CanLit Challenge Book #48: That Summer in Paris by Morley Callaghan
Filed under: 20th Century,Book Reviews,CanLit Challenge — Ibis at 11:20 am on Friday, May 20, 2011

Book 48, That Summer in Paris (1963) – Morley Callaghan
“It was the fabulous summer of 1929 when the literary capital of North America moved to La Rive Gauche-the Left Bank of the Seine River-in Paris. Ernest Hemingway was reading proofs of A Farewell to Arms, and a few blocks away F. Scott Fitzgerald was struggling with Tender Is the Night. As his first published book rose to fame in New York, Morley Callaghan arrived in Paris to share the felicities of literary life, not just with his two friends, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but also with fellow writers James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, and Robert McAlmon. Amidst these tangled relations, some friendships flourished while others failed. This tragic and unforgettable story comes to vivid life in Callaghan’s lucid, compassionate prose.”

Other useful links:
the Wikipedia entry for Morley Callaghan

My thoughts:
I enjoyed this immensely, my favourite of Callaghan’s so far. Callaghan is a great guide to the literary world of the twenties. He was obviously well-regarded by his slightly older contemporaries, including Hemingway and Sinclair Lewis and Ezra Pound and James Joyce. I love his enthusiasm as he meets up with his idols one by one. In between stories of these encounters, he talks about his day to day (or night to night) routine of walking around Paris and discussing literary and other things in the cafés over wine, punctuated by weekend boxing matches with Ernest.

From a coming-of-age, portrait of the artist as a young man in the first part of the book, we move to an older man’s reflection upon the sincere friendship of three men gone awry in the last act. The breakup of the friendship of the three men over something so small and inconsequential was sad and unnecessarily unfortunate. Or, perhaps, according to Morley’s analysis of their natures, unavoidable.

Great, inspirational passages about writing as an art, an interesting description of a renowned time and place with famous people entering and exiting the stage, and a meditation on the vicissitudes of friendship.

CanLit Challenge Book #38: Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies
Filed under: 20th Century,Book Reviews,CanLit Challenge — Ibis at 12:55 pm on Friday, September 24, 2010

Book 38, Tempest-Tost (1951) – Robertson Davies
This is the first novel of Robertson Davies, set in the fictional city of Salterton (a stand-in for Kingston, Ontario). In this comedy of manners, various characters come together to put on a Little Theatre production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest but some have ulterior motives and other agendas on their minds.

Other useful links:
the Wikipedia entry for Robertson Davies

My thoughts:
Reviewing this book on its own merits is a bit difficult. Throughout the entire reading experience, I couldn’t help but evaluate it with Davies’ later works in mind, as the precursor of the Deptford and Cornish trilogies (I have yet to read either of the Toronto trilogy books). That’s always a danger when you get familiar with an author and their “mature”* work and then go back to read the early stuff.

Looking at it in isolation, I would say it was an enjoyable read with quirky characters and some description of Canadian life in a small Ontario city. There were a few rather humourous episodes and Davies’ wit was to the fore a number of times. This was not a book of either major tragedy or drama (the worst thing that happens, happens to a horse, though there was a point where the novel could have turned very grim indeed), just a glimpse into a community over the course of a couple of months.

Looking at it as the prelude to the rest of Davies’ novels, one can certainly pick out similarities to and differences from the latter. For example, it had the exposition of characters that is so intrinsic to Fifth Business and World of Wonders, but not to the same degree. It had a short description of Hector’s background and childhood that was reminiscent of the more thorough treatment given to Francis Cornish in What’s Bred in the Bone. From the prominent place of allusion in the Robertson Davies novels I’ve read (e.g. Paracelsus in Rebel Angels and Arthurian myth in The Lyre of Orpheus), I was expecting a similar exploration of The Tempest, but didn’t get it. The play itself hardly figured at all.

*It seems a bit odd to characterise anything produced by Davies as anything other than mature–was he ever a young man??

If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino
Filed under: 20th Century,Book Reviews,Infinite TBR — Ibis at 7:20 pm on Saturday, September 11, 2010

From the back cover:
If on a winter’s night a traveler turns out to be not one novel but ten, each with a different plot, style, ambiance, and author, and each interrupted at a moment of suspense. Together they form a labyrinth of literatures, known and unknown, alive and extinct, through which two readers, a male and a female, pursue both the story lines that intrigue them and one another. They are the true heroes of the novel, for what would writing be without readers?”

My thoughts:
In this metafictional masterpiece, Italo Calvino draws the reader (that’s you) into a bizarre novel that folds in on itself, lying on the page but beyond it. It is a communication between the author and the reader—mediated by the publisher, by the translator, by academics, by government censors, by political movements, by the other reader, and finally by the author and the reader themselves. It is the ultimate exercise in literary self-reflection.

I marvelled continually at Calvino’s genius and there were several passages I loved (including the famous opening chapter in which he anatomises the process of choosing one book to read among the thousands contained in a bookstore). I also had a feeling of discomfort (I don’t know any other way to label it), that is familiar from other Cold War period novels (I’m not sure that the cause has anything to do with the Cold War itself, it’s just a convenient shorthand for the post-WWII to the mid-eighties), like Next Episode and Pale Fire (and even The Fire-Dwellers and St. Urbain’s Horseman). Perhaps I’ll figure out exactly what that is at some point.

Though there is some humour here (mostly of the absurdist variety), this is no light-hearted puzzle. It’s a puzzle that requires considerable concentration and focus to absorb, and time to contemplate it afterward.

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John LeCarré
Filed under: 20th Century,Book Reviews,Infinite TBR — Ibis at 8:43 pm on Tuesday, August 10, 2010

From the back cover:
“In this classic, John le Carré’s third novel and the first to earn him international acclaim, he created a world unlike any previously experienced in suspense fiction. With unsurpassed knowledge culled from his years in British Intelligence, le Carré brings to light the shadowy dealings of international espionage in the tale of a British agent who longs to end his career but undertakes one final, bone-chilling assignment.

When the last agent under his command is killed and Alec Leamas is called back to London, he hopes to come in from the cold for good. His spymaster, Control, however, has other plans. Determined to bring down the head of East German Intelligence and topple his organization, Control once more sends Leamas into the fray—this time to play the part of the dishonoured spy and lure the enemy to his ultimate defeat.”

My thoughts:
On the face of it, one might suppose this novel is merely an outdated relic of a bygone era, a piece of genre fiction whose value at the time of publication might have been judged solely by how entertaining it was. However, this novel deserves its reputation as a classic of the twentieth century, offering much more insight than a typical spy story. It does have great spy novel elements too: plots and stratagems that take the reader by surprise, dark “action” scenes behind enemy lines, and a beautiful young love interest for the protagonist. But its strength as a novel lies in its exposition of the ubiquity of immorality in the fight no matter what the ultimate principles might be. In this particular instance, the fight is the Cold War, but it could just as easily be “the War on Terror” or what have you. They say that we on this side are fighting for good (i.e. human rights, anti-terrorism, freedom, democracy), and yet those very principles are being sacrificed with secret prisons, torture, and putting child soldiers on trial. Things haven’t changed much since this book was written, sadly.

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