Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor by RD Blackmore

An everyday story of country folk…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When John Ridd’s father is robbed and murdered by the infamous Doone clan, this should make young John their blood enemy. Instead, he falls in love with Lorna, the beautiful young granddaughter of Sir Ensor, the head of the Doones. Because, massive though he is and with a reputation throughout Devon and Somerset as a great wrestler, at heart John is a lover, not a fighter. Unless you threaten the people he loves…

After an exceptionally tedious first quarter, during which I many times considered abandoning the book, I gradually grew to quite enjoy it. Biographical fiction of this era tends to include the early years of the subject, meaning it’s often a long time before the story gets properly underway. Sometimes this works, if the writer fills it with interesting stuff – witness David Copperfield and his time living with the Micawbers. Other times it’s less successful, and I found John’s early life dragged, with very little incident to break up the admittedly excellent descriptions of rural life. The only real event of note is his accidental meeting with the child Lorna, whose infant beauty even then arouses his boyish fancy.

Eventually, however, John reaches manhood and, remembering the little girl, sets out to sneak into the Doone stronghold to find her again. The Doones are a gang of robbers and murderers living in a nearby valley, headed by Sir Ensor, a nobleman dispossessed of his land and fortune over a dispute between his family and the King. Although they terrorise the countryside, the locals seem to feel some strange kind of pride over them, as if they lend an air almost of glamour to the area. Which seems a little odd, since apart from murdering and robbing the men, they have an unfortunate habit of raping girls and women, and stealing them away from their families to force them into marrying the Doone men, who are not averse to a bit of polygamy. Call me old-fashioned, but the glamour escaped me…

By the side of the stream she was coming to me, even among the primroses, as if she loved them all; and every flower looked the brighter, as her eyes were on them, I could not see what her face was, my heart so awoke and trembled; only that her hair was flowing from a wreath of white violets, and the grace of her coming was like the appearance of the first wind-flower. The pale gleam over the western cliffs threw a shadow of light behind her, as if the sun were lingering. Never do I see that light from the closing of the west, even in these my aged days, without thinking of her. Ah me, if it comes to that, what do I see of earth or heaven, without thinking of her?

Having now fallen hopelessly in love with the lovely Lorna, John is conflicted about the Doones – he sees that they are bad, but doesn’t want to go against them for love of Lorna. Though remarkably, having been brought up by this horrid crew, Lorna has turned out sweet and moral and pure, and apart from old Sir Ensor whom she loves, has no high opinion of them; especially since she is being put under pressure to marry the nastiest of them all – the evil Carver Doone. (Cue booing and hissing…) Eventually, there will have to be a showdown, between the men of Exmoor and the Doones, and between John and Carver.

The major problem with the book is that it is incredibly slow. The actual plot is pretty underdeveloped – we are told about how horrible the Doones are rather than seeing it for ourselves. In fact, considering their central role, they appear very rarely. There’s a sort of detour into the politics of the time – the anti-monarchist plots and the Monmouth rebellion – but Blackmore assumes the reader’s familiarity with these events so doesn’t explain them, which left me heading off to wikipedia on more than one occasion. I don’t blame him for my ignorance, but nonetheless I always feel historical fiction should give enough background to allow the reader to understand what’s going on. There’s also a lengthy section where John is in London, where I swear nothing at all happens – nothing! John mentions afterwards that he met the King three times, but clearly this wasn’t important enough to show us as it occurred. Blackmore gives no feeling of what London may have been like in the period, beyond some discussion of bedbugs in various rooming-houses where John stayed.

Then the woods arose in folds, like drapery of awakened mountains, stately with a depth of awe, and memory of the tempests. Autumn’s mellow hand was on them, as they owned already, touched with gold, and red, and olive; and their joy towards the sun was less to a bridegroom than a father.

Yet before the floating impress of the woods could clear itself, suddenly the gladsome light leaped over hill and valley, casting amber, blue, and purple, and a tint of rich red rose; according to the scene they lit on, and the curtain flung around; yet all alike dispelling fear and the cloven hoof of darkness, all on the wings of hope advancing, and proclaiming, ‘God is here.’ Then life and joy sprang reassured from every crouching hollow; every flower, and bud, and bird, had a fluttering sense of them; and all the flashing of God’s gaze merged into soft beneficence.

Where the book does shine, though, is in its depiction of rural life. John loves his life as a farmer and through his eyes we see nature in all her kindness and cruelty. The harsh and bitter winter of 1683 is brilliantly depicted: weeks of deep snow and freezing fog followed by flooding when the thaw finally arrives. We are shown the hardships undergone by the men trying to save the farm animals stranded in the snow-covered fields, and learn of the toll, emotional and financial, as so many of the animals are lost.

The strange (to urban eyes) mix of affection and pragmatism the farmers have for their animals is beautifully described, making me long for those earlier times when farming seemed somehow less cruel, more natural, than our soulless meat production factories of today. We are shown the dependence of the community on abundant harvests and the way they come together first to bring in the crops and then to celebrate. The description of the harvest itself is wonderfully done, full of warmth as Blackmore describes the age-old rituals that surround this most important point of the rural year. For this picture of farming life alone, the book is well worth reading.

There is also a good deal of stuff about the place of women in this society, which I’m fairly sure is meant to be tongue-in-cheek humorous rather than hideously sexist, though sometimes the dividing line is so faint as to be invisible. Certainly John is transparent enough to let us see that Lorna’s beauty of face and figure is as important to him as any loveliness of soul she may possess…

“What are you doing here, Annie?” I inquired rather sternly, being vexed with her for having gone so very near to frighten me.

“Nothing at all,” said our Annie shortly. And indeed it was truth enough for a woman. Not that I dare to believe that women are such liars as men say: only that I mean they often see things round the corner, and know not which is which of it. And indeed I never have known a woman (though right enough in their meaning) purely and perfectly true and transparent, except only my Lorna; and even so, I might not have loved her, if she had been ugly.

But there are also lovely sections, especially between John and his sister Annie, where John thinks he is showing his masculine superiority while in fact Annie is quietly guiding him and winding him round her feminine little finger. Much of John’s interactions with the many females in his life left me quietly chuckling, and suspecting that the women were chuckling too behind his back, but affectionately.

As the book nears its conclusion, the pace thankfully picks up and there are some fine dramatic scenes to end on. Is it a happy-ever-after or a tear-jerking tragedy though? Well, if you want to know the answer to that question, I guess you’ll just have to read it for yourself…

Book 10 of 90

The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells

The beast in man…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Shipwrecked, Edward Prendick is rescued and finds himself on an island in the eastern Pacific Ocean, inhabited only by scientist Dr Moreau and his assistant Dr Montgomery – and some strange creatures that appear half-human and half-beast. As Prendick becomes more familiar with what Dr Moreau is doing on the island, he is horrified at the cruelty and danger of his experiments.

While there are some horrific images in this novella and some scenes of real animal cruelty, Wells doesn’t linger too much over them, and the book says so much about the world Wells was living in that, squeamish though I am, I found this a great, thought-provoking read. The hellishness of the images is important to the underlying points that Wells is making, and therefore in no way gratuitous.

Wells’ writing is brilliant, making this a tense and frightening adventure as well as a novel stuffed full of ideas. Like so many of the adventure writers of his time, Wells clearly understood that any book has to be first and foremost interesting and exciting, making the reader willing to turn the pages and absorb the deeper meanings without it beginning to feel like either a text book or a polemical rant. Read purely as an adventure, this is a dark and terrifying story indeed, from the first pages when Prendick and his fellow survivors are afloat on an open sea with no food and running out of fresh water, to the scenes on the island when Dr Moreau’s experiments go horrifically wrong.

But it’s what the book says about Wells’ society that lifts it to the status of a true classic, and since I find it impossible to discuss any of that without spoilers, I suggest anyone who wants to read the book stops reading my post at this point. In short, I highly recommend both the story and the Oxford World’s Classics edition, which contains an informative introduction written by Darryl Jones, who goes into the themes of the book much more deeply and knowledgeably than I’m about to.

* * * * * * * * *

Dr Moreau’s experiments are an extreme form of vivisection – an attempt to give animals the characteristics of humans, such as the ability to walk upright, to speak, and so on. To do this, he puts them through a process of unspeakable cruelty and, although Wells doesn’t go into a mass of detail, he makes it very clear what is happening and leaves the reader in no doubt of the appalling suffering of the beasts. Intriguingly, the book is not an anti-vivisection tract, however. Prendick, who seems to speak for Wells, accepts the necessity and benefits of vivisection, as he sees it. His objections to Moreau’s experiments are two-fold – firstly, that not enough consideration is given to minimising the suffering of the animals and, secondly, that Moreau’s experiments have no beneficial point – science for science’s sake, part of the tradition of “mad science” that was being explored in so many books of the period.

Again, as in The Time Machine, Wells is also looking at the questions raised by evolution. At first, Prendick thinks Moreau is experimenting on men to turn them into beasts, and is utterly horrified at what he clearly sees as blasphemous. On learning the truth, that beasts are being made human-like, he still feels disgust, but not to the same degree. The suggestion implicit in evolution, that man ascended from the beast and is, in fact, still no more than an animal, was clearly one that was still troubling society, particularly with its seeming contradiction of the idea of creation as told in the Bible. Moreau’s beasts are only part of the horror here, though. Wells also shows how quickly the shipwreck survivors descend to bestial behaviour in the face of starvation.

There are also hints in this theme about the question of separate races, a kind of hierarchy of superiority, with, of course, white people at the top. Black people are shown as at the bottom of the heap, closer to the ape, but Wells manages to disparage Jews too. Again, one has to allow for the time of writing, but these hints don’t sit well in a modern context. In his introduction, Darryl Jones clarifies that this ties in with the then prevalent theory of racial polygeny – the idea that there was more than one line of evolutionary descent, that all humans do not share common ancestry.

HG Wells

If Wells’ acceptance of evolution (and therefore implicit rejection of the Biblical creation story) wasn’t enough to upset religious leaders, then I imagine his own creation of a religion specifically designed to control and subjugate the beasts would have done it very effectively, especially based as it is on a kind of beast-ish bastardisation of the Commandments. It reminded me of Marx’s description of religion as the “opiate of the masses”, though whether that’s a connection Wells wished us to make I can’t say.

Jones also puts the book into a tradition of “island novel”, a form that was used as a way to study man isolated from the constraints of civilisation – Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, The Coral Island, etc. The island in this book is set very close in location to Galapagos, the island which, in legend at least, gave Darwin his first ideas about how evolution worked. When things break down on the island, Wells shows how quickly the creatures revert to their original beast, but the true horror is that, on his return to civilisation, Prendick’s eyes have been opened to such a degree to the evolutionary closeness of man and animal, that he can see only the innate beast in the behaviour of the people around him.

Superbly written, I found the depth of the ideas it contained vastly outweighed the horror of the imagery. Not one I shall forget in a hurry, that’s for sure.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics, via Amazon Vine UK.

Book 8 of 90

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The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins

Seeds of evil…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

Brothers Neil and Calum work as foresters in Ardmore in the Scottish highlands. Calum is a simple-minded but happy soul, his twisted, hunched back making him clumsy on the ground, but once he is climbing in his beloved trees he is agile and sure-footed. Neil, the older brother, has devoted his life to looking after Calum, resenting every slight and insult that’s been directed at him far more than Calum himself. Now they have been sent to the estate of Lady Runcie-Campbell to gather cones from the trees in her woods, prior to the woods being chopped down as part of the war effort.

But Lady Runcie-Campbell’s gamekeeper, Duror, has taken a strong dislike to them, especially to Calum. Partly this is because Calum’s soft heart has led him to free animals caught in Duror’s traps, but mainly it’s an irrational horror of the stunted body and mind of the man, mirroring Duror’s own stunted life, which has turned out so differently from what he expected. Duror’s young wife whom he loved was struck by an unspecified illness three years after they wed, leaving her bedridden and obese. Now, twenty years on, she is needy and whiny, mainly because Duror makes it so plain that he can’t bear to spend time in her company. Duror has buried deep within himself his resentment at the unfairness of his life, as he sees it, but something about the little hunchback Calum has triggered his pent-up anger, turning him into a malevolent, bullying monster.

Hidden among the spruces at the edge of the ride, near enough to catch the smell of larch off the cones and to be struck by some of those thrown, stood Duror the gamekeeper, in an icy sweat of hatred, with his gun aimed all the time at the feeble-minded hunchback grovelling over the rabbit. To pull the trigger, requiring far less force than to break a rabbit’s neck, and then to hear simultaneously the clean report of the gun and the last obscene squeal of the killed dwarf would have been for him, he thought, release too, from the noose of disgust and despair drawn, these past few days, so much tighter.

The Second World War is happening in the background, so that this small community is missing young men. Lady Runcie-Campbell is only in charge because her husband is away in the army, and obviously, being a woman, she’s not very good at man management. (Well, it was written in 1955.) She’d prefer not to know about anything that might disrupt her perfect lifestyle or prick her conscience, like the atrocious conditions the cone-gatherers are expected to live in, so leaves everything she can up to Duror. She is always striving to become a better Christian and wants her children to grow up with true Christian values. On the other hand, she has been tasked by her husband to make sure their son grows up to be a true aristocrat, confident in his superior breeding and properly haughty to the hoi-polloi. Lady Runcie-Campbell’s own upbringing means she sees no problem in reconciling these things, but her son shows an irritating capacity to feel sympathy for the people she bullies and demeans.

The still is from a BBC Bitesize production for use in schools as a teaching aid.

As a Scottish classic, I tried hard to love this book, but failed, though I certainly didn’t hate it either. It has an air of impending doom from the first pages, a tragedy so well signalled that the end is never really in doubt. This can work, so long as the journey is interesting enough. Here, while the writing is skilled and often very powerful, the characters never came to life for me, each feeling like a representative of an aspect of humanity that Jenkins wanted to show, rather than a truly rounded individual. It comments a little on the changing social order of the time, when the lower classes were no longer prepared to accept without criticism the inequality in society, nor to obey without question the orders of their social superiors. But it does it in a way that I found rather obvious, without nuance. There’s a similar lack of subtlety in the direct comparison it draws between Duror’s irrational hatred of the hunchbacked Calum and the atrocities carried out by the Nazis. I feel the author should sometimes leave the reader to do some of the work.

He had read that the Germans were putting idiots and cripples to death in gas chambers. Outwardly, as everybody expected, he condemned such barbarity; inwardly, thinking of idiocy and crippledness not as abstractions but as embodied in the crouchbacked cone-gatherer, he had profoundly approved.

Robin Jenkins

Elsewhere, religious symbolism abounds in an Old Testament, Garden of Eden corrupted by nasty humanity kind of way, but it’s all a bit simplistic – the good people are so very innocent, and the bad people are hissably dastardly villains. There’s an odd episode in the middle when the brothers visit the nearby town, where everyone is preternaturally nice to them, in too stark contrast to the evil that surrounds them in the woods. It reminded me a little in tone of Of Mice and Men – the book that taught me how easily pathos can turn to bathos if an author isn’t careful. Jenkins narrowly avoids bathos, but in the process he also loses the emotionalism, the light and shade, that might have lifted this book above being a simple allegory of good and evil. My lack of belief in the characters as people meant that the long-anticipated tragic ending left me disappointingly unmoved, despite my admiration for the prose.

Book 7 of 90

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

“…the slaughterous red, luscious and fantastic…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

(This review contains mild spoilerish bits, so if you haven’t yet read the book, do it now and then pop back… 😉 )

We first meet our unnamed narrator when she is in Monte Carlo, working as the paid companion to an elderly American lady, Mrs Van Hopper. Still more girl than woman, the narrator is shy and unsophisticated, not bothering much about the clothes she wears or the style of her hair. Mrs Van Hopper scrapes an acquaintance with Maxim de Winter, a rich and handsome Englishman staying in the hotel alone because, as Mrs Van Hopper informs the narrator, his wife recently died in a tragic sailing accident. Our girl is rather dazzled by this man of the world who so easily deals with all the little social problems she finds so difficult, and he in turn seems to like her quietness and unadorned simplicity. Within a few weeks, Maxim proposes and finally, thank goodness, our narrator has a name – the second Mrs de Winter.

(FF’s Sixth Law: Unnamed narrators should never be used by authors who would like people to review their books.)

The book begins, of course, with one of the most famous opening lines in literature – “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” The ensuing dream sequence acts as a prologue and warning of what is to follow, and straight away du Maurier builds up an atmosphere full of unease. As Mrs de W2 in imagination moves towards the house, she describes the lush vegetation taking back the once cultivated grounds and gardens, now growing out of control. There’s an earthiness and sensuality to the descriptions, and a sense of growth and decay – a kind of raw, malignant vitality that seems to represent the first Mrs de Winter, Rebecca, while being a stark contrast to the rather sexless childlike personality of Mrs de W2. It’s a magnificent start to the book, setting the mood superbly for what is to follow.

I saw that the garden had obeyed the jungle law, even as the woods had done. The rhododendrons stood fifty feet high, twisted and entwined with bracken, and they had entered into alien marriage with a host of nameless shrubs, poor, bastard things that clung about their roots as though conscious of their spurious origin. A lilac had mated with a copper beech, and to bind them yet more closely to one another the malevolent ivy, always an enemy to grace, had thrown her tendrils about the pair and made them prisoners.

The book is famously compared to Jane Eyre, but the dead Rebecca is much more vividly alive in Manderley than the madwoman in Mr Rochester’s attic ever is. She infuses every room with the strength of her personality, as our narrator flits through the house like a ghost, or like the lowliest little maid, afraid to touch anything. Beautiful and vibrant, no-one who knew Rebecca remained untouched – it seems to Mrs de W2 that everyone adored her, some to the point of obsession. Even Mrs de W2’s beloved dog Jasper was Rebecca’s dog first. Gradually Mrs de W2 begins to think that Maxim made a mistake in marrying her – that he’s still in love with Rebecca. And then one day, a storm leads to the discovery of Rebecca’s lost boat, and suddenly everything Mrs de W2 thinks she knows about Rebecca and her husband is turned on its head…

All three of the female characters in the book are brilliantly drawn; dead Rebecca, her glittering exterior hiding a more complex personality underneath, whom we only get to know through other people’s memories of her; the housekeeper Mrs Danvers, whose grief for her first mistress makes her cold and cruel to the point of madness to the woman who has replaced her; and Mrs de W2 herself, a woman who seems to exist only to serve as an adjunct to people who need a doormat, moving from being the paid companion of a peevish and demanding elderly lady to becoming the unpaid companion of a peevish and bullying middle-aged man. I couldn’t help but wonder if life with Mrs Van Hopper wouldn’t have been more fun in the end…

Oh, I do apologise to Maxim fans! The first time I read the book many years ago, I’m sure I fell a little in love with Maxim myself. This time round, I wanted to slap him with the proverbial wet fish. He treats Mrs de W2 as just slightly lower down the social pecking order than Jasper the dog for most of the book. Granted, she kinda asks for it but she’s only young. Too young, Maxim – too, too young for a man of your age! Patting a woman on the head, physically or metaphorically, is never a good idea – if you behaved like that to Rebecca no wonder she turned out as she did! Couldn’t you have reassured Mrs de W2 – told her you loved her, maybe even called her by her name occasionally? Why were your tender little feelings so much more important than hers? Your behaviour at the party was a piece of shameful bullying and a man of your age should have shown more understanding, and a bit of kindness. And, you know what? Last time I forgave you for what you did. But not this time! You behaved abominably and you should have paid a higher price! And don’t think you can wheedle your way back into my affections just by looking like Laurence Olivier…

Clearly my attitude to men who treat women like doormats has changed somewhat over the years! More seriously, though, the book gives a great picture of the relative positions of the genders at the time, especially how Rebecca’s unconventional behaviour, which would have barely merited a raised eyebrow had she been a man, put her beyond the social pale as a woman. Du Maurier is just as incisive in her portrayal of the British class system in operation, with the squirearchy ready to build a defensive shield round one of their own regardless of his merits or otherwise.

That corner in the drive, too, where the trees encroach upon the gravel, is not a place in which to pause, not after the sun has set. When the leaves rustle, they sound very much like the stealthy movement of a woman in evening dress, and when they shiver suddenly, and fall, and scatter away along the ground, they might be the patter, patter, of a woman’s hurrying footstep, and the mark in the gravel the imprint of a high-heeled satin shoe.

But as always with du Maurier it’s the atmosphere of growing tension that gives the book its true greatness. Even though we more or less know how it ends within the first two chapters, du Maurier holds enough secrets in reserve to ensure the reader is kept in suspense all the way through. The descriptive writing is fantastic, creating strong visual images and making both the house and grounds of Manderley become living things, playing their own role in the unfolding drama. If there’s anyone left out there who hasn’t already read this masterpiece of psychological suspense, then I highly recommend you grab it as soon as you can!

Audiobook

I part read/part listened to the book this time round. Anna Massey’s narration is very good – she has just the right kind of posh English accent for the subject matter, and every word is enunciated clearly. She does it as a straight reading; i.e., she doesn’t “act” the parts, though she does differentiate the voices to some extent. I wasn’t always totally thrilled by her “voices” – Maxim, for example, sounded a little gruffer than I would have gone for. But that’s simply a matter of personal interpretation. Overall I thoroughly enjoyed her reading, and would look out for her as a narrator again.

Book 6 of 90

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The Time Machine by HG Wells

A vision of the future…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In Victorian England, a group of friends have gathered for dinner to find that their host is absent. He soon arrives, dishevelled and grubby, and starving. Once he’s cleaned up and eaten, he tells them why he was late. He has invented a machine that allows him to travel through all four dimensions – a time machine – and has been on a trip to the far distant future. There, he has seen the result of millennia of evolution, with mankind breaking into two distinct sub-species – the peaceful, childlike, vegetarian Eloi and the cruel and evil Morlocks. The Eloi live above ground in the sunshine, spending their days in idle playfulness, but when night falls they huddle together for safety. The Morlocks live underground and can’t bear daylight, but at night they emerge from their tunnels…

While this is a book that says a whole lot about loads of things, first and foremost it’s a great adventure yarn and none of the over-analysis (with which I’m just about to join in!) should take away from the fact that at heart it’s simply a jolly good story – the kind of thing at which the Victorian adventure writers, like Wells himself, Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard and others, excelled. It’s full of great imagery and dire danger, and is hugely imaginative. On the other hand, it tells us a great deal about Victorian concerns regarding science and society at the time of writing in 1895. Evolution was a subject being much debated, as was the rising political philosophy of communism, and Wells works concerns about both of these into his story.

As he tells his tale, the Time Traveller muses on why mankind should have evolved as it has by the year 802,701, and with each new piece of information that comes to him, he reassesses his theories. The Eloi, he thinks, might prove that mankind needs challenge in order to develop – having achieved a perfect life with nothing left to strive for, the Eloi’s intelligence has faded and they have become less than their ancestors. The Time Traveller thinks they may be the outcome of a move towards an egalitarian, communist society at some time in the past… until he meets the Morlocks. Were the Eloi, he speculates, descended from the wealthy – the ruling classes – living comfortable existences while the workers struggled? And are the Morlocks therefore the descendants of those workers, forced into intolerable conditions in mines and factories, with no time to enjoy sunshine and the finer things of life? The point he’s making about Victorian society and working conditions is clear but he doesn’t labour it to the point of distraction from his tale. (It reminded me of Kate Summerscale’s discussion of contemporary Victorian fears about “degeneration” in her book The Wicked Boy – the idea that if the theory of evolution is accepted, then logic dictates that regression is as possible as advancement, and that some believed that the criminality of the poor was proof that this might already be happening.)

Given that the famous Scopes Monkey Trial, over whether evolution should be banned from being taught in American schools, was still some thirty years in the future, the question of geological time versus Biblical time was still a matter of controversy in some quarters (still is!), but Wells tacitly accepts the science of geological time’s vastness – that the world has existed long enough for evolution to have happened at all. But then the Morlocks steal the time machine, so the Time Traveller has to put philosophising to one side and get on with the adventure…

Dare I watch it?

I read the new Oxford World’s Classics edition of the book, which is edited by Roger Luckhurst, Professor in Modern and Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. His introduction is excellent – clear, concise and jargon-free. He starts with a mini-biography of Wells, then goes on to discuss his style, putting his early books more into the category of scientific romance than science fiction which hadn’t really got under way back then, although Wells was to become influential on future writers in the genre.

As well as discussing the scientific and social points I’ve mentioned above, Luckhurst also shows how Wells was referencing and responding to literary and artistic movements of his time, especially the then popular trend for utopian novels. Luckhurst discusses Wells’ position in relation to other contemporary writers, suggesting a class divide (almost inevitable in Britain), with relatively lower class, less elitely educated writers like Wells and Haggard being looked down on by the snobby modernists – Woolf, James et al. Wells himself apparently poked fun at the convoluted sentence structure and internalisation so beloved of the snobs modernists, eschewing their elitism in favour of telling a darn good yarn. I know whose side I’m on!

HG Wells

The book also includes two essays by Wells on scientific issues of the day, plus an alternative version of the vision of the far future in The Time Machine – Luckhurst explains that the story was printed in a variety of different forms, as Wells continued to tinker with it throughout his life, never fully satisfied with it. There are also great notes, clearly explaining any terms that may be unfamiliar to a modern audience, and indicating where Wells is referencing other works or artistic or scientific movements.

The story of course is brilliant – it’s a classic for the reason that it’s hugely enjoyable to read. But I must say the reading this time was greatly enhanced for me by the extras included in this excellent little volume, just as I found with my other encounter with Roger Luckhurst as editor of The Classic Horror Stories of HP Lovecraft. Reading this reminded me that, while it’s great to be able to download classics free of charge, sometimes it’s well worth investing in a well put together and informatively edited edition instead. Highly recommended – story and book both.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics, via Amazon Vine UK.

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The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov

“Blood is cheap on those red fields…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the-white-guardIt is 1918, and Kiev in the Ukraine is at the swirling centre of the forces unleashed by war and revolution. The three Turbin siblings live in the house of their recently deceased mother in the city. They are White Russians, still loyal to the Russian Tsar, hoping against hope that he may have escaped the Bolsheviks and be living still. But there are other factions too – the German Army have installed a puppet leader, the Hetman Skoropadsky, and the Ukranian peasantry are on the march in a nationalist movement, under their leader Petlyura. This is the story of a few short days when the fate of the city seems up for grabs, and the lives of the Turbins, like so many in those turbulent times, are under constant threat.

Great and terrible was the year of Our Lord 1918, of the Revolution the second. Its summer abundant with warmth and sun, its winter with snow, highest in its heaven stood two stars: the shepherds’ star, eventide Venus; and Mars – quivering, red.

I found the beginning of this book rather difficult because I had no idea who all the various factions and real-life characters were, nor what they were attempting to achieve. But I soon realised that in this I differed less from the fictional characters than I first thought. This is a book about confusion and betrayal, shifting allegiances, chaos and fear. Bulgakov takes a panoramic approach, following one character and then panning off to another. This gives it an episodic feel and adds to the sense of events moving too quickly for the people involved ever to fully grasp. The Turbins actually aren’t in it a lot of the time, but they provide a thread for us to catch at in the maze, and a human side to the story for us to care about.

One of the early episodes tells the story of the soldier Victor, a friend of the Turbins, who with 39 companions is ordered to defend the city from the approaching forces of Petlyura. Ill-equipped and insufficiently clothed for the extreme cold, two of the men die of frostbite and the rest are lucky to survive. They achieve nothing. While reading this, I was simultaneously reading the beginning of Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, where he talks of the mass mobilisation of workers and peasants into the Russian army to fight against Germany in WW1. His description of the ill-trained, poorly-equipped troops dying needlessly in vast numbers is chillingly similar and I found that each book lent verisimilitude to the other.

Mikhail Bulgakov at his Moscow flat, 1935. Photograph: © Collection Roger-Viollet
Mikhail Bulgakov at his Moscow flat, 1935.
Photograph: © Collection Roger-Viollet

Although the Turbins are on the side of the Tsar, the book itself doesn’t seem to take a political stance. If anything, it paints an equally despicable picture of all the various faction leaders, as cowards hiding behind the men they send carelessly to their deaths. As senior officers on all sides run into hiding, middle-ranking officers are left to decide whether to make a stand or disband their troops, many of them no more than young boys in cadet corps. It gives an only too credible feeling for the chaos in the city, for people not knowing what’s happening, and for each new rumour spreading like wildfire. Amidst all this, we see odd glimpses of life continuing – boys out playing in the snow, workers making their way to their jobs, people shopping. Through the Turbin brothers, Nikolka and Alexei, we see the battle each man must individually face between fear and heroism, while Elena, their sister, must wait at home, praying for their safety.

In the gaps between scenes of extreme brutality, Bulgakov lets us glimpse his love for the city. He describes the streets his characters pass through, the alleyways they use to escape, the ancient cathedral, the huge statue of Saint Vladimir on the hill above the city. But we are never allowed to forget the approaching threat…

But the brightest light of all was the white cross held by the gigantic statue of St Vladimir atop Vladimir Hill. It could be seen from far, far away and often in summer, in thick black mist, amid the osier-beds and tortuous meanders of the age-old river, the boatmen would see it and by its light would steer their way to the City and its wharves. In winter the cross would glow through the dense black clouds, a frozen unmoving landmark towering above the gently sloping expanse of the eastern bank, whence two vast bridges were flung across the river. One, the ponderous Chain Bridge that led to the right-bank suburbs, the other high, slim and urgent as an arrow that carried the trains from where, far away, crouched another city, threatening and mysterious: Moscow.

St Vladimir watching over the city...
St Vladimir watching over the city…

As the chaos worsens, so we see the atrocities that are never far from war – the criminals jumping on the lack of order to terrorise an already demoralised citizenry, the bodies left unidentified and unclaimed in the City’s morgue, the wounded frightened to seek help for fear of capture. Not quite knowing who every faction was made it even more unsettling, though I wondered if Bulgakov’s first readers would have known, and so might have read it differently.

A truly brilliant book that, while concentrating on one small city, gives a brutal and terrifyingly believable picture of the horrors unleashed in the wake of bloody revolution. And here we are, one hundred years later, with Moscow again invading the Ukraine – this troubled and divided territory still fighting what is essentially the same war…

The snow would just melt, the green Ukranian grass would grow again and weave its carpet over the earth… The gorgeous sunrises would come again… The air would shimmer with heat above the fields and no more traces of blood would remain. Blood is cheap on those red fields and no one would redeem it.

No one.

rrr-challenge-logo-finalBook 2 in the Reading the Russian Revolution Challenge

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The Classics Club Spin #15

Rien ne va plus…

classics club logo 2

The Classics Club is holding its 15th Spin, and my second. The idea is to list 20 of the books on your Classics Club list before this Friday, 10th March. On Friday, the Classics Club will post the winning number. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by May 1, 2017. Frankly I have no idea how I’m going to fit another book into my over-stuffed schedule over that period, but I’m sure it will all work out somehow! I shall stock up on medicinal chocolate (for energy, you know) and warn my therapist to be on stand-by…

So here’s my list. I’ve selected it on the basis of mostly including books I already own, and have included some from all five of the categories in my CC list – American fiction, English fiction, Scottish fiction, crime fiction and science fiction. I’m in the mood for some of these more than others, in truth, so here’s hoping for a good spin…

1) The American by Henry James

2) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

3) The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett

4) The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham

5) The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells

6) My Antonia by Willa Cather

7) No Name by William Wilkie Collins

8) The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott

9) The 39 Steps by John Buchan

10) Earth Abides by George R Stewart

11) Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald

12) Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore

13) The New Road by Neil Munro

14) The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

15) The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

16) Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr

17) Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

18) Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

19) The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John le Carré

20) Way Station by Clifford D Simak

* * * * * * *

If I had to choose, I’d like to see The Tiger in the Smoke come up, or The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. There are some I’d love to read but are quite long so will be tough to fit in, but the wheel is already spinning and my bets have all been placed…

Which one would you like to see win?

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

The root of all evil…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

our-mutual-friendOld Mr Harmon has been a tyrannical father to his children, so that the odd terms of his will are in keeping with his character. He has left the bulk of his fortune to his one surviving son, John, on condition that he marries a girl his father has chosen for him – a girl he has never met. Bella Wilfer is a mercenary young lady, quite willing to go along with this scheme. But when John drowns on his way home from foreign parts, Bella finds herself in the unsatisfactory position of having to go into mourning for a man she didn’t know, without the benefit of receiving any of the wealth she was expecting. The money passes to the Boffins, who decide it is their duty to do something to help Bella.

Jesse Hexam is the man who dragged the body identified as John Harmon from the Thames. This is how he makes his living, rowing up and down the river looking for corpses, often taking his daughter Lizzie along to row for him. But during the identification of this corpse, Lizzie catches the eye of a young and rather unscrupulous lawyer, Eugene Wrayburn. Eugene’s pursuit of Lizzie will affect many people around them, leading to jealousy, resentment and dark deeds. But, as always with Dickens, there are possibilities for redemption too…

It was a foggy day in London, and the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing, and choking; inanimate London was a sooty spectre, divided in purpose between being visible and invisible, and so being wholly neither. Gaslights flared in the shops with a haggard and unblest air, as knowing themselves to be night-creatures that had no business abroad under the sun; while the sun itself, when it was for a few moments dimly indicated through circling eddies of fog, showed as if it had gone out, and were collapsing flat and cold.

Hexam and Lizzie look for corpses
Hexam and Lizzie look for corpses

Much though I love Dickens, considering him the greatest writer of all time, I’ve never been blind to his faults. It’s always been a balancing act for me – the anger beneath the social satire, the wonderfully created and unforgettably caricatured minor characters, the brilliantly atmospheric descriptive writing; all offset against the parade of nauseatingly saccharin heroines, the occasional descent into an archness I try hard not to call twee, and the fact that sometimes the plots don’t quite gel – a result of them being serialised, I assume, and Dickens not really having decided on an ending when he published the beginning.

In this book, the seesaw falls slightly more to the side of the weaknesses than the strengths. I believe this was the last complete book he wrote, and he was involved in a serious accident in the middle of writing, when he was on a train that became derailed, leaving many people injured. He was unhurt physically but apparently the experience left him shocked. Perhaps it was that, or perhaps age was simply tiring him, but for me, this books lacks some of what makes his great books great.

The Boffins
The Boffins

The major theme of the book is money – how possession of it corrupts, and how lack of it causes great suffering. He satirises the class of society that hangs around the rich, especially the nouveau riche. Mr and Mrs Veneering seem to have come from nowhere, but their lavish hospitality wins them a whole host of new “oldest friends”. The Lammles show the pitfalls of marrying for money, each believing the other is wealthy till after the wedding, when they discover that they have each married a mirror image of themselves – another person on the make. Having inherited the Harmon wealth, kind old “Noddy” Boffin finds himself the target of conmen and would-be thieves, and begins to admire and emulate some of the great misers he finds in books. And, through old Betty Higden’s story, Dickens shows the iniquities of the Poor Laws of the time, and how many people would rather starve than end up living on the state’s merciless mercy.

That night she took refuge from the Samaritan in his latest accredited form, under a farmer’s rick; and if – worth thinking of, perhaps, my fellow-Christians – the Samaritan had in the lonely night “passed by on the other side,” she would have most devoutly thanked High Heaven for her escape from him.

All good, and all typically Dickensian, but it seemed to me that the old anger wasn’t there; especially with the Poor Law stuff, I felt his tone was resigned, almost defeated. The characters are well-drawn to serve his purpose of showing the shallowness and greed of this portion of society, but on the whole they’re not caricatured enough to make them unforgettable, in the way that, say, Sairey Gamp is, or Uriah Heep. In fact, I can’t think of a character from this book whose name has really become part of the general public consciousness, as, for example, Fagin has, or Mr Micawber, or Scrooge.

The plot takes an age to get going and I found myself wondering exactly where the focus was – again not a thing I usually find with Dickens. There are always multiple sub-plots and meandering detours, but generally it’s clear where the plot is heading. I found Bella’s story too light to hang a whole book around, while Lizzie’s story, much more darkly satisfying, keeps disappearing for large parts of the book. But the real problem with the plot is the end, so here goes with a major spoiler….

Betty Higden flees from the tender mercies of "the Parish"
Betty Higden flees from the tender mercies of “the Parish”

* * * * * * * MAJOR SPOILER ALERT * * * * * * *

The idea that Mr and Mrs Boffin together with Mr Rokesmith keep up a charade for literally years to teach Bella a lesson is simply too unbelievable even for this reader who happily swallows most of Dickens’ amazing coincidences and contrivances without blinking. The thing is, Noddy’s descent into miserliness is one of the more interesting parts of the book, so that when it turns out to have been an act, it takes away much of the book’s substance. Furthermore, I feel I have to point out that the eventual division of the money represents a major fraud on the Crown, to whom it in fact belongs!

It feels to me as if Dickens had intended the miser storyline to be “true”, and then, having written himself into a corner, had to hastily contrive this twist to get himself back out – the major peril of publishing in instalments.

* * * * * * * END OF MAJOR SPOILER * * * * * * *

Bella and Lizzie are both good heroines, though. Lizzie in particular shows herself to be strong and self-reliant, and the scenes where she resists her own inclinations in the matter of love, or where she sees her brother’s selfishness clearly but still loves him, make her one of his most likeable. Bella’s redemption from mercenary little madam to loving little wife and mother has its nauseating moments, but on the whole she’s rounded and believable, and her alteration is given a proper foundation. Jenny Wren is also intriguing, and perhaps the most traditionally Dickensian caricature in the book – although Dickens clearly liked her, so that the caricature is kind with none of his occasional cruelty. But what on earth was Dickens playing at with all this daughters treating their fathers as children stuff? It was silly enough when it was only Jenny who kept referring to her father as her ‘bad child’ but when Bella started doing it with her father too… well, I’m still wondering what was going on in Dickens’ mind! Though perhaps I don’t really want to know.

Jenny Wren and Mr Riah
Jenny Wren and Mr Riah

I was delighted with the positive way Dickens portrayed Mr Riah, his one Jewish character. Not only is Mr Riah shown as kind and generous, but Dickens takes the opportunity to discuss anti-Semitism and the unfairness of how minorities are often judged by the behaviour of the worst of them. This is Dickens at his best, when he tackles an injustice head on, and I felt it went a long way towards making up for Fagin – a great Dickensian character but not exactly flattering in its portrayal of Jewishness.

“I reflected – clearly reflected for the first time, that in bending my neck to the yoke I was willing to wear, I bent the unwilling necks of the whole Jewish people. For it is not, in Christian countries, with the Jews as with other peoples. Men say, ‘This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.’ Not so with the Jews. Men find the bad among us easily enough – among what peoples are the bad not easily found? – but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say ‘All Jews are alike.’”

Nobody does dark and wicked deeds quite like Dickens, and happily there’s plenty of evil to make us shiver. The filthy and polluted Thames runs through the heart of the book, appearing again and again as the place where the foulest acts take place, and Dickens uses it to great effect as he builds up an atmosphere of tension and horror. I’ve included enough spoilers, so I’ll just say that these river scenes are up there with the best of Dickens’ writing.

The white face of the winter day came sluggishly on, veiled in a frosty mist; and the shadowy ships in the river slowly changed to black substances; and the sun, blood-red on the eastern marshes behind dark masts and yards, seemed filled with the ruins of a forest it had set on fire.

Dark deeds by the river...
Dark deeds by the river…

To sum up, then, there are too many weaknesses in this for it to count as one of Dickens’ absolute best, but then he sets the bar so high. Even as one of his second-tier novels, it’s still a greater book than the vast majority out there, and its strengths still justify a five-star rating. When you’re the greatest writer the world has ever known, you can get away with an occasional clunky plot device or two…

Book 5 of 90Book 5 of 90

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Animal Farm by George Orwell

“Fake news” and “alternative facts”…

🙂 🙂 🙂

animal-farm-2Inspired by a dream had by Old Major, the white boar, the animals of Manor Farm rebel against their human master and throw him off the land. They agree to work the farm for their own mutual benefit, sharing the work and the produce fairly, each according to his ability and need. Being the most intelligent animals, the pigs take over the planning, both of how to maximise the farm’s yield and of how to protect themselves from outside hostility. But, as we all know, power corrupts…

Of course, this fable is an allegory of the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union. First published in 1945, Orwell apparently wrote it as a warning to the nations of the Allies, who had been united with the USSR in fighting Nazi Germany and who therefore had been motivated to overlook some of the horrors going on under Stalin. He also felt there were many in the West who were happy to fool themselves that the USSR was a successful experiment in socialism, so he wanted to draw attention to the fact that the regime had become totalitarian, with a hierarchical power structure that Orwell saw as not altogether dissimilar to the power structures in the capitalist Western democracies, with an entrenched ruling class putting its own interests first. (All of this is paraphrased from Orwell’s own introduction to the Ukranian edition of the book, which is reproduced as an appendix in my Penguin Modern Classics edition.)

animal-farm-poster

I first read this as a school text, when I was about thirteen, I think. I remembered it as having rather blown me away at the time, but truthfully because of the Boxer storyline rather than the politics. At that time – the early ’70s – here in the UK, public opinion had largely caught up with Orwell’s interpretation of the regime, and the USSR was seen by the majority as evil and scary, with it and the US facing off against each other over Europe’s head, each building bigger and bigger weapons. (There was a fairly significant minority view, too, that the USSR was indeed successfully socialist and a good thing, and that anyway, whether it was or wasn’t, pacifism and unilateral disarmament were the way to go.) So the message of the book wasn’t really shocking or new as it may have been to those first readers back just after WW2.

animal-farm-boxer

Now, another 40 years on, older, possibly more knowledgeable and certainly more critical, I found I had some issues with Orwell’s portrayal.

The reason Orwell gives for the pigs becoming the leaders is their intelligence. The other animals are fundamentally stupid. Is that, then, Orwell’s view of the leadership and people of the USSR? Are the leaders all brainy while the proles are basically thick? It’s not simply that the other animals are uneducated – in the first flush of enthusiasm after the rebellion, all are given the opportunity to learn to read, but only the pigs and the donkey succeed. Poor old Boxer the horse, the backbone of the revolution, hardworking and utterly loyal, never manages to get past ABCD in learning the alphabet. I fear it smacks of a kind of utterly misplaced intellectual elitism to me, a suggestion that those who become totalitarian dictators do it through superior intelligence. Later, the pigs resort to intimidation, misinformation and propaganda, but not till after the intelligence/stupidity divide has allowed them to take a stranglehold on power. But there’s another aspect to it too, which sat uneasily with me. In this fable, all intelligent animals become corrupt despots, while stupidity seems to equal loyalty and a sense of fairplay and sacrifice.

Good Heavens! Has Napoleon taken to Twitter...???
Good Heavens! Has Napoleon taken to Twitter…???

My second problem is with the idea that the pigs become more humanlike as they become more corrupt. Assuming Farmer Jones represents Czarist Russia, then OK – I can go along with that for the sake of the fable. But if you factor in the other humans on neighbouring farms, with whom the pigs sometimes form alliances and at other times fight, then presumably these other farms represent the countries neighbouring the USSR. So, if the humans in the allegory represent corrupt leadership, the message seems to be that all leaders of all forms of government are corrupt and abuse their proletariat just as much as the USSR does. Even if for the sake of argument one accepts this as true (which I struggle to do even hypothetically), I can’t help but feel it means Orwell undoes his own argument about the unique corruption of power in the USSR. If democratic governments are just as bad as totalitarian ones, then… what’s the point he’s trying to make? Orwell says in his introduction that he didn’t mean for the pigs and humans to appear to fully reconcile at the end, and indeed they don’t, but they have become so similar that it’s hard to say which ones are the more morally or politically acceptable.

animal-farm-all-animals-equal

The book foreshadows the idea of “double-think”, later developed much more effectively and credibly in 1984, as the founding principles of the regime change over time while Squealer, the regime’s spokespig, blatantly denies the truth of the past, and disseminates the new “truth” through regime propaganda. (But at least Orwell doesn’t have the pigs go completely over the credibility line by claiming, for example, that Snowball the pig can’t be the leader because he was born on a foreign farm, or perhaps that Napoleon the pig would have won the popular vote if only five million illegal pigs hadn’t voted for his opponent… 😉 )

In summary, I really preferred the book when I was twelve, when the simplified allegory and emotional appeal of Boxer’s story worked better for me. My adult self found it a bit too simplistic and reliant on the reader not making any serious critical analysis of the underlying messages, when it all begins to lack coherence. An interesting and cautionary re-read though, especially in this troubled time of “fake news” and “alternative facts”.

rrr-challenge-logo-final

Book 1 in the RRR Challenge

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GAN Quest: Moby-Dick: or, The White Whale by Herman Melville

Call me baffled…

😐 😐

moby dickOur narrator (call him Ishmael) signs up for a voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod, only to find that the Captain, Ahab, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the whale which caused him to lose his leg – Moby-Dick.

See, I still find that blurb quite appealing, even knowing what I now know – that that whole story is crammed into a few pages near the beginning and the last few pages at the end, and all the rest is filled with digressions, varying in degree of interest from quite exciting to cure for insomnia status. I should declare a pre-existing grudge against Melville – it was primarily being forced to pretend that his Billy Budd was in some way worth reading that led to my final breach with the Eng-Lit department at Uni. But surely a book that is touted as a Great American Novel contender couldn’t be as bad as that one, could it? Hmm! Well, after the last few books I’ve read or abandoned in the GAN Quest, I have realised that perhaps America and I have very different definitions of greatness…

My first complaint is that Melville clearly couldn’t decide whether he was trying to write a novel or an encyclopedia of whales. I would suggest that the bullet point list really plays no part in fiction, and that any time an author feels the need to use it, then he should step back and wonder if he’s on the right track. Pages of descriptions of all the different types of whales might be interesting if you happen to be interested in that kind of thing, but a novel isn’t the place for it.

Secondly, what’s with the cod-Shakespearian? The thing is, it makes perfect sense for Shakespeare’s characters to have spoken in poetic Elizabethan English, for obvious reasons – i.e., Shakespeare was an English Elizabethan poet. Ahab, on the other hand, was a 19th century whaling captain from Nantucket. One would therefore have expected him to speak like a 19th century Nantuckian. I’m guessing poor old Melville mistakenly thought that if he managed to sound like Shakespeare, people might be fooled into thinking that he was as good a writer as Shakespeare. Ah, well, the best laid plans…

moby-dick

Thirdly, and I grant you Melville is by no means the only writer guilty of this one, if you’re going to use a first-person narrative then you can’t suddenly tell the reader all kinds of things the narrator couldn’t possibly know – like what other people are thinking! Or verbatim reports of conversations when the narrator wasn’t present. Not if you want to be taken seriously as a good writer, at least.

There are bits that are good, when Melville stops trying to be stylistically clever and just tells a plain yarn: for instance, the story of the mutiny aboard another ship, or when Stubbs tricks the crew of the Rosebud into giving him the whale containing ambergris.

I also enjoyed some of his digressions (though there were far too many of them) – like when he philosophises at length on how the colour white is perceived as scary, ranging from polar bears to ghosts. This is well written, and although the argument is stretched and shaky, Melville shows that he knows it with some humorous asides. And the section where he shows each crew member’s different reaction to the gold coin is, I admit, brilliantly done, with him showing how each brings his own nature, his optimism or pessimism, his cultural beliefs and superstitions to his reading of the symbols on the coin. (Though again – first person narrative issue here, obviously.)

moby_dick_final_chase

The major problem, though, is the almost total lack of narrative drive. The book is nearly a quarter done before we even meet Ahab, the whole of that first section consisting of description after description, first of places, then of people. I was bored out of my head before the story even began. Then, having finally begun, it constantly stops again for vast swathes of time while Ishmael/Melville gives us all kinds of irrelevant information in what must be one of the earliest examples of info-dump: for example, when he gives us pages upon pages of him rubbishing all previous artists, writers and naturalists who have drawn or written about whales. The eponymous whale doesn’t appear until the book is 93% done.

But even aside from the main narrative, his style manages to suck the drama out of any bit of story he tells. We hear about a whale hunt that goes wrong, and it’s brilliantly told right up to the point where the crew are left in their damaged boat, with no oars, lighting their one small lamp against the huge darkness of the ocean… and then he stops and jumps to the biggest anticlimax of all time with a quick mention of a boringly straightforward rescue several hours later. And finally, the great showdown with Moby-Dick arrives – great stuff (if you ignore Starbuck and Ahab repeating themselves in endless asides), some fabulously horrific imagery and then… the end. Abrupt seems to be the appropriate word. However, on the upside, at least it is the end…

Herman Melville
Herman Melville

So, to conclude, well written in parts, badly written in others. Lacks narrative drive – by my reckoning the actual story part probably only takes up about 10% of the whole book. The mock Shakespearian language and pastiching of his style is a strange and, in my opinion, unsuccessful stylistic choice. I understand the book was first rejected by publishers and then failed to sell for decades after it finally was published, both of which sound about right to me. The bit that baffles me is why later generations have declared it “great”. My verdict – shows potential in places but requires a severe edit to rid it of all the extraneous nonsense and to improve the narrative flow.

* * * * * * *

great-american-novel-quest-2

So, is it a Great American Novel?

No.

* * * * * * *

Book 3 of 90
Book 3 of 90

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Passing by Nella Larsen

Colour me white…

😀 😀 😀 😀

passingWhen Irene accidentally meets her childhood friend Clare in a tea-house in Chicago, she’s not altogether surprised to discover that Clare is ‘passing’ as white. Clare had always wanted the good things in life and, when she disappeared from home as a teenager, her friends suspected she’d found a way to make use of her beauty. Now Clare is married to a rich white man, John Bellew, with whom she has a child. But John hates ‘niggers’ and Clare knows her marriage would be over if he ever found out about her mixed heritage. Irene rather despises Clare for, as she sees it, a kind of betrayal of her race, but nevertheless can’t resist the appeal of her charm. And so, their friendship is resumed – dangerous to Clare’s marriage, but as it turns out, dangerous to Irene too…

Despite the title and basic premise of the book, this is as much about marriage and status as it is about race. Irene is respected in her society in Harlem. Her husband Brian is a doctor and they have a relatively wealthy life. But we soon learn that Brian is discontented – he hates living in a country where he is treated as inferior because of his race. Irene on the other hand loves her life and wants nothing more than she has. Clare is the catalyst who brings this division into sharp focus, forcing Irene to question what’s important to her and to wonder if her marriage is as solid as she had always thought.

I appreciated that the book doesn’t focus exclusively on the race issues. Sometimes books become so polemical it feels as if the people are tokens rather than rounded characters in their own right – I’m thinking of Americanah, for example. In this one, none of the characters is defined entirely by race – the questions that absorb them most have little overtly to do with colour. In a way, that makes the incidents of racism feel all the more brutal and shocking when they do happen. Written in 1921 long before the civil rights movement really got underway, we see how white people felt it was totally acceptable to publicly and casually express views that many of us would now find repugnant (pre-Trump – sadly, it now appears to be the new normal again), and how black people, even wealthy ones, had no real recourse other than to accept it and try not to let it define their entire lives. Brian and Irene’s ongoing difference about how to bring up their sons encapsulates a debate that I’m sure must have been going on endlessly in the black community of the time – Irene wanting to shield them for as long as possible from the knowledge of how racist their society is, while Brian feels they should be taught early what to expect and taught to resent it.

Nella Larsen
Nella Larsen

The deeper question than simply colour is perhaps about the sense of belonging. Despite having wealth and a husband who loves her, Clare the risk-taker longs for the people and places of her childhood and is willing to gamble recklessly with everything she has for the fleeting pleasure of spending time back in that society. Irene on the other hand sees that same society as a place of security and contentment, and her sole desire is not to have her life disrupted. Both the women can tolerate the racism of their world so long as it doesn’t directly impinge on them. Brian, however, resents racism as a political thing, not just personal – a thing that makes him hate his nation and rather despise his peers for their acceptance of it. In him, we see the anger and discontent that would eventually lead to the rise of the civil rights movement.

The characterisation of Irene is the book’s major strength. It is from her perspective that the book is told, although in the third person. She operates within the conventions of her time, deferring outwardly to her husband, playing the little wife who’s always endearingly late for things and just a bit scatterbrained. But inwardly she has a core of steel – she has achieved exactly the life she wants and will defend it in any way she can. If that means she has to manipulate her husband to give up his dreams in favour of hers, so be it – she has the intelligence and fierce drive to do it, and the self-awareness to know that that’s exactly what she’s doing. But her slightly repelled fascination for her old friend allows Clare to sneak through her defences, and suddenly Irene finds she’s losing control of the situation – something she’s not used to and that frightens her.

I regret to admit that I think the ending is almost laughably silly, which is a major pity since I was loving it up to that point. I wonder if Larsen maybe just couldn’t think how to get her characters out of the situation she had so carefully and brilliantly crafted for them. Personally (and you don’t often hear me say this) I wished the book was a few chapters longer with a more complex and psychologically satisfying dénouement. But despite that disappointment, I still think this is an excellent book that gives real insight into this small section of black society at a moment in time, and would highly recommend it.

I was tempted towards the book by this excellent review from TJ at My Book Strings – only took me two years to get around to reading it!

Book 2 of 90
Book 2 of 90

This is the book chosen for me by the Classics Club’s #14 spin.

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The Classics Club Spin #14

The fickle finger of fate…

classics club logo 2

The Classics Club is holding its 14th Spin, but it’s my first. The idea is to list 20 of the books on your Classics Club list before next Monday 3rd October. On Monday, the Classics Club will post the winning number. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by December 1, 2016. It will certainly be a challenge to squeeze another book into my already overstuffed pile of review books and GAN books that I’ve scheduled for autumn, but hey! Who needs sleep anyway? If the worst comes to the worst, I can always bump Moby-Dick off the schedule… 😉

So here’s my list. I’ve selected it on the basis of mostly including books I already own, and have included some from all five of the categories in my CC list – American fiction, English fiction, Scottish fiction, crime fiction and science fiction. I’ve also tried to avoid some of the lengthier ones on my list…

1) Passing by Nella Larsen

2) Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

3) The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

4) Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

5) Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

6) Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West

7) Nada The Lily by H Rider Haggard

8) The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

9) She Who Was No More by Boileau-Narcejac

10) Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

11) Mildred Pierce by James M Cain

12) The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse

13) The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins

14) The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

15) The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison

16) The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

17) Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

18) The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown

19) Cop Hater by Ed McBain

20) Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke

* * * * * * *

Most of these I’d be delighted to read. If I had to choose, I’d like to see Strangers on a Train come up, or Nada the Lily. There are only a couple I feel more ambivalent about, but I’m naming no names on the basis of tempting fate!

Which one would you like to see win?

TBR Thursday 88 – Joining The Classics Club

classics club logo 2The List

As I wander round the blogosphere, I’ve often been tempted to join The Classics Club, so now’s the time. In fact, it won’t change my reading patterns much at all, since I routinely read a fair number of classics every year. Most of the items on my list are already on my TBR, wishlist or bookshelves, while many of the rest are part of the ongoing Great American Novel Quest. Many of them are also re-reads, since re-reading favourite classics is always a pleasure, and I haven’t done enough of it since I got distracted by all the shiny new books for review.

The rules of the club are relatively simple. Basically, a list of at least 50 books is required, along with a commitment to read and post about them within 5 years. The list part is no problem, and I guess no-one will throw me in a rat-infested dungeon should my commitment falter over the years. Will they??

wind-in-willows-e-h-shepard-ratty-and-mole-in-a-boat

The benefits of joining are primarily that it’s a good way to meet other book bloggers who enjoy reading classic fiction too.

In terms of defining what is a classic, I’ve decided quite simply that any book originally published more than 50 years ago counts, therefore my cut-off date is 1965.

1965

So here’s my list – 90 books which I “commit” to reading and posting about within the next five years…

The American Section

Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper (1826)
Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) – re-read
The American by Henry James (1877)
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair  (1906)
My Antonia by Willa Cather  (1918)
Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)
Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West (1933)
Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald (1934) – re-read
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (1940)
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940)
Mildred Pierce by James M Cain (1941)
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (1945)
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946)
The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw (1948)
Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (1951)
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) – re-read
Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr (1964)
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965)

gone with the wind

The English Section

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1814) – re-read
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818) – re-read
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens (1838) – re-read
Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens ( 1841) – re-read
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens (1855) – re-read
No Name by William Wilkie Collins (1862)
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (1864)
Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore (1869)
The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens (1870)
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891) – re-read
Nada the Lily by H Rider Haggard (1892)
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1902)
Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence (1913) – re-read
The African Queen by CS Forester (1935)
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) – re-read
The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse (1938) – re-read
Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp (1944)
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (1948) – re-read
The Go-Between by LP Hartley (1953) – re-read
Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer (1955) – re-read

tess of the d'urbervilles

The Scottish Section

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett (1771)
Annals of the Parish by John Galt (1821)
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (1824)
The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott (1828) – re-read
The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson (1889)
The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown (1901)
Flemington by Violet Jacob (1911)
The New Road by Neil Munro (1914)
Children of the Dead End by Patrick McGill (1914)
The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1915) – re-read
Imagined Corners by Willa Muir (1931)
Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1933) – re-read
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison (1933)
Grey Granite by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1934) – re-read
No Mean City by Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long (1935)
Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie (1947)
The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison (1947)
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins (1955)
The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett (1961)
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961) – re-read

the prime of miss jean brodie

The Crime Section

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (1903)
The 39 Steps by John Buchan (1915) – re-read
The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett (1929)
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain (1934)
The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr (1935)
The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White (1936)
I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane (1947)
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950)
The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham (1952)
She Who Was No More by Boileau-Narcejac (1952)
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (1953)
Cop Hater by Ed McBain (1956) – re-read
4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie (1957) – re-read
Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver (1958)
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré (1963)

strangers on a train

The Sci-fi Section

The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells (1896)
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)
Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)
Earth Abides by George R Stewart (1949)
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951) – re-read
Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951) – re-read
Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke (1953)
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1956)
On the Beach by Nevil Shute (1957) – re-read
Starship Troopers by Robert A Heinlein (1959)
Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs (1959)
The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison (1961) – re-read
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962)
The Drowned World by JG Ballard (1962)
Way Station by Clifford D Simak (1963)

the day of the triffids

* * * * * * *

The list will undoubtedly change over time. But, meantime, what do you think (assuming you’re still awake)? Any there that you don’t think deserve a place? Or that you love? Or any different ones you’d like to see added?

Dubliners by James Joyce

All the living and the dead…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the dublinersJoyce’s collection of 15 stories takes the reader through the various strata of Dublin society of the early years of the twentieth century. The prose is of a uniformly high standard, though some of the pieces are too fragmentary and unresolved to be fully satisfying. When Joyce does tell a story, though, he tells it excellently, making me rather regret that he didn’t use standard prose and story-telling techniques more often.

The sum of the collection is greater than its individual parts, however, so that even the shorter character sketches add something to the reader’s understanding of Dublin and its citizens. Despite the wide range of class and circumstance Joyce addresses, each one has a sense of total authenticity, of a deep understanding of how this society intermixes. There is a common theme running throughout, of people trapped, either by circumstance or because of decisions they have made, and many of the stories focus on a moment in the central characters’ lives when they become aware of their trap. Drunkenness, violence and the stifling stranglehold of the Catholic church all play their part in showing a society where aspiration is a rare commodity, usually thwarted. I understand some of the stories were considered shocking at the time for their language and sexual content. Given the relative mildness of them to modern eyes, this fact in itself casts another light on how socially restricted the society was at the time of writing.

The prose is somewhat understated, with Joyce relying more on the penetrating examination of character rather than any flamboyancy of language or stylistic quirks, and that works well for me. He achieves a depth of characterisation with few words, acknowledging his reader’s ability to interpret and understand without the need to have everything spelled out. Just occasionally, this left me floundering a little in the couple of stories where he is addressing contemporary Irish politics or mores, but I accept that’s my weakness rather than his. In the stories where he is addressing more fundamental aspects of human nature, I appreciated his rather sparing style greatly.

dublin

Overall, I found the fully developed stories excellent, while the ones that are primarily character sketches are interesting if not wholly satisfying. However, as a collection, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing, the weaker parts being more than compensated for by the stronger.

* * * * *

Since it seems to be a Dubliners tradition to name favourites, here are a few of mine…

An Encounter – this story of two young boys ‘miching’ from school is primarily an oblique and unsettling description of their encounter with a man whom we would today describe as a paedophile. But what I loved about it was the young narrator’s recognition of his own ambivalent attitude towards his friend…

My voice had an accent of forced bravery in it and I was ashamed of my paltry stratagem. I had to call the name again before Mahony saw me and halloed in answer. How my heart beat as he came running across the field to me! He ran as if to bring me aid. And I was penitent; for in my heart I had always despised him a little.

* * * * *

A Painful Case – a man re-evaluates his life following the death, perhaps accident, perhaps suicide, of a woman to whom he was once close. This is a wonderful study of that high moral rectitude that can so easily slide over into hypocrisy, and seems to me to be something of a metaphor for the mechanical, unfelt religiosity of much of the society Joyce is portraying throughout the book.

What an end! The whole narrative of her death revolted him and it revolted him to think that he had ever spoken to her of what he held sacred. The threadbare phrases, the inane expressions of sympathy, the cautious words of a reporter won over to conceal the details of a commonplace vulgar death attacked his stomach. Not merely had she degraded herself; she had degraded him. He saw the squalid tract of her vice, miserable and malodorous. His soul’s companion!

* * * * *

James Joyce
James Joyce

The Dead – the longest and most developed story in the book, this ranges beautifully over the various guests attending an evening party, before finally focusing on one man who, in the course of the evening, falls in love with his wife all over again and then has the foundation of his marriage shattered by a sudden revelation. The writing in this one is superb, showing all the sense of community, all the close and distant relationships, that make up this society; but in the end reminding character and reader alike of the ultimate aloneness of the individual, of the unknowableness of even those closest to us.

His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

* * * * *

Eveline – this is a beautiful story, full of emotional truthfulness, and my favourite in the collection. Following the death of her mother, a young girl fulfils the promise she made to her to keep the family home together, despite her father’s drunkenness and violence. But now she has met a young man, a sailor, who wants her to come away with him to Buenos Aires. She must decide between love and duty – but on a deeper level, her choice is between courage and cowardice – escape through the open door or remain in the cage. More than any other story, this one seems to me to sum up the major theme of the book, and broke my heart in a few short pages.

She felt her cheek pale and cold and, out of a maze of distress, she prayed to God to direct her, to show her what was her duty. The boat blew a long mournful whistle into the mist…

A bell clanged upon her heart. She felt him seize her hand:

“Come!”

All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her. She gripped with both hands at the iron railing.

“Come!”

begorrathon 2016

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

jekyll and hydeThe eternal battle of Good v Evil…

A man and a child accidentally bump into each other at a street corner – a normal everyday incident. But when the child falls down, the man deliberately tramples over her, ignoring her screams of pain. When he is stopped by passers-by, he shows no remorse. This is the reader’s first introduction to Mr Hyde, a man who has no obvious deformity but gives off an air so repellent that strangers passing him in the street shudder without knowing why. But this man has some kind of hold over the eminently respectable and well-known scientist, Dr Jekyll, who not only pays compensation for Hyde’s actions, but also gives him the run of his own house, and has made out his will in Hyde’s favour, leaving him everything should Jekyll die… or disappear. Jekyll’s friend and lawyer is at a loss to understand, but feels it his duty to discover more about the mysterious Mr Hyde…

Mr Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice; all these were points against him, but not all of these together could explain the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing and fear with which Mr Utterson regarded him.

Because the story has become so phenomenally well-known, the reader is way ahead of Mr Utterson, the lawyer. In the novella, it’s not till near the end that it’s revealed that Mr Hyde is the result of a scientific experiment gone horribly wrong. But it’s so well written that knowing the story doesn’t hamper enjoyment in any way. Stevenson builds up the tension and horror beautifully, with one of the best uses of London fog I’ve come across, both as providing a cloak for wickedness and vice, and as a metaphor for the darkness within each human soul. Darkness features throughout, with fog rolling into houses, and Mr Utterson having to face the terrifying climax with only the feeble flicker of a candle to light his way.

The Fredric March version from 1932. Hmm... no obvious deformity?
The Fredric March version from 1932. Hmm… no obvious deformity?

A great chocolate-coloured pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapours; so that as the cab crawled from street to street, Mr Utterson beheld a marvellous number of degrees and hues of twilight; for here it would be dark like the back-end of evening; and there would be a glow of rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here, for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths. The dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful reinvasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare.

Dr Jekyll refuses to tell Mr Utterson anything about his strange friend, but assures him that he could get rid of Hyde any time he chose. Mr Utterson has to accept that and let the matter rest. But one day, months later, a woman looking out of a window sees a horrifically brutal murder take place. The description she gives of the murderer could only be of Hyde. Mr Utterson races to Hyde’s address in sleazy Soho, but too late! He has vanished! Dr Jekyll seems nervy and upset, but after a while begins to get back into his old routines. Then some weeks later, Mr Utterson receives a visit from Dr Jekyll’s servant – it appears that Mr Hyde is back…

The Spencer Tracy version from 1941
The Spencer Tracy version from 1941. Ah, much better!

I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two… If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path… no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

There is more than an element of morality tale about the story. Dr Jekyll has always liked to indulge his vices – mostly left, incidentally, to the reader’s imagination, which works so much better than lengthy graphic descriptions would have done. But now that he has become a well-known figure, he has to think about his reputation. So he decides the solution is to split his personality between good and evil. But the experiment doesn’t work the way he hopes – the Hyde side is indeed purely evil, but the Jekyll side doesn’t change – he still retains all his vices and weaknesses even when in that guise, and gradually the Hyde side begins to take control. The suggestion is that, if one gives in to one’s evil side, it will always become dominant, so we must guard against it at all times. It’s not nearly as preachy as I’ve probably just made it sound, though. First and foremost, it’s a thrilling, chilling tale of horror!

Great stuff! I hereby forgive Stevenson for boring me in Kidnapped! And now to watch the film…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

 

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

mrs dallowayAfter the war is over…

🙂 🙂 😐

There are two stories going on simultaneously in this short novel. First we have Mrs Dalloway preparing for a party and reminiscing about her life and past love. And, secondly, we have the tale of Septimus Smith, a veteran of the First World War, suffering from what we would now call PTSD, and suicidal. I wish I was about to join the legions of Woolf fans, but I fear not, so people who would prefer not to see their icon criticised should look away now.

The book has many strengths. Some of the use of language is beautiful, lyrical even. When Woolf focuses on an incident or character, she is incisive and insightful, and this shows through most clearly in the story of Septimus. Written in1923, the horrors of WW1 would have been as fresh in the minds of readers as in Woolf’s own mind and, though our present generation has been engulfed over the last century with stories relating to the impact and aftermath of that most terrible of all wars, Woolf must have been one of the first to discuss the devastating effect of the experience on those who survived apparently intact.

For it was the middle of June. The War was over, except for someone like Mrs Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin; or Lady Bexborough who opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favourite, killed; but it was over; thank Heaven – over. It was June.

Septimus is not a member of the upper-class ‘lost generation’, drinking his way to oblivion. He is instead more realistic in that he came home and tried to resume some kind of normal life, working and marrying. But increasingly haunted by the things he witnessed and especially by the death of his friend, he has decided that suicide is the best option. His wife Rezia is beautifully depicted as a woman struggling to go on loving a man whom she no longer understands, and whose depression is making life intolerable for them both.

I try hard to know almost nothing about authors when I can, believing firmly that books should stand or fall on their own merits. However, it is impossible not to see Septimus’ story as partly autobiographical. Woolf too suffered from depression and suicidal tendencies, tragically fulfilled in the end, and Septimus’ experiences with the medical profession can’t help but feel as if they may be based on her own. From the callous ‘pull yourself together’ attitude of Septimus’ own doctor, to the specialist whose response is to lock Septimus away, thus removing any level of choice or control from him, her depiction feels angry, and realistic for a period when mental health issues were seen as a form of weakness or aberration, and when suicide was considered as much sinful as tragic. In Septimus’ story, Woolf creates something moving, intelligent and rather shocking.

 Vanessa Redgrave and John Standing in the 1997 movie of Mrs Dalloway.
Vanessa Redgrave and John Standing in the 1997 movie of Mrs Dalloway.

What a pity then that the rest of the book is taken up with a lightweight ramble about middle-aged rich people ruminating over their teen love affairs. I understand from the foreword that Woolf decided to write the book after reading Joyce’s Ulysses (which I haven’t read). Hence her use of the stream of consciousness technique and her attempt to take a panoramic view of London life on a single day. But, in fact, apart from Septimus, her panorama only takes in the world of the rich and privileged – a group who, since they don’t have to worry about the material things of life, apparently fill up their yawning empty days with self-created angst over such things as what dress to wear for a party, will my old lover of thirty years ago still fancy me, etc., etc. Actually Mrs Dalloway and her ex-lover’s story feels like something out of a YA romance, but without the emotional depth. If, after thirty years of marriage, one is still wondering if one has made the right decision, then perhaps one should attempt to find something more important to think about.

There is a built-in snobbery in her writing that made me cringe several times, the more so because I felt she was actually trying to suppress it. On the rare occasion she speaks of the ‘lower’ classes, it’s with the condescending air of an owner discussing a favourite pet, or perhaps an Imperialist discussing a ‘native’. Woolf’s depiction of a move towards a more egalitarian society can be summed up by Mrs Dalloway deciding to mend her own ballgown rather than making her servants do it. Practically Communist, isn’t it? And Woolf’s rather nauseating description of the faithful love and devotion her servants feel for Mrs D smacks of wishful thinking at best, deliberate blindness at worst, written as it was at the very time that new opportunities were allowing the servant class to abandon their overlords in droves, which they promptly did. I’ve often seen Woolf lauded as a feminist icon, but between her empty-headed, party-hostess, love-lorn heroine and her downtrodden but devoted little servant-girls, I couldn’t quite see it myself. Perhaps it’s something she developed later.

“Mr Dalloway, ma’am, told me to tell you he would be lunching out.”

“Dear!” said Clarissa, and Lucy shared as she meant her to her disappointment (but not the pang); felt the concord between them; took the hint; thought how the gentry love; gilded her own future with calm; and, taking Mrs Dalloway’s parasol, handled it like a sacred weapon which a Goddess, having acquitted herself honourably in the field of battle, sheds, and placed it in the umbrella stand.

All these attitudes arise from her time and class, of course, and in another book by another author I might pass them by. It’s the reverence with which Woolf is treated that led me to expect something more. And the same applies to her writing. When she is writing an incident in standard style, she does it excellently. But when she wanders off into her stream of consciousness, I’m afraid I simply don’t think she’s very good at it. I’m not a fan of stream of consciousness in general, but coincidentally I’ve read a few books recently where skilful authors have used long, digressive, run-on sentences, where each time I’ve commented in my review that they manage to do it without losing the reader along the way – Chabon, Rushdie, Flanery. With Woolf, I found I was repeatedly having to re-read sentences to make sense of them, sometimes just even to know which character was being discussed.

And I tired very quickly of her almost manic use of superlatives – ecstatic, exquisite raptures, supreme, superb, exhilarating intensities. It reads more like the language a teenage girl might use in her private diary than the polished prose of a mature author or, indeed, the inner emotions of a mature woman. In the foreword, Carol Ann Duffy describes her writing as ‘suffered brilliance’ and ‘lyric intensity’, both of which sound better than the expression that was running through my own mind – ‘hyperventilating hyperbole’. I found all this made it a tedious read – the style taking away from the already fairly shallow content.

Oh dear! I really tried to make this review as balanced as I could but it’s turned into a bit of a rant after all. I tried reading Woolf when I was young and didn’t take to her, but hoped that perhaps my tastes had changed enough to allow me to appreciate her better now. And I could see some good things in this – specifically Septimus’ story, which will linger in my mind – but I’m left with very little desire to investigate her further.

Many thanks again to Heavenali, who gave me this book as part of her #Woolfalong giveaway, and my apologies for not appreciating it more.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

GAN Quest: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

A tide in the affairs of women…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

their eyes were watching godWhen Janie walks back into town eighteen months after leaving with a man 12 years her junior, her former friends and neighbours gossip and snigger, assuming he has spent all her money and then left her for a younger woman. But Janie’s story is more complicated, a tragedy but also an awakening, her journey one of self-discovery.

I’ll start by saying that I think this is an excellent novel, fully earning its place as a contender for the title of Great American Novel. It has been analysed to death by people far more qualified than I over the years: adversely, on the whole, at the time of its original publication in 1937, and then positively, when it was resurrected in the ’70s by academics with an interest in female and black voices in American literature. I had never heard of the book until it was mentioned by several people when I asked for recommendations for GANs, and I assiduously avoided reading anything about it in advance so that I could enjoy the rare luxury of reading it without preconceptions.

Janie is 16 when we first meet her in the care of her grandmother, a slave who became pregnant to her owner just before abolition. Janie’s own birth was as a result of the rape of her mother by a teacher. The date isn’t given, but a quick calculation suggests that the bulk of the book takes place in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. This matters, because one of my major criticisms of the book is that it seems to be set quite apart from historical context. There is no mention of WW1, no suggestion that any of the men fought or, indeed, had an opinion on the rights or wrongs of fighting for the USA. My (shallow) understanding is that this was a time of great change for African Americans, when they began to demand that a country that expected them to fight and die for it should also give them rights as equal citizens, develop a true democracy that embraced all people equally. But Janie’s world indicates none of this, and I found myself therefore not being able to entirely accept it as a realistic picture of the time.

Halle Berry and Ruben Santiago-Hudson in the 2005 ABC TV movie - which even from the stills looks dreadful.
Halle Berry and Ruben Santiago-Hudson in the 2005 ABC TV movie – which even from the stills looks dreadful.

Instead, Janie’s contemporaries are shown as lazy, passive and unambitious on the whole, their aspirations beaten out of them by a world still run by and for the white elite. That I could accept more, though it seems in conflict with the idea of the development of the all-black town of Eatonville in which much of the story is placed. And Eatonville itself doesn’t ring wholly true – when Janie and her new husband arrive there, it is no more than a plot of land with a few shacks, but within a few years it seems to be a thriving success story, without any indication of where that success comes from. And again, there is no discussion of politics or the wider world – Eatonville seems to exist in happy isolation, and the people Janie meets there and on her travels live carefree lives, based around drinking, gambling and sex – a happy-go-lucky existence, with no thought for the future. The position of women is one of almost total subservience to their men – a style of life where sexism and domestic violence is accepted by all. I was surprised at how negative a picture a black author was creating of the black community at a time when the political struggle for equality was building to a crescendo.

Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behaviour justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss. Everybody talked about it next day in the fields. It aroused a sort of envy in both men and women. The way he petted and pampered her as if those two or three face slaps had nearly killed her made the women see visions and the helpless way she hung on him made men dream dreams.

The reason I bring up these criticisms first is that, after I finished the book, I read the forewords and afterword in my copy, written by Edwidge Danticat, Mary Helen Washington and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and was rather stunned to discover that my criticisms echoed those of the male black writing community of the time, whose dismissal of the book was based pretty much on it not conforming to the political agenda of the black movement. The subsequent feminist critiques of the ’70s and later, it seems to me, dismiss these criticisms too easily, perhaps because they think that to accept them would weaken their own argument that the book is a seminal text in the finding of the black female voice in literature. I beg to disagree – with both parties: the lack of a political context is a weakness but not one that prevents the book from making an important contribution; and the fact that it gives women in black culture a voice does not negate the fact that it would have been a greater book had it addressed, or at least acknowledged, the contemporary political situation.

Michael Ealy and Halle Berry, looking incredibly glamorous for a hard day's bean-pickin'...
Michael Ealy and Halle Berry, looking incredibly glamorous for a hard day’s bean-pickin’…

Where the book excels is in its portrayal of Janie’s character – her finding of her own way despite the male dominance of the society she lives in. As a person of mixed racial ancestry, Janie’s light skin tone and unusual hair are used to great effect to show how indoctrinated the black psyche had become to accept the desirability of ‘white’ physical traits; showing within their community the same kind of prejudices heaped on them from outside it. Having been married off young to a much older man, Janie rebels and runs off with the good-looking and ambitious Joe to Eatonville, only to discover that Joe too believes that a woman is at her best in the kitchen and bedroom. We know from the beginning of the book that there is a third man in Janie’s story – the younger Tea Cake, for whom she has left her comfortable home in Eatonville and gone off to work the fields in the Florida Everglades. It is in the few months that she spends with Tea Cake that Janie finally discovers what it is to love and be loved equally.

Ten feet higher and as far as they could see the muttering wall advanced before the braced-up waters like a road crusher on a cosmic scale. The monstropolous beast had left his bed. The two hundred miles an hour wind had loosed his chains. He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward till he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed-to-be conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.

Although the structure of the book is that Janie is telling her story in retrospect to her friend Pheoby, this is a third person narrative for the most part, slipping into first occasionally as we are made directly privy to Janie’s thoughts. All of the speech is in dialect, which Hurston handles brilliantly, and although the non-dialogue parts are in a more standard form of English, she maintains speech patterns, tone and vocabulary throughout. The dialect is not so broad that it makes the book hard to read – it’s sustained so beautifully that it almost recedes into the background after the reader gets tuned into it. While I have criticised the portrayal of the society as negative, it’s also done with great skill, making it completely believable within the internal context of the book. The writing is lyrical at times, especially the section in the Florida Everglades where the land and weather come to play a huge part in the story. The book has its share of tragedy and horror, but Hurston offers compassion to her characters at all times, and she draws them subtly, so that there are few of them who can’t earn our empathy.

Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston

I am aware that this review has taken on gargantuan proportions, but that’s a sign of the effect the book and the debate surrounding it had on me. I could write at length about my disappointment that fundamentally Janie’s search for herself seems too much to be a search for a man who will love her right. I could mention my anger at the way Hurston seems tacitly to endorse wife-beating so long as it’s done with love(!). I could wonder about the lack, not just of children, but of any mention of them. But instead, I’ll say that, despite my quite severe criticisms of it, I loved the book for the language and the compelling story-telling, and for making me think, and it’s one that I’m sure would deliver even more on a re-read.

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagYes, despite its lack of political context, it gives an excellent portrayal of this part of black culture.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, the examination of the place of women within this culture was clearly innovative for its time.

Must be superbly written.

us flagYes – the dialect and lyricism of the writing are undoubtedly excellent.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagNo – and it’s not trying to.

 

* * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel but, with 4½ stars and 4 GAN flags, I hereby declare this…

A Great American Novel.

.

* * * * * * *

 

Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens

martin chuzzlewitComin’ to America…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Old Martin Chuzzlewit’s greedy relations have always assumed that his grandson and namesake will inherit the bulk of his wealth. But when young Martin falls in love without his grandfather’s consent, the subsequent breach between them leaves the way open for all the rest to try to flatter, sneak or threaten their way into old Martin’s good graces. Meantime young Martin must make his own way in the world, a hard lesson for a young man who has never given much thought for anything beyond his own comfort. When old Martin makes it difficult for him to get on in England, young Martin decides to seek his fortune in the youthful United States of America…

Apparently on publication in serial form, this one didn’t take off as well as Dickens’ earlier novels, and I can see why. At first, as we meet all the horrible relatives, it’s quite hard to see who is to be the hero – they are all so unlikeable, including the two Martins. The major theme of the book is selfishness, perhaps more self-centredness, as each character is out for what he or she can get. The book is populated by grasping Scrooge-like businessmen, hypocritical flatterers and people whose pride gets in the way of their ability to make compromises. Tom Pinch, the put-upon assistant of one of the many Chuzzlewit relations, Mr Pecksniff, is the only main character who is purely good, and frankly he is such a doormat one wants to give him a good shake and shout “Man up, Tom, for goodness sake!” However, once Dickens has created all his characters, he then allows the circumstances in which they they find themselves to change them. And, as is always the case with Dickens, redemption is available for those characters willing to seek it.

He was a gaunt man in a huge straw hat, and a coat of green stuff. The weather being hot, he had no cravat, and wore his shirt collar wide open; so that every time he spoke something was seen to twitch and jerk up in his throat, like the little hammers in a harpsichord when the notes are struck. Perhaps it was the Truth feebly endeavouring to leap to his lips. If so, it never reached them.

Dickens’ method of writing for serialisation meant that he often reacted to how early instalments were received by his public, and this book is a major example of that. While he clearly had the main arc of the story mapped out, apparently the decision to send young Martin off to America was made mid-way through in order to revive flagging sales. I’m not convinced it was a great decision – the whole American bit feels tacked on and unnecessary, although it provides a good deal of opportunity for some of Dickens’ fine satire as well as some great descriptive writing. Martin, accompanied by his servant Mark Tapley, finds himself at the mercy of the unscrupulous hucksters who prey on the immigrant dream of finding a land of golden opportunity. Ending up instead in a disease-ridden swamp, Martin has a chance to discover the meaning of true friendship, while Mark has at last found a place where he can find some merit in being jolly in the face of adversity.

The inaptly named Eden, young Martin's American home. By Phiz.
The inaptly named Eden, young Martin’s American home. By Phiz.

It was hastily resolved that a piece of plate should be presented to a certain constitutional Judge, who had laid down from the Bench the noble principle, that it was lawful for any white mob to murder any black man: and that another piece of plate, of similar value, should be presented to a certain Patriot, who had declared from his high place in the Legislature, that he and his friends would hang, without trial, any Abolitionist who might pay them a visit. For the surplus, it was agreed that it should be devoted to aiding the enforcement of those free and equal laws, which render it incalculably more criminal and dangerous to teach a negro to read and write, than to roast him alive in a public city.

Dickens’ picture of the newly independent United States is either deeply insightful and very funny (if you’re British) or rude and deeply offensive (if you’re American). Fortunately I’m British – and furthermore I spent a miserable couple of weeks last year in the company of the much more vilely rude Mr Twain as he travelled Europe and Asia in The Innocents Abroad, so hey! I was kinda glad to see Dickens do it the other way round, and so much better! Joking(?) aside, Dickens was surprised by the reaction of the American public, feeling that his satirisation of their society wasn’t significantly different to the way he satirised people and institutions in England. True, I feel, but somehow it does read more offensively because of his position as an outsider to their society. I’m not sure he meant to convey the impression that America was inferior to England – given his lowly opinion of the people who abused their power in England, I doubt it. But it nevertheless comes across that way, particularly when he brilliantly (and repeatedly) mocks the never-ending boast of “freedom” coming from men who kept and cruelly abused slaves. Dickens subsequently made a kind of apology to America (more than Twain ever did to Europe, as far as I know) and requested that this apology be always printed at the end of the book.

Each long black hair upon his head hung down as straight as any plummet line; but rumpled tufts were on the arches of his eyes, as if the crow whose foot was deeply printed in the corners, had pecked and torn them in a savage recognition of his kindred nature as a bird of prey.

Mrs Gamp shows her compassion and nursing skills by shaking old Chuffey out of his depression...
Mrs Gamp shows her compassion and nursing skills by shaking old Chuffey out of his depression…

For me, the book is much better when it stays in England, and fortunately the American interlude is relatively short. Some of the great Dickens characters are to be found here. Mr Pecksniff, the arch-hypocrite and flatterer, is superb – not quite as overdrawn as Dickens’ characters can sometimes be, making Tom’s belief in him more credible. Sairey Gamp, midwife and layer-out of corpses, with her invisible friend Mrs Harris, her ubiquitous umbrella, and her liking for a little sip of alcohol – just to wet her lips occasionally – is monstrous and comical simultaneously, a combination only Dickens could pull off so well. Jonas Chuzzlewit is one of the great evil characters, and the scenes relating to him in the second half of the book show Dickens at his dark and terrifying worst.

Did no men passing through the dim streets shrink without knowing why, when he came stealing up behind them? As he glided on, had no child in its sleep an indistinct perception of a guilty shadow falling on its bed, that troubled its innocent rest? Did no dog howl, and strive to break its rattling chain, that it might tear him; no burrowing rat, scenting the work he had in hand, essay to gnaw a passage after him, that it might hold a greedy revel at the feast of his providing? When he looked back, across his shoulder, was it to see if his quick footsteps still fell dry upon the dusty pavement, or were already moist and clogged with the red mire that stained the naked feet of Cain!

Of course, there is romance and one of Dickens’ never-ending parade of nauseatingly sweet young heroines – this time, Tom’s sister, Ruth. But I must say the love scenes in this one are done mainly for humour and that works so much better than some of the sickly sweet love affairs in later books (yes, I am thinking of David Copperfield and Drippy Dora).

Mr Pecksniff with Tom Pinch and the deliciously named ugly (natured) sisters, Cherry and Merry Pecksniff...
Mr Pecksniff with Tom Pinch and the deliciously named ugly (natured) sisters, Cherry and Merry Pecksniff…

Despite the rather slow start and the detour to America, for me this still ranks up there as a truly excellent novel. While it took me a bit of time to warm up to any of the characters, as they developed I became fully invested in wanting to see the goodies reach a happy ending and hoping the baddies would get their just desserts. The second half in particular, with its mixture of evil, justice and redemption reaches close to being some of Dickens’ best work. The sheer quality of Dickens’ writing always takes my breath away – it reads as if written so effortlessly and yet his descriptions of both place and people are unique, insightful and often unforgettable. A true master of his craft – I’m glad I live in a world that once had Dickens in it!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The trials of a book-blogger…

…or How Not to Write a Review of Lolita

 

lolita 3She sits at the screen, fingers drumming lightly on the keyboard.

“Lo-li-ta,” she murmurs, checking if the tip of her tongue takes a trip of three steps down her palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. No – her tongue remains firmly behind her teeth at every step. Having mastered counting to ten in Russian at school, she tries it in a Russian accent. “Lo-LI-ta!” Hmm…better, but still not quite there. In the background, the News Channel is discussing whether the UK has managed to blow up anything useful in Syria. “Lo-li-ta!” She becomes aware of the ticking of the clock – a surprise, since all the various clocks in the room are digital. And each tells her that 30 minutes have passed since she opened the document that stares blankly and somewhat accusingly from the screen. Quickly she types:

Middle-aged paedophile Humbert Humbert narrates the story of how he repeatedly abuses and rapes a child.

Hmm… accurate, but perhaps a bit harsh? She shudders as she is assaulted by a sudden vision of hordes of angry Lolita fans waving placards. Reaching for a piece of chocolate, she mumbles “Lo-li-ta”, then presses delete. The News Channel reports that it’s raining today, will be raining tomorrow and that the medium term forecast is for rain. The damp cat drying its paws on her sweater confirms the report’s accuracy. She makes coffee.

Humbert Humbert falls in love with the twelve-year-old golden-tanned, lentigo-bespeckled daughter of his landlady – little Lo-li-ta…

She ponders, then deletes the hyphens. Then deletes the sentence.

This beautifully written – no, scratch that – This pretentious – no, no, definitely scratch that!

James Mason as Humbert with 18-year-old Sue Lyon as Lolita
James Mason as Humbert with 18-year-old Sue Lyon as Lolita

The News Channel is now discussing the ethics of gene-editing. She finds herself wondering if they could edit her genes to turn her into a natural red-head. Or perhaps they could give her a golden tan and lentigo.

Humbert Humbert is genetically programmed to be obsessed by nymphets, and little Lolita is genetically designed to be one…

She sighs, deletes and switches off the TV. The ticking of the clock sounds louder now. She reads a few blog posts, all of which depress her with the conviction that everyone else can always find plenty to say even about books that are basically pulp. Lolita is an acknowledged classic so she should be able to write something deeply insightful and possibly poetic about it, shouldn’t she? A small part of her brain knows exactly what the problem is – that what she wants to write is…

* * * * * * *

Middle-aged paedophile Humbert Humbert narrates the story of how he repeatedly abuses and rapes a child.

Despite the fact that I knew going in that this was what the book was fundamentally about, I had hoped that it might have some merits that would outweigh the unpleasantness of the subject matter. For example, I’ve read a million reviews saying how wonderfully written it is. At the point where I was dying of tedium around the 40% mark, praying that he would stop repeating himself and just for once say ‘freckles’ rather than consulting his thesaurus and coming up with ‘lentigo’ instead, I rechecked some of the reviews and noted the little rider that 90% of them add – I paraphrase: “the prose is wonderful, considering he wasn’t writing in his first language”. Aha! If only I’d paid more attention – ‘cos, in general, anytime anyone follows the word “wonderful” with the word “considering” that usually equates to “not really wonderful at all”. Certainly his love of words shines through, and I grant his mastery of English is considerably greater than many native speakers’. But the purpose of a wide vocabulary is surely to enable one to communicate more effectively – not to spend one’s time replacing perfectly functional commonplace words with others that are never used. Unless one is compiling a cryptic crossword…

English-Dictionaries

Of course, had I been swept up in the masterful story-telling, I wouldn’t have had time to get picky about the pretentiousness of the language. But I fear I didn’t find the storytelling masterful at all. Surprising, since Nabokov tells us in his foreword (written tongue-in-cheek as if by a fictional character but still managing to sound rather nauseatingly self-complimentary) that Humbert has written a great work of art, and goes on to say…

“…how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author.”

Hmm! Well… anyway…

Perhaps at the time of writing the whole concept of grooming a child would have been shocking, but frankly it’s a story we hear time and again now, both in reality and in fiction, so its shock value is considerably lessened. Its unpleasantness, however, remains. I think the thing I liked least about it was the attempt to make the story humorous. While Nabokov does often remind us of the real cruelty at the heart of the story – for instance, when he mentions Lolita crying herself to sleep each night – I felt that he was painting Humbert in too sympathetic a light, though I wasn’t sure that this was his intention. And conversely, showing Lolita as too well able to cope with the abuse both as it happened and afterwards. In fact, Lolita’s strength is in a sense a get out of jail free card for Humbert (or Nabokov), because Nabokov would have found it much more difficult to put in his little “jokes”, surely, had Lolita been portrayed more truthfully. I spent much of my time debating whether the falseness of Lolita’s character was a deliberate effect of Humbert’s unreliability as a narrator, but actually I couldn’t convince myself that he is unreliable. I think we are supposed to accept that events happened as he describes them, which left me with real credibility problems.

Jeremy Irons as Humbert with 17-year-old Dominique Swain as Lolita. One understands why they don't use a child but these fully grown women make the thing seem more like a love affair than child abuse... a bit like the book tries to do... but fails.
Jeremy Irons as Humbert with 17-year-old Dominique Swain as Lolita. One understands why they don’t use a child but these fully grown women make the thing seem more like a love affair than child abuse… a bit like the book tries to do… but fails.

Certainly we are not supposed to assume that the book has any meaning deeper than the story it tells – Nabokov himself makes this clear, in his afterword…

“There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”

Vladimir Nabokov Photo by Keystone/Getty Images
Vladimir Nabokov
Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

I agree – it is meaningless and it has no moral in tow. Sadly it did not provoke in me any feelings of bliss, aesthetic or otherwise – though it does have the distinction of being the only book I remember reading that both bored me and made me want to vomit simultaneously. Screeds of it are tediously repetitive – the pages and pages where he describes all the different kinds of hotels they stay in read like some kind of holiday brochure written by an aspiring poet doing a summer job, or perhaps more like the reviews on TripAdvisor, only with better spelling. I would have skipped through to the good bits only I couldn’t find out where they were. One more lingering description of Lolita’s golden tan would have provoked me to start campaigning for compulsory sunscreen. And just when I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, I was forced to live through the most ridiculous climax (an unfortunate choice of words, perhaps, in the circumstances) with some of the least convincing dialogue I have ever read.

“Ah, that hurts, sir, enough! Ah, that hurts atrociously, my dear fellow. I pray you, desist.”

My feelings exactly. So, it’s very well written, considering English isn’t his first language. And that’s pretty much the best I can find to say about it.

* * * * * * *

…but she knows that would be an ill-tempered rant rather than a review. Exasperated, she presses delete and switches off the laptop. Maybe tomorrow…

Have a great Friday! 😉

GAN Quest: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Walking the high wire…

😀 😀 😀 😀

the house of mirth 2Beautiful Lily Bart, trained from birth to take her place in the highest echelons of New York society of the late 19th century, lacks the money to maintain her position in this elite and snobbish group, so must marry well. At the age of twenty-nine her options are beginning to narrow, so she must do it soon before her beauty begins to fade. But Lily has a problem – she is unable to bring herself to marry purely for money and has met only one man who inspires passion – a man who doesn’t possess either the wealth or the desire to live the kind of life Lily must have. This is the story of Lily’s gradual descent through the social classes as a series of bad decisions causes her to lose the one thing more important to this shallow society than beauty – her reputation. Along the way, she will gain some self-knowledge and learn to value her self-respect more than her status. Well, almost…

Original illustrations by AB Wenzell
Original illustrations by AB Wenzell

If only I could have loved Lily! If I could at any point have felt that she were worthy of a week of my life, or a moment of Selden’s (an adulterer, so not a particularly high standard to reach)! It is undoubtedly true that books affect us differently depending on when we read them, and I suspect that had I read this when I was eighteen, it would have delighted me nearly as much as Ms Austen’s books did at that age and, like them, would probably then have remained a favourite. In fact, for a large part of the beginning, I found myself comparing Lily to Austen’s equally unlikeable heroine, Emma. But even in Emma, Austen tempers her view of a society that restricts women to the unpleasantnesses of the marriage mart by having a little humour and some fundamentally decent characters. In The House of Mirth, Wharton invites us to sneer at the characters rather than laugh with or even at them, and the most decent man is an adulterer who then snubs Lily for doing considerably less than he did. Accurate, of course, as a representation of the inequality of women, but hardly likely to make the reader warm towards him. Not this reader, at any rate.

the house of mirth original illustration 3

The book gives a cuttingly brilliant portrayal of this society and of the basic amorality at the heart of it. Money clears the path to good reputation – one can be forgiven anything if one is rich enough. But commit the crime of poverty and one is left balancing precariously on a high wire, without a safety net. And Lily doesn’t have the self-control to stop herself from swaying with each wind that blows. Her fall is described with what feels like great authenticity. She doesn’t plummet to her doom – rather she lands high up on a hill and then slips gradually down. This lets Wharton show the various strata of society, from the established and well-born, through the nouveau riche, to the rich but not quite respectable, and finally to the dinginess of genteel poverty that Lily has been brought up most to fear. Lily has opportunities to break her fall but each time, as she reaches the crunch, her pride won’t let her make the sacrifice that would be necessary.

Gillian Anderson and Etic Stolz as Lily and Selden in the movie version. Has anyone seen it? Is it good?
Gillian Anderson and Eric Stolz as Lily and Selden in the movie version. Has anyone seen it? Is it good?

The writing is, of course, excellent, as is Wharton’s insight into the workings of this society and the characters who inhabit it. But I found it a cold novel, without the contrasts that might have lent it some much needed warmth. I liked no-one, and actually I suspect that was Wharton’s intention. Being shallow, however, I need someone to care about to make a novel really work for me – and I couldn’t care about Lily, however hard I tried. Oh yes, by the end I felt sorry for her but, truthfully, not terribly. Her ambitions are so petty, her hardships so cushioned, her decisions so egotistical. She represents everything that is worst about a society where worth is measured by wealth, and just as I wouldn’t regret the passing of that kind of society, I couldn’t get worked up about this one unimportant little hanger-on. Get a job, was my constant cry! But no, Lily couldn’t even manage that. Become a companion to a rich old lady, then, I shrieked at her! No, no, she replied, I must attend parties and look more beautiful than everyone else or my life is not worth living. I felt forced to agree with the latter part of that sentence. And thus, when we wound slowly, slowly, slowly to the inevitable end, I regret to say I… giggled. I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to, honestly! I really hoped I’d sob!

the house of mirth original illustration 2

I don’t at all think my reaction means that the book fails, however. Apart from a rather sickly sweet finale (hence the giggling), I suspect my reaction was very much what Wharton intended to inspire. Certainly she wasn’t holding these people up for admiration and, as a social critique, I feel the book works wonderfully well. (I felt at points, though, that Wharton was far from immune from the attitudes and snobberies she was criticising – her depiction of the Jewish Rosedale, for example, and her stereotyping of the ‘poor’.) In the end, the lack of any characters that I could fully sympathise with (poor Gerty, too pathetically good to be true, I fear), meant that, like Emma, my admiration for the book never quite grew into love.

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagWithout doubt, it gives a brilliant depiction of the various levels of rich society of the time and of the hypocrisy at the heart of it.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, I’d say the perspective of a woman falling through the various levels is an innovative way to examine the workings of this society.

Must be superbly written.

us flagYes – I found the writing curiously cold, but nonetheless penetrating and excellent.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagNo – and it’s not trying to.

 

* * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel, and with only four stars and four GAN flags, not even A Great American Novel, I fear. But it’s still a good and important novel that I’m glad to have read. The only thing holding it back from being a great novel for me is that I couldn’t learn to love Lily…

* * * * * * *