“A blind pedlar… never spilt his stew or missed his mouth the way I did. ‘I can see,’ he said, ‘but I don’t use my eyes.’”
I recently ate unknown food, served in total darkness, by blind waiters.
It was an intense and disorienting experience. Boundaries break down: you touch the stranger who guides you to your seat, talk to invisible people sitting beside you (how un-English!), can’t judge or be judged by looks or clothing, and are tempted to eat with your fingers, despite the cutlery you feel before you. Phones and even watches must be locked away before you enter, so you lose sense of time as well as place.
Deprived of vision, your other senses are more intense. But surprisingly, this makes it harder to recognise what you are eating, not easier. You taste a medley of familiar (and delicious) flavours, but their individual identities are oddly elusive. Names only spring to mind where shape or texture are unique (scallops, figs, and pomegranate seeds).
Reading this early Winterson was similar. I’m not sure if it’s a good book, and I’m not even sure I understood it, but it was a rich, kaleidoscopic, and confusing carnal feast that I enjoyed.
“I like the early dark. It’s not night. It’s still companionable… Real dark is thicker and quieter, it fills up the space between your jacket and your heart… the Dark only lets you take one step at a time. Step and the Dark closes round your back. In front, there is no space for you until you take it. Darkness is absolute. Walking in the Dark is like swimming underwater except you can’t come up for air… Lie still at night and Dark is soft to the touch.”
This is set in the Napoleonic wars, and told in four parts: The Emperor (narrated by Henri, a kitchen hand and faithful server of Bonaparte), The Queen of Spades (narrated by Villanelle, a Venetian boatman’s daughter who cross dresses, works in a casino, and picks pockets), The Zero Winter (French troops trudging through Russia, narrated by Henri), and The Rock (set in Venice, and narrated by both).
But the reading experience is not really about a linear narrative with its sprinkling of magic and occasional forays into philosophy.
Just indulge your senses. That’s what Venice would want.
Invented, Magical, Invisible City?
The descriptions of Venice show it as invented, magical, invisible and more, and hence reminded me strongly of Calvino’s Invisible Cities:
• In the introduction, Winterson explains, “My own cities were invented; cities of language, cities of connection, words as gang-ways and bridges to the cities of the interior where the coin was not money, where it was emotion.”
• “Arriving at Venice by sea, as one must, is like seeing an invented city rise up and quiver in the air. It is a trick of the early light to make the buildings shimmer so that they seem never still.”
• “There is a city surrounded by water with watery alleys that do for streets and roads and silted up back ways that only the rats can cross.”
• “This is the city of mazes. You may set off from the same place to the same place every day and never go by the same route.”
• “Although wherever you’re going is always in front of you there is no such thing as straight ahead.”
• “The city I come from is a changeable city. It is not always the same size. Streets appear and disappear overnight, new waterways force themselves over dry land.”
• “I come from the city of mazes… but if you ask me a direction I will tell you straight ahead.”
• “’I need a map.’ ‘It won’t help. This is a living city. Things change.’”
This is a strange, mystical, and eponymously passionate book, with recurring lines that are almost liturgical, but they weave a subtly different route every time, like the enchanted streets and canals of the city itself, especially these:
• “Somewhere between fear and sex passion is. Passion is not so much an emotion as a destiny.”
• “Somewhere between the swamp and the mountains. Somewhere between fear and sex. Somewhere between God and the Devil passion is and the way there is sudden and the way back is worse.”
• “Man cannot live without passion. Religion is somewhere between fear and sex.”
• "In between freezing and melting. In between love and despair. In between fear and sex, passion is."
John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
The title has the definite article (“The Passion”, not just any old passion), which makes one think of Jesus’ crucifixion. Winterson’s infamous Pentecostal upbringing (Oranges are Not the Only Fruit and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?) means this is no accident, and yet the connection is more subtle than the title leads you to expect. There are Biblical allusions (some think Bonaparte might be the Son of God, and like Samuel, “He’ll call you”) and references to “basking” in the glow of a church or religion you don’t believe in, but most of the passion is carnal.
• “Surely a god can meet passion with passion?” • “We’re a lukewarm people.” • “They say that every snowflake is different. If that were true… how could we ever recover from the wonder of it?” • “I would have preferred a burning Jesuit, perhaps then I might have found the extasy I needed to believe.” • “Romance is not a contract between equal parties but an explosion of dreams and desires that can find no outlet in everyday life.” • Recruits have to “gather up their passion for life and make sense of it in the face of death.” • “The King and Queen had no care for us, except as revenue and scenery.” • “Adults talk about being happy because largely they are not. Talking about it is the same as trying to catch the wind.” • Stories and even diaries are not, need not, be true: “The way you see it now is no more real than the way you’ll see it then.” If stories make people happy, “Why not?” • Non-believers can bask in the trappings of religion: “longing for strong arms an certainty and quiet holiness around.” • “In the dark you are in disguise and this is the city of disguises.” • “We don’t build our bridges simply to avoid walking on water… A bridge is a meeting place. A neutral place.” • “To kiss well one must kiss solely… The lips and the lips alone are the pleasure.” • “There’s no dark like it. It’s soft to the touch and heavy in the hands. You can open your mouth and let it sink into you till it makes a close ball in your belly. You can juggle with it, dodge it, swim in it. You can open it like a door.” • “Bridges join but they also separate.” • “’Will you kill people, Henri?’… ‘Not people… just the enemy.’ ‘What is enemy?’ ‘Someone who’s not on your side.’” • Kissing only: “The greedy body that clamours for satisfaction is forced to content itself with a single sensation and, just as the blind hear more acutely and the deaf can feel the grass grow, so the mouth becomes the focus of love and all things pass through it and are re-defined. It is a sweet and precise torture.” • “Up she went, closing the dark behind her.” • “How is it that one day life is orderly and content… and then without warning you find the solid floor is a trapdoor and you are now in another place whose geography is uncertain and whose customs are strange? Travellers at least have a choice… We who were fluent find life is a foreign language.” • “Is every snowflake different? No one knows.” • “I longed for feeling though I could not have told you that. Words like passion and extasy, we learn them but they stay flat on the page. Sometimes we try to turn them over, find out what’s on the other side… We fear passion and laugh at too much love and those who love too much. And still we long to feel.” • “We gamble with the hope of winning but it’s the thought of what we might lose that excites us.” • “I like passion, I like to be among the desperate.” • “’They’re all different… snowflakes. Think of that.’ I did think of that and I fell in love with her.” • “A true gambler… prepared to risk the valuable, fabulous thing.” • “Fingertips that had the feel of boils bursting… whose hands crept over her body like crabs.” • “Why would people who love the grape and the sun die in the zero winter for one man? Why did I? Because I love him. He was my passion and when we go to war, we feel we are not a lukewarm people any more.” • “Being with her was like pressing your eye to a particularly vivid kaleidoscope.” • “Beware of old enemies in new disguises.” • "You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play." As a wise man said, “Love is akin to risk”. • “I say I’m in love with her. What does this mean? It means I review my future and my past in the light of this feeling. It is as though I wrote in a foreign language that I am suddenly able to read. Wordlessly, she explains myself to me.” • “Pleasure on the edge of danger is sweet. It’s the gambler’s sense of losing that makes winning an act of love.” • “The cities of the interior are vast and do not lie on any map.” • “The one who took your heart wields final power.” • “When passion comes late in life for the first time, it is harder to give up” and only “devilish choices” are offered: give up the familiar to follow it, juggle, or “refuse the passion as one might sensibly refuse a leopard in the house, however tame it might seem at first…So you refuse and then you discover that your house is haunted by the ghost of a leopard.” • “This is the city of disguises. What you are one day will not constrain you on the next.” • “What am I interested in? Passion. Obsession… The dividing line is as thin and cruel as a Venetian knife.” • What is freedom? “To love someone else is to forget about yourself… through the flesh we are set free. Our desire for another will lift us out of ourselves more cleanly than anything divine.” ...more
A strange little book I picked up by mistake. A pleasant enough mistake, though.
It’s a Korean fable about dreams, identity/difference, courage, and what makes a mother. It may not be startlingly original or uniquely profound, but that’s part of its charm.
It could easily be a children’s book, though the beautiful, simple illustrations are perhaps too few for younger children.
Sprout is an aging hen in a coop, who longs to hatch an egg.
She escapes the coop, escapes a weasel, and finds a newly-hatched, abandoned egg. But it’s a duck egg.
She loves her baby as her own, but the fowl in the farmyard are outraged. The poor ducking (Greentop is not an ugly ducking) is ostracised by hens and ducks, being neither one thing nor the other. To a Brit, this shouts a message about multiculturalism, mixed-race children, and inter-racial adoption, but to Koreans, it may relate more to North and South Korea.
Nature or nurture? Both, of course, but rather than a compromise between the two, here, nature’s genes for swimming and flying are irrepressible, but it’s the nurture of mothering that defines a mother. (I tried to ignore reductionist lines like "If I can't lay an egg, what's the point of my life?")
I was struck that in English, "mothering" is something anyone can do, whereas "fathering" is limited to those who sire a child. That hides an important truth.
Adult or child, male or female, we all need both sides of the mothering/mothered relationship in our lives. With that, maybe we can learn to fly.
• “Ever since she named herself, she’d gotten into the habit of noticing events occurring outside the coop.” Names are empowering.
• “Yes, you’re both hens, but you’re different.”
• “Just because you’re the same kind doesn’t mean you’re all one happy family.”
• “I’m sitting on it, and I’m going to raise it. Surely that makes it my baby.” ...more
This is a charming, simple story about a sweet, straightforward young woman – until the final section, when it sears the reader’s heart and soars into another realm.
The first part is a delightful picture of small-town Ireland in the 1950s. The middle two parts chart Eilis’ arrival and settling in to life and study in Brooklyn. Not much happens. It’s well done, but I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Then she is unexpectedly summoned home. The situation and dilemmas arising could be crass, predictable and dull, or overly sentimental, or just implausible. They are none of those things.
The ending was brave and brilliant, and pushed the book from 3.5* to 5*. The most powerful aspect for me was (view spoiler)[big spoiler coming up:(view spoiler)[ that she went back to Brooklyn, presumably to Tony, but carefully puts the photo of her and Jim on the beach in the bottom of her suitcase (hide spoiler)](hide spoiler)].
I hope Toibin is never tempted to write a sequel.
So Much Unsaid
There is a gradually intensifying theme of important things going unsaid: lips sealed, omissions from letters, replies unread.
It’s no great insight that the longer one waits to reveal something, the harder it becomes, and the more complex the consequences. Toibin’s skill is in making chronic inarticulacy agonisingly convincing: there’s always the nagging hope that if one puts it off, it may somehow not be necessary.
Eilis’ inexperience may look like naivety, but the more we understand of her inner thoughts, the more her intelligence, introspection, and perceptiveness about other people’s motives peek through. She’s not inarticulate in her head, only in real life, though she tries to suppress her own thoughts as well, “The best thing to do… was to put the whole thing out of her mind”.
The gaps in her letters home mean “they would never know her now” and maybe they never had, otherwise they would not have sent her to this strange land where she does not fit.
But it’s not just Eilis: all the main characters hide their true selves and desires ((view spoiler)[hence a brief scene with lesbian overtones (hide spoiler)]), and even prevent others from doing so: “It was hard to speak since her mother seemed to have prepared in advance every word that she said” and had a way of “speaking that seemed to welcome no reply”.
“Not telling her mother and friends made every day she had spent in America a sort of fantasy.” You can rewrite a fantasy, which makes reticence appealing, but it doesn’t change the truth – or the ramifications.
Appropriately, the plot hinges on someone who DOES speak up, but whether the consequences are good or ill is suitably ambiguous. Toibin has consistently demonstrated the problems of what goes unsaid, but he stops short of recommending honesty at all times, because there is no single answer. We each have to decide for ourselves when to hold back and when to open up. Either way is risky. Inertia, manifested as silence or omission, often seems easier, as Eilis knows so well – yet she does it again and again.
Pulled Two Ways: An Outsider in Two Realms
Eilis moves from her predictable and familiar town where she has spent (and expected to spend) her whole life, to a city where even the staples of bread, butter, tea and milk, are strange, and “everything [is] frenzied and fast”.
She may speak the language, but “She was nobody here… a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything… She… tried to think… of something she was looking forward to, but there was nothing… It was as though she had been locked away.”
Just as she’s becoming at ease with Brooklyn, she finds herself an outsider again, when she gets to know an Italian family, and finally when she goes back to Ireland, changed.
This is the obvious theme, and it’s why I chose the photo of the Anthony Gormley sculpture. But because it’s more obvious, and is part of the reason for all the unsaid things, it somehow felt less important. Or maybe it was secondary because I identify with it too strongly: there are so many axes along which I have been, and still am, neither one thing nor another, even though I’ve never lived more than 150 miles from my birthplace.
However, Eilis learned to fit in in America, and having found that chameleon quality, I am hopeful for her.
(view spoiler)[Eilis is a young woman in a small town in 1950s Ireland, studying bookkeeping. Her older brothers live and work in England, and her older sister, Rose, works to pay for Eilis and their widowed mother. With little prospect of local employment, Eilis is despatched to Brooklyn, with the aid of Father Flood, a friend of Rose.
She lives in a boarding house, headed by Mrs Kehoe, has a job in a department store, and goes to night school to qualify as a bookkeeper, all arranged by Fr Flood, who also organises Friday church dances, from where she gains an Italian boyfriend, Tony. Rather than an explicit proposal, he talks of future plans that “suggested that marriage been already tacitly agreed”.
A sudden death sends her home for a short visit. (view spoiler)[She secretly marries Tony before leaving. (hide spoiler)]. Emotional and practical manipulation inevitably extend the trip. Time to fall in love, perhaps: heart and duty, separated by the Atlantic.
Seasickness, homesickness, new people, strange food, love, death, love triangle, Catholic guilt. (hide spoiler)]
Just another bildungsroman? No, it’s so much more.
UPDATE re Film
Overall, I thought the film was pretty good. It was understated and looked and felt "right" to me. The luminously ethereal Saoirse Ronan is perfect as Eilis, and the screenplay and cinematography included lingering shots of her pensive face, showing something of her inner doubts and struggles about what to say and what to leave out. Julie Walters is excellent as Mrs Kehoe, and dinner at her lodging house is suitably on the knife-edge between fun and awkwardness.
Inevitably, some things were missed out: no brothers (a sensible omission), almost nothing about Rose (Eilis is on the boat within minutes, and without much explanation), and no hint she has ambitions until Fr Flood enrolls her at Brooklyn College. But none of that impairs understanding or changes the nature of the story.
My one gripe is the one I feared: the ending was tidier. Not only did she definitely (view spoiler)[ return to Tony, but (view spoiler)[the photo of her and Jim on the beach was never taken, let alone packed in her case back to Brooklyn (hide spoiler)](hide spoiler)]. However, there was one really good addition near the end, (view spoiler)[on the boat, she gets talking to a young Irish girl heading to Brooklyn for the first time, and she takes on the role of advisor, as Georgina had done for her. That's when the cameras should have stopped rolling, imo (hide spoiler)].
• “No one who went to America missed home. Instead they were happy there and proud. She wondered if that could be true.”
• “She did not allow herself to conclude that she did not want to go.”
• “She felt she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared.”
• “The letters told Eilis little; there was hardly anything personal in them and nothing that sounded like anyone’s own voice.”
• “She wanted to allow for the possibility that everyone’s motives were good.”
• “In Bartocci’s she had learned to be brave and decisive with the customers, but once she herself was a customer she knew that she was too hesitant and slow.”
• “Looking like a horse-dealer’s wife in Enniscorthy on a fair day.”
• “In Brooklyn it was not always as easy to guess someone’s character by their job.”
• “She would have to slow him down, but she had no idea how to do so in a way that did not involve being unpleasant.”
• Etiquette of ogling on the beach: “In Ireland no one looks… It would be bad manners. In Italy it would be bad manners not to look.”
• “The [bad] news and the visitors had caused excitement, distracted her pleasantly from the tedium of the day.”
Image of new and old Shanghai, photographed by Greg Girard in 2000 (http://curbed.com/archives/2014/09/18...), chronologically equidistant between my two visits there. It is, and maybe always has been, a city of contrasting, unequal, parts and pairs, like many of the Invisible Cities.
“Each man bears in his mind a city made only of differences.”
I’ve been eavesdropping on the mysterious, hypnotic conversations between a famous explorer from antiquity and the powerful emperor of a distant land: Marco Polo and Kublai Khan.
Exotic places are conjured by gestures, emblems, and words. Then the tables turn, and the Khan describes the cities of his dreams and asks Polo if they exist.
But is it the 55 cities bearing female names, or many aspects of a single city (Venice), or nearer a hundred cities (many of them have twins or doubles)?
Submit to Enchantment
It’s deliciously slippery collection of prose poems about places, grouped by words and numbers, repeated in different permutations that defy a single interpretation (though many have been applied, including sine waves). It suggests multiple routes of reading, much like some of the twisted and recursive paths through the cities themselves. There are Cities and Memory, Cities and Desire, Cities and Signs, Thin Cities, Trading Cities, Cities and Eyes, Cities and Names, Cities and the Dead, Cities and the Sky, Continuous Cities, and Hidden Cities.
It purports to be about physical places, but as it explores “the invisible order that sustains cities”, there are twists and forks in time as well as geography: “the city toward which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time”.
I fear that if I try to constrain these kaleidoscopic and sometimes paradoxical visions to black and white marks on a screen, I will somehow kill the enchantment – for myself as well as for anyone reading.
These are places you must experience for yourself, walking the streets; crossing the canals; peering in windows; holding your nose at the stench; marvelling at the architecture; gazing at the underclad bathing beauties; exploring the exotic markets; puzzling at the frequent mentions of pipes, taps, gutters, and sewers; choking on smoke, and always seeking fresh revelations.
As you wander, you can wonder how the cities are simultaneously similar and yet startlingly different: it’s never clear quite what real and what is not, what is cause and what is effect. Perhaps that’s part of the invisibility of the title.
Whether this is travelling through China, Calvino, Venice or an atlas in a library, your journey will not be the same as mine, and nor will my subsequent ones. We will not be the same people, either.
Meanwhile, in another city, another Cecily is writing a completely different review…
• A few months before this, I read and loved Andrew Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. Having read Invisible Cities, I now realise how heavily influenced Lightman was: in content, structure, style… every way. Whether you class it as homage or borderline plagiarism is debatable, but it does not detract from my enjoyment at the time, and I think Lightman’s book is probably the more accessible of the two, even though it is primarily about physics/time, rather than geography.
• Jeanette Winterson’s The Passion portrays a magical Venice of shifting routes that is beautifully reminiscent of Calvino.
• “The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.” • “Anastasia awakens desires one at a time only to force you to stifle them, when you awaken in the heart of Anastasia one morning your desires waken all at once and surround you… You believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave.” • “You penetrate it along its streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things.” • “Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages.” • “Does your journey take place only in the past?” • “Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had… Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches.” • “Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears.” • “The most fixed and calm lives… are spent without any repetition.” • “The exhalations that hang over the roofs of the metropolises, the opaque smoke that is not scattered, the hood of miasmata that weighs over the bituminous streets. Not the labile mist of memory nor the dry transparance, but the charring of burned lives that forms a scab on the city, the sponge swollen with vital matter that no longer flows, the jam of past, present, future that blocks existences calcified in the illusion of movement: this is what you would find at the end of your journey.” • “Traveling, you realize that differences are lost… Your atlas preserves the differences.” • “A voluptuous vibration constantly stirs Chloe, the most chaste of cities. If men and women began to live their ephemeral dreams, every phantom would become a person with whom to being a story… and the carousel of fantasies would stop.” ...more
Cecily wished for the latest Atwood. Starting a new Atwood is a treat, especially one hot off the press. She has enjoyed nine* Atwoods over the years, all very different, but all excellent. Cecily’s not initially sure quite what to expect with this one, other than speculative fiction, with a dystopian twist, but she trusts Atwood with this genre.
Then again, there was a tenth* Atwood she read relatively recently that disappointed (MaddAddam), but she quickly dismisses that as a blip in an otherwise impressive oeuvre. Atwood is a powerful voice, who balances light and shade, horror and humour, prepared to shock, but not to harm or frustrate her readers.
And so on. The whole book is told in this way: third-person, from two main points of view, but with so much paraphrased inner monologue, it almost feels like first. That ought to be really engaging, but I didn’t really engage.
Overall, this starts off as speculative fiction and ends up as dystopian farce. It reads like a rehash of ideas Atwood has done better before. She can't need the money, and unlike David Mitchell’s Slade House, this doesn’t feel like creative exuberance let loose, so I'm puzzled as well as disappointed. Hence 2.5* for my enjoyment, rounded down. (If trying to give an objective rating, I would award 3*.)
In the near future, Stan and Charmaine are living in their car, surviving on cash and tips from her waitressing job, and ever fearful of being robbed or raped by those more destitute and desperate than they are. There’s been a huge financial collapse: Stan lost his job developing empathy modules for robots, and Charmaine lost hers organising entertainment for pensioners in a Ruby Slippers care home.
Then they hear about the Positron Project, in the town of Consilience: those who join are guaranteed a home and work. The catch is they alternate one month in prison with one month out. And that they have to sign up for life. And that they can’t ever leave. Or contact the outside world. And it turns out that the whole set up is cult-like and Orwellian. But hey, it solves crime, unemployment and almost everything else. What’s not to like?
CONSILIENCE = CONS + RESILIENCE How much resilience does the book have? How much do I, as a reader, have? Not enough on either count.
I never believed in this world. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. Not from the outset, nor when there was more explanation.
”Be the Person You’ve Always Wanted to Be”
That’s a Positron promise, but what do you want to be, and what if you are, or want to be two versions of yourself? The thrill and the fear of “I’m not the same with him”.
This is explored in several ways: the monthly swap-around means everyone has an Alternate, who they’re never supposed to meet; several characters use, or are known by an alias; having another identity opens up new ways of being and behaving; and then there are the Elvises in the Elvisorium (yes, really) and the Marilyns somewhere, and the sexbots…
Possilibots – and a Step Beyond
Are sexbots a way to exorcise or exercise taboo desires?
Few people object to dildoes in principle, and inflatable dolls are mainly seen as joke material. Are sexbots any different? If they reduce sex trafficking and make a profit, that’s surely win-win, isn’t it?
But what if they are so realistic as to be almost indistinguishable from real people? And what if they are modelled on specific people - who haven’t consented to their image being appropriated in this way? What if you can programme them to say “No”? Most chillingly, what about kiddybots?
But all those are just an interim phase of development. (view spoiler)[Far better, from a client and profit perspective, is taking attractive women and painlessly modifying their brains to wipe all memory of previous lovers, and ensure that when they awake, their passions – strong passions – are permanently imprinted on the waiting client, who is the first face they see. Everyone’s happy: the client has a monogamous nymphomaniac partner whose life is, in material ways, better than before. Lack of consent is a minor means to a socially worthwhile end. But does neurological lust really count as lust, let alone love? What happens if the client falls in love or lust with someone else, but has an obsessive and uncontrollable ex? (hide spoiler)]
There’s lots of sex, all of it hetero, and none of it nice. Stan is passively, mildly, but repeatedly, homophobic. That’s OK; people are. But it’s never challenged. That’s not OK.
The Power of Love, the Limits of Forgiveness
This is the true heart of the book. And it goes last.
Could you forgive a one-night stand, a long-term affair, wishing you dead, attempted murder, or just obsessive voyeurism, stalking or fantasising about another? If your partner was pressured into such things, would that make forgiveness easier, or would you doubt how much pressure was required?
Does love make forgiveness easier, or mean the pain of betrayal is so great, that forgiveness is harder? And does your own guilt about anything similar strengthen or weaken your ability to forgive?
“Stolen hours… stolen kisses”, but who’s it stealing from if your partner doesn’t know?
Maybe it’s better (certainly easier) to live in ignorance and, when truth intrudes, denial (a recurring theme, in various contexts). But that’s surely not sustainable in the longer term. Is happy ever after possible?
The ultimate test is having the power to go, but choosing to stay.
The final choice in the book, and indeed, the initial one, is between freedom and security.
Someone is asked if they want knowledge that will make them less secure, but more free. Would you, like Eve in Eden, choose Knowledge, or would you settle for security that is based on ignorance? Freedom feels like the right answer, but security the easier one.
In an ideal world, there would be no need to make such a choice. But ideal worlds exist only in fantasy.
Big Ideas; So Many Possibilities
The final half dozen pages made a last-ditch attempt to examine some of the huge and important issues that were bubbling under the surface all along, but were never really explored adequately or convincingly. Too little, too late.
The issues include:
Sex of all kinds, most of it exploitative in some way; civil liberties; informed consent (not just sexual, but certainly including that); brainwashing and propaganda; social control and compliance (cf Zimbardo); capitalism and profit; sex; identity; criminality, punishment and reform; love, betrayal and forgiveness; euthanasia; human trafficking and prostitution; murder; “recycling”; care homes for the elderly; Elvis; surveillance; pornography; AI robots; what makes us human; blackmail and extortion; free will; industrial espionage; exploitative sex; the good of society against the good of the individual, and empathy ((view spoiler)[it’s Stan’s original specialism, and something Charmaine is either very good at (sacramental attitude to giving a good death) or very bad at (doing it at all – but then she is highly suggestible and credulous) (hide spoiler)]).
I think the book might work better if you start reading here, then go to the beginning and read the rest as backstory!
Blue Knitted Teddy Bears
A cute-kinky trope throughout the book. In her prison stints, Charmaine is in a knitting group (as well as her job in the bakery and then Medications Administration). All they ever knit are blue teddy bears. These crop up all over the plot: (view spoiler)[children play with them in Consilience kindergarten; when in transit, Stan wakes up in a big container of them; Jocelyn uses one for smuggling a message; people dream of them; they’re used as walkie-talkies; they’re supplied with kiddybots for authenticity; and, most memorably, the reconfigured brain of Veronica is imprinted on one (supposedly by mistake) (hide spoiler)].
A Few Holes
I may have missed the answers to some of these, but they niggled and distracted, so reducing my enjoyment:
• (view spoiler)[I fundamentally couldn’t believe the business model of Positron, even when its darkest aspects were exposed: sure, they’d have brought in lots of revenue, but the development timescales and costs were staggering. I’m not sure there would have been any profit.
• I fundamentally couldn’t believe the premise of giving prisoners alternate months off turning them into good citizens. However, that’s probably covered by the fact there were very few real prisoners for any length of time (Medications Administrations), mostly minor offenders.
• Self-sufficiency is the aim, and they have chickens, pigs and cows, but why no fish? High protein, and not requiring much space.
• Why do desperate men prefer sex with chickens to sex with pigs or cows? (I don’t actually want an answer!) Why are they so desperate anyway, when they’re only apart from their wives for a month?
• How do switchover days work, especially as there is time for the prohibited overlap between Alternates?
• When Stan and Charmaine don’t switchover one month, how come the guys in the scooter repair shop know he was there last month, rather than assuming he’s new?
• There were Elvis sexbots and “real” Elvises, the idea being to substitute the bots if the client wanted more than the live Elvis wanted to provide. If the tech was SO advanced, why not just have the bot version from the start? It seemed weirdly complex and designed just to make the story “work” by having Stan go to the Elvisorium. (hide spoiler)]
• “Do you believe in free will?”
• “He wishes he were the object of that excitement, and not the [new] dishwasher.”
• He asks “Do you miss me?” but wants to ask “Do you hunger for me, do you burn for me?” “He wants sex that can’t be helped” but instead, it’s “sex that [she] enacts, like yoga, with careful breath control”.
• “Charmaine finds switchover days almost festive… Living two lives means there’s always something different to look forward to.”
• “Chemistry can be like magic. It can be merciless.”
• Hedge-trimming is calming, like biting nails, “it’s repetitive, it imitates meaningful activity, and it’s violent”.
• “She gives good death.” (The heart goes last.)
• “They wanted her to use her head and discard her heart; but it wasn’t so easy, because the heart goes last.”
• “She wants something that can feel resentment, and even rage. Feel it and have to repress it.”
• “A plate of tousled breakfast leftovers.”
• “She’s been a distraction for him, but not a necessity of life.”
• “There are only two kinds of people admitted to the Medications Administration wing: those who do and those who are done to.”
• “Not that he gives much of a flying fuck about freedom and democracy, since they haven’t performed that well for him personally.”
• “A kind of damp, sickly, pious look. Reverence crossed with hidden lust, but behind that a determination to get what he wants.”
• They “let her pas because she is sanctified by mourning”.
• “An LED smile: light, but no heat.”
• “’Isn’t this nice?’ they coo, in case there’s any doubt, which there is.”
I’m guessing that got your attention. It’s also the gist of the book, thoughSEX, fingers, blood, fingers, death, gloves, passion, feet, loss, fingers
I’m guessing that got your attention. It’s also the gist of the book, though not necessarily in that order. The first half is packed with sexual tension – and release - but most reviews seem to shy away from indicating that. Tastefully explicit, and touchingly erotic; “The PGs” is definitely not PG.
It’s a story of two very different parts (but oddly divided into three sections): the first is a love story, that is doubly taboo ((view spoiler)[two women; Frances is impoverished gentry, and Lilian is of the “clerk class” (hide spoiler)]), and the second is a crime drama, culminating in lengthy court scenes. It’s set in London, in 1922. Frances Wray lives with her widowed mother; the father’s debts necessitate letting rooms to the aspirational insurance clerk, Len Barber, and his somewhat Bohemian wife, Lilian.
As I attempt to assemble my thoughts, they won’t really gel: most of the specific points that come to mind are criticisms or more like discussion points for a book group – and yet I eagerly raced through nearly 600 pages (and not just for the sex). That’s more of a mystery than the plot was. What follows may sound like a 3* review; the extra star I’ve awarded it reflects my enjoyment.
Overall, it seems a little unpolished, maybe even unfinished. Perhaps Waters has reached the degree of success that, like Rowling, means editors can be ignored, so perhaps they don’t bother to make many suggestions.
In Fingersmith, if you know nothing about the author, and especially if you do know the classic novel on which the plot is based, the brief lesbian scenes might have been a surprise. Here, though, it is obvious from the start who the central couple will be. That creates a different dynamic: the titillation of noting all the clues (long fingers, longing fingers, stolen glances, fleeting physical contact, removing gloves, a glimpse of a stocking), waiting for something definite to happen. When it does, it’s far headier than anything in Fingersmith, and fingers feature even more prominently throughout, not just in a direct, sensual way: Len has manicures ((view spoiler)[his mistress is a beautician (hide spoiler)]), fingerprints are used in the investigation, and the significance of rings and removing or putting on gloves is never overlooked.
Waters based the book on high-profile murder cases of the period, but gave it a twist, by making Frances female. That gives Frances more of a backstory, and it makes later events more plausible, because most of the other characters never consider the possibility of two women being romantically involved.
One specific scene where her gender affects one’s interpretation is in the pantry. (view spoiler)[I was uneasy about how consensual that first encounter was: how coercive was Frances being? As the scene developed, those concerns subsided, and that was reinforced by subsequent events. Nevertheless, had Frances been a man, my unease would have been greater. (hide spoiler)] Does that make me guilty of narrow-minded (hetero)sexism?
Another way Waters inverts traditional storytelling is that everyone starts off unhappily… and everyone ends up unhappily!
This is not a bad book – I enjoyed reading it and have given it 4* - but I don’t see why it has earned so much praise and so many literary awards. If Francis (male) rented out rooms, would the book have been lost in a sea of similar historical fiction? Quite possibly, but I suppose that’s the point: literature should break free of its relentlessly heterosexual norms, regardless of the sexuality of likely readers. I applaud that, really, I do. But it still doesn’t make this a great book, just an interesting and enjoyable one.
The evils of the tabloids are made painfully and plausibly clear: the way they exploit and harass those suffering, and the way gossip sells, even to those who disapprove, but find it irresistible. The press doorstep relatives, drip-feed salacious titbits, crop photos to twist the story, gate-crash a funeral, and so on. This is one of the stronger aspects of the book: it speaks to contemporary concerns without being heavy-handed, while being (I think) historically accurate. Also, it’s a theme that once it arises, is a consistent undercurrent.
Ambiguity is Good
I like the fact there are important, unanswered questions. I’m still pondering these half dozen:
1. (view spoiler)[Who was pulling whose strings? Was Frances the predatory one who ended up with more than she bargained for, or was Lilian using her all along? I think probably both: when Frances first told Lilian she was a lesbian, the friendship cooled. Maybe Lilian rekindled it only because she’d realised how she could use Frances to escape her marriage.
2. Lilian certainly wanted to get out of her marriage, though her motivation is cloudier: was it the lost child, Len’s affair, an entirely separate wish for independence? What was the nature of their relationship, especially the drunken game of Snakes and Ladders, where “Frances had the sense that their antics were a weird kind of show, done for here but not flattering to her”?
3. Lilian had explicitly wished Len dead at least once, and in the heat of the fight, I think she probably meant to kill him. Frances later asks if it was an accident, but Lilian evades the question and “straightens the cuffs of her gloves”. I’m less sure whether she had planned to kill him, or to find some other escape, such as exposing his affair. The life insurance suggests the former, though.
4. I doubt Lilian and Frances grow old together, but I'm less sure how long they might have tried to make a go of it or what sort of relationships either would go on to have. Lilian wouldn’t have stayed single for long, but male or female partner? I fear Frances would just retreat to resentful spinsterhood, either in the house of unhappy memories, with another set of paying guests, or, perhaps worse, in a smaller “clerk class” house with no memories.
5. How much did Frances’ mother guess? She knew her daughter had had one relationship with a woman (Christina) and had been concerned at the intensity of her friendship with Lilian (though that was partly a matter of their different social positions). There were oddities around the time of the murder, some of which she noticed; she even asks Frances outright if she is keeping secrets about the death. If she believed her daughter complicit in murder, how would that affect their already prickly relationship? As an upstanding member of the parish, would she try to persuade Frances to confess (probably), and if that failed, would she report Frances to the police (probably not)?
6. After Spencer’s acquittal, Frances and Lilian are understandably relieved. They discuss what’s happened, the power of love, the pain of an unhappy relationship, all the people who’ve been affected, but they don’t seem overly burdened about having got away with murder/manslaughter or about future police enquiries. Will they be able to shake it off and live almost as if nothing happened (and if so, what does that say about them?), or will fear and guilt gnaw away at them? Frances wonders if finding happiness would be an insult to those who’ve been harmed, or whether that means it’s their duty to strive for it. We don’t know what Lilian thinks. (hide spoiler)]
The two main parts of the story hold together well, and I like loose ends. However, there are sub plots and themes that arise, seem important, but are then overlooked, even when they are pertinent. That’s part of what I meant about it feeling unpolished:
1. Prejudice is inherent in the plot; it’s the root of everything, but it felt as if having made it a lesbian story, with an ex-suffragette… that was it. I’m not sure how I would have preferred it, but it seemed as if there was a message struggling to get out, that didn’t. The fact that Frances and Lilian are increasingly unsympathetic characters exacerbates that.
2. Politics is strong early on. We're told about Frances’ activism for women’s rights, to the fury and embarrassment of her parents. After multiple losses (two brothers, her father, and her lover), Frances loses that zeal for protest, which is understandable. However, it seems odd that political ideas cease to be mentioned, apart from frequent reminders that Frances once threw a shoe at an MP (I'm just surprised it wasn't a glove), along with regular crass observations about class differences.
3. Anna Karenina is a book loved by Frances and Lilian, which they discuss early on but then not mentioned for hundreds of pages, until a passing reference near the end. I thought it was going to be a running thread, with parallels to Waters’ story, and perhaps it is (especially the guilt and torment of the second part), but if so, it was a little too subtle for me, and perhaps for a mass-market novel. Either give little hints to the similarities throughout, or (as with Fingersmith) don’t mention the inspiration at all: leave it as a treat for those who know and notice.
One or two convenient coincidences would be fine, but there were too many significant ones. I don’t read much crime fiction, but surely part of the point is that it’s tightly plotted?
1. (view spoiler)[A failed marriage is never the fault of just one partner, but Frances and Lilian choose not to see any fault in Lilian at all. All the blame is laid on the pain of the lost child, and on Len. The fact he was always a bit of a letch and then had an affair makes his death less of a tragedy, and so mitigates any guilt.
2. No one saw Len come home up the front path on the evening of his death, even though it was still light.
3. The timing of unrelated events meant Lilian's abortion was assumed to be a miscarriage caused by the shock of Len’s death.
4. Spencer’s admitted previous assault on and threats to Len made the murder charge plausible. The fact Len hadn’t reported it to the police (though he told Lilian and the Wrays he had) made it even more so. The police and prosecution convinced themselves of it and then interpreted the evidence to fit.
5. Spencer's criminal record and “smirking nonchalance” in court made him an easy scapegoat in practical terms, and minimised the injustice of his being remanded and tried.
6. A last-minute witness got Spencer off the hook and off the noose, by confirming his alibi, and thus Frances and Lilian avoided the need to confess to spare his life. (hide spoiler)]
I found it a racy read in more ways than one. Waters possibly overdid the fingers/gloves (plus a few bare feet) a little, and there were one or two phrases and metaphors that jarred. They are spoilered not because they give away plot, but because it looks a bit too snarky if they’re not hidden.
• (view spoiler)["flurries of wind" – snow may be a cliché, but wind just sounds odd.
• “a striped pyjama suit” – even Americans didn’t/don’t say “pyjama/pajama suit” (I checked the Google Ngrams corpus!)
• "she felt as alive as a piece of radium" – huh?
• "chased away like a cockerel chasing away a ghost" – as if that’s a thing.
• "boneless with exhaustion" – if I’m exhausted, my bones feel heavy, but other friends have identified with this, so it may be unfair to include it here.
• Lilian’s lively décor “was as if a giant mouth had sucked a bag of boiled sweets and then given the house a lick” - yuk.
• The second sentence of the novel, relating to the imminent arrival of the paying guests and surely the book itself is the clichéd “It was like waiting to begin a journey”. But it is contradicted and reworked on the next page, “It was like ending one and not wanting to get out of the train”.
• "There was a quickening, a livening – Frances could think of nothing to compare it with save some culinary process. It was like the white of an egg growing pearly in hot water, a milk sauce thickening in the pan." Cos custard is so sexy.
• Awaiting the verdict, she was “slack as worn elastic yet had the taughtness of wire” – oxymorons can work, but I’m not sure that one does. (hide spoiler)]
Quotes I Did Like
I thought the gradual build up of tension and passion was really well done, but those lines are all about context, rather than the words themselves. These lines stand on their own, though:
• Furniture moved to a lesser setting seemed “to be sitting as tensely as unhappy visitors… pining for their grooves and smooches in the room above”.
• On Lilian’s eclectic décor, “If only she would decide on a country and have done with it” is almost worthy of Oscar Wilde.
• “Her gaze… seemed always to be in the process of sliding away, and her pose was a cautious one, as if she were reaching into a thicket, trying to avoid being snagged by thorns.”
• After a makeover, “She felt half disguised by the outfit; half exposed by it”.
• “They could never have looked at each other so nakedly in the dangerous privacy of Champion Hill.”
• Lovers escaping a party “feeling unmoored, suspended, lapped about by the liquid blue night”.
• “They went in and out of lamplight, their shadows fluid under their feet.”
• “The muted tap of her wedding-band, a small chill sound in the darkness.”
• “Sunday, that dull, dull tyrant.”
• “The whole furtive business… of finding and securing and making the most of scraps of time with her – those juicy but elusive morsels of time, that had to be eased like winkles out of their shells, then gobbled down with an eye on the door, an ear to the stair, never comfortably savoured – it had all… been crushing the life out of her.”
• Of a police inspector, “Frances had the impression that his friendliness was all surface – or worse than that, was somehow strategic”.
• “Her own fingers felt blind… The ease and familiarity were gone.”
How long would you wait for your lover, if you knew not whether they were alive, and you yourself had changed almost beyond recognition?
This is a beaHow long would you wait for your lover, if you knew not whether they were alive, and you yourself had changed almost beyond recognition?
This is a beautiful, understated, unsentimental Odyssey of quiet longing, endurance, and transformation.
"This journey will be the axle of my life." Inman's journey is across hundreds of dangerous miles, fleeing war and trying to get to where his love lives, four years after they parted.
"She had made her way to a place where an entirely other order prevailed from what she had always known." Ada's journey takes place within a few miles of her home.
It's no coincidence that Inman's treasured book is a travel book (whereas Ruby "held a deep distrust of travel", even to the shops).
Times are tough, but at least Ada and Inman have confidence in who and what it is they yearn for.
Most of the novel alternates between Ada’s and Inman's separate struggles to survive, with backstory gradually provided by their reminiscences. Each of Inman's chapters involves a dramatic encounter, good or bad, that sheds light on his character, as well as the trials of war and wilderness. Ada is 26, orphaned, nearly destitute, and trying to cope with a little land, but no staff or skill. The varying tempo works well.
Both Inman and Ada cultivate the art of really seeing: Inman is ever watchful, noticing every little sign in nature or people's behaviour that may signal danger (a shadow behind leaves, a blade hidden in a hairdo); Ada learns to see the signs of seasons, weather, harvest, birds, and animals.
The language is sometimes a little archaic, as it should be. Quotation marks are not used, but I didn't really feel their absence: dialog is usually prefaced with a long dash.
Although the backdrop is the American civil war, I didn't feel hampered by my relative lack of knowledge of US history. There was enough background detail to picture daily life, but the politics and the war were external to the characters, and hence to me as a reader.
Right and Wrong; Revenge and Forgiveness
Inman is a deserter: badly injured, but a deserter none-the-less. He was never a natural killer, is haunted by what he's seen (and done), and doesn't believe in the cause anyway, if he ever did. There are gangs wanting bounty for finding deserters, and desperate men who will kill for any reason and none. Coupled with his inherently peaceful and forgiving nature, repeatedly put to the test, the risks are great.
Pondering the story of a man born blind, Inman asks himself "What would be the cost of not having an enemy? Who could you strike for retribution other than yourself?"
But retribution isn't really his mindset; he's almost too good to be true, given the hardships and dangers he faces, such as stealing food, but leaving more money than it's worth, putting himself in grave danger to help strangers,and avoiding and preventing violence, even when it's not really his responsibility and would be easier to walk away. He's certainly more forgiving than the disgraced preacher, Veasey.
The Sustenance of Literature - and Music
An unexpected pleasure was the underlying thread of the solace to be found in books.
On the very first page, Inman is in military hospital "settling his mind" with a treasured copy of Travels of William Bartram. Throughout the story, he returns to this book, in small snippets, at times of need. (view spoiler)[When he's reunited with Ada, he reads her an extract. (hide spoiler)]
Ada's relationship with books fluctuates: at her lowest point "the characters seemed to lead fuller lives than she did", and when she's first dragooned into hard labour to make the land viable, she drops the habit of keeping a book in her pocket. However, at the end of the day, reading aloud is a pleasure and a bonding experience for her and Ruby. We glimpse the privilege of opening someone's eyes to the joys of powerful stories.
Another, seemingly irredeemable, character finds salvation in music, starting off with a handful of standard fiddle tunes, but making his own instruments and composing a large repertoire of moving pieces. "The grouping of sounds... said something comforting to him about the rule of creation,... a powerful argument against the notion that things just happen."
At least as important as the relationship between Ada and Inman, and possibly more interesting, is that between Ada (educated, city girl, now alone in the country) and Ruby (an illiterate who was an almost feral child). She comes to help Ada, not quite as a servant, not - initially - as a friend, let alone equal, but Ruby takes charge of instructing in the sense of educating Ada and even telling her what, when, and how to do. "To Ada, Ruby's monologues seemed composed mainly of verbs, all of them tiring" and "Ruby made a point of refusing to tackle all the unpleasant tasks herself." Ada puts up with this because she realises that "Ruby would not let her fail", whereas a hired hand might just walk away.
There are moments when (view spoiler)[you wonder how far Ada and Ruby's friendship will go: when Ruby puts Ada's bracelet on her own wrist - but then puts it back again; when Ada slips a ring on Ruby's finger - which Ruby takes off. The latter is just after Inman has returned, and Ruby has said "We can do without him... There's not a thing we can't do ourselves." But when she realises Ada loves Inman, she backtracks completely, and tactfully contrives to leave them alone. (hide spoiler)].
Inman draws strength from his devotion to and memories of Ada. He occasionally looks at other women (water is a recurring theme), but it's all very chaste. (view spoiler)[Even when the young widow who's just lost her child, asks him to share her bed without touching, nothing happened nor did he really want it to. (hide spoiler)]
Then there's Ruby's estranged, good-for-nothing father, Stobrod, and Ada's role in handling and healing their relationship.
There is mythical power in names. Ada's education was academic and theoretical: she knows the names of almost none of the plants and animals, and that is part of her helplessness in her new situation. In contrast, Ruby has an encyclopaedic knowledge of such things, and thus she takes the lead in survival.
Ruby is also guided by signs that Ada's preacher father, Monroe, would have dismissed as superstition. Ada "chose to view the signs as metaphoric... a way of being alert" so that "she could honor them". But a hundred pages later, she writes to her cousin in Charleston about how field work has changed her, "Should a crow fly over I mark it in all its details, but I do not seek analogy for its blackness... I suspect it is somehow akin to contentment." It's worth noting that the first chapter is titled "the shadow of a crow" and the last "spirits of crows, dancing".
The Ending and the Epilogue
Twenty pages from the end, it was so tender and understated and perfect that I had to pause. I was sure it would end badly, and I couldn't bear it.
(view spoiler)[The reunion of Ada and Inman is wonderfully, but unsentimentally, done. He finds her, dressed like a man, hunting turkeys, rather than in the fine skirts he'd remembered. She doesn't recognise him, so he apologies and walks away. When she does recognise him (by his voice), there are no dramas, just tentative steps towards an unknown present and even less certain future. "No previous formula of etiquette seemed to apply." Even when left alone, they're unsure what to do - so Inman reads a passage from Bartram... and then does the washing up! But eventually they talk, "to rewrite even a shard of the past" as lover do "before they can move forward paired". Eventually, "The world was such a lonely place, and to lie down beside him, skin to skin, seemed the only cure."
Then they plan their future. "Their whole lives stretched ahead of them" but also "youth was about over for them and what lay ahead was another country entirely, wherein the possibilities narrowed down moment by moment." It's all too good to be last. Inman is shot by Teague's gang. Ada gets to him in time to hold him as he dies.
This is a horrible symmetry with much earlier mention of what happened to Ada's own parents, who met and loved when young, were separated for years, and joyfully reunited, but only very briefly, before one of them died.
The epilogue compensates for the tragedy of Inman's death by showing Ada and her daughter living happily with Ruby, Ruby's husband, their children, and Ruby's reformed father. However, without that, the final scene would be touching and, slightly ambiguous, which I think I prefer. (hide spoiler)]
Reminds me Of
(The links are to my reviews of these books.)
The quiet stoicism, solace in literature, and connection to the soil, reminded me of one of my two favourite books, Stoner.
The harsh beauty of the mountains, coupled with love and longing, reminded me a little of Brokeback Mountain. The similarity of title may be a factor, too.
* "The first smear of foggy dawn and [he] waited for the world to begin shaping outside."
* "Nature... sometimes calls attention to its specific features and recommends them for interpretation."
* "Educated beyond the point considered wise for females" but "impractically for the demands of an exposed life".
* "Though not a childless couple, they had retained an air of romance in their marriage, as the barren often do."
* "The foul country... was vague and ominous in the moonlight."
* "He would like to love the world as it was... Hate took no effort other than to look about."
* "When it became too dark to read and the air turned blue and started to congeal with mist."
* "Celebration had been a lacking feature of her life since survival had such a sharp way of focusing one's attention elsewhere."
* "She had lived so long as to have achieved a state of near transparency."
* Gypsies had "a fine honesty in their predatory relationship with the rest of mankind." I know what he means, but...
* "Dying there seemed easier than not... Inman had seen so much death it had come to seem a random thing... it no longer seemed dark and mysterious. He feared... he might never make a civilian."
* "The easement of maiden, spinster, widow", though if your knowledge of anatomy is "to a degree hypothetical", your fantasies may focus on fingers, wrists and forearms.
* A path "so coiled and knotted he could not say what its general tendency was... He felt fuddled and wayless."
* "Marrying a woman for her beauty makes no more sense than eating a bird for its singing."
* "The pain settled to a distant noise, like living by a river."
* In a dead man's clothes "he felt he had donned the husk of another life... as a ghost must, occupying the shape of the past to little effect."
* "A suggestion of trees as in a quick sketch, a casual gesture toward the form of trees... as if there were no such thing as landscape."
* "The sentimentality of finding poignancy in the fall of leaves, of seeing it as the conclusion to the year and therefore metaphoric."
UPDATE re the Film
If you love this book, or think you may read and love it in the future, avoid the the 2003 film starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renée Zellweger.
It's not that it's an awful film (though the acting, accents, and very fake-looking snow and scenery are pretty poor), and it's not the many (very many) tweaks they made to the plot (some are inevitable with any adaptation from one medium to another).
No, the problem is that it seems to miss the entire point and atmosphere of the book. By a long, long way. There are some gory battle scenes, but in general, it's a sunny romance. The sun is shining far too much of the time, even in Inman's dangerous travels, most of the hardship is soft-focus, the power of the landscape is mostly missing, and the power of books is sidelined. Inman's Bartram is important, but only because, in the film, it was Ada's parting gift, so it's a memento from a lover, rather than something separate, but more profound.
Delightful whimsy. A humorous illustrated story of fantastical derring-do, by a writer and artist who loved children, pirates, islands and adventure.Delightful whimsy. A humorous illustrated story of fantastical derring-do, by a writer and artist who loved children, pirates, islands and adventure. It reminds me a little of Tolkien's Letters from Father Christmas. My one regret is that I did not come to Peake when my son was the perfect age for this.
As the title declares, it's the illustrated letters of "one of the greatest explorers the world has never known" to his long-lost nephew. He introduces himself, but says "It won't be easy to draw myself as I can't remember my face very well" and casually mentions polishing his "leg-spike" long before explaining it (it came from a sword-fish). The drawings are for his own pleasure; the writing because he needs to tell his story so that his nephew can pass all the information to the Natural History Museum. Later though, "I'm beginning to enjoy writing to you. I didn't like you much at first."
He relishes suspense: "I'm longing to tell you about my Project, but the time is not quite ripe" and "I'm sure you must be tantalized into a tantrum".
The uncle, and his retainer Jackson (a turtle dog), are on a quest to find the White Lion, who is the Emperor of the Snows and indeed, "the only Lion to thrive in Arctic zones", although they've previously explored the tropics. Anyway, the letters are mainly about ingenuity and peril in the ice: hitching a ride with vultures across a chasm by playing dead; a snow vortex; tickling to escape being hugged to death by a polar bear; a magical ice cathedral; warm snow (fear not: it's white), and eventually... The White Lion (who reminds me a little of The Lamb in Boy in Darkness).
There's a sudden, bizarre twist at the end, but it's the continual smattering of casual weirdness I especially like: "smoking a pipe I carved out of the leg of my wife's favourite arm chair"; taking a lifeboat oar to use with a raft made of a table, rather than taking the lifeboat; using "blubber" as a swear word.
* The Aurora Borealis is "Hairy-Bleary-Alice".
* "A forest of trees that had been frozen into skeletons that never put forth leaves."
* "A great wind galloped out of the mountains of clanging ice... until the cold trees roared."
* "Steered my raft among the coughing waves."
* "My heart began to knock like a bandit's gong."
A couple of pages to give you a flavour of the book:
More of a geeky joke than a story, but neat. And the word Aleph reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges, which is always good. And this is my 31st word... HEMore of a geeky joke than a story, but neat. And the word Aleph reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges, which is always good. And this is my 31st word... HERE.
“Blindness is not darkness; it is a form of solitude.”
I have the Collected Fictions, but am splitting my review of that into its components. Those rev“Blindness is not darkness; it is a form of solitude.”
I have the Collected Fictions, but am splitting my review of that into its components. Those reviews are listed in publication order: Collected Fictions - all reviews.
These four stories were published three years before JLB died (but are also often included in The Book of Sand). He went out on a high. What a wonderful writer.
August 25, 1983 6*
August 25, 1897 is the key date in "Avelino Arredondo", a story in The Book of Sand. However, this is really a variant of “The Other” (in The Book of Sand) and also “Borges and I” in Dreamtigers. “Who is dreaming whom?”
Once again, JLB meets himself (aged 61 and 83), and once again, he uses this opportunity to criticise his works: “In 1979 you will see that your supposed career has been nothing but a series of drafts… and you will give in to the vain and superstitious temptation to write your great book.” But which is that? He rattles off his recurring themes and demonstrates a couple he doesn’t mention (nested realities and Don Quixote) by claiming to have written under a pseudonym, but was “taken for a clumsy imitator”.
“My words, which are now your present, will one day be but the vaguest memory of a dream.”
“Blindness is not darkness; it is a form of solitude.”
Blue Tigers 6*
What do tigers mean? To William Blake, they were “the eternal archetype of Evil”; to GK Chesterton, they had “terrible elegance”; to JLB, they were mesmerising and magical.
A Scottish teacher of logic, has a very illogical experience when he seeks mythical blue tigers in remote mountains of India. The villagers are secretive, and what he finds leaves him fearing for his sanity. Really, this is about what happens when your most fundamental beliefs are demonstrably untrue.
(view spoiler)[He finds shape-shifting blue pebbles in the cracks of a taboo mountain. Their number changes constantly, too. “If three plus one can be two or fourteen, then reason is madness.” He embarks on a manic, futile quest to “seek some order” and ends up praying for release at the mosque. As he makes his ablutions, a blind beggar asks for alms, seemingly aware of the curse of the blue pebbles, but it’s “the only gift I am permitted to receive, .I have sinned.” The narrator is free – even though he is presumably a sinner as well. (hide spoiler)]
“Their color is the blue that we are permitted to see only in our dreams.”
The Rose of Paraclesus 6*
What are the boundaries of science and magic, of faith and proof? Does proof strengthen faith or remove the need for it? If you know the truth, how strong is your desire to prove it to others?
Paraclesus was a true Renaissance man: he was a scientist who stressed the importance of observational evidence, and pioneered toxicology, but he also dabbled in alchemy. In this story, he is praying for a disciple when one turns up at his door. He brings gold (redundant for an alchemist) and a rose, which leaves Paraclesus “troubled”. In return, he wants proof of the rumour that Paraclesus can burn up and restore a rose.
(view spoiler)[Paraclesus is angered, “You are credulous… I demand belief” (what’s the difference?), but the traveller says, understandably, that it’s because he’s NOT credulous that he wants proof. Paraclesus asserts that “The miracle would not bring you the belief you seek”, so the traveller tosses the rose on the fire and departs, thinking Paraclesus a fraud. When he’s gone, Paraclesus conjures a rose from the ashes. (hide spoiler)]
Shakespeare’s Memory 6*
Are good memories always a blessing, or can they be a curse? How much of our identity is bound up in our memories, whether they be true or false? What is memory anyway? A palimpsest, as de Quincy says?
A German expert in Shakespeare, who now has “partial blindness” (JLB’s was almost total by this time) has an extraordinary story that sheds light on these questions.
(view spoiler)[He is given a magical transfer of Shakespeare’s memory; it’s a gradual process. “What I possess… are still two memories – my own personal memory and the memory of that Shakespeare that I partially am. Or rather, two memories possess me. There’s a place where they merge.” And that is where problems begin. Joy turns to “terror and oppression” as he becomes obsessed (shades of Gollum and “his Precious”), loses his sense of self, and fears for his sanity. So, of course, he passes it on to someone else. (hide spoiler)]
“A man’s memory is not a summation; it is a chaos of vague possibilities”, rather as “A man who acquires an encyclopaedia… acquires the possibility of becoming familiar” with its contents.
Want to Discuss JLB Further?
The group On Paths Unknown will be reading and discussing JLB stories, starting on 1st September 2015.
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 ofThis 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.”
2. Hunting is not what it's really about (probably like Moby Dick?).
3. It was a good follow-on from Cold Mountain: two totally different US landscape-based stories, set only a few years apart.
What This Is - and Is Not
• This is a road movie - without the road, the car, or the film cameras.
• It's a Western - without cows, cowboys or indians.
• It's a character-based story - but the main characters don't speak or move (because they’re the landscape and weather).
• It's about big beasts, big wilderness, big ambitions, some big characters - but it often focuses on the minutest details of how things looks, sound, and feel (see quotes near the end).
• It’s about quests and dreams (of meaning for one; of wealth for another); aspects have a mythical air – but harsh reality dominates, and it's not the standard "American Dream" of wealth (success, fame, power).
• It's a coming-of-age story or bildungsroman (thanks, Dolors) - except that the end of the journey seems more like the beginning of Will's growing up.
• It's about life (finding purpose in it, as well as basic survival) - but there's bloody death and butchery.
“He believed there was a subtle magnetism in nature, which if he unconsciously yielded to it, would direct him aright.”
I often seek quiet landscapes for solace, thinking, escape (preferably woodland). I like to listen and touch. I’m not brave or reckless enough to go anywhere really wild, and although I eat meat, I’m no hunter. Nevertheless, I can relate to underlying theme of this story more than I expected.
Will Andrews heads west, not to make his fortune, but to find meaning in his life. The landscape quickly has a profound effect, though it doesn’t really clarify things for him. He longs for the distant mountains but “did not know precisely what hunger or thirst they would assuage”. How many of us long vaguely for something, without being sure how or if it will fix things?
After only a month away from Boston, he barely remembers home, which seems “in a very distant time… The image would not stay with him. Unreal, it thinned like brown fog.” He quickly feels at home in the tiny settlement of Butcher’s Crossing, but yearns to go further, into the wilderness: in “a hint of the distant horizon” he sees “his own undiscovered nature”.
As he travels, he comes to identify with his surroundings, “He felt himself to be like the land, without identity or shape”. He has “the feeling that he was being absorbed” and “promised… a richness and a fulfilment for which he had no name”. After only a few weeks, “He had been here in the high valley for all of that part of his life that mattered… He could not think of himself outside of where he was”. Is this peace or an unhealthy form of disassociation?
But what’s it all for? When they eventually leave the valley, after much hardship, Will “felt vaguely that he would be leaving something behind, something that might have been precious to him, had he been able to know what it was.”
This thwarting of uncertain ambitions, this lack of resolution, reminded me of Stoner.
Faith, Religion, Ritual
Does everyone need faith in something? I’m not sure (I don’t think I have faith in anything much), but that’s the suggestion here.
Charley Hoge, the waggon driver, has a simple but profound faith in the words of his dog-eared Bible, and a fair amount of faith in Miller, the experienced buffalo hunter. Miller’s faith is also in Miller: his vast experience of the beasts and their environment. Schneider, the skinner, has faith in his own experience, so it’s no surprise that he and Miller don’t always agree. McDonald, the hide trader, has hope of future prosperity when the railroad comes through town.
Will is the faithless one: the son of a preacher who pressed Emerson more than God on his son. That is surely why Will now seeks answers in the wilderness, and why “the reality of their journey lay in the routine detail… a ritual, more and more meaningless as it was repeated, but a ritual which nevertheless gave his life the only shape it now had”.
There is also a ritualistic aspect to the hunting, killing, and skinning: “a rhythm in Miller’s slaughter… Like a dance, a thunderous minuet created by the wildness that surrounded it”. Does that make it somehow sacred, or profane and greedy?
If my Biblical knowledge were closer to Charley’s than Will’s, I’d probably spot more, but wilderness is significant in the Christian story, and just as Genesis has a six-day creation, Miller’s preparation for the journey is six days, as it the first leg of it (after which, they are literally off the beaten track).
I’m not sure if it’s the author’s intention, but you could easily sermonise along the lines of the perils of chasing material gain, versus the importance of searching for deeper truth.
From the most ancient myths and stories, physical journeys have paralleled personal journeys of transformation. That is true here – not just of Will, but even the characters who are used to venturing out for weeks on end.
There are the obvious physical transformations from weeks in the saddle, then the hard labour of hunting and skinning etc, but the psychological changes are greatest, and most profound. As things get tougher, each man has to wrestle his own demons, as well as the other men, and the conditions in which they’re living, travelling and, hopefully, surviving - physically and mentally.
“He thought at times that he as moving into a new body, or into a real body that had lain hidden beneath unreal layers of softness and whiteness and smoothness.” Later, these feelings are echoed when he loses his virginity.
If you like survival stories, there’s plenty here. They travel in uncharted territory, where only one of them has been before, and that was ten years earlier. They have supplies, but need to make them last, and can’t ever go too far from water. The terrain and weather are always a risk, as is the greed of trying to get just a few more hides.
Seeing this Through Other Eyes
Some books are so deep or strange, they inspire hugely varied and very creative reviews. This is, in some ways, a very simple story, but I was struck by the variety of my friends' reviews: they are almost all 4* or 5*, but the themes and ideas the pick out are remarkably diverse. I think that indicates how much depth there is beneath the surface.
I think this could make a wonderful film - but only in the rights hands. It needs to focus on careful shots of the landscape, rather than wild west clichés: enormous vistas, as well as careful light, highlighting details close-up. Stephen Poliakoff would be perfect, though in 2010, Sam Mendes was reported to be adapting it. He's made some excellent films, but I'm not sure I'd want to see his version of this.
Descriptions of Minute Details
• “He became aware that his hands were tightly clenched; the tips of his fingers slipped in the moisture of his palms.
• “Flat lines of sweat ran through the glinting beads of moisture that stood out on his forehead, and ran into his tangled eyebrows.”
• “He noticed the minute beads of sweat that stood out distinctly above her full lip and caught the sunlight like tiny crystals.”
• “The rich buffalo grass… changed its color throughout the day; in the morning, in the pinkish rays of the early sun, it was nearly gray; in the yellow light of the midmorning sun, it was a brilliant green; at noon it took on a bluish cast; in the afternoon, in the intensity of the sun, at a distance, the blades lost their individual character and through the green showed a distinct cast of yellow, so that when a light breeze whipped across, a living color seemed to run through the grass, to disappear and reappear from moment to moment. In the evening after the sun had gone down, the grass took on a purplish hue as if it absorbed all the light from the sky and would not give it back.”
• “When he inserted the rod into the breech of the barrel the hot metal hissed, and the drops of water that got on the outside of the barrel danced for a moment on the blued metal and disappeared.”
• “He heard nothing save the soft whistling of the wind around his ears, which were beginning to tingle from the coolness. The southern reaches of the valley were softening in a faint mist that was coming down from the mountains… the sunlit white vapor twisted and coiled upon itself before a thrusting wind that was not felt on the ground here in the valley.”
• “The mountainside was a riot of varied shade and hue… He thought that if he listened he could hear the sound of growth… the fragrant air, spiced with the odor of crushed pine needles and musty from the slow decay that worked upward from the earth.”
• “It was a freedom and a goodness, a hope and a vigor that he perceived to underlie all the familiar things of his life, which were not free or good or hopeful or vigorous. What he sought was the source and preserver of his world, a world which seemed to turn ever in fear away from its source.”
• “She was a presence which assuaged a need in him that he barely knew he had, until the need was met.”
• “Caught in the ugliness of sleep… defenceless… in the innocence of sleep” he “had never seen a part of her that he was seeing now.”
• “It wasn’t you, it was me.” (Published in 1960!)
The enchantment of the title is apt, as there is an almost magical feel about the power of a beautiful landscape.
This is a cEnchanting 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.”
"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." contrasted with "I wanted to weep but I felt nothing."