Virginia Woolf is unassailable. Really, there's no other way to put it. It's overwhelming, just reading her sentences; each of them like birds taking...moreVirginia Woolf is unassailable. Really, there's no other way to put it. It's overwhelming, just reading her sentences; each of them like birds taking wing, fluttering, refusing to roost; nearing a suitable branch and then *flap*, another semicolon, and the occasional reference (like snapped fingers in a dazed face) back to the sentence's initial subject, squatting somewhere at the beginning of a paragraph many lines above, as if to ensure that the reader is in tune with her before the next breathless tumble; her sentences are so lovely and long and thoughtful, confidently twisting around their mark in dozens of fanciful loops, before striking it clear in the center. And sometimes she just toys with timing and structure and word order, playing and making sentences that didn't seem possible before you see them. Like that friend of yours from grade school, who, during recess, showed you how to curl the edges of the tongue into the shape of a clover, only to be positively shocked when it became clear that the two of you didn't share the same flexibility. Like these:
'Ah, damn!' she cried; the needle had broken. Hat, child, Brighton, needle. She built it up; first one thing, then another, she built it up, sewing.
"She stood there: she listened. She heard the names of the stars."
That colon is so unusual to me. It would be so abrupt otherwise, the three small sentences, and so she uses a colon and subordinates that second pronoun. It makes sense. Even looking at it now, how could it be any other way? And how did the phrasing occur to her? Woolf's got style for miles- that's how.
I also love how noisy time is in Woolf's London. It's an important part of the story. Big Ben is always gonging the hour, and the sound of time spreads across the town, like the ripples of a wave. "It was precisely twelve o'clock; twelve by Big Ben; whose stroke was wafted over the northern part of London; blent with that of other clocks, mixed up in an ethereal way with the clouds and wisps of smoke and died up there among the seagulls.". This constant reminder of minutes passing; the noisy city chiming, rattling the air and eating conversation, the deafening bells mimic the erasure of time. Time itself converts the present into memory, just as the bells disrupt the doomed conversation anyway. Clarissa yells to Peter as he leaves, Remember my party to-night!, "having to raise her voice against the roar of the open air, and, overwhelmed by the traffic and the sound of all the clocks striking, her voice sounded frail and thin and very far away..." The words are already far away, receding like train.
The story is about a lot of things, but i was most interested by the way Woolf contemplates middle age: its open-ended nature, the different routes to the realized adult self, the detours that we take, the way that beauty, and especially class (this is early 20th cent. England, after all- and who am I kidding, class is still an issue everywhere, even today), promote us or degrade us along the way. One gets the feeling that Woolf is looking at life with a weird desperation: trying to uncover how people end up idling in these cul de sacs of mediocrity, and what the implicit value of accumulated experience is. For Peter Walsh, "the compensation of growing old was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained- at last!- the power which adds the supreme flavor to existence - the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it around, slowly, in the light." Ah, the supreme flavor... I love that little bit. I hope Taco Bell never copyrights the phrase for one of their meaty cheesy monstrosities.
Peter returns to elaborate on this very interesting thought later in the story; this image of a person with a jeweler's eyepiece, turning a lived experience like a gem in the hand, to check for flaws or appreciate the perfection of it. And although he is able to savor his time, other people seem to get lost along the way: the 'wild, the daring, the romantic Sally Seton,' the bohemian love interest and close friend of Clarissa Dalloway in her youth, is "the last person in the world one would have expected to marry a rich man and live in a large house near Manchester." And yet at the novel's end she arrives for the great party softened by motherhood, a rare presence in the bustling, vital city that she once dominated with her eccentric flair.
Others seem marked for a dreary fate from the beginning; Peter always noticed in Clarissa "a sort of timidity, which in middle age becomes conventionality, and then it's all up..." Peter is acutely aware of the long road to the middle, and is the most fatalistic about it. His years-long journey through India seems like it was an attempt to shake off the layer of dust which settles on one's life as they age. Before he left the country, he told his lover, who doesn't return his affection, that "they would change the world if she married him perhaps..." But at this point in his life, years later, "it was this; it was middle age; it was mediocrity."
Mrs. Dalloway is a wonderful meditation on how big hunks of time change us, and refine us, and allow us to enjoy the approaching moments in a different way, a more significant way, than our youthful selves could have ever foreseen. The irony of all this breadth is that the entire narrative occurs in a single day. Woolf seems to suggest that our entire life can be charted in a single day of our lives; the way that we live and make choices is established by repetition, by our learning; and our emotional lives are enriched by our memories, our minds constantly reaching back into the past for replenishment.
And the way that she writes so many perspectives into her story begins to make sense: so many characters, all interconnected, whether by an intimate past of shared experiences, or a passing glance. The way that Peter hears the wail of the ambulance as it drives off to attend to poor Septimus, although he's never met the man, and how all the heads on the street turn collectively to see the Queen's motorcade approach the Palace, including Clarissa Dalloway's. Woolf imagines that our conversations create momentary connections, "as if one's friends were attached to one's body, after lunching with them, by a thin thread... which becomes hazy with the sound of bells, striking the hour or ringing to service, as a single spider's thread is blotted with rain drops, and burdened, sags down." In Woolf's London, time makes a sound unavoidable, and our connection to others makes a physical web, a fabric.
Does time fray this fabric completely, or do our attachments to the world and to people transcend the rude clocks of the city? Mrs. Dalloway only says 'perhaps.' "Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoken to, some woman in the street, some man behind a counter - even trees or barns. It ended in a transcendental theory which allowed her to believe that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, that the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places, after death. Perhaps - perhaps."
Mrs. Dalloway is certainly one of the most unique novels i've ever read. Woolf's experiments with language, never corny or overbearing or ambiguous, and her insights into the human mind, her placement of it into the plane of society and the line of history, are masterfully combined in this novel. It's a splendid book.(less)
my conversation with Cortazar began on an airplane in Madrid, and ended here in the middle of a Texas night. it was a very sad thing, closing this nov...moremy conversation with Cortazar began on an airplane in Madrid, and ended here in the middle of a Texas night. it was a very sad thing, closing this novel and finding a home for it on the shelf. the distance between his world and mine grew so much in those few paces i made to the wall, as one of the most enjoyable reading experiences i’ve ever had became decoration. this is a nearly perfect novel. i've seen a lot of criticism directed toward the intellectual blathering that fills the first third of the book and i don't think it's justified. a blatherless 1960′s bohemian Paris would just be patently false. a biography of andy warhol would have all the same pretensions but the very same people would praise it to the heavens.
i especially love Cortazar’s humor- lots of deadpan stuff, absurdity, situational comedy that i really enjoy reading. in the vein of A Confederacy of Dunces or Dr. Strangelove. one of my favorite scenes begins with Horacio booby-trapping his room to defend himself from a very angry friend. as his friend stumbles through criss-crossings of thread in the dark and steps in pans full of water, Horacio is leaning out the window, narrating the events to someone outside in this blase sort of way: “oh, he’s soaked his slipper now. he must be really mad.” something about the whole thing just WORKS and it’s funny as hell.
also, Hopscotch holds a special place in my heart because Cortazar takes on an experimental format and completely shoots the moon, uncommon to the say the least: reading experimental fiction can feel like looking at the haircuts in a class yearbook from 30 years ago. as opposed to going the linear route, i read the book in the “hopscotch” style recommended by Cortazar, and felt myself profoundly altered by the experience. “expendable” chapters are folded into the narrative by reading the book this way, to very unique effect. sometimes the latter chapters that you “jump” to are little snippets from a newspaper, a science journal or another writer’s work, which gives it a little bit of a temporal context, and also allows the reader to truly step out of the narrative. it’s kind of like the relationship between a poem and its epigram. sometimes they’re word games, jokes or quotations that expand on something that’s going on in the novel at the time, bridge two different plot points together, or really drive home a philosophical point that may have the reading arching the eyebrow.
simply put, the hopscotch reading style imitates the flow of time. by reading the novel this way, you can never tell how much of the book you have left, and you can’t go backwards without a lot of trouble. i think my recognition of this would make Cortazar smile. a seriously gifted prose stylist, brilliant man, and worth reading above anything else you have stacked by your bed.
p.s. i feel a certain kinship with Cortazar. Hopscotch ignores literary conventions altogether, and would be the novel i would want to write, if i ever tried. i love how the entire thing feels like a collage that you’re encouraged to look at any way you choose. i love how two paragraphs about the way depression feels and how it randomly goes away is nestled between some anecdote about parisian chalk artists as an “eschatological pattern” and a newspaper clipping from the London Times about a health epidemic. why not? more writers should be so daring. the outdated newspaper story is irrelevant, but so is most of your life. and by placing it into a novel, it makes it feel like something that i live every day, warts and all.
The Trick is to Keep Breathing is a story about a woman ensnared in severe depression. Although a tale of mental unbalance can be a little heavy-hande...moreThe Trick is to Keep Breathing is a story about a woman ensnared in severe depression. Although a tale of mental unbalance can be a little heavy-handed, as a character study, it is actually very subtle. The most effective grotesque images draw their power from the author's distance-keeping, like the character's attempt at a self-portrait that she includes in a letter to a friend, so poorly lighted and composed that it ends up looking like a "spider trying to devour a lightbulb." It's not the idea of the photograph that's haunting, but rather the unspoken implications about her self worth and self image, her inability to connect. Several times, Ms. Stone wakes up on the carpet of her room, surrounded by broken glass after a night of solitary drinking, which creates a real sense of danger and pangs of concern in the reader.
I also like the ideas in this novel. The act of writing is very significant for Stone, and her relationship with her own words changes as the book moves along. Because parts of the novel are presented as a therapy diary, her failure to cope or her self-loathing presents itself in her word choices, fixations, etc. . it's meta, dude. The reader experiences her struggle to write "love" at the end of a letter, to use the past tense when referring to her deceased lover, and because the cheesy Hallmark card insights fail to inspire Stone, she creates her own:
"Everything Worth Having Is Hard As Nails. You Can't Make Other People Love You Into Existence."
I found the way Galloway handled the conclusion of the novel to be bold and refreshing. Her character's salvation comes not from a new relationship, a new city, new job, or some other bullshit throwaway plot device, but rather, it begins when she directs more of her energy outwards towards others in a positive way, instead of negatively inwards. She makes fruit preserves for her therapist, embellishes stories to make her friends laugh, and creates little crafts for other patients in the hospital.
I was going to give this book 4 stars, but the last quarter of the story is executed so well, with little bits of understated humor and compassion, that I couldn't find any fault with it. I love the scene where she hand washes a pile of her clothing as a sort of absolution, when she decides to "stop reading these fucking magazines" (finally!) and stands up for herself to the beyond monstrous Tony.
I normally don't go for this kind of story, but I saw the book mentioned in a number of best of lists for experimental fiction. Although, frankly, it's not very experimental, it's stylish and real, and Galloway elevated what could easily be a LifeTime TV original movie into an Oscar winner.(less)
the characters in Anna Karenina are always trying to reconcile the three different modes of human experience: the ideal, the real and the societal. an...morethe characters in Anna Karenina are always trying to reconcile the three different modes of human experience: the ideal, the real and the societal. anna's love for vronsky moves between the ideal and the real: "she was making the picture of him in her imagination (incomparably superior, impossible in reality) fit with him as he really was." whereas alexey's consideration of his marriage to anna moves between the real and the societal: "he had translated the matter from the world of real life to the world of ink and paper..." Levin's farming endeavors flit between all three: he is possessed by a vision of agricultural progress for russia, sidetracked by unforeseeable forces such as the weather or his laborers' mistrust, and desires validation from society through conversation and the sucessful publishing of his new theory of labor.
the ideal is the passion, the recklessness, the pursuit of perfection. the real is the hard facts of life, poverty, divorce, betrayal. and society is the group of judges that press upon us, the framers of convention. in tolstoy, we find a fluid, at times ingenious, balance of the interactions of the three in human life.
the characters also seek to differentiate themselves from the generalizations and behavior of the masses. Levin "thought his engagement would have nothing about it like others, that the ordinary conditions of engaged couples would spoil his special happiness; but it ended in his doing exactly as other people did..." and Alexey feels that his situation with Anna is unique in its contrast with other divorce cases. like actual human beings, the characters give priority to their own perspective.
the real project of the book is to convey a successful means of circumventing the eventual disillusionment of idealism or the ennui of a realistic ideology. several strategies are presented: the sacrifice of passionate love, the satisfaction of physical labor and the fruit of career success are detailed impeccably with all their shortcomings and virtues. tolstoy is an amazing writer on the macro level. there are scenes in this novel packed with dialogue, dramatic irony and conflicting motivations that are just so gracefully executed, always with little flourishes of detail in the right places to make them organic. he's a master. a real slice of human life.(less)
so great. such a rare and impassioned human being, van gogh. he was one of the last virtuous men. i listened to don mclean's song "vincent" after i re...moreso great. such a rare and impassioned human being, van gogh. he was one of the last virtuous men. i listened to don mclean's song "vincent" after i read this and cried undignified blubbery tears; "the world was never meant for one as beautiful as you! why vincent, why!"
Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring you in the face like some imbecile. You don't know how paralyzing that is, that stare of a blank canvas is, which says to the painter, ‘You can't do a thing’. The canvas has an idiotic stare and mesmerizes some painters so much that they turn into idiots themselves. Many painters are afraid in front of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the real, passionate painter who dares and who has broken the spell of `you can't' once and for all.(less)
The characters in this book are obvious prototypes for characters that show up everywhere in our culture. Gladney is incredibly similar to George Cos...more The characters in this book are obvious prototypes for characters that show up everywhere in our culture. Gladney is incredibly similar to George Costanza, Heinrich is like that angsty kid in the movie Little Miss Sunshine to a tee. Babette is the depressed housewife whose husband idealizes her as a chipper pillar of support, some kind of June Cleaver, represented by Gladney's use of her name in third-person during their conversations. In several (hilarious) passages, he becomes frantic when she acts in an unexpected way and says "this is not the point of Babette." or "Babette doesn't speak this way." Murray is like Kramer, a half-Zen, half-crackpot guy who seems to drift through his unexplainable life accumulating strange insights.
Noble, virtuous, proud people who work hard, worship God, talk "realistically" and overcome simple conflicts with a charming smile don't seem to exist anymore. And if those types of people do exist, are they really the ones you want to invite to a dinner party? And that is part of the point of this book. Gladney even notices this change in human character when he compares his own anxiety towards death to Attila the Hun, whom he can't fathom being afraid of anything:
"It's hard to imagine these men feeling sad about death. Attila the Hun died young. He was still in his forties. Did he feel sorry for himself, succumb to self-pity and depression? He was the King of the Huns, the Invader of Europe, the Scourge of God. I want to believe he lay in his tent, wrapped in animal skins, as in some internationallly financed movie epic, and said brave cruel things to his aides and retainers. No weakening of the spirit. No sense of the irony of human existence, that we are the highest form of life on earth and yet ineffably sad because we know what no other animal knows, that we must die."(less)