It's a sad comment on our age, perhaps, that Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road - critically lauded upon its publication and now considered a modern cl...moreIt's a sad comment on our age, perhaps, that Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road - critically lauded upon its publication and now considered a modern classic - should only really have received the public attention it deserved with the release of the film adaptation a few years ago. Until then, it was quite common for people - even generally well-read people - to have never even heard of, let alone read, this novel. However, while the film version may have done wonders for the book's popularity, it may also have done it a disservice in reducing it to yet another book about the mindlessness of suburbia. Revolutionary Road is so much more than that.
The plot is really rather simple, following a young-ish American couple, Frank and April Wheeler. When they first met they were both bright young things in Greenwich Village, she an aspiring actress and he a vaguely intellectual drifter. Self-confident and radiant with hope as only the young can be, they were both certain they were destined for great things, even if they were never quite sure what those things were. Fast forward a few years, however, and the Wheelers are trapped in a grey, stultifying existence in the Connecticut suburbs. He works in a boring office job, and she stays at home and looks after their two kids. Jaded and resentful, they take their frustrations out on each other; until, after one particularly vicious row, April suddenly has "the most wonderful plan". Why don't they turn their backs on this unsatisfying life, and head off to Paris, where they can really start living and fulfilling their potential?
This is often read - often by those who loathe suburbia on principle - as just another condemnation of suburban life or - by those who loathe America on principle - as just another dissection of the empty heart of the American Dream, blah blah blah. If that were all it was, it might have ended very differently - perhaps (slight spoiler alert) with the Wheelers triumphing over adversity and sailing off to a glorious future in Europe. And while that may certainly have been a happier novel, it would also have been a far less moving and perceptive one. No, Revolutionary Road is about the sometimes comic and often tragic gulf between ambition and ability, about how the imperfect, compromised reality of our lives so rarely lives up to our hopes and fantasies, and how we often tend to be defeated by the limitations inherent in our own characters.
Put simply, the Wheelers aren't nearly as special and interesting as they like to think they are. That isn't the fault of America or suburbia, or even of dull office jobs. It isn't even their fault, as there's nothing they can do about it. It's just the sad reality of their lives, a reality which Frank learns to accept but April just cannot stomach. Furthermore, their general sense of dissatisfaction with their lives doesn't make them somehow special - it just makes them normal. And even if they did succeed in running off to Europe, once the initial exhilaration had died down they'd probably just feel the same there. It's a common, if unfortunate, aspect of human life that we are all dissatisfied with our lot; the feeling is probably very much the same whether you're living in Connecticut or the Latin Quarter, and if the Wheelers had actually been reading any of the Parisian intellectuals they profess to admire they'd probably know that.
And yet somehow you can't help but want the Wheelers to succeed. I mean, wouldn't it be nice if someone could occasionally triumph over the limitations of human life? Isn't that what we all dream of? And it's a measure of Yates' genius that, though the characters are all actually rather hateful, we still sympathise with their predicament and feel their pain, recognising it as our own. And in the last two sentences of the book Yates even, in a few choice, terrifying words, conveys how most of us manage to cope in the end.
And in fact that's one of the most remarkable things about this novel: the way Yates, in writing about one couple with one particular set of problems, nevertheless creates a piece of writing which is universal. Partly this is due to the way the writing tends to come alive on the page. Take this passage, for instance:
"Her smile continued until she was back in the kitchen, clearing away the breakfast dishes into a steaming sinkful of suds; she was still smiling, in fact, when she saw the paper napkin with the diagram of the computer on it, and even then her smile didn't fade; it simply spread and trembled and locked itself into a stiff grimace while the spasms worked at her aching throat, again and again, and the tears broke and ran down her cheeks as fast as she could wipe them away."
A few words and you're there, in that sunny Connecticut kitchen, alone and afraid and floundering amongst the wreckage of a dead marriage.
Needless to say, this is not a cheerful read. Indeed, if you're trapped in a home you don't like or a job you hate, or if you're in an unhappy relationship or are even just a little dissatisfied with your life, you may find it a little too close to the bone for comfort. However, why not grit your teeth and read it anyway? It may not solve your problems, but you'll rarely see them described with such precision and eloquence.(less)
Why do we raise our eyebrows at relationships between two people of markedly different ages? Why are we in such a hurry to classify certain romantic e...moreWhy do we raise our eyebrows at relationships between two people of markedly different ages? Why are we in such a hurry to classify certain romantic entanglements as being "exploitative", and can we ever be clear exactly who is exploiting whom anyway? These are just some of the questions you're likely to ask yourself while reading Notes on a Scandal.
On paper, this looks like a pretty cut-and-dried case: a 42-year-old married female teacher pursues a sexual relationship with a 15/16-year-old schoolboy. It's criminal behaviour, it draws forth both scorn and condemnation from the media, it ruins lives and taints reputations - but it's testament to Heller's writing skills that by the end of the novel you may well find yourself sympathising with the "criminal" Sheba Hart rather than the "victim" Steven Connolly. After all, the novel suggests, Connolly basically just has a rather enjoyable sexual experience and then gets on with his life; it is Sheba who suffers as a result, Sheba who must endure not only the pangs of lost love but the pain of a broken marriage, a destroyed reputation and an impending jail sentence.
The "notes on a scandal" of the title refers to the account of the affair written by Barbara Covett. Barbara is a fellow schoolteacher, a spinster who is atrociously lonely, and who is also - apparently - Sheba's most loyal friend. Barbara is the kind of woman - snide, snippy, and a self-righteous old gossip - who you'd avoid like the plague in real life, but actually as a narrator she's rather delightful company, digging right into the salacious heart of the scandal on behalf of the reader. She's curiously self-deluding on occasion, but at other times she manages to nail the people around her with such brilliant precision that you can't help but be impressed. She's wickedly funny, and at other times is heartrending as she constantly confronts the haunting fact of her own crushing loneliness. This, is turns out, is why she is so loyal to Sheba: she needs Sheba, she has to feel that she has someone giving meaning to her life, and she'll do just about anything to keep her. Sheba hands this extraordinary power to Barbara when she tells her about her affair with Connolly, and her confession proves to be something of an incendiary. Barbara can, depending on her mood, either put it quietly and safely to one side or light the fuse, put her fingers in her ears and stand well back ...
There are some faults with the novel, certainly: the character of Barbara comes perilously close to being a cliché (she even has a pet cat that she dotes on, just as stereotypical lonely old spinsters everywhere are said to have). Also, Steven is made to sound rather repulsive - he has no obvious attractions, either physically, mentally or personality-wise - so it's rather hard to understand why Sheba is even attracted to him, let alone so obsessed that she'll risk everything for his sake.
Still, those faults are more like minor niggles than fatal flaws. This is a compelling, quick read - I got through it in about three evenings, and couldn't wait to get home and pick it up again. By turns funny and grim, it will draw you in and make you question some of your assumptions. I don't think Heller expects you to draw any profound moral from it; it's more of a dissection of the dynamics and power-struggles of personal and sexual relations, and an examination of societal and personal responses to sexual scandals. Read and enjoy.(less)
Well, what can I say that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? Sitting here typing this review reminds me why I rarely bother writing reviews of...moreWell, what can I say that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? Sitting here typing this review reminds me why I rarely bother writing reviews of established classics. It’s all been said before, so often and so well; what can a numpty like me hope to add?
I first read Crime and Punishment when I was a teenager. I loved it, but at the same time I don’t think I fully understood it. I was too innocent, perhaps, and too desperate to believe that people are basically good, and that we should all, y’know, be nice to each other. A few years and a few bruises later, that belief is difficult to sustain. And Crime and Punishment takes us right down into the dark, seething, ugly heart of humanity – and then, hauntingly, shines a faint ray of hope into it.
On the surface, the plot is simple enough; but Dostoyevsky never operates solely (or even primarily) on a surface level, which is perhaps one of the reasons why I love him. Beneath the apparent simplicity of the story is a web of interlocking philosophical, moral, religious, political and social questions. For example, Raskolnikov’s crime is informed by his idea that certain men, in certain conditions, have the right to sidestep, or discard, morality. Interestingly, Crime and Punishment was one of Moors Murderer Ian Brady’s favourite books, and he identified strongly with Raskolnikov; but he also discarded Dostoyevsky’s central message about repentance and redemption.
We experience Raskolnikov’s descent as he does, from the dramatic opening chapter in which he contemplates murder, through his agony and tortuous attempts to justify himself, right through to his punishment (and the start of his eventual redemption). Several scenes are frighteningly real: Raskolnikov’s desperate flight from the murder scene, his feverish, tormented state of mind afterwards, and the knot of suspicion and guilt that slowly but ineluctably closes around him. We identify with Raskolnikov, even though he’s not a particularly sympathetic character. People who assume, with no justification whatsoever, that they’re better than everyone else annoy me in general. Yet it’s testament to Dostoyevsky’s skills that we are able to experience Raskolnikov’s world as he experiences it, and are unable to condemn him outright. Raskolnikov is saved by suffering, and by the devoted love of the patient, sweet-natured prostitute Sonia. (And this is another thing that I love about Dostoyevsky: his ability to wring something of nobility and grandeur out of the most pitiful lives. Nobility? A murderer and his prostitute girlfriend? Oh, yes. Yes.)
Raskolnikov’s crime is not simply the murders, but his arrogance in setting himself apart from (and above) his fellow beings. His punishment consists not simply of that meted out by the authorities, but in the inner repentance and self-loathing he feels. And with these, Dostoyevsky introduces the idea of redemption and salvation. Interwoven with Raskolnikov’s story, is the strangely parallel story of his enemy, the vile Svidrigailov, who has his own crimes to expiate – crimes that society would probably consider less serious, but which were committed by so darkened and dead a soul that there is little possibility of redemption in his case.
Each character is given his or her unique characteristics and traits, and his or her own distinctive ‘voice’. They rub against each other, collide, collude, come together and go their separate ways. Yet we’re constantly drawn back to Raskolnikov, who serves as an emblem of both the depths to which humanity can sink and the greatness to which we can aspire. It’s not always an easy, still less a comforting, read, but if you want to fathom the murky depths of the human condition this is for you. (less)
The town itself is dreary; not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colo...moreThe town itself is dreary; not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street only a hundred yards long. On Saturdays the tenants from the near-by farms come in for a day of talk and trade. Otherwise the town is lonesome, sad, and like a place that is far off and estranged from all the other places in the world.
I’ve never been to the American Deep South, but often, reading The Ballad of the Sad Café, I felt not only like I was there, but as if I had lived there my whole life and knew it intimately. I could hear the locals murmuring together in their Southern twang; I could feel the sticky heat of the long summer days, and hear the chain-gang singing as they worked in the fields. I could also feel it, an atmosphere as rich and profound as it is stifling: the isolation, the poverty, the subdued desire, and the melancholy – all of which make this area, to the outsider at least, so enchanting and unnerving. (Of course, I’m speaking as someone whose knowledge of the Southern States of the USA was gleaned primarily from novels and films, and is therefore at best saturated with cliché, and at worst wildly inaccurate. If anyone who actually knows the place would like to set me straight on any of the above, please feel free...)
It would not be inaccurate to describe this novella as ‘Southern Gothic’, that sub-genre that explores the spiritual longings and loneliness of the South, usually with a variety of odd, poignant and grotesque characters. They don’t get much more grotesque than in The Ballad of the Sad Café. The highly unconventional protagonist, Miss Amelia, is a woman whose very appearance betrays her oddness. She is over six feet tall, and has muscles like a man. She stumps around in swamp boots and overalls. Fiercely independent, she runs a number of business interests in the small Georgia town that is her home, and devotes most of her free time to suing people. She also has an unconventional past: ten years ago, she shocked the townsfolk with a dramatic ten-day marriage to the local bad boy, Marvin Macy.
Now, with Macy long gone (to prison, in fact), Miss Amelia has returned to her proudly self-reliant lifestyle. Then, one day, a strutting little hunchback turns up in town, claiming to be her distant relative. This is Cousin Lymon, who in due course achieves the seemingly impossible by winning Miss Amelia’s affections. Together, they begin to run a small café, which in turn brings something of life and colour to the area. The town itself is in a sense not unlike an enchanted castle in a fairytale: it is asleep, isolated from the remainder of the world, a place of secrets and sorrow. The arrival of Cousin Lymon, and the opening of the café, are the equivalent of the kiss that wakes the place from its slumber. But nothing lasts forever, and one day Miss Amelia’s past begins to catch up with her, in the form of her ex-husband.
Ultimately, this is a book about love. McCullers, in her beautiful, fluid prose, explores the nature of love: its intricacies, its mystery, its betrayals. In every relationship, McCullers suggests, one partner is the lover, the other the beloved. ‘If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me,’ wrote Auden, and this sentiment finds a poignant echo in The Ballad of the Sad Café:
It is for this reason that most of us would rather love than be loved. Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being loved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is for ever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.
Love, McCullers suggests, is not simply, or even primarily, pleasure and passion. It is pain and torture: powerful, inscrutable, and with dim and dangerous depths that nobody can really sound. And just as you begin to get an idea where the love relationships explored in The Ballad of the Sad Café are leading, McCullers turns the tables and springs a surprise on the reader, in a way that makes lines like the above all the more haunting.
In addition to the novella, there are a number of short stories in the collection – The Wunderkind, The Sojourner, A Domestic Dilemma – all of which pack a punch, and perhaps owe much to McCullers’ own tortured life. Despite the success she enjoyed as a writer, her short existence was marred by ill heath and general lucklessness; it is unsurprising, then, that her writing should be saturated with such pain. I’ve only just discovered her writing, and I’m dismayed that it took me so long. This in turn leads me back to one of my great concerns. There are so many fine authors, living and dead, and so many wonderful books to explore: how will I ever find the time to read even a tenth, a fiftieth, a thousandth, of all that I should? (less)