My husband and I have one of those relationships that a lot of people would refer to as fraught or even (dare I say it?) dysfunctional. We argue. A lo...moreMy husband and I have one of those relationships that a lot of people would refer to as fraught or even (dare I say it?) dysfunctional. We argue. A lot. As people, we are as completely different as it is possible to be. He is an extrovert who thrives on attention, comes from a large family and enjoys physical work and nature. I am an introvert with a single sibling and like nothing better than to read. Our views on everything from the correct way way to bring up one's child to whether god exists are diametrically opposed. Here are a few examples of things we have argued about:
• Whether to leave the curtains open or closed. My husband is convinced that the perverts of the world routinely camp outside our house just to catch a glimpse of me ironing fully clothed in our bedroom.
• Whether the collar on a polo shirt should be worn up or down. In response to his feeble bleatings that he doesn't want his neck to burn, I have very subtly told him that if he wants to look like an unspeakable prole he can very well walk on the other side of the street from me.
• Which is better, Russia or England. I am Russian and my husband is English which, obviously, means that not only are we personally responsible for every action taken by our respective countries throughout history but we are also each charged with the task of defending and propagating the social and cultural mores of those countries to the other.
• Arguments about arguments – whose fault an argument was, who started it (not to be confused with the former), what the argument is about, whether it is happening at all and so on.
You get the gist.
So trust me when I tell you that the arguments and the relationship politics which Yates describes in Revolutionary Road are frighteningly authentic. It is a brilliant account of a marriage going wrong, full of black humour and exceptionally well-written, and I would thoroughly recommend this book just for that.
Frank and April are very flawed characters but very real and intricately drawn. They are selfish, self-absorbed and self-aggrandising, they each rely on the other to make their life worthwhile and make them into the kind of person they want to be and they take themselves and their bullshit far too seriously. Add to this the effect of the mind numbing 50s suburbia and the straight-jacket rigidity of the 50s gender roles and the nuclear family ideal and you get the tragic farce that is Frank and April's marriage.
Some reviewers have argued that the book has become irrelevant because it is set in a world that no longer exists. I don't think so. I think the way we live and function now is not really so brave or so new as we would like to think. Yates is fantastic at picking apart the fictions that we create about ourselves, the personas that we construct (both in our interaction with others and in our own mind) and the values that we ascribe to certain choices and lifestyles and that, I believe, is as relevant today as it ever was. It has certainly given me much food for thought and is still fresh in my memory, even though I read the book several years ago. (less)
Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a short novella set in Russian province in the second half of 19th century. The subject matter is pretty powerful: passion,...moreLady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a short novella set in Russian province in the second half of 19th century. The subject matter is pretty powerful: passion, adultery, murder and betrayal. Yet, for all that, the book is very unsentimental and true to life. It is full of dark humour and the characters are very real and believable. It is a shame that it does not seem particularly well-known in the West, for it is, in my opinion, one of the best works in Russian literature.(less)
This book encapsulates everything I hate about the sanctimonious pontificating hypocritical nob (technical legal term) that is Leo Tolstoy. The premis...moreThis book encapsulates everything I hate about the sanctimonious pontificating hypocritical nob (technical legal term) that is Leo Tolstoy. The premise is so absurd it is laughable. What we have here is a religious manifesto promoting abstinence and castigating physical love by a man who spent a significant proportion of his life deflowering virgins and impregnating his wife.
It is a short story, so it would be petty to bemoan time spent on it, however, I do sincerely regret having ever picked it up. I read Anna Karenina and War and Peace when I was 16-17 and have always meant to re-read them when I was older and better able to appreciate the subject matter. Post-Kreutzer sonata, I am not sure I can take anything he writes seriously. A waste of letters. (less)
Have you ever done one of those big 5000+ piece jigsaw puzzles, ones that can take weeks to complete? When we were younger, my sister used to love the...moreHave you ever done one of those big 5000+ piece jigsaw puzzles, ones that can take weeks to complete? When we were younger, my sister used to love them and I inevitably got suckered into helping her, on occasion. It was engrossing but not straight away. It was a bit frustrating and tedious to begin with, and then all of a sudden you'd find that several hours have passed and you've forgotten to eat but you can't stop, you just need to find that one next piece. This is what the experience of reading this book reminded me of. Completing a jigsaw puzzle, except without the helpful picture that is usually provided with a jigsaw to tell you where the various pieces are supposed to fit, so instead you see the picture emerging very slowly bit by bit and you are not quite sure how the various pieces fit together until the very end.
I was a bit apprehensive about the structure to begin with. All this book within a book within a book nonsense just sounded too convoluted and I didn't expect to enjoy the experience. There are, in fact, at least 5 different narrative strands interwoven in this book. There is the story of Iris and Laura Chase, two sisters growing up at the beginning of the 20th century between the two world wars as told by 83 year old Iris. Then there are descriptions of Iris' present life. I was quite surprised by those. I didn't expect to enjoy descriptions of day to day goings on of an old woman, attempting to do laundry, walking to the cemetery and the doughnut shop and reading the scribbles on the walls of public lavatories, yet I did end up enjoying them a great deal because those passages are so dry, so self-deprecatingly hilarious and reveal so much about Iris as a person. There are also extracts from Laura Chase's novel "The Blind Assassin", published posthumously and describing an affair between two lovers meeting in secret and, within that novel, the lurid fantasy/science-fiction story set on planet Zycron, told by the hero to the heroine, of a blind assassin and a mute sacrificial virgin who fall in love. And finally, there are extracts from obituaries and various other newspaper articles concerning the newsworthy events in Iris' life.
I am still ambivalent about whether this complicated structure works better than a more simple straightforward narrative would have. I did find the story a bit too fractured at times but, perhaps, this is a story that can only be told in this way. Perhaps, that's what gives it its punch. We essentially end at about the same place we start. The narrative is circular and the circle is used as a symbol:
"She’s the round O, the zero at the bone. A space that defines itself by not being there at all. That’s why they can’t reach her, lay a finger on her. That’s why they can’t pin anything on her. She has such a good smile, but she doesn’t stand behind it."
The story that Iris tells is the circle of rock and mountains that she imagines surrounding her, the round dome of the fake sky that suffocates her.
The writing is exquisite. I truly believe that this may well be the most beautifully written book I have read, ever. Atwood has an amazing ability to say something really profound in very few words. This is not a book to be raced through just to find out what happens. Don't expect to be able to finish it quickly, you need a bit of patience, time to pause and to think to truly appreciate this book. There were so many passages that I read and re-read so many times just for the sheer pleasure of reading them. And every so often you come across a paragraph that is so startlingly beautiful, it is almost painful.
"Farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow cast by its absence. Time and distance blur the edges; then suddenly the beloved has arrived, and it’s noon with its merciless light, and every spot and pore and wrinkle and bristle stands clear."
"There’s a lipstick heart on the cement, surrounding four initials. An L connects them: L for Loves. Only those concerned would know whose initials they are—that they’ve been here, that they’ve done this. Proclaiming love, withholding the particulars. Outside the heart, four other letters, like the four points of the compass:
F U C K
The word torn apart, splayed open: the implacable topography of sex."
"When I look in the mirror I see an old woman; or not old, because nobody is allowed to be old any more. Older, then. Sometimes I see an older woman who might look like the grandmother I never knew, or like my own mother, if she’d managed to reach this age. But sometimes I see instead the young girl’s face I once spent so much time rearranging and deploring, drowned and floating just beneath my present face, which seems—especially in the afternoons, with the light on a slant—so loose and transparent I could peel it off like a stocking."
"The French are connoisseurs of sadness, they know all the kinds. This is why they have bidets."
"When you're young, you think everything you do is disposable. You move from now to now, crumpling time up in your hands, tossing it away. You're your own speeding car. You think you can get rid of things, and people too - leave them behind. You don't yet know about the habit they have, of coming back."
I could go on and on and on.
And then there was Iris. She is so drily amusing and snarky, just the kind of character I usually love. Yet she is so flawed and frustrating at the same time. She seems spineless, she accepts and crumbles. There is no resistance, no spine. Yet, perhaps, this is really a strength rather than a weakness. The strength of grass which bends to the wind and survives where trees are uprooted and destroyed by the hurricane. Does s/he who survives the longest win? Can subsequent actions truly atone for choices and mistakes made? I wonder whether my inability to forgive Iris has to do with the fact that I saw too much of myself in her or the opposite. I don't know. I was never faced with her choices. I would like to think that I would have had the backbone to stand up not just for the people I love but for myself and my own dignity. But would I really? I have pretty much always done what has been expected of me and I do quite often choose the path of least resistance. The only difference is that I grew up in a different time and environment and things that were and are expected of me are quite different to those that were expected of Iris and Laura. When the hero of the Blind Assassin, the novel written by Laura Chase, asks the heroine to leave her home (not quite with him but to wait for him) and she responds with "But I wouldn’t have any money… Where would I live? In some rented room, all by myself?", it is quite easy for me to despise her. But would my own response really have been any different given the same upbringing and social environment? In the end, I don't think Iris really needs our forgiveness. Atonement through the act of writing is not, in my view, what this book is about. It is much more complex than that.
Overall this was a very contemplative and melancholy read. Not easy or quick but very rewarding. A book to fall in love with, word by word and sentence by sentence. Beautifully written, with complex interesting characters, engaging plot and some interesting explorations of the writing process and the motivation behind setting pen to paper. Not for everyone, perhaps, but it is going straight to my favourites shelf. I intend to re-read it when I have a bit more time on my hands as I think it is one of those books that needs to be read more than once. I expect I may even enjoy the second reading more, as I already know what is going to happen and can appreciate the little clues and significant details much better. (less)
This is a short story about a woman's descent into madness and I have just the t-shirt slogan for the protagonist:
EXCUSE ME. I HAVE TO GO AND MAKE A S...moreThis is a short story about a woman's descent into madness and I have just the t-shirt slogan for the protagonist:
EXCUSE ME. I HAVE TO GO AND MAKE A SCENE.
Because that's what I wanted her to do throughout, but we cannot really expect that from a genteel 19th century lady and that is when the story was written. So does that mean that it is now outdated and irrelevant to us emancipated 21st century women?
Personally, I have gone through a period in my life when I took some pretty heavy drugs, stayed up all night staring at the walls (fortunately, not covered in hideous yellow paper) and writing random quotes and poetry on them and indulged in a spot of self-mutilation. I also went through a mild form of "baby blues" after my daughter was born, mainly just bursting into tears whenever anyone said boo to me. I don't know whether I was technically depressed (is there such a thing? I feel there must be, as opposed to just a naturally sad and gloomy person with a tendency for weirdness who is feeling down, which may, I feel, be my particular diagnosis or, maybe, the term I am looking for is medically?) but, in any case, I was expecting to relate.
And do you know what, I actually did. What I think worked brilliantly in this story, frighteningly so, is the description of how the protagonist loses her mind by concentrating on the wallpaper, following its patterns, imbuing them with meaning and projecting and externalising her own problems through it. As I said, I used to have a bit of a thing for walls myself (though, clearly, nowhere near to the extent of the heroine, as I am still a sane and functioning member of society, trust me) and I found this aspect of the story, extremely creepy, recognisable and accurate.
I could even relate to the submissiveness and the apathy, because I can clearly remember feeling exactly that in my lower moments. That feeling of being completely separate from the whole world and honestly not caring one way or the other, of wanting to just sit there and being too tired to really do or feel anything. The heroine here seems to recognise what is happening, that what her physician husband prescribes as the cure is really not good for her but doesn't really have the energy or the strength of will to stage any sort of opposition other than her little rebellion in writing the journal entries. And, as much as I wanted her to scream and rant and rave, what Gilman writes is actually a much more accurate description of my own experience of the apathy of depression.
I also admired the disjointed haunted way in which the story is constructed leaving the reader with multiple questions to ponder. Is she really going mad? Would she still be going mad if she were not confined to a room and lacking any physical and intellectual stimulation? Is her husband a sinister jailer or a loving spouse earnestly trying to help her? Is he even really her husband? And what happens at the end is anyone's guess. (view spoiler)[Some believe that she hangs herself but I'm not so sure as she talks about walking around the room with her shoulder to the wall, making the fade marks she mentions earlier, and having to step over the husband who is lying on the floor supposedly in a faint. Maybe, she kills him? (hide spoiler)]
P.S. While I thoroughly enjoyed this particular story and generally enjoy books and movies about descents into madness, I also find the proliferation of mad women in film and literature somewhat disquieting. I have not done any sort of comprehensive analysis but I have personally come across many more insane female characters than male. And the women never seem to go mad in quite the same way men do either because they are so clever (as in A Beautiful Mind)or so brave (as in the case of shell shock (which is, I think, a form of male hysteria, but hysteria was, clearly, a term that was too female to be applied to soldiers) in e.g. Catch-22) or because they actually think that they are turning into a woman (as in Memoirs of My Nervous Illness). The Yellow Paper made me want to read something academic on the subject of women and madness. If anyone is able to recommend anything good on this topic, I am open to suggestions.
P.P.S. I only read the title story, so this review and rating only relate to that. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
After I finished this book I kind of just sat there for a while. Stunned and reeling. To say that this book is disturbing would be an understatement....moreAfter I finished this book I kind of just sat there for a while. Stunned and reeling. To say that this book is disturbing would be an understatement. It is disturbing in a very obvious big way because of the subject matter but also in a very subtle and understated way because there is very little actual violence or gore on the pages.
A repressed, lonely, unstable young man, Frederick Clegg wins the lottery. Clegg has been fascinated and secretly "in love" with Miranda, a beautiful art student for quite some time. So when his aunt and cousin (who are his entire family) very conveniently depart for Australia to never return, he gradually starts putting a plan together to kidnap Miranda and keep her captive. It's a bit of a contrived set up but an easy one to swallow in the context of the book.
Clegg is a butterfly collector and classic sociopath, completely unconcerned for and unable to empathise with the feelings of others, even the object of his devotion, and with a very strong tendency to rationalise and blame others for his behaviour. Miranda is simply an object to be put on a pedestal.
"I am one in a row of specimens. It’s when I try to flutter out of line that he hates me. I’m meant to be dead, pinned, always the same, always beautiful."
Miranda's feelings and desires are as irrelevant to Clegg as those of a postage stamp to a philatelist. We are told of the preparations he makes to kidnap Miranda in a cold emotionless voice and as though most of them happened by accident without any real intent on his part.
"The van was the one really big luxury I gave myself. It had a special fitting in the back compartment, a camp bed you could let down and sleep in; I bought it to carry all my equipment for when I moved round the country, and also I thought if I got a van I wouldn’t always have to be taking Aunt Annie and Mabel around when they came back. I didn’t buy it for the reason I did use it for. The whole idea was sudden, like a stroke of genius almost."
"In one of the Sunday papers I saw an advert in capitals in a page of houses for sale. I wasn’t looking for them, this just seemed to catch my eye as I was turning the page."
"All this time I never thought it was serious. I know that must sound very strange, but it was so. I used to say, of course, I’ll never do it, this is only pretending."
Yes, I was tidying in the nude, tripped over a hoover and my penis just got stuck in the nozzle, honest.
Yet all the time the reader can see Clegg going through very thorough and meticulous preparations for what he is about to do, buying a van, a house, outfitting and securing the cellar, cutting himself off from all outside contact, trying to foresee every eventually and all of this in a remarkably detached and unfeeling way, except for some flickers of pride, a sense of achievement and satisfaction at his own work and cleverness.
Many readers appear to have felt a lot of sympathy for Clegg, yet I have to confess I never did. He does not appear able to see that what he is doing is morally objectionable and there are clearly some abandonment issues from his childhood (his father died when he was two and his mother left him to be brought up by a strict and emotionally vacuous aunt) but there is nothing particularly horrific lurking in his past, no particular trauma that might explain how he became what he is. Here's what happened but I never meant it to turn out the way it did, it's not my fault, there is nothing wrong with me is the leitmotif of Clegg's narration.
"I thought, I can't get to know her in the ordinary way, but if she's with me, she'll see my good points, she'll understand. There was always the idea she would understand. I only wanted to do the best for her, make her happy and love me a bit."
Yet this is interspersed with such obvious meaningless little lies and self-delusions that he almost reads as pathetic. Despicable as well as horrifying.
The middle portion of the book is narrated from Miranda's point of view in a form of a diary she secretly keeps. While this does cover the same time period as Clegg's narration so we effectively get two versions of the same event, I thought it was quite powerful and necessary in terms of showing Miranda as a person, with her own feelings, hopes desires and flaws.
This was a very unsettling and uncomfortable read but one that I think will stay with me for a long time. It painted a vivid and complex picture of the power dynamic between captive and captor and, though it feeds on that basic fear of evil things lurking in the dark and being powerless, unable to escape that evil, it never felt emotionally manipulative. (less)