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Thursday, January 13, 2005


The Line of Beauty

Alan Hollinghurst's new novel The Line of Beauty (Bloomsbury, 438 pp., $24.95)is a good read. It was reviewed in great detail by The New Republic Online
The issue date was December 13, 2004. Click on the link below.

My thoughts about the novel: The author is obviously a great fan (as are lots of us) of the great novelist Henry James. Hollinghurt's admiration is refected not just in internal references to James, but also in the tone and style of the novel. Hollinghurt makes a telling and somewhat unflattering comparison of British upperclass society in the mid 20th-century with James' 19th Century descriptions of the same society. The principal difference is not just in the loss of manners and morals, but in the moral and social decline of the aristocracy itself. In the 100 years between Hollinghurst's society and James', British aristocracy has lost touch with its historical roots in dignity, privilege, government, and most of all, the difficulty of access to a title. Ancient inherited titles have been replaced with titles with less than a century of existence. The most ancient in The Line of Beauty dates only from the late 19th century and the most recent are created as we watch. Most titles have been purchased by political contributions or awarded for political service. None (at least in the characters we meet in The Line of Beauty) was earned through artistic, scientific, or military service. The overall tone of the British (political) upperclass is crass, vulgar, and degenerate: druggies, philanderers, adulterers, drunks, wanton homosexuals, etc. All in all Hollinghurt's upper crust is a far cry from James'.

Aside from the social aspects of the novel, it captures the excesses of the 1970s and 1980s exactly. Reading the book gives the reader a sense of how life was changed for gay men (and those they lived among) during the beginnings and the disaster of the Aids epidemic.

Click below to order the book.

Monday, January 10, 2005


Agent Oranje

The Face Behind the Window
by Adriana J. de Roos
(Electric eBook Publishing, http://www.electricebookpublishing.com, 139 Pages)

In May of 1940 when the German Nazi regime invaded Holland, the Dutch queen Wilhelmina and her government escaped to London and the rest of the Dutch royal family, the house of Orange (spelled ‘oranje’ in Dutch) moved to Canada. The epic story of the people of Holland they left behind, and their struggle against the tyranny of the German occupation is one of the most enduring stories of courage to come out of World War II. It is on this historical canvas that author Adriana de Roos paints her poignant story of a young girl caught up in the danger, intrigue, and tragedy of enemy occupation and the Dutch Resistance movement.

The story is told in first-person narrative by the fictional protagonist Saskia Verlaan, and one can not escape the knowledge that young Saskia is almost exactly the same age as another young Dutch girl, Anne Frank, whose life had an even more tragic outcome from the Nazi occupation than Saskia Verlaan’s.

Ms. De Roos tells a compelling story even if her writing exhibits a somewhat clumsy style that would certainly have been solved by more competent editing. The problems are primarily in the attempt to translate a colloquial form of Dutch into a comparable form of colloquial English. The results are clunky at best. In particular the English renderings often involve expressions that were not common in English until well past the period in question. For instance, the statement that someone had been “brainwashed,” an expression not introduced into English until the Korean War in the 1950s. Another was the term “big time,” a term of very recent origin, as in “. . . Mom and Dad were overacting. Big Time.” Another jarring choice was the nickname “Buck” given to a Nazi officer. Although “Buck” may accurately translate a common Dutch nickname, it’s connotations in English conjure up an image completely inconsistent with the nasty German in the story.

These deficiencies of style, however are not sufficient to take away the power of the narrative. The reviewer was a child at the same time as the events that take place in the story and therefore was a contemporary of the narrator. Ms. de Roos’ description of the bucolic land of windmills, tulips, green fields, canals, and Holsteins matches exactly his childhood images of the Dutch landscape. The reviewer remembers well the horror he felt as a child in Texas imagining the Dutch boys with their trousers of blue and Dutch girls in wooden shoes being held hostage by the Nazis. It is exactly this horror, described so well by Ms. de Roos, taking place as it does in such a pretty setting, that jolts him back to his own childhood memories of the war.

The author’s age however indicates that she was not born until after the time during which her story takes place. Although she spent her childhood during a time in which her native country was still deeply traumatized by the war, there are some clues that the events she describes were not drawn from first-person experiences. One gets the impression that the author’s impressions were made during a time of reconciliation after the war, when the people of Holland wanted very much to return to social stability and to put the bitterness, anger, and hostility of war behind them. For instance, the Verlaan farm was adjacent to the German border and Saskia from time to time tells us of seeing a German woman plowing the field on the other side of the border. Saskia seems to have no anger or hostility at all towards the woman in whose name and the soil she tills the Nazis have invaded Holland. Such a benign attitude might be understandable if Saskia had let the reader know that she knew that her neighbors on the German side of the border were also suffering from lack of food and an oppressive government like the Dutch, but we are given no such information–although it was most likely true at the time. Instead, the only thought Saskia shares with us is once, when seeing that the woman has left her field, she speculates that it must mean that it is lunchtime! That seeing the citizen of an enemy country serves only as a timepiece is somewhat remarkable unless the author had grown up during a later time when reconciliation with the former enemy across the border was more important than continued hostility and anger.

Another example concerns the rehabilitation of a German sympathizer, a member of the hated NSM–the National Socialistic Movement–the Dutch equivalent of the German Nazi party. This particular man had betrayed his countrymen not once but twice: the second time after repenting of the first, and yet before the reader can focus his anger on the man’s self-serving duplicity, the author quickly makes him an object of pity, portraying him bare-foot, humiliated, and the victim of his own greed and opportunism. Surely this attitude toward an enemy sympathizer who had endangered his neighbors and been the cause of their deportation and death could not have represented the attitude during the time of his evil, but rather a time afterward when such forgiveness was required by a return to a normal life in a country ravaged by war. As a reader, I would have liked to have been allowed to feel more thoroughly the anger engendered by the telling of the story rather than have it yanked away so abruptly. Why include evil characters and their acts in a story if not to provoke a response to evil in the reader? Why tell a story if a genuine emotional response is not allowed? Forgiveness is of course necessary in the long run, but not before one has been convinced that doing evil is wicked. Only then is repentance and forgiveness in order.

These criticisms of The Face Behind the Window are not meant to detract from the importance and power of the story, however, but rather to provide illumination of the time in which the story takes place. The Face Behind the Window is indeed an important book in that it reminds us again how war effects not just those who serve in uniform, but all those caught up in its path. No one can adequately understand the dynamics of the Second World War without a knowledge of the terrible violence done to the people of Holland and the other nations overrun by the Nazis. Ms. de Roos’ book makes an important contribution to telling the story of the war. I recommend it highly. Order it from Amazon.com by clicking on the link below.

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