A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

New Orleans: Statue of fictional character Ign...

New Orleans: Statue of fictional character Ignatius J. Reiley from the novel “A Confederacy of Dunces”, beneath the clock where the first scene of the novel finds him. Formerly the entrance of D. H. Holmes Department store, now a Hotel on Canal Street. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Typically, I do some research prior to writing one of these critiques, but this is the first time that I have had to consult a medical dictionary.  Toole’s main character, Ignatius J. Reilly, lives with his mother and is afflicted with a condition that causes his “pyloric valve” to open or close, depending on his level of emotional stress.  Although there is a pyloric sphincter muscle that opens and closes a valve that separates the stomach from the lower intestine, a cursory review of stomach ailments does not support the existence of the condition Ignatius suffers from.  This is a work of humorous “fiction” though, and unless you happen to be an expert in gastro-intestinal issues, you accept it as plausible – not that such acceptance is needed for a comedy.  As for the plausibility of the rest of A Confederacy of Dunces, well, that would depend on your familiarity with New Orleans and your sense of humor.  I haven’t visited the city for a number of years, but his narrative feels real when I read it, and it is very funny.Toole died in 1969 so his Big Easy is set long before Hurricane Katrina.  The absence of references to a catastrophic hurricane and mobile phones are a few things that make the story a little dated, but not by much and certainly not to the point where it interferes with our enjoyment of the story.  Nor are there any references to the Vietnam War, but some of the more paranoid characters worry about them “communiss” being everywhere, and the sexual revolution has begun.  Ignatius, however, is too repressed to participate in the revolution.  Consequently, Toole continuously places Ignatius in situations where his repression results in comic discomfort.  At one point, Ignatius meets “Dorian Greene” (p. 256 of my Grove Press edition) – a reference to The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (previously read by this book group) – who invites Ignatius to a party where he dances with another man and is eventually chased into the street by a group of violent lesbians.  (more…)

The Land of Green Plums by Herta Muller

Herta Müller, Nobel laureate in literature 200...

Herta Müller, Nobel laureate in literature 2009, at the Leipziger Buchmesse 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a previous blog, I mentioned that Wallace Stegner‘s Angle of Repose depicted a specific era of U.S. history not often written about by serious novelists.  Herta Muller‘s semi-autobiographical novel sheds a personal light on an era of European history dominated by the influence of the Soviet Union and the dictators who benefited from such influence.  As one reads The Land of Green Plums, it becomes abundantly clear that there are aspects to life under a repressive regime – namely, fear and paranoia – that can be read about in news accounts and discussed, but cannot fully be understood except by those who have lived under such a regime.Green Plums is set in Muller’s homeland, Romania, and although she does not identify the country’s dictator by name, it is Ceausescu and his police-state regime that she describes.  In her Nobel lecture (included in my Picador edition), she talked about the threats, intimidation and persecution to which she was subjected as a translator in a factory.  In the novel, this experience and others form the basis for the lives of the characters.  One method used by the secret police (the “securitate”) of entrapping Romanians into appearing as “collaborators” with internal spies employed by the secret police was to write fictitious letters to them from relatives.  (A portion of the wikipedia entry for Green Plums does not acknowledge that this was happening to the narrator in the novel, but if one considers the numerous examples of the securitate’s reading everyone’s mail and how the characters used code words in their letters, and hair in the envelopes, then it is obvious.)  Another method of oppression consisted of killing its political opponents, then declaring the death a suicide after a perfunctory investigation.  (Again, part of the wikipedia entry takes the description of Georg’s death as a suicide at face value, but that is probably an incorrect interpretation given the nature of the securitate.)  (more…)

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Angle of repose

Angle of repose (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Stegner‘s Angle of Repose is a traditional historical novel, but it is unique among such works in that it seems to be the only critically significant novel set in the American West during the late 19th century.  The level of historical accuracy and detail is amazing, and is due to the fact that Stegner (1909-1993) was a historian and a novelist.  As part of his research, Stegner relied upon the letters of Mary Hallock Foote.  However, if you read the Penguin trade paperback edition (featuring a photograph on the front cover of a large tree with a ridge of mountains in the background) you will not find any mention of Foote.  To worsen matters, the publisher includes the standard disclaimer that “any resemblance to actual persons…is entirely coincidental.”  If that disclaimer leads you to believe that Stegner made up the entire story, then you have been misled.  You may be misled again if you read the Wikipedia entry for Angle of Repose.  The site’s anonymous author(s) adopt a different view, stating that Stegner’s “use of uncredited passages taken directly from Foote’s letters” is controversial.  At this point, it would appear that either everything in the novel is purely coincidental, or that Stegner engaged in some sort of literary theft, resulting in a Pulitzer.Fortunately, a member of the book group dispelled the controversy by sharing some information from her edition, explaining that the Foote family wanted to share the letters, but also wanted to remain anonymous.  Well, if you are Stegner, what do you do?  You have to credit your source, but your source wants to be anonymous.  The answer is that Stegner compromised by including a short paragraph immediately prior to the table of contents, saying, “My thanks to J.M. and her sister for the loan of their ancestors….This is a novel which utilizes selected facts from their real lives….”  That seems like a reasonably accurate and honest way to acknowledge his debt to the Footes while simultaneously keeping them anonymous–at least for a while.  (more…)

Candide (or Optimism) by Voltaire

Candide being swindled (in Voltaire's Candide,...

Candide being swindled (in Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


At least 250 years after its publication in 1759, Candide is still very funny satire. My favorite line from Candide is, “let’s eat some Jesuit“–probably because a good portion of my education is due to the Jesuits. Perhaps it would be even funnier to me if I was a Catholic, or maybe I would just laugh guiltily.The book is simultaneously brutal and humorous. Although you will find it in the literature section as it is considered a novella, some of the “fictional” events are based on historical facts, and it was the failure of the period’s intellectuals (Leibniz in particular) to deal with the harsh realities of the world (a major earthquake in Lisbon, the plague, and the Spanish Inquisition) that prompted Voltaire to write such a scathing rebuttal to some of those individuals. His lampooning of various governments and religions eventually landed him in prison.  (more…)