In many ways the antithesis of Dracula, and if Stoker's novel disappointed me with its clean-cut, heterosexual male-influenced dichotomies, than le Fa...moreIn many ways the antithesis of Dracula, and if Stoker's novel disappointed me with its clean-cut, heterosexual male-influenced dichotomies, than le Fanu's novella is the flipside of the coin: female-centric, homoerotic, ambiguous and enigmatic (and all in about a quarter of the length!). Here the vampire is not the withered, evil "Other" but the beautiful, sensuous stranger that is readily welcomed into home and heart, becoming the double for the protagonist, leading to a very different sense of horror--the necessary destruction not of an enemy but a loved one, perhaps even the self. It's a really eerie, beguiling little novella, uncanny in a way that Dracula only is in brief flashes...
I found this both repelling and compulsive, and the more repulsed I became the less capable I seemed of putting it down. I was hooked just several pag...moreI found this both repelling and compulsive, and the more repulsed I became the less capable I seemed of putting it down. I was hooked just several pages in, enamored with the elegant, elegiac tone of Charles Arrowby's attempts at composing a memoir/diary after exiling himself to a remote seaside home to live in monastic isolation. Via Arrowby, Murdoch's prose takes on a sea-like quality, the ebb-and-flow of memories and musings churning together present and past to the point where the edges of reality and unreality begin to blur imperceptibly. I settled in for what I fully expected to be more or less an intelligent and eerie psychological thriller.
But just as it was not meant for Arrowby to enjoy his solitude, so I was quickly jumbled out of any conceptions that I was in for a graceful memory piece. Suddenly figures from Arrowby's past begin showing up uninvited at his doorstep, culminating with the unexpected reappearance of a lost first love, setting off a string of increasingly erratic behavior that quickly threaten to become dangerous.
It took a while for me to adjust to such a drastic change of narrative trajectory, but as it went along I began to appreciate the grand guignol absurdity of it all. And it wasn't, I admit, until just about the very end that I realized how the incongruent-seeming opening does indeed set up nicely the rest of the novel: reported to be the premiere interpreter of Shakespeare of his day, isn't it natural, maybe even inevitable that Arrowby's life takes on an expansive Shakespearian theatricality?
"All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages."
And that kind of sums up my final response to The Sea, The Sea—creaky, isolated Shruff End is not the place of escape and seclusion Arrowby intends it to be, but is merely an empty stage upon which the figures of his past, present and possibly his future appear with a theatrical punctuality, reciting their lines, performing their small roles and disappearing again into the wings again until called upon again to reappear on cue around Arrowby as he plays his "many parts," from a wizened Prospero to a tragic Lear to a pathetically misguided attempt at Romeo and Juliet that quickly deteriorates into a truly horrific parody of Taming of the Shrew.
Did I enjoy The Sea, The Sea? I can't honestly say that I did. I'm not even sure that I liked it per se. But it did compel me to descend into a unique type of claustrophobic madness, creating a literary experience of a type that I've never quite experienced before, which is saying something indeed. My true reaction is suspended somewhere between three and four stars, but considering that the only other Murdoch novel I've read has continued to grow in stature in my memory, I gladly give the novel the benefit of the doubt and round my rating up.
The past and the present are so close, so almost one, as if time were an artificial teasing out of material which longs to join, to interpenetrate, and to become heavy and very small like some of those heavenly bodies scientists tell us of."(less)
After completing the groundbreaking experiment The Waves, Woolf “rested” by working on what she considered a mere trifle—a short novel that would even...moreAfter completing the groundbreaking experiment The Waves, Woolf “rested” by working on what she considered a mere trifle—a short novel that would eventually become Flush: A Biography, a version of the courtship of poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning as seen through the eyes of their omnipresent cocker spaniel. Using historical facts as a platform, what emerges is a witty and unusual take on one of the most famous real-life romances of all time, and even if it comes off as rather slight when placed next to Woolf’s other novels (particularly her later ones), it’s certainly one of her most lighthearted and irrepressible, and tremendous fun. (less)
A novel that seems to play out like some forgotten old black and white European film projected a few frames a second slower than it should be, so ever...moreA novel that seems to play out like some forgotten old black and white European film projected a few frames a second slower than it should be, so every gesture and every word seems to bear a heavy, languorous weight. Indeed, one might be tempted to call it a parody if it for even for a moment wavered in it seriousness, but it never does. Brookner writes in dense, lengthy paragraphs that seem like blocks of ice that must be fastidiously chipped through, reflecting the general mindset of the introverted, melancholy protagonist, a romance novel writer named Edith. As she "endures" a self-imposed exile in a stately hotel on the Continent sparsely populated by expected "types"--eccentric aristocratic sorts that seem to exist solely to make appearances in such places--she begins a process awkward interactions and grudged introspection that slowly gives way to difficult realizations and eventual decisions.
If this review has seemed to be a bit dismissing in tone, it's not entirely intended to; I actually enjoyed reading it quite a bit. But I discovered it didn't live up to the cryptic and austere opening chapters, where I found myself oddly relishing the elegant stasis. I admire that Brookner resolutely avoids sunshiny, transcendent revelations, instead attempting something more difficult and diffuse (even though I remain, I admit, not entirely convinced). (less)
I nearly gave up at the 2/3's mark, once again--as I told Rebecca, it was getting almost oppressive and I could hardly bear it anymore. It was like wa...moreI nearly gave up at the 2/3's mark, once again--as I told Rebecca, it was getting almost oppressive and I could hardly bear it anymore. It was like watching a car accident in slow motion that is impossible to prevent, and so you stand by helplessly, slack-jawed, and hope against hope that somehow it all turns out okay...
Not helping matters was that I haven't exactly been in the mood for the "fate is a bitch so deal with it" type of story.
And yet. Virginia Woolf was so right when she wrote that Emily Brontë could "make the wind blow and the thunder roar" through her writing--that's a great source of the overwhelming oppression, I reckon--and one is swept away despite oneself into a world where emotions are not something felt but are life-and-death, generations-altering realities, and personal history seems doomed to repeat itself endlessly in countless variations and incarnations...
*still prefers the Kate Bush song, but just slightly*
"If all else perished and he remain, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the Universe would turn to a mighty stranger and I should not seem part of it." (less)
Well… I can't say that was what I was expecting. Primed by the neatly elegant logic of The Innocence and Wisdom of Father Brown, I wasn't anticipating...moreWell… I can't say that was what I was expecting. Primed by the neatly elegant logic of The Innocence and Wisdom of Father Brown, I wasn't anticipating a "surreal masterpiece" and so it took me a while to get on its wavelength (and I'm not sure that I ever really did). Part of this might be the fact that the older Penguin paperback edition that I picked up from my local library gives all indication of a more straightforward thriller, and, more crucially, the cover bizarrely omits what Chesterson himself claimed was the key to the novel: the title's short subtitle "A Nightmare" (it does include it on the interior title page, but I missed it).
This all makes sense in retrospect, and indeed, as the novel literally races to its close it occurred to me how I had come to visualize this novel, with its Pre-Raphaelite redheads, endless disguises, runaway elephants, and hot air balloons which from one page to the next hold little regard to plausibility (to say nothing of traditional continuity) as related to what Max Ernst later tried to accomplish in his celebrated collage-novels Une Semaine De Bonté: A Surrealistic Novel in Collage and Hundred Headless Woman(La Femme 100 Têtes). Like The Man Who Was Thursday, these masterpieces of visual surrealism display a keen visual wit and a wickedly dark sense of humor, and emphasize the evocative arbitrariness of dream logic, and how it can very effortlessly plumb into unexpected recesses of dread and uneasiness.
Several images from Ernst's collage-novels:
Which is all a long way of saying that while I was disappointed with this reading I also look forward to another at some point in the future, which I suspect will inspire greater appreciation on my part.
"The philosopher may sometimes love the infinite; the poet always loves the finite. For him the great moment is not the creation of light, but the creation of the sun and moon."(less)
For the life of me I can't remember exactly how the Bagthorpes entered my life. It must have been a random grab off my local library shelf, because I'...moreFor the life of me I can't remember exactly how the Bagthorpes entered my life. It must have been a random grab off my local library shelf, because I've never heard of them referenced or mentioned in the years since (but then, it's my impression that its prolific author, Helen Cresswell, has never really had much of a presence on this side of the Atlantic). All I know is that at a certain time in my life—that is, that awful moment just before entering middle school—I read this series obsessively, ordering copies from small rural library branches from all over Central California to fuel my obsession. And this, the inaugural title, was always my particular favorite.
And it's really not hard, reading it now, to see why. It completely makes sense that as a lonely, awkward boy who felt like a complete outsider in life I would totally and completely empathize with an awkward boy who feels like a complete outsider in life, the sole "ordinary" member of a family of overachieving, self-proclaimed geniuses (though he was, luckily for him, less lonely than I was, thanks to his ever-present companion, an adopted stray named Zero). As such, I counted Jack, along with the boys of Little Men, as my best—and, sadly, probably only—friends during that particularly rough period of time, and as such, I've always remembered Jack, his family, and the ten books they inspired with unabashed affection.
Fast-forward now to the present, and returning to these books now, I can't help but smile over how much this series, for better or worse, formed my initial impressions of Britain and the British national character—by the time I met the infamous Radlett family of Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate: Two Novels, this family dynamic and lovable eccentricism seemed completely familiar, and frankly, a bit normal (honestly, they've got nothing on the manic Bagthorpe clan). And while I thoroughly enjoyed Ordinary Jack this time around, I have to admit that it is, objectively, not one of the strongest entries in the series, mostly because Cresswell is necessarily forced to make that extra effort required of first books in a series, fleshing out characters (which number no less than a dozen distinct personalities) and establishing intricate family dynamics that will provide an endless number of comical situations over the subsequent nine books.
But I must admit that as a character, Jack, by nature of his sheer ordinariness, is just not all that interesting of a character, though in a narrative sense he's absolutely necessary as the sole voice of reason in the increasingly surreal and absurd situations the Bagthorpes find themselves implicated in. And, of course, given our past, he'll always occupy a special place in my literary heart.
In all honesty a four star book, but in light of nostalgia, I can't imagine giving it anything less than five. (less)
After spending about a year or so devoting most of my intellectual energy to reading and studying Virginia Woolf in preparation for writing a thesis,...moreAfter spending about a year or so devoting most of my intellectual energy to reading and studying Virginia Woolf in preparation for writing a thesis, I have found myself rather awkwardly unable to finish one of her novels in the years that have passed since (with the exception of the minor divertissement provided by Flush). I've started rereading To the Lighthouse and Orlando multiple times and subsequently, unceremoniously abandoned them before the halfway point. I must say, there are few situations more ominous and dispiriting (and embarrassing) than being suddenly unable to read the work of the author one professes to be their favorite.
But thanks to the recent flurry of VW-related activity on my update feed compliments of Elizabeth, I was inspired to pay a visit to Mrs. Dalloway, as spontaneously and unexpectedly as Peter Walsh drops in on his old friend halfway through the novel, and as it was for Peter, the encounter left me feeling, rather unexpectedly, emotionally churned and unabashedly elated. It was just so damn wonderful to feel once again the sheer sensations of connectedness Woolf's best writing inspires; as 2009 draws to its close and I reflect back on my reading adventures over the last year, I realize how heavily this year happened to tilt towards the postmodern and the generally existential, and combined with all the grad-school theory, there was a lot of emphasis in 2009 on subjectivity, and its accompanying dissonances and disjunctions.
So how amazing (or as VW would say, how delicious) it is to be reading and suddenly feeling the entire world form into intricate patterns and countless little cobwebs of interconnections… in this postmodern world, supposedly all discontinuity and hopeless fragmentation, it's comforting—probably more than a grad student should admit—to suddenly be looking through a lens where a seemingly unrelated middle aged woman and a mentally unstable young man with no real knowledge of each other can be linked, with meaning and resonance achieved in the vague space provided by simply existing…
In my mind, Mrs. Dalloway always tends to pale in comparison to memories of Lighthouse, The Waves, even Orlando, but no, in it's own way it's really just as good as those, and for making me miss the streets of London, it's second to none in all of literature. And the writing! The ebb and flow of the distinctive prose-poetry, once so daunting, is now somehow comforting in its endless layers of complexity and meaning—it's nice to know that a certain mystery and opacity will always remain, just as it does in "real life;" but, of course, there's always the hope of discovering, understanding a little more on the next unexpected visit...
"Life itself, every moment of it, every drop of it, here, this instant, now, in the sun, in Regent's Park, was enough. Too much indeed. A whole lifetime was too short to bring it out, now that one had acquired the power, the full flavor; to extract every ounce of pleasure, every shade of meaning..."(less)
Not only does it uncannily anticipate many of the themes and ideas that became preoccupations in feminist analysis upon Woolf's "rediscovery" many dec...moreNot only does it uncannily anticipate many of the themes and ideas that became preoccupations in feminist analysis upon Woolf's "rediscovery" many decades later, it is a very accessible and readable analysis of Woolf's major texts up to that time (The Years and Between the Acts had yet to be written). Ruth Gruber's own account of writing this dissertation and meeting Woolf herself as a young American Jewish woman studying in Germany in the 1930's is a fascinating read in and of itself.
And remarkably, Ms. Gruber still appears to be alive and well at the ripe old age of 99, making her a rather remarkable link to this era now long-past.(less)
I expected something more witty, something more satirical, something more gay (take that whatever way you will)--what I got instead was one of the mos...moreI expected something more witty, something more satirical, something more gay (take that whatever way you will)--what I got instead was one of the most beautiful meditations of life, time, memory and loss I've every experienced. Might very well become an all-time favorite. (less)