The Cider House Rules — John Irving

I go back and forth about John Irving, sometimes marveling at him, as I did through much of The World According to Garp and, now, The Cider House Rules, and sometimes rolling my eyes, as I did at A Prayer For Owen Meany. He gets at the multifaceted aspects of life and somehow contains a strong, uncertain moral bent without (usually) sermonizing. He has a tendency to delve into character background and explanation at the expense of action, giving overly elaborate details about characters who remain flat anyway. Yet his gift for keeping forward moment despite any obstacles from his own verbosity is amazing, as is his almost Henry James-esque ability to nail an idea, as he does when he writes, “Society is so complex that even Heart’s Haven had a wrong part to it.”

The Cider House Rules moves seamlessly between the narrative action and overarching generalizations with more skill than a 19th Century novel and so much dexterity that they don’t seem unnatural or forced, as such abstractions or general life lessons often can—in, for example, The Spies of Warsaw. Rarely does the novel devolve into Steinbeck-land moralism and sentimentality, as when Wilbur Larch argues that Homer has a duty to help those who cannot help themselves—in this case by performing abortions. Granted, the argument has some logical fallacies for careful readers to see, but it’s nonetheless jarring in a book that’s otherwise carefully evenhanded. Problems exist, such as the aforementioned biographies of minor characters, and Irving is more a fan of the sledge hammer than chisel. Perhaps this rambunctiousness is the subject of some attacks against him: Irving doesn’t have the cool and cutting quality that seems in vogue among many critics today, the aesthetic preference for a single sentence summary of a person rather than paragraphs of background designed to bring a character to the foreground. But whatever faults John Irving has, failing to live is seldom one: his best characters usually have the differentiated roundness that brings them alive. James Wood thinks not: in a recent post, he said:

The review I just wrote about Joseph O’Neill’s superb novel,”Netherland,” in “The New Yorker,” praises the novel both for its deep and wise interest in life and lives, and for its high degree of artifice and style. That doubleness is entirely in keeping with my attacks on people like Tom Wolfe, John Irving, the more formulaic elements of John Updike, and so on.

(Link added by me).

The Cider House Rules might not have the lifeness Wood prefers, but it has the engaging quality I love and too infrequently find. It had long been sitting on my bookshelf, waiting to be read, and so I decided to try it. As this introduction shows, I liked it more than not, even if some parts revealed too heavy a hand and showed, I think, what Wood meant. Still, the whole—with Wilbur and Homer Larch at the center of a novel about the discovery of what it means to assume the terrible weight of responsibility while still laughing at the lunacy of the world—carries any weaknesses along with it in a flood, as Irving’s best novels do. They forge their own eccentric morality and philosophy, but though I think of them often I can’t immediately define those traits that I can feel. One day, maybe, but one mark of a good novelist is, I think, the inability to corral all their themes and ideas without a great deal of study, and by that standard, too, Irving succeeds.

The Spies of Warsaw — Alan Furst

The Spies of Warsaw suffers, probably mortally, from the inherent deficiency of historical fiction that depends on an outcome that has already been decided—and therefore none of the characters can stop or change it. In this novel, Mercier, a French military attaché in pre-World War II Warsaw whose adventures lead him, with the creeping horror of a science fiction protagonist discovering that aliens inhabit the bodies of his friends, toward the startling revelation that Germany intends to attack France through the Ardennes forest. In retrospect, of course, we know this, making the constant references to the mystery—”Just precisely what forest were the Germans thinking about?” (85), “Still, it was—oh, not exactly dangerous, France wasn’t at war with Germany […]” (135), ” ‘Newspapers on the continent explain every day why there won’t be war. And I assure you there will be, unless the right people determine to stop it.’ ‘I can only hope this meeting is a step in the right direction,’ Mercier said. ‘We shall see.’ ” (225)—grow old with repetition and obviousness. Dramatic irony ends too soon, and the dramatic irritation begins. Invented worlds of fantasy, or the equally fanciful and usually poorly written worlds of Tom Clancy, let us imagine that single individuals can control global destinies, but we don’t have this luxury to prevent or alter the course of World War II in a world that remain in the bounds of history.

For a historical novel to work, it needs to focus on the individuals or on how something came to be. If it relies on a well-known event to generate tension without focusing on how that event touches the people involved, we know the fundamental outcome and that it cannot be changed. The Spies of Warsaw doesn’t transcend its focus on the pre-war atmosphere, and we know the efforts of Mercier to raise the alarm in France have to fail. Sure, a perfunctory romance blooms from nowhere and everywhere between Mercier and Anna, and it happens with as little surprise as the invasion of Poland, but nonetheless tries to generate authentic feeling from too small a base; I’d take the James Bond, anti-Romantic mode of spy romance, in which the characters reflect the cold of international politics instead of acting as counterpoints. I could imagine a great novel with love as that alternative, but The Spies of Warsaw isn’t it.

That isn’t to say The Spies of Warsaw is unredeemed: the beginning and end move with swiftness the middle lacks, and bits of description are wonderful in their accuracy: “From some distant century, an ancient waiter in a swallowtail coat moved toward them, parchment face lit by a beatific smile, parchment hands holding a silver tray, which trembled slightly, bearing two glasses of champagne” (50). The word “ancient” might be overkill, but otherwise the subtle resonance between the elegant but decrepit waiter and the horror of Europe being overtaken by the barbaric young who don’t understand the lessons of past wars is strong, and the theme is well-developed. Others aren’t so carefully done, and when Mercier says, “You work for people, madame, and I work for people. Maybe they’re not so different, the people we work for” (165), the long shadow of John le Carré falls across another spy thriller that could be improved by dropping the now-obvious implication that the methods of the free West are similar to those employed by its authoritarian enemies—a subject that could make a great paper for college sophomores but is by now a standard trope of the spy novel. Whether the equivalent between Western and authoritarian regimes is an intentional or subconscious allusion to current events in Abu Ghraib and other black sites I don’t know, but the point has been made so many times elsewhere that to have it so bluntly reiterated is mere repetition, both from other books to The Spies of Warsaw and within it: “None of us are saints, my friends; we all watch each other, sooner or later” (181).

Elsewhere, the quiet dread and pathos of a letter from Jews elicits this: “Mercier read it more than once, thought about answering the letter, then realized, a sadder thing than the letter itself, that there was nothing to be said” (117). The alliteration of the “t” sound doesn’t give the sentence the musicality it could otherwise have, but the sentiment of a futile desire for decency is nonetheless powerful. Boring parties are well-described, especially given the stultifying rules so often governing them. The spying machinations are clever enough to be worth following but not so clever as to be cartoonish. Somewhere in Alan Furst there is, I think, a better novel gestating, and I hope one day to see it. Night Soldiers showed potential, but I fear that potential has yet to be fulfilled, and I can only hope it will be even as I suspect it won’t.

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