Three Little Penguins Sitting in a Row (three reviews)

You remember those boring orange (and sometimes red, or purple, or blue, or green, or yellow) Penguin paperbacks that they stopped putting out about 50 years ago?  Well, I have something over 400 of them, and every once in a while, I think that I should read them all.  (I have actually read relatively few, and often don’t remember which ones I have read)

Of course, this will never happen.  And some of the Penguins (especially the non-fictions – like several fat volumes on Chinese art, just to give one example) are not ready for prime time (21st century style0 but others are.

So, I decided to read some, and I picked three rather short volumes.  Here they are:

E.M. Forster’s “Howard’s End”, first published in 1910.  The orphaned Schegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, meet the Wilcox family on a vacation, and after Helen’s sudden engagement to young Paul Wilcox ends in equally sudden disaster, cannot conceive that they will become neighbors, that Mrs. Wilcox is sick and about to die, and that Margaret will wind up the new Mrs. Wilcox, or how much of their future lives will revolve on the Wilcox country house, Howard’s End.  Each of these families is eccentric in their own way, as is that lost young, would be intellectual, Leonard Bast and his wife of dubious background, both of whom are key to this saga  But it’s more than a story of families, it’s a tale of social classes, of wealth and poverty, in turn of the century England.  The Wilcox family is business class, the Schlegels can live on money previously earned, Bast is stuck in poverty, and class differences control so much thought.  The book moves right along, the characters are continuously developed, nothing too unexpected happens, the books maintains an even rhythm.  Then, towards the end, tensions rise in unanticipated ways, emotions begin to govern, and every comes together in a beautifully written, if unanticipated and horrific, perfect train wreck, tearing everyone’s world apart, before everything settles down again just where the conversation started, at Howard’s End.  Highly recommended.

From “Howard’s End” and England, I went to France, to read Colette’s “Cheri and The Last of Cheri”, two short novels (one from 1920 and one from 1926, published together by Penguin.  I must say that “Cheri” left me cold – Cheri is a beautiful man/boy of 19 (I always assumed he was a girl) who takes up with Lea, a 493year old friend of his mother, and they stay together in a combination erotic and mother/son-like relationship for six years, breaking up when Cheri is married off to a beautiful young woman Edmee.  But his marriage is problematic, because Cheri cannot put Cheri out of his mind, and he returns to her, only to see that things can never been the same, and that now Cheri is an older woman of 49.  (By the way, when Cheri was published, Colette herself was 49.) I thought the book rather boring and quite uninteresting, although it was a very popular book when first published.

Six years later, “The End of Cheri” is published.  During these years, the world has changed.  World War I has devastated Europe.  Paris is no longer quite what it was, and Cheri is no longer what he was.  Exactly how Cheri spent the war years is not discussed (he was apparently in the military), but when he comes out, he is lost.  Edmee, on the other hand, is thriving.  She volunteers with the Red Cross at a hospital for wounded veterans, clearly doing good work, and working very hard.  Cheri, on the other hand, has no interest in volunteer activities, no interest in work of any sort, and spends his time wandering the city, sitting in bars, wandering the city and sitting in bars.  His relationship with his wife falls apart, although she shows ultimate patience, it is clear that he cannot rekindle a relationship with the now 55 year old Lea, but he develops a non-physical friendship with one of Lea’s friends, whom he calls Pal.  What’s wrong with Cheri, anyway?  PTSD?  Some other underlying psychological problem.  He’s a young man who has everything and he cannot hold anything together.  What’s his future?  I will give you a hint.  The book is short.  While I can’t recommend “Cheri” standing alone, putting it together with the second story creates a poignant story unfortunately not uncommon among veterans of all wars.

OK, time for the third book.  This time, I came back to America and read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last (and unfinished) novel, “The Last Tycoon”.  This one I really liked.  It’s the story of Hollywood in the thirties (Fitzgerald died in 1941), centering on a number of studio executives, each a rather complex character, not the one-sided personalities you might anticipate, and two women, one a college student daughter of one of the studio owners, the other a young woman recently moved to California from England (neither of whom had ambitions in the cinema world). The story was unfolding interestingly when Fitzgerald died – our young English friend turned down the proposal of the (not much older, but recently widowed) producer, Monroe Stahr, as she was engaged to a man due soon from England (her emotions not sufficient to lead to a break up), and our young college student (Bennington College, by the way) was becoming disillusioned by the business she had grown up around (and disillusioned by her father).

Fitzgerald did leave notes  outlining much about how he anticipated the story line to proceed – there is a summary of these notes appended to the Penguin edition.  I will tell you this – it was not going to end happily.  By the way, as Colette was the same age as Lea in Cheri, Fitzgerald was not too much older than Monroe Stahr and both were suffering from a lingering heart condition, anticipating potential death.  Fitzgerald died suddenly, of course, and apparently Stahr was to be killed off by Fitzgerald (although not from his heart disease).  Highly recommend this (incomplete) novel.

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