Friday, February 29, 2008

Somerst Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence

Maugham, W. Somerset. The Moon and Sixpence. New York: Modern Library, 1919.

I love books written the way this one was, the kind of book that fools you into thinking you’ve picked up a somewhat gentle little thing that’s matter-of-factly presenting you with this quaint little story. Then, before you know it, it’s become much more than that, a book that portends wretchedness while throwing about some philosophical challenges. Suddenly, the bad thing you just knew was going to happen happens, and you still find yourself thinking, “Ohmigod, I can’t believe that just happened!” as you flip wildly through the pages of what has practically turned into a thriller, so eager are you to find out what’s going to happen next.

I found it nearly impossible to read this book without making comparisons to another book I love Budd Schulberg’s (he’s a somewhat outmoded author these days, isn’t it? Maybe he needs to be included in the next round of this challenge) What Makes Sammy Run? Both books display despicable characters, characters willing to step all over everyone in their lives in order to fulfill their selfish goals, through the eyes of narrators who find themselves drawn to them, not quite unwillingly. These narrators are, by turns, galled, unbelieving, and, at times, admiring. And they are fascinated, nay, obsessed, with their subjects, despite, on some level, wishing they weren’t.

I like to come to most of the novels I read a little bit blind, trying not to know too much about them (which isn’t always easy, especially given my obsession with reading dust jacket copy), and to be given my sight slowly as I make my way through the pages, until I get to the end, capable of fully seeing. Then, if the subject matter has piqued my curiosity enough, I might go see what I can find to read about it (or read the Introduction, something I never actually read before I read a novel). Thus, I avoided looking up anything about this book before I read it, and happily, my copy has long since lost its dust jacket, so I was completely blind when I turned to the first page. However, about a third of the way through it, I found myself just dying to know who Charles Strickland (the book’s despicable character) really was. Knowing that Maugham included Thomas Hardy, as well as himself, in Cakes and Ale, I was pretty sure he wasn’t just making up some artist off the top of his head. A quick Wikipedia check revealed that Strickland was based on Gaugin.

Gaugin may have been a genius, but if he was anything like this Charles Strickland, he certainly isn’t the sort of genius I’d want to know. That seems to be Maugham’s point, though, that most who could wear the label “genius” probably are pretty despicable. Given the little I know about Maugham (who was apparently a huge commercial success but never much of a critical one), I would guess that he was, on some levels, comforting himself. One can imagine his thoughts, “Well, maybe I’m not acclaimed the way William Faulkner is, but maybe I have more character than he does, than any of these so-called geniuses all the critics seem to adore.” A theme that runs throughout this book is: what does it mean to have character?

Personally, I find it hard to believe Maugham wasn’t critically acclaimed, and I have a feeling that it must have more to do with the literary fashions of the time than whether or not he deserved it. He wasn’t experimenting; he wasn’t jumping on the post-modernism bandwagon. He was merely telling a good story in a rather old-fashioned way: narrator as character in the book observes someone else and paints a portrait of that person through his eyes (and what more perfect way to tell a story about a painter?). I’ve always enjoyed this sort of use of the first-person in which it’s all about “him” or “her” as “I” see it, rather than the more standard (today, at least) all about “me.” However, we do get some wonderful glimpses of the narrator (whom I’d name, but I can’t recall anywhere in the book that his name is actually revealed. If anyone has read it and knows, please feel free to chime in). This comment of his is so endearing and tells us so much about him:

I forget who it was that recommended men, for their soul’s good to do each day two things they disliked: it was a wise man, and it is a precept that I have followed scrupulously; for every day I have got up and I have gone to bed. (p. 13)

You really catch Maugham’s subtle sense of humor there, don’t you? He also has some great and beautiful moments of insight, such as here:

We seek pitifully to convey to others the treasures of our heart, but they have not the power to accept them, and so we go lonely, side-by-side but not together, unable to know our fellows and unknown by them. We are like people living in a country whose language they know so little that, with all manner of beautiful and profound things to say, they are condemned to the banalities of the conversation manual. Their brain is seething with ideas, and they can only tell you that the umbrella of the gardener’s aunt is in the house. (p. 235)

Don’t you just fall on your knees in admiration for someone with such writing talent? I do. And then while I’m down there, I bang my forehead on the floor over and over, bemoaning the fact that I will never, no matter how much I practice my craft, be able to compose such passages myself. After a few minutes, though, I stop banging my head, because I discover I’m hopeful. Hopeful since I’ve realized that Maugham is a good example of one of those popular, commercially-successful authors who indicates to me that maybe I shouldn’t despair over the masses, that maybe the masses aren’t really so bad (well, at least the masses of nearly 100 years ago) if they can appreciate someone who writes like that.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go see if I can find that copy of Cakes and Ale I know I’ve got somewhere. Oh yes, and I need a good biography of Gaugin. Anyone know of such a thing?

Cross posted here.

A Rebours (Against Nature) by J K Huysmans

In at the last gasp of February (good job it's a leap year!), one last Outmoded Authors read and my February My Year of Reading Dangerously book, A Rebours by Huysmans (Penguin Classics ISBN:0-140-44763-6).

I picked this for the latter challenge because of the profoundly depressing effect that I found La Bas by Huysmans had on me; it really made me not want to read any more by him. The description of this book - a book with basically one character locking himself away from the world and giving in to all his obsessions - led me to expect it to have the same effect. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it did not.

In fact I grew very fond of Des Esseintes, the main character, despite being firmly convinced that if he were a person stood in front of me I would want to slap him for his self-obsession, but from the safety of the written page I found parts of his personality to empathise with and like. He comes across as a rather pedantic, highly intellectual man with a tendancy to be a bit whiney but not essentially dangerous or unlikeable. And despite this being a major text of the decadent movement at the end of the nineteenth century, Des Esseintes' obsessions are quite sophisticated and socially acceptable - mostly ones you could talk about with your grandmother - not at all what I was expecting from the reference to the book in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The structure of the book is deliberate and slow. Here are plot spoilers for some of the main action in the book: Des Esseintes reads a book, gets a tortoise, has a drink, is ill, remembers some stuff, rearranges his library... This is not a book for thriller lovers! Each chapter looks at a particular aspect of his personality and explores it. For example, it looks at his library: why he reads the books he does, what attracts him to them, why he has turned his back on other aspects of literature. It does it in great depth and the effect is almost hypnotic. The personality of Des Esseintes surrounds you as you read and you are drawn into the hushed world he has created for himself, looking at his obsessions in detail. You may not agree with why he likes or dislikes something but you can appreciate his thought processes, and perhaps consider you own views on the subject in response.

He drank this liquid perfume from cups of that Oriental porcelain known as egg-shell china, it is so delicate and diaphonous; and just as he would never use any but these adorably dainty cups, so he insisted on plates and dishes of genuine silver-gilt, slightly worn so that the silver showed a little where the thin film of gold had been rubbed off, giving it a charming old-world look, a fatigued appearance, a moribund air.

After swallowing his last mouthful he went back to his study, instructing his man-servant to bring along the tortoise, which was still obstinately refusing to budge.

Outside the snow was falling. In the lamplight icy leaf-patterns could be seen glittering on the blue-black windows, and hoar-frost sparkled like melted sugar in the hollows of the bottle glass panes, all spattered with gold.'

Although Des Esseintes is the main character and the book concentrates on exploring his thoughts, beliefs and feelings there are others present, either in the action (such as it is) or in his memories so it does not become too claustrophobic. His servants, for instance and a doctor appear at times.

It was a self-indulgent book to read, I felt. I didn't feel that I learnt anything in particular from the discussions, although there are a few Latin authors mentioned I would like to get hold of. I enjoyed it though, similarly to the way I enjoy Proust; I like to immerse myself in someone else's life and mind once in a while.

Cross-posted at Eloise by the Book Piles

Thursday, February 21, 2008

G.K. Chesterton and Martin Gardner's (ed.) The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown

Chesterton, G.K., Gardner, Martin, ed. The Annotated Innocence of Father Brown. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

(The original book was published in 1911.)

Warning: if you’re going to read Father Brown, please suspend all disbelief. Then, fasten your seatbelt, hang on, and enjoy the ride. A friend of mine described the Father Brown stories to me as “fun.” I didn’t know exactly what that meant at the time, although after reading The Man Who Was Thursday, I was beginning to have a bit of a clue. Note, though, I said, “beginning to.” I had absolutely no idea just how much fun this book was going to be.

If you’re someone who loves classic cartoons, you might be able to understand what I mean when I say reading these stories is like watching a series of classic cartoons. You know how so much of what happens in a really good and clever cartoon is completely implausible and yet it tickles your imagination in such a way that you enjoy it immensely while marveling at the genius of its creator? Well, that’s Father Brown for you.

Imagine John Dixon Carr’s Gideon Fell plopped down in a fantasy world that’s as dark as the one in Pan’s Labyrinth but that portrays itself for all intents and purposes as the England or France or Scotland you know and recognize. I sat down with this book believing I was reading a collection of straightforward detective stories. I closed it wondering what genre this was: mystery? Fantasy? Horror?

So much like a cartoon was the book for me that I find it impossible to picture Father Brown as anything other than a cartoon caricature of a wise and portly monk. Chesterton didn’t provide us with much detailed description concerning Father Brown’s appearance, but we do know he had light brown hair, wore glasses, was not very tall, and dressed in the standard black of priests. However, I’ve got him in my brain as though he were a character in The Name of the Rose or something, un-bespectacled, and mostly bald. He wanders onto the scene, the voice of reason and sanity (except when he, as he often does, hypothesizes supernatural causes before discovering the real answer to the mystery) in this mad, mad world he inhabits. In this world, freshly severed heads are stolen from guillotine baskets to lead detectives astray, and small hammers are dropped from great heights in order to kill others. His solutions always sound perfectly sane and reasonable in such a world.

What made these stories even more fun was reading this annotated version. I had originally planned to read The Father Brown Omnibus, but when I went to check it out of the library, I discovered it was missing. I decided this one might be more interesting, and I’m sure I was right. The details and anecdotes Gardner provides in this edition certainly add to the enjoyment of reading it (although I will beg to differ with his statement that “the littlest priest is by all odds the second most famous mystery-solver [next to Sherlock Holmes, of course] in English literature.” I'm sure we can all come up with others who are more familiar at this point). His notes certainly helped illuminate parts of the text that would have been lost on me without them. The most delightful note he provides, though, is his explanation of who Waldo and Mildred D’Avigdor of Chesterton’s dedication are (long-time friends). Gardner includes the letter Chesterton wrote to Mildred announcing his engagement to Frances, his wife. This letter can’t help but endear any but the most stone-hearted reader to the writer (we all know that I of the marshmallow heart was completely touched). It’s too long to quote here, but I promise you it’s well worth your finding a copy of this book to read.

Those of you with less of an interest in religion than I have might find Father Brown a bit annoying at times (but you’re forewarned, at least. After all, he is a priest. I much prefer fictional priests who spout off religious dogma over fictional characters I don’t expect to do so). He definitely needs to be put in his historical place and time. The anti-Semitism bothered me the most, as it does with everything I read that was written in the early part of the twentieth century, knowing as I do what was on the horizon. However, I find his Catholic anti-Calvinism merely amusing. And you just know the atheists and cultists can’t be up to any good, right? (I will spare you my thoughts on bigoted “Christians” here.) He’s also unapologetically racist, but that, too, is nothing new for books written in this era.

My vote is that Chesterton be removed from “outmoded author” status. Let’s start a neo-Chesterton movement. I’m now ready to move on to some of the books in this edition’s bibliography, and I’m sure I’m going to start forcing him on friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers in bookstores, because, well, you know, I’m a tiny bit passionate when it comes to books and authors I love.

Cross-posted here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Razor's Edge

The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham is the first Maugham I have ever read. I've had every intention of reading Maugham for years but if it weren't for the Outmoded Author Challenge it could have been many more years before I got around to him. Razor's Edge was first published in 1944 and was Maugham's last major novel. The book takes place mostly in Europe, particularly in Paris, between the wars. All of the main characters but for the narrator are American. The narrator, a British writer who happens to be named Maugham, tells the stories of Elliott, Isabel, and Larry. There are other characters whose stories also get told, but these three are the main ones.

Elliott is a rich American who lives in Paris. His goal in life is to achieve social eminence. Appearances are everything to him. You have to be seen wearing the right clothes with the right people in the right places. Isabel is Elliott's niece and at the beginning of the story is only twenty and engaged to Larry. She is clever and pretty and is a definite product of her wealthy upbringing. She doesn't question the values of her set, nor does she consider that there might be more to life than marrying, making loads of money, having children and giving dinner parties. This of course puts her in conflict with Larry. Larry lied about his age and ran off to fly planes during World War I. During the war one of Larry's friends gave his life for Larry's. This had a profound affect on Larry who was not able to return to America and live a "normal" life afterwards.

Larry has a small income, enough to get by without working, and so spends his time "loafing" as he calls it. But he is far from loafing. He is searching for answers to life's big questions. He wants to know if there is a God and he wants to know why there is evil in the world. His loafing involves spending hours reading. When Larry turns down a job in his best friend's father's brokerage firm and decides to live in Paris for a couple of years, it pretty much spells doom for him and Isabel. To her credit she accepts his move to Paris. However, she fully expects that this is just a phase and after he is done sowing his wild oats or whatever he's doing--she doesn't understand Larry's existential crisis--she is certain he will come back to Chicago, take the job at the brokerage and make lots of money. This, as she sees it, is his duty. When the break up comes it is an amicable parting and the two remain friends.

Over the course of the book we follow Elliott who gets richer and richer and even manages to sell all his stocks and buy gold before the market crashes. He achieves the heights of society. But in the end, when he is old and near death, there are few who truly care about him.

Isabel marry's Gray, Larry's best friend and the son of the owner of the brokerage firm. Gray makes loads of money. Isabel has two daughters and gives tasteful dinner parties. They lose everything in the stock market crash. They move to Paris where they are supported by Elliott for a couple of years until Gray recovers his health. At which point they move back to America and Gray makes back all the money he lost in the market and then some. But though Isabel is fond of her husband, she wishes he were Larry.

Larry travels Europe and Asia, has some interesting experiences and reads lots. He winds up finding enlightenment in an ashram in India. Larry is happy and content and at peace. He is a good, kind, caring person. He is the kind of person we all wish we could be and try really hard to be but always fall short. He is not perfect, but he is a representation of what we might call our better selves. He is not a symbol or an allegory or anything though, he isn't a Christ figure, he's just one of those rare people who are truly and only themselves all the time.

With these three characters and all the others I haven't mentioned, Maugham shows us various lives and their outcomes and leaves it to us to make the value judgment. He does not condemn Elliott or mock Isabel, nor does he lift Larry above all as a shining example. What he does do, however, is show that we are all looking for something, our lives are all a journey toward a goal, and he shows these various lives and journeys and what it means to achieve that which is desired. No one's journey is easy.

The book was enjoyable reading. There was only one spot near the end where Larry was explaining Hinduism to Maugham that things veered into a bit of a lecture. And while I found it annoying that Maugham was the narrator and kept making comments about how he came to know certain pieces of information even though he wasn't present at the time they happened, I got used to it for the most part. Razor's Edge is not a deep, philosophical novel, it's more philosophy lite. As such, it makes the reader contemplative but not overly so. Still, it's better than a good deal of contemporary fiction that aims for the same thing Maugham did. Why he doesn't get read more often is a mystery. Perhaps it is time for a Maugham revival.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Olivia Manning - The Balkan Trilogy

I have just discovered that The Balkan Trilogy is being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 as Fortunes of War. Today was the third in a series of three programmes, two programmes allotted to each book in the trilogy. It seems that Olivia Manning is no longer an outmoded author. The dramatisation is good, with Joanna Lumley taking the part of Harriet, looking back on events and Honeysuckle Weeks as young Harriet. Both are just right for the part.

I’ve read the first two books The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City, but not yet read the third book Friends and Heroes. I am waiting for it to be delivered, so in the meantime this is just perfect. I’ll be able to listen to it in the next two episodes before I get to the book.

Friday, February 8, 2008

W. Somerset Maugham

Since writing the previous post I have written a follow-up post. See it here.

The Moon and Sixpence by W Somerset Maugham

I'd read one short story, Honolulu by W. Somerset Maugham before, which I had enjoyed, but I knew very little about him or his work and when I started to read The Moon and Sixpence I thought I could understand why Maugham is considered an “outmoded” author. I don’t think it has a good beginning; at first it didn’t grab my interest and make me want to read on. The first chapter introduces the main character, Charles Strickland, an artist, giving details of other articles and biographies that had been written about him, philosophising on the nature of art criticism. I nearly abandoned it to look for something else to read. But I’m glad I persevered because by the time I got to the second chapter I had got into the rhythm of Maugham’s style – long and sometimes convoluted sentences in long paragraphs - and found he had a sense of humour. This passage amused me:

“I forget who it was that recommended men for their soul’s good to do each day two things they disliked: it was a wise man, and it is a precept that I have followed scrupulously; for every day I have got up and I have gone to bed. But there is in my nature a strain of asceticism, and I have subjected my flesh each week to a severe mortification. I have never failed to read the Literary Supplement of The Times. It is a salutary discipline to consider the vast number of books that are written, the fair hopes with which their authors see them published, and the fate that awaits them. What chance is there that any book will make its way among that multitude? … The moral I draw is that the writer should seek his reward in the pleasure of his work and in release from the burden of his thoughts; and indifferent to aught else, care nothing for praise or censure, failure or success.”

Whilst this doesn’t progress the story at all, I began to warm to Somerset Maugham. Eventually he gets onto his subject – Charles Strickland, who was a stockbroker, a boring, commonplace man who was large and clumsy looking, “just a good, dull, honest, plain man”. This boring man then left his wife and family after seventeen years of marriage and fled to Paris, because he wanted to paint. His wife and friends would have found it more acceptable if he had left her for another woman.

I couldn’t think from the story why it was called The Moon and Sixpence but apparently the reason is that he took the title for it from an excerpt of a review of the earlier novel in the TLS in which the earlier novel's main character is described as "so busy yearning for the moon that he never saw the sixpence at his feet." Strickland yearns and lives to paint so much that I don’t think he sees anything around him at all. He’s a character who lives purely for himself and, obsessed with the desire to paint, just couldn’t care less about anyone or anything else.

After some years of living in Paris painting, living on bread and milk, in poverty and nearly dying he eventually moves to Marseille and then on to Tahiti. In Tahiti his painting flourishes. In contrast to his life in Europe Strickland is accepted for what he is, “ a queer fish”. In Tahiti they took him for granted: “In England and France he was the square peg in the round hole, but here the holes were any sort of shape, and no sort of peg was quite amiss.”

After the First World War Maugham had travelled to the South Seas. His description of Tahiti paints a beautiful picture of the island:

“Tahiti is a lofty green island, with deep folds of a darker green, in which you divine silent valleys; there is mystery in their sombre depths, down which murmur and plash cool streams, and you feel in those umbrageous places life from immemorial times has been led according to immemorial ways.”

This book is roughly based on the life of Gauguin, which led me to look at Gauguin By Himself, a massive book that contains copies of his paintings, drawings, ceramic, sculpture and prints together with his written words. This is a beautiful book which I had almost forgotten was sitting on the bottom of the bookshelves, largely unread.

The photograph is of his painting The Thatched Hut Under Palm Trees (1896-7) and as Maugham had visited the place where Gauguin lived I suppose that his description of Strickland’s hut was based on this hut. In the novel Strickland paints the inside walls of his hut with beautiful and mysterious paintings, giving the impression of being in a “great primeval forest and of naked people walking beneath the trees.” Looking at Gauguin’s paintings one has the same impression.

I wondered how the book had been reviewed in 1919 and found this article in The Guardian 2 May 1919, which concludes:

“Technically the whole thing has great interest. But as an illumination of the nature of bizarre and uncompromising genius, ready to sacrifice every person and every association that stands in the way of its fulfilment, "The Moon and Sixpence" fails through its literary accomplishment and its lack of true creative inspiration.”

I disagree. After its unpromising start I think the book succeeds. Maugham has conveyed to me the passion to create beauty behind Strickland’s (Gauguin’s) life. It has revived my interest in Gauguin’s work and makes me want to read more of Maugham’s novels and short stories. In my opinion he is not an outmoded author.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Elizabeth Bowen's Friends and Relations

Bowen, Elizabeth. Friends and Relations. New York: Avon, 1980.

(The original copyright is 1931.)

Huh? Really. That’s the first thing that comes to mind when I think of this book. The whole time I was reading it I felt the way I used to feel as a child sitting amongst the grownups on my parents’ front porch after dinner parties, listening to them talk. I’d have moments of understanding, pieces of conversation I could actually follow. Then the conversation would leap off the path into the thicket, and I’d disappear into my own little dream world until I caught a glimpse of it coming back into view again, just up ahead, and I’d run to catch up with it.

I’m not opposed to sparse writing, you know. I’m in love with Alan Garner, and not too long ago, I was raving about Joan Didion. However, when I start feeling that the writing is so sparse, surely words meant to be there have somehow faded off the page, that reading this book is like trying to talk to someone on a cell phone with bad reception, well, then, I’m not quite so keen on “sparse.” Likewise, enigmatic. I’m as game for a good enigma as anyone, always ready to exercise my problem-solving skills, such as they are, hoping I can surprise others by coming up with the answer. However, the fun of a good riddle is knowing that the answer is right there in front of you, hidden amongst the clues. A really good puzzle might distract the problem solver with irrelevant information, but it doesn’t present a wolf, a sheep, and a chicken only to tell you that the answer is a crocodile. Then again, maybe the problem is that I’m just too stupid to have seen that crocodile so obviously hovering right above everyone.

The back cover copy on the book notes that “the story reveals, by the most delicate means, the secret loves of Janet and Edward.” Okay, so I knew what was going to happen, didn’t I? I was aware and watching it from the get-go. Now, I know I tend to be about as delicate as a hippopotamus most of the time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a cat who can walk along a shelf of priceless crystal and leap off it with nary a sound of tinkling glass. I couldn’t find the cat here, though. He must have been black. It must have been midnight. Then suddenly, the hippopotamus rose up onto the shelf, the sound of shattering glass ringing in my ear. For a brief moment, I understood.

Janet was in London. Edward was missing. But then, huh? What the hell happened?

Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t really hate the book. I just didn’t understand it. All the characters seemed as though they’d be extraordinarily interesting if only I knew more about them. Bowen, described (again, in the back cover copy. I wish I had this copywriter to put a spin on my blog) as a “novelist acutely aware of every nuance of feeling,” must have shown off this awareness in other books, because I didn’t notice any passages (maybe they were just so delicate they expired when I breathed on the pages of the book?) that allowed me to get much past the faces and into the heads of the characters.

I can’t help feeling cheated. I’ve been presented with a roomful of fascinating people, but I’m not allowed to talk to them, to ask them questions, to get to know them in any real way. When they leave the room, someone will say to me, “Hope you enjoyed meeting them, because they’re all off to Alaska now and won’t be coming back.”

Perhaps the problem is that while reading this book I also happened to be reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a book that is lush with descriptions of characters’ feelings, a book that’s so much heart it beats in your hands as you turn the pages. Perhaps I’m more in the mood for that sort of book now. Maybe I’ll be better off with Bowen during the heat of the summer when I’m in need of stripping off layers of description and needless words, getting down to bare skin while sipping cold lemonade instead of hot lemon ginger tea. After all, I recently vowed to give every author I choose to read at least two chances before deciding I don’t like him or her. If someone would like to recommend a Bowen novel (Litlove, I think you might be able to do so?) suitable for this July, I will give her one more try before throwing in the towel.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Preliminary announcements

It's February and the last month of challenge. I've been so pleased with how everything turned out so far: the high level of participation, the great reviews and comments and, most of all, reading about so many new to me authors. Writers like Elizabeth Bowen, May Sarton and Marian Engel are now within my periphery of awareness when before I did not know they existed. That gratifying because at the outset this challenge came out of a selfish desire to get around to writers in which I was interested rather than any laudable notions about lifting authors from the abyss.

I've had such a good time that I've decided to make this an annual even in the hopes that at least some of you had such a good experience that you would wish to continue. With this in mind I've made some adjustments in order to keep the challenge viable.

The list of authors will be changed. All authors who garnered 3 or more different challenge readers will be shifted in order to make room for fresh additions. I know that some of us have read books without posting any reviews or commentary so it would be lovely if those participants submitted in comments the list of writers you read once the challenge ends at February 29, or before if you have a realistic idea of how many books you'll be able to finish by then. Although those authors won't be on the official list for the next challenge in September their tags will remain, of course, as will the reviews.

I will solicit new author submissions to replace those removed (and only those, I won't be making the list any longer) in August 2008. If you haven't added this blog's RSS feed to your reader you probably should if you want to keep an eye on things or have any authors in mind. I'll also be taking a look at authors suggested last year who did not make the cut.

The remaining authors will patiently wait in the list for us to try again. That way we'll have an incentive to get to books we didn't manage to this time around for lack of time or focus. (I know that my list of authors changed every other month.)

I don't know how long this challenge will last but if it has some longevity I would consider bringing back retired favourites in order for participants to have another go at them, maybe even reread to compare experiences.

Feedback, questions, ideas on improvements are all welcome. Thank you so much for making my first attempt at hosting a reading challenge such a success!

Lady Chatterley's Lover, by D.H. Lawrence

A quick note before I post my thoughts on Lady Chatterley's Lover -- I want to state for the record that I haven't written an intellectual paper since college. The following review is therefore casual and has no citations from the book. It's pure theory and opinion.

# # #

How does one review a D.H. Lawrence novel, exactly? I've read two and they seem nearly identical to me: about men who long for but are terrified of intimacy. Lawrence's male characters are so priggish and self-congratulatory of their abilities to philosophize about relationships. It makes one wonder if these are not so much novels as private diary entries with plots grafted onto them. Perhaps D.H. Lawrence was the original blogger-turned-author?

I agree with almost everything Eloise stated in her review of Lady Chatterley's Lover. She's made some keen insights -- especially the point that the book is about three characters who are outsiders from normal society. Connie Chatterley is a middle class intellectual who's uncomfortable with her husband's cold aristocratic instincts and self-congratulatory air. Her husband, in turn, is a crippled war hero and author who's uncomfortable with his paralysis and his position as a boss overseeing miners. And Oliver Mellors, Connie's lover, is a former soldier too; educated country folk who after the war and a bitter marital separation has withdrawn from all society and feels he belongs nowhere.

But here's where I disagree with Eloise on the characters -- I don't see social isolate Mellors as sympathetic. On the contrary, to me, his setting himself aside from other people is arrogant and petulant. Mellors passes off his social isolation as the result of hard living and bitter experience, when really he's just afraid of the world, and of women, and is complacent to be alone with his cowardice.

Connie Chatterley's entrance into his life busts up Mellors' obstinate flight from society, but he's not giving up without a fight. He makes several pretentious speeches in defense of his singularity and solitude, in which he declares people to be awful creatures, obsessed with money and bent on social destruction. True as that may be, it'd be far nobler if Mellors felt this way and retreated to the woods to do his own thing, gently and benevolently and without lengthy monologues. Instead, the moment he finds an audience in Connie Chatterley, he never passes up an opportunity to deliver scathing intellectual invective against humanity, particularly women. The more Mellors theorizes, the more it sounds like so much hot air masking the simple fact that he's delicate and doubtful of his own masculinity. Why else would this man, burned in the past by love (who hasn't been?), spend so much time lamenting his difficulty in finding a woman with whom he can experience a simultaneous orgasm?

How sad for him, that women are so withholding. What a tragedy. Woe is Mellors, poorly used by women. Surely this explains everything, from his bad attitude about working for the man to his willful estrangement from his young daughter.

By modern standards, Oliver Mellors, hero of Lady Chatterley's Lover, is the ultimate nightmare boyfriend: socially isolated and isolating; highly critical of others; the type to spitefully pick fights with his in-laws; a black-and-white thinker with little ability to adapt to new situations; and a deadbeat with an attitude problem, highly likely to quit jobs or be fired. And yet Connie Chatterley is obsessed with him. She finds his vulnerabilities entrancing; she can't wait to have his child. She spends most of her time ignoring everything Mellors says, instead putting her faith in the language of the body, which to me is just a fancy of way of saying she'd rather see what she wants to see and hear what she wants to hear: the romanticized story of how she got pregnant, left her husband, and lived happily ever after.

If this sounds a little like a Lifetime movie or an average episode of Dr. Phil, perhaps that's no mistake. It could be D.H. Lawrence was both highly cynical and eerily prescient about modern romance. Perhaps this is why Anais Nin said Lady Chatterley's Lover was "... our only complete modern love story". Lawrence spends 326 pages and 19 chapters raising the one question so many self-pitying emo boy bloggers are likely to ask today: "Why are girls attracted to jerks?"

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The inability of women to orgasm with men is expressed by at least two different male characters in this novel, neither of whom stops to think the fault may lie with him; or that it's nobody's fault at all. Someone must be to blame, and blame is in both occasions assigned to women. Simultaneous orgasm appears to be a major hangup of Lawrence's, and I'd be curious to know if experts on his writing can explain why. Is he a romantic, despairing the inability for men and women to truly connect? Or is this a strain of misogyny making its way to the surface? (Mellors has some harsh words for lesbians in particular.)

In any event, I agree with Eloise -- I'm not likely to read any more Lawrence. His writing style can be a chore to read.