|#||cover||title||author||isbn||isbn13||asin||num pages||avg rating||num ratings||date pub||date pub (ed.)||rating||my rating||review||notes||recommender||comments||votes||read count||date started||date read||date added||date purchased||owned||purchase location||condition||format|
This short story was published in The Book of Sand, but my review of that is too long, so this one is separate.
This has echoes of JLB’s The Library of This short story was published in The Book of Sand, but my review of that is too long, so this one is separate.
This has echoes of JLB’s The Library of Babel - and also Fight Club! There are interesting variations on familiar ideas, but it doesn’t hang together quite as well. I think I must have missed something more profound. (Suggestions welcome.)
An old man reminisces, thinking along Platonic lines (also cited in The Night of the Gifts, which is also in The Book of Sand) that knowing is really just recognising: being old “I find novelty neither interesting nor surprising… it’s little more than timid variations on what’s already been.”
(view spoiler)[He recalls being drawn into the mysterious and secretive Congress of the World, when he was a naïve young man from a poor background. As the only surviving member, he now feels able to tell his story.
Delegates do not ask questions, and are expected to discover the goals of the Congress “gradually, and without haste”. The apparent chairman, don Alejandro, might not really be. In the afterword, JLB mentions parallels with Kafka.
“All mankind are delegates”, but most never know. Even among those who do, they should represent everyone, but how to categorise when each person can represent several groups? One man might simultaneously be a rancher, a Uruguayan, a red-bearded man and a man sitting in an arm-chair. We’re into set theory. And that extends to the inevitable library the Congress will need, which must not be limited to reference, but should include “classics of every land and language”. Will this be an infinite library, like the one of Babel? It certainly grows – indiscriminately, perhaps in echo of Pliny’s theory “that there was no book so bad that it doesn’t contain some good”.
Don Alejandro builds an amphitheatre at his ranch, for Congress to use for meetings. The library is there, too. A guest room at his ranch has a dirt floor, but a silver basin. He reads the Bible to his uncomprehending workers, just as in The Gospel According to Mark (in Brodie's Report). What does this have to do with anything?
And what language should the Congress use? “That infinite language, English”, Esperanto, Latin, or something else? The narrator goes to research in England and someone else to Paris. In the British Library Reading Room, he meets Beatrice. They become lovers, but he doesn’t leave a forwarding address because he wants “to avoid the anguish of waiting for her letters”. It doesn’t really fit with the rest of the plot.
The narrator returns, and don Alejandro sells the ranch, disbands Congress and burns all the books!
“The Congress of the World began the instant the world itself began… There is no place it is not… We no longer need the Congress, but this last night we shall all go out to contemplate the Congress.” (hide spoiler)]
There is passing reference to a new library director, “a literary gentleman who has devoted himself to the study of antique languages, as though the languages of today were not sufficiently primitive, and to the demagogical glorification of an imaginary Buenos Aires of knife fighters.”
Notes are private!
Jul 20, 2015
Jul 26, 2015
Apr 26, 2010
The enchantment of the title is apt, as there is an almost magical feel about the power of a beautiful landscape.
This is a c Enchanting Transformation
The enchantment of the title is apt, as there is an almost magical feel about the power of a beautiful landscape.
This is a carefully observed story of characters and transformation. It constantly juxtaposes light with underlying sadness and hope. It’s about finding the courage to shake off undeserved guilt, rattle convention, and be true to yourself – and thus to others in your life. “Now she had taken off all her goodness and left it behind her like a heap in rain-sodden clothes, and she only felt joy. She was naked of goodness, and was rejoicing in being naked.”
Everyone has some unspoken gap or sadness in their lives, despite outward ordinariness or even success. But inertia, fear, societal pressure keep them in their place. This is the story of what happens when each character takes a small, uncharacteristic step away from the quotidian, leading to more significant steps. Everyone is changed, some more quickly and dramatically than others.
It sounds sentimental, and at times feels a little so (especially near the end), and yet it is delightful. It's also a little unbelievable - but if the enchantment works for you, you'll forgive that.
This section is not a spoiler, and says little more than the blurb on the book itself. The real plot is the character development.
Mrs Wilkins is “running her listless eye down the Agony Column” when she spots an advert to rent an Italian castle for a month. It’s way beyond her means, but the mention of its wisteria is a draw, especially when she “stared out at the dripping street”. Wisteria has many mentions in the book, along with other flowers, but really, it’s the people who are flowering: in a new environment, they are liberated in ways that did not seem possible back in England in 1922.
Mrs Wilkins asks Mrs Arbuthnot, who she knows by sight from church, to come with her. They then advertise for two other women to join them and share the cost.
As soon as they arrive in Italy, despite a bad journey, “the whole inflamed sore dreariness, had faded to the dimness of a dream”. The weather was not initially welcoming, “But it was Italy. Nothing it did could be bad. The very rain was different— straight rain, falling properly on to one's umbrella; not that violently blowing English stuff that got in everywhere”.
The four women differ in age, outlook, social position, relationship status and more. Inevitably, men are added to the picture.
Humour comes from attempts to nab the best room, the etiquette of who is hostess (the one who initiated it, the most senior by age or rank; it certainly confuses the Italian staff), a dodgy boiler, and later, somewhat farcical aspects of mistaken assumptions and who is partnered with who.
It was only when I was half way through, I realised how apposite the timing was. It’s about four strangers who rent an Italian castle in April. I read it in August, finishing the day before I headed to France and Italy, for a trip that included staying in a villa with a group that included friends and strangers. I wasn’t as transformed as the characters here, but I think I unfurled a little.
This is the heart of the book.
She is a quiet, introverted woman in her mid 30s who seems older and more humble than she is. She thinks of herself as poor and still has a clothing allowance from her father – yet she’s married to a solicitor, lives in Hampstead and has a club.
“She was the kind of person who is not noticed at parties. Her clothes, infested by thrift, made her practically invisible.”
But she is also impulsive: she takes the initiative with the castle and she has a tendency to say what she thinks – not in a rude way, but it can seem a little improper or presumptive to others, particularly when saying what and why she thinks they are feeling.
She justifies the extravagance of the holiday in the expectation that she will return a nicer person. Her first night alone in five years feels strange, but there is joy and power in “her room bought with her own savings, the fruit of her careful denials, whose door she could bolt if she wanted to, and nobody had the right to come in”.
She is almost instantly transformed by the heavenly setting, relaxing and gaining confidence. In Rose’s eyes, Lotty was “impetuously becoming a saint. Could one really attain goodness so violently?” (view spoiler)[In the spirit of bliss, she invites her husband to join her – without consulting the others. He notices there is “not a shred of fear of him left in her” and there is a virtuous circle of her happiness and his warm response. (hide spoiler)]
Lotty’s husband is thrifty with everything, except for food – even words, thus “producing the impression of keeping copies of everything he said”. He’s an ambitious networker, and unlike his wife, he “gave a party, merely by coming to it, a great air.”
At home, he’s colder. Wanting to escape “the persistent vileness of the weather”, he proposes a holiday, and “as it would cause comment if he did not take his wife, take her he must—besides, she would be useful… for holding things, for waiting with the luggage”! (That holiday didn’t happen.)
(view spoiler)[At the castle, as more people arrive and there are shades of bedroom farce, he relishes – and cultivates - the possibility of legal advice arising from the apparently complex web of relationships. He is grudgingly grateful to Lotty for this opportunity - not that he says so to her. Lady Caroline warms to him, because he’s not predatory like other men; in fact he’s just as predatory, but not in a sexual sense. (hide spoiler)]
Her life is governed by “God, Husband, Home, Duty”. “The very way Mrs Arbuthnot parted her hair suggested a great calm that could only proceed from wisdom.” She’s a pillar of the church, leading good works and giving to the poor, in part to appease her guilt at her husband’s new – and profitable – career of writing salacious fictitious memoirs of kings’ mistresses and their ilk: “Her very nest egg was the fruit, posthumously ripened, of ancient sin”. She feels guilty about the extravagance of her holiday, despite her husband’s generosity.
She’s 33 and has been married for 13 years, and mourns “This separate life, this freezing loneliness”. Their only baby died. (view spoiler)[When she goes to Italy, she doesn’t tell her husband beforehand, but merely leaves him a note that doesn’t even say where she’s gone. She avoids talking about him and is happy for Mrs Fisher to assume her a widow.
Rose’s transformation is slower and more painful than Lotty’s. Previously, “Her scheduled life in the parish had prevented memories and desires from intruding on her.” She now has time to think, but finds it hard to pray. “San Salvatore had taken her carefully built-up semblance of happiness away from her, and given her nothing in exchange.” She’s more aware of her love for her husband and the loss of their baby. “How passionately she longed to be important to somebody again… privately important, just to one other person.”
Nevertheless, seeing Lotty’s happiness, she eventually invites Frederick, despite her perpetual fear she’ll bore him. He arrives oddly quickly. (hide spoiler)]
Rose’s writer husband is rarely at home, but “he never went out of the house without her blessing going with him too, hovering, like a little echo of finished love.” He’s hurt by her disapproval of his writing, her reluctance to spend his money, and the way she has drifted away from him. (view spoiler)[He’s 40 and moves in social circles as the author of titillating potboilers. His life bristles with complications, but he’s quick-witted and laid back. (hide spoiler)]
Lady Caroline Dester, aka Scrap
She’s a beautiful, rich, “extravagantly slender”, young flapper, tired of the social whirl. She sees herself as “a spoilt, a sour, a suspicious, and a selfish spinster”, though no one else does.
She is “wholly taken up by one great longing, a longing to get away from everybody she had ever known”, including those she’s sharing the castle with. Her success is limited in part by an odd inability to seem nasty or cross. For example, “what felt to her an indignant stare appeared to Mrs. Fisher as really charming docility”.
She has “the deep and melancholy fatigue, of the too much” which turns out to mean being constantly “grabbed” by men, “it was just as if she didn't belong to herself, wasn't her own at all, but was regarded as a universal thing, a sort of beauty-of-all-work”. The only man she loved and would have married had died in the war. “She was afraid of nothing in life except love” and “Nothing bored her so much as people who insisted on being original”.
A rather stuffy, proper widow of 65. Some of her lines are reminiscent of Lady Bracknell. She’s living on memories not of her husband, but the great literary figures she knew as a child, always name-dropping, even in her own thoughts: Ruskin, Tennyson, Browning, Carlyle, Matthew Arnold, as well as the President of the Royal Academy, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Governor of the Bank of England. She’s well off, but rather parsimonious. Her house was inherited and “Death had furnished it for her”. Her husband had “behaved very much like maccaroni. He had slipped, he had wriggled, he had made her feel undignified”, though we’re spared details.
(view spoiler)[Eventually, inevitably, Mrs Fisher has “a ridiculous feeling as if she were presently going to burgeon. Sternly she tried to frown the unseemly sensation down. Burgeon, indeed. She had heard of dried staffs, pieces of mere dead wood, suddenly putting forth fresh leaves, but only in legend. She was not in legend… Dignity demanded that she should have nothing to do with fresh leaves at her age; and yet there it was—the feeling that presently, that at any moment now, she might crop out all green.” (hide spoiler)]
He’s the owner, in his early 30s. (view spoiler)[He’s keen to settle down and have a family. He’s the human manifestation of the transformative power of the castle itself.
Lotty and Rose met him in London prior to renting the house. He assumed them to be widows and took a fancy to Rose, so he decides to visit. “The more Mr Briggs thought Rose charming the more charming she became.” He, an orphan, affects childless Mrs Fisher, too, “blossoming out into real amiability the moment some one came along who was charming to her”. Then he sees Lady Caroline… And of course she assumes he’s just another grabber. (hide spoiler)]
A writer who fancies Lady Caroline, and tracks her down in the castle, via her mother.
(view spoiler)[He’s actually Frederick Arbuthnot in Hampstead and Ferdinand Arundel in town, rather like Jack/Earnest in The Importance of Being Earnest. (hide spoiler)]
• A “prolonged quarrel… conducted with dignified silence on one side and earnest apology on the other.”
• “To be missed, to be needed… was… better than the complete loneliness of not being missed or needed at all.”
• “Incredible as it may seem, seeing how they get into everything, Mrs. Wilkins had never come across any members of the aristocracy.”
• “All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword.”
• “Up to now she had had to take what beauty she could as she went along, snatching at little bits of it when she came across it… She had never been in definitely, completely beautiful places.”
• “This was the simple happiness of complete harmony with her surroundings, the happiness that asks for nothing, that just accepts, just breathes, just is.”
• “She was having a violent reaction against beautiful clothes and the slavery they impose on one… gave one no peace till they had been everywhere and been seen by everybody. You didn't take your clothes to parties; they took you.”
• “Colour seemed flung down anyhow, anywhere; every sort of colour, piled up in heaps, pouring along in rivers… They stood looking at this crowd of loveliness, this happy jumble, in silence.”
• “How and where husbands slept should be known only to their wives. Sometimes it was not known to them, and then the marriage had less happy moments; but these moments were not talked about either.” Shades of Lady Bracknell.
• Her face “became elaborately uninterested”.
• “There were many things she disliked more than anything else.”
• “It is true she liked him most when he wasn't there, but then she usually liked everybody most when they weren't there.”
• “Inheritance was more respectable than acquisition. It did indicate fathers; and in an age where most people appeared neither to have them nor to want them she liked this too.”
• “He certainly looked exactly like a husband, not at all like one of those people who go about abroad pretending they are husbands.”
• “The marvelous night stole in through all one's chinks, and brought in with it… enormous feelings—feelings one couldn't manage.”
WARNING ABOUT THIS EDITION (Watchmaker Publishing)
I don’t know if this was transcribed from audio, or badly scanned, or even if it’s been this way for nearly a century, but my copy has a lot of odd typos. (American spelling was also a surprise.)
• “I wonder got which is best."
• “they each hand over a reasonable sun every week”
• “When Lady Caroline wants is one dose”
• “a hurried scribble, showing how much bored he was at doing it”
• “"You se," Mrs. Wilkins said”
• “they each out to have somebody happy inside them”
• “if any one was shaken of it was she herself”
• “He had not hear her.”
There are also some unpaired quotation marks, some serif and some not.
Notes are private!
Jul 19, 2015
Aug 16, 2015
Jul 19, 2015
May 27, 1976
Nov 02, 2006
"Middle age: an urge to destroy because you cannot create any more."
"It was as if he hadn't really wanted freedom, only to assert his right to be free "Middle age: an urge to destroy because you cannot create any more."
"It was as if he hadn't really wanted freedom, only to assert his right to be free if he chose."
Said of an escaped horse, but just as applicable to some of the human characters. And maybe to me, too.
I suppose this is historical fiction, albeit of a very recent kind, given that it's set before and around the time I was born. I have a casual fondness for English novels set in that period, usually among the slightly struggling, introspective middle class intelligentsia (Iris Murdoch, Margaret Drabble, Lynne Reid Banks, Penelope Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Pym). It's only just occurred to me that perhaps I'm trying to glimpse something of my parents' past (they're both still alive). I certainly see parallels in some of these novels. The really good ones still speak truth today.
This shows its age in a few ways. Some are rather charming, such as a metaphor on the first page, "other people are under-developed negatives, snapshots" and saying, with embarrassment, that an unmarried couple "were lovers". Others are more discomforting: gender roles in general, attitudes to casual domestic violence, a friend who fears her Jewish heritage may be discovered, and phrases like "Sometimes I dreamed of dark rapists in romantic situations". The ending would be improbable nowadays, too.
The History of a Marriage
This is the story of Richard and Elizabeth's travels in Morocco: a week or two in the mid 1960s. It's interspersed with backstory of their childhoods and the course of their marriage of nearly 20 years, including two sons. She's around 38, but describes herself as middle aged. They seem comfortable with low-level discomfort in their relationship. Settled. Settled for second-best, perhaps.
"Our feelings for each other rattle around like cards in a spinning tombola... we draw out a card, not always appropriate, for each occasion."
"When we were first married, we argued with vain, angry faces, insisting that we should be understood... Now we don't want to be understood. The truth is too painful."
Inevitably, their past, present and future turn out to be more troubling and complex than is initially apparent: deaths, betrayals, and disappointments all lurk, waiting for the triggers: travel, heat, friends new and old. Some of the consequences are a little predictable, others much less so. The overall effect is plausible (mostly), dramatic, traumatic.
Elizabeth is the narrator - to the reader and to herself: she sometimes thinks of herself in the third person, imagining how others describe her, as "a way of giving myself some kind of shape. Or helping me to see myself." She was raised by two strong women (aunts), in a fiercely political home (Labour), got into Oxford, but dropped out to marry, and has lacked confidence ever since.
For all her self-analysis, she isn't always honest to herself, which makes her situation all the more poignant: "Nothing moved in me. Apart from a superficial, tactile pleasantness, I felt nothing at all." But not always: "I had only pretended I didn't know... a shabby mischance had... knocked down the precarious walls of my prison."
At times, she's trying to be someone she's not, but she doesn't even know quite who that is. I can relate to that.
We all need escape at times. a hobby, a holiday, friendships, an affair. There are no answers here, unfortunately.
Some of these are agonising:
* "You know other people only as witnesses to your own situation: when they reflect your own fears and desires."
* Looking in the mirror, "I remain, as I did then [when younger] cloudy, fading, sadly out of focus. I do not know myself, only my own situation."
* "I put out my hand. He took it and, after a second, handed it back to me like a discarded handkerchief."
* "Richard has great charm when he chooses to exert it... He bestowed his charm upon them [her aunts] like a beautiful and unexpected present: since they were old, the giving of it flattered him, not them."
* A younger partner was "too young to be a discarded husband... too old to be a son".
* We "sat silent, smoking to comfort our inferiority".
* "I shrank from his perfection... grateful for the darkness."
* "He discussed his symptoms with the self-absorbed vehemence of a young man to whom pain is a single, shocking insult, not feared as a forerunner of something worse."
* "I fell into deceit quite easily... The change was not so much in him, as in the way I saw him."
* "a gloomily devoted mother."
* "This is what a marriage should be... two people comforting each other in the dark. There's no need for love in the daylight."
* "Duty is a much easier conception" than love.
* "He began to cry. It seemed like a strategy."
"I wanted to weep but I felt nothing."
Notes are private!
Jul 06, 2015
Jul 12, 2015
Jul 06, 2015
Oh dear. Awful. Just awful. Even more so, given how much I adored my first Penelope Fitzgerald last summer (Offshore) and that AS Byatt called this "a Oh dear. Awful. Just awful. Even more so, given how much I adored my first Penelope Fitzgerald last summer (Offshore) and that AS Byatt called this "a masterpiece". I'm baffled.
The prose is plodding - even though it's portraying a poet: short, banal sentence, after short banal sentence. I found the characters, setting and plot hard to imagine, care about or believe in - even though it's based on real life. I forced myself to finish it, thinking there must be something worthwhile to come. I failed to find it. I was just bored. And irritated.
This is a fictionalised account, but it seems to be fairly close to the facts, and some of the diary entries quoted here, are genuine historical documents.
It's set in a noble, pious, Protestant family in Germany, in the late 1700s. It concerns Fritz, who later became a famous romantic and philosophical poet known as Novalis. This book covers the slightly earlier period, around the time he succumbed to a coup de foudre over twelve-year old Sophie. Given the period, it's all very chaste; nothing like Lolita, which is a far more disturbing book, but is beautifully written, and hence powerful and compelling. So no, nothing like this.
Fritz attends university in several towns, studying a variety of subjects and dabbling in philosophy. He meets various people.
Afterwards, he trains to be a salt mine inspector like his father. He meets more people, including Sophie's family. He is welcomed, and spends a lot of time there. It's another large family, but utterly different from his own. Goethe makes an appearance and gives his opinion on the relationship.
The French Revolution is going on in the background. Some are slightly fearful; others vaguely support it.
The brief afterword made me laugh: it was like a satirical summary of a typical operatic plot. Even less appropriately, it reminded me of a scene in comedy sci-fi show, Red Dwarf: (view spoiler)[Holly to Lister, "They're all dead. Everybody's dead, Dave." (hide spoiler)]
The Blue Flower
What a pretty image. It's the title of a novel Fritz starts to write about "unspeakable longings" for such a flower.
This may be another reason the book didn't "wow" me. Blue is my favourite colour, but I wasn't sufficiently awed by the exoticism of a blue flower. It may not be the most common hue, but blue flowers have always featured prominently in my life. Spring is marked by walks to the beech woods to see carpets of bluebells; my mother pots blue hyacinths each year to give to family and friends; my granny grew delphiniums and hydrangeas in profusion, and in more recent years, nearby fields are filled with linseed flowers (so much nicer than the garish yellow of rapeseed).
He first reads this to Karoline, saying he wrote it for her. Then he reads it to Sophie, as if it's for her. The "test" for both is to understand its deep meaning.
Sophie is puzzled:"'Do you not know yourself?' she asked doubtfully." to which he says "Sometimes I think I do".
The two people who are claimed to understand it are Sophie's doctor, and Fritz's younger, precocious brother, The Bernhard, though I can't say I agreed with The Bernhard's interpretation.
The Christmas Reckoning
This was an intriguing and slightly alarming idea. "The mother spoke to her daughters, the father to his sons, and told them first what had displeased, then what had pleased most in their conduct during the past year. In addition, the young Hardenbergs were asked to make a clean breast of anything that they should have told their parents, but had not."
Believabality and Inconsistency
Love is not rational, and sudden infatuation even less so, but if a poet cannot convey the reasons for his passion for a child who is not especially pretty, intelligent or interested, how can the reader believe it?
Fritz's family is large and noble, but poor (nobility are banned from many jobs). Later on, money seems less tight, it's not clear how or why.
He was a sickly and apparently backward child, but then turned into a genius, though there's little evidence of that, in his poetry or vague philosophical musings. He does call Sophie "my Philosophy", though, and also "my spirit's guide".
We're told that as a the child of a large family he keeps a diary rather than talk to himself, then ten pages later... he's talking to himself a lot.
The number and ages of children didn't stack up (Fritz's mother is said to have given birth eight times and later to have eleven children, but no mention of twins, and The Bernhard starts off aged six but is almost adult a few short years later).
Despite the generally leaden prose, there are some nice turns of phrase:
• A shy matriarch “seeming of less substance even than the shadows... no more than a shred.”
• “a short, unfinished young man.”
• “How heavy a child is when it gives up responsibility.”
• A man still feels his older brother “appeared to have been sent into the world primarily to irritate him”.
• “Earth and air were often indistinguishable in the autumn mist, and morning seemed to pass into afternoon without discernible mid-day.”
• “Erasmus would... enroll in the school of forestry, a wholesome open-air life for which so far he had shown no inclination whatsoever.”
• “Jollity is as relentless as piety.”
• “If a story begins with finding, it must end with searching.”
• At the fair, “A fine young woman still, what a pity she has no affianced to treat her to a pig's nostril!"
• Mining “is not a violation of Nature's secrets, but a release.”
• In a music room, “the airy space faithfully carried every note, balanced it, and let it fall reluctantly.”
• “the remorseless perseverance of the truly pleasure-loving.”
• “Even in his garden-house, melancholy caught him by the sleeve.”
A quirk, which was unfamiliar to me, was the naming. Sophie is often called Sophgen, Fritz's parents as the Freifrau and the Freiherr, and many others are referred to as "the [something]". When many of the characters are thin, an extra veil doesn't help.
Notes are private!
May 10, 2015
May 23, 2015
May 10, 2015
Jan 01, 2000
Aug 28, 2001
“All stories are about wolves… Anything else is sentimental drivel.”
Atwood doesn’t write sentimental drivel (and I don’t read it), and there are sever “All stories are about wolves… Anything else is sentimental drivel.”
Atwood doesn’t write sentimental drivel (and I don’t read it), and there are several wolves in this stunning book. This is my tenth Atwood, and it’s even better than any of the others I’ve enjoyed. The scope and variety of her work is impressive, but here, she accomplishes that within the covers of a single book: it should be shelved as historical fiction, memoir, espionage/thriller, and sci-fi.
It grabs the reader in the first brief chapter (less than three pages), which would work as a short story: so much is implied, but so little stated, you can’t help but read on, eagerly. This also sets a pattern of foreshadowing: you know many key events long before they “happen”, but have to wait and think to find out how and why.
The pacing is perfect, too. I guessed some crucial elements well before they were revealed, but there was enticing uncertainty, and always another conundrum in the pipeline. This creates a pleasing balance between pride and doubt in the reader.
Matryoshka – stories within stories
The analogy with a nest of Russian dolls applies far more to this than David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The different layers constantly switch, but it’s never confusing:
1. Iris, the narrator, is an elderly woman, describing her daily life, with a backdrop of weather, seasons, and fear of losing independence. It's painfully poignant, lightened with waspish and often self-deprecating humour.
2. Iris also tells the story of her life and that of her sister (Laura), from childhood to the “present” day, with a backdrop of two world wars, the Depression, and political/union unrest. Born to wealth and respectability, but lacking parental love, their lives – and relationship with each other - take many turns. This is the main bulk of the story: historical fiction, sweeping most of the 20th century, set in SE Canada.
3. As a young woman, Laura drives off a bridge (not a spoiler; it’s in the first sentence of the book), and a few years later, after going through Laura’s papers, Iris publishes her novel “Blind Assassin”, excerpts of which are in this book of the same name. It’s the story of a pair of covert lovers, each with secrets and something to lose. He is short of money, constantly on the move. Clandestine meetings in a series of seedy bedsits and borrowed rooms are hard to arrange. The vague politics of this overlap with the specific labour unrest in the main story.
4. Within that novel, the nameless man, a writer of pulp sci-fi, tells stories of planet Zyrcon to the nameless woman. The title of both books comes from the fact that slave children are trained to create beautiful carpets – to the point at which they go blind. Some then go into the sex trade, and some become assassins. This then, is a pastiche, of a "lowbrow" genre, rather than the speculative fiction Atwood often writes, and is meant to echo the politics of its fictional author (are you still following this?).
5. The world of Zyrcon has its own myths, some of which are told. There are parallels with ancient cultures on Earth.
In addition, there are occasional newspaper reports, and the odd letter from a school or doctor.
This is a brave format that could alienate readers who like one style/genre and dislike another, but I think it worked very well, in part because most chapters are short, so you never feel trapped in a style that is not your favourite. I paid a little less attention to the details of what happened on Zycron, but that was mainly because I was so anxious to know what happened to Iris and Laura. On a reread, I would study Zycron more closely, to see the parallels with the stories around it.
Warning to Apatt: Some of the sections use quotation marks and some don’t (it didn’t bother me, though).
The title clearly refers to the novel within the novel of that name, and which features assassins who are literally blind. However, there are other characters in the "real" stories who could be classed as such, in a more metaphorical sense. Few characters are troubled by guilt, though.
Iris is a wonderful creation: old, cranky, lonely, feisty, sharp, and something of an outsider all her life, even from her own family. She grudgingly accepts a modicum of help from Myra and Walter: “I am what makes her so good in the eyes of others”; Iris carries her laundry like Little Red Riding Hood “except that I myself am Granny, and I contain my own bad wolf”. Nevertheless, she resists as much as she can, while painfully noting the effects of time on her body.
“I feel like a letter – deposited here, collected there. But a letter addressed to no one.”
“I yearn for sleep… yet it flutters ahead of me like a sooty curtain.”
“After having imposed itself on us like the egomaniac it is… [the body’s] final trick is simply to absent itself.”
For all that Iris cultivates curmudgeonliness, it’s largely a carapace, and sometimes for entertainment (sarcastic letters to fans of The Blind Assassin, wanting to interview her about Laura); the really nasty piece of work is her arriviste sister-in-law, Winifred.
Laura doesn’t live to be old. She’s an enigma as a child, and more so after death – to Iris and the reader. “Nothing is more difficult than to understand the dead… Nothing is more dangerous than to ignore them.”
Iris assembles a series of impressions, but you can never quite grasp her – which is entirely appropriate: Laura was “interested in forms” and “wanted essences”, but not in facts and logic – and yet she was a literalist with “a heightened capacity for belief”.
“Being Laura was like being tone deaf: the music played and you heard something, but it wasn’t what everyone else heard.”
She was “too cozy with strangers… It wasn’t that she flouted rules: she simply forgot about them.” Hence, she “had only the haziest notions of ownership”. She “was not selfless… she was skinless”. Unlike Iris, she had the courage of her (decidedly odd) convictions and didn’t care what other people thought.
There is an essay to be written on what Laura and Iris share - and what they don't. It's not just the obvious things.
Class: Winifred and Richard
Snobbery, especially looking down on new money, is not just a British ailment. Iris and Laura were the granddaughters of a wealthy industrialist who married above himself, gaining respectability for the family.
Iris’s husband, Richard, is very new money. His ghastly sister runs his life (as well as lots of charity committees) and then moulds and controls young, newlywed Iris. “Her [teaching] method was one of hint, suggestion.” So “I seemed to myself erased, featureless, like an avalanche of used soap, or the moon on the wane”.
As Iris matures, she increasingly sees through this and resists or retaliates, and of course she’s telling it with the wisdom of old age. It’s amusingly, but painfully catty. “You could be charming… with a little effort”.
“Avilion [the family home] had once had an air of stability that amounted to intransigence”, but after Winifred and Richard refurbish it, “it no longer had the courage of its pretensions”. Overdoing it somewhat, Atwood adds between those two phrases, “a large, dumpy boulder plunked [sic] down in the stream of time, refusing to be moved for anybody – but now it was dog-eared, apologetic, as if it were about to collapse in on itself”!
Richard is a shadowy (in every sense) figure – something Iris/Atwood acknowledges. “As the days went by I felt I knew Richard less and less… I myself however was taking shape – the shape intended for me, by him… coloured in.” Later, “I’ve failed to convey Richard, in any rounded sense… He’s blurred, like the face in some wet, discarded newspaper.”
In their marriage, “Placidity and order… with a decorous and sanctioned violence… underneath” because he “preferred conquest to cooperation in every area of life”. Chillingly, “It was remarkable how easily I bruised, said Richard, smiling.”
Alex Thomas is classless: his background, even if you believe his own account (child refugee of unknown family) gives no clue. That might enable him to fit in anywhere, but really, he's alien everywhere (not in a literal, lizardy sense).
In The Handmaid’s Tale, red is a recurring colour. Here, it’s green, often for clothing, and occasionally in conjunction with the colour watermelon. However, the symbolism isn’t as clear here as in Handmaid; it’s usually related to coldness, rather than jealousy. A few examples (out of more than twenty!):
• “Her slip is the chill green of shore ice, broken ice.”
• “Sober colours… hospital-corridor green” (Laura’s typical attire).
• Richard chose an emerald engagement ring (though his sister, Winifred, overruled that, so he proffered a diamond).
• Just before a tornado, “the sky had turned a baleful shade of green”.
• A bombe desert at dinner was “bright green” and honeymoon salad “tasted like pale-green water… Like frost”.
Quotes – truth, secrets, memory, writing
After years of negligible education, the girls have a fierce new tutor, “We did learn, in a spirit of vengefulness… What we really learned from him was how to cheat” as well as “silent resistance… and not getting caught”. Useful skills.
• “It’s not the lying that counts, it’s evading the necessity for it.”
• “The best way to keep a secret is to pretend there isn’t one.”
• Secret lovers “proclaiming love, withholding the particulars”.
• “It was an effort for me now to recall the details of my grief – the exact forms it had taken – although at will I could summon up an echo of it.”
• “Is what I remember the same things as what actually happened?”
• “The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read… not even by yourself.”
• Looking back at her wedding photo, “I don’t recall having been present… I and the girl in the picture have ceased to be the same person. I am her outcome… I can see her… but she can’t see me.”
Quotes – weather, seasons, nature
• “The light like melted butter… trees with exhausted leaves.”
• In a park, “disregarded corners… leggy dandelions stretching towards the light”.
• “Light filtered through the net curtain, hanging suspended in the air, sediment in a pond.”
• When hot and humid, “The words I write feather at the edges like lipstick on an aging mouth”.
• “The sky was a hazy grey, the sun low in the sky, a wan pinkish colour, like fish blood. Icicles… as if suspended in the act of falling.”
• “Wild geese… creaking like anguished hinges.”
• “Grudging intimations of spring.”
Quotes - other
• “Only the blind are free.” A blind assassin “sees through the girl’s clothing with the inner eye that is the bliss of solitude”.
• “There’s nothing like a shovelful of dirt to encourage literacy”. I guess EL James proves that.
• Tourist trinkets: “History… was never this winsome, and especially not this clean”.
• “The other side of selflessness is tyranny.” and “He can’t have found living with her forgiveness all that easy.”
• The mother of a difficult baby “lost altitude… lost resilience”, so the sibling found “silence, helpfulness the only way to fit in”.
• “She has a soft dense mouth like a waterlogged velvet cushion and tapered fingers deft as a fish.”
• “Children believe that everything bad that happens is their fault…but they also believe in happy endings.”
• “Dowdy to the point of pain.”
• “A black dress, simply cut but voraciously elegant.”
• “Beginnings are sudden, but also insidious. They creep up on you sideways, they keep to the shadows, they lurk unrecognized. Then, later, they spring.”
• On a virgin’s bed, “The arctic waste of starched white bedsheet stretched out to infinity.”
• “Touch comes before speech. It is the first language and the last, and it always tells the truth.”
• A flashy lawyer's office has “an abstract painting compose of pricey smudges… they bill by the minute… just like the cheaper whores.”
• Shaving and plucking to create “A topography like wet clay, a surface the hands would glide over.”
• Downtrodden people are “Broken verbs.”
• The kettle “began its lullaby of steam”.
• In a seedy hotel, “wallpaper, no longer any colour”.
• “He killed things by chewing off their roots.”
• “Unshed tears can turn you rancid.”
Notes are private!
Apr 30, 2015
May 08, 2015
Apr 23, 2015
Nov 01, 2011
King describes my relationship with this book very well:
"His relationship with his father had been like the unfurling of some flower of beautiful pot King describes my relationship with this book very well:
"His relationship with his father had been like the unfurling of some flower of beautiful potential, which, when wholly opened, turned out to be blighted inside."
My first Stephen King, and my first proper horror novel will be my last. I certainly didn't expect to be bored, but I was. After 338 pages / two thirds of the book, I decided life's too short to waste on books I don't enjoy.
If you want sinister snow, I suggest The Castle instead.
The basic plot (family alone and cut-off in spooky house) may not be original, but it started off quite intriguingly, with more literal demons of alcohol, cycles of abusive parenting (one physical, one emotional), and a lonely only child trying to understand the perplexities adult world. The fact the child, five-year old Danny, can read minds and has hallucinations and premonitions makes the gap between what he sees/knows and understands all the greater.
The love a child can feel for an abuser is a strong theme early on: "Jack had loved him for as long as he was able, long after the rest of the family could only hate and fear him", and he's terrified of alienating Danny. Similarly, Wendy's troubled relationship with her jealous mother is echoed in the way she envies Danny's closeness to his father.
Jack, is a recovering alcoholic, still struggling to stay on the wagon (I assume he gives in later in the book), and although he's never had any paranormal experiences before, he seems to experience some here. Or maybe it's clinical. What's the difference between paranormal (Danny) and "real" but distorted perception (Jack)?
There were also nods to Alice in Wonderland (indirect) and Bluebeard (explicitly).
All these ideas could be fascinating and disturbing, but they didn't really go anywhere, especially after things started jumping out at them.
Join the Dots
Once the family were alone in the Overlook Hotel, it became increasingly and infuriatingly formulaic: the build up to something scary, then the relief of everyone pulling through with only minor damage, then the next something scary - perhaps a variant on a previous one, or maybe something new - each one just slightly worse than the previous, interspersed with the odd false alarm. The scary things included all the obvious ones and... actually I can't think of any non-obvious ones, but maybe they come in the final third of the book.
All this was interspersed by lazy exposition of what should have been interesting backstory: the dirty dealings in the hotel (organised crime, prostitutes, murder) were revealed by a convenient scrap book, and Jack and Wendy's inner struggles with their own parents and with each other are explained like an introductory psychology primer: Jack wondered if the reason he did X was because Y. SHOW, don't tell!
There were plenty of weak clichés ("His pride was all that was left", a child feeling like a puppet in adult games, Danny being the key to everything - just like the key in a clock) and several weird typos and missing words.
On the other hand, I really laughed at this description of a lift/elevator, that "wheezed vibratoriously up the shaft"!
Danny keeps seeing and hearing this, and he knows it's bad and scary. But it's a Mystery. With a capital M. The revelation of what and why it meant was the final straw for me: such an anti-climax, and it doesn't even make sense in the way it's described.
Why I Read This - and Why I (almost certainly) Won't Read King Again
One of the things I enjoy about GR is the way it has broadened my reading (and deepened it, too). There are many wonderful books I've read purely because friends with similar tastes have raved about them (Stoner in particular).
I gradually noticed quite a few friends whose literary tastes overlap with mine rate King quite highly as a writer. I began to question my avoidance of horror and King, and canvassed advice as to which to read.
I wanted to enjoy this - to find a new writer and genre to enjoy, and to prove I should have read King sooner. Perhaps that's why I stuck with it as long as I did (that, and residual guilt from childhood indoctrination never to give up on a book). Even Jack, who wanted to write a book about the hotel, skimmed the scrapbook, so that mitigates my guilt a little.
I'm still grateful for the advice about reading King. The fact I've confirmed that King isn't for me is useful knowledge, which is an improvement on uninformed prejudice.
* "The bar, where dark shadows sat sampling the tasty waters of oblivion."
* "That commonplace sense of history that anyone can feel glancing through the fresh news of ten or twenty years ago."
* "She recoiled from his hot eyes and tried on a smile that was a size too small."
* "Staring at the door with a kind of drugged avidity."
Notes are private!
Jun 16, 2015
Apr 12, 2015
May 01, 1995
“Nose and knees and knees and nose” – part of a prophecy about the unborn narrator. A few days after reading this, I was fortunate to be in the Acropo “Nose and knees and knees and nose” – part of a prophecy about the unborn narrator. A few days after reading this, I was fortunate to be in the Acropolis Museum, and was struck by a collection of three bas-reliefs that were just of knees. Coupled with the relative lack of whole noses on some of the statues, I was transported back to this book.
This was my first adult Rushdie, following soon after his gorgeous children’s/YA novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
My initial reaction to this was “The language is lush and sensuous, seasoned with a little wit. But I feel hampered by my vague knowledge of Indian history, culture and mythology”. I thought much same at the end, although I also realised it’s a powerful and entrancing book at any level.
“I am the sum total of everything that went before me… To understand me you’ll have to swallow the world.” But not just him, “To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world.”
WHAT AND FOR WHO(M)?
A knowledge of 20th century Indian history is clearly an advantage but, given the complexity and length of the story, it might be a slight distraction as well. Perhaps a timeline of key events would be a useful appendix.
In the preface, Rushdie observes that Indians treat it as historical fiction and westerners as fantasy. I think it’s a hybrid, with the mystical, magical, surreal aspects increasing towards the end. He also explains that many of the characters are based on family and childhood friends. He doesn't mention that the adult bedwetter shares a name with his own son! His son was an infant at the time of writing, so it may have reflected the frustrations of early parenthood, but I can't believe his son thanked him for it later. On the other hand, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, written a few years later, has a beautiful and heart-breaking to the same son.
It’s a curious, disorienting book that has passages of conventional narrative interspersed with rambling passages of history, allegory, philosophical reverie, and recaps and foreshadowing of plot. It’s worth keeping a few notes, as many characters change name and/or turn out not to be who you were first told they were.
Reading it was a strange sensation: it was so far removed from anything familiar to me that it could almost have been sci-fi (I know that sounds weird). I loved some of the language, and appreciated the craft of the author, but I could not quite love it in the way I wanted and expected to. Straight after this, I turned to Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which is another long and multi-layered novel, but where the desire to read just a little bit more was a deeper compulsion, with no parallel sense of… worthiness (not the right word, but I’m not sure what is).
Rushdie delivered, but I fell short. The book deserves all its awards and a full 5*, but my own experience was 4*.
The plot is both simple and complex (duality and opposites are recurring themes).
Saleem (the narrator)’s mother visits a soothsayer when pregnant, and his bizarre and seemingly contradictory conundrums sum up events, including: the knees and nose (above), “two heads – but you shall see only one… cobra will creep… Washing will hide him – voices will guide him… Blood will betray him” mentions of doctors, spittoons, jungle, wizards and soldiers, ending “He will have sons without having sons! He will be old before he is old! And he will die. . . before he is dead!”
Saleem is born at midnight on the day India becomes independent, and raised in a wealthy Indian family. As a child, he becomes aware of a telepathic link to other Indian children born that night: Midnight’s Children, each of whom has at least one special power. “Thanks to the occult tyrannies of those blandly saluting clocks, I had been mystically handcuffed to history”.
The events he tells, from his grandparent’s meeting onwards, are many and varied, but with common themes, woven in to a kaleidoscopic story that stays just short of confusing.
Early on, the idea of something being revealed in fragments is introduced, and later, Saleem says “the ghostly echo of that perforated sheet… condemned me to see my own life – its meanings, its structures – in fragments also.” Midnight’s Children are fragmented across the country; Saleem is their only connection. Hence, it seems appropriate to conjure impressions of the book from its many disparate, but intertwined, themes. As for assembling all these fragments…? That’s where I feel I failed slightly.
• Fragments and holes, versus wholeness
When Dr Aadam Aziz (Saleem’s grandfather) found himself “unable to worship a god in whose existence he could not wholly disbelieve”, it “made a hole in him… leaving him vulnerable to women and history.” There are many mentions of that hole (and others): “Sometimes, through a trick of the light, Amina thought she saw, in the centre of her father’s body, a dark shadow like a hole.”
The original perforated sheet is used to examine a young female patient, seeing only what he needs to see. After many different ailments, he had a “badly-fitting collage of her severally-inspected parts” that filled up the hole inside him, even though he had never seen her face. It is sensitively and sensuously written.
Loving in fragments is harder, especially when the subject is “now unified and transmuted into a formidable figure”, but more than one character attempts it.
A descendant uses a different piece of perforated fabric to maintain modesty and anonymity while pursuing a singing career.
• Duality, pairs and opposites
There are so many instances and aspects of these concepts, that there is no need to list or expand on them. Perhaps the most significant are Saleem and his “destructive, violent alter-ego”, leading opposite lives, and The Widow (Mrs Gandhi) with her centre parting giving her a white side and black side.
• Snakes (and ladders), hence reversal
As prophesised, snakes are important, both real and imaginary. Cobra venom cures typhoid, and from Snakes and Ladders (“perfect balance of rewards and penalties”), Saleem has “an early awareness of the ambiguity of snakes” and encounters plenty of ups and downs. This is an area where knowledge of Indian mythology would help.
Biological and metaphorical impotence, permanent and temporary, affects several characters (quite apart from mention of high-pressure sterilisation campaigns), including the nation of India itself.
• Confused parentage, gaining parents
“Once again a child was to be born to a father who was not his father, although by a terrible irony the child would be the true grandchild of his father’s parents.”
Not everyone is the biological child of who they are thought to be, not just from illicit relationships, but also, in incident at the heart of the book, by the deliberate act of a third party. Furthermore, Saleem develops a habit of acquiring a string of fathers and father figures.
Some characters are known by nicknames (Saleem’s grandmother is Reverend Mother and his sister The Brass Monkey), and others change their name – especially women, to have children (his grandmother, mother and wife). This probably resonates with Indian mythology and culture in ways I don’t know.
• Storytelling, truth, memory, reality, and free speech
“What’s real and what’s true are not necessarily the same.”
“Reality is a question of perspective; the further you get from the past, the more concrete and plausible it seems.” Just as a cinema screen looks real until you’re so close you can see the pixels.
“Memory’s truth… in the end it creates its own reality.”
“What actually happens is less important than what the author can manage to persuade his audience to believe.”
This was written years before the fatwa that sent Rushdie into hiding (and which is reflected in Haroun; see my review, linked at the top). However, a punishment in this is to “seal our lips”, like the "Sign of the Zipped Lips" in Haroun. One character here is voluntarily mute for three years, as a protest, and another is very late learning to speak.
All the Midnight’s Children have a power. Saleem considers his telepathic and telegraphic skills to be the most powerful (“the ability to look into the hearts and minds of men”), with those born less close to midnight having progressively weaker skills. But others can become invisible, step in and out of mirrors, multiply fish, change sex at will, inflict physical pain with words, have perfect memory, heal, do alchemy, time travel, speak all languages, prophesy and more. Appropriately, the child of two Midnight’s Children is mute for three years, then his first word is Abracadabra.
There is also a little numerology: 420 = fraud, 1001 = magic, 555 = evil.
Several characters disappear for a time, or permanently: oblivion via the Djinn bottle, magical invisibility, running away, death, and two who apparently have vitiligo.
• Time and preservation
The time of birth is key to Saleem’s life and self-appointed mission to rescue his country. He ends up (no spoiler – he says this early on) as a pickle-maker and a writer: “I spend my time at the great work of preserving. Memory, as well as fruit, is being saved from the corruption of the clocks.” This reminded me of one of the few other Indian books I’ve read, The God of Small Things, in which the family has a pickle factory.
• Smell and other senses
Saleem has a huge nose, and at different times has no sense of smell and a very powerful, magical one that can detect safety, danger, the “glutinous reek of hypocrisy” and “the fatalistic hopelessness of the slum dwellers and the smug defensiveness of the rich”. “The perfume of her sad hopefulness permeates her.”
Emotions can be transferred via sewing and cooking: “the curries and meatballs of intransigence… fish salans of stubbornness and the birianis of determination” and clothes “into whose seams she had sewn her old maid’s bile… the baby-things of bitterness, then the rompers of resentment… the starch of jealousy… our wardrobe was binding us into the webs of her revenge.”
Blood was in the prophecy in a specific way, but it crops up in many other ways and there are a couple of paragraphs where Saleem rattles them off.
• Spittoon and Anglepoise
A silver spittoon inlaid with lapis lazuli is important, as are spittoons in general. I felt the cultural gap here.
Trivial (or maybe not), but within the first hundred pages, I’d noted at least three variants of “Anglepoised pool of light”. Having spotted it, it was almost more distracting to find only two more in the remaining 500+ pages.
I'm not the only person to have noticed:
Salman Rushdie and Translation:
"the Anglepoise lamp, a uniquely individualistic type of lighting which lights up only the small, restricted area of desk or writing materials in its scope. The phrase also seems to imply Anglophone or Anglophile literary writing alongside the notion of writing by lamplight."
Salman Rushdie: Critical Essays volume 1:
"The trope of the Anglepoise light... suggests the divided sensibility in Saleem, a child born in post-colonial India, not post-Independence India."
AND THE MORAL IS?
I’m not sure there is one. The subject is raised obliquely a few times, but somehow feels lacking. I’m puzzled that I wrote that: I don’t seek out morality tales, but as I compile this review, I realise this felt like the sort of book that had, or ought to have, such a thread, and yet I lost it in the rich tapestry.
The Midnight Children “found it easy to be brilliant, [but] we were always confused about being good”, just as Saleem used his powers to cheat in class in an attempt to gain parental approval.
Another gap was precisely WHY Mary Pereira does the thing she does. A reason is given, but it doesn’t really make sense to me, and the implications and effects are so huge, I wanted to understand. Related to that, why did those who found out, not try to investigate and find?
“For what reason you’re rich and I’m poor?”
• “His face was a sculpture of wind and water: ripples made of hide.”
• “Most of what happens in our lives happens in our absence.”
• “Even in his moments of triumph, there hung the stink of future failure.”
• “Poverty eats away at the tarmac like a drought, where people live their invisible lives.”
• “He had eyes like road-drills, hard and full of ratatat.”
• “An apartment of such supernatural untidiness.”
• “Blurred the edges of himself by drink.”
• "I have become, it seems to me, the apex of an isosceles triangle, supported equally by twin deities, the wild god of memory and the lotus-goddess of the present... but must I now be reconciled to the narrow one-dimensionality of a straight line?"
• “Uncreated lives rotting in her womb.”
• “We could hear the creaks and groans of a rustling, decayed imagination.”
• Army recruits “were so young, and had not had time to acquire the type of memories which give men a firm hold on reality.”
• When invisible, “I hung in a sphere of absence”.
• “A girl who followed him with eyes moistened with accusation.”
• “The widow’s finest, most delicate joke: instead of torturing us, she gave us hope. Which meant she had something… to take away.”
• “Soft, amorous susurrations, like the couplings of velvet mice.”
• “The quinquesyllabic monotony of the wheels.”
• Apparently, Lady Mountbatten “ate chicken breasts secretly behind a locked lavatory door.” It is strange if true, and even stranger to mention it.
There were also a few multi-tense strings, which were quite effective in context: “we were are shall be the gods you never had” and he ”will be is already more cautious.”
Notes are private!
Apr 13, 2015
Apr 28, 2015
Apr 03, 2015
Jan 17, 2012
Jan 17, 2012
Added because of Vishy's review:
Notes are private!
Feb 04, 2015
Dec 02, 2014
A rich and delicious snack that defies categorisation.
It has elements of Kafka, Roald Dahl, Hillaire Belloc and Tim Burton, with a dash of Orwell (but A rich and delicious snack that defies categorisation.
It has elements of Kafka, Roald Dahl, Hillaire Belloc and Tim Burton, with a dash of Orwell (but one digit out). It looks like a beautifully designed and illustrated children's book, though it's rather dark for small children, and YA feels wrong as well.
I think it's a book for adults who like slightly sinister tales and want to recapture a taste of the frisson of fear they relished when young.
The story is a fairly simple fable: a boy goes to the public library because he was idly wondering about the Ottoman tax collection system, and his mother always said, "If you don't know something, go to the library to look it up". He knows the place well, but on this occasion, he's sent to a reading room, via an enormous underground labyrinth, escorted by a sinister old man. It's not just the corridors that take a worrying turn, and he tries to quell his fears by rationalising the improbability of a public body being able to afford so much secret space. Is it magical, a hallucination, real in a parallel world? Will he live or die?
The story is set pre-Google, and it should probably be read as if Kindles and audio books don't exist either.
This is a book you need to hold, touch, and smell. My edition (illustrated at the top of this review) has an old-fashioned library card wallet glued to the outside front cover.
The illustrations are beautiful, very varied, only loosely related to the text, and mostly copied from books in the ancient London Library (http://www.londonlibrary.co.uk/). I recently attended a friend's birthday dinner there; it was a strange juxtaposition of enjoyments.
Knowledge is good - but maybe dangerous, too?
I just hope this book doesn't put anyone off seeking knowledge, either in general, or by visiting their local library. It has that effect on the narrator, but that is partly because the punishment prescribed for him failing to acquire specific knowledge in a limited time was so grim - yet also somewhat clichéd.
Kafka and other parallels
Minor spoilers - but no more than in the book's own blurb.
The boy meets a/the sheep man, a character in other Murakami books.
There are several references to birds, but I haven't read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, so I don't know how tenuous that is.
Room 107 has similarities with Room 101.
Theseus comes to mind, mainly towards the end, though navigating by licking the wall was novel!
For genuinely child-oriented illustrated tales in a similar, but poetic, vein, see Belloc's "Cautionary Tales"; for something between those and this, see Tim Burton's The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy.
However, Kafka was the strongest parallel for me: surreal, incomprehensible situation, unfair punishment without recourse to defence, and sustenance (food, flirting and, in Kafka, more) from a woman who may or may not be real. ...more
Notes are private!
Jan 26, 2015
Jan 26, 2015
Nov 01, 2011
Nov 01, 2011
Notes are private!
Jan 21, 2015
Jul 18, 2014
Jul 18, 2014
The Twitter story that was (is being) developed into a novel, Slade House, which I've reviewed here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show....
Twitter The Twitter story that was (is being) developed into a novel, Slade House, which I've reviewed here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show....
Twitter version, but in leaner format: http://www.themillions.com/2014/07/ex....
All my Mitchell reviews are on an uber shelf:
Notes are private!
Oct 31, 2015
Jan 20, 2015
Jan 01, 1965
Jun 20, 2006
After 63 pages: “Stunned by Stoner. This is agonisingly wonderful.”
At the end: “Finished. Him and me. Exquisite but exhausted.”
Then I immediately star After 63 pages: “Stunned by Stoner. This is agonisingly wonderful.”
At the end: “Finished. Him and me. Exquisite but exhausted.”
Then I immediately started rereading - something I have only previously done with children’s picture books.
It is, without question, my joint favourite book ever. (Titus Groan/Gormenghast is the other, in a very different way.) For that reason, I’ve really struggled with this review: it’s hard to explain its mesmerising power in a way that does it justice. In a departure from my usual technique, what follows is from the heart, with very little reference to my copious notes, except for the quotes.
WHAT SORT OF STORY?
It opens with a page of downbeat, but carefully crafted spoilers, rather like an obituary, after which, the story is told straightforwardly and chronologically, from William Stoner’s last days at school and on his parents’ farm, to life as a university student, then university faculty member, marriage, parenthood, affair, and finally his death. His main joy is literature, and the university that enables him to share that love with others, reflected in simple but heartfelt words on his retirement, “Thank you all for letting me teach”.
It sounds dull, banal or both, but it's not. It's heartbreakingly beautiful, without being sentimental, and because Stoner is never without hope, I didn't find it a depressing.
CONTRASTS: ELOQUENCE and INARTICULACY, STRONG and WEAK, SUCCESS and FAILURE, GAIN and LOSS
It’s a book about language and literature, and yet inarticulacy is a recurring theme: it is the direct cause of most of the pain, but also the trigger for his main happiness: in a compulsory literature review, it is his inability to understand, or perhaps to explain his understanding of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 that triggers a life-long passion and career. This reticence or inability to talk about innermost thoughts is perhaps one reason why the causes of Edith's behaviour are only hinted at: anything more explicit would set the wrong tone (and might not have been appropriate when published).
Almost all Stoner’s dreams come true, but happiness is always elusive and ephemeral. The good things are lost or, worse still, taken away by someone he had hoped would be his love or friend (Edith and Lomax, respectively). Both antagonists are sensitive, damaged people (as is Stoner) and Lomax even shares his love of literature for similar reasons (escape).
One message of the book is “carpe diem” (seize the day, or in youth speak: YOLO), which is also reflected in Sonnet 73’s focus on decay, death, and enjoying what we have while we can.
Stoner can be brave, such as swapping from an agricultural degree course with its predictable future to an English literature degree, inspired by a sonnet he struggled to explain – and yet he doesn’t have the courage to tell his parents until after they’ve attended his graduation.
WHAT SORT OF MAN?
Some see Stoner as passive and weak. Certainly there are many times when I wanted him to act differently, or just to act at all - in particular, to stand up for his daughter and his lover.
Instead, he is quietly stoical, which is apt, given his areas of interest include classical Greek literature. His quiet stoicism, born of parental fortitude and nurtured by habit and habitat runs too deep for him to act as others would.
He loses everything he values (even the rapport with his students and the ability to enjoy his books) and in many respects, he is a failure as son, husband, father, lover, even scholar – but he keeps going, never bearing a grudge, trying his best. So sad, and yet curiously inspirational.
TIME AND PLACE
Unlike some readers, I find Stoner entirely believable, especially when you consider the much higher social cost of divorce back then.
Would the story be any happier if it were set today? It would certainly be different, but flawed people raise flawed people. Tolstoy famously wrote “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” and that would be just as true of one unhappy family transplanted from one period in history to another.
In a contemporary setting, even if he had married Edith (unlikely?), she would surely have got help (bi-polar abuse survivor?), though maybe too late to fend off divorce. Either way, matters would turn out better for Katherine and Grace, and Lomax and Walker would probably not have got away with as much as they did. I'm sure it's no coincidence that Williams set it more than a generation earlier than the time he was writing.
SPEAKING TO ME
Why did this book move me in such a direct and personal way? I'm not a man, not American, wasn't born at the turn of the 19th/20th centuries and have never been a farmer or a professor. But I do love books, I do need escape sometimes, and I did spend much of my childhood on a family farm, though there was never any expectation that I would be a farmer.
The farm is part of it though: in some ways, Stoner reminds me of my beloved grandfather, who died when I was 14. Although he had a happier life than Stoner, he had the same quiet but dogged resilience, and always tried to make the best of what life or wife threw at him.
The other aspect that poured from the pages, especially second time round, was the emotional damage caused by bad parenting (albeit sometimes with good intentions), caused or exacerbated by poor communication. I was repeatedly reminded of Larkin’s famous lines “They fuck you up your mum and dad… But they were fucked up in their turn” (see below). Although I had a largely happy childhood, there were odd, complex and problematic aspects that have left their mark on the sort of adult and parent I am, and although I’m the mother of a wonderful 20 year old, I’m very conscious of things my husband and I could, and perhaps should, have done differently. (I think we’re doing better than the Stoners, though.)
Soil. Stoner is a son of the soil and there are many allusions to its power to spread and bind, whether seeping through the floorboards or being ingrained in the skin or mind. Soil chemistry is the only agricultural course mentioned by name, and Stoner enjoyed it – until he discovered his greater love: literature. He is transplanted from the countryside to the university, where he puts down roots, and stays – no matter what.
The university is the setting for almost all of the novel and arguably a character in its own right. Early on, one of the characters muses whether it is a path to self-fulfillment, an instrument for social good, or just an asylum. The novel quietly demonstrates that it is all three.
“Lust and learning… that’s really all there is” says one character, but both of those need an outlet. The insularity of most of the main characters and their unwillingness or inability to discuss or even show their feelings means they are lonely outsiders who can’t relish life. That aloneness exerts a high price that manifests itself in different ways; the saddest outcome is for Grace, Stoner’s daughter. We need to reach out to each other, communicate, and seize the day.
At times, Stoner is like Don Quixote, with Gordon Finch as a brighter and more influential sidekick than Sancho. This friendship is the one enduring human relationship. Finch repeatedly takes risks to help his friend, and yet it is a very understated friendship, that is not especially close. An area to explore further on a reread?
There are three troubling aspects, but that conflict is part of what makes the book compelling:
• Two characters are self-described “cripples”. Times and vocabulary have changed, so that’s not the issue. What is harder is the fact that both characters are unpleasant and both use their disability to make false and malicious claims of prejudice to their own advantage.
• What are the issues around consent for sleep-sex, given that the other party won’t countenance it when fully conscious, but is, at some level, vaguely aware of it when nearly asleep? Her “enduring violation” while he “performed his love as quickly as he could, hating himself for his haste and regretting his passion” sounds awful for both.
• The emotional abuse and manipulation of children is ghastly – but sadly credible. Edith is a victim who inflicts even worse damage on her daughter, but I was shocked that Stoner felt so helpless to protect Grace, and there were a couple of passages where he seemed to care more about his lover than his daughter.
Another issue that may be controversial is whether some of Edith’s behaviour is indicative of her being bi-polar. Such a term is never used, and I’m no expert, but her regular alternation between extreme business and prolonged periods of being helpless and bedridden for no outwardly visible reason suggest something like that to me. Or maybe her problems are entirely due to her cold and repressive childhood. (After her father’s suicide, she destroys everything connected with him; is this just anger at his death, or something more sinister? I suspect the latter.) So it comes back to Larkin. Maybe that’s why she marries a virtual stranger (Stoner), saying “If it’s to be done… I want it done quick”, softening it by adding “I’ll try to be a good wife to you”.
Apart from Larkin, aspects of this brought to mind:
• Ian McEwan’s honeymoon novella On Chesil Beach: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show....
• Any of the Richard Yates novels I’ve read: https://www.goodreads.com/review/list....
• Stoicism, solace in literature, and connection to the soil in Cold Mountain: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show....
• The paintings of Edward Hopper such as Room in New York: http://www.artexpress.ws/painting-img....
• “It was a lonely household… bound together by the necessity of its toil.”
• “Dust daily seeped up through the uneven floorboards.”
• In the library, “inhaling the must odor… as if it were an exotic incense”.
• “Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher” because “you are in love”.
• “He conceived himself changed in that future, but he saw the future itself as the instrument of change rather than its object.”
• “He felt his love increased by its loss.”
• “He felt the urgency of study. Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read… he realized how little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”
• “He moved outward from himself into the world which contained him.”
• “He had never got into the habit of introspection.”
• “He thought he felt the gaze of the young woman brush warmly across his face.”
• “From the curtained window, a dim light fell upon the blue-white snow like a yellow smudge.”
• “Each footstep crunched with muffled loudness in the dry snow.”
• “In that [first] half hour… she told him more about herself than she ever told him again.”
• “Her moral training… was negative in nature, prohibitive in intent, and almost entirely sexual. The sexuality, however, was indirect and unacknowledged; therefore it suffused every other aspect of her education… She was ignorant of her own bodily functions, she had never been alone to care for her own self one day of her life.”
• “Like many men who consider their success incomplete, he was extraordinarily vain.” (Not Stoner.)
• “She entered [her wedding] … slowly, reluctantly, with a kind of frightened defiance.”
• “Edith moved into the apartment as if it were an enemy to be conquered.”
• “Within a month he knew that his marriage was a failure; within a year he stopped hoping it would improve.”
• Spring, “caught up in the somnolence of a new season”.
• “He watched with amazement and love… as her face began to show the intelligence that worked within her.”
• “The cost exacted… by the soil… they were in the earth to which they had given their lives… It would consume the last vestiges of their substances. And they would become a meaningless part of that stubborn earth.”
• “The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of mind and heart… the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly."
• “They seldom spoke of themselves or each other, lest the delicate balance that made their living together possible be broken.”
• A “strategy that disguised itself as loving concern, and thus against which he was helpless.”
• “a ghost of the old joy… a learning toward no particular end.”
• Friendship “had reached a point that all such relationships, carried on long enough, come to; it was casual, deep and so guardedly intimate that it was almost impersonal.”
• “A kind of lethargy descended upon him… Time dragged slowly around him.”
• “He could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember.”
• “The person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.”
• Love is “neither a state of grace nor an illusion… a human act of becoming… by the will and the intellect and the heart.”
• “As the outer world closed upon them they became less aware of its presence… they seemed to themselves to move outside time.”
• Doom revealed “by grammatical usage: they progressed from the perfect – ‘We have been happy, haven’t we?’ – to the past – ‘We were happy – happier than anyone, I think’ – and at last came to the necessity of discourse.”
• “They coupled with the old tender sensuality of knowing each other well and with the new intense passion of loss.”
• “Indifference that became a way of living.”
• “She wandered like a ghost into the privacy of herself.”
• Stoner “did not allow himself the easy luxury of guilt”.
• “They had forgiven themselves for the harm they had done each other” – but what about the harm they did to Grace?
• “Lust and learning… That’s really all there is.”
• “Thank you for letting me teach.”
THIS BE THE VERSE, by Philip Larkin
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
(For the record, I endorse the truth of the first two verses, but do not advocate the third, which is a decision only you can make.)
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73
This is the sonnet used by Stonor’s tutor:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold,
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou seest the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.
Notes are private!
Dec 08, 2014
Jan 06, 2015
Nov 17, 2014
Sep 02, 2014
Sep 02, 2014
This is a detailed summary of key features of the book. I’ve hidden big spoilers, but there may be minor ones, depending on your definition of “spoile This is a detailed summary of key features of the book. I’ve hidden big spoilers, but there may be minor ones, depending on your definition of “spoiler”.
I have a briefer, spoiler-free, and very different, review here (different * rating, too): https://www.goodreads.com/review/show..., which is more about my feelings for the book. It also includes a selection of favourite quotes and links to interviews. The difference in star rating is deliberate: I couldn't decide.
LINKS AND THEMES
This book, perhaps more than any of his others, cannot be viewed in isolation. In particular, it is closely tied to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
I’ve read all Mitchell’s previous books (four of them twice): connectedness is the most overarching theme, within and between books.
All (except Black Swan Green?) muse on (im)mortality, specifically souls moving from one body to another, but not in a spooky paranormal way; it’s more matter-of-fact than that. The sometimes uneasy host/guest/invader relationship is mirrored in wider themes about power, exploitation and survival of the fittest. Music often features, as do islands, rescue vessels (literal and metaphorical), and survival despite societal collapse. Here, there is no sudden, total apocalypse and it happens without a glittering high-tech future in between.
Most famously, characters from one book make fleeting appearances in another. This is fun,
I like the idea that just as his novels (including this) are often built up of connected stories in different styles, those novels have a similar relationship to each other: stories within stories within stories, creating a whole world of connections: immortality by transferring from one vessel to another.
“Each of my novels are expanders or chapters in a kind of uber-book, a piece of a universe that all my novels are making”. That makes it less surprising that his next five novels are “planned to some degree”. One will be the final volume of the Marinus trilogy.
The Thousand Autumns had seemed to be a fairly conventional historical novel with fewer connections than Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas; The Bone Clocks changes that, exposing overlaps and hidden fantasy:
• Slade House (reviewed here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) is entirely in this world.
• Marinus, a significant character in The Thousand Autumns, is a major character in this.
• Marinus mentions Arie Grote from his life in Dejima in Thousand Autumns.
• The immortality-seeking baby-eating cult in Thousand Autumns is presumably an early grouping of Anchorites.
• We glimpse Prescience, precursors of the Prescients from Cloud Atlas.
• Hugo Lamb’s cousin is Jason Taylor, the main character in Black Swan Green (who was in turn, heavily based on Mitchell).
• Ed Brubeck writes for Spyglass magazine, as did Luisa Rey in Cloud Atlas.
• Elijah D’Arnoq is a reincarnation or descendant of a D’Arnoq that Adam Ewing encounters in The Chatham Islands in Cloud Atlas.
• Dwight Silverwind from Ghostwritten makes a small but significant appearance.
• Mo Muntervary has small important roles here and in Ghostwritten.
• There is a mention of a battle in a sunken garden, the title of the opera Mitchell recently wrote the libretto for.
• Holly’s family get takeaways from The Thousand Autumns Restaurant (though it’s Chinese, not Japanese).
• Soleil Moore: she’s an Asian-American poet who is really important, then drops out of the narrative completely. I’m guessing she’ll feature prominently in a future book.
There are also characters apparently based on real characters: Lord Roger Brittan is a minor character, rather like Lord (Alan) Sugar; more obviously, Crispin Hershey is remarkably like Martin Amis (see below).
The book even references itself: Hershey bases one of his characters on Holly’s husband, and Soleil Moore accuses him of having written about Anchorites.
There is an enormous cast, and some characters live in multiple bodies and so go by different names. Those peripheral in one section are often significant in later one.
I don’t need to like the protagonists of a book, which is just as well. Holly isn’t unlikeable, but I found her voice annoying and trying too hard to sound teenage, yet not always believable. (In particular, endless abbreviations: “Ed Brubeck’ll be”, “Mam will’ve told Dad… ‘bout why”, and the apostrophe-esses that weren’t possessive were easy to stumble over).
Other characters are highly unpleasant, yet somehow lacking the glamour of a really good baddie.
Many have accents in their names, which was a little distracting: Zoe, Anais, Eilish, Oshima, Immaculee – but not Aoife.
Hershey, Amis, Mitchell?
Critics have seen close parallels between Martin Amis and former “Wild Child of British Letters”, Crispin Hershey: in terms of life events, writing style, personality, and book titles (Hershey’s successful Desiccated Embryos and another called Red Monkey compared with Amis’ Dead Babies and Yellow Dog). Martin's father, Kingsley, is even quoted, saying a bad review might spoil breakfast, but he wouldn’t let it spoil lunch.
Mitchell has repeatedly denied any conscious link. Instead, he claims Hershey is “not just my worst aspect, he’s my fears. He’s what I might turn into if I’m not careful” and he "is all the worst parts of me, amplified and smooshed together" and in this section "I got to have a lot of fun spoofing people like me". Hershey’s most successful novel has a symmetrical structure, like Cloud Atlas.
Most literary critics are sceptical. The Guardian wondered whether “buried deep within this scrupulously polite and unassuming writer, a revenge fantasist [is] just waiting to punish the reviewers who dismiss him” or if he’d “belatedly woken up to the fact that taking a pop at his literary elders is not necessarily the smartest career move”.
I’ve only read one Amis novel, and nothing else by him; I wonder if he has Crispin’s quirk of alternating between first and third person for himself – even in a single sentence!
META – MUSINGS ON WRITING
Mitchell sees each collection of related novellas as part of a greater work: echoes and foreshadowing abound, Hershey’s failed book has “Echo” in the title, and elsewhere, we’re told the mysterious “Script” “loves to foreshadow”.
In this, he explicitly muses on fiction, writing, and lit crit, and pre-empts some potential criticisms of this book. The bad review that kill Hershey's sales, includes, “Hershey is so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower… The fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretentions, I cannot bear to look… What surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer-character?” Later, “A book can’t be a half fantasy any more than a woman can be half pregnant.”
After the second deus ex machina moment, Mitchell has one of the characters declare it as such, just so you know he knows.
In some ways, Hershey is very unlike Mitchell, observing that “in publishing, it’s easier to change your body than it is to switch genre” – something Mitchell makes a speciality of. He also makes prescriptive judgements on writing that I doubt Mitchell subscribes to in blanket terms: “Double-negatives are truth smugglers” and “Adverbs are cholesterol in the veins of prose”.
“A writer flirts with schizophrenia, nurtures synaesthesia and embraces obsessive-compulsive disorder. Your art feeds on you, your soul and, yes, to a degree, your sanity. Writing novels worth reading will bugger up your mind, jeopardise your relationships and distend your life.”
At one point, Hugo observes, “such narrative arcs make great movies, but shitty lives”; he neglects to say what sort of books they make.
This is deceptively straightforward for Mitchell: a chronological story of one woman’s life, told in six, first-person parts:
1984 “A Hot Spell”
Illustrated with a disintegrating clock, narrated by Holly, a fifteen-year old who heard voices as a child, and now runs away after bust ups with parents and boyfriend. It is not Orwellian.
(view spoiler)[From aged 7, Holly occasionally heard voices she called “The Radio People” – “not a ghost… but a visitor to your mind”. One night, one of them (Miss Constantin) appeared in her room, and afterwards, a bully Holly mentioned is hit by a van! Shortly after that, a psychiatrist (Dr Marinus) gets rid of the voices. Now, aged 15, after a row with her parents, she runs away to be with her boyfriend. Just before she goes, her brilliant but weird younger brother, Jacko, gives her a labyrinth he’s drawn and stresses the importance of her memorising it. She finds boyfriend Vinny in bed with best friend Stella, so heads off on her own. She meets a strange old woman who knows her name and says she may ask for asylum. She thinks she glimpses Jacko in an underpass, but it can’t possibly be him and then it turns into a more muddled multi-sensory hallucination. Later, she’s staying with a couple who are suddenly dead, apparently by the power (or maybe just poison) of a strange and sinister visitor who rambles about all sorts of stuff neither she nor the reader understand. There is a bizarre, rather filmic fight, but she escapes and has her memory of it wiped. How is she narrating what was wiped? And a few pages later, she muses, “When you know your memory’s been monkeyed around with once, how can you ever be sure of any memory again?”. She heads for a fruit farm and dreams she is pregnant (we later discover she was, and had an abortion). Ed Brubeck turns up and tells her Jacko is missing. (hide spoiler)]
1991 “Myrrh is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume”
Illustrated with Holly’s labyrinth, told by Hugo Lamb, a conscience-free, money-loving Cambridge student, not quite as aristo as his equally obnoxious friends. Far more important than it first seems.
(view spoiler)[Hugo loves music (shades of Alex in Clockwork Orange, for more reasons than that: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), and in a crucial scene, he’s approached by beautiful Immacule Constantin, who asks him about power. He gives a pompous student answer. Her reply includes “Power is lost or won, never created or destroyed… Power is crack cocaine for your ego and battery acid for your soul… Power’s comings and goings from host to host… are the plot of history… Power itself is amoral… Power is watching you.” She offers him “perpetual deferral of death”, but doesn’t explain, and next thing he knows, it’s an hour later and she’s gone. Reading to an old family friend with Alzheimer’s, exposes Hugo’s fears (“Whatever I do with my life… I, too, will end up like this vile old man… I’m looking down time’s telescope at myself”). A train ride prompts other musings, “’I am the system you have to beat’ clacks the carriage… Another train on a parallel track… glimpse the young City worker I’ll have turned into this time next year… but his train sways away down a different track.” Hugo is a nasty piece of work: apart from fleecing old Brigadier Philby of his valuable stamps, he sets up a friend(!) to lose heavily in a card game so that the friend will be forced to sell a vintage car that Hugo will take a cut of, and when the victim drives it over a cliff, Hugo’s only thought is “I could weep. All that money.” He’s never been in love and realises “Nothing throws the chasm between me and Normals into starker relief than grief and bereavement.” He meets Holly in a Swiss ski resort, where she’s a barmaid, and although she seems immune to his charms, they have a fling and he (maybe) falls in love. Elijah D’Arnoq, who tried to recruit him to a student shooting club called the Anchorites wants him to take a leap of faith to find out what it’s all about. Hugo realises he’s being offered a Faustian pact and that “tends not to have a happy ending”. (hide spoiler)]
2004 “The Wedding Bash”
Illustrated with a crystal ball showing the Middle East, told by Ed Brubeck. Two very contrasting aspects: the excitement of a family wedding and life (and constant risk of death) as a reporter in Iraq.
(view spoiler)[ Ed is back from reporting in Iraq for Holly’s sister’s wedding; he sees himself as “an archivist for the future”, which is one way of assuaging the guilt of being away so much: “Aoife’s childhood is a book. I’m flicking through instead of reading properly”. When he’s out with Aoife, Immacule turns up, saying she’s a friend of Holly’s and checks the six year old for an “invisible eye”. Aoife wants to go to the fortune teller (Dwight Silverwind), but Ed refuses. Great Aunt Eilish describes Jacko (who was never found) as a changeling: he was ordinary until he caught meningitis aged five. Eighteen months later, he was different and knew too much for his age, but “It wasn’t Jacko’s brain that changed… it was his soul.” He even told her he was “a well-intentioned visitor”. She had to tell Ed this because it’s in the Script, and he should “Believe her [Holly], even if you don’t believe in it”. Ed and Aoife have a nap and when he wakes, she’s gone. He assumes she’s gone to Dwight; she hasn’t, but he helps look for her, telling Ed “I’m scripted to stay with you until the end”. Holly faints, says “ten fifteen” and drops her labyrinth pendant; Dwight realises it means room 1015, which is where she is. It’s as if Holly was one of the Radio People. (hide spoiler)]
2015 “Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet”
Illustrated with a spider and web, told by Crispin, an amoral, formerly successful, novelist.
(view spoiler)[See notes about Amis, and Meta, above. Hershey was the “Wild Child of British Letters”, having had a very successful book (Desiccated Embryos) but a later one (Echo Must Die ) savagely reviewed by a uni friend of Hugo’s called Richard Cheeseman. Hershey blames Cheeseman for ruining his career. He takes revenge. The repercussions are far worse than expected, but he’s not overburdened with guilt, seeing Cheeseman as a thief, he “committed the action. I am the reaction.” Meanwhile, widowed Holly has written a bestselling memoir called “The Radio People”, and they keep running into each other at book festivals around the world. He hates all the psychobabble, but, they form a friendship. Although Holly no longer hears The Radio People, she does get occasional premonitions, “I’d be mugged by a bunch of facts that hadn’t happened yet” and she has a specific recurring vision related to him, of “a spider, a spiral and a one-eyed man”. All three feature, loosely, in his sudden death at the hands of Soleil Moore, who thinks that killing him is the only way to make the world read her poems (that he had not) and so learn about the Anchorites. (hide spoiler)]
2025 “An Horologist’s Labyrinth”
Illustrated with an apple, narrated by Marinus. It becomes full-on YA fantasy here. It reminded me of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. If I’d read any Dan Brown, I might spot parallels there.
Plotwise, it could have ended at the end of this, but my rating would have been lower, as I found this section increasingly silly.
(view spoiler)[This is where the bulk of the strange vocab occurs (see below). There is much backstory of Marinus (in his 36th body), and especially the long-standing war between Horologists (good) and Anchorites (bad). Repeated lives, coupled with premonitions is almost like time travel (people sending messages to their future selves via complex routes, for instance), people swap body/sex//country/name, and there’s plenty of crossing and double-crossing. Anchorites are predators: they kill engifted children at regular intervals to maintain immortality and after that, they don’t age and can... teleport! “They are addicts and their drug is artificial longevity.” Horologists are “born” as such, and when one body dies, they pass harmlessly to another random body, sometimes sharing a body with another soul. The Horologists have a complicated plan to destroy the Anchorites (a previous one failed): multiple body swaps, life and death, fighting, transporting, borderline magic… exciting, or just silly? It was the latter for me: the incantations sounded like Harry Potter spells, someone is bludgeoned with a rolling pin, and the writing goes crazy, “hidden by a Deep Stream cloak… got to you with a quantum totem” and “a crack in the fabric of the Chapel of the Dusk” – bring me Lyra’s Subtle Knife and be done! Anchorites see things rather differently: “Horology is a club for immortals who prevent others from attaining their own privileges”, which conveniently overlooks all the killing. The end of this chapter was a foregone conclusion for me, albeit not in the details, with a deus ex machina. (hide spoiler)]
2048 “Sheep’s Head”
Illustrated with a running fox silhouetted against an ominously large moon, told by Holly, who is old, and struggling to raise two children, as a slow-burn apocalypse approaches. There is irony the fact this increasingly desperate situation is utterly plausible and grounded in current and possible events. The fantasy battles of the previous chapter seems irrelevant – especially as connectedness is the most fundamental thing to collapse (“the commodity we’re most in need of is news”).
(view spoiler)[Holly has survived cancer, but is old, living in rural Ireland, raising Aoife’s daughter and a young boy refugee. It is The Endarkment: global power shortages, barely any internet, rising sea levels, food (and everything else) is rationed, a nuclear power station is leaking, gangs roam, and the Chinese dominate the economy (mail order brides now go from Europe to the East) and have concession in Ireland. The prognosis is decline, “For most of my life, the world shrank and technology progressed” but she now realises that “’the natural order of things’ is entirely man-made.” She lives in an area protected by government forces, but is all too aware that as life gets harder, that may not be sustainable: “Civilization’s like the economy… if people stop believing it’s real, it dies”. Painfully real, basic survival is in sharp contrast to the preceding section. There’s another deus ex - and this time the characters themselves recognise it as such (another pre-emptive strike by Mitchell). In its defence, it does tie up with Cloud Atlas. (hide spoiler)]
The vocab list for anyone interested in horology became somewhat ludicrous. Here’s a sample:
Scansion, Incorporeals, Atemporals, Sojourners (go straight from one body to another, usually of the same sex), Returnee (“each resurrection is a lottery of longitudes, latitudes and demography”, usually alternating gender, with a 49 day gap), subtalk, the Script, Aperture, Shaded Way, psychovoltaic, “hiatus freezes [someone], suasion forces [them]”, oubliette, psychosoterica, carnivorous psycho-decanter, animacides, soul thieves, chakra-latent, dreamseed, metalife, transversing.
“For one voyage to begin, another voyage must come to an end, sort of.” I think that sums up Mitchell’s approach to his novels.
Mitchell quotes mostly from http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/p...), and http://www.theguardian.com/books/book.... Also interviews on BBC Radio 2’s Book Club, and Radio 4’s Front Row (that I can’t find online any more).
All my Mitchell reviews are on this uber shelf:
Notes are private!
Sep 24, 2014
Sep 24, 2014
Sep 27, 2014
Sep 02, 2014
Sep 02, 2014
I read this, couldn't decide whether it was 2* or 4*, and knew it would take a while to digest it properly and write a full review. So I decided to do I read this, couldn't decide whether it was 2* or 4*, and knew it would take a while to digest it properly and write a full review. So I decided to do two: this is the short, spoiler-free, initial thoughts one. The much longer, and very different, one is here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... (it has spoilers, but they're hidden).
Two reviews allows two ratings, but by the time I'd finished this, I realised even with its faults, it's not 2*, so it will be 3* and 4* from me.
Narrative Structure and Plot
It's a relatively straightforward narrative for Michell: a chronological story of one life. However, like Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, it is also a collection of related stories, in different styles and genres (like CA, it's in six parts). In this case, the first and last sections are narrated by the central character (Holly), and the other four, by those playing a key role during that episode of her life.
In Mitchell’s own words (jotted down almost verbatim) in an interview on BBC Radio 2’s Book Club:
A murderous feud between two circles of pseudo immortals: one benign and one decidedly predatory. It erupts every ten years or so. Holly moves from pawn to decisive weapon, as she develops from being primarily a daughter, through lover, to mother, improbable and reluctant bestselling writer, (he missed out the fifth one, but I’d say confused combatant), and finally, battle-scarred grandmother. It’s about mortality, and several characters are offered a Faustian pact: keep your youth in return for having your conscience amputated. (Mind you, there’s at least one character who rather lacking in the conscience department, even without such a pact.)
But although it's ostensibly about a woman, it's always in relation to the men she encounters, and most of them are pretty unpleasant. So really, it's about men. There's no reason why it shouldn't be, but I think it's only fair to point out a potential wrong expectation.
It could easily and satisfactorily have ended after the fifth section, but didn’t, which I’m glad about, despite the sharp contrast.
I’ve described the key features of each section in my detailed review.
As with all Mitchell's books, this one features characters from and references to his other works. Most have a peripheral role here (there's no need to be familiar with their other appearances), but one major character was significant in The Thousand Autumns (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), making that book seem much less of a straightforward historical novel than it appeared at the time.
In Mitchell’s own words, “Each of my novels are expanders or chapters in a kind of uber-book, a piece of a universe that all my novels are making”. It started out as fun, but "I’m building a coherent, megalomaniac's, large-scale world of an uber-novel".
Very recently, he said:
“I think I have recently discovered I am basically not a novelist, I am a novella writer. If you put novella A next to novella B then they – interact isn’t right – smack off each other, they glint at each other. They possibly echo or reflect each other, and make a third thing.”
Mitchell's favoured themes of power, predacity, exploitation, contrasted with sacrifice, mortality, islands, lifeboats (in a loose sense) and refuge are strong. Migrating souls are central, and there are other touchpoints, such as music, and life approaching or after societal collapse.
There's a comprehensive list my other review: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Mixed Genres and Age Groups
The early sections have a few incidents that might be paranormal or just psychological, but it's all broadly realistic. Only later does it turn overtly fantastical (at which point you begin to realise some of the foreshadowing in earlier sections) and it's more like something by Philip Pullman (or perhaps Dan Brown, who I haven't read).
Swapping genres is a trick Mitchell has pulled off well before, but this feels like switching age groups, which may be why it feels more jarring. The contrast between the very realistic (I assume) sections set in the Iraq war and the more YA fantastical war in the later parts is a powerful disconnect. Is that a strength or a weakness? I'm not sure.
What Price Immortality?
This question is never explicitly asked, but it screams from the pages. Would I want to live forever, even if such an ability was benignly acquired? Probably not (what about friends and family?), and yet, there’s always one more enticing experience. Mitchell himself says he chose the motivation for the evil protagonists based on what would tempt him: not money or sex, but "never having to stop... never having to end... not having to say "goodbye" to this world".
Even one who has lived through many lives fears “Will I die without ever reading Ulysses to the end?”. I haven’t even started that! Then again, as one mortal says, “We sort of live on, as long as there are people to live on in”, meaning grandchildren, whether biological or just a younger generation one has influenced.
Wouldn’t it be nice to erase bad memories, as could be done by some in this book? If you’ve seen “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind”, you may be less sure. But without the bad, the good would seem less good, and our lives would lack colour and contrast. Also, what if you knew something had been erased? “When you know your memory’s been monkeyed around with once, how can you ever be sure of any memory again?” And “If you can’t trust your mind any more, you’re mentally homeless.” I think for most of us, we’re probably better off keeping most of our memories.
Quite a few, I’m afraid:
Some of the narrators were annoying: teenage Holly didn’t ring true (and used odd abbreviations) and Crispin Hershey alternates between first and third person for himself.
One of the irritations is how knowing this book is: Mitchell pre-empts some of the more obvious criticisms by applying them to a book that (like this) jumps oddly into fantasy, and having a character acknowledging a deus ex machina by that label. There’s a lot more about these aspects in my lengthier review.
Conversely, lack of knowing is an issue: on at least two occasions a narrator has a memory wiped – and yet they’re able to describe before, during and after.
Spotting cross-overs with his other books can be fun, and it creates a broader canvas for an uber-book or universe, but occasionally it feels like gratuitous showing-off. However, one can never be certain there isn't a good reason, yet to be revealed, so I end up forgiving him.
The sections describing reporting from a war zone are very well done, but there was just too much of it for my taste –and most of it wasn’t very relevant for this book (but who knows about future ones?).
A trivial but (for me) distracting feature was the excessive use of names with all manner of accents, even for English characters. Just because computer typesetting makes it easy, doesn't make it desirable.
He even throws in the most famous line from Game of Thrones (it must be famous, as I've neither read nor watched it) - or maybe that was just co-incidence.
Strength – So Much
And yet... and yet... even though I didn't care enough about any of the characters until the very end (which is not the same as liking them, which is not something I need to enjoy a book) I was keen to keep reading at every opportunity, and am glad I did. And now that I've finished, I find I have SO much to mull over, I realise what a powerful book it is.
“For one voyage to begin, another voyage must come to an end, sort of.” I think that sums up Mitchell’s approach to his novels.
• A bone clock “whose face betrays how very, very little time they have left.”
• “There’s the thirsty sky and the wide river full of ships and boats and stuff.”
• “What if heaven is real, but only in moments? Like a glass of water on a hot day when you’re dying of thirst, or when someone’s nice to you for no reason… Like the best song anyone ever wrote, but a song you only catch in snatches.”
• “Whatever’s slowing down isn’t inside me… it’s time slowing up or gravity pulling harder, or air changing to water.”
• “a low-tide sort of face” (of a man in his sixties).
• “When you know your memory’s been monkeyed around with once, how can you ever be sure of any memory again?”
• “King’s College choir’s sixteen bat-eared choristers, bereft of hair styles.”
• Music “chasing its echoey tail around the sumptuous ceiling before dive-bombing the scattering of winter tourists… [it] binds your quivery soul to the mast and lashes it with fiery sublimity.”
• “I let Piccadilly Circus tube station suck me down into its vortex of body odour and bad breath… commuters sway likes sides of beef, and slump like corpses.”
• “Persuasion is not about force: it’s about showing a person a door, and making him or her desperate to open it.”
• “A wealthy upbringing compounds stupidity while a hard-scrabble childhood dilutes it… This is why the elite need a prophylactic barrier of shitty state schools.”
• “Love is a blurring of pronouns. Love is subject and object.
• “The morning cold is a plunging cold; but the blue sky’s blue as Earth from space, and the warmth from the sun’s a lover’s breath; and icicles drip drops of bright in steep-sloped streets from story books whose passers-by have mountain souls.”
• “The impossible is negotiable. What is possible is malleable.”
• “Like all belongers, the Sykeses and Webbers don’t notice how easily they slip into groups.”
• “Clouds curdled pink in the narrow sky above the blast barriers lining the highway into Baghdad.”
• “The stranger absorbs Hershey’s withering stare like a man in his prime with nothing to fear, notwithstanding the damage that Time the Vandal has done to his face.”
• The US president has “orthodontically majestic sons”.
• “Modesty is vanity’s craftier step-brother.”
• The soul is “a spiritual memory-stick in search of a corporeal hard-drive; and as a placebo we generate to cure our dread of mortality.”
• “Esther enfolded my soul in hers so I could spirit walk much further and faster than I was otherwise able. When she scansioned me I felt like a third-rate poet showing his doggerel to Shakespeare. When I scansioned her I felt like a minnow tipped from a jar into a deep inland sea”.
• “The sun’s sunk behind the [mountain], so the greens are stewing to greys and browns. Leaves and twigs are losing their three-dimensionality… The glass of dusk is filling.”
• “She walks as if distrustful of floors, and sits down as if she’s had some bad experiences with chairs too.”
• “’What lives one day must die’ can, in rare circumstances, be renegotiated… Atemporality, with terms and conditions applied.”
• “There are days when New York strikes me as a conjuring trick. All great cities do and must revert to jungle… Today, however, New York’s here-ness is incontestible, as if time is subject to it, not it subject to time…. Welded girders, inhabited sidewalks and more bricks than there are stars. Who could ever have predicted these vertical upthrusts and squally canyons?”
• Paraphrasing Arthur C Clarke, “Some magic is normality you’re not yet used to.”
• “If you could reason with religious people, there wouldn’t be any religious people.” (It’s rather missing the point of faith, but is true nevertheless.)
• “The sound of waves dies and gives birth to the sound of waves, for ever and ever.”
* A presentation to librarians, in which Mitchell talks initially in general terms and then, from 11:45, The Bone Clocks specifically: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxq-F...
* Q&A with HuffPo: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/09...
* Interview that includes a chart of cross-over characters: http://www.vulture.com/2014/08/david-...
* Barnes and Noble interview, including much about Marinus in both this and Thousand Autumns, as well as the importance of music: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/review/...
* LA Review of Books, general lit crit of Mitchell's uber-novel, but mainly in relation to The Bone Clocks: https://lareviewofbooks.org/review/ad...
* November 2015: This won the World Fantasy award. Thanks Apatt for this:
All my Mitchell reviews on this uber shelf:
Notes are private!
Sep 03, 2014
Sep 23, 2014
Sep 03, 2014
Jul 01, 2008
A plot summary would make this short, but perfectly formed novel sound parochial, unoriginal and maybe dull. It is not. Bennett is a wonderful observe A plot summary would make this short, but perfectly formed novel sound parochial, unoriginal and maybe dull. It is not. Bennett is a wonderful observer and writer of the small-scale aspects that make life real and characters spring to life. He's also pretty good at writing female characters. In fact, by far the weakest character is male: the faultless Henry Mynors.
In many ways, my life is utterly different from Anna's, but in some key ways, I can identify with her more than I might wish to.
This book is rather like a factory Anna visits: "No stage of the manufacture was incredible by itself, but the result was incredible."
This isn't one of his lightly humorous books (The Grand Babylon Hotel and The Card).
Instead, it features a profoundly nasty man, who never lays a finger on anyone or commits any crime.
Setting and Plot
It's as simple as it says on the back of the book: it's set in the English potteries district, in the early 20th century. Anna Tellwright is about to come of age, and lives with her wealthy, miserly, twice-widowed father (Ephraim) and young half sister (Agnes) in a Methodist-dominated town. Ephraim "existed within himself, unrevealed" even to Anna.
Anna is dutiful, naive, lonely: "the peculiarity of her position... awe and pity were equally mingled" and unfamiliarity with social situations mean she is not "a facile talker".
She inherits money, is taken under the wing of the Suttons, is courted by up-and-coming Henry Mynors, still cares about the fate of the less fortunate (Titus Price and his adult son, Willie), and is very unsure of herself. When invited to a sewing party, she is baffled by the etiquette: "Should she arrive early, in which case she would have to talk more, or late, in which case there would be the ordeal of entering a crowded room?" Who of us has not felt a similar dilemma, even with more experience?
However, she is not mistress of her own destiny, and that is where the tension springs from.
What is love?
Anna's stirrings of love, her excitement and uncertainty ring very true: "the main whose arm she could have touched... She had felt happy and perturbed in being so near him... already she knew his face by heart."
She is afraid and excited, and everything looks different, "She saw how miserably narrow, tepid and trickling the stream of her life had been.. Now it gushed forth warm, impetuous and full." She is even tempted to neglect her duty to her family (only in trivial ways).
Henry calms many of her fears: he's wonderful with Agnes, and even with her father - teasing the former, and braving the latter (even daring to ask for more beef).
However, just when she should be happiest, she feels "no ineffable rapture, not ecstatic bliss." Despite her yearnings, Anna lacks passion, whether for a man or for God (see the Revival section, below). She tries to live as if she has it for both, hoping it will become true.
I also questioned Henry's love for Anna: he seems too perfect and, given his strong religious faith, oddly unperturbed by her lack of conviction (though her dedication is admirable).
Anna's love of her sister is unquestioned and unquestioning, but her feelings about her manipulative father are more complex: "The worst tyrannies of her father never dulled the sense of her duty to him."
Ephraim Tellwright is a former Methodist preacher, but he's a very un-Christian emotional bully. The love of money is perhaps the root of his evil. He is a canny investor, a harsh landlord, and spends almost nothing, so his wealth has accumulated, and he's very proud of how well he's managed Anna's inheritance before she came of age.
He is shrewd and crafty. He simultaneously minimises his donation to the Sunday school and entraps his indebted tenant by promising to match the tenant's donation. He will also "promise repairs [only] in change for payment of arrears which he knew would never be paid". When he hands Anna's inheritance over, he really does no such thing. He makes her pay cheques in, forces her to write letters against her will, and ensures she daren't ask for a penny for herself. When she wants her cheque book, so she can buy a few clothes to go on holiday with the Suttons, he refuses.
Anna's own attitude to money is very different: she makes all her own clothes, has no servant or carriage, and uses nothing on her hair. "The arrival of money out of space, unearned, unasked, was a disturbing experience." "She wanted to test the actuality of this apparent dream by handling a coin and causing it to vanish over counters." The trouble is, she's now too rich to ask her father for any of his money, but she can't use her own, as he's tied her into a business agreement with someone. On holiday with the Suttons, she is startled by their "amazing habit of always buying the best of everything."
It's not only money that makes him mean. Anna and Agnes live in fear of his temper. His "terrible displeasure permeated the whole room like an ether, invisible but carrying vibrations to the heart." The mindset behing his bullying misogyny are chillingly exposed: "The women of the household were the natural victims of their master" who had "certain rights over the self-respect, the happiness, the peace of the defenceless souls set under him." When she is engaged, he claims her suitor is only after her money.
Anna has been raised a Methodist and teaches in Sunday School, but feels like an outsider as she's never had a conversion experience. Guilt is not just a prerogative of Roman Catholics.
There is excitement at the prospect of a campaign, featuring a famous preacher with an "ineffably wicked" past: "the faint rumour of that dead wickedness clung to his name like a piquant odour".
In preparation, Anna visits the families of Sunday School children and "found joy in the uncongenial and ill-performed task", both as a penance and because Henry asked her to do it.
In the service, he "had two audiences: God and the congregation". The mesmerising techniques, Biblical exhortations, emotional pressure, guilt, and concern are carefully described: I didn't quite believe (in) him, but wasn't certain that he was a charlatan either: "he had an extraordinary histrionic gift and he used it with imagination".
Poor Anna "was in despair at her own predicament and the sense of sin was not more strong than the sense of being confused and publicly shamed... She heaped up all the wickedness of a lifetime... and found horrid pleasure in the exaggeration... She had never doubted... Jesus died on the cross to save her soul... What then was lacking?" She is tormented by whether to go forward as a penitent, and more, by the knowledge she can't.
When she most needs faith, it fails her. She can't turn to Henry, because he is too pure
I have been Anna. I know all those services, techniques and
feelings. I am now free (despite a painful glimpse back, via this book), and I wanted her to be too.
The key part of the plot is a factory, now owned by Anna, that is rented by Titus Price, a feckless man, deep in debt, with a sweet but ineffectual son, Willie.
Ephraim is keen for Anna to keep squeezing them for the rent arrears - a task Anna is not comfortable with. Worse still, (view spoiler)[Ephraim adds further pressure and threats behind her back. When Titus commits suicide, Anna blames her father and herself - even though the inquest finds other factors, such as embezzling church money. (hide spoiler)] From this, everything in Anna's life is jeopardised.
Gasp! I didn't expect or want a clichéd happy ending or a shockingly tragic one, but I wasn't expecting this, and I'm not sure how I'd describe it (a bit of both?), so I won't!
Anna believes "A woman's life is always a renunciation" (not necessarily of what the reader expects). I don't think Arnold Bennett believes it should be, though. He was a man ahead of his time.
The men (some shirtless) working alongside women in the pottery works was a surprise. More surprising still, was good Christians deliberately providing opportunity for a couple (not even engaged) to spend time alone together. Mind you, she did wear a "skirt which showed three inches of ankle"!
Maybe my history is at fault, though; this was published in 1902, so it just sneaks into the Edwardian, rather than Victorian category.
Quotes - Scenery and Atmosphere
Most of Bennett's books are set in the area he knew well. He portrays small town politics, industry, rivalries, and even makes factories seem beautiful.
"Burning ironstone glowed with all the strange colours of decadence... unique pyrotechnics of labour atoning for its grime... enchanted air... a romantic scene"!
The towns are "forbidding of aspect - sombre, hard-featured, uncouth; and the vaporous poison of their ovens and chimneys had soiled and shrivelled the surrounding country" to a "gaunt and ludicrous travesty of rural charms". This then segues into something rather different: "embrace the whole smoke-girt amphitheatre... this disfigurement is merely an episode in the unending warfare of man and nature and calls for no contrition... Nature is repaid for some of her notorious cruelties."
Factories can be cruel, though. The women paintresses, a few "die of lead poisoning - a fact which adds pathos to their frivolous charm. One paints nothing but circles, the "summit of monotony... stupendous phenomenon of absolute sameness."
Of those visiting a new park, "people going up to criticize and enjoy this latest outcome of municipal enterprise... housewives whose pale faces, as of prisoners free only for a while, showed a naive and timorous pleasure in this unusual diversion; young women made glorious by richly coloured stuffs and carrying themselves with the defiant independence of good wages... a small well-dressed group whose studious repudiation of the crowd betrayed a conscious eminence of rank."
* Leaving Sunday School, the teachers "gradually dropping the pedagogic pose, and happy in the virtual sensation of a duty accomplished."
* An ageing and charitable woman's "bodily frame long ago proved inadequate to the ceaseless demands of a spirit of indefatigably altruistic, and her continuance in activity was notable illustration of the dominion of mind over matter."
* A young woman of 20 "had the lenient curves of absolute maturity."
* A man of 30 had "the elasticity of youth with the firm wisdom of age."
* A spinster "was lovable, but had never been loved... found compensation for the rigour of destiny in gossip, as innocent as indiscreet."
* "It seemed a face for the cloister... resigned and spiritual melancholy peculiar to women who through the error of destiny have been born into a wrong environment."
* "unconsciously-acquired arrogance of one who had always been accustomed to deference."
* "the quiet enchantment of reverie. Her mind... ranged voluptuously free."
* An old dresser: "Seventy years of continuous polishing by a dynasty of priestesses of cleanliness" looked "as though it had never been new."
* "The double happiness of present and anticipated pleasure."
* Bad news spreads: "All knew of the calamity, and had received from it a new interest in life."
Old fashioned spellings:
Notes are private!
Aug 18, 2014
Sep 03, 2014
Aug 18, 2014
Aug 01, 2009
An exquisite little novel in which not much happens until the end, and yet, due to storms of all kinds, the whole world of each protagonist changes ir An exquisite little novel in which not much happens until the end, and yet, due to storms of all kinds, the whole world of each protagonist changes irrevocably.
Flux, Transition, Contrast, Stagnation
"Reality seemed to have lost its accustomed hold, just as the day wavered uncertainly between night and morning."
Everyone lives between land and water, but each is also caught in some other dichotomy: childhood or adulthood; togetherness or separation; comfort or poverty; in or out of love; life or death; artistry or manual labour; dreams or cold reality.
"Decision is torment for anyone with imagination" because "you multiply the things you might have done and now never can". But that can lead to paralysis.
Parallels in my Life
I don't relate to the specific circumstances, but the paralysis of indecision, when torn between two thoughts or situations is something I often struggle with. Sometimes it leads to an impulsive decision (which I may or may not regret), other times I try to pass the decision to someone else, or just avoid making it altogether. I feel I should be able to learn from this beautiful book, but it suggests diagnosis (which I'd already worked out), but no prescription. And that's fine.
Setting and Atmosphere
It is set in "the Reach", a small community of barge-dwellers in London, around 1962. The houseboats are permanently moored; their movement is limited to bobbing up and down on the tide.
The residents are very much a community, and yet they have almost nothing in common, other than the fact they are all adrift (even the cat), living in a never-world between land and water - literally, and in a more profound, psychological sense.
"The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water would have liked to be more respectable than they were... but a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up."
It vividly conjures the vicissitudes of the sights and sounds of the water and weather, aided by a splattering of boaty jargon. "The river's most elusive hours, when darkness lifts off darkness, and from one minute to another the shadows declare themselves as houses or craft at anchor."
All the characters are Characters. As are the five boats. In fact, tradition dictates that owners are addressed by the name of their boat, though that doesn't happen all the time, and one owner thwarts it by changing the name of his boat to match his own name.
The main characters are Nenna (only 32, but with daughters Martha, 12, and Tilda, 6); Maurice, a young gay man making ends meet as a prostitute; Willis, an old marine painter, whose boat is in need of sprucing up; boat-proud Woodrow (Woodie); and Richard, a natural leader, ex-navy, now working in insurance, with the biggest, smartest boat.
All have troubles of some sort, though Nenna's are most evident. She's depressed and probably has other mental health issues: when she's alone, her thoughts "took the form of a kind of perpetual magistrates' hearing", perpetually having to defend her action and inaction regarding her marriage. Meanwhile, she is over-reliant on her daughters, who no longer attend school. Her "character was faulty, but she had an instinct to see what made other people unhappy".
"Was there not, on the whole of Battersea Reach, a couple, married or unmarried, living together in the ordinary way?"
Tilda is perhaps the least convincing character, which is a shame, as it could be fixed by making her 10, rather than 6. Growing up in the Reach, she is understandably fascinated by and knowledgeable about the river; she "had the air of something aquatic, a demon from the depths", and "respected the water and knew that one could die within sight of the Embankment". But her language and insight don't always sound right: "Do you think Ma's mind is weakening?" "It's not the kind who inherit the earth... They get kicked in the teeth".
In contrast, Martha is "armed at all points against the possible disappointments of her life, conscious of the responsibilities of protecting her mother and sister, worried a the gaps in her education... she had forgotten for some time the necessity for personal happiness."
(view spoiler)[Nenna often chats long into the night with Maurice, but there is a frisson between her and Richard. Willis' barge (Dreadnaught) sinks, though he escapes, and is put up by Woodie. Eventually, Nenna plucks up courage to visit her husband, Edward. He's a wastrel, recently returned from a failed attempt to make money in South America, and won't come to the boat. (Meanwhile, Martha gets friendly with a 16-year old German, Heinrich, staying for 24 hours, as a friend of a friend of Nenna's sister.) She hoped to spend the night and win him back, but things don't go well, and she walks home, where Richard is waiting (his wife, Laura, has recently left him properly) and takes her out in a dinghy, before returning to the Reach. We later discover they did go into a cabin together. Meanwhile, Laura's wealthy sister is over from Canada, and wants to take her and the girls to start a new life there. But Richard is attacked by Harry, an acquaintance of Maurice (who uses Maurice's boat to store stolen goods) and is severely injured. His wife comes back to take care of him. Meanwhile, Edward comes looking for Nenna, but ends up drinking with Maurice, before trying to board Nenna's barge (she's not in, because of the storm) and possibly falling into the cold and turbulent waters.
Then it ends! I like untidy, open endings, but this was SO open, I was aghast. Do Edward and Maurice survive? Does Richard stay with Laura? Do Nenna and the girls go to Canada, and if not, do she and Richard have a chance, or even she and Edward? Will Harry be caught, and if so, what are the implications for Maurice (if he lived)? What about the homeless and penniless Willis - he surely can't go on living with Woodie? (hide spoiler)]
* "That crucial moment when children realise that their parents are younger than they are."
* The advantages of youth, "Tilda cared nothing for the future, and had, as a result, a great capacity for happiness." Also, "Her heart didn't rule her memory... she was spared that inconvenience."
* A petty criminal "had no expression, as though expressions were surplus to requirements."
* "Tenderly responsive to the self-deception of others, he was unfortunately too well able to understand his own."
* "Martha bruised so easily. A princess, unknown to all about her, she awaited the moment when these bruises would reveal her heritage."
* "Many enterprises in Chelsea which survived entirely by selling antiques to each other."
* A man, propositioning a woman on a street, "smelled of loneliness".
* "The kind of man who has two clean handkerchiefs on him at half past three in the morning."
* "She would go with him to the end of the world if his outboard motor was always going to start like that." ;)
* A young German (ex) aristocrat had "an upbringing designed to carry him through changes of regime and frontier, possible loss of every worldly possession... had made him totally self-contained and able with the sunny smile and formal handshake of the gymnast to set almost anybody at their ease."
* "The ship's cat was in every way appropriate for the Reach. She habitually moved in a kind of nautical crawl... Through years of attempting to lick herself clean, for she had never quite lost her self-respect, Stripey had become as thickly coated with mud inside as out. She was in a perpetual process of readjustment... to tides and seasons... The resulting uncertainty as to whether she was coming or going had made her, to some extent, mentally unstable."
Given how much I loved this, I was excited to pick up The Blue Flower. It couldn't have been more different. I had to force myself to finish it. Nevertheless, this was so good, I will give Fitzgerald another chance. One day. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
Aug 08, 2014
Aug 17, 2014
Aug 08, 2014
Feb 07, 2002
I have finally read a Murakami. I picked this up on a market stall and didn't realise it was part of a series until I listed it on GR and saw "The Rat I have finally read a Murakami. I picked this up on a market stall and didn't realise it was part of a series until I listed it on GR and saw "The Rat, #4", but it works as a standalone story, albeit an intriguingly odd one. In conjures exciting unease and bafflement. It is a book of paradoxes and uncertainty, leaving me satisfied with being left, in some ways, unsatisfied.
What sort of story?
Genre labels can be useful, but can also be an irrelevant distraction. However, with this book, I found myself repeatedly wondering what type of story it was. By the end, I was still unsure, but glad of the tension caused by doubt.
At various times, this was magical-realism, murder mystery, sci-fi, political thriller, romance (not too much, thankfully!), Kafkaesque, premature mid-life crisis story, surrealist, spiritual allegory, horror/ghost story, hints of Lolita, and the narrator likens a high-tech hotel to something out of Star Wars... It might have been easier to consider what it was not.
Quirk of the '80s
It's a strange time to read a book like this: it was published, and apparently set, in 1988, which is recent enough that it feels more or less contemporary. However, that was just before Google, laptops, mobile phones etc, which means the protagonists do not have the opportunities one now takes for granted.
Set it now, and the plot would need tweaking, but in 50 years, it will be historical enough for no one to notice. Reading it now, gave it an intriguing edge that added to the general sense of shifting reality.
Connectedness and (un)reality
Connectedness is the clearest theme of the book (and one that links it to David Mitchell, a known fan of Murakami, especially Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas).
There is perhaps unintended (or prescient?) irony in the fact that a novel that is all about connectness was written and set just before the world became dramatically more connected.
Ambiguity about what is real is the other thread: we assume the narrator is reliable (he's a journalist), but there are visions of various kinds, films, vague memories, a bit of mind reading. What is real, and what is not? As things get really weird, the narrator asks, "was the sickness in here or out there?"
Plot and Meaning
The unnamed narrator is a divorced man in his mid-30s; a freelance journalist, mostly writing restaurant reviews - a job he describes as "Shovelling snow. You know, cultural snow."
It opens with him talking about The Dolphin Hotel, and how he often dreams of it after a previous girlfriend, Kiki, took him there, then disappeared. It was a strange place: "The Dolphin Hotel was conceptually sorry... Normalness it lacked... Its corners caked with unfulfilled dreams." Four years on, he feels as if she's calling him to return, so he does. In its place, he finds the swish new Hotel Dauphin.
Dabbling in his past brings him into contact with Gotunda, a high school class mate, who is now a successful (but unfulfilled, divorced and working to pay debts and alimony) actor. They become close friends, which they hadn't been at school. Other key characters are Yumiyoshi, a pretty hotel receptionist, and Yuki, a bright thirteen year old rich drop-out, largely ignored by her divorced parents.
Characters, plot lines and reality twist and tangle, aided by dream-like visions, a portal to another dimension of reality, and a character with mild psychic abilities.
The title relates to an instruction given to the narrator quite early and that seems as if it will be the key to everything, or at least something, but nothing really comes of it (more details in spoiler).
All the way through, and especially towards the end, the narrator is musing on fate and destiny, and looking for meaning in all this - as is the reader. It never really comes, but I think that's rather the point. Had Murakami tied it all together with some ghastly homily, I think it would have ruined the book. After all, a recurring line is " What was that all about?", uttered by Kiki in a much-watched film.
In more detail: (view spoiler)[
Yumi and then the narrator accidentally (and separately) find themselves in a parallel world, in the Old Dolphin Hotel, where they meet the old owner, who the narrator nicknames Sheep Man because of all the pictures and books about sheep. He resisted selling up, and only gave in on condition the new hotel retained the name. He tells the narrator "Thisisyourplace. It'sthenkot. It'stiedtoeverything. Thisisyourworld" and that he (Sheep Man) works hard "Tokeepthings - fromfalllingapart. Tokeepyoufromforgetting." He stresses, "Yougottadance. Aslongasthemusicplays." It is not the place of the dead, and it is real, "Butit'snottheonlyreality."
As well as being drawn to Kiki and wondering what happened to her, he fancies Yumi. He also discovers that Kiki had a bit part in a film of Gotunda's ("Unrequited Love", that the narrator watches obsessively) because Gotunda was a client and Kiki was one of the call girls at a secretive and very high-end agency.
Through Yumi, the narrator gets to know Yuki, whose flighty photographer mother had left behind at the hotel to travel abroad! He took back to her home in Tokyo and keeps a (mostly) paternal eye on her. Their relationship ought to be creepy, especially when he comments how pretty she is, but it's actually rather sweet and innocent. Even her parents think so, as they each (separately) get him to take more charge of her.
Yuki has also seen Sheep Man, though by some sort of mental connection to the narrator, rather than going through the portal.
Gotunda calls the agency to get a couple of girls for him and the narrator. The latter has Mei, who he quizzes about the missing Kiki, but she knows nothing useful. A few days later, he is arrested for her murder and interrogated in a most unorthodox way, slightly reminiscent of Kafka's The Trial, which he had been reading the night before. He denies ever having met her, not wanting to tarnish Gotunda's reputation.
Yuki's rich father (Makimura) pulls strings to get the narrator released from interrogation and suggests he takes Yuki to visit her mother (Amé), currently in Hawaii with her new partner (Dick).
In one dip to the other world, Kiki shows the narrator a room with six skeletons, one of which has a single arm. Later, when a one-armed man he knows dies, he realises they represent people close to him who have died, and fears for the lives of Gotunda, Yuki and Yumi. Another death seems to confirm his theory, though we never know who the sixth is (maybe the narrator himself).
While in Hawaii, another prostitute turns up (June), sent from the same agency, but by Makimura. However, when Gotunda later enquires about her, he's told she'd disappeared three months earlier.
Yuki gets spookily sick when they borrow Gotunda's Maserati, and when she sees him and Kiki in the film, is so unwell, she has to leave the cinema. (view spoiler)[She says that the actor (Gotunda) killed the actress (Kiki) in real life and that she "saw" it. Later, when the narrator asks Gotunda if he killed Kiki or Mei, Gotunda is unsure about Kiki (he's not certain which reality it might have been in), but says he did kill Mei because she asked him to) - yet the narrator overlooks this and plans a trip together! (hide spoiler)].
More visions, more possible deaths, more crossings over and shadows, finally get round to visiting Yumi again, and reality more blurred than ever. The end!
Surprisingly few, for me:
* "Financial dealings have practically become a religious activity."
* "You can now enjoy hybrid styles of morality."
* "You leave things to an interior designer and it ends up looking like this. Something you want to photograph, not live in."
* "Reality receded until you can't tell who's sane and who' not."
* "Amé didn't give anything. She only took. She consumed those around her to sustain herself... Her talent was manifested in a powerful gravitational pull."
* "The passage of time wasn't a practical component in her life."
* "Her ears had special power. They were like some great whirlpool of fate sucking me in."["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
Jul 04, 2014
Jul 19, 2014
Jul 04, 2014
Aug 27, 1996
I hadn't read any Updike for years, the premise of this one was appealing (a promiscuous priest, sent away to consider the conflict between his sexual I hadn't read any Updike for years, the premise of this one was appealing (a promiscuous priest, sent away to consider the conflict between his sexual shenanigans and his faith), it was only £2.99 on a charity stall, and I don't have to like the protagonist to like a book, but this... I didn't enjoy it (2*). It was well-written in many ways (3*), but Tom was just too unpleasant. I tried make allowances for different mores, but whereas his misogyny and homophobia would be understandable in a Victorian, this is set within my lifetime (published 1975).
Plot and Structure
Tom is sent away for a month to a place in the desert for errant priests. There doesn't seem to be any therapy or counselling or anything really: just time away to reflect, and encouragement to play golf and poker ("the Bible above all is banned"). He is asked to write his thoughts each day (maybe the others are, but we don't know) so the book has one chapter for each day, with the four that fall on Sundays being like sermons. He muses on how he came to be there, with smatterings about what he's been up to that day. On the final day, it stops, with a final episode that may or may not be true. He occasionally addresses the centre manager, Ms Prynne, who he hopes is reading it, and whom he fancies. It's wry, irreverent, shameless, and, by his own admission, of dubious accuracy.
The way he analyses his own story as he seeks to justify his actions (twisting the Bible to do so), in part by blaming others, brought Humbert Humbert to mind. There is also an echo of Lolita's famous opening lines, "Oh Alicia, my mistress, my colleague, my adviser, my betrayer." He surmises that "I equate noise with [sexual] vitality" and he's "infatuated with completion", but these are not fully developed insights. Occasionally, he detaches, and slips into the third person, and sometimes likens people in his life to "dolls I can play with".
Tom is very well-read and drops lots of literary names in the first half, especially John Barth (who he sees as the epitome of masculinity). Mention of John Dickinson-Carr's idea of many locked rooms is very pertinent to the way Tom tries to compartmentalise his life, but gets only a passing mention. Later, it's his wife Jane who wants "symmetry and enclosure" by having a door to separate the foyer and living room.
(view spoiler)[He starts an affair with Alicia, his organist, and tries to pair up his wife (Jane) and curate (Ned). This doesn't work ("I thought they might at least fornicate out of conversational boredom"), and Alicia ends up having an affair with Ned, which makes Tom very jealous. He turns to Frankie, but her strong faith makes him impotent, so he has numerous affairs with other parishioners and those who come for counselling. Alicia tells Jane, but somehow Jane takes the upper hand in that discussion and with Tom; briefly, their sex life is wakened. When he sacks Alicia, with Ned's support, she tells one of the church elders. (hide spoiler)]All except Ned have children, yet they barely feature, even from a logistical angle. Tom's own teenage sons are an unpleasant nuisance, "Society... sets a term to childhood; of parenthood there is no riddance."
I was raised an Anglican, but have no faith in any higher power now. Nevertheless, the way Tom twists the Bible to show "adultery is our inherent condition" and "not a choice to be avoided; it is a circumstance to be embraced" made me oddly uncomfortable. He goes further, saying people find themselves in adultery (which is fair enough), "stripped of all the false uniforms society has assigned them... The sacrament of marriage... exists but as a precondition for the sacrament of adultery". "Free love is not a scandal but a tautology."
He is uncomfortable with the word "love" but thinks it "the spiritual twin of gravity". At home (view spoiler)[after the novelty of the revelation of his affair (hide spoiler)], "weightlessness prevailed".
His persistent impotence with the only lover with any real Christian faith provides suggests he hasn't totally lost longing for his own, "I would greet my impotence as the survivor within me of faith, a piece of purity amid all this relativistic concupiscence."
Misogyny, Sexualising & Homophobia
After years as a conventional priest, husband and father, Tom strays once, and after that, he becomes insatiable. He's largely untroubled by guilt, but he's shocked at women who are similarly free of it. His casual demeaning thoughts about women infuse the book:
* "His wife, dear sainted sloven."
* His mother "was insignificant, timid, mousily miscontented."
* "There is this to be said for cold women: they stick. So beneath our raptures I heard the tearing silk of infidelity" (even though he's the one who is committing adultery).
* "I resent feedback... as a middle-aged woman resents the mirror."
* "The typewriter that like a dull wife has grown grudgingly responsive to my touch."
* "Babies and guilt, women are built for lugging."
He rather relishes exposure of his first affair, because it makes the logistics so much easier.
As sex, rather than God, becomes his world; he sees it everywhere:
* The "flirtatious brushing" of a "naked" branch.
* Typing sounds like "ejaculations of clatter".
* "Newsletters... that pour through a minister's slot like urine from a cow's vulva"!
In footnotes, he draws attention to his numerous Freudian typos.
Better, and more subtle, was the aside that he first saw his wife when she was standing "beneath a blooming fruit tree, a small apple or crabapple."
Outwardly, Tom is uncomfortable around men he suspects are gay ("the sidling fear that any unannounced homosexual puts into me") and assumes they're all feminine with pederast tendencies. He even intuits sexual orientation from how men approach putts and holes in golf. However, there are several suggestions that he feels some attraction to Ned, though is partly a manifestation of jealousy. There is a really weird (trans?) passage where he says one of the reasons he avoids pyjama bottoms (other than ease of masturbatory access) is "to send an encouraging signal to the mini-skirted female who, having bitten a poisoned apple at the moment of my father's progenitive orgasm, lies suspended within me". He also says "Though I like myself in drag, the church is no costume ball", though this comes across as a joke.
To reinforce his general bigotry, there's a casual reference to the "tribal chauvinism of the Jews".
Furniture (and the rooms it is in) is explicitly important to Tom, and is often described in delicate detail; he sees more of God in man made objects than the natural world. As a child, the family moved many times, and the furniture was a reassuring constant. "My father's carpentry opened the furniture of my childhood to me and made it religious" and "I had no choice but to follow my father into the ministry; the furniture made me do it."
* "The room still nudges me with its many corners of strangeness."
* He's always been happy in cars, "The first piece of furniture I could drive."
In particular, he always sees stripes on the stairs, suggesting "the great brown back of a slave" and "my own captivity". More poetically, "The oaken staircase flayed with moonbeams."
Furniture is significant in his breakups as well: when one lover leaves, he likens it to removing furniture from the church and with another, he's more concerned that she might lose her rich husband's beautiful furniture than anything else.
* "Knives of light fall upon the grapefruit and glass with an almost audible splintering of brightness."
* "The faint rubbed spot on the surface of silence that indicates where voices have been erased."
* "We played in each other like children in puddles."
* "How the world sparkled now that my faith was decisively lost."
* "Morning sunlight streaming, shade-tinted, dust-enlivened, from windows east and south. Snowcrusts from last week's storm visible through them."
* "From the first Thanksgiving, ours is the piety of the full belly. We pray with our stomachs, while our hands do mischief, and our heads indict the universe."
* "I like her fondness for the subject. We are circumscribed by tangents."
* "The demand for babies isn't what it was, though evolutional inertia maintains the orgasm as bribe."
* "The electric sloshing of television's swill."
* "The man knew how to wear authority's spacesuit"!
Notes are private!
Jul 04, 2014
Jul 04, 2014
Jul 04, 2014
Sep 26, 2013
Jun 05, 2014
This is explicitly based on Arnold Bennett's wonderful Old Wives's Tale (my review), with a contemporary British Asian twist. There's no need to be fa This is explicitly based on Arnold Bennett's wonderful Old Wives's Tale (my review), with a contemporary British Asian twist. There's no need to be familiar with OWT - in fact, I suggest you read that rather than this!
It's had pretty good reviews in the broadsheet press, and in terms of plot, it certainly does what it claims, but it lacks the warmth and writing skill of Bennett, it attempts more humour, and demonstrates every Asian and shop-owning stereotype you can think of. The end result is like the novelisation of the BBC sketch show Goodness Gracious Me.
There is some character development (only a bit), but exposition is clunky, and the plot is borrowed, so Sanghera is not an author I'll look out for in future.
Note to non-Brits: In the UK, "Asian" is not derogatory and refers to those whose families hail from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is not used for those from SE Asia, China, Japan etc.
It's a story of three generations of a Sikh family who run a corner shop (convenience store) in Wolverhampton, narrated by Arjan, the thirty-something grandson of the original owners, Mr and Mrs Bains.
The chapters alternate between the modern day and his mother's childhood and young adulthood, both strands being triggered by a death, leaving a woman at the helm. The first couple of times, the switching wasn't very clear, but in the end, it more or less worked.
The final two chapters tie up the story with an unconvincing and overly dramatic surprise and then what would be a predictable finish were it not for what just happened in the previous chapter. All very rushed and unconvincing.
CASTE, CLASS and RACE
This book (unlike OWT) is primarily about fitting in, and not fitting in: the eternal immigrant story, compounded by issues of race, Indian caste, and, towards the end, British class. Integration versus identity, and to what extent compromise can be hypocritical. Sadly, it doesn't really have any great or original insights on these tricky but important issues.
Similarly, racism is experienced in many ways, by Asians and, to a lesser extent, from Asians. No surprise, but the characters' reactions to it were neither inured nor intimidated and somehow just didn't feel likely (but what do I know?).
"The need to serve customers means you rarely sit down together [to eat], and consequently have little sense of yourselves as a social unit." Given that they live above (and in!) the shop, and all help out there, even as children, this is the opposite of what one might assume. It could be the key to so much. But it didn't seem to be.
ASIAN CULTURE - and WOMEN
Several characters resist aspects of their culture and religion, and some embrace it more at stressful times. Some of the superstitions Mrs Bains (and later, her elder daughter, Kamaljit) fall back on are easy to mock, even though they gain comfort from them.
Parallels were drawn between Punjabi culture and Jewish and royal life, and at times, the exposition was annoying and unnaturally unsubtle and yet I don't feel I've learned much.
What should have been the most interesting strand concerns the role and relationships of women (Bennett managed it a century earlier). All the female characters struggle with this to some extent: who to marry and how, how much education girls should have, how much to defer to one's husband, attitudes of dress, tensions of sisterhood, but most especially, the two determined widows who run the shop at different times (which tallies with Sikh teaching of gender equality).
Similarly, the loving but prickly relationship between sisters Kamaljit and Surinder has so much potential for interest, but never rings quite true. And as for Freya... again, so much potential as a character, but not believably fleshed out.
Maybe Bennett was just better at understanding women.
OTHER COMPARISONS WITH OWT
The author admires Bennett, and he has Surinder class him as one of the great writers, but he doesn't do him justice: I gave OWT 4* and this only 2*.
The structure is very different (not a criticism): OWT is in four sections: childhood, one for each sister's adult life, and a final one when they come together again, whereas this alternates past and present. We learn less about the aunt/sister who goes away and far more about what happens to the grandson of the original owners.
There is also more mention of politics. I seem to remember some things about the local council and mayor in OWT, but nothing significant enough for me to mention in my review. This story though, is framed by Enoch Powell's infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech about immigration, a strike by bus drivers who wanted to be allowed to wear turbans, and riots in London in 2011. These mentions felt deliberate, rather than being a natural part of the story.
Plot-wise, it's write-by-numbers, with every significant thing that happens in OWT happening here:
(view spoiler)[* The shop and family name is Bains (which doesn't sound very Indian, and on page 102, Mrs Bains says it's NOT the family's name over the door).
* The original owner is bedridden and the shop is run by his wife and teenage daughters.
* The older daughter is plain; the younger is pretty, clever, shrewd, and fights to continue her education.
* One assistant leaves to open a draper's shop and ends up as a rival, and more successful business.
* The younger daughter flirts with a travelling salesman, so doesn't check on her father. He dies, and she is racked with guilt.
* The elder daughter marries the loyal (but lowly) assistant, to the disapproval of the mother.
* The younger daughter elopes with the salesman, who turns out to be a feckless drunk.
* The older daughter and her husband run the shop and eventually have a single, spoilt son.
* The younger daughter works hard, saves wisely, and ends up rich, in part from the hospitality trade.
* When the older daughter is in poor health, the younger one is traced and comes back to help rescue/run it. (hide spoiler)]
Much of it felt awkward, based too much on negative stereotypes, but a few incidents were mildly amusing:
* Trying to erase "TALEBAN PEEDO" graffiti, he erased the O first, which didn't improve matters, so then put an S in the space between words, so it looked "like it had started flogging a range of Islamic amphetamines."
* Pizza Express is a good place to end a relationship: it's cheap and has "quick, attentive service, useful for when the shit hits the fan. A certain guaranteed level of busyness, which lowers the risk of a scene. The name - 'Ex-press' - acting as a subconscious primer for the task at hand. Also, there is always at least one diner who is already eating alone and crying."
* As an Asian shopkeeper, "You are anyone. Or no one."
* "There are certain places that bristle with sexual tension: libraries, Tube carriages on hot days. But your Asian corner shop... is not one of them."
* "Full-time shopkeeping might not have been so arduous if Bains Stores enjoyed either less or more custom than it did" - either time to do other things, or too busy to notice or care.
* "She wondered whether her main mistake in life had been confusing desire for romance with desire for solitude."
* "I had never met anyone who could combine such warmth with such awkwardness."
Notes are private!
Jun 14, 2014
Jun 21, 2014
Jun 08, 2014
Aug 01, 2000
This is a fascinating insight (heavily autobiographical) into the flighty and insecure world of a chorus girl in London, around the time of the first This is a fascinating insight (heavily autobiographical) into the flighty and insecure world of a chorus girl in London, around the time of the first world war (though war is never mentioned).
Many other books set in this period feature chorus girls, but usually in a peripheral way that makes their lives seem exotic and exciting, until they settle down to conventional respectability, quietly disappear, or, less often, meet a tragic end. The storyline here is more nuanced and complex - and still relevant today.
The story is told by Anna. She is 18, recently arrived in London from a small island in the West Indies, touring England in shows. There is no suggestion she has a particular talent or passion for the stage. She is more-or-less on her own in the world: she has a step-mother in Yorkshire, but her parents have died, and she has no inheritance to fall back on.
In some ways, it's a very moral tale (the superficial glamour is not presented as something to aspire to), but it feels honest, rather than preachy, and the ending is left open.
NOTE re "the n word"
It is used several times, in a way that reflects normal usage at the time and place it's set. Anna is white (with a creole mother), but "I always wanted to be black... Being black is warm and gay, being white is cold and sad". Her use of the n word is not particularly derogatory, despite the offence it may cause some readers nowadays.
MEN and WOMEN - EXPLOITATION or SYMBIOSIS?
There are profound questions here about responsibilities, equality and exploitation in relationships: how gifts and money affect the nature of a relationship, and at what point, if any, it becomes "professional".
Anna is very free-thinking for the time: non-religious ("I believe there's something horrible about any sort of praying"!), amoral and independent, albeit more through necessity than choice. Had the book been published in the nineteen-tens (rather than 1934), it might have been very controversial. As it is, its modernity means it's still pertinent today.
Anna performs on stage, lives on her own, has relationships with men - and yet she is also very naive: she needs the support (partly, but not not only, financial) of others, but some of those people take advantage of her (women as well as men).
In some ways, she is exploitative, but really, she's more of a victim - unlike some of her friends, such as the one who advises, "The thing with men is to get everything you can out of them and not care a damn", after all, "People don't give you what you're worth... They give you what they think you're used to". Mind you, the men know the rules, too, fully aware that "a girls's clothes cost more than the girl inside them".
Early on, Anna seems to have a very negative impression of (all) men: one eyed her up "in that way they have" and "he didn't look at my breasts or my legs as they usually do", but the story progresses, her thoughts on men are replaced by introspection and memories of home. When she is a kept woman, she muses "I am hopeless, resigned, utterly happy. Is that me? I am bad, not good any longer, bad".
The life can be racy, but there is underlying pain, such as when failing to nod off or waking in the night "that was when it was sad, a lonely feeling, a hopeless feeling" because she knows "the man's bound to get tired". "But in the daytime it was all right. And when you'd had a drink you know it was the best way to live in the world, because anything might happen." That sounds like hollow happiness to me.
FEMININITY, FASHION and MONEY
There is plenty of hypocritical hand-wringing in contemporary media about societal pressures for women and girls to look beautiful at all times, but that's not entirely new. Anna agonises over the fact that "everything makes you want pretty clothes like hell", and sees people looking at the latest fashions, "Their eyes were fixed on the future, 'If I could buy this, then of course I'd be quite different.'"
She realises that once you have a taste for such things, you have a taste for such things - and it changes your outlook, behaviour, and even your voice. In a curious mix of self-awareness and naivety, she says "Money ought to be everybody's. It ought to be like water. You can tell that because you get accustomed to it so quickly."
There is pain in basing one's self-worth in the opinion of someone else: "I was so nervous about how I looked that three quarters of me was in prison... If he had said that I looked all right or that I was pretty, it would have set me free." But would it?
SENSES and SENSUALITY
Many passages are a riot for the senses, invoking the colours, smells, sights, shapes and sounds of the West Indies ("The light is gold and when you shut your eyes you see fire-colour"), and comparing them with the dull uniformity of London, where "The colours here are black, brown, grey, dim-green, pale blue, the white of people's faces". Back home, "How sad the sun can be, especially in the afternoon, but in a different way from the sadness of a cold places... And the way the bats fly out at sunset, two by two, very stately... And that hibiscus once - it was so red, so proud, and its long gold tongue hung out. It was so red that even the sky was just a background for it... And the sound of rain on the galvanized-iron roof. How it would go on and on, thundering on the roof."
In contrast, scenes which could actually be sensual, are generally described in cold, detached terms - even when there is some warmth in the relationship concerned.
There are two main styles of narration; there is nothing wrong with that, but I didn't really enjoy (or quite believe) this manifestation of it, which is why I've given 3*, rather than 4*.
Most of the time, Anna describes events in such short, sparse sentences that it's almost like an early reading primer. I know she's naive and not very educated, but her voice annoyed me: "I pulled my hand away. I thought, 'No, I don't like you.' We stopped at Germaine's flat." Tum-te tum-te tum-te-tum.
More interesting and enticing were the lyrical, stream-of-consciousness passages. For example, her first impression of London is barely punctuated: "hundreds of thousands of white people white people [sic] rushing along and all the dark houses all alike frowning down one after the other all alike all stuck together - the streets like smooth shut-in ravines and the dark houses frowning down - oh I'm not going to like this place."
The dreamier sections, especially towards the end, and coupled with a few mentions of ghosts, border on the hallucinogenic, and made me think of Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea aka Bertha in Jane Eyre
* "In my heart I was always sad, with the same sort of hurt that the cold gave me in the chest."
* "The sort of music that you always know what's going to come next, that you can listen to ahead."
* "When I remember living whit her it was like looking at an old photograph of myself and thinking 'What on earth's that got to do with me?'."
* A rich man's house was "dark and quiet and not friendly to me. Sneering faintly, sneering discreetly, as a servant would."
* "What I liked was watching her eat mangoes. Her teeth would bite into the mango and her lips fasten on either side of it, and while she sucked you saw that she was perfectly happy. When she finished she always smacked her lips twice, very loud... It was a ritual."
* "The shadows of the leaves on the wall were moving quickly, like the patterns the sun makes on water."
* At a funeral, "The candles crying way tears... The people there were like upholstered ghosts."
* "The cinema smelt of poor people, and on the screen ladies and gentlemen in evening dress walked about with strained smiles."
* "It was one of those days when you see the ghosts of all the other lovely days... From behind a glass."
* "His voice was kind, but the look in his eyes was like a high, smooth, unclimbable wall. No communication was possible."
Notes are private!
May 24, 2014
May 27, 2014
May 24, 2014
Jul 01, 2012
The picture is of a work by Andy Goldsworthy. For me, it symbolises the opposing meanings of the narrator’s su
The picture is of a work by Andy Goldsworthy. For me, it symbolises the opposing meanings of the narrator’s surname, Cleave, and also my feelings about him.
This is a beautiful, troubling book about blurred boundaries, blurred memories, identity, and layers of truth and lies.
Sixty five year old Alex Cleave is a narcissistic raconteur who looks back on his fifteen year old self’s passionate summer with the mother of his best friend. This is interspersed with reflections on grief over his daughter’s death a decade ago, and the current state of his memory, marriage and acting career. The mystery over his daughter’s death is explored, but although the circumstances and reason become clear to the reader, Alex does not explicitly join the dots in his narration (or his mind?). Fitting the title, the light shone on Alex’s past is weak and murky.
NOTE: Not all spoilers are spoilers. As I can’t seem to write succinct reviews, I’m hiding some of the waffle in spoiler tags. Only two instances contain genuine plot spoilers, and I’ve prefaced them with “SPOILER”.
Memory and Truth
“I cannot tell whether they are memories or inventions. Not that there is much difference between the two.”
As he tells his story, Alex repeatedly points out the gaps and uncertainties. Even as a teen, memory could be elusive, as when he tried to fix the details of their first liaison, assuming it to be a one-off. These discrepancies are often highlighted by conflicts of season (see Shifting Seasons).
It’s thus entirely appropriate that Alex should become an actor and eventually star in a literary biopic called “The Invention of the Past”.
(view spoiler)[Alex’s memories of his daughter are treated entirely differently, though: “I guard my memories… securely under wraps, like a folio of delicate watercolour that must be protected from the harsh light of day.”
“Time and memory are a fussy firm of interior decorators, though, always shifting the furniture about and redesigning and even reassigning rooms.” (hide spoiler)]
Acting: Identity and Layers of Reality
Perhaps the muddled relationship with Mrs Gray, and the need to act innocent, set Alex up for his acting career.
Until part way through his narration, Alex has always been a stage actor. Film is “another insubstantial link in the chain of impersonation and deceit”. In that context, honesty is not necessarily the same as truth.
The blurring of reality is multi-layered for an actor, like Alex, let alone when he’s playing the part of someone who used a false identity. Russian matryoshka dolls come to mind.
(view spoiler)[ “It’s a strange business, movie-making… the necessarily disjointed, fragmentary nature of the process… I feel that not only my actor self but my self self is made into a thing of fragments and disjointure… even when I have stepped out of my role… and reassumed my real, my supposedly real, identity… This experience before the camera… this sense of being not one but many.”
As a stage actor, Alex didn’t remember dreams, the stage perhaps fulfilling that need. But when filming, he dreams of drying up on stage.
“A film set does have… something of the airless intensity of the shrine of a Sybil… in a cave of hot light… and the crew fixed on us from the shadows like a circle of hushed supplicants.” (hide spoiler)]
Parent, Child, Lover – Who is Abusing or Exploiting Who?
“I did not deserve her… I did not love her enough.”
“After the initial gloss had gone dull, I did not think of her at all, but took her, however gratefully, for granted.”
Alex is very clear that he enjoyed their affair and does not feel abused or damaged by it, either at the time, or with hindsight.
Well, most of the time. (view spoiler)[Few things in Alex’s memory are certain, so there is occasional equivocation. Looking back on Mrs Gray’s first invitation to be kissed, he describes a “mixture of anticipation and alarm” and notes that there “lingered an odd sense of disengagement”. However, on the same page, he also says “after that kiss my formerly passive intentions had moved on to the stage of active intent… It was a confusion between the categories of the verb to know.” Their first sexual encounter is more muddled: Alex thinks she was saying “no” in his ear, even as she offered herself to him. Later, “she would resist me for as long as she was able” and “she was never so desirable to me as in such moments of reluctant surrender”.
Later, he was simultaneously happy, but always angry because “she was too much for me… in my heart I wanted to be a boy again”. And yet, “She spoiled most other females for me”. The normal caring maternal/paternal aspects of a relationship are more exaggerated and complex for Alex and Mrs Gray. She nags him to brush his teeth and do his homework; she has sex with him, but won’t let him smoke; they play house like children, in a ruined cottage where they go for sex - but worst of all, one time he calls her “mother” during sex.
A complex dynamic, “certain of her affections and yet always in fear of forfeiting them; to be in some sort of control of this passionate woman and yet also at her mercy.”
“I never knew what was going on in her head… and hardly bothered to try.” It’s hard enough to know the heart and mind and motives of another, especially when you’re unsure of your own. No wonder Alex is unsure. As a reader, I’m even less clear. (hide spoiler)]
A court would certainly class Mrs Gray as criminal, but should it? And how different would it be if the sexes were reversed? (Notes on a Scandal versus Lolita).
As if that were not generational muddle enough, SPOILER (view spoiler)[Alex’s co-star, Dawn Devonport, is a similar age to what his daughter, Cass, would be, and reminds him of his own “lost girl” (though that could also mean Mrs Gray). She has recently lost her father. Offscreen, Alex’s relationship with Dawn is primarily paternal, but onscreen, they’re lovers (hide spoiler)].
The cherry trees in the square outside the Grays’ home are often mentioned. One might take that as an unsubtle metaphor for Alex losing his virginity, and some of his subsequent feelings and experiences, but I think it’s more than that: Mrs Gray’s actions are just as significant and irreversible a milestone.
• Before: “The cherry trees were shivering in the wind and sinuous streels of cherry blossom were rolling along the pavements like so many pale-pink feather boas.”
• After: “The wetted boughs of the cherry trees outside glistening blackly and the bedraggled blossoms falling.”
“How I love the archaic sunlight of these late autumn afternoons.”
The story revolves around beginnings and endings, echoing life and death, and much of the focus and confusion is on and between spring and autumn – and it is a frequent confusion. For instance, Alex will assert something happened in April, but then remember he had hazelnuts in his pocket.
Windows, Doors, Mirrors, and Ancient Light
Mrs Gray likes trivia, hence she knows “a householder’s right to ancient light – the sky must be visible at the top of a window viewed from the base of the opposite wall.” (view spoiler)[The phrase also crops up when adult Alex meets a mysterious man in a hotel bar, who talks about astronomy, gods, and “the ancient light of galaxies”, and tells him to take care of his co-star, though it’s possible the whole scene was a dream or invention. (hide spoiler)]
There is a recurring motif of windows admitting light (“timeless, pallid sunlight was streaming in”) and sometimes a breeze to make the curtains billow with passion and change. (view spoiler)[Windows occur in dreams, and window light provides solace, too. Alex’s favourite memory of Mrs Gray is of the sun falling on her through a hole in the roof, and ultimately, radiant dawn light, advancing through a window, provides the grace he needs. (hide spoiler)]
Mirrors are windows onto another world, or another view of the world, hence another layer of reality. Alex’s first definite memory of Mrs Gray is seeing a disassembled tryptic of reflections of her naked, as he walked past her open bedroom door.
Which expose more of the truth: windows or mirrors?
Grief and Bereavement
We see the immediate physical manifestations of grief in a 15 year old, and the slow-burn grief of a middle-aged father and of a thirty-something daughter.
• “My world yesterday with Mrs Gray in it had the lightness and glossy tension of a freshly inflated party balloon; now, today, with her gone, everything was suddenly slack, and tacky to the touch. Anguish, this constant anguish, made me tired, terribly tired, yet I did not know how I might rest… My eyes ached and even my fingernails pained me” and although it was still summer, looking back, he sees “my suffering self facing into a bitter wind portending the onset of winter.”
• “I was afraid of my own grief, the weight of it.”
• “In those echoless caverns of empty time, being unobserved, unnoticed, I became increasingly detached from myself, increasingly disembodied.”
• The bereaved “feels she has not so much lost as been eluded by a loved one”.
The book is topped and tailed by the church. Alex thinks his first vision of Mrs Gray was her cycling past the church, with her coat billowing out like angels’ wings. There are analogies with Eden, Golgotha, the Prodigal Son, and issues around confession. Then, like so much else, that is almost forgotten in the heat of a passionate summer, until, appropriately, a final reckoning.
What’s in a Name?
Names have a certain power, as anyone who has chosen a name for a child, or has strong feelings about their own name knows (both apply to me).
Banville seems to play games with names in multiple ways, but I’m not quite sure what or why.I’m open to suggestions: (view spoiler)[
• Early on, he uses descriptive nicknames: Madam Memory, The Lady of the Bicycle, Venus Domestica, but then they dry up.
• Several characters have the “wrong” name: on first meeting his wife, he misheard her name as Lydia (instead of Leah) and called her that ever after; Celia Gray “doesn’t sound quite right”, and her son Billy is really Wilfred Florence(!). In contrast, Billy’s sister, Kitty, is suitable feline.
• The biopic Alex is to star in is of a controversial literary figure, Axel Vander, and Alex notes the near anagram of their names. The director shares initials with John Banville, and is known as JB.
• Most of the characters in the film world have alliterative names: Dawn Devonport, Stella Stebbings, Toby Taggart, Marcy Meriwether, Trevor the Trinity man, Pauline Powers, Ambrose Abbott, and even Pentagram Pictures.
• The cast of this novel is not large, but two key characters have a name that sounds the same: Billy and Billie – one for each end of the story. (hide spoiler)]
“When I looked at her it was me that I saw first, reflected in the glorious mirror that I made of her.”
Yes, it’s all about Alex. And of his past loves, “I think of them all as mine still”.
(view spoiler)[A teenage boy who feasts his eyes and judges by appearance is one thing, but one of the less savoury aspects of adult Alex is the way he enumerates the physical flaws of women he meets. Sometimes, this is tender, affectionate, even sensual (as when describing the wrinkles around Mrs Gray’s waist where her slip had been), but often it’s just mean. Sometimes he starts of adulatory, “She seemed not to walk but to waft, borne along in the bubble of her inviolable beauty” before going on to criticise weight, skin, shoes, hands, and more.
Billie Stryker was “of a remarkable shape, and might have been assembled from a collection of cardboard boxes… left out in the rain and then piled soggily any old way… She has a special and slovenly way of inhabiting a chair, seeming to sag from it rather than sit in it.” Worse still, “she seems to derive a vengeful satisfaction from cultivating her unloveliness”. He’s no kinder about his wife. (hide spoiler)]
Alex is a rounded and believable character, and I have deep sympathy for some of the tragedies he’s endured, but I don’t like him – and I doubt he’d like me. After all, he feels a “definite, concerted and yet seemingly aimless conspiracy run by women” and has “always fancied myself a bit of a cad… an actress in distress… I could never resist”. Ugh.
”A Stain of Nastiness”
This is a brilliant book, but “a stain of nastiness runs throughout the work”, as Alex says of the biography of Axel Vander.
In fact his analysis of the writing style seems to be Banville pre-empting possible criticism of his own work: (view spoiler)[ “Is it an affectation…? Rhetorical in the extreme, dramatically elaborated, wholly unnatural, synthetic and clotted, it is a style such as might be forged… by a minor court official at Byzantium… Our author is widely but unsystematically read, and uses the rich tidbits that he gathered from all those books to cover up for the lack of an education… although the effect is quite the opposite, for in every gorgeous image and convoluted metaphor, every instance of cod learning and mock scholarship, he unmistakably shows himself up for the avid autodiact he indubitably is. Behind the gloss, the studied elegance, the dandified swagger, this is a man racked by fears, anxieties, sour resentments, yet possessed too of an occasional mordant with and an eye for what one might call the under-belly of beauty.” (hide spoiler)] Narcissism or insecurity?
Alex reminded me very much of Tony, the narrator of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of An Ending: another not very likeable or admirable man, looking back at youthful indiscretions, relishing his role as raconteur, and quite open about the fact his memories may not be quite accurate.
The ending of this was similarly surprising. I was left wondering SPOILER (view spoiler)[how much of the affair was true. Certainly Kitty had seen them once, in the laundry room, and knew her mother was fond of him, but she stops short of confirming that it was more than that. (hide spoiler)]. I like wondering, so that’s no criticism.
• “These soft pale days at the lapsing of the year” – or of life?
• April “That sense of liquid rushing and the wind taking blue scoops out of the air and the birds beside themselves in the budding tree.”
• Guest house residents “did not so much lodge in the place as haunt it, like anxious ghosts”.
• “The wan sunlight of early spring was gilding the cherry trees and making the black, arthritic tips of their branches glisten.”
• “The hall furniture stood dimly in the gloom like choked and speechless attendants.”
• “She granted me full freedom of her body, that opulent pleasure garden where I sipped and sucked, dazed as a bumble-bee in full-blown sun.”
• “There is something in the rhythm and aimlessness of being out for a stroll that I find soothing” and in daytime there’s the “tepid satisfaction” of being out when others are at work. “The streets… have an air of definite yet unfulfilled purpose, as if something important had forgotten to happen in them.”
• “His bloodshot eyes swimming with unshed tears.”
• “One of those knobbly sausage rolls that looks pre-eaten.”
• “He had about him permanently an air of troubled inadequacy.”
• “He at the end of some vital resource that only the greatest effort would replenish, and she anxiously eager to aid him but at a loss to know how.”
• “The strip of unconvinced grass.”
• “A smile that kept trying to achieve itself but never quite succeeded.”
• “A lifelong dabbler in death… a connoisseur… a ghost-in-waiting.”
• Hospital “where cheated death lingers rancorously”.
• “Quarrelling, for us, was intimacy.”
• “His grin is more like a snarl… the things his eyes fall on seem to quail under his tainting glance.”
• “The night bounded in like an animal, agile and eager, with cold air trapped in its fur.”
• Bats wings “making a tiny sound like that of tissue paper being surreptitiously folded”.
• “The street-light outside was still shedding a soiled glow in the window and the snow was still steadily falling.”
• “Sleep… a nightly dress rehearsal for being dead.”
• “The sea was high and vehemently blue.”
• A hotel lounge “with its vague but indispensable air of ill-content”.
• A fight “goes on bleeding unseen, under its brittle cicatrice”.
• “On the ice a crazed glare reflected warmthless sunlight.”
Added because of Steve's exquisite review (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...). See also his review of Shroud: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...
Notes are private!
Sep 20, 2015
Oct 21, 2015
May 21, 2014
Why have so few of my GR friends reviewed this brilliant book by such a well-known author? Note: The first two pages have a rather brutal scene (thoug Why have so few of my GR friends reviewed this brilliant book by such a well-known author? Note: The first two pages have a rather brutal scene (though the details are vague), but there's nothing else like that in the rest of the book, and everything that follows, arises from this incident.
This is Proulx's first novel, published a year before the excellent The Shipping News. It's equally good, but has a very different structure, and the language is not as distinctively clipped or telegraphic.
It tells the stories of the diverging lives of the Blood family (impoverished farmers in Vermont), from the mid '40s until the '70s or '80s, along with the stories of others involved in their lives. The environment is harsh, the people tough, but the landscapes often beautiful - and Proulx's writing switches effortlessly to reflect these contrasts.
Most of the chapters start with a postcard to or from one of the protagonists. Sometimes it explains what's going to happen in the chapter, but at other times it's just a side story. You only ever see the written side; never the picture. You could almost treat the book as a collection of short stories, or even read just the postcards and try to cobble it all together, though I wouldn't recommend the latter unless you've already read the book.
The Blood family consists of Mink and Jewell (father and mother), sons in their 20s (at the start), Loyal and Dub (Marvin), and teenage daughter, Mernelle. Loyal is a devoted, intuitive and knowledgeable farmer; Dub has always been slow, aimless and reckless, and Mernelle is dreamy.
On the first page, Loyal's girlfriend, Billy, dies. He blames himself, and is even more sure everyone else will blame him, so he hides the body, and leaves family and farm. "It wasn't the idea that he could go anywhere, but the idea that he had to go somewhere." It remains ambiguous as to how justified his haunted guilt at her death is, but it never leaves him. And somehow, well before the end of the book, it's hard to hate Loyal for what he did.
Loyal spends his life travelling the USA, doing a variety of mostly outdoor jobs (trapping, mining, prospecting, farming), meeting intriguing characters along the way. He sends the occasional postcard home, and always hankers after a farm and family of his own, though his inability to get intimate with women makes the latter impossible. He realises "The price for getting away. No wife, no family, no children, no human comfort in the quotidian unfolding of his life". Meanwhile, his absence, and lack of return address, changes the lives of all those he leaves behind.
There is a striking description on the second page, "her nails glowed with the luminous hardness that marks the newly dead", and this lodged in my mind, priming me to notice the many, many references to nails (finger, toe, claw, and metal) that followed: at least 20 in the first 125 pages, then none that I noticed for over 100 pages, and just a smattering from there to the end.
Nails are key for Loyal, too: when he first met Billy, "her nails gleamed", and years later, he still remembers "the flash of her nails" and how pointed they were.
Neatly, the final two mentions of nails that I spotted also relate to the dead or dying.
There's a whole thesis in these nails, and a far more interesting one than the meaning of postcards (Mernelle has a friend who collects them) or bears (hunted, toy ones collected by Mernelle, as well as being on a job lot of postcards).
LANGUAGE - and NAMES
Most of the chapters are a chunk of narrative about one or more characters, but at regular intervals, there's a short one called "What I See". These are in the present tense, and much more stream-of-consciousness, often featuring lush descriptions of an arid landscape, or something rather abstract.
It's a feature of all the chapters that it's not always immediately obvious who it's about, which keeps you turning the pages (and isn't drawn out to an irritating degree).
As in all the Proulx I've read, many of the characters have unusual names. Often they are pertinent, or oxymoronic, or maybe both (e.g. Loyal Blood), but others are just bizarre: a man called Toot Nipples, for example! But there are limits: even Loyal thinks it odd that a man named his mule after his daughter.
This is a great strength of the book: so many characters over so many decades, and they change a great deal, but it feels like a plausible reaction to circumstances (except for Dub), and I really felt I knew and understood them. When Mernelle grows up "there was a sureness in her that estranged her from the old child's life".
OPTIMISM, PESSIMISM, FATE
Early on, we're told the Bloods have a "knack for doing the wrong thing", and that largely proves true. Later, Ben the amateur astronomer says to Loyal "I see the way you throw yourself at trouble. Punish yourself with work. How you don't get anywhere except a different place."
There are a couple of recurring themes that ought to be depressing, and yet the characters are always hopeful of things getting better (and some things do), so overall, it isn't a depressing book.
* Thwarted longing for children (and of those who do have them, most are painfully estranged)
* Valuable things, long saved-up for or treasured, are lost, destroyed or stolen
Although Proulx isn't crass enough to spell it out, they're all striving for The American Dream, but most never quite reach it, and Loyal in particular, wants to do "something of value".
FREEDOM OR BURDEN OF TRAVEL?
Loyal doesn't feel he has much of a choice about travelling, and is resigned to it. In contrast, the liberation his mother finds when she learns to drive in her fifties, is joyous: "continuity broke: when she drove, her stifled youth unfurled like a ribbon" and "the pleasure of choosing which turns and roads to take" is a literal and metaphorical description of her empowerment. Driving also gives her a new appreciation of landscape: "When you'd been driving with your eyes on the road for hours, you wanted to let them stretch out to the boundaries of the earth." And yet, in keeping with the theme of valuable things being lost, even this has a sting in its tale.
Initially, the Bloods are atavistically tied to their land, but as the stories diverge, they (and others) become outsiders.
* Incomers "moved into farm houses hoping to fit their lives into the rooms, to fit their shoes to the stair treads".
* An incomer was "urban in habitat but haunted from childhood by fantasies of wilderness".
"This family has a habit of disappearing. Everyone... is gone except me. And I'm the end of it."
IS THERE ONLY ONE WAY TO LOVE; CAN ONE CHANGE?
(view spoiler)[The first is is a question Loyal asks himself, and it's a slightly troubling one. Because of the ongoing trauma of how Billy died, if he becomes aroused by a woman, he has a panic attack and passes out. So he has occasional relationships with men (though this is never explicit). Assuming he was straight in the first place, it's odd he doesn't seem to struggle with this more. Or maybe he never was straight, and perhaps the fact his girlfriend had a masculine name is indicative? (hide spoiler)]
QUOTES ABOUT LANDSCAPE
* "The October afternoon collapsed into evening."
* "Evening haze... blurred a sky discolored like a stained silk skirt."
* "The overclouded sky was as dull as old wire."
* "Heat ricocheted off the colorless rocks. Nothing moved. The sky leaned on them, the earth pressed upward."
* "The work of his hands had changed the land... The smooth fields were echoes of himself in the landscape."
* "The atavistic yearning that swept him when he stood beneath the trees... he was in an ancient time that lured him but which he could not understand in any way... The kernel of life , tiny, heavy, deep red in color, was secreted in these gabbling woods."
* Florida swamp: "Dub feels the canoe slip through the tea-colored water, sees the water ruptured by iridescent gas bubbles, patterned by the checkerboard backs and wood-knot eyes of alligators, clouds of egrets slanting out of the choked trees... The plangent call of rain crown under the long layers of clouds like pressed black linen."
* "Water charged with leaves raced in the gutters, wet boots flashed like flints. The window of his house shone in the darkness like squares of melting butter."#
* "The teeth of autumn gnawed at the light."
* "His peculiar voice that was both sweet and grainy, like the meat of a pear."
* "The barn stank of ammonia, sour milk, cloying hay and wet iron."
* A husband "had crushed her into a corner of life". Widowhood isn't always bad.
* Half brothers who only recently met bond over land, "The property was like an ear-trumpet through which they could understand each other."
* "The electric feeling of quick money was everywhere" amongst those prospecting with Geiger counters.
* "The dulled eyes in their heavy hammocks of flesh were as incurious as those of a street musician."
* "The woman's shape was as formless as poured sugar."
* "He'd trained himself by now to need and want little... The unsecured scaffolding of his life rested on forgetting."["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
May 14, 2014
May 23, 2014
May 14, 2014
Jan 01, 2011
A funny little book - and it is very little (64 pages, each about half the size of a normal paperback page). It's not bad, but far, far better, is her A funny little book - and it is very little (64 pages, each about half the size of a normal paperback page). It's not bad, but far, far better, is her feast of bloodier, darker tales, The Bloody Chamber, reviewed here
Angela Carter retells seven of Charles Perrault's classic fairytales - though two I'd never heard of. In fact, the telling is mostly traditional, but with an explicit moral or two appended, some of which have a more modern slant. I'm not really sure of its purpose or intended audience, as it's slightly too knowing (and unillustrated) for small children, but not really subversive enough for real adult enjoyment. Some of the "morals" are dubious, and surprising coming from a female author, yet they're not witty enough to be taken as jokes. Or maybe I've missed the point.
My reason for reading it was to get a version of Bluebeard, because it relates to Jane Eyre, as mentioned in my Jane Eyre review. I will now read Vonnegut's weirder take on the story.
Bluebeard is worse than Rochester, and his beard is literally blue. He marries, despite the fact he "had been married several times before and nobody knew what became of his wives", and a short while after, goes away on business. He gives his wife all the keys and tells her to have the run of the house and its riches, invite her friends and do whatever makes her happy. His only stipulation is that she must not use the tiniest key, and that the consequences will be dire if she does. Just as with the apple in Eden, what is forbidden proves irresistible, despite the lusher alternatives. In this case, the room contains the bloodied bodies of murdered former wives. However, the real problem is that, like Lady Macbeth's hands, the blood won't wash off the key, so she is found out.
Morals: "Curiosity is a charming passion but may only be satisfied at the price of a thousand regrets... [it] is the most fleeting of pleasures... and it always proves very, very expensive." The other moral is an odd observation that modern husbands wouldn't try to restrict a wife's curiosity because women rule.
Compare and contrast with a rather different novel of the same name: Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard.
Little Red Riding Hood
A completely traditional telling.
Morals: Don't talk to strangers (fine) but if you do, don't be surprised if it ends badly (sounds like victim blaming). It then warns of real-life men who sweet-talk young girls, but are really "the most dangerous beasts of all".
Puss in Boots
A completely traditional telling.
Morals are quirkier: Hard work and ingenuity trump inherited wealth. Also "clothes, bearing and youth speedily inspire affection; and the means to achieve them are not always entirely commendable."
This is a traditional telling until the marriage, after which, the prince leaves Beauty behind in her castle, and keeps her (and their subsequent children) secret for two years because his mother is half ogre and he fears she may still have "ogrish tastes" and eat his children! A few twists and turns follow (all new to me), but of course, it all ends happily and justly.
Morals: It's good to wait for the right man, but 100 years is too long, and "long engagements make for happy marriages, but young girls these days [written in 1977!] want so much to be married I do not have the heart to press the moral."
Another traditional telling.
Morals - these are odd: Charm trumps beauty - except that doesn't fit the story, despite Carter's claim that "When her godmother dressed Cinderella up and told her how to behave at the ball, she instructed her in charm." Even odder, "It is certainly a great advantage to be intelligent, brave, well-born, sensible... But however great may be your god-given store, they will never help you get on in the world unless you have either a godfather or godmother to put them to work for you"!
Ricky with the Tuft
I've never heard of this, so had no idea if Carter has changed it at all, though Petra's excellent review implies not. The question is, which is better: beauty or brains? (I have a relative who hoped her girls would be pretty rather than clever - as if they're mutually exclusive.) Anyway, Ricky is an extraordinarily ugly baby prince, but blessed with wit and brains. In a nearby kingdom, twin princesses are born: one beautiful but stupid, and the other, clever but ugly. The fairytale twist is that whoever Ricky falls in love with will attain his level of intelligence, and whoever the pretty princess falls in love with will attain (or appear to her to attain) her level of attractiveness. The other sister is rather irrelevant, so the worrying message seems to be that beauty matters more than brains.
Moral: Ying and yang and love is blind - or at least, armed with rose-tinted specs.
The Foolish Wishes
People being granted wishes and using them stupidly is a fairytale staple, but I'd not heard this version before. It's just a short and slightly amusing example of how people waste opportunities.
Moral: People are stupid. Or, as Carter prefers to put it, "Greedy, short-sighted, careless, thoughtless, changeable people don't really know how to make sensible decisions; and few of us are capable of using well the gifts God gave us, anyway."
Here's a more radical approach to retelling fairytales:
Notes are private!
May 27, 2014
May 28, 2014
May 13, 2014
Jan 01, 1997
Apr 22, 1997
A lyrical, mysterious tale of misunderstanding and pain, echoing through the years. At its dark heart, it demonstrates how small things can have multi A lyrical, mysterious tale of misunderstanding and pain, echoing through the years. At its dark heart, it demonstrates how small things can have multiple and major consequences, meaning that everything can change in a single day. "Anything can happen to anyone. It's best to be prepared." - and these fears trigger tragedy.
It is set in Kerala (southern India) in 1969 (when twins Rahel (girl) and Estha (boy) are aged 7) and 23 years later, when the twins return to the family home. As the narrative switches periods, hints become clearer and eventually become facts: you know bad things will happen, but it's not initially clear who will be the perpetrators. There is beauty, but always brooding menace of nastiness to come, or echoes of trauma long ago.
Caste, communism, Conrad's "Heart of Darkness", "The Sound of Music", whom to love (and how), and insects (especially moths) are common threads.
They are affluent, educated, Anglophile, Syrian Christians. The grandfather (Pappachi) was the Imperial Entomologist and in later years his wife (Mammachi) and their son (Chacko) started a pickle factory (a pickle factory is also significant in Rushdie's Midnight's Children). Their daughter, Ammu, is the divorced mother of the twins, and has "the infinite tenderness of motherhood and the reckless rage of a suicide bomber". The twins' great aunt (Baby Kochamma) lives there as well. She is a bitter woman, who loved, but never had, Father Mulligan, so retreats into false piety. She seeks and relishes opportunities to gloat at the misdemeanours and misfortunes of others: on hearing of scandal, "She set sail at once. A ship of goodness ploughing through a sea of sin".
The big event is when Chacko's English ex wife (Margaret) is widowed and she brings Chacko's 9 year old daughter (Sophie Mol) to visit.
The other key character is Velutha (son of Vellya Paapen), a clever untouchable, a couple of years younger than Ammu. The family pay for his education and he becomes indispensable at the factory for maintaining the machines, though carpentry is his true skill. There is also Kochu Maria, a house servant, who becomes more like Baby Kochamma's companion in later years.
The powerful bond of "two-egg" twins is essential to the story: "In those early amorphous years when memory had only just begun... Estha and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually, as We or Us... a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities."
However, they spend the years between the two time periods living apart, and that, inevitably, changes things. When returning as an adult, "now she thinks of Estha and Rahel as Them... Edges, Borders, Boundaries, Brinks and Links have appeared." They are now "A pair of actors... stumbling through their parts, nursing someone else's sorrow", and realising, too late, "You're not the Sinners. You're the Sinned Against."
The family is founded on preservation: first of insects, then of Paradise Pickles and Preserves, and always of reputation. However, ghosts are everywhere, mainly in the memories of the dead and the ramifications of their deaths, but also in other forms of loss: opportunities, love, names (the twins are without a surname when their parents split) and even the power of speech. "Silence hung in the air like a secret loss."
Sophie Mol's death is mentioned on page 4, and although its significance is constantly referred to, the details are only revealed very near the end. Her death "stepped softly around the house... like a quiet thing in socks" and "sometimes the memory of death lives... much longer than the life it purloined". Eventually "Sophie Mol became a Memory, while The Loss of Sophie Mol grew robust and alive. Like a fruit in season. Every season."
Those left behind experience "Not death. Just the end of living."
The family home descends into dilapidation. Baby Kochamma, once an skilled gardener, lets her plants wither or go wild, while she devotes her life to vicariously living the lives of ghosts she sees on satellite TV.
There is also an abandoned house across the river that the twins nickname The History House. There are many explicit comparisons with The Heart of Darkness: it was the home of Kari Saipu, and Englishman who "went native" and "captured dreams and redreamed them". Eventually, he shot himself when his young lover was taken away.
BETRAYAL AND THE DEATH OF LOVE
There are violent relationships, broken relationships (not necessarily the same) and unrequited love, but it is, of course, the children who suffer most.
The twins are raised by their loving but strict mother, but they are haunted by a fear that she will cease to love them. Their "willingness to love people who didn't really love them... was as though the window through which their father disappeared had been kept open for anyone." After Sophie Mol's death, when everything changes, (view spoiler)[Ammu is sent away, Estha is sent to his father, and Rahel is left behind to be raised by her uncle and grandparents, who "provided the care (food, clothes, fees) but withdrew the concern". (hide spoiler)]
There are other forms and instances of betrayal and lies, sometimes to keep up appearances, and sometimes for selfish ends.
CROSSING BOUNDARIES - OF LOVE AND OTHER THINGS
Taboos are many in a society ruled by caste (as well as class and religion), but the family's problems with classification are first highlighted in relation to jams and jellies, and the fact that banana jam was illegal as if fitted neither category. "They all broke the rules. They all crossed into forbidden territory. They all tampered with the laws that lay down who should be loved and how. And how much." And by whom.
Gradually, "Estha and Rahel learned how history negotiates its terms and collects its dues from those who break its laws." "History used the back verandah to negotiate its terms and collect its dues. Estha would keep the receipt for the dues that Velutha paid." When pressed by an adult to lie about something significant, "Childhood tiptoed out. Silence slid in like a bolt. Someone switched off the light and Velutha disappeared."
There is also confusion and hypocrisy around some of the power relationships, e.g. a wealthy communist landlord and factory owner with "a Marxist mind and feudal libido", and of course, the different levels of sexual freedom permitted for men and women.
SMALL THINGS: MOTHS AND BUTTERFLIES
The whole story is really a demonstration of The Butterfly Effect, although it's moths that are mentioned explicitly (Pappachi discovered a new variety of moth, but wasn't recognised for it).
"It was the kind of time in the life of a family when something happens to nudge its hidden morality from its resting place and make it bubble to the surface and float for a while in clear view."
There are many other Small Things:
* "The God of Loss. The God of Small Things."
* Ammu telling Rahel "When you hurt people they begin to love you less", a throwaway line that grows, festers and twists within until it changes the lives of everyone.
* Ammu is "Someone Small who has been bullied all their lives by Someone Big".
* At big moments "only the Small Things are ever said".
* A couple who know they have no future, so "instinctively they stick to the Small Things"
* Filth and decay, of which there is much 23 years later, is an accumulation of small things.
A distinctive feature of the writing is the large number of portmanteau coinages. Most are pairs of adjectives or adjective plus noun: sourmetal, oldfood, fishswimming, chinskin, deadlypurposed, longago, suddenshutter, sharksmile, orangedrinks, steelshrill, suddenshutter, stickysweet. However, things like cuff-links are written with a hyphen. Cuff-links also hint at an explanation: when the young twins are told they are "'to link cuffs together'... they were thrilled by this morsel of logic... and gave them an inordinate (if exaggerated) satisfaction, and a real affection for the English language."
* "Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, flatly baffled in the sun."
* "The nights are clear but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation" and in monsoon season "short spells of sharp, glittering sunshine that thrilled children snatch to play with."
* "Over time he had acquired the ability to blend into the background... [he] occupied very little space in the world."
* "Once the quietness arrived, it... enfolded him in its swampy arms... It sent its stealthy, suckered tentacles... hoovering the knolls and dells of his memory, dislodging old sentences, whisking them off the tip of his tongue. It stripped his thoughts of the words that described them and left them pared and naked."
* "Gulf-money houses build by [people] who worked hard but unhappily in faraway places... the resentful older houses tinged green with envy, cowering in their private driveways."
* "drifted into marriage like a passenger drifts towards an unoccupied chair in an airport lounge."
* "Her eyes spread like butter behind her thick glasses."
* He walked away "like a high-stepping camel with an appointment to keep."
* "Rahel tried to say something. It came out jagged. Like a piece of tin."
* "twinkled was a word with crinkled, happy edges."
* The weight of obligation "widened his smile and bent his back".
* The things that can't be forgotten "sit on dusty shelves like stuffed birds, with baleful sideways starting eyes".
* "Silverfish tunnelled through the pages, burrowing arbitrarily from species to species, turning organised information into yellow lace."
* "The ants made a faint crunchy sound as life left them. Like an elf eating toast."
* An adult playing with children "Instinctively colluding in the conspiracy of their fiction".
* "Insanity hovered close at hand, like an eager waiter at an expensive restaurant."
* "resting under the skin of her dreams"
* The "transparent" kiss of a child "unclouded by passion or desire... that demanded no kiss-back. Not a cloudy kiss full of questions."
* "The great stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably."
* "She was too young to realise that what she assumed was her love for Chacko was actually a tentative, timorous acceptance of herself."
I should add that I am really grateful to Steve whose excellent review, and comments beneath, persuaded me to pick up this book asap, rather than let it languish on my shelves any longer. His review is here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
May 10, 2014
May 01, 2014
Mar 04, 1986
Having enjoyed The Return of the Soldier, I picked this up in a charity shop, without realising it was the second of a trilogy until after I started r Having enjoyed The Return of the Soldier, I picked this up in a charity shop, without realising it was the second of a trilogy until after I started reading it. Fortunately, it still works as a standalone book.
This is a coming of age novel, set in in the run up to WW1: "I wanted to make friends... to be part of the general web, to be linked with boys and girls and men and women who were not yet what they would be in the end."
Clare Aubrey, a retired concert pianist, has been abandoned by her gambling husband and is raising their teenage children: Cordelia (the oldest and least warm), twins Rose (the narrator) and Mary (both destined to follow in their mother's musical footsteps), and Richard Quinn (charming, bright, wise and still at school). Cousin Rosamund and her mother, Constance, live with them, too. They are upper-middle class, and by selling some paintings, on the advice of Mr Morpurgo, family finances are now reasonably secure.
As the family rebuild their lives, they relish small victories such as being able to afford flowers to plant in the garden, "We were able to do the things that other people could do". But as they progress, the shadow of war looms, and "we saw a fungoid bloom of ruin slowly creep across the familiar objects among which we had been reared".
At times, it's a little florid, mannered and self-consciously erudite - like a diluted version of Ivy Compton-Burnett. There is not much plot (though there is a murder), but there is some sharp wit, especially at the expense of the dreadful Mrs Morpurgo.
The Aubreys are a little adrift: they have the background, tastes and education of the elite, but not quite the income. The mother has become (or maybe always was) oblivious to many social cues, and their friendships cross boundaries in a way that may have shocked some: Mr Morpurgo is a wealthy and generous Jewish art dealer, but they also regularly stay in a pub on the Thames, where they're related by marriage to the landlord.
This can cause awkwardness: "Like all people brought up in households destitute of manservants, we regarded them as implacable enemies... who could implement their ill-will by means of supernatural powers which enabled them to see through a guest's pretensions."
Appropriate clothing is a potential pitfall, but also a source of wry observation. For a prison visit, a man wore "clothes which suggested he had not made up his mind whether he was going to a funeral or to Ascot."
RADICAL FOR HER TIME
West was a member of the Bloomsbury set, that also included Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and E M Forster. They were known for their progressive attitudes to women and relationships amongst other things, and although this is not a radical novel, there are glimpses of this aspect of West's thinking.
She portrays strong, independent women, and although she doesn't suggest all men are feckless or dangerous, the twins do have such fears, which is one reason why they are determined not to marry.
But there are admirable men in the story, with Richard Quin held up as the ideal man - even before he's a man. (view spoiler)[The fact he dies in the war demonstrates teh futile waste of war. (hide spoiler)] Cousin Rosamund says of Richard Quin "I love him... but it's a shame he has to be a man... what will happen to him in a world where men are so awful?"
Uncle Len is also a reliable chap: a lower middle class a publican who is a quirky and admirable auto-didact, something the Aubreys encourage. It sometimes has amusing consequences, such as when he assumes Darwinism is a new and controversial topic for the doctor and the rector: "he was not making the mistakes of a stupid man, he was guessing like an explorer". For all his good qualities, he's still a bit old-school, wanting to keep the women away from any trouble, though Rose asserts "There was no difference in courage between men and women, if what happened wasn't fit for me it wasn't fit for men to see either".
There is also a lengthy and educational look at perceptions of gypsies.
A child is not a different species, as Victorians sometimes thought, but "an adult temporarily enduring conditions which exclude the possibility of happiness".
The mixed feelings of adolescence are probably not as anti-feminist as they first seem, but rather reflect typical mix of fear and excitement, coupled with the limitations women of the time faced. For example, on becoming aware of the attention of men, "We liked this, and did not like it. We wished we were growing up into something other than women."
On the other hand, Clare's advice to a shy, pretty daughter is a little off: "people like young girls who are pretty... when you go to any new place and you feel nervous, just stand there and let people look at you"!
It's not just in class terms and in the travails of reaching adulthood that characters have identity issues.
Is Clare, married, abandoned, or widowed?
When they leave music college, one of the twins has to change her surname to avoid confusion.
Loss of identity is one of Rose's reasons for fearing marriage.
Uncle Len tries to hide his gypsy background.
One can't help wondering if Mr Morpurgo's collecting of Christian art is, at least in part, a turning aside from his Jewish heritage.
Music is integral to the lives of the main characters, and there is no shying away from the hardships of training: "That was why I had had not childhood and why I had seen so much sunlight through windowpanes". There's always a higher target, but perfection is always just out of reach. They are torn between the desire to succeed and the difficulty of doing so.
When Cordelia gives up professional musicianship, the twins feel they "had so little in common with her that she seemed almost abstract: an inorganic burden like a knapsack."
* "One cannot live slowly as one can play music slowly."
* "Kate wore her wooden look of consequence."
* A butler "spoke with gloating discretion" about an extra guest.
* "Mrs Morpurgo had no secrets, She controlled her words well enough... but as she spoke the truth was blared aloud by the intonation of her commanding voice, the expressions which passed over her face, legible as the words on a poster, and her vigorous movements."
* "She had meant to be nearly, but not quite, intolerable."
* "She had not been abandoned to grief... she had been recovering her faculty for insolent surprise."
* "Her hands clasped before her dark flowing skirts, and a thread in every line of pent up emotion about to burst its dam."
* "There was a faint, sharp sweetness about her, like the taste of raspberries. She wore fussy and frilly clothes and jingling bracelets whit an air of surprised distaste, as if she had been put to sleep by a witch and had awoken to find herself in these trappings."
* "It had been furnished by Maples in the Japanese style, not that the family had any oriental connection, but simply because the backwash of the aesthetic movement had by then reached the suburbs."
* "A Victorian mansion... and within its walls Asia had taken its revenge against colonialism... the drawing room, which really did not look so bad now they had taken out the enormous ivory model of the Taj Mahal."
* Two sisters (not Aubreys) who had been "barmaids, not at the height of their profession. They had wandered in a defeated continent of the vulgar world, where vulgarity had lost its power and its pride... Listening to Aunt Lily's conversation was like having emptied at one's feet a dustbin full of comic songs and jokes from pantomimes."
* "The river, the grey-green mystery, the mirror which reflects solid objects so steadily but is not solid, the fugitive which remains."
* A mob in a pub: "Their faces were clay-coloured and featureless, yet not stupid; they might have been shrewd turnips."
* "Constance was like a statue, not a very good statue, imperfectly Pygmalionised."
* "The plane trees were casting their last crumpled maroon and silver leaves on the pewter pavements, the lights of the passing traffic paid out yellow ribbons of reflection on the shining roadway."
* "She looked as if she were about to burst into tears, but she was wonderful at catching the ball of her own mood in mid-air."
* "I was overcome by an abstract sense of grief, something like the moan of shingle dragging back to sea between breakers."
* "Waltzes and one-steps and tangoes were exhaled from the porticoes wearing striped awnings like masks, and in the gardens dancers walked on the moon-frosted lawns, the moonlight shining with phantom coldness from the young women's bare shoulders."
* "The silence that had been silting up in the rooms... now filled it as an invisible solid. (view spoiler)[Now Richard Quin was nowhere but he was everywhere. (hide spoiler)]"
Notes are private!
Apr 17, 2014
Apr 17, 2014
Feb 01, 2001
A fairly typical Murdoch (which is a good thing, imo), charting the tangled lives and reconfigured and unrequited relationships of family and friends, A fairly typical Murdoch (which is a good thing, imo), charting the tangled lives and reconfigured and unrequited relationships of family and friends, featuring a Svengali-like figure, and focusing on just a year or two. Most of the characters are somewhat lonely and broken, with a tendency to introspection, no one is very happy for long, and few of the characters are very likeable (though all are intriguing).
One way in which it differs from some of Murdoch's other novels is that all but one of the women are strong and take the initiative (one is the master puppeteer, but others have their own schemes) and most of the men just watch or react, somewhat haphazardly.
Hugh has just been widowed. Years ago, he had a fling with his wife's childhood friend, Emma Sands, who now lives with her beautiful younger companion (possibly more), Lindsay Rimmer. Hugh and Fanny's daughter, Sally/Sarah lives in Australia with her husband and four children (and another on the way). The oldest is Penn (boy of 15) who comes to stay with his uncle Randall. Randall's wife is the rather wet and pious Ann. They have a mysterious daughter, Miranda, aged 13, and recently lost their son, Steve (who was roughly Penn's age). They have a large house and run a successful rose-growing business; their marriage is less successful.
Mildred and Humphrey Finch are friends, primarily of Hugh's. They have a happy but chaste marriage, and Mildred yearns for Hugh. Her brother, Felix, is interested in Lindsay and Ann, and the vicar has a bit of a crush on Ann. There is a frisson between Penn and Miranda, and there are fears that the gay Humphrey may have designs on Penn.
Clearly, no good can come of any of this, and as new relationships are tentatively formed, matters become more complex.
Penn is the obvious outsider, but each character is an outsider in some way, even to themselves. Hugh just bumbles along, largely oblivious to everything unless it's spelt out to him.
You could almost make a case for Hugh's Tintoretto as a character, "a pearl whose watery whiteness both reflected and resisted the soft surrounding honey-coloured shades".
Like most Murdoch books, this features someone (more than one) pulling strings in the lives of others, primarily for their twisted personal enjoyment. Consequences don't seem to feature in their calculations: "There was in [X's] apprehension of things... nothing grossly predatory. They were like servants who run ahead of their master, symbols of a presence, almost sacraments." One man is attracted by the "moral otherness" of one such schemer.
At times, the manipulation borders on the magical: "fear, attraction, puzzlement and hostility, which had once together compose a sort of enchantment" and "she has drawn me here, witch-like".
This theme is also reflected in the way Miranda still plays with dolls. Her grandfather ponders how she "managed to combine her Peter Pannish demeanour with a knowingness which made Hugh sometimes conjecture that it was all a sort of masquerade". Even Randall still treasures his cuddly toys.
This gives a somewhat theatrical feel to the whole book. "positively enjoying the atmosphere of relaxed drama which surrounded Emma. It was as if Emma made her [Ann] exist more... she had an agreeable sense almost of being seduced."
SEX VERSUS CHASTITY
There is sex, but largely off-stage. What's more interesting is the relationships that endure but are apparently chaste, all for different reasons. Divorce was less common in 1962, and some of the characters are sincerely trying to live Christian lives.
"He made of his quiet love... a sort of home... He waited."
"Their relationship was was intimate yet abstract, a frictionless machine which generated little warmth, but which functioned excellently.
"All sorts of catastrophes can happen inside a marriage without destroying it... Thank God marriages don't depend on love."
"Perhaps in their days of happiness, their personalities had been too hazy for the question [of whether they 'fitted'] to arise. Now the haze had cleared and they had hardened into incompatible shapes."
The daisy-chain of relationships seems never-ending; the relationships that seem to end, never really do, perhaps resurfacing as "a dark new passion" that "was like a mutual haunting".
Apart from less divorce and more Christianity in 1962 than in 2014, there are a couple of ideas that strike a wrong note now: the tacit assumption that homosexuality and pederasty are the same, and a jocular rape threat issued to a woman who is being a bit of a tease ("I shall probably beat you and certainly rape you" if you don't change your mind).
All the characters are mourning people, opportunities and experiences. Ann feels "perpetually haunted and mocked by a music of happiness which came from some inaccessible elsewhere."
Hugh is mourning Fanny, "his grief... came to him with a kind of healing intensity. He burned himself with that pure pain. But he knew too that he had been touched by... some leper touch, which would work out its own relentless chemistry." He is also juggling that loss with the guilt of not being a better husband (his long-ago affair) and wistfulness at lost opportunities.
In the aftermath of Fanny's death, Hugh goes to stay with Randall's family, who are also still mourning Steve, but it affects them all very differently. High finds it oppressive, "The big indifferent house, upon which the unhappiness of him and his had made so little impression, and where the phantoms of his sadness were without a resting place."
The opening is oddly reminiscent of the famous opening lines of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, but I'm not sure whether to read further significance into it:
"Fanny Peronett was dead. That much her husband Hugh Peronett was certain of as he stood in the rain beside the grave."
The suggestion is that the best chance of happiness is from forgetting and reinventing.
* "He could pass as a distinguished man, just as he could pass as a good husband... But the terror and the glory of life had passed him by."
* Unlike the living characters, "Poor Fanny had no secrets. She had been a woman without mystery. There had been no dark in her."
* "Miranda was as pale as her mother, but her face had the transparency of marble, where Ann's had the dullness of wax."
* "The sun was shining, but in a feeble unconvinced sort of way."
* "His expression of rapturous doubt joined with apprehension of a higher and inconceivably beneficent yet also dangerous world... Her tender, intent, ironical gaze gently toasted one side of his face."
* "Mildred... set her feet apart in a patient yet stubborn pose which indicated with brutal clarity that she was waiting for Swann to go."
* "Remembering an infatuation, she "seemed in his memory to drip with colours almost too vivid to bear".
* "A niche reserved for men of independent means and limited ambition."
* "The silence that followed began to coil and accumulate into a great white shell of eloquence and understanding".
* Mother and daughter share "a tension, an excessive mutual consciousness, a hostile magnetism."
Notes are private!
Mar 02, 2014
Apr 12, 2014
Mar 02, 2014
An extraordinary, lyrical book that is about the power of storytelling in - and about - our lives.
Other themes are light/dark/blindness (literal and An extraordinary, lyrical book that is about the power of storytelling in - and about - our lives.
Other themes are light/dark/blindness (literal and metaphorical), outcasts, and the contrast between permanence and immobility (symbolised by the lighthouse) and change (people and the sea).
The fictional characters (one of whom has strong parallels with Winterson - see below) have some interaction with real characters and their works (Darwin, Robert Louis Stevenson and Wagner), and a broadly realistic story is sprinkled with slightly fairytale-like qualities, especially at the start, which also has comical aspects! Yet somehow, Winterson conjures this odd medley into something coherent, beautiful and profound.
There are two main narrative strands, both set in the small and remote Scottish village of Salts, and its lighthouse: mysterious Victorian priest, Babel Dark, and Silver, a girl orphaned in 1969.
Silver is the narrator, and the opening chapters reminded me of a Roald Dahl's children's story: she and her shamed mother live outside the village, in a house cut into the hill such that it has a sloping floor, furniture has to be nailed down, they can only "eat food that stuck to the plate", and their dog has developed back legs shorter than the front.
A tragi-comic accident leaves Silver an orphan. After a short spell with a Dahlian spinster, she goes to live with Pew the blind lighthousekeeper, and the book loses the comedy, but retains some magic. "Some of the light went out of me, it seemed proper that I should go and live in a place where all the light shone outwards."
NARRATIVE STRUCTURE, STORIES, STORYTELLING
Don't expect a single, linear narrative of a consistent style. "A beginning, a middle and an end is the proper way to tell a story. But I have difficulty with that method." It doesn't matter because "The continuous narrative of existence is a lie... there are lit-up moments, and the rest is dark."
Pew is a master storyteller, and Silver weaves his stories into the one she is telling. The boundaries of fact and fiction are often blurred within her world (as in this book itself, with its mention of real historical figures): Pew will describe doing something that happened before he was born, and when challenged, dismisses it as his second sight or "well, the Pew that was born then", whilst retaining the suggestion that in some mysterious way it was actually him.
Perhaps part of the reasons for Silver's blending of fact and fiction was prompted by this: a psychiatrist defines psychosis as being out of touch with reality, and her response is "Since then, I have been trying to find out what reality is, so that I can touch it."
The musings on stories are the most lyrical and magical aspects, and suggest the tangled ways in which they thread through our lives. "In fairy stories, naming is knowledge" and that is reflected in this story in several key ways.
Most stories never finish, "There was an ending - there always is - but the story went on past the ending - it always does". Similarly, "There's no story that's the start of itself, any more than a child comes into the world without parents."
"All the stories must be told... Maybe all stories are worth hearing, but not all stories are worth telling... The stories themselves make the meaning."
If you had forty minutes to tell your life story, what would you say? (This isn't a long book, but there's more than forty minutes' worth.)
The final chapters are more overtly philosophical, with less actual story. I think they're none the worse for that, but some may be disconcerted by the chane.
SILVER AS WINTERSON?
Winterson's first book, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), was explicitly a fictionalised version of her childhood, and recently, she published the more factual "Why be Happy when you Could be Normal?" (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...), but there are many aspects of Winterson in this as well: an orphan born in 1959, who finds solace in stories and libraries, "had to grow up on my own", and forges her own life. Some of the problems Silver encounters in later life also echo Winterson's own (view spoiler)[(e.g. consultations with mental health professionals) (hide spoiler)]. She also finds the positive in the hardest circumstances, "We are lucky, even the worst of us, because daylight comes" (in "Why be Happy", she is grateful that the church taught her how important it is to concentrate on good things).
It goes further: the beloved mother in this "longed for me to be free, and did everything she could to make sure it never happened", and in "Why be happy", she makes an identical observation about the awful Mrs W (quoted in my review, linked above).
For such a carefully crafted book, it is a little heavy-handed at times. These are rare, minor faults in the overall context and content, and are recorded here more for my personal records than to spoil it for anyone else, hence the spoiler tag.
(view spoiler)[In particular, the names Dark and Lux are as subtle as a sledgehammer. Also, the symbolism of the lighthouse is occasionally spelt out more than it needs to be: a birth coinciding with completion of this phallic symbol, and a passage, "He was like this lighthouse... He was lonely and aloof... The instruments were in place... but the light was not lit." (hide spoiler)]
QUOTATIONS AND NEW IDIOMS
* "A silent, taciturn clamp of a man."
* "She was one of those people for whom yes is always an admission of guilt or failure. No was power."
* "I was not much longer than my socks."
* "The wind was strong enough to blow the fins off a fish."
* "Our business was light, be we lived in darkness... The darkness had to be brushed away... Darkness squatted on the chairs and hung like a curtain across the stairway... I learned to see in it, I learned to see through it, and I learned to see the darkness of my own."
* "As dull as a day at sea with no wind."
* "Someone whose nature was as unmiraculous as a bucket."
* "He turned as pale as a skinned plaice."
* "The fossil record is always there, whether or not you discover it. The brittle ghosts of the past. Memory is not like the surface of water - either troubled or still. Memory is layered."
* When contemplating writing Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde, Stevenson posits (in this book) that all men have atavistic qualities: "Parts of themselves that lay like developed negatives? Shadow selves, unpictured but present?"
* "Women raising empty forks to glossy famished lips".
* "The light was as intense as a love affair."
* "I went outside, tripping over slabs of sunshine the size of towns. The sun was like a crowd of people, it was a party, it was music. The sun was blaring through the walls of the houses and beating down the steps. The sun was drumming time into the stone. The sun was rhythming the day." ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]> ...more
Notes are private!
Dec 24, 2013
Dec 24, 2013
Sep 02, 1987
This is Vonnegut, so it’s quirky, knowing, silly, intelligent, funny, mysterious (what IS in the potato barn?) and anti-war – amongst many other thing This is Vonnegut, so it’s quirky, knowing, silly, intelligent, funny, mysterious (what IS in the potato barn?) and anti-war – amongst many other things. It's conversational, and broken into very short chunks, but don't be deceived into thinking it's lightweight.
It claims to be the autobiography of Rabo Karabekian, an Armenian-American WW2 veteran who became a major figure in Abstract Expressionism, after an apprenticeship with realist illustrator, Dan Gregory. It reads more as a memoir, interspersed with “Bulletin from the present” sections which cover the eventful months he wrote it. The backstory is relatively straight; the present day, more comical. (All the main characters are fictitious, but a few real names are dropped, such as Jackson Pollock.)
It’s the 1980s, Rabo is in his 70s, and is living alone in a huge house in the Hamptons. He no longer paints, but is wealthy from his art collection and from property he inherited on the death of his second wife, Edith. He’s not actually alone, as his cook lives in, with her daughter, and his writer friend, Paul Slazenger, practically lives there. But he wants to be alone, or thinks he does – until it looks as if it’s going to happen (his mother thought “the most pervasive American disease was loneliness”). Then the widow Circe Berman turns up, and everything changes.
THE MEANING AND VALUE OF ART
“How can you tell a good painting from a bad one? All you have to do… is look at a million paintings, and they you can never be mistaken.”
Should paintings – and their titles – communicate? (If not, what’s the point?) This is a recurring question, with a variety of answers. Old, lonely, and guarding his Abstract Expressionist paintings, Rabo says that they “are about absolutely nothing but themselves”, and lack of passion and message in his works was why he was rejected by art school. When Circe first sees his abstract works, she declares “you hate facts like poison”. And yet Rabo CAN draw – very well; the fact he doesn’t is “because it’s just too fucking easy.”
In contrast, Dan Gregory’s works are hyper-realistic, and Rabo describes them as “truthful about material things, but they lied about time” because Dan was “a taxidermist… [of] great moments”. One of the first things he taught Rabo was the importance of the phrase “The Emperor has no clothes”. It’s for the reader to decide which art that applies to.
There is a visceral thrill: “I discovered something as powerful and irresponsible as shooting up with heroin: if I start laying on just one colour of paint to a huge canvas, I could make the whole world drop away”. But it doesn’t work like that for everyone: of one artist, “I would look into his eyes and there wasn’t anybody home any more”, and he says similar about someone else.
Inflated art prices (and exploitative venture capitalists and investment bankers) are lampooned, especially by the fact that “My paintings, thanks to unforeseen chemical reactions… all destroyed themselves”, including ones that sold for $20,000. Sateen Dura-Luxe proved to be anything but durable. In contrast, his teenage works were made with the best possible materials, given to him from the stores of a successful artist.
Writing is another art form central to the narrative: Rabo is now writing; his friends Circe Berman and Paul Slazenger are also writers, of varying success, and the letters of Dan Gregory’s PA, Marilee, are crucial to the story. The secret is “to write for just one person”. How you decide who that is, is unclear.
The widow Berman is a wonderful comic creation; I’d love to meet her, though hate to share a home with her. Her opening line on meeting Rabo is “Tell me how your parents died”, because “hello” means “don’t talk about anything important”. It’s also symptomatic of her pathological inquisitiveness (“the most ferocious enemy of privacy I ever knew”). His father died alone in a cinema, and she immediately asks “What was the movie?” – shades of Graham Greene’s short story, A Shocking Incident.
Her chutzpah is breath-taking – the way she storms into Rabo’s life and takes control of him, his house, his time and those around him. He is staggered, outraged… and compliant: “’Who is she to reward and punish me, and what the hell is this: a nursery school or a prison camp?’ I don’t asker that, because she might take away all my privileges.”
BLUEBEARD and WHAT’S IN THE POTATO BARN
I read this book because I wanted to read another Vonnegut, and I was intrigued to see to what extent the title reflected the traditional story of Bluebeard (see synopsis/review ), or even its echoes in Jane Eyre .
It’s a gentle nod, but it helps if you’re aware of the original: In the grounds, Rabo has a potato barn that used to be his studio. It is now locked up, and its contents secret: “I am Bluebeard, and my studio is my forbidden chamber”, but “there are no bodies in my barn”.
Much of the book is an elaborate tease as to what’s in there, why, and whether the reader will ever find out. In contrast to his allegedly message-less paintings, Rabo says that the barn contains “the emptiest and yet the fullest of human messages”.
There are other forbidden places: Dan Gregory’s is the Museum Of Modern Art, Paul Slazenger’s is his Theory of Revolution, currently in his head, and Circe Berman must have something, but I don’t know what or where.
WAR, DEATH and RESURRECTION
The main character is an injured veteran who came to the US as a child refugee from another war. It’s not a ranting pacifist book, and Rabo himself has fond memories of the army, but Vonnegut’s anti-war opinions shine through, especially at the end. Sometimes this is poignant: Rabo is utterly repulsed by the scarring around his missing eye, and always wears a patch. Sometimes it is more satirical: WW2 was promoted to Americans on promises of “a final war between good and evil, so that nothing would do but that it be followed by miracles, Instant coffee was one. DDT was another. It was going to kill all the bugs, and almost did. Nuclear energy was going to make electricity so cheap that it might not even be metered… Antibiotics would defeat all diseases. Lazarus would never die: How was that for a scheme to make the Son of God obsolete?”
In fact, it’s Rabo who is Lazarus. Circe explicitly says so when he complains about her intrusion into and control of him, “I brought you back to life… You’re my Lazarus”, and his beloved second wife, Edith, had had a similar effect.
As a youth, Rabo assumed society had evolved so that people would no longer be fooled by the apparent romance of war, but as an old man, he observes “you can buy a machine gun with a plastic bayonet for your little kid”.
THE INIMITABLE DAN GREGORY (REFRAIN)
The central third of the book feels as much like a biography of Dan Gregory as of Rabo.
Where Slaughterhouse Five has the recurring phrase “so it goes”, in this, it’s a series of superlatives about Dan Gregory: “Nobody could [do x] like Dan Gregory”. His achievements include: “draw cheap, mail-order clothes”, “paint grime”, “counterfeit rust and rust-stained oak”, “counterfeit plant diseases”, “counterfeit more accents from stage, screen and radio”, “counterfeit images in dusty mirrors”, “paint black people”, “put more of the excitement of a single moment into the eyes of stuffed animals”.
• “Never trust a survivor… until you find out what he did to stay alive.”
• “Perfectly beautiful cowboy boots… dazzling jewelry for manly feet.”
• “She had life. I had accumulated anecdotes.”
• Old canvases “Purged of every trace of Sateen Dura-Luxe, and restretched and reprimed… dazzling white in their restored virginity.”
• “They are a negation of art! They aren’t just neutral. They are black holes from which no intelligence or skill can ever escape. Worse than that, they suck up the dignity, the self-respect, of anybody unfortunate enough to have to look at them.” (What Rabo thinks of Circe’s choice of pictures.)
Suggested by Rand (as being in a similar vein to Vonnegut's excellent Galapagos).
Notes are private!
May 27, 2014
May 31, 2014
Sep 23, 2013
This is a pitch-perfect period piece: middle class couple in their mid 40s, living in middle England, mid wars. It could have been hackneyed, or just This is a pitch-perfect period piece: middle class couple in their mid 40s, living in middle England, mid wars. It could have been hackneyed, or just dull, but it isn't - and it's beautifully written.
It opens with exquisite descriptions of the minor niggles of a slightly dull life; the precise annoyances being different for husband and wife, although the latter generally has a great "capacity for contentment". Each mundane thought and task (even shaving) sheds delicate light on the character involved, setting the scene for what follows.
There is a clear arc to the plot - and indeed, the characters in it. Thomas Blake runs what was his family engineering business (sold because of his late father squandered money, mostly on drink). A chance meeting with entrepreneur Laurence Knight gives Thomas the chance to better himself, and thus his family. It cleverly portrays the excitement and expectation felt by characters, even when the reader suspects the future may not always be so rosy. It's poignant, without ever being sentimental.
Thomas and Celia have three children, who are teens at the start and young adults by the end: Freda, Ruth and Douglas. Each has a distinct and different character, and the way they are shaped by events has a certain inevitability with hindsight, even though none of the precise details feel predictable.
In addition, Thomas supports his widowed mother, spinster sister and feckless brother (Edward).
The eponymous Laurence Knight is a wealthy man, returned with his wife, to the town he grew up in.
The problem with mixing in these three different levels of society is that it involves a degree of unfamiliarity or even pretence and fear of being found out: "she was always... finding herself in company to which she felt either superior or inferior" - but never comfortably equal.
At one level, this is a small family saga with a predictable plot (transformation through rise and fall - not just of the main characters). But that is only true in the most superficial sense. Within that familiar framework, many issues are vividly explored.
There are minor spoilers in this section, so you may prefer to skim the headings and then jump to the quotations at the end.
Role of Women
Celia is a wonderful mother, loving wife, and diligent and competent housewife. However, she is ill-educated in matters of business and finance, and ponders "briefly, how helpless women and children are; their fates are decided for them by men". She is cross when Thomas assumes decision-making power about Douglas' schooling on the basis that he's the man; she makes her points, but doesn't dare be really firm.
In such an environment, it's no wonder that the childless women come across as sad, unfulfilled and, in the case of neighbour Mrs Greene, an unpleasant busy-body, loathed by all.
However, when times are tough, it is Celia (and to some extent, Ruth) who is the strength of the family.
Growing Pains - Parenting Teens
Celia, struggles to understand each of her children and react appropriately to the challenges that arise with each, letting them make their own mark - and mistakes - but hating the hurt that sometimes resulted. Issues about parties, friends, fashion, heartbreak, embarrassing family members etc are just as pertinent now as then. "She was beset with the desire, common to all anxious mothers, to press into service food, sunshine, cushions, distractions, everything she could think of... to make him better."
Freda is a dreamy, self-centred snob: "when involved in any disagreeable situation, Freda's instinct was to escape". When she has a perm, against her mother's wishes, she is "almost frightened by her own behaviour" but ultimately "vanity drove out remorse". Freda blames her mother for everything that is less than perfect in her life, and her mother "didn't know whether Freda was really trivial or merely being perverse".
Ruth is outwardly more practical, but finds it hard to complete things. However, she shares her parents' capacity for love and loyalty, and proves to be a shrewd judge of character, especially with her grumpy grandmother.
Douglas is passionate - mainly about chemistry, which would be fine, were it not for the fact his father runs an engineering business.
All the marriages have a delicate dynamic, and several include an imbalance of love or loyalty that is only acknowledge by one partner.
For one couple, the apparently pragmatic reasons for swapping between double and single beds have much deeper resonance and cause "a slight barrier... between them, of which poor [other half] was entirely unaware".
For another, the wife was "ashamed sometimes of clinging where she wasn't wanted... 'He'll be old sometime, and then he'll want me.'".
By contrast, there is a beautiful example of the transformative power of love.
Prosperity makes barely-dreamed of luxuries almost commonplace, but it also provides new stresses, whether of fitting in, spreading wings, not having enough to do - or all three.
Thomas thought "Celia ought to be very satisfied... to be so well set up in this house, with these maids. She had nothing to do now but enjoy herself." But the extra staff "kept their places and saw that she kept hers. There was none of the hearty coo-operation of maid and mistress that there had been at The Grove". This, and endless bridge, which she only does "because there seemed to be nothing else to do" lead to depression: "my top life is all right... But my underneath life is all wrong".
Conversely, "the bitter bread of dependence" affects many characters in the book at different times, and each reacts differently: some are strengthened by it, and others are weakened.
Thomas and Celia are non-religious (unusual in those days), though they take their children to church because "it was safer. No good taking away when they had nothing to offer in place."
Nevertheless, Whipple was a Christian, and the book is laced with subtle messages about avarice, snobbery and Faustian pacts, bundled with non-preachy lessons about pride, forgiveness and honesty. These are discussed more explicitly in an excellent afterword.
However, towards the end, there is a much more explicit section that feels out of place with the tone of the rest of it. A shame, imo, and the only real weakness in the book.
* Her daughters "had her smooth skin now, her perished bloom. She had flowered, borne fruit, and was now fading". Later "Beauty was fugitive now. It came and went" (she was only 41 at this point!).
* "It was the sort of house where one could speak upstairs and be heard down. Smells, too, travelled easily in it."
* "The tram careered on, without having stopped. It had a reckless air."
* A grand car "arrested his attention by its discreet magnificence".
* "He continued to read the paper as he talked, because he often found it easier to talk to his children that way."
* The spinster aunt came "bringing an atmosphere of martyrdom. 'I was chopping cabbage,' she announced."
* "They had no money and lived in a small, uninteresting way."
* "Edward was fortified by the knowledge that he was the most respected frequenter of The Swan... as comfortable at The Swan as the Blakes were in their own sitting room until he entered it." Ouch: the sting in the final phrase.
* The perils of making something for an ungrateful relative: "The jacket... gave more pleasure to the maker than it would to the recipient... They gave her double gifts... presents and causes for complaint."
* "The murk of the night curling in at the window."
* "She even managed to keep an expression of disapproval during mastication."
* "Man is not constituted to bear suspense. He can bear adversity, suffering, parting, death, but not suspense."
* A mother, with a son-in-law she dislikes, feels "bitter, uneasy, shut out, able only to ask brightly about the husband's health".
(Recommended by Clare P) ...more
Notes are private!
Sep 22, 2013
Oct 27, 2013
Sep 14, 2013
Nov 01, 2004
This - or one of her others - suggested by Clare P
Notes are private!
Sep 13, 2013
Welcome back. Just a moment while we sign you in to your Goodreads account.