Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Hunters - by Claire Messud

 Read February 2009
This 2001 book contains 2 Novellas, "A Simple Tale" and "The Hunters." It was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner Award and is Messud's third book after When the World Was Steady and The Last Life.

The NYTimes review called it "a work of near-miraculous perfection," but a week after reading it, I recall very little of it. "A Simple Tale" traces the life of a Ukrainian woman from her capture by the German army as a teenager, her survival of Krupp's labor camps, marriage and emigration to Canada, and then her disappointment in her only son's "bad marriage." Through most of her adult life she comes in as domestic maid for families that eventually die out until she only has one left, a Tuesday at the home of Mrs. Ellington where she has worked for 46 years when the story actively begins.

The closing event of the narration, a purchase of a brightly colored painting, and the catharsis it seems to represent failed to follow or"signify" to me. What is simple about "A Simple Tale"? Perhaps the author means to refer to the socially insignificant status of Maria--peasant, labor-camp slave, wife and mother, cleaning woman. Her writing is not simple in syntax, certainly; see below for a sample in the story. It is not simple in lacking dramatic incidents, although they mostly left me curious, not involved emotionally.

Of "The Hunters," I recall little but irritation. The language is more intricate than the first story but without charm. Again, my curiosity was awakened but not my empathy. Despite myself, I was hooked on the author's elaborate concealment of the fictional narrator's gender. I believed I deduced it, but I disliked all the characters, and felt neither surprise nor satisfaction nor sorry when the overly foreshadowed "tragedy" was revealed.

The fussy complexity of syntax was just one more stylistic "delay" of revelation: "But in that summer so far from all that was familiar to me, in which I barely believed in my own flesh, which I could bite or pinch or draw blood from, in that summer of strange enclosedness, in which the vast panes of glass in my flat, through which I could observe so much about which I felt so little seemed to travel with me outside into the city, like an invisible protective pope-mobile, I viewed the entire world at a muffled remove, without emotion."

My sentiments exactly.

PS, January 2017:  Curiously, although I was miffed at the way the writing obstructed my easy passage only to end in non-revelation, I find that these stories which I thought failed to make an impression are deeply recalled after 8 years. !!??

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