Wednesday, October 31, 2007


So, I finished Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood last week and have decided to go ahead and read it again right away. My response to the first reading was a mixture of awe and bewilderment. The plot is simple to follow, so it was not the plot that bewildered me, but there is not much plot anyway; rather, it’s the things the characters were saying that I sometimes had trouble following. But their speeches were beautiful and in the moments when meaning broke through, I found myself moved.

I learned pretty quickly I couldn’t read and re-read passages until I understood them perfectly, because that moment didn’t always come; instead, I read slowly and figured out what I could, and kept going even if I didn’t get everything. I did this partly because I knew I’d mostly likely be reading the book again, but also because trying to figure everything out would lead to frustration. I think this is the kind of book where you can read for mood and atmosphere and for the beauty of the language as much as you read for logical meaning.

Here’s a typical passage, a speech from one of the most important characters, the doctor:

Suppose your heart were five feet across in any place, would you break it for a heart no bigger than a mouse’s mute? Would you hurl yourself into any body of water, in the size you now are, for any woman that you had to look for with a magnifying glass, or any boy if he was as high as the Eiffel Tower or did droppings like a fly? No, we all love in sizes, yet we all cry out in tiny voices to the great booming God, the older we get. Growing old is just a matter of throwing life away back; so you finally forgive even those that you have not begun to forget.

I’m not entirely sure what this passage means, but I do like it. The book it not entirely made up of passages like this one; it also has plenty of dialogue and narration that’s easier to follow. The novel tells the story of a group of characters, following them through many years as they wander around, fall in love, marry in some cases, break up, despair, talk it over, despair, talk it over, etc. There’s the doctor, who has most of the eloquent, poetic speeches, who doesn’t seem to do much but talk to the other characters. There’s Baron Felix, who marries Norah Flood, who then leaves him to pursue Robin Vote, who leaves Norah to pursue Jenny. The conversations that come out of all this loving and leaving are more important than the actions themselves — the book is really about the sense that the characters make of what happens to them.

I do not at all feel as though I have a handle on this book, but perhaps after a second reading, I’ll get more of it. Perhaps I’ll look up some critical work as well.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

Of Human Bondage recounts the first 30 years in the life of Philip Carey, from the sudden death of his adored and adoring mother, to his decision to marry and to settle on a career as a doctor. This is a quiet book, and Maugham's writing is deceptively spare and plain. His meaning is always clear so the story progresses swiftly, unobstructed by authorial cleverness. I found it absolutely gripping while I was reading it, despite the fact that Philip is not always sympathetic or even likeable.

The story draws heavily on episodes from Maugham's own life: he was an orphan, he hated the boarding school to which he was sent, he attended university in Germany, he studied medicine; all these episodes are reproduced in the book. In addition, Philip Carey suffers from a club-foot, a physical disfigurement that perhaps stands in for the stutter that plagued Maugham throughout his life. And, Philip is a sharp-tongued, angry youth who does not make friends easily, another characteristic that he shares with Maugham. In the Foreword to my edition, Maugham says:
Of Human Bondage is not an autobiography, but an autobiographical novel; fact and fiction are inextricably mingled; the emotions are my own but not all the incidents are related as they happened and some of them are transferred to my hero not from my own life but from that of persons with whom I was intimate. The book did for me what I wanted and when it was issued to the world ... I found myself free forever from the pains and unhappy recollections that had tormented me.
If the emotions are truly his own, then Maugham was capable of turning his penetrating and ruthless gaze inward. He pulls no punches in his telling so that Philip stands revealed in all his weaknesses; only in the latter half of the novel do his strengths begin to display. He would in fact be a deeply unpleasant character but for Maugham's choosing to depict so many instances of petty meanness, jealousy, casual cruelty that Philip becomes only very human. Literary characters are so often better or worse than real people; Philip is not, and although the reader may dislike what they see of him as a child and a young man, by the time the book ends he is beginning to change into an altogether more personable individual.

Philip is nine when his mother dies, and although he does not quite understand, he knows he is a suitable object for sympathy: 'He knew that Mrs Watkin and her sister were talking to friends and it seemed to him - he was nine years old - that if he went in they would be sorry for him...'
After his mother's death, Philip goes to live with his aunt and uncle. Mr William Carey is the vicar at Blackstable and is a selfish, cold man around whom his entire household revolves. He is the sort of man who denies the use of the stove for heat because of the expense of the coal, but has a fire lit in his own study. His wife is a faded, pathetic woman who has longed desperately for a child of her own; she immediately loves Philip unconditionally and longs for him to reciprocate in whatever small measure. Philip does love her back, but rather fitfully, in that the emotion is usually prompted by his own guilt or regret at having, once again, reduced her to tears.

The solitary life with his aunt and uncle turns Philip into a shy, quiet, introverted boy who takes solace in reading and develops a precocious intelligence. His club-foot makes him self-conscious, and at school, he grows a carapace of bitterness and sarcasm to cover his loneliness and insecurity. At first he is destined for the church, but he begins to lose interest and decides against ordination. This is the first of several paths that Philip enthusiastically follows, then determinedly rejects, a pattern that repeats itself until he gets to medical school.

Maugham says of him that 'he had the unfortunate gift of seeing things as they were', and this is true for things but not for people. A passion for reading fills Philip's head with romantic ideals of life at a German university or later, as an artist. Each time, his propensity for seeing things as they are means that he cannot mistake bad art for good, or tawdriness for glamour. But, at Heidelberg he falls in with a fellow-student called Hayward, the outward embodiment of the man steeped in literature, who can turn out an apposite quote for any occasion but has no real learning. Philip is entirely deceived by appearance, ignoring all the proofs that Hayward is a phony.

On his return to Blackstable after his year in Germany, Philip again displays that same lack of judgement and embarks on an ill-advised affair with Miss Wilkinson, who is a guest in the house. She is considerably older than him, and certainly experienced, although she affects the dress and manner of a younger woman. Knowingly, she reels Philip into a physical relationship, and he is too naive and too keen to experience sex, to escape. When he first visits her room and sees her unclothed and without make up, he knows he's making a mistake:
She looked grotesque. Philip's heart sank as he stared at her; she had never seemed so unattractive; but it was too late now. He closed the door behind him and locked it.
Philip's attempts to extricate himself from the web in which he is now caught offer decidedly comic moments, but fortunately Miss Wilkinson lives in Berlin, and she leaves. Philip embarks on a career in accountancy, but after a year he leaves that and goes to art school in Paris. Faced with the knowledge of his own mediocrity he leaves that in its turn, and returns home again. His next career choice is medicine, and again he goes up to London and enrolls.

The third time is the charm, and after a somewhat rocky start, Philip begins to apply himself at medical school and to do quite well. During this portion of his life he also falls in love with and pursues the entirely ghastly Mildred. She is a singularly unpleasant character, with skin so pale that it is 'greenish', 'of a faint green colour', with a 'greenish pallor'. Even when he first loves her, Philip is disgusted by her:
...he hated the thinness of her, only that evening he had noticed how the bones of her chest stood out in evening-dress; he went over her features one by one; he did not like her mouth, and the unhealthiness of her colour vaguely repelled him. She was common. Her phrases, so bold and few, constantly repeated, showed the emptiness of her mind; he recalled her vulgar little laugh at the jokes of the music hall comedy; and he remembered the little finger carefully extended when she held her glass to her mouth; her manners, like her conversation, were odiously genteel...
When Philip meets her she is a waitress in a cafe; by the time of her last appearance in his life, she is a prostitute with an unspecified communicable disease. Fully aware of her illness, she still continues to ply her trade. Throughout their protracted, wretched relationship, Philip is unable to break away from her entirely and indeed, for a while is subjugated to her. It is really difficult to like Philip when he is so smitten with Mildred that, for example, he pays for her and another lover to go away for the weekend. He also pays for her treatment when she is pregnant with yet another man's child. Mildred, for her part, never wants Philip; but she wants him to want her. When he finally does reject her, her resentment explodes into violence.

(Mildred is the most fully described of all the female characters in the book, but all the women are either 'mothers' or 'whores', almost types rather than actual people. I wish Maugham had addressed this point in his Introduction.)

Of Human Bondage works as a protracted coming-of-age story, and Philip's last rite of passage is his temporary poverty and homelessness. This downward mobility takes the edges off Philip's stolid, middle-class snobbery. He is befriended by a mixed class family (father originally upper class, mother working class) and is also forced really to work at something he dislikes, with no luxury of changing employment at a whim.

Of course, he transcends these obstacle and in the end, he does complete his medical studies and is a cooler, wiser and more sympathetic person.
He thought of his desire to make a design, intricate and beautiful, out of the myriad, meaningless facts of life: had he not seen also that the simplest pattern, that in which man was born, worked, married, had children, and died, was likewise the most perfect? It might be that to surrender to happiness was to accept defeat, but it was a defeat better than many victories.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw

Most people will know the story of Pygmalion, from My Fair Lady if nowhere else, where Eliza Doolittle is taught to speak 'like a duchess' by Professor Henry Higgins. Shaw describes this as a didactic play in his preface, revelling in its success when popular opinion says that art should not be didactic. Yet it is also a charming play with likeable characters, which allows you to painlessly engage with the serious message underlying it.
It begins with a scene on a rainy London street. A flower girl begins causing a nuisance of herself, trying to sell her flowers to anyone standing still; gradually the people milling around realise that a man is noting down everything they say. After accusations that he is a copper's nark, the note-taker astounds everyone by being able to pinpoint exactly where they come from by how they speak.

'THE SARCASTIC BYSTANDER: Yes: tell him where he come from if you want to go fortune-telling.
THE NOTE-TAKER: Cheltenham, Harrow, Cambridge, and India.
THE GENTLEMAN: Quite right.
Great laughter. Reaction in the note-taker's favour. Exclamations of He knows all about it. Told him proper. Hear him tell the toff where he come from? etc
THE GENTLEMAN:May I ask, sir, do you do this for your living at a music hall?
THE NOTE-TAKER: I've thought of that. Perhaps I shall some day.'

The note-taker is, as you will have gathered, Professor Higgins. The play concerns his attempt to take this cockney flower girl and teach her to speak properly, and how this affects both their lives.
'You see this creature with her kerb-stone English: the English that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days. Well, sir, in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador's garden party.'
Reading this has reminded me that Shaw's plays are both eminently readable and, I've always found, eminently watchable. It is light and engaging, with witty dialogue. The play is dated in the sense that it is firmly set in the Edwardian era and I feel it would be hard to set it in the present without significantly changing the text (for instance, the swear word 'bloody' does not have the same capacity to shock in the twenty-first century), but the dialogue is clear and natural, and you can believe in the characters, no matter how bizarre the situation they are in.
However, there is a social commentary underlying the romantic veneer - Shaw's didacticism; this is a play very firmly about class. As Higgins says:
'This is an age of upstarts. Men begin in Kentish Town with £80 a year, and end up in Park Lane with a hundred thousand. They want to drop Kentish Town; but they give themselves away every time they open their mouths.'
Class is something that still obsesses us in England ninety years later, and for this reason the play stands the test of time. There are constantly new books written, television programmes being made about it; we have just recently had a furore in the press about 'middle-class drinking'. We all define ourselves and others as belonging to one class or another, and the way we use language is a large part of that. This obsession is satirised by Shaw in this play, this need to classify ourselves and others and present ourselves according to the station we believe we belong, or want to belong, to by the way we speak.
As time passes, Eliza comes to realise that there is more to becoming a lady than her accent. Her character develops throughout the play as she becomes a strong, dignified woman who is able at last to stand up to Higgins.
She also finally recognises in Higgins and her father the meaning of true classlessness, in the way that, with no thought for ceremony or situation, both treat everyone the same whether they be a duke or a dustman: Mr Doolittle with easy-going familiarity and Higgins with bored contempt.
Raymond Williams (in Drama from Ibsen to Brecht) describes how Shaw did not consider plays where there was little more than the dialogue to be a true art form, they need the directions of the playwright for the entire vision. For example, Shaw believed that we do not have the full genius of Shakespeare available to us because we lack his character notes and directions. Shaw will not allow this to happen to his plays, and with a preface, an epilogue and detailed directions throughout Pygmalion has more the air of a play-novella hybrid than a piece of drama. For reading purposes this is fine, but I wonder how restricting directors find this interference from Bernard Shaw.
An example of Shaw's control over his vision is the ending of the play, which does not make clear what will happen to Eliza. In case you should be tempted to romantically decide for yourself, however, in the epilogue Shaw provides a realistic and pleasing, if not romantic, future for Eliza, Henry and the other characters.
It is pleasing because I had grown very fond of the defiant yet vulnerable Eliza, and the infuriating but essentially innocent and child-like Higgins, as well as the other characters. So even if there is a slight irritation at Shaw's need to control even after the end of the play, there is also a certain satisfaction in ending with everything sorted, rather than having Eliza and Higgins teetering on the edge of either perfect happiness or abject misery.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

#2 Death of the Heart - Elizabeth Bowen

Outmoded Author Challenge #2

Sixteen years old Portia Quayne has grown up exiled not from her own country but from normal, cheerful family life. She is the product of an ignominious affair between her mother Irene and a married man. However much chagrin the adulterous number has caused Thomas Quayne, Portia’s half-brother, his mother, before she died, had gone out of her way to accommodate the mistress and approved the marriage.

Recently orphaned, Portia moves into Thomas’ house at Windsor Terrace, a luxurious but emotionally sterile London home where each person lives impaled upon a private obsession. Life is so restrained and edited that no feeling can ever thicken intimacy. It is not so much that the Quaynes don’t like the teenage girl as they find her keen eye, observant perception unsettling. Anna, Thomas’ wife, especially finds Portia unnerving because she “doesn’t like to be watched.” Her eyes are so riveting as if the invincible innocence and perspicacity give her power to see through Anna’s secrecy.

But the monotonous life at Windsor Terrace is quickly intruded by Portia’s falling for Eddie, a close friend of Anna with whom she has a liaison. That Eddie has made a villain of Anna, who treats her with a polite hostility, hypnotizes her and binds her close to him like an alliance. Unfortunately Portia cannot (she has no clue) comprehend evil or unkind motives. Though the main plot follows her relationship with Eddie, the novel’s real tension lies between Portia and Anna, as the girl comes to grief against Anna’s cynicism and insidiousness.

Bowen has very keen eye for such shadings of morality that in between the lines of her writing she exposes the ugliest, the most cruel, the most despicable in the genteel society. A sensitive observer of the way we live, she deals in motives and mind games that render the novel very psychological and haunting. The tension between Portia and Anna is not revealed by their interactions, who are meager, but between their ears.

I mentioned a very significant quote on innocence in a previous post. So the theme of innocence being corrupted is inverted in order to fully accentuate the destructive power of innocence. While innocence is a virtue, those who are innocent can be very vulnerable to betrayal, for innocent people, who exact a very brave happiness and sanguine nature, are strangers to the world. Portia’s innocence might poise as a challenge to a society that is completely lacking in compassion. In the end this respectable virtue makes her a victim of the social conventions in which the players tend to be more civil and kind than they really are.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Glassy Sea by Marian Engel

Despite a dreadful cover and excruciating blurb, this short novel is wonderful and I am delighted that this challenge encouraged me to read it. Consisting largely of a letter from a middle-aged woman to her Bishop, it tells the story of Rita from her rural childhood, through her transformation into an Anglican nun, Sister Mary Pelagia, her gentle "eviction" out of the order and into marriage and motherhood, and her eventual breakdown. As she re-reads the letter, written the previous summer, she begins to regain a sense of equilibrium about the past, and to review and reaffirm her decision about the future.

The writing is down-to-earth, almost chatty, even when considering matters of life and death, but there is a seriousness of tone, and earnestness, that tells us that the protagonist, while capable of efficiency and practicality, is in essence a dreamer, a lover of solitude. As a youngest child, we find she learnt her solitude early, along with an introspection her family find hard to deal with:
I liked it in church , too, because . . . I thought I understood Jesus. I didn't understand any of the other people I had read about because they did unheard of things like get caught in lobster pots or vanish down rabbit holes, or were orphans, but there was He, born in a barn, child of a man who worked with his hands (and my father, too, would have walked miles in winter to be honest and pay his taxes) and a woman who obviously worked her fingers to the bone. And, like me, He asked a lot of questions. I was always asking questions.
When Rita is taken ill at university, and sent home to recuperate, she takes lessons from a retired Anglican clergyman, Mr Laidlaw, who introduces her to a community of nuns. Because the Anglican church can find no practical role for them, the Eglantines live a largely contemplative existence and Rita is drawn, despite immense parental opposition, to join them. And for ten years she is happy:
William Morris would indeed have been pleased with the Eglantines and I can't think God himself wasn't, at that time. I have read, since, books and stories by women who have dropped the veils of the Sisters of St Joseph, of the Ursulines - indeed, there must be dozens of them. But none of them seems to have found the earthly paradise I found for a while in Eglantine House, in London, Ont., as we call it, the heart of your diocese.
Unfortunately for Rita, the Eglantines are an ageing community and, although she spends a time as its acting head, her Sister Superior decides that she is young enough to build a new life for herself and ejects her kindly but firmly into the arms of her friend Maggie, to help care for her children. Filled with grief at the loss of the community, she inevitably meets a young lawyer - in fact, they have met before, in high school, where Rita considers Asher Bowen the most beautiful man she has ever seen - and recognises in him some of her seriousness and religious fervour. Continuing the separation of each stage of her life, Ash renames her Peggy, they choose a church to attend together and are quickly married:
I was empty. I handed my void to him. He told me what to wear, what to do; when he knew me better, he told me what I felt. He filled my mind, my thoughts, my body. He sat beside me in church. During sacraments his face gleamed pale and fanatic; he had an intensity I had never seen in any Eglantine but Mary Elzevir. I loved him very much indeed.
When she gives birth to a hydrocephalic child, the young couple are devastated. While Ash gradually withdraws, Rita becomes obsessive, dedicating herself to her child's welfare and survival. A "dreadful thing" occurs when Ash purchases the house of Rita's much hated (and child abusing) Uncle Eddie, as a summer cottage. For Rita, who has learnt detachment painfully during her parents' rejection, the return to her childhood home, the intrusion of the "messiness" of her country family, is too much.

With the death of her child, Rita's disintegration into alcoholism, breakdown and divorce is rapid, but she eventually redeems herself through contemplation. She considers that her life has gone wrong when she is required to be Martha rather then Mary yet, as she finally begins to achieve an inner peace, she allows herself to be persuaded that she will return to Eglantine House to re-establish and lead the order. She has learnt the difference between detachment and hiding, the need for balance between Mary and Martha, even the necessity of uncertainty. At the end, still debating with herself about the rightness of her decision, she says: "Enough. Enough. I've made my choice. I shall learn how to live with it."

Despite its brevity, this is a thoughtful book. It was first published in 1978, a time when there was rather more turmoil about woman's role in society, and this is considered at some length here, but it goes deeper, too, to a consideration what it is required for anyone to play their role. In the course of the book the Eglantines too have developed, and will play a greater role than that which they had formerly been allowed; they will no longer be a contemplative order, yet the need for a spiritual dimension to their work is still recognised and permitted time. To me this book provides a powerful affirmation of the need for spirituality, whatever the creed, and I find it already influencing my response to my next book for the challenge, which considers the role of women at an earlier period.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Well of Loneliness - Of Pathos and Human Dignity

A man is born in the body of a woman. Although not stated outright, hints and suggestions of “the mark of Cain” filled the book and haunted the life of Stephen Gordon. Born to an aristocratic couple in the late 1800’s, her father expected to have a son. When a daughter was born he decided to give the child the chosen boy’s name.
Growing up Stephen feels different from other children as she looks like a boy and is drawn to their pursuits. With her father’s encouragement, she excells at riding and hunting, but her feminine mother is repelled by her masculinity and finds it difficult to speak with or even touch her. Puzzled and saddened by this rejection and having no friends except her father and governesses, Stephen is a lonely girl.
Once grown up she wore tailored suits and cut her hair, much to the dismay of her mortified mother. Her first love affair with a bored, selfish woman ended in disaster. Apprised of the situation the mother lashed out cruelly and threw Stephen out of her beloved home.
WWI came and took most of the able bodied young men. Stephen got a job at the front lines as an ambulance driver. Brave and tough, she and other women risked their lives daily until the war was finally over.
The story was refreshingly real and I liked Stephen a lot. At the tirade she attempted to connect with her mother, rather than trade insults. Her capacity to love and give far exceeded the return. Throughout the book she displayed a touching faith in God, even while questioning why He made her “a freak”. Stephen was a moral person and unexpectedly conventional. Her lack of pretensions aroused my sympathy and admiration.
Angry at the double standards of a hypocritical society, she railed in silence.
And what of the women who had worked in the war – those quiet, gaunt women she had seen about London? England had called them and they had come; for once unabashed, they had faced the daylight. And now because they were not prepared to slink back and hide in their holes and corners, the very public whom they had served was the first to turn in our midst , this nest of unrighteousness and corruption! That was the gratitude they had received for the work they had done out of love for England!
Although Hall skillfully weaves nature verses nurture arguments, we know nowadays that simply wanting a boy, even badly, will not physically change a girl into one. DNA and genes exist long before awareness that conception has taken place. Nature wins.
Reaching all humanity the characters reflect the suffering of all rejected people and groups, not just lesbians. The right to be different, to be valued for who we are, not what we are, is the uncompromising theme of this powerful book. I was blown away by its dignity, humility, and strength. Five stars.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence

I’ve had my second-hand copy of Sons and Lovers sitting unread in a bookcase for several years. The Outmoded Authors Challenge provided the right incentive to read it, one, because I was surprised to find D H Lawrence is considered to be outmoded, two, because I didn’t have to buy or borrow it and three, because it could then come off my to be read list.

When I took off the tatty cover, I discovered that the book inside was not a bit tatty or worn out and as an added bonus it not only contains Sons and Lovers, but also, St Mawr, The Virgin and the Gypsy and The Man Who Died. I’d read The Virgin and the Gypsy a few years ago, but the others were completely new to me.

If you’re planning to read the book, be aware that there are spoilers ahead.

Sons and Lovers is a powerful, emotional novel depicting the struggle, strife, and passion of relationships and their intensity, and possessiveness. Throughout the book Lawrence’s vivid descriptions and observation of the English countryside are so beautiful that I couldn’t stop marvelling at his writing. There are so many examples I could quote. Here is just one:

“The sun was going down. Every open evening, the hills of Derbyshire were blazed over with the red sunset. Mrs Morel watched the sun sink from the glistening sky, leaving a soft flower-blue overhead, while the western space went red, as if all the fire had swum down there, leaving the bell cast flawless blue. The mountain-ash berries across the field stood fierily out from the dark leaves for a moment. A few shocks of corn in a corner of the fallow stood up as if a live; she imagined them bowing; perhaps her son would be a Joseph. In the east, a mirrored sunset floated pink opposite the west’s scarlet. The big haystacks on the hillside, that butted into the glare, went cold.”

The story starts with a description of the cottages in “The Bottoms” where the Morrels live in Nottinghamshire overlooking the hills of Derbyshire. Places feature strongly in the novel and for me provided reality and solidity. Lawrence takes the ordinary and it becomes extraordinary. The family conflict between Walter Morel and his wife and sons is one of the main themes. To Walter, his wife is a “thing of mystery and fascination, a lady” but although at first she thinks he is rather wonderful and noble she soon becomes contemptuous of him and eventually despises him.

Mrs Morel is the dominant character in the Morel family. She is described as a “rather small woman, of delicate mould but resolute bearing”. She is disappointed in her life and her marriage and lives her life through her children and in particular through her three sons – William, Paul and Arthur. William, the oldest leaves home, marries and dies young; Arthur, the youngest, joins the army and also marries; but Paul remains at home and is dominated by his mother and her intense, possessive love for him.

Paul is sensitive, torn between his love for his mother and his feelings for Miriam. Miriam “is very beautiful, with her warm colouring, her gravity, her eyes dilating suddenly like an ecstasy.” Her intensity makes Paul anxious and feel tortured and imprisoned. It is a love/hate relationship. His mother thinks that Miriam will “absorb him till there is nothing left of him, even for himself. He will never be a man on his own feet – she will suck him up.”

This struggle with Paul alternately loving and hating Miriam continues for seven agonising years. Paul cannot break free either from Miriam or from his mother’s suffocating love. Indeed, he realises that his mother is the “pivot and pole of his life, from which he could not escape”. At the same time this is not enough for him and it makes him mad with restlessness. Although Paul cannot finally break off his connection with Miriam, he and Clara, a married woman who is separated from her husband, have a passionate affair. He still feels a desire to be free. His mother sums him up when she says, “Battle – battle – and suffer. It’s about all you do, as far as I can see.”

In parts I found it a harrowing book, in particular the illness and death of Mrs Morel, such a vivid portrayal of Paul’s agony at watching and waiting for his mother’s death. Sons and Lovers is described on the book cover as an autobiographical novel depicting his domination by his mother’s possessiveness. I think that the description of Mrs Morel’s death must also be based on Lawrence’s own experience to a certain extent as well; it is so compellingly real.

There is so much sadness and tragedy and though Paul is lost after his mother’s death he does find hope for the future:

“On every side the immense dark silence seemed pressing him, so tiny a spark, into extinction, and yet, almost nothing, he could not be extinct. Night, in which everything was lost, went reaching out, beyond stars and sun. Stars and sun, a few bright grains, went spinning round for terror, and holding each other in embrace, there in a darkness that outpassed them all, and left them tiny and daunted. So much, and himself, infinitesimal, at the core, a nothingness, and yet not nothing. … But no, he would not give in. Turning sharply, he walked towards the city’s gold phosphorescence. His fists were shut, his mouth set fast. He would not take that direction, to the darkness, to follow her. He walked towards the faintly humming, glowing town, quickly.”

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Rodoreda short story

There's a short story by Merce Rodoreda here.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Here Are My Choices - Better Late Than Never

I came in late for this challenge so I did some scrambling to catch up. I copied down all the authors and spent several hours on Amazon to see what might interest me. The long list of books I compiled was narrowed down quite a bit when I took it to B & N this morning. They were not kidding when they said outmoded! With careful searching I managed to get a few from my list. They are:

"The Well of Loneliness" Radclyffe Hall
"The Country of Pointed Firs" Sarah Orne Jewett
"Of Human Bondage" W. Somerset Maugham
"A High Wind in Jamaica" Richard Hughes
I already have a book of essays by G.K. Chesterton called "What's Wrong With the World" with a picture of your typical curmudgeon (presumably Chesterton) on the cover.

The biggest disappointment was in not finding "Ice" by Anna Kavan. I had the nice man at the customer service desk look it up but when he told me the paperback was 23.95 I hesitated to order it. He suggested the library but I will wait to finish the others first.

For the most part, I know only what I researched on Amazon about these books. The Well of Loneliness will be my first gay/lesbian book so I am really looking forward to that. I saw Of Human Bondage on TCM and it was very disturbing. Bette Davis knows how to do evil, that is for sure! The other two, not much.

I think this challenge will move me out of my comfort zones and stretch me as a reader. I am enjoying reading what others have to say as well.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Beginning Djuna Barnes's Nightwood

057123528x.jpgI have begun reading Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, and I can already tell I’m going to need to read it again. I’m considering reading it again immediately after I finish the first time around, although I’ll wait to see how I feel when I get there. It’s a short book, 150 pages with large font, and I’ve already read about 45.

I’m not entirely sure what to make of it or even how to describe my difficulty knowing what to make of it. Perhaps quoting the opening line is the best thing to do:

Early in 1880, in spite of a well-founded suspicion as to the advisability of perpetuating that race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapproval of the people, Hedvig Volkbein, a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty, lying upon a canopied bed of a rich spectacular crimson, the valance stamped with the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, the feather coverlet an envelope of satin in which, in massive and tarnished gold threads, stood the Volkbein arms — gave birth, at the age of forty-five, to an only child, a son, seven days after her physician predicted that she would be taken.

Yes, that gives you a taste of what it’s like to read this book. The prose is exquisitely well-crafted; I love how this sentence slowly winds its way around to its point, taking in along the way all kinds of information about Hedvig, who turns out not to be a character in the book at all, but is important, perhaps, for the way she sets the tone and gives us information about what kind of person that son will be — who is a character in the book.

The pace of the book is both fast and slow; after two chapters a lot of events have occurred — that son has grown up and now has a child of his own — but the narrator also lingers over conversations at length, allowing the character called “the doctor,” although I don’t think he really is one, to go on and on. I’m not always sure exactly what he’s saying. The characters seem a little like Hedvig, larger than life, not quite real, and fascinating.

You see why I’m going to have to read this book again? It’s not coming together for me in the way books usually do by the time I’m nearly 1/3 of the way through. But this book strikes me as good enough to spend some time with, trying to figure it out.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Dear Walter Scott

I finished! I’m sorry Walter Scott, I really tried. I wanted to like this book; I was patient and gave it time to get better after a slow start. I kept hoping and hoping that the action would pick up, the characters become more meaningful — and more comprehensible — the romances would get more interesting, but it never happened for me. Well, Walter Scott, you obviously have done quite well enough without my approval; you’ve got so many books in print after nearly 200 years, and you have lots of readers, including, as a matter of fact, my father, who reads every book of yours he can find. You don’t really need me.

I wish, though, that you had toned down those accents a bit. Baron Bradwardine was so nearly impossible to follow. His high-flown diction and his Latin phrases mixed in everywhere drove me crazy. The problem is, I stopped trying to figure him out after a while. I could follow the action without understanding every word he said, and so it turned out not to be worth my while to decipher his language. Couldn’t he have talked just a bit more normally?

I found myself having a hard time caring about any of the characters too. They were all types, not real people. Edward was foolish, though not irremediably so; clearly he was going to have to learn a lesson, but, also clearly, he would prove himself capable of doing so. Rose was the perfect young heroine, beautiful, modest, capable but not overly smart. It was crystal clear to me after I encountered her what her fate would be. And the same for Flora and Fergus, the Scottish siblings — there wasn’t much doubt what would happen to them. Both of them fascinate Edward, tempt him, lure him into questionable things, but both of them would ultimately prove themselves too dangerous. There was no suspense! Nothing to keep my interest for very long. And I’m generally very bad at predicting the endings of books. When I can figure it out, you’re in trouble.

And here’s another thing I don’t get: you’re Scottish, right? Why portray Scotland and the Scottish people as unstable and dangerous, and the English as the bastions of safety and normality and order? Why exoticize the Scottish? They lure Edward into all kinds of danger and you portray his attraction to them as understandable but flawed and a weakness he needs to outgrow. Well, okay, let me revise this — you’re really portraying the Highlanders as exotic and dangerous. The Lowlanders are merely odd. So am I supposed to see the Lowlanders as roughly aligned with the English in their “normalcy” and the Highlanders as the dangerous other? I’m not sure I like this.

This doesn’t mean that I won’t read other books of yours. I’m curious about why you were so popular, and I don’t feel I understand it yet. What was it about Waverley that fascinated people so much? Those Highlanders are kind of romantic and thrilling, but, still, even there I thought you could do a better job describing them and their lives. Anyway, maybe I’ll try Ivanhoe next. I’m willing to give you one more shot.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Ideas and Ideals - The Role of the Intellectual Dissenter - Faithful are the Wounds by May Sarton

I have finished May Sarton's Faithful are the Wounds and her writing was even better than I remembered it.

Here's an excerpt:
You must learn to read with the whole of yourselves; you must bring love as well as intellect to this kind of analysis - just as in personal relationships. After all, a really fruitful reading of an author of this stature means giving up yourself for a time, mean being able to encompass something wholly by imaginative sympathy. These are not mere intellectual matters." His fist was closed, as if he were restraining himself from bringing it down with a bang on the table. "You're going at a fine piece of pottery with a blacksmith's hammer. Naturally it breaks to pieces...

And my complete thoughts are here. Her outmodedness is undeserved!

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G K Chesterton

Written in 1904, The Napoleon of Notting Hill is set in 1984. However, this is not a brutal Orwell-like dystopian vision of the future. 1984 is exactly the same as 1904, but duller. The population has accepted the concept of evolution so completely that revolution is no longer relevant, and therefore nothing changes.
England no longer has elections for political power; instead the country is run by a monarchy where a member of the population is picked at random to succeed to the throne. It is hoped that the seriousness of the post will keep people who are picked to be King on the straight and narrow.
It is a system that works; one day is very much like the next and the country is trundling along without much colour or life, to the extent that a man dressed in a green uniform walking down a London street causes a stir. The man is the ex-president of Nicaragua, a country which attempted to hold out against this tyranny of mediocrity in the last war that the world knew. He meets three of the central characters of the book: little Auberon Quin who talks nonsense to the bemusement of his rather stupid and bluff friend Lambert, and the annoyance of his politically astute and ambitious friend Barker. It is the ex-President of Nicaragua who, as well as astonishing Lambert and Barker with his patriotism for a country that no longer exists, realises what Quin is.
'"He is a man I think," he said, "who cares for nothing but a joke. He is dangerous man."'
The new king is picked and it is Auberon Quin; King Auberon ascends to the throne, with the one aim of squeezing some amusement out of the country. He comes up with the idea of turning the boroughs of London into feudal states ruled by Provosts, picked at random like the king, who are to be constantly accompanied by trumpeting heralds and flags, and have to pay homage to their liege.
The scene is ridiculous, as Quin intends; some ten years later when they have all come together at Court, Quin is in his element. The Provosts, business men and politicians, stand before him uncomfortable with the archaic costumes and forms of speech when trying to discuss something as mundane as road development, and the heralds that accompany them slouch around the sides, smirking at the proceedings. It is all very amusing, until-

'Enter a lunatic'.
'...these Notting Hill halberdiers in their red tunics belted with gold had the air rather of an absurd gravity. They seemed, so to speak, to be taking part in the joke. They marched and wheeled into position with an almost startling dignity and discipline...the big blue eyes of Adam Wayne never changed, and he called out in an odd, boyish voice down the hall-
"I bring homage to my King. I bring him the only thing I have - my sword."
And with a great gesture he flung it down on the ground, and knelt on one knee behind it.
There was a dead silence.
"I beg your pardon," said the King, blankly.'

Adam Wayne is the new provost of Notting Hill but he does not see the joke; he believes fervently in Notting Hill, in its beauty, its feudal rights, its allegiance to the crown, and he is prepared to go to battle to defend it against the road developers. Notting Hill will fight the rest of London!
The novel builds up through Quin's ridiculous proceedings, to the monumental changes that begin to occur to the country as Notting Hill goes to war; it is a great story and very enjoyable.
The style of the prose is most definitely Edwardian - very English, very male (I don't remember a single female character appearing in it), and down to Earth. The narration takes the tone of a detached, amused observer with a wry, tongue-in-cheek manner, which the character of Quin reflects throughout the story. Quin takes nothing seriously, and is staggered by Wayne who is very serious. Even more staggering to him is how Wayne's romantic patriotism takes hold; the point of the joke was that no one should take it seriously. When everyone takes it seriously, life is irrevocably changed.
The battle scenes are both ridiculous and fantastic, set in ordinary London streets among familiar objects; despite generally not being a fan of battle scenes I was on the edge of my seat, willing the Notting Hill-ites on in their desparate fight against the other boroughs and modernity.
The novel touched a part of me that yearns for the romantic and chivalrous, that part of me that loves the pre-Raphaelite painters, Scott and Tennyson's Idylls of the King.
Although the novel is not as dark or foreboding as visions of the future like 1984 or Brave New World, it has a serious message: it says that one man's seriousness and love for his land can change everything. My volume had a newspaper article from 1921 tucked into the front cover, which says that it was the Irish Republican leader Michael Collins' favourite book. I can understand why.

Thoughts up on The Last September

I finally got around to talking about The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen! I absolutely loved this one, and I think everyone who hasn't read Bowen should at least look into her. :) See lots of passages from the book, and a little about my thoughts here.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

I was surprised to find that Ivanhoe was easier to read than I had imagined, although Scott does use some archaic language and there were a few words that I had to look up. It took me some time to read as it's nearly 500 pages of quite small font in my copy, but I’m glad I’ve read it. It’s a mixture of romance and historical fiction, although I can’t vouch for its historical accuracy and Scott admits that “it is extremely probable that I may have confused the manner of two or three centuries, and introduced, during the reign of Richard the First, circumstances appropriated to a period either considerably earlier or a good deal later than that era.”

Set in England in the 12th century, ruled by the Normans it is the story of the continuing conflict, approximately a century after the Battle of Hastings, between the Normans, and the Saxons. There are many characters, including Saxon nobles and peasants; Norman knights and Knights Templar; Jews; and outlaws - Robin Hood and his merry men. Ivanhoe is the son of a Saxon noble, Cedric who has plans to marry his ward, the Lady Rowena to Athelstane, a descendant of the last Saxon monarchs, in an attempt to regain the throne. However, Ivanhoe and Rowena are in love and so his father has banished him.

As the story begins Ivanhoe has returned from the Crusades, in disguise, to his home hoping somehow to win Rowena as his bride and he challenges the Knight Templar, Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert at a tournament held by Prince John. As a result he is severely wounded and cared for by the Rebecca, the beautiful daughter of the Jew, Isaac. With the reported escape of King Richard the Lionheart from imprisonment by the Duke of Austria, Prince John fears that the unidentified Black Knight who is victorious at the tournament is his brother returned from the Crusades.

A series of events then rapidly follows including the capture of Rowena, Cedric, Athelstane, Rebecca, Isaac and Ivanhoe by the supporters of Prince John. They are held in the ancient castle of Torquilstone, now belonging to the Norman, Reginald Front-de-Boeuf. The Black Knight is of course Richard and he enlists the help of the outlaws Locksley (also known as Robin Hood), Friar Tuck and Alan-a Dale to rescue them.

Scott gives a blow-by-blow account of the siege of the castle and rescue of the captives. I normally gloss over battle scenes as I find descriptions confusing and I admit boring, but Scott won me over completely. Rebecca gives such a vivid description of the battle to Ivanhoe, as he lies wounded on his sick bed, that it seemed as though I was there seeing it for myself. Rebecca of course falls in love with Ivanhoe, who at first seems to be enchanted by her, until she reveals that she is a Jewess.

The racial tension between the Christians, the Jews and the Muslims is one of the themes running through the novel, and is paralleled by the tension between the Normans and the Saxon “porkers”. Rebecca’s position as one of the despised Jews is contrasted with Rowena’s with her proud disdain of the Normans. However, lust overcomes prejudice as Bois-Guilbert is infatuated with Rebecca and attempts to seduce her.

The story has many twists and turns. Athelstane is declared dead and then later is found to be alive; Ulrica, the dispossessed Saxon heiress of the castle of Torquilstone dramatically takes revenge on Front-de-Boeuf; and Rebecca is accused of practising witchcraft on Bois-Guilbert. She is condemned to death but pleads for a champion to fight her cause against Bois- Guilbert. Ivanhoe still suffering from his wounds races to the combat and declares himself as Rebecca’s champion. He is victorious but spares Bois- Guilbert’s life.

Ivanhoe almost takes backstage being injured and out of action for most of the novel, with the spotlight mainly on the heroic actions of Richard and also on the story of Rebecca. I think Rebecca is actually the star of the book and the scenes of her conflict with Bois-Guilbert reflect the misogyny and racial oppression of the times. ‘Rebecca’ is a good title for a book, yes?

Monday, October 1, 2007

#1 A Charmed Circle, Anna Kavan

Marooned in a country house in an ugly manufacturing town is an old vicarage of which expensive improvements have been undertaken. The house sits in the middle of the town where traffic buzz is accentuated by occasional rumbling of passing trams. So much that it is separated by high walls and trees and is encroached by the hustle-and-bustle, it is a lonely ark itself–or at least the occupants intend it to be. Steered by the father’s morbidly morose, withdrawn and sinister nature, the Deanes immerse in a safe, profound secrecy of those in whom no one is interested.

Life is meticulously edited to ensure minimal interruption of routine and to discourage any social intrusion of visitors. Fettered by some mental disability and limitation are the young Deanes who rebel and struggle to leave. Their attempts have always been futile that they fear the long, dull ache to follow when they have no choice but to return home. Amidst the staidness of the house is an unpleasant atmosphere that always seems to arise so easily and suddenly. That they rarely converge together constitutes this perpetual sense of warfare because hostilities are liable to burst out between family members.

The family reaches a tacit understanding that Beryl, who sets her heart on leaving the house, is held responsible for this hostility that reigns the house. Resolved to break free from all the constraints, she never hesitates to cut to the core the misery of being deprived of freedom. Her ability to assert individuality in defiance of Mrs Deane’s disposition, combined with this imponderable vitality, constantly remind her sister Olive of her being a failure. That her life has been a waster plunges her into an interminable distress of which she blames on Beryl, who in return despises her for being mentally dishonest, salving conscience by trying to talk her mother round a more lenient attitude toward Beryl. The grudge that embitters both of them repulses any overture of reconciliation.

A young sculptor from London lets in a glimpse of light to Beryl’s escape. What amazes her more than the job at an exotic hat shop is their increased intimacy made possible by premeditated meals and meetings. That he feels more than an obligatory sense of responsibility for her–the conscious longing, the dread of her absence–touches on his nerve, for the inimical nature of the Deanes has imparted in him a resolution to keep clear of them. In unconscious defense he begins to frame argument against being with her, for he feels his independence being invaded.

A Charmed Circle is so well-written and penetrating, with a cold snap of a sterile voice that accentuates the hostile mood. The long narrative prose that pierces into the mind reinforces an atmosphere that under a superficial geniality runs a sinister current of tension and repression. It delves on the motives, the unspoken words that which justify the actions. Kavan meticulously metes out words that capture the passing thoughts that are often overlooked but are key to the actions. Despite the overall air of revolt and struggle for self-expression, the novel asserts a sense of hope of overcoming mental capitulation.