In reading some of the description of Gertrude Stein’s life, and how she came to be an art patron—a friend to artists, an owner of their work, a facilitator of relationships—I was impressed by how intimate and simple were the lives of now famous artists, how vivid the memory. One artist spreads news of the work of another artist, Pissarro talking with others about Cezanne; or one gallerist, Vollard, introducing Cezanne, Daumier, Manet, Renoirs, and Gauguin to those who might appreciate them.
What can one fruitfully add to the title, a title which accurately and ably, without undue fuss or bother, describes the book’s contents? Well, first one can expand upon it slightly. The plays in question areIvanov, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. So, all are what one can call Chekhov’s mature theatrical works.
This is a genuine novel—it allows the writer to introduce us to people we would not know otherwise, and we see them struggle for love and forgiveness, for money and stability. The writer creates a vision of community that is both redemptive and convincing (I must say, it brought tears to my eyes several times: but thinking of it now, I am a bit wary of that effect). Rather than a comedy of remarriage, it is a drama of remarriage, showing the tests people must go through to know, accept, and love each other.
John Cheever is a wonderful writer, and his novel The Wapshot Scandal contains observed life and imagined adventure, bringing together ancient rituals and bourgeois affections and habits, private desires and deceptions and public reputations, romance called to reconcile a reality that resists, supernatural suspicions that subvert reason, and mournful, surprisingly poetic interrogations, as Cheever examines family and communal life. The novel does not contain stories that offer easy comfort, though their intimate cruelty and sensual pleasure and melancholy do entertain.
It is a remarkable portrait of social misunderstanding, one that is so clear it illuminates current, similar but subtler suspicion of odd individuals in our own world. The money that Marner makes becomes important to him—obvious reward for his work. He is transformed by his isolation, his work, his money, his (often inhuman or at least unsocial) concerns: achieving independence but a spiritual withering.
It is hard to reconcile daily life and profound thought sometimes, but fiction gives us the semblance of both, reconciled. In Great Expectations, we see how shallow hopes give way to mature duties, friendship, love, and wisdom, when the little poor boy Pip gets a benefactor and a trip to London—he assumes Miss Havisham is his benefactor.
The Bostonians, a relatively early HJ novel, was published in book form in 1886. (It was originally serialized — as common in the Victorian era — in a magazine over 1885-86.) HJ was born in New York City, but took up residence in England, and had not been to the USA since about 1880. (He did not re-visit the USA until 1905.) With all the detailed descriptions of Boston, New York City, and Cape Cod, I would say that the work is a kind of tour de force, considering how many years HJ had been removed from the locales of the story. One feels very present in the 19th-century streets and landscapes that he writes about.
If you’re like me, you’ll want to read everything that Hammett has written, but be warned that this is not literature, simply because language doesn’t set out to do everything. Then again, screen stories like these (and The Third Man by Graham Greene is another example) are an interesting genre, primarily for what they might reveal about the writer.
The theme that unknown and uncontrollable forces beyond and within oneself determine one’s fate is typical of the “naturalist” school of writers. Among the famous naturalist writers are Emile Zola, Thomas Hardy and Jack London, who show people as biological entities who respond to environmental forces and internal stresses that they do not fully understand and cannot control. O’Hara differs from these earlier naturalist novelists in that he lacks their social conscience, and focuses upon the wealthy, rather than the poor, but his “naturalism” is demonstrated by his blunt style and frank, brutal depiction of human interactions.
It is hard to believe that Dickens was not thinking of Sterne’s novel when he began his own. Even the tie-in with the future fate of the main character is similar: Tristram Shandy laments that if his parents had considered how much depended upon their attentiveness to their task, at the moment of his conception, his life would have turned out much better.