Of course, it's good to start the way you mean to go on, so my first mini-review will be a slating of Henry James' The Wings of the Dove. Yes, yes, he's very clever, wonderful psychological treatment etc etc, but Henry James is everything that non-readers imagine classic literature to be - impenetrable, over-wordy, meandering and (most importantly) completely up itself. I've tried with Mr. James, I really have, and there were times where I thought I was glimpsing the good in his writing; however, these few moments of enjoyment were drowned in the sludge of words and lack of momentum. The story? Sick rich girl has money, and everyone else wants it (but never actually says it of course). Apologies to all James fans, but it's three strikes and out for old Henry - I just don't like his style...
Now someone whose style suits me a little better is Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, and after reading the wonderful Quicksand, I immediately snapped up a two-book edition on the Book Depository, the first of which was The Key (translated by Howard Hibbet). This is a he-says-she-says novel with a difference as it is entirely constructed of extracts from the diaries of a man and his wife. The extracts show the somewhat perverse turn their marriage takes when the husband decides to spice up their sex life with some rather unorthodox measures. While both the husband and wife become aware of their spouse's diary, both strongly deny that they would ever actually look inside, thus violating their partner's privacy, but how much can we trust what they are telling us - and who are they really writing their diaries for?
The Key is another wonderful, slow-burning, sexually-charged story, and the idea is an intriguing one. However, it's not as good as Quicksand and suffers a tad in comparison The ending is definitely very similar, and it does appear to run out of steam a little, surprising for what is a fairly slim book. I would also warn potential readers that it does contain a storyline that is actually quite shocking to... Look, I'm getting onto very dodgy moral ground here, and I don't want to start any kind of cultural debate, so I'll tread lightly and just say that many people will find some of the actions the husband takes ever-so-slightly disturbing. Let's move on...
Now, I do love a bit of Dostoyevsky, and Devils (translated by the famous Constance Garnett) is a lot more than a bit of Dostoyevsky. Another rolling epic tale, it depicts events in a small rural town where a group of young anarchists is stirring up the locals, confusing the authorities and preparing for a particularly unspeakable crime. It's based on a real event, and the novel is every bit as good as some of his more famous works, another wonderful combination of tight plotting, psychological suspense and well-written crucial scenes.
It's funny though that when people talk about Dostoyevsky, it's always as a brooding, masterful writer, someone who writes books to be waded through, akin to walking across a vast river of treacle, yet his books are often a joy to read. As well as being real page turners, his novels can contain wonderful scenes of humour - yes, Dostoyevsky is funny! The first part of Devils is especially amusing, culminating in a meeting where about a dozen of the main characters meet under unexpected and confusing circumstances, reminiscent more of Oscar Wilde than Tolstoy. Of course, with the subject matter being what it is, things do take a turn for the more serious later, but never let it be said that Dostoyevsky neglected the lighter side of the art of literature...
So that's the first of my mini-catch-up pieces; there'll be more to come when I can bring myself to return to the computer. Forgive the brevity and the shallowness of the reviews - hopefully there's something there to make it all worthwhile :)