Reading Love in the Time of Cholera is like watching flowers bloom.
Beautiful, and boring.
The book is so boring, in fact, that I could spend no more thReading Love in the Time of Cholera is like watching flowers bloom.
Beautiful, and boring.
The book is so boring, in fact, that I could spend no more than thirty minutes at a time traversing its dense narrative of obsessive love. I’d read something brilliant, get all gung-ho, and then face-plant into three pages about the river boat industry. Thus, not being able to read as I normally prefer (that is, Alice in Wonderland style), I instead carried love & cholera with me everywhere, reading it whenever I could wrest a half-hour chunk from time’s jealous grasp.
Unbeknownst to me, however, love & cholera is apparently a giant badge declaring membership to the HEY STRANGER TALK TO ME ABOUT THINGS club.
See, normally I’m an invisible human being who can sneak in and out of places, conversations, and bank vaults with nary a ripple. A ninja, basically. Love & Cholera in hand, however, and suddenly I had a spotlight following me. No matter where I went, people wanted to talk to me about their lives.
Example: I walk into a wine-store. Lady asks if I need help. Nope. I’ve got one slot open, I say. But as I’m searching, I remember I’ve actually got two. I’d just polished off a bottle of 15 year Macallan and the last of my vodka. Alright. So I get two bottles.
Lady behind the counter says, “I thought you only had one slot open.”
“There’s always room for one more,” I say.
I pause. Look awkward. Then add, “Room for one more wine bottle on a wine rack I mean.”
“Uh huh,” she says and then her eyes lit on love & cholera.
Oh jeez. Incoming.
Lady tells me she’s read love & cholera. Read it for a boy, in fact. Tells me all about it, this teenage romance two decades past. She seems surprised to be telling me this or even remembering it, trails off in her story, and finishes, that’s how you know a book-worm loves you, don't you? When she moves your favorite book right to the top of her massive reading backlog, because she thinks this will help her understand you. Sure, I say. Sure is.
Then, not five minutes later, at the sandwich shop, a middle-aged woman asks me how to order a sandwich. I tell her. It’s one of those where you make your own. Choose your own bread, cheese, spices, sauces, meats, etc. She admits intimidation. I admit I choose randomly. And then her eyes land on the love & cholera in my hand.
She loves the book. Absolute favorite. It’s helped her, she tells me, with her husband. Almost a divorce. But in fact, because of the book, she realized the difficulties have made her love him not less but more. How strange, she told me in so many words, that the ease of their marriage is what gave them so much trouble. The only way they could inject energy into it was with the struggle. An affair, she admitted (to me, a complete stranger!!). But now it’s all right.
“That’s good,” I say, “I’m glad things are going well with your husband.” “Thank you,” she says and then boom, back to being strangers. Never see her again. I get my sandwich and sit down and eat it. It’s terrible. Probably because I randomly chose what to put on it. But y’know, I keep doing it, because sometimes it’s glorious. Sometimes I get a combination of flavors I’ve never encountered before. But I never order it again. It’s like the lady said. Familiarity breeds contempt.
And what does any of this have to do with an actual review of love & cholera?
I suspect love & cholera’s existence as a membership badge for the HEY STRANGER TALK TO ME ABOUT THINGS club is because that’s more or less what the book is. Reading love & cholera really is like listening to a particularly amusing, passionate, long-winded stranger tell you his life story. Except not on an airplane but instead, say, on a dirigible for some extra exoticism & freshness. And make that stranger also self-deprecating because love & cholera is more a comedy than it is a love story. Or perhaps it’d be more accurate to say that it’s a real love story, rather than a Hollywood love story, because real love stories always contain an element of absurdity, which is why real love is as confusing as it is grand.
Let me give an example of absurdity. The main protagonist Florentino loves Fermina, but she marries someone else (this is not a spoiler). In order to work out his unrequited love, he takes up writing love letters for others… and this happens:
His most pleasant memory of that time was of a very timid young girl, almost a child, who trembled as she asked him to write an answer to an irresistible letter that she had just received, and that Florentino Ariza recognized as one he had written on the previous afternoon. He answered it in a different style, one that was in tune with the emotions and the age of the girl, and in a hand that also seemed to be hers, for he knew how to create a handwriting for every occasion, according to the character of each person. He wrote, imagining to himself what Fermina Daza would have said to him if she had loved him as much as that helpless child loved her suitor. Two days later, of course, he had to write the boy’s reply with the same hand, style, and kind of love that he had attributed to him in the first letter, and so it was that he became involved in a feverish correspondence with himself. Before a month had passed, each came to him separately to thank him for what he himself had proposed in the boy’s letter and accepted with devotion in the girl’s response: they were going to marry.
Incredible, right? This interweaving of romance, pathos, and absurdity exists from page 1 to the very end.
Which is why, even as boring as it is, love & cholera is an incredible book. It’s no more and no less than a fictional person’s life story, complete with all sorts of ridiculousness, dead ends, and random pointless tragedy.
And you know what I realized near the end? That I knew these characters – Fermina Daza & Florentino Ariza – better than I knew almost any actual person. In fact, as I pondered further, I realized I know more about fictional characters than I do about actual human beings. I’m not some hermit either, so I don’t think I’m alone in this, and I wonder what it means. But that, I’m afraid, will have to be the topic of some other review, for this one is done. I have some flower-watching to do....more
The Handmaid's Tale, a dystopia with heavy tones of feminism, tells the horrifying story of Offred, a Handmaid, a woman whose identity and agency areThe Handmaid's Tale, a dystopia with heavy tones of feminism, tells the horrifying story of Offred, a Handmaid, a woman whose identity and agency are torn from her, so that she might serve as a baby factory.
I call it horrifying but let me be clear: This is not the sharp horribleness you might feel when you witness a shouting match between your parents; when you break-up with a girlfriend or boyfriend; or when you read about the latest shooting on the news. No. The Handmaid's Tale summons the horribleness of the alarm clock. It's the horribleness of the smooth beauty of young skin growing loose and dry with age, the tick & tock of mortality. It's the horribleness of pulling into the same parking lot at the same building for the same job for ten years, it's the horribleness of political candidate after political candidate who see only power instead of people. It's the horrible grind of a world that could be better, but isn't. It's the horribleness of hopelessness.
That's the real genius, the real triumph of the Handmaid's Tale, the simple matter-of-fact mundanity of its horrible routine. The way it's told without bells and whistles.
I like, too, the calm and stately prose of the book, its focus on minute details, its understanding that life's little joys are what we most cherish... and miss most when they are gone.
But that is about all that I liked. The horribleness of this book felt, to this reader at least, much like the horribleness of a haunted house. Because sign after sign after sign tells you that the 'performers' in the haunted house will not touch you, will not hurt you in any way, the fear you experience isn't really fear. It's startlement.
The Handmaid's Tale is a book that operates by startling you. It is a book which, above all, is didactic, polemic, and preachy. It is the sermon of a woman who would use fear to warn against a society which would use fear to control you. Isn't that just a bit ironic? I even found one reviewer's response to be: "Question your government. Question your society. Question your spouse." Your spouse?! Is that the message of this book?
I have noticed that a great many books with "messages" - that is, those considered classics or Literature with a capital L - suffer from the same backwards, artificial feel that The Handmaid's Tale suffers from. Let me explain:
It is my experience as both writer and reader that good books must be written forward. You sketch a cast of characters, sometimes deeply and sometimes not, and you sketch a world and then you ignite it with the match of a conflict and then you step away. You use your mind, your daily experiences as a sort of incubator for the story. You guide the story if it gets too far off its path, but you do this only if you must. As you write the story, you gain a better understanding of your characters and their situation and you often go back to rewrite. But what you do not do is write the world in such a way as to make the plotting easy. You don't give traits to characters simply so they can function as a plot device. You don't do this because to do so imbues the story with an air of artificiality and intentionality that reeks of fast-food and political speeches.
The Handmaid's Tale was not written forward. It was written backwards. Margaret Atwood had a point set firmly in mind and then created a world to prove her point. It'd be like if I wanted to tell a story about how horrible ducks were and then just filled it with these stories of ducks murdering other ducks and subjugating each other and doing horrible things to each other. And, regardless of whether these things are true or possible or likely or unlikely or impossible, the story just doesn't feel real. It feels like bullshit and Hollywood and sham. It feels like what is called in logic a tautology. It just plods forward in a completely predictable fashion, toward a logical, foregone conclusion, offering neither surprise (it takes 100 pages for the first surprising thing to happen!) nor much insight.
And that is a damn shame because I love nothing more than a good book. The Handmaid's Tale is not a good book. It is a book with a Point and a book that is pointless: it will not change the minds of those who are already (or on the path to become...) oppressors of women. It will only confirm the opinions of those who live in fear of society and men, who view feminism in a militant rather than optimistic light. The Handmaid's Tale is a book that confronts nothing and resolves nothing. It paints a picture of a horrible world and does nothing with it....more
I was at a vineyard once and, at a nearby group, one of the staff was describing their wine, with the usual highfalutin language: "…aroma of the blackI was at a vineyard once and, at a nearby group, one of the staff was describing their wine, with the usual highfalutin language: "…aroma of the black-berry balanced by tannins and the subtle earthiness of sandalwood."
One of the members of the group took a drink and said, "Oh yes, I can taste the sandalwood."
After they left, I commented to my own sommelier, "How in the world do people know what sandalwood tastes like?"
She laughed and responded, "If you put it on the bottle, someone will always taste it."
I suspect the great depth so many people find in The Stranger is largely a result of the fact that its depth was 'put on the bottle.' Which is hilariously ironic: The Stranger is, after all, an absurdist text about a man who refuses to behave in the way that society expects him to behave. Yet here we have a book celebrated for its depth by readers who, for the most part, apparently fail to even grasp said depths. Oh kool-aid, how sweet thy taste.
But before you dismiss me as an intellectual snob, let me offer a true story: this book made an acquaintance of mine go crazy (to be more precise, reading it triggered his latent sociopathy). This resulted in a sort of Kessler Effect that damaged those around him. I had to watch the darkening of a beautiful soul - his girlfriend, my friend, who'd already had to deal with a father suffering from delusional disorder.
Not only that but this book offends me personally. I actually am a card-carrying, dyed-in-the-wool Existentialist. I believe the universe offers neither intrinsic morality nor meaning. I believe the individual creates his own morality and meaning, in life, literature, and everything else. Contrary to popular belief, this is a fundamentally empowering, liberating belief. And yet the term 'existentialist' invokes negative, nihilistic connotations because of crap like The Stranger.
So let's explore some of the nonsense you might encounter in fellow readers' responses to The Stranger:
"Mersault [the protagonist] is an Existentialist hero"
So here’s what happens, in a nutshell: the protagonist Mersault goes through life rather passively, existing more as a creature of gross senses than a sentient, thinking being. His mother dies in the beginning, and he doesn’t feel much because there’s not much of a sensory experience attached to it. Eventually, he ends up randomly killing an Arab and goes on trial. Yep there's the plot.
Now I don't dispute that The Stranger is a Hero’s journey, albeit not a hero in the traditional sense. But it’s only at the VERY VERY end – when he rants and raves at the priest – that he actually becomes what one could conceivably call ‘an existentialist hero.’
But even with that ending, Mersault is BY NO MEANS an existentialist. He's a sociopath and an idiot. Existentialism is not nihilism; it’s not about being a blank void of a human being, which is what Mersault is. He’s lazy and a coward. Failing to assign meaning to anything, he allows society and the people around him to assign meaning for him. Thus he loses his freedom.
THAT'S NOT EXISTENTIALISM.
Existentialism is about having the courage to ignore the values society attempts to place upon you and instead creating your own. It’s very much a life-affirming philosophy, not nihilistic or anti-society like The Stranger makes it out to be. The pure existentialist is a non-conformist, as opposed to an anti-conformist. The pure existentialist neither follows the crowd in jumping off the bridge NOR fails to follow the crowd in jumping off the bridge. He stops and thinks about it first and then decides. Sometimes there are damn good reasons to jump off the bridge, like when Godzilla is rolling up with a mouth full of lightning.
"Mersault is put on trial for failing to conform to society"
Certainly Camus may have intended it as such, and it is easy to read it the way. His trial is rather farcical after all.
But honestly, that's superficial+1 reading the text. Mersault would never been on trial in the first place had he not committed murder. Which has nothing to do with failing to conform to society...?
"Existentialism requires atheism"
It’s true that Camus believed that making the ‘leap of faith’ in response to the absurd nature of reality was a cop-out. He believed following any religion caused a critical corruption in your free-will/free-thinking capacities.
I personally am agnostic, but I disagree with his claims. There’s nothing intrinsically impossible about investigating a religion and finding it good and then choosing, of your own free will, to follow it. Sure, adopting a religion wholesale is a foolish idea. But then so is adopting ANYTHING wholesale, including Camus’ own Absurdist doctrine. There’s nothing wrong with using religion (or the holy book of a religion) as a foundation for one’s interface with reality.
"I empathize with Mersault. I'm an outsider too."
What in the nine Applejacks hells!?
Mersault is a bad human being. He’s not some courageous rebel.
There's this false dichotomy you can either be A) a conformist, a mere cog in society or B) you have to be a heartless, amoral sociopath like Mersault. CHU CHU. WELCOME TO THE NOPE TRAIN. It is more than possible to be a non-conformist AND a friendly, caring, kind human being.
So it rather disturbs me to see teenagers, or even adults, glorify The Stranger as this anti-authority, anti-society bible. It isn’t. Not only do such people miss the point of this book, but their praise suggests they want to pursue their lives in a way that, very likely, will be spiritually, emotionally, and materially unrewarding.
Basically, I think The Stranger is a mediocre book because, without its philosophical underpinnings, it’s mediocre. And its philosophical underpinnings are mediocre too. It misrepresents existentialism and inadvertently lionizes emotional & intellectual laziness and jerkface-ness. It (apparently) leads to an interpretation that is nihilistic and anti-society, leading readers into The Stranger’s figurative jail, when I suspect Camus meant to show people the way out of it. Whoops!...more
Just, ah, terminated Beloved by Toni Morrison and oh how I was disappointed by it.
There is a difference between obscurity and depth, a difference betwJust, ah, terminated Beloved by Toni Morrison and oh how I was disappointed by it.
There is a difference between obscurity and depth, a difference between an honest look at human nature and the undisciplined pandering of human misery. There's just so much STUFF in Beloved. Themes, motifs, tonal and style shifts, surrealism, magical realism, stream-of-consciousness, metaphors, hard-hitting images of rape and slavery. No one can deny that.
But it's not particularly well-blended. It's like a child who thought a gourmet meal could be made by taking a filet mignon, asparagus, pepper, butter, fresh baked Italian round, olive oil, a fine Malbec and throwing it into a blender. But it can't, of course. Every gourmet chef understands that it's not the principal components that make a good meal but their combination and presentation.
Let me try to state it more plainly:
The principle issue with Beloved is that Toni Morrison is a fine writer whose style (at least in Beloved) lacks discipline. Point-of-view jumps all over the place, in a manner that I found least enjoyable to the reader and most convenient to the writer. Need to explain another character's perception of an event? Switch to em! Never you mind that much of life's love and conflict come from the unbridgeable distances between our minds.
The book's suspense and forward momentum are crippled. There's no sense of free-fall in Beloved. I liken opening a good book to Alice right before she enters wonderland. I'm on a quick jaunt and suddenly there's a tunnel and down I go! There's a bottom down there, some grand culmination, some grand climax. I know this because I know how gravity works but more importantly I can feel it.
I felt none of that in Beloved. It's not that there weren't mysteries or genuine emotions at stake. Rather it was that lack of discipline again. Just when I would build a reading fervor, Toni would handicap it by switching to an annoying stream-of-consciousness that wasn't present for the first 200 pages of the book. Five page paragraphs? No problem.
What dealt the final blow to my relationship with this book was this paragraph, which I will attempt to copy as exactly as I can:
"We are not crouching now we are standing but my legs are like my dead man's eyes I cannot fall because there is no room to the men without skin are making loud noises I am not dead the bread is sea-colored I am too hungry to eat it the sun closes my eyes those able to die are in a pile I cannot find my man the one whose teeth I have loved a hot thing the little hill of dead people a hot thing the men without skin push them through wit poles the woman is there with the face I want the face that is mine they fall into the sea which is the color of bread she has nothing in her ears if I had the teeth of the man who died on my face I would bite the circle around her neck bite it away I know she does not like it now there is room to crouch and to watch the crouching others it is the crouching that is now always now inside the woman with my face in the sea a hot thing"
Oh the sheer fucking arrogance of a writer who believes she can approximate human emotion with syntactical gimmickry.
NO. Just NO. You cannot force emotion upon me. I am the reader, you are just the writer. You build the path, but I walk it. And this is no path I care to walk. It is a meandering nonsensical path with waterfalls and lilies thrown willy-nilly by a gardener who understands the images of emotions but not the flow.
Already I can foresee the response to that claim, that if anything her meandering narrative & style have perfectly captured the way people actually think, the fragmented narrative of our minds and memories, especially when they are tinged blue and red with deep emotion. I concede that some people may think that way.
But literature is not life. Literature is a telescope which looks at life from a distance and this particular telescope? It's got a foggy lens. Its creator should have cared less about the fanciful engravings on the side and more about its fundamental inner-workings. Perhaps then we could have looked upon the star in all of its mighty glory instead of being blinded by a grand light and simply assuming that beyond it must be something mighty and glorious....more
Sharp. This book is sharp. The writing is sharp and noir. Through and through, to its bones, the book is noir. It exudes atmosphere, dames, gams, whisSharp. This book is sharp. The writing is sharp and noir. Through and through, to its bones, the book is noir. It exudes atmosphere, dames, gams, whiskey, chrome revolvers, left-hooks, corruption, purple carpet, split lips, stolen kisses, flickering lights, and rain that never stops.
In some ways this is good and in other ways it's bad. Mostly it's good, but let me start with the bad. The plot and characters must be viewed within the lens of the genre (hardboiled/detective noir) and are in some ways handicapped by this requirement, something Chandler himself acknowledged when he wrote: "To exceed the limits of a formula without destroying it is the dream of every writer who is not a hopeless hack." This is further compounded by the fact that Chandler helped create the genre: at the time, his gruff, realistic, human detective Philip Marlowe (a far cry from the many peppy, whimsical Sherlock-imitations) was new and refreshing. Sadly, it's not anymore, and there's not much you can do about it. You can remind yourself that it was new and refreshing all you want but that don't change your gut reaction that you've seen this type of character many many times before. Furthermore, Chandler's style felt, at times, fake, a little forced. Some descriptions and no small amount of dialogue are so VERY noir and so very unnatural. It is a little ironic that an author who advocated writing "realistic" mysteries so readily utilized such stylized dialogue. Like Oscar Wilde's, his dialogue is witty, amusing, and sharp, but it's not realistic:
"Alcohol is like love," he said. "The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off."
"Is that bad?" I asked him.
"It’s excitement of a high order, but it’s an impure emotion—impure in the aesthetic sense. I’m not sneering at sex. It’s necessary and it doesn’t have to be ugly. But it always has to be managed. Making it glamorous is a billion-dollar industry and it costs every cent of it."
But then again who cares about the reality? It's great fun to read. There is a distinct pleasure in reading Chandler's clean and wonderful prose. Viewed as literature in the whole, it's flawed. But within the genre, it's perfect, just perfect. The first chapter alone is filled with startling, enjoyable writing:
-“Sold it, darling? How do you mean?” She slid away from him along the seat but her voice slid away a lot farther than that.
-“Oh, I see.” A slice of spumoni wouldn’t have melted on her now.
-The girl slid under the wheel. “He gets so goddam English when he’s loaded,” she said in a stainless-steel voice. “Thanks for catching him.”
It's not a perfect book. Its flaw are not unavoidable and it is at times over-written. The actions of characters occasionally left me a bit incredulous. Like a zombie movie in which the protagonists consistently make the poor decision to wander into dark stores and alleys. But all said, these are minor complaints, something you simply have to accept if you're going to read and enjoy noir literature. Read the book, there's little reason not to.
ADDENDUM: It seems hard to believe that I read this five years ago, and it is amusing to read this review which is positive but not exactly exuberant. This is funny because, when I mention Raymond Chandler in other reviews [The Last Good Kiss OR Shadow & Claw], I only do so in the most reverent terms. I've found that there are books which at first you love but have no lasting impact on your persona (let us, therefore, admit these are not book LOVES, but book CRUSHES), while other books lodge themselves in your memory like a virus and begin to rewrite and subvert your thoughts. The Long Goodbye is the latter for me.
After reading The Long Goodbye, I picked up and read Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely; The Big Sleep; and Lady in the Lake. Each of these stuck with me, for various reasons, and I now state with no qualification that Raymond Chandler is my favorite author. He changed the way I understood literature. No longer was I satisfied with the depth, style, and wit of Literary prose OR the suspenseful, thrilling, page-turning plot mastery of Genre. No I wanted BOTH. I wanted a book that was both easy to read AND thought-provoking. I wanted both superficiality AND depth. Before Chandler, I might have said that paradox was impossible. Now I know it as accomplished fact, and that is the metric against which I measure every other book.
Now Chandler / noir isn't for everyone. Famously (for me), I remember buying Big Sleep & Lady in the Lake from a B&N and the clerk saying to me, "Wow you can read these? It's like reading a whole other language." Which I thought was dumb, but of course, as I said, it is VERY stylized writing and dialogue. A ready wit is no guarantee that you will like the book, but it is a requirement to do so. Either way, I think absolutely every book reader should at least give ONE Raymond Chandler a chance, and The Long Goodbye is one of the best....more
It tells the story of a low-IQ fellow named Charlie Gordon who has an 'operashun' and becomes a geniusFlowers for Algernon felt like two books in one.
It tells the story of a low-IQ fellow named Charlie Gordon who has an 'operashun' and becomes a genius. That's book one. The ascent I'll call it. But of course - and honestly I'm not even going to worry about spoilers, sorry - he eventually realizes that this operashun is not permanent. Then he descends from genius back to his original low intelligence self. That's book two. The descent.
I wasn't a huge fan of the ascent. It reads like the cliff-notes version of 'the troubles of being a smart person' complete with the stereotypes of 'intelligence magically means you don't have to work hard to learn!' and 'everyone thinks I'm arrogant but really just no one understands me!!!' and 'I grow impatient with less intelligent people.' It's not that there isn't an element of truth to these, it's just that they're not terribly insightful. Like a precocious child's perspective on intelligence. He can predict the isolation, but he could not explain it in such a way as to evoke a true understanding of the situation. I daresay that's why, while there exist prodigy piano players and tennis players and composers, I've never in my whole life heard of a ten year old prodigy writer. Maybe that's realistic, considering that Charlie Gordon becomes a genius so quickly, but it's not terribly interesting to me as a reader.
Consider: the height of the ascent is that Charlie Gordon realizes that intelligence without giving back or intelligence without love is dangerous and bad. Gee. Whoda thought?
But this book does have great themes. It explores questions about how we deal with mental disorder & retardation, the many types of intelligence (e.g., emotional vs 'academic' intelligence), the role of intelligence in romantic love, and others.
Now THESE themes reach their peak during the second half of the book, during the descent. That half is simply fantastic. It's emotional and humanizing in a way that the first half simply is not.
I suspect the major differences is that, while few of us (including the author), can empathize or even sympathize with what it may be like to become suddenly smarter, most of us are well aware of what it means to grow dumber. That is, what it means to grow older and to become, well, less than we used to be. Sure Charlie Gordon's degradation is much more rapid, but when we're 90 years old, looking back on the past 30 years of our lives, well, memories have a way of condensing, don't they? It'll feel pretty rapid to us then.
Overall, it was a good book. Not intellectually but emotionally, and I think that's just a little bit ironic....more
I read this every few years, for different reasons. Once, cause I was ast to. Again, cause I had two hours to kill, and I was stuck between here and tI read this every few years, for different reasons. Once, cause I was ast to. Again, cause I had two hours to kill, and I was stuck between here and there. And this last time, cause I like to write.
I heard it said, by Stephen King and others, that what usually gets a writer goin' is that he comes across a story and thinks, "You know what? I can do better than this. By God, I think I can!" By which he means that the faintly ludicrous notion of spending hundreds of hours doing the grueling work of placing one word after another without any promise of economic recompense, well suddenly it don't seem so ludicrous anymore.
I can't say as I agree. For me, I like the stories I don't think I can surpass, much less match. It tells me that I've got some ways to go, some learnin' and trainin' in the word-smithing left to me. It tells me that there exist in the world architectures that remain opaque to my ever-more-perceptive sight. That there are still things beyond me.
Of Mice and Men feels like one such story. It's characterization of George and Lenny's friendship, and the sense of doom surrounding their dream, is nigh perfect. I can see the repetition, the foreshadowing, the dialogue. I can analyze the text and understand how he accomplished what he accomplished. But that don't mean I understand it at all. I can't read this book like a writer. I gotta read it as a reader. It's just too human....more
To the Lighthouse is a book best read in relaxing, desultory circumstances - perhaps on the beach, while the waves gently nibble on your toes, or atopTo the Lighthouse is a book best read in relaxing, desultory circumstances - perhaps on the beach, while the waves gently nibble on your toes, or atop some mountain veranda, whilst seated before a cozy fire, or perhaps on a bench in some hidden garden, surrounded by lillies and roses and the scents of spring. But then what activity is not enjoyable in all of those circumstances? Baking cookies or writing a dissertation or being stabbed to death, which of these is not superior in exotic, relaxing climes?
In plainer language, I mean that To the Lighthouse is a book heavy on thought and light on plot. The conflicts, though sometimes hard to find, are certainly there, but the plot is almost nil: it exists almost entirely in subjectivity, in the thoughts of the characters.
As such, this is a book that is for the philosophers, the literati, the professors, the erudites, the pretentious, and the poets. This is a book which functions primarily as a catalyst for your own thoughts, as a mirror into your own self - you read it and consider your own life so if there's not much there, if you are not gifted (or cursed) with introspection, then you may very well find nothing of worth in these pages. There is no vicarious adventure here, there is only meditation and contemplation.
This presents a conundrum for me. I opened this book, saw immediately what type of book it was, put it down, then picked it up, suddenly fearful that my mind had regressed, that I was no longer capable of handling what might be called "sophisticated books," that I had somehow devolved into a story-fiend, searching only for the quick fix of a thriller. After finishing the book (and, I must admit, glad that I did - the stylistic elements of the writing are fabulous), I realized that this wasn't the case. Rather it was this conundrum: if the book's depth must ultimately come from me, from harmonies and echoes of my own philosophical musings, then why need I bother with the book? The simple truth is that I needn't; that, if so desired, I could just as easily watch a cardinal in flight and have as deep and profitable (which is to say completely profitless) meditations as when I read this book. Not everyone is able to set aside such driftless, frivolous time for simple thought. But I can, so I ask: What then, is the point of reading this book?
I could write of Woolf’s lyrical style, the way her metaphors flow like sunflowers perking up in a gentle summer breeze, how they do not make strict logical sense, how you will read them and might recall distantly how, once, you saw something entirely mundane, like a child chasing a rabbit through tall stalks of golden grain, and felt a vague sense of importance, of connectedness, of some greater meaning of it all. I might mention the incredible complexity of her scenes -- for this 200+ page book covers a mere two days (albeit separated by ten years) -- and how deep and realistic are the thoughts of her characters. I might mention how pertinent are her portrayals of gender imbalances, of man’s seemingly inexhaustible thirst for feminine sympathy, how men need their women to give meaning to their lives. I might speak of how this novel so accurately portrays the impossible emotional and cognitive distances that separate people and the ways in which family and lovers try to bridge them.
But to delve more deeply into these admirable qualities of the book would be to suggest something which is not true: that the book does have a point. Because for all of the immense writing prowess that Woolf displays here, this story, so unnecessarily dense, accomplishes no more than solidifying beliefs already held. If you believe in the ideas portrayed here (perhaps you’ve simply been unable to find the language with which to express them) then you will now accept them as divine truth. But if you do not, and in many cases I did not, then what? What is it that I have gained? I have not been instructed in any new knowledge or philosophy -- I have not, to use the language of the book, been given a boost to move from a philosophical comprehension level of Q to a level of R. I have only been slightly entertained. I have not been transported by the richly detailed, but ultimately mundane, life presented here. My imagination has not been whetted, has not been stoked. What then, I ask?
I must also add that Virginia Woolf’s use of pronouns was exceedingly irritating; they’re like cars driven by Italians. They come swerving, out of nowhere, bash into you, and then speed away, their drivers cursing heartily and unintelligbly. You feel vaguely that there was something you ought to have known or done differently, but the truth is that, nope, they're just crazy. ‘He,’ and ‘she,’ and ‘it’ will abound, with an antecedent that can often only be located by irksome sleuthing....more