A short, savory little tome. I read it all in two sittings yesterday, ravenously finishing the last piece on the subway home. These are relatively quiA short, savory little tome. I read it all in two sittings yesterday, ravenously finishing the last piece on the subway home. These are relatively quiet stories, something I take to be part of the project's investment in capturing a kind of experiential tableau (like the Matisse pieces framing each tale). Each story features an obsessional impulse towards Matisse or art that brings the characters to some sort of revelatory moment. In two of the tales, this insight leads to a kind of break from quiet into violence or rage; in the third, it operates more as a kind of lifting of the veil between two people who believe themselves to understand one another better than, in fact, they do. My personal favorite was probably "Art Work," featuring an "artistic family" and their relationship with their housekeeper, who has her own artistic inclinations, despite (rather because of) her eccentric relation to color palettes. Byatt's portrayal of the slightly deluded upper class in that particular story seems so balanced and complex, perhaps in contrast to many other 'intellectual' Brits writing about class distinctions. Reminded me almost of someone like Woolf or Mansfield's tense juggling act of recognizing class pretension and critiquing it simultaneously. The Matisse Stories is a soft, fascinating, and beautiful set of stories - quickly ingested with a pleasant finish. ...more
Happened to accidentally re-read this one, having been stuck at a coffeeshop for a few hours with a friend who only had this bookUpdate, 2011 reading
Happened to accidentally re-read this one, having been stuck at a coffeeshop for a few hours with a friend who only had this book to spare me. Consumed it incredibly swiftly, much like I had upon my first reading, and remembered why I found this collection of tales (six total) so intriguing, shimmering, and powerful. Each story is organized loosely around extremes of heat and cold; in some cases this is an atmospheric or environmental theme ("Lamia" and "Crocodile Tears"), in others it's temperamental or visual ("Baglady," "Christ in the House" and "Jael"), and in one, it's a fairytale or fable-esque literalization ("Cold").
Every story wields it own particular personality, though as I say, the general theme functions to connect them all as a collection. The prose itself is positively spectacular (see esp. "Cold"), and Byatt's ability to briefly outline characterization works here in a way it sometimes doesn't in her other short stories. Though I think in general, Byatt has a kind of very traditional (stereotypical?) British dryness, these stories should pull in almost any sort of reader. This is always my recommendation for the non-initiated, as her novels tend towards slow-pacing and high literary or academic allusions and textures (which admittedly is not for everyone). The settings range from the fantastical to the dystopic or hallucinatory, and Byatt's obsession with art is often on display here.
In short, if "Cold" doesn't absolutely engross you, I'd say you may wish to seek out another author. These stories remain among my very favorites in the form.
This was my first experience with Byatt, and what a wonderful ride. I'm so glad to have discovered a new author to obsess over, and in fact, just purchased The Virgin in the Garden, Babel Tower, and Imagining Characters (as well as having Possession on my bookshelf just waiting to be adored) to fuel this new passion.
Her style is fluid, magical, and strangely heart-wrenching at times, though in a way that you don't notice until you're already in the depths of emotion. Every story of this collection had something to set it apart, something to mark it as absolutely lovely, and perhaps the most exciting thing is that while her writing style itself is consistent, the stories crossed many 'genres,' for lack of a better word--which was highly entertaining to read, and felt like picking up a new book each time I went to a new story.
"Baglady" is vaguely futuristic, dystopian, and is perhaps the most ambiguous story of the book inasmuch as you come to what seems a fairly simple conclusion by the end, but as soon as you hit on that, you begin questioning your own understandings in addition to the reliability of the hopeless woman at the center of the short. "Cold" is a fairy tale in the most wonderful of senses, in that it really toys with the childhood you think you've left behind, but then turns around and becomes this amazingly adult story dealing with love and loss, the formation of the self, and compromise when it comes to enjoying meaningful relationships. Plus, it has some of the most beautiful images I think I've read, with fire and ice being quite explicit, but in strikingly unexpected ways--the resolution of the conflict in the story left me breathless. "Lamia in the Cevennes" has the element of the fairy tale/myth in it too, but plays much more to the darker yearnings and possessions of erotic (or other) desire. "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary" plays more explicitly with food, with art, and with class and its markers--how it makes you conceptualize your own positioning as a person in a divided society. "Crocodile Tears" is a lovely story, and seems to be a popular favorite, but I actually think of all the stories here, it was the least engaging for me. Perhaps it went on a bit too long, and seemed to hit you over the heard just a bit with the juxtaposition of violence and emotional detachment. But saying it was the weakest really doesn't discount it, because it was still incredible. I know there's one more, but I can't remember the title or the biblical story is centers on--I loved it, though, enough so to actually look into the biblical myth it was based on (if you knew me, you'd know that's a shocker). The discussion of envy and how far we are able to go when deprived of things we desire--well, let's just say it hits rather hard.
Now I'm just going on too long. In short-READ IT. A wonderful collection, dealing with art and its relation to life; with desire--often thwarted, but sometimes rewarded; with the sort of disconnect that seems to accompany modern culture; with beauty and love and passion and all those other really important things. Drawing on mythology and folklore, her style is wonderfully engaging, it's beautifully and intricately woven, and surprisingly moving by the end of it. I can only offer the highest of praise....more
Munro is clearly a master in the genre. While some of the stories left me a bit cold--Vandals, Spaceships Have Landed, and The Jack Randa Hotel--the oMunro is clearly a master in the genre. While some of the stories left me a bit cold--Vandals, Spaceships Have Landed, and The Jack Randa Hotel--the other five were simply superb. In "A Real Life," the characters are so well drawn as to have you thinking they're sitting next to you, telling their stories. Dorrie is an incredible character, and I love the ways in which Munro plays with 'myths' of Canada and the people who reside there--to great effect, in particular, in this story. "The Albanian Virgin" was wonderful, too, even though I knew where it was going about a quarter into the story. Nonetheless, Munro teases it out and invests us in the multiple threads of the story--the aging couple, the kidnapped girl, and the woman who is being told the story. No major surprises, but the story is so beautifully written and emotionally potent that it seems irrelevant when you've figured out the alleged 'mystery.' Those two were my favorites, though the title story and "A Wilderness Station" both toy with the sort of murder mystery conventions in a way that reminds me of fellow Canuck Margaret Atwood's "Alias Grace." In these stories and in that novel, there's a very gritty, human component to what could otherwise be a run-of-the-mill tale of murder and crimesolving. In any case, I've got her collection Runaway on my shelf, and am really looking forward to getting my hands dirty in some more Munro. She's a brilliant writer--detached but somehow still emotionally resonant (much in the way Atwood is, in fact), and stylistically powerful in a way that feels incredibly tangible as you read her. Great collection, in short....more
So I decided to step out of my female-writer-centered comfort zone and read something by...gasp! a male writer! I'd read "The Human Stain" in high schSo I decided to step out of my female-writer-centered comfort zone and read something by...gasp! a male writer! I'd read "The Human Stain" in high school and don't much remember anything about it, though I do remember really enjoying it (though I think I also remember a lot of it going over my 16-year-old head). Roth is a very skilled writer; that much is obvious, as his very evident aptitude for scholarship. He's not known as one of our pre-eminent men of letters for nothing. His "what if" scenario here--that of questioning what might have happened had Charles Lindbergh, a Nazi sympathizer, assumed the presidency--works very, very convincingly. Something vaguely like Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," Roth manages to plot things out so minutely as to lead the reader to believe this could have or actually did happen. Told from the perspective of a child, we're also very much subject to the sense of confusion and loss that 'Philip' undergoes. It's a really fascinating outsider-looking-in kind of feeling. Though he's experiencing all of this as it's happening, because so much information is kept from him as a child, we also feel that sort of compromised position of 'knowing.' Even the resolution, though a bit rushed, seemed incredibly plausible--and (no worries, I won't ruin the end) the little twist at the end worked really well for me.
So was it believable? Definitely. Was it terrifying? Frequently. Why didn't I give it five stars, then? There was just something missing for me. Some of the drama--though I found the child's perspective really fascinating from a writer's perspective, I feel like we were left out of so much of the more interesting 'drama' of the novel--there was a bit of lost potential in the terror that the novel hints at but never truly satisfies. Further, though Roth is clearly very skilled, there were many times where I felt he could have reined himself in as a writer. There were moments where he just went a little too far, elaborated a bit too much--frankly, it caused many stretches of the book to drag. The beginning and end of the novel were hard to put down, but much of the middle stretch could have been more succinct, more punchy--it was a bit of a labor to plod through at times, in other words. Any case, I still want to check out some other Roth--"American Pastoral" and "Portnoy's Complaint," namely--and I think this is worthwhile, just that I was always aware that with just a little push, it could have been a masterwork....more
I rarely find myself questioning how I'd rate a book, but Wide Sargasso Sea threw me into that little predicament. As I'm writing this, I'm inclined tI rarely find myself questioning how I'd rate a book, but Wide Sargasso Sea threw me into that little predicament. As I'm writing this, I'm inclined to say 4.5 and mark it as 5 stars (since GR.com refuses to grant us the pleasure of half-stars), but if you'd asked me as I slogged through the latter part of Part II yesterday on a long car ride, I would have said that 3 stars was generous. In short, I'm uncertain where I stand with this novel. I think the first 40 or 50 pages are fabulous, I think Part III (comprised by the lean final 12 pages) is worth the price of admission. Perhaps my adoration of the ending compels me to be kind to the novel as a whole, but I think this is one I'll have to read again before I can find my footing with it.
You don't need me to tell you the story. Jane Eyre, but not. Bertha--rather, Antoinette--talks back, with a healthy dose of Rochester's perspective, a dash of Grace Poole's, and provocative Caribbean post-emancipation politics thrown in for good measure. What if Bertha was more than just the ghost of Thornfield Hall--more than simply an obstacle to Jane and Rochester's union? I found it difficult to sympathize with anyone in WSS, but I suppose if I allied myself with someone, it'd be with Antoinette/Bertha, by virtue of the seeming inevitability of her nastiness. As I said, I loved her in the very last bits of the novel, but there were moments where I thought she was absolutely awful. Though come to think of it, maybe I found her nasty in Rochester's section? That's my main quibble with the novel, actually--not that there are unreliable narrators or varying vantage points, but that it's not always easy to follow. Less stream-of-consciousness and more messy at times, which I found frustrating. Otherwise, I suppose all I can say is that I'm confused and that my interest was piqued.
In short, the premise alone is worth it; the prose is often stunning, though sparse; the novel (or its characters, perhaps) is difficult to 'like' but easy to become immersed in. A truly fascinating companion to Jane Eyre, which I read for the first time over the summer. Shelving it as need-to-re-read, even though I finished it perhaps an hour ago....more
Ah, Austen. Well, I can't say that so confidently, as this is the only Austen I've read so far (blasphemy, I know)--but I'm taking a seminar on her thAh, Austen. Well, I can't say that so confidently, as this is the only Austen I've read so far (blasphemy, I know)--but I'm taking a seminar on her this semester, so I figure I'll be well-acquainted with her by the end. I actually read Sense and Sensibility for another class a couple years ago, and as I settled back into it this time around, realized I remembered none of it--which was surprisingly lovely, because I enjoyed it all the more now.
I'll confess, I can understand the complaints lodged against Austen--yes, the novel is very much a study in manners and the marriage contract, and sometimes, the loose ends seem a bit too easily tied by the end. But I don't think this discounts her or the novel--for one thing, she was very much a pioneer in the genre and in women's writing. As Woolf has famously noted in A Room of One's Own, who is it that decides a novel is important because it centers on war, and dismisses another because it is located in a sitting room? Austen sticks with what she knows here, and succeeds with flying colors. The characters begin the novel as incredibly two-dimensional--Elinor is a frigid bitch, Marianne is your typical flighty, over-emotional wreck, Mrs. Jennings is an oblivious, gossipy hen, etc. Even Lucy takes on some semblance of moral complexity (though I still can't stand her). But what Austen does so well in the novel (and something she's dismissed for) is creating an impeccable structure--a sort of flawless architecture--that brings about believable evolutions in character, plot shifts that work perfectly, and dialogue that never ceases to sound entirely succinct. Not to say anything about her sharp wit!
I certainly found myself rooting for Elinor and Marianne as the novel went on, and falling into the emotions her cast so wonderfully puts on display. If I'm to make any complaint, it's that at times, this novel certainly reads like a first novel. For one thing, what the hell was Margaret Dashwood doing in there? She garnered maybe three lines for herself, and I thought at first that perhaps she would mark some significant plot point...but no. There was, quite frankly, NO reason to have her as a character. She was given no real attention, offered nothing to the form or shift of the novel...she didn't have any purpose whatsoever. That character, and a few other minor instances read very strangely--innocently, I guess, from a writerly standpoint. But as I said, the rest is all cake. Besides, I made sure not to OD on the world of Austen by pairing my reading of the novel with, first an Angela Carter one (erotic, pomo insanity), and then Toni Morrison (gritty, real, heartbreaking). And now I feel more ready than ever to make my way through her oeuvre! ...more
Gaitskill has a peculiar imagination-and an inescapably erotic one. While reading, often this erotic charge pulsing through her work was disturbing, iGaitskill has a peculiar imagination-and an inescapably erotic one. While reading, often this erotic charge pulsing through her work was disturbing, invasive. At others, I'll admit I was a bit turned on. I wouldn't say it's for the light of heart; she's frank, she explicit, and she's seemingly obsessed with victor/victim (dominant/submissive) interactions. What I found fascinating about this obsession with sexual powerplays, though, was that Gaitskill's images and style often reflected this idea of penetration. One image that struck me as such was from "The Girl on the Plane"--the narrator imagines the plane lifting off and tearing a hole in the sky. This kind of image threads through the entire collection, so that not only are you invited like a voyeur to look in on characters' kinky fantasies, sexual confessions, and haunting carnal performances, you're treated to these same issues in Gaitskill's writing aesthetic. I really appreciate that; I like when writers manage to reflect their content with their style.
My only qualm? It reads, sometimes, as kitschy--as if she can't really escape this bondage-box, as if her characters are all sort of blurring together and experiencing the same conflicts in different settings. It's a good story, but when you see it reflected again and again through the collection, you wonder when Gaitskill's gonna step out of her comfort zone. There are variations, of course, and there are moments that still linger, despite my finishing the collection early last week. I'm intrigued enough to check out "Bad Behavior" if that gives a better indication of my final thoughts. An enjoyable, if a bit guilty, read. ;)...more
I should state from the outset that I'm not much of a sci-fi junkie; I stumbled across Le Guin (and this novel in particular) on a list of "books thatI should state from the outset that I'm not much of a sci-fi junkie; I stumbled across Le Guin (and this novel in particular) on a list of "books that every feminist should read"--from jezebel.com, I think. I can sort of see where they were going with this categorization; of course, Le Guin's imagining of a world in which identifiable physical sex is more or less null, and where gender as an identity category is practically unknown, is a pretty fascinating 'alternate reality' to tackle for any feminist. But I wonder: did Le Guin go far enough? If I were compiling a syllabus for a course on so-termed feminist fiction, I don't think this novel would climb the ranks of my list. It's an interesting idea, but I can't say that Le Guin expounds upon it to the extent that it truly challenges our conventions. Genly Ai must cope with the genderless world, a world with which he is not familiar, but I don't know that it becomes a political or ideological venture. It sort of sits there.
That aside (since that was sort of my 'purpose' in reading the novel), I admire Le Guin's vision. As a work of fiction, it's decent. Neither great nor mediocre, it sort of...sits there. I tend to agree with another reviewer here on goodreads that the novel felt a bit like a big Information Dump. There was less interior development than I would have liked; the themes are there, but not explored to the degree that I really connected with. The action felt almost subdued, which is a bit surprising in a sci-fi novel--at least for me, with little experience in the genre. Even in moments that could have been epic, it seems Le Guin settled for something far subtler--perhaps too subtle for my taste. Everything was dealt with as something that happened *to* the characters; I often felt that they (and in turn, I) weren't fully engaged with the things going on around them. The writing, however, is strong, and she certainly thought things out, creating a really interesting universe. I think I just wanted *more*--more human connection, more explicit action, more feminism, more...epicness? I'm not writing her off--in fact, I'm hoping to read either The Dispossessed or The Lathe of Heaven later this summer. My expectations may, quite simply, have been too high. She's a competent writer and offers so many fascinating ideas--I just wish that they hadn't been left at the idea stage, had been taken a step further. Interested to see my reaction to further Le Guin, though. ...more
I finished this one months ago and have put off reviewing it simply by virtue of my astonishment with it. Oddly enough, the first hundred pages were tI finished this one months ago and have put off reviewing it simply by virtue of my astonishment with it. Oddly enough, the first hundred pages were torture; I was about to give it up, but happened to be trapped on a 6-hour busride and had only this novel and a volume of a poet's letters with me at the time. Needless to say, the letters kept me amused for an hour or so, but I ended up pushing through my frustration with the novel, and from that afternoon on, could not put it down. I stayed up late; I got up early; I read it on the subway, on the commuter rail; in any sort of waiting area; I would be irritated with friends for interrupting my submersion in The Golden Notebook, and came out feeling more or less like Anna Wulf by the end--isolated, a bit uneasy & nerve-wrecked, jittery, perhaps obsessed with pasting the pages of the novel all over my bedroom walls.
By now the details are failing me--what color was the notebook of newspaper clippings? And I know the red one was her Communist journal, but I can't even recall the other colors at all now. What was the crazed American boyfriend's name? And her daughter? Does any of this even matter? Lessing's is a brilliant experiment; it may be one of the only truly fantastic psychoanalytic explorations of a character's mind that I've read. Certainly Lessing seems immersed in 60s/70s psychoanalysis, & I'm not even certain that she's resistant to it, particularly in the way Anna seems to believe a good orgasm might 'fix' some of her central issues. The notebooks so vividly perform the fracturing of her experience and her psyche; some are more compelling than others (I was very pulled in by the African diaries and the Commie ones, others, less so), but all are necessary.
Lessing's prose can be off-putting. It's often monotone, and frequently far too invested in minutiae (which is why I was so uninterested in the first hundred pages--the mini-events that precede the notebooks in each section of the novel make for awful page-turners, though even they make sense, I think, once you're through the first hurdle), but it's worth the effort. It really really, truly is; I wish I hadn't waited so long to write this review, because I feel I'm giving the novel short-shrift in hindsight, but it may have been the best novel I read this year. I'll probably pick it up again during my next break, and will re-review at that point with a defter hand.
2012 Update Two years later, I've re-read this one at nearly the same season as before, in the inescapable nightsweats of late July and August in Boston's air-conditioning-less heat bubble. I think this must be the only proper time of year to read The Golden Notebook, even though in point of fact, the novel doesn't pay much mind to heat in the present events of its narrative. But I always associate the novel with the scene of young Anna and her compatriots at the Mashopi shooting pigeons and encountering millions of insects fucking. The collision of the animal grotesqueries with the awful cruelty of the characters with the waves of dry heat glimmering in their South African vacation-idyll - this is how I recall the novel, despite the fact that these notebooks take up not a great deal of the massive 700 pages.
The novel has both times taken me a great deal longer to work through than expected, I think in large part because of the absolute wretchedness of the Saul affair in the final 100 pages. Not because it's a bad read, but because Lessing's vision of the relationship is so horrific and abusive and seemingly inevitable or inescapable that it can only be taken in short gasps. So I sped through the first 500 or 600 pages in a few days and then spent nearly two weeks on the last 100.
I am still uncertain how to locate Lessing's understanding of personhood, as she seems to reject both the postmodern dismantling of ontology and the ideological trifles of the mid-century period that are invested in solidifying the subject through one manner (psychanalysis and its privileging of a kind of core ego that emerges in childhood and then bashes up against the dangerous world) or another (the communist understanding of the proletarian cog in the machine, who must retain a level of political and intellectual stasis or standardization in order to "be" what it truly is or should be). It's actually in the Saul affair that Anna and Saul each seem to be more in line with a sort of Joycean postmodernism ("I, I, I, I" rather than "I. I. I.") than with Anna's earlier mockery of such an idea. That's a tangent though, since I'd re-read the novel for my upcoming Lit Field Exams.
At any rate, I just want to spend years with this book. I'm sad it took two years for me to return to it, because it's not only an incredibly complicated and detailed portrait of a broken figure at the center of the 20th century's central conflicts but an absolute delight to read. Having read a few other Lessing novels, I've come to develop a very ardent appreciation for her prose style (which I'd said in my first review was "monotone" or at some level tedious), and this go-round savored every page. I was chilled by innumerable moments and very often moved to tears by Anna's sense of anxiety and desperation - but more importantly, her refusal to let these things irrevocably destroy her.
Required, not recommended, reading. It's tough, but it's well worth the effort. And as I've told friends, if you can get through the first 100 pages, which feel a bit like a chore on the first read, you'll be swept away by all the wonderful rest....more
3.5 stars, I'd say, though perhaps I'm feeling less disposed to the book after having written a long review and losing it when my computer decided, qu3.5 stars, I'd say, though perhaps I'm feeling less disposed to the book after having written a long review and losing it when my computer decided, quite out of the blue, to return to the previous page, erasing my work.
My third foray into Winterson territory, and I begin to question my allegiances to her. The Passion remains one of my favorite books of the past five years (my reading over the past 5, not published in the past 5), but this one and Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit both left me a bit cold. Winterson's prosaic tricks still dazzle, but I question how reliant she is on the magic of her style, to the detriment of the actual narrative...
If the novel's ostensible 'purpose' is to narrativize passion in a way that eludes cliche, does Written On the Body succeed? I lean towards 'no.' Barring the sex/gender neutrality/ambiguity of the protagonist & Winterson's refusal to shame said protagonist on the basis of willful homewrecking seem to me the only facets of the 'romance' narrative that travel beyond the bounds of the conventional love plot.
Also, the sex/gender thing. To my mind, Winterson allows this to speak for itself in so subtle a way as to make it almost apolitical. I don't require it to be political, but having heard people rave and rant about that aspect of this novel, I expected Winterson to, well, do something with it. In some sense, the protagonist is this era's more blase, less interesting Orlando--but what does this ambiguity do for the novel? Perhaps I'll reconsider upon a re-read. Do I believe the protagonist's passion for Louise? I'm not certain. And again, the trajectory of their 'love' reeks of the cliche: star-crossed lovers engage in forbidden dalliance; commit to surviving all adversity; illness infiltrates; martyrish tendencies lead to tragical misunderstandings; longing-and-loss ensue. My friend Gina posed a rather provocative question, though: while complaining that she wasn't convinced by the 'motivation' of their love for one another ("Why? I can see the sex is great, but what else is there?"), she mused that perhaps that was the whole idea: passion, love, blahblahblah, really does boil down to the physical, the tactile, the text of the body.
In which case, perhaps the novel does evade cliche. In which case, I'd be a lot more interested in this as a narrative of passion. As a 'love' novel, however, I remain convinced that what saves it from mediocrity is Winterson's impeccable wordplay. But as I wonder with Nabokov--to what end? It's fun to read, but does it *do* anything? Again, I'm uncertain.
For some reason, I like to bitch about this novel quite a bit. There's no real reason; it was a quite nice read, and certainly, one might learn something from appreciating Winterson's style. She writes love in a beautiful, if conventional, way, and there are fabulous moments of laugh-out-loud humor. Winterson's got a great comic knack that emerges rarely, but pointedly. I won't say I'm turning my back on her, but I think I may re-read The Passion before I move on to another new novel......more
Ah! After "The Passion" (or perhaps beside it?), my favorite Winterson thus far. Dog Woman, along with Fevvers in Carter's "Nights at the Circus," hasAh! After "The Passion" (or perhaps beside it?), my favorite Winterson thus far. Dog Woman, along with Fevvers in Carter's "Nights at the Circus," has to be the most wonderfully bawdy, grotesque pseudo-monstrous woman since the Wife of Bath! Also I'm naturally inclined to fairy tale reimaginings, and the "Twelve Dancing Princesses" portion of this novel is hot as hell, even as a stand-alone sequence....more
This is not, at least in my understanding, typical Woolf. Argumentatively speaking, it definitely strikes one as a companion to A Room of One's Own (tThis is not, at least in my understanding, typical Woolf. Argumentatively speaking, it definitely strikes one as a companion to A Room of One's Own (though in her diaries, VW mentioned that she thought 3Gs to be a great deal better argued than Room), but stylistically, it's different from any other Woolf I've read. Usually you're able to pick up easily on Woolf's satire, her gentle mocking tone; here, the parody is so subtle that at times you find yourself re-reading a sentence to make sure she doesn't actually HATE WOMEN (tm). But alas, I don't believe she does.
The premise of it is this: a man writes a letter to VW asking her how the daughters of educated men, having won the vote and the right to enter the professions, might help to prevent war. The book is split into three chapters--one for each of the guineas Woolf will dole out in the effort to prevent war. As in A Room of One's Own, Woolf often speaks to the lacunae of history--the women who were unable to pursue 'paid-for' education, yet who aided their brothers' going to school; women who could only support themselves through marriage and so were subsumed beneath the economic and political positions of their husbands; & co. Woolf questions how, after only 60 years of opportunity, an educated man can possibly ask women to make up for centuries of silence and step confidently into a position that enables them to provide economic and political support to preventing the oncoming war.
Woolf seems in some ways to have done everything first (or if not first, maybe just did them best). Prior to the feminist and post-structuralist debates from the 70s on concerning biological essentialism, VW makes pointed allusions to the 'difference' between men and women, but suggests (provocatively, I think) that we "see from behind different eyes" because we have been compelled to develop that particular visual disparity for so damn long. Even the potential 'psychological difference' between the sexes, a question rising in the post-Freudian era, Woolf suggests, could easily be an effect rather than a cause of gendered culture. Moreover, her beautiful defense of resistance against cultural prostitution and intellectual slavery (problematic as these metaphors may be) strikes me as both simple and incredibly intricate and inspiring at once.
There are of course problems. Besides the snobbish metaphors of prostitution and slavery, Woolf also *loves* using servants and housemaids and such as little ideological scapegoats. There's Crosby, the butler, becoming the conduit for a shift in conversation; there's the shriek of the housemaid that must be 'translated' into intellectual speech. And though VW makes certain to clarify that her common subjects are the "daughters of educated men," her inability to conceive of women who have no choice but to work seems to me at times a grave oversight. (Evidently, others agree--Alison Light's recent book 'Mrs. Woolf and the Servants' picks up on these inconsistencies in Woolf's oeuvre--which is probably why it seemed so glaring to me as I read this and re-read Between the Acts.)
In any case, it's definitely definitely worth your while. If it's dated at moments, at others, it remains profoundly urgent--I think notably in this historical moment of reactionary U.S. conservatism, particular to the ideal of the nuclear family. See also Woolf's incredibly persuasive linkage between the patriarchal household and the tyranny of the dictatorships rising to power in Germany and Italy at the time Woolf was writing--sleeping with the enemy, indeed. Great text....more
I've spent a semester getting through this massive volume (for a class, I should say), and I figure I'll do mini-reviews for each novel rather than anI've spent a semester getting through this massive volume (for a class, I should say), and I figure I'll do mini-reviews for each novel rather than anything similarly massive. So let's give it a whirl.
Sense and Sensibility: This is actually the only Austen novel I've read on multiple occasions, so I have a bit more familiarity with it than any of the other five. This is, in my humble opinion, a fairly dark novel for Austen. Marianne's melodrama is of course frequently mocked, but Elinor's resignation and the story of the Elizas present really bleak insights into Austen's imagination. S&S is perhaps the least laught-out-loud funny of Austen's oeuvre, but the relationship between Elinor and Marianne is one of the most fascinating (and eroticized) female-female interactions among all of her novels. Willoughby, despite his profligate nature, is really hot--especially in Emma Thompson's film adaptation, so that alone should make you want to read/see this! No, but seriously, S&S is strangely close to my heart, perhaps because of that strong sisterly bond, and the female-centered communities of the novel.
Pride and Prejudice: What can I say about P&P that hasn't been said before? It's my favorite Austen novel, with my favorite heroine (Elizabeth) and hero (Darcy), along with a wonderful supporting cast (the Bennets, Mr. Bingley, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr. Collins, Charlotte Lucas). The humor is all there, the emotion rings true, the characters are all complex and imaginable while you're reading. Quite simply one of the very best novels of English literary history.
Mansfield Park: I won't belabor this part, because "MP" is really truly my least favorite among the novels. The writing is good, the plot is complex, but Fanny Price is absolutely insufferable. If this book had been about Mary Crawford, I might have enjoyed it. The Crawfords are fabulous characters, and there are fascinating questions of subversion in the novel--but this is also the most evident text in which Austen deliberately upholds the status quo, even after suggesting alternatives to it (through the Crawfords, Mr. Yates, even Fanny's brief challenge to the slave trade). Sir Thomas Bertram is Patriarch Supreme, and he ensures that conservatism wins in the end. This is a bit of an unpopular opinion, but for a legitimately good adaptation of this novel, see Patricia Rozema's 1999 film version--it's absolutely wonderful. A real feminist update, and it even features Miss Honey from "Matilda" as Mary Crawford!
Emma: After P&P, this is my second-favorite Austen novel. Emma may be self-centered and manipulative, but she's one of Austen's only flawed characters that we genuinely sympathize with. And I think she's a quite welcome change between the passive, troubled heroines (Catherine, Fanny, Anne, Elinor) and the more vivacious ones (Elizabeth, Marianne)--she's a joy to read. This is also one of the very funniest of Austen's works--I found myself chuckling or openly guffawing almost constantly while reading. Great cast of characters--Emma herself, of course, along with Mr. Woodhouse, Jane Fairfax, the Bates (ha!), and arguably the gayest character--Frank Churchill-in her body of work. Furthermore, I think the resolutions presented here are the most developed and mature of her career--because she actually takes the time to allow them to develop, rather than simply tying everything up neatly in the final pages. Emma is a really lovely novel, and of course, if you didn't know that Clueless is a modernized adaptation of it, now's your chance to rewatch it with that in mind.
Northanger Abbey: Features much of Austen's always-wonderful wit, but I think it's pretty self-evident that this is a first novel, and if you've read the juvenilia, I think you'll recognize much of that exuberant naivete bleeding over into "Northanger." While the humor was all there, my issue with the novel was that I had little sympathy for any of the characters. Catherine, as the opening line suggests, is not much of a heroine--she's bumbling, easily manipulated, excitable, and simply not complex enough for me to truly identify with her. Henry Tilney is, well, kind of a douchebag. A classic example of the "Educating Jane" theme that frequently runs through her novels, because Henry (perhaps like many Austen heroes) becomes a father figure for Catherine. I found that pretty infuriating. Strangely enough, though, I think "Northanger" is possibly Austen's most (I use this term loosely) 'postmodern' texts, because of the novel's challenge to so-termed master narratives, particularly of the Gothic. So I found that pretty fascinating. On the whole, though, this is right with "Mansfield Park" as my least favorite Austen novel.
Persuasion: Wonderful novel. Austen's most mature work, and one of the most heartfelt, particularly because you can feel Austen's own regrets coming through Anne Elliot. Not only that, but there's a sense of the past here, a sense of the characters having histories and interiorities--which doesn't necessarily ring true for her other novels. Of course, I do find myself wondering what it might have been had she survived to continue working on it (it's finished, but not heavily revised), because there are moments where it feels slightly unpolished. Anne Elliot is almost like a much more grown up, and far more fascinating, Fanny Price--quiet, with regrets and a lot of sensitivity, but Anne is genuinely a memorable character. This is a tale, first, of unrequited love and the pain that comes with it--but, as with any Austen novel, there's a happy ending. It's the journey to that end that makes this such a worthwhile novel.
Lady Susan: Oops! Haven't read this one. But I need this compendium off of my currently reading shelf! I promise I'll read Lady Susan at some point!...more