Miss Lonelyhearts – Nathanael West

Book #641
Reviewer: Beth’s List Love (first published July 2, 2012)

Miss Lonelyhearts

Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts is a short, bleak book, and while I can appreciate aspects of its art, I’m glad to be away from it and on to other things. I read Day of the Locust in high school and have some recollection of it being bleak as well, but somehow it felt less so. The introduction to the edition of Miss Lonelyhearts that I listened to compared the two and argued the atmosphere of each reflected the geography of the setting–with Miss Lonelyhearts somewhat claustrophobic and Day of the Locust more like arid desert. If so, then I think I prefer my depressing experiences to be out in the air and under the sky.

Here are my reflections on the book, and some comparisons with other works I’ve recently read.

Miss Lonelyhearts is the tale of a male advice columnist in Depression Era New York City. Though the column is intended to be fluff, and is seen as such by the editor to whom Lonelyhearts reports, for the people who write seeking advice, it is serious. The columnist finds himself overwhelmed by the many versions of tragedy that he must respond to, becomes depressed, and turns, on one hand, to drink, fights, and affairs, and on the other to a Christianity he deeply believes in, but which is mocked by those around him. Lonelyhearts himself is an ethicist’s nightmare, violating boundaries with those who write to him for advice. This novel paints a bleak picture of Depression Era New York, and does so in crisp clear language. Little empathy is generated for the protagonist, and there is no hopeful vision of a functional alternative to either the ineffective religious fervor or the empty hedonism portrayed.

It is hard not to see parallels to The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing [reviewed here]. Both portray protagonists who are affected by the bleak letters to advice columns, both present unrewarding sexual relationships as the norm, and neither offer much hope to counteract the critiques of the societies they portray. On the other hand, stylistically they are vastly different. Nathanael West‘s prose is spare, and he does little to deepen his characters or create emotional connection to them. Doris Lessing, by contrast, builds a rich, sometimes even lush, world, lingering over details and creating both beauty and depth, despite the similarly pessimistic overall viewpoint. Lessing encourages the reader to engage deeply with her themes, whereas there is something almost aggressive, and therefore off-putting, in West’s approach to the reader. It is not simply the spare masculinity in the style of West that has this effect, since Ernest Hemingway‘s prose has those qualities, and yet, at least for me, Hemingway uses the style to create profound connection and meaning.

Many appear to find this book brilliant and darkly funny, but I came away cold. If you want dark and funny, I’d go with Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger. He provides an angry, funny critique of a society, but builds firm connections to characters, and provides a sense of hope that makes for a much more enjoyable experience.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars


Regeneration – Pat Barker

BOOK #170
Reviewer: Beth’s List Love (review previously published February 5, 2014)

RegenerationThe books in this trilogy have received awards and huge critical acclaim, but I was having trouble getting excited about starting them.

Once again I have learned that I irrationally fear historical fiction, but love it once I begin to read. This book was particularly interesting to me as a psychologist and faculty member teaching psychology. I am far from psychoanalytic in orientation, but this novel does a marvelous job of illustrating how some of the techniques of psychoanalysis can be tremendously useful in understanding psychological phenomena.

The novel also beautifully illustrates the many potential psychiatric manifestations of war trauma. It is written with tremendous compassion for the men whose lives it portrays, soldiers suffering shell shock in the first world war and the doctors treating them. This was a very moving account of the impact of combat in WWI on both the men at the front and those who treated them after the psychologically traumatic events they lived through. It’s based on real people and real events.

It is beautifully written, combining some of the real poetry written by soldiers in their time convalescing in a military psychiatric hospital with the author’s own equally well-crafted prose. This novel, which is the first of the trilogy, explores questions about the morality of war, about the ways in which the military and political aims of those safe and in power are played out at great cost by those who actually do the fighting, about the morality of returning psychologically traumatized individuals to relative mental health only to send them back into the trauma.

It juxtaposes two very different ways of treating conversion symptoms which translate conflicts about returning to combat into debilitating physical symptoms, and provides excellent examples of psychodynamic psychotherapy complete with analysis of dreams. I used it to teach my personality theories course the day I started reading it, because it was so perfect for illustrating some of what I was teaching about.

I am really looking forward to the rest of the series! 5 out of 5 stars.

Cranford – Elizabeth Gaskell

Book # 892
Reviewer: Beth’s List Love (first published July 23, 2012)

CranfordIn the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women. If a married couple comes to settle in the town, somehow the gentleman disappears; he is either fairly frightened to death by being the only man in the Cranford evening parties, or he is accounted for by being with his regiment, his ship, or closely engaged in business all the week in the great neighbouring commercial town of Drumble, distant only twenty miles on a railroad. In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not at Cranford. What could they do if they were there? The surgeon has his round of thirty miles, and sleeps at Cranford; but every man cannot be a surgeon. For keeping the trim gardens full of choice flowers without a weed to speck them; for frightening away little boys who look wistfully at the said flowers through the railings; for rushing out at the geese that occasionally venture in to the gardens if the gates are left open; for deciding all questions of literature and politics without troubling themselves with unnecessary reasons or arguments; for obtaining clear and correct knowledge of everyone’s affairs in the parish; for keeping their neat maid-servants in admirable order; for kindness (somewhat dictatorial) to the poor, and real tender good offices to each other whenever they are in distress, the ladies of Cranford are quite sufficient.

So begins Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. This opening nicely foreshadows what is to come, as Gaskell lightly and gently describes the country life of the women, and occasional men, in this small English town. It quickly emerges that the ladies of Cranford are nearly all in tight to dire financial straights, and while they are ever concerned about living in properly genteel ways, they also make aristocratic virtues of the extensive lengths to which they must go to economize.

After this promising opening passage, I briefly rolled my eyes and thought, “Really, another 19th century novel of manners?” But then I came to appreciate the features that make this novel unique, and began to agree with its place in all editions of the 1001 Books list. This is a novel that deals with social class in gentle and observant ways, which acknowledges the gossip and small town rivalries that are inevitable in a social microcosm, but which also celebrates a tremendous spirit of basic human kindness that does the ladies of Cranford proud.

There is a section toward the end of the book in which a bank fails, and the behavior of one of the ladies involved and victimized by the failure is a lesson in ethics from which we could only wish that modern bankers and financiers would learn. I came to love this little book, after my initial skepticism, and am glad for my general commitment to seeing (at least well-reviewed) books through to their conclusions.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The Man Who Loved Children – Christina Stead

Book #599
Reviewer: Beth’s List Love (first published February 21, 2012)

The Man Who Loved ChildrenSam and Henny Pollit have too many children, too little money, and too much loathing for each other. As Sam uses the children’s adoration to feed his own voracious ego, Henny watches in bleak despair, knowing the bitter reality that lies just below his mad visions. A chilling novel of family life, the relations between parents and children, husbands and wives, The Man Who Loved Children, is acknowledged as a contemporary classic.

This novel is the dysfunctional family writ large. Dad is a civil servant naturalist with superficially benevolent ideas about the world and mankind, but with a heavy dose of sexism, a leaning toward eugenics, a disdain for literature, and most importantly a massive dose of narcissism hidden beneath the superficial shell. He looks initially like a fun dad, ring-master of “family fun day” on Sundays, and seemingly the younger kids enjoy him, but he contributes to the impoverishment of the family, belittles the children in various ways (including speaking a nauseating baby-talk to them), and has a major war going on with their mother.

“Mothering” (a nickname he coined, that she hates) is a former heiress who is less self-involved than she appears in some ways, but who speaks hatefully to the kids, especially the eldest who is a step-daughter, spends much of the time withdrawn or absent, and seems incapable of a kind word about anyone.

The eldest daughter Louie is the child who gets the most attention in the novel, but I had a soft spot for Ernie, the eldest boy, who is the only one in the family with financial sense. We watch the family unravel from a marginally middle-class existence in Georgetown to abject poverty and emotional chaos in Annapolis after the father becomes unemployed. The emotional toll of family life on the kids, particularly Louie and Ernie, gets clearer and clearer and leads them to desperate acts.

I found this an oddly enjoyable, but nonetheless bleak, read. My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Faces in the Water – Janet Frame

Book #447

Reviewer: Beth’s List Love (first published April 3, 2012)

FITWJanet Frame’s Faces in the Water describes the experiences of a young woman hospitalized for most of 8 years in the psychiatric hospitals of New Zealand in the 1950s. Treatment seemed to have been largely a matter of ECT (or EST as it was called in the book) with apparently little anesthetic, or lobotomy. Patients lived in their own mini-society with its own rituals and routines, with little human contact other than that of burned-out ward nurses and brief exchanges with a few fairly helpless doctors. Frame can speak realistically of this world, as she herself was incorrectly diagnosed as schizophrenic and hospitalized for years.

While the world she portrays is a bleak one, Frame’s novel is a beautiful work of fiction.  Here is her opening sentence:

They have said that we owe allegiance to Safety, that he is our Red Cross who will provide us with the ointment and bandages for our wounds and remove the foreign ideas the glass beads of fantasy the bent hairpins of unreason embedded in our minds.

In the prose we see both the madness that led to protagonist Estina Mavet’s hospitalization, but also the intelligence and insight that indicate how much is lost by her being trapped there. From her first hospitalization, Estina is eventually released into her sister’s care, but soon finds herself a patient at another hospital in another part of the country. In her description of a cheery demonstration unit for the least troubled patients which provides a bright facade hiding a darker warren of disturbing wards for the more symptomatic and chronic patients, I felt a horrible echo of the descriptions I have recently been reading of the public and secret sides of Nazi internment camps.

When Estina finds herself reassigned to one of the less public units, she finds that she is left with little to call her own, dressed in hospital garb that may or may not even fit, and denied most personal possessions. She was a teacher before her hospitalization, and one item she does manage to keep is a volume of Shakespeare.

I seldom read my book yet it became more and more dilapidated physically, with pictures falling out and pages unleaving as if an unknown person were devoting time to studying it. The evidence of secret reading gave me a feeling of gratitude. It seemed as if the book understood how things were and agreed to be company for me and to breathe, even without my opening it, an overwhelming dignity of riches; but because, after all, the first passion of books is to be read, it had decided to read itself; which explained the gradual falling out of the pages.

She then goes on to describe moments when Shakespeare’s words come to her mind as she watches the situation of the patients around her. Estina travels back and forth between two hospitals and the cultures of the different wards within each hospital, terrified of the only treatments she can be offered, and often hopeless about the possibility of returning to the outside world.

I will leave you to discover where the journey ultimately takes her, but I will say that bleak as the vision of mid 20th century mental health care is in this tale, the vision of human courage and emotional depth conveyed in this novel is equally inspiring.