and some of the more thunderous passages. It was not dull. Critical though he was (with an eye to publishing), he admitted to himself that the writing had passion and verve, even if there was a sort of evilness about it, a kind of corruption, a deliberate twisting of phrase to gain a dubious point." Another problem with this novel is a very unconvincing love interest that's resolved in a rather clumsy manner. Frank's deepest and closest emotional friendships are with men, and Caldwell apparently didn't realize that her character was almost certainly a latent homosexual (which certainly wouldn't have made for a popular novel at the time).
GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS* (1934) by James Hilton.
Re-read this for the I-don't-know-how-many-eth time – it’s always a matter of a pleasant afternoon or evening’s reading . . . seldom has a good story been told so well, so simply, and so enjoyably, with such unforgettable results.
A DARK-ADAPTED EYE* (1986) by Barbara Vine.
This was the first novel by Ruth Rendell under her nom-de-plume, Barbara Vine - it signaled a departure from the other two kinds of novels she was known for at the time, her Chief Inspector Wexfords (police procedurals) and novels of psychological suspense such as A JUDGMENT IN STONE and THE TREE OF HANDS. It was also the first novel I read by her under either name.
That was about 25 years ago, and my admiration for it only increases with each re-reading (which occur every 3 or 4 years or so). Not feeling quite swept away by either of the two books I had going, I picked up A DARK-ADAPTED EYE again to re-read a chapter or two just to 'scout the territory,' so to speak. And before I knew it I'd read three, then four chapters. At such a point I guess I had to say that I'm 'officially' re-reading the book! It gets better with each re-reading, as do many of The Vines. This one still gets five stars from me. The word that best describes this book is 'masterful' and it very much sets the template for several of the Vines that have followed, as the sins of the past cast their long shadows on the present-day.
If I were asked to recommend a book that would give someone a good idea of what life was like for many British people in the years during and after World War Two, I would give them A DARK-ADAPTED EYE. If I were asked to recommend a novel about old sins having long shadows, and family secrets, and the destructive power of love, I would give them A DARK-ADAPTED EYE. If I were asked to recommend a brilliantly conceived and executed mystery, or even just an exceptional "novel of psychological suspense," I would recommend A DARK-ADAPTED EYE. Did I mention that Ruth Rendell is my favorite writer, period? (Well, except for Barbara Vine, that is.)
THE SEVEN MINUTES* (1969) by Irving Wallace.
The recent fuss (and spectacular sales) of E.L. James's FIFTY SHADES Trilogy (which, other than flipping through a few random pages I haven't read and don't intend to read) reminded me that THE SEVEN MINUTES is about the controversy over a sexually explicit book - could reading about the thoughts and fantasies of a woman during seven minutes of sexual intercourse actually incite a college student to rape? - so I decided to re-read it. I read and enjoyed this in 1972 or 1973, at a time when my reading taste was very commercial and rather indiscriminate, often consisting of healthy doses of the fast-paced, glossy fiction that authors such as Irving Wallace, Harold Robbins and Arthur Hailey produced regularly - I was in my mid-teens and such reading material seemed very grown-up (and to be fair to myself, I was also reading more serious authors such as Ayn Rand).
The novel is dedicated "To Fanny, Constance, Molly, who made it possible" - it's a certainty that few of today's readers who so easily obtain a copy of FIFTY SHADES OF GREY by merely walking into a bookstore where it's prominently displayed, are familiar with the three women mentioned and the controversial works in which they appeared: Fanny Hill (Cleland's MEMOIRS OF A WOMAN OF PLEASURE), Constance Chatterley (Lawrence's LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER) and Molly Bloom (Joyce's ULYSSES). All three novels were sexually explicit, considered 'pornographic,' and were the subject of an important obscenity trial which resulted in changing the public's perception of 'pornography' and what could or couldn't be sold or mailed. FIFTY SHADES OF GREY would be sold 'under the counter' - if at all - without these three women.
Michael Korda, who was Wallace's editor at Simon & Schuster for many years, felt that Wallace's novels were bloated potboilers, and the weight of some of his 1960s novels would seem to back up that opinion. Even at 607 pages, THE SEVEN MINUTES is somewhat 'flabby' - Wallace certainly did his research on famous pornographic works, their authors, and the criticisms - or praise - leveled at them, but, due to his need to impart this information to the reader, unfortunately this results in chunks of dialog that are often unwieldy or just plain didactic, in which characters often quote such things at length (well, several of the leading characters are lawyers...).
I found the second half of the book better-paced than the first half: Wallace ratchets up the suspense as various elements of the backstory begin falling into place. THE SEVEN MINUTES is still valid today, though it will seem dated to many of today's readers: pay phones (or the search for them) abound, and today a simple DNA test would pinpoint the identity of a suspected rapist. This was, on the whole, a very entertaining read.
ONE, TWO, BUCKLE MY SHOE* (1940) by Agatha Christie.
I first read this Hercule Poirot mystery in the early/mid 1970s under its alternate American title, AN OVERDOSE OF DEATH (it was originally published in the US as THE PATRIOTIC MURDERS). Perhaps in 1940 her US publisher felt that ONE, TWO, BUCKLE MY SHOE was 'too British,' or might lead prospective buyers to mistake it as a children's book, or perhaps, despite Christie's career entering its third decade at this point, they felt her books did better in the US with some variation of 'death' or 'murder' in the title. It sure seems like wherever Monsieur Hercule Poirot goes, trouble (usually murder) follows him - that's certainly the case when he does that most ordinary of things, visits the dentist. . . Those of us who complain that Poirot’s later appearances are sometimes hardly more than cameos can relax with this one: Poirot is at the center of things here.
I don't know how I felt about this one back in the 70s - although I logged the titles I read for several years, I didn't make any notes about them, and this was just one of many Christies I read in batches, so all these years later it was more or less like reading it for the first time - it's not unusual with Christie to remember a particular murder but little else about the book, and perhaps that’s part of her enduring appeal.
Some Christies re-read better than others: as it happens, I found this one rather dreary - the characters never quite came to life for me, but I did see it through to the end. Christie throws a few spy/conspiracy elements into the mix – this wasn’t really her forte though she persisted in dabbling in it occasionally almost until the end of her career with novels like THEY CAME TO BAGDAD, DESTINATION UNKNOWN, and her 1970 ‘extravaganza’ PASSENGER TO FRANKFURT. Though ONE, TWO, BUCKLE MY SHOE was written during Christie’s ‘Golden Age’ (which in my humble opinion was 1930-1950) it’s one of the less-stellar entries for me.