Archive for April, 2009

The Quiet American is a vibrant novel about love, obsession, murder, redemption, politics, and war. Graham Green was an English writer and the protagonist (Thomas Fowler) is naturally English. The Quiet American was not originally well received in the US because it was perceived as demonizing the American presence in Vietnam. But today it is recognized for beautiful prose and different approach to structure than is typical of a novel.

The structure of the Quiet American is fascinating because it operates like a flashback, except that the majority of the novel is a flashback. Thus the present experiences are like a flashpresent if there were a term for this structure; the tense flashes from the past into the present rather than from the present into the past. This structure is fascinating because the audience already knows the plot, they know Pyle has been murdered, and it quickly becomes clear who is responsible for his death. We even know the motivation, but Graham has used his structure of time and setting in such a way that it feels confessionary.

The entire novel is told through Fowler’s memory. This technique is intriguing partially because fiction-writing books always warn developing writers to use the flashback sparingly. The feeling of movement is created by Greene’s usage of short sections that each comprises a memory. While the time of the novel elapses over a couple of years it feels like Fowlers’s musings occur in a single evening.

Each section is a complete scene. Either the cast of characters or the setting changed entirely in each section. On a structural level this helps keep the pace moving quickly, but it also gives a rich landscape for the novel. By giving us so many memories we witness an apartment, a government facility, a spiritual church, a rice patty, a watchtower, the home of a Vietnamese family, a city street, a restaurant, a scene of mass death, bombings, a club, an opium den, and a brothel (I may have forgotten a couple of places). This myriad of settings gives a realistic glimpse of the life of an expatriate during the Vietnam War.

The only scene that was repeated was the first and second to last chapters in which Pyle and Phuong meet outside his room the night of Pyle’s death. Even though this scene is repeated it is told differently so that it is more of a reminder of the first chapter than a repeat, and it is only a small section of the first chapter. The repetition of this section could mean that Phuong and their relationship is the most important part of the story for Fowler. This statement does not indicate that this novel is a love story; Fowler’s obsession with Phuong might be better categorized as a concern for his loss of stature and pride, and a fight over a woman who he considered as a possession rather than as a human he had deep sentimental connection with. But that is really for the reader to decide.

I highly recomend taking the time to read this beautifully written novel!

Graham Green as told by Wikipedia

Tortilla Flat was among Steinbeck’s first published novels. He attempts to mimic the Arthurian legend of the nights of the round table in the spirit of the Paisano population of Monterey Bay, California. After the novel was published Steinbeck was horrified that readers looked down upon the characters who he had meant to be seen as heroic in a simple fashion; Steinbeck stated, “I wrote these stories because they were true stories and I liked them. But literary slummers have taken these people up with the vulgarity of duchesses who are amused and sorry for a peasantry. These stories are out, and I cannot recall them. But I shall never again subject to the vulgar touch of the decent these good people of laughter and kindness, of honest lusts and direct eyes, of courtesy beyond politeness.” Steinbeck was able to see the good in humanity, even when it was disguised behind alcoholism, thievery, violence, and lust.

Steinbeck uses archaic language like “dost thou and hast thou” to emphasize the Arthurian feel. Unfortunately this technique was counter productive for me. Each time I read a comment like this, it pulled me out of the story. I’m not sure if this dialect was still used in the early twentieth century, but it feels out of context, and unnatural coming from these men who steal food and wine, and whose base concerns are keeping gallons of whine in the house. While they do many good deeds for the community, there is always an underlying greed that gets in the way of the reader recognizing their humanitarian efforts. Only Danny, the main character who represents King Arthur, can come close to being considered selfless, because he offers his home to anyone in need and hardly bothers to wake when he’s told his friends have burned down his second home.

Additionally there were several references to the “miserly Jew” and I wonder if Steinbeck was anti-Semitic, or if this was merely a cliche concept that he was portraying. Overall the book was a decent and quick read.

The English Translation, “Philosopher or Dog?,” was originally written in Portuguese under the title “Quincas Borbas.” This Portuguese title is perhaps more applicable to the narrative; at the least it does not lead the reader to believe the dog is in any way a philosopher, nor does it suggest that the dog plays a vital role in the novel. The dog’s name is Quincas Borbas, named after it’s original owner Quincas Borbas who was a philosopher. I can only speculate that the English translation title was a simple question in the translator’s mind: did the original title, Quincas Borbas, refer to the philosopher or the dog? Don’t make the same mistake I did, looking for the dog to have any importance in the novel whatsoever. It was a character that was really inconsequential to the narrative.

Although this novel was written more than a hundred years ago, the prose is fresh and interesting. The narrator is occasionally intrusive, and the point of view changes often. This is a fabulous technique because it allows the reader to see differing viewpoints. For example, the reader knows that Rubaio is in love with the beautiful, sophisticated (and married) Sophia, but we might have read the entire novel believing it was mutual if Rubiao’s voice had spoken to us alone. This technique allows the reader to watch the protagonist’s mental decline through the vision of his social climbing leach-like friends.

De Assis did a fabulous job displaying love in the fashion they would have found enchanting in “Love an the Time of Cholera.” His use of chapter breaks is interesting, and I might reread this novel at some point to try to understand what de Assis was attempting. Sometimes a day or several months elapse between chapters, but sometimes they break up a scene. And finally, the end was odd. After also having read Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” recently, I’m not sure what to make of the ending of this novel. At the same time, I don’t want to give any spoilers. If you love literature, then I recommend reading Philosopher or Dog?. He is considered one of the greatest classic writers in Brazil [thanks Melissa, for noting my mistake in writing Portugal], and his work is assigned for almost every schoolchild. Unfortunately, not all of his work has been translated into English.

Purdue’s link about de Assis

NYT Article on de Assis