The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

It was difficult to choose an excerpt to properly display Woolf’s humour although they all carry an irreverence I found particularly appealing. She deals with poets very badly in this novel; I’d love to know which ones in particular ticked her off. Anyway, it’s the sort of humour that, with another writer, could have palled very quickly and earned nothing more than an eye roll. Or maybe that will be your reaction and I’m easy, but I always go for a good clichés jab. Here is our 16 year old Orlando putting his genius to paper.

He was describing, as all young poets are for ever describing, nature, and in order to match the shade of green precisely he looked (and here he showed more audacity than most) at the thing itself, which happened to be a laurel bush growing beneath the window. After that, of course, he could write no more. Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another. Nature and letters seem to have a natural antipathy; bring them together and they tear each other to pieces. The shade of green Orlando now saw spoilt his rhyme and split his metre. Moreover, nature has tricks of her own. Once look out of a window at bees among flowers, at a yawning dog, at the sun setting, once think ‘how many more suns shall I see set’, etc. etc. (the thought is too well known to be worth writing out) and one drops the pen, takes one’s cloak, strides out of the room, and catches one’s foot on a painted chest as one does so. For Orlando was a trifle clumsy.

He was careful to avoid meeting anyone….There is perhaps a kinship among qualities; one draws another along with it; and the biographer should here call attention to the fact that this clumsiness is often mated with a love of solitude. Having stumbled over a chest, Orlando naturally loved solitary places, vast views, and to feel himself for ever and ever and ever alone.

So, after a long silence, ‘I am alone’, he breathed at last, opening his lips for the first time in this record. He had walked very quickly uphill through ferns and hawthorn bushes, startling deer and wild birds, to a place crowned by a single oak tree. It was very high, so high indeed that nineteen English counties could be seen beneath; and on clear days thirty or perhaps forty, if the weather was very fine. Sometimes one could see the English Channel, wave reiterating upon wave. Rivers could be seen and pleasure boats gliding on them; and galleons setting out to sea; and armadas with puffs of smoke from which came the dull thud of cannon firing; and forts on the coast; and castles among the meadows; and here a watch tower; and there a fortress; and again some vast mansion like that of Orlando’s father, massed like a town in the valley circled by walls. To the east there were the spires of London and the smoke of the city; and perhaps on the very sky line, when the wind was in the right quarter, the craggy top and serrated edges of Snowdon herself showed mountainous among the clouds. For a moment Orlando stood counting, gazing, recognizing. That was his father’s house; that his uncle’s. His aunt owned those three great turrets among the trees there. The heath was theirs and the forest; the pheasant and the deer, the fox, the badger, and the butterfly.

He sighed profoundly, and flung himself—there was a passion in his movements which deserves the word—on the earth at the foot of the oak tree.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Testing, testing.

I’m back in Jamaica at least for a year or two, maybe forever. If my family has its way I’ll be back in foreign this time tomorrow.

Jamaican men are radically different from every other kind. I forgot how much.

I still read. I finished Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses a month or so ago. It defies a plot description and easy summation. At present I can say nothing more than it bedazzled, impressed, confused, amused, bewildered, pummeled….Good God are his other novels anything like it? Rushdie comes across as such a staid literary statesman these days and the reactions to his latest works never gave me the impression that the novels were bonkers in the most delightful way possible. (Except James Wood…”hysterical realism” was it? Ha ha.) Anyway, it cries out for a reread.

My blogging muscles are not yet fit enough to do a sensible summary of recent readings so I shall only mention what is presently on my plate and to what I am anticipating.

Reading

Orlando by Virginia Woolf – At the beginning I vacillated between “charming” and “trivial”. Now I’m at “hilarious, more to think about than readily apparent”. Why isn’t Woolf’s humour more heralded or am I weird? I’d try so many more of these Woolfs and Rushdies if critics eased off stressing their importance and highlighted the funny bits.

Rashomon and Other Stories by Akutagawa Ryonusuke – I knew nothing of Akutagawa’s theme or writing style before this collection. His short stories, at least the earlier ones that created his reputation, are written like fables. Very engrossing, intricately structured, and often end inconclusively. The Japanese authors I’ve read so far always build their stories on characters facing particular moral problems. How they react, what they decide forces one to consider not only the society mores of the time but one’s own personal philosophy and what it means…to be human I guess.

Here I stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton – One of my mother’s. I tried to read this when I was very young, perhaps 11 or so. I was vaguely interested in the different Protestant movements after the nun at my catholic prep school told me that my church (Anglican) formed from a royal divorce.

My brain’s a bit better at handling the content now.

Michael Manley biography – The author’s name escapes me. Manley was a former Jamaican Prime Minister both revered and despised, largely depending on how you feel about socialism and the word “comrade”.

To Come

I am dying to get my hands on Sarah Hall’s latest. Gimme gimme gimme. Besides that I need to get to those new Coetzees. Also Kwame Dawes’ poetry and Bob Marley book.

What have I been reading lately? As the end of my MA studies drew near and my thesis showed no signs of shrinking (or finishing itself) one could observe (lamentable) trends. I withdrew from almost all literary conversation — I did not blog or read any that weren’t in my RSS reader and lost desire for all lit mags, except one. The Paris Review managed to retain my affections partly because it’s a quarterly (so I felt I could read it at leisure), partly because I regard it as a curio among my lit mag/journal interests, and partly because it’s not very demanding in comparison to them (sorry PR staff). I always have reasonable excuses when the poetry befuddles me. (Btw, where the heck is my Fall issue? I miss being befuddled.)

As for books that jumped around a bit. My fantasy interested regressed. I reread The Hobbit and the entire Harry Potter series (like Jennysbooks is doing now). That was my third time with Tolkien’s first tale. The first time I was a tween and I left it with confused memories of the novel and the Rankin & Bass animated adaptation. The second time I closed it quite disgusted with Tolkien’s “children’s author” tone — a stylistic choice he later regretted. IIt’s an overly cute, somewhat artificial, self-conscious tone used by the world’s Enid Blytons. It works well enough for the right age group and then immediately loses favour. Even before I was ten I remember being exasperated with her style. For gratification I counted how many stories in a particular collection she ended with a question mark, mocking her silently.

This third time I made peace with that peeve and was able to appreciate Tolkien’s humour and the story’s rolicking air. I am now now even more worried about its fate as a film: it is fundamentally different from The Lord of the Rings but I fear that the trilogy’s success will convince those in charge that The Hobbit film must be made in its image. The “two movie” plan is very much the doubtful “epic” approach I feared they’d take. We shall see.

J.K. Rowling isn’t that skilfull of a writer, is she? I’ve mentioned many times that when I read the first two Harry Potter books I could not fathom what made it so popular with adults. (I came to the series through the fourth.) Now I think that their length and complexity are better suited to her strengths than a sprawling 700+ pages excursion. (Her best is the third in which she combines meatier content without needing endless words.) As the books got longer she had to do more dialogue…and she’s not very good at it. She overuses adverbs and seems limited to describing her characters as saying something “slowly” whenever they’re not running away from anyone. The plot heaves and gets kind of soap opera-y ie complications happen for the sake of it. She often fails at making her characters convincingly complex. Harry Potter’s teen angst phase came off as PSA-caricature to me but England does purportedly have a youth problem these days.

All the same…I did re-read the entire series, a compliment I have not bestowed on technically better writers whose books I’ve long since bartered. (Granted, I only own three of the HP series.) Rowlings quirky world creations and sympathetic characters combined with the pleasure of communal reading — it is wonderful to know one is enjoying a book with so many others and have endless opportunities to discuss it with them — are very potent. She could be an excellent author with a good editor. It is a bit grievous, though, to know that there are authors whose stories are both captivating and accomplished and yet are not half so spectacularly successful.

I like my mini-quests. My current one is to read all of Diana Wynne Jone’s backlist. Before this year I had read Howl’s Moving Castle, Conrad’s Fate, Power of Three and The Merlin Conspiracy. Since August I completed Chrestomanci Volumes I & II, The Dalemark Quartet and The Pinhoe Egg. I owned Charmed Life, the first in the Chrestomanci Vol. I, for a long time but was repeatedly put off by the first paragraph. I believe it’s one of her earlier novels, published in the 70s, and it stumbled with very abrupt, ugly sentences that did not promise the wry, elegant, tongue-in-cheek Diana I knew well.

Cat Chant admired his elder sister Gwendolen. She was a witch. He admired her and he clung to her. Great changes came about in their lives and left him no one else to cling to.

Mayhaps I’m overreacting but they read so serviceable, plain, without art or promise. The kind of book you get in grade on when you’re learning to read. Compare it to say, the opening in The Merlin Conspiracy, a favourite.

I have been with the Court all my life, travelling with the King’s Progress.

It’s even shorter than the first example but it scans well. It gives a tantalising bit of information while making you want to know more. That the narrator is writing this down also hints his/her situation is changing which also snags my curiousity. It works, you know? Jones also write it nearly 30 years later so of course she has a better handle of how to get things going. In any case, I did manage to get over Charmed Life’s awkward start, thanks to the quest and the knowledge that the Chrestomanci series is Jones’ most popular, and became one of her many readers to fall head over heels for Christopher Chant and his flamboyant dress robes.

One of the real charms Jones’ books holds for me is how her various urban and rural settings are not modeled too far from real life. In other stories you may have the familiar setting with the fantastical world intruding or its an extreme version of reality (like in Harry Potter with the Firebolts and wizard cards and such — which I adore btw). She explores and pokes at the strange British class system and, to a lesser extent, civil service. Her Conrad’s Fate struck me as being awfully similar to Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (don’t guffaw!) in it humorous, sharp study of an upper class home’s ecosystem, from the master and mistress down to the shoe shine boy. It’s not done to make any point in particular. And…although the magic *is* necessary to the plot , there is so little effort to jazz it up that I’d recommend it to non-fantasy fans who are Anglophiles and like mysteries.

I do not love all of her books equally. The reasons escape me but I found The Magicians of Caprona less than satisfactory. I’ve noticed DWJ’s preference for male over female heroines, the latter oft regulated to the prominent sidekick role. (Unfortunately, when she does have a book with a prominent female heroine, like the third book in The Dalemark Quartet, I pretty much can’t stand it and long for all my favourite boys from the previous two.) She does have an excellent grasp of what sets a young female reading going and that made up some of my favourite moments. In The Lives of Christopher Chant there’s a young goddess named Millie who is starved for reading material. Christopher, on the advice of a male friend with experience in the ladies’ reading tastes, buys her a series that I’m sure is modelled on Enid Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl books. Mille immediately becomes quite desperate to have girl crushes, tea time, Midnight Feasts, become a prefect and so on which mirrored my reaction exactly, except that I also wanted to wake up at ungodly hours to swim in a lake. (I still remember the illustration of the girls running towards it.) In Pinhoe’s Egg there’s a similar moment when two girls despair for a horse, plan to buy riding gear and speak knowingly of gymkhanas after taking in one of those girl + pony books. But this one felt contrived, as if DWJ was trying to recapture a moment better done before.

I’m now in the middle of Hexwood which happily has a prominent heroine (who I like) and seems to be a mix of both fantasy and science fiction, which is always nice, as long as Jones is the author. I shan’t make any promises but I also read, among others, John Banville’s Doctor Copernicus and, in order to remain a critblog in Dan Green’s standings, I shall offer you more critical fare on both that and Mill on the Floss, of course. I read a strange mid-20th century Japanese novel entitled The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Mishima Yukio. It was such a hothouse novel and stamped with Freud’s seal of approval…lots of phallic poles, edifices, ship masts, womanly flowers opening up and what have you…and so riddled with imagery…I still don’t know what to make of it. (Japanese writers rule.)

I am ready to return into literature’s welcoming bosom. As a sign that I made the right decision, the gods saw fit to give The Mill on The Floss the kind of soul wrenching end that left me sobbing. I haven’t done that since Andre Dubus’ “Rose” (a short story) which was years ago. Every one fusses about Middlemarch but perhaps one ought to take a closer look at my new favourite? I am now convinced that Eliot deserves to be immortalised in marble — I hope there’s a statue I can visit somewhere.


Middlemarch is her best so I’ll get to it some time but…is it another Fallen Woman story? My heart can’t take any more of those at present. I may swerve into Silas Marner instead. That’s another one of her books that I started to read in my younger days but never finished.

“Tell me , do you have any coloured blood?”

Mark recognized, with anger and embarrassment, the small halt in his breathing but he answered easily enough, “Of course. Why do you ask?”

“Shouldn’t I? It seems an interesting point about a man like you.”

“I suppose so,” said Mark. “But it’s not usual to hear a European ask it.”

[...]

“It worries you quite a bit, eh?”

Mark grinned…”Does it show so much?” he asked.

“You ought to have seen your face, ” Hancko said, “when I asked you.”

“It’s a queer business,” said Mark. “Being my colour and and my class in my sort of country. All your training…all your influences and most of the education you get encourages you to value one side of what you were born and to despise the other. It becomes a reflex by the time you’re about five years old.”

“What are you going to do?” Hancko asked him then.

[...]

“What [are] you getting at?”

“Everything,” he replied, looking steadily at Mark, and with the accent of his English only discernible by the faint hardness of the vowels. “Everything you want to do, no matter how complex and untidy it looks, has something specific in it that moves the whole thing. An essence that you can get at.” He closed his hand slowly, like a man grasping a sinking stone in the water before it reached the bottom. ” Every question, comes down finally to ‘What’, not ‘Why’. In our case it’s a matter of giving an allegiance to the destiny of the poor. A real allegiance, I mean, that’s almost like religious faith, but not quite. Don’t mind that, though. It’s an allegiance to them as a class, to what they have to offer, to the work you must do with them. In your country one lot of people who are white rule and prosper by using the people like you. They’re able to use you because they allow you a good share in their world, and because they’ve given you a set of values to live by that depend on the approval of that world. And the poor of your world, the blacks, they’re kept poor because you, people like you I mean, get an idea clearly in life that there will always be something irreconcilable between the white world and the black. And only the white world has any value, call it beauty if you like, for you. Is that right?”

“Yes,” Mark said slowly. “I suppose that is the way it works.”

“It’s not a question,” Hancko continued, “of starting a race war: that’s almost more stupid than the other thing. It’s only a question of taking sides. Every time history becomes urgent and a little sick, as it is now, a man has to pick a side. Especially men like you who carry both your worlds within you, in your blood.”

From Voices Under The Window by John Hearne, published by Peepal Tree Press

Hope it hasn’t been mentioned and my old eyes have deceived me, but have you seen the PBS version of Persuasion? I really enjoyed the whole PBS Jane Austen series.Tasses

No, I’m afraid not. I tend to avoid Austen adaptations unless there’s something in the advertising that indicates the director produced something beyond the ordinary. More importantly, I’m not even sure if I have PBS. But I remember reading reviews of it online and viewers feeling much the same as you did.

With all the Wyndham you’ve been reading, can you tell us which one appealed to you most? What about him made you want to read multiple titles?

Also, re: Wide Sargasso Sea — do you have an opinion in general on the writing of “sequels” using another author’s characters?Melanie

The Chrysalids retains its top spot because my reread revealed why images of it had stayed with me from boarding school (even if I couldn’t remember specific details). It’s also the best developed one in terms of plot and theme.

Generally when I find an author I like I seek out his other titles immediately. Penguin’s re-release of much of his backlist and the novels’ short length made it all too easy for me to gorge.

In general I lay a pox on authors who go about messing with other books in order to write pre- or sequels. I’m a huge Austen fan but I’ll never read those Darcy’s Diary claptrap. I made an exception for Wide Sargasso Sea because it’s a) considered a classic and b) Rhys wrote other novels that are also well-regarded.

On Literature and Knowledge: Is this more a theoretical book or more an op-ed from the author? Do you disagree with any of the author’s arguments?bookchronicle

Ahhh, it’s a bit of both with the op-ed strain being a bit more dominant. She goes to some lengths to define and elucidate an understanding of “knowledge” different from the scientific and, ergo, arguing for literature’s importance as is rather than trying to torture it into the objective paradigm.

I’ve read it months ago but I do remember being sceptical about her support for the idea that literature nurtures empathetic knowledge in readers. It’s a library book though, so I don’t have a copy here to go into more details. Hope I was clear enough!

How do you think Persuasion compares to other Austen novels? Would you recommend it to someone new to the author, or would you tell them to try something else first?Christine

Oh, I love it. Here’s my ranking, leaving out P&P because I’ve forgotten how much I like it and so must re-read to make things clear. Emma‘s first, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park and Persuasion are all tied in for 2nd place because I can’t decide which I like better, while Sense and Sensibility languishes at the bottom because it’s good Austen but I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

You know, it all depends on what kind of reader the newbie is. All of Austen’s major novels are of a certain quality that renders that issue irrelevant. NA may not have MP’s complex architecture but it has a persuasive, enchanting element coupled with Austen’s judicious eye that wins readers over, for example. It’s more about what that new reader is likely to connect with first because, despite similar themes, Austen’s novels vary in style and focus, she brings different things to the fore in her works. I suppose most would go with P&P because it’s considered THE book but that’s a boring tactic, don’t you think? Sometimes it’s neater to take a divergent path even if you end up at the same finishing point.

Thanks to everyone for the great questions!

Round One

The Lydia Millet questions

I just recently read a Lydia Millet novel. What’d you think of her? In the one I read, the characterization was brilliant, although her writing felt heavy at times.

How were Millet’s characters in the novel you read? How well were they drawn? Did you find yourself attracted to some while repelled by others? – kelskels

That’s a trickier question than you might expect. Her characterization for the kind of novel she wanted to write was excellent, IMO. In one review (via Soft Skull)– the only one you need read on this novel, btw, as the newspaper ones were pure pap for the most part — the critic wrote that “Millet delivers a novel that strips a character of all pretense, custom, habit and certitude, even of personality, to leave an entity that moves blindly forward in a world of blunt instinct.” I agree completely but it left others complaining that they weren’t the “fully dimensional”, proper rounded characters that all novelists must write all the time to be considered any good. Far be it from me to declare such critics flapping philistines with woefully limited ideas of what fiction is, may they please spare the public their editorially approved opinions but…*ahem* yes, I thought How the Dead Dream did well on that score. I too found her writing heavy at times the first time around but on a reread lost all sight of what I found problematic in the first place…until I picked up My Happy Life, another of her novels, which threw all that heaviness to the fore so I had to put it down and give myself a break.
Yes, I felt that pull and push to certain characters…did you read How the Dead Dream too or is this Millet’s general style? :D It’s like you’re in my head.

How the Dead Dream” is a book I have been meaning to read for some time now.

Who this book would speak more powerfully to. Do you believe that animal lovers/owners would connect with the main character more so than non-animal people?

Did this book make you think about the differences in how people treat their human family members as opposed to their animal family?

What do you think is the main message Millet is trying to get across to her readers?Joanne

While the main character may be more appealing to animal lovers I don’t think he would connect to them anymore than other readers precisely because he’s not a typical animal lover. Indeed for most of the novel although he becomes more conscious and concerned about others and the wider world he doesn’t develop in a clear cut, “let’s join PETA” manner.

No, the book didn’t make me think about how persons treat pets differently from relatives…. I think one of Millet’s main purposes in writing the book was to change environmentalism’s image to the average person. She wanted to sap it of its sentimental, “hobby” like status where people cry over cute pandas and instead highlight how it is as serious, and vital an issue as oil prices or health care, say, which are seen as more general “issues”. Especially when it comes to talking about animal extinction.

What’s Literature and Knowledge like? Easy to read and understand?Maree

Ummm…I would say it’s only easy to understand if you’re used to reading university-level texts on abstract matter like theory. That being said Dorothy Walsh is meticulous in defining her terms and building her argument careful from chapter to chapter, anticipating questions and answering them well, for the most part, and avoiding silly jargon. She writes so clearly, with a touch of humour that it’s a book I’d recommend to those who wanted to dip their toes into books on literature and aesthetics but are unsure of where to start and are afraid of being overwhelmed.

Was Nick right to sacrifice his vocation (teaching, scholarship) for a life of beauty and pleasure? Why do Nick and the MP argue about Richard Strauss?Amateur Reader

You know, I don’t think it’s a question of right or wrong since poor Nick didn’t even seem clear on what the heck he was going to write for his doctorate. He was clear about it except when he had to explain it to others — and maybe he was just shy, poor thing — but I say that if you can’t string two clear sentences together on your thesis you’re in trouble. Much easier to cut and snort. (I know that sweet Nick thought that no one would understand his oh so literary topic but I call BS.) He did get a whole (ugly) building out of it!

Nick and the MP’s musical arguments are symbolic of the British government’s oppression of homosexuals. Strauss controversially supported the Nazi regime who were famously homophobic and Gerald, a Thatcherite, no doubt supported Thatcher’s anti-gay legislation she established in the 80s.

(I went for the most outlandish explanation I could think of. How did I do?)

Have you read any of Dubus’ novels? Which form do you think he masters, or is he skillful with both? Which was your favorite story from this collection?Dew

Dubus only wrote one novel, an early one, which I’ve rarely seen mention and so am not much interested in. He (and I) consider him to be a short story writer. It’s his son Dubus III that’s known for his novels.

My favourite story from that collection is probably the first one “Killings” which, to my surprise, was adapted into a movie.

Yes, well.

Posted on: July 21, 2008

I have several drafts on Wharton (whoops, missed that deadline), Silent Light (for First Magazine), Lydia Millet (that one was supposed to be an epic), A.L. Kennedy and others seething from neglect in the bowels of my dashboard (while I wonder what else I can do for Open Letters Monthly). There are many (many) print and online literary magazine issues languishing unread. (This never, never happens. If I read anything it’s my LRB and OLM.) I’ll offer no excuses only my apologies and this post which I just churned out in an effort to get the juices flowing.

My most recent novel read is The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. It’s a Booker winner so I heard about it but the prize plus the title emitted waves of tedium — I figured it featured some middle-aged don’s limpid natterings plus an affair with a fresh young student. This changed last year when I read Hollinghurst’s excellent TLS Commentary piece on Ronald Firbank. I thought his name sounded familiar and behold! he was the same Booker winner of that one book. Still wary I swerved and reached for his first novel instead The Swimming-pool Library and was amazed. Never had I imagined such an unabashedly sexual novel could at the same time be so “literary” — in this case simply meaning a book with complex themes, stimulating, morally ambiguous character dynamics, lovely writing, interesting set up of ideas, motifs and so on.

A lot can happen between 1988 when that book was published to 2004. If I had known that The Line of Beauty was so recent I might have skipped it for one of the 90s novels. (I held the impression it was a mid-90s novel for some reason.) Hollinghurst aged, mellowed, became wiser, a little less outrageous, more subtle, judicious, wilier, perhaps, likes to take his time, turn the wheel, build the moment with layer upon intricately built layer. Basically, it turned out to be the novel I dreaded. The sort of book that, I imagine, innocent hoi polloi buy in an effort to obey their betters by partaking in the superior literature of the day, only to have it lay on the nighttime table for half-a-year with the book mark at somewhere around page 110 holding up the latest Stephanie Plum and the new non-fiction sensation.

If I were a Henry James fan I may have loved this book, squeeing in delight at every big and small allusion. (Amateur Reader doesn’t think so.) Usually, I get a bit excited when a writer so consistently links his book to another’s, especially if it’s a classic one with which I am unfamiliar. Unless it’s Henry James whose books have always looked very long and sound very boring. (I was wrong about Edith — could be wrong about James…but have you seen the size of his books? I do it for Proust but he’s French. I’ll do a lot for French writers. And British Victorian writers but James is Edwardian, right? Missed it, old chum. Can we pretend his fiction is Edwardian for the sake of this post and my excuses? Isn’t he American or something? There, Americans don’t count, I go for the British.)

Nick Guest, the protagonist in Hollinghurst’s most recent novel, is a doctorate student in Literature at UCL writing an unfathomable thesis on James, his favourite writer. He graduated from Worcester College, Oxford where, despite his middle-class trappings, he managed to make friends with the handsome rower Toby whose uncle (on Mom’s side) is an Earl and whose politician father is similarly (though I think a less illustriously, title-wise) connected and very wealthy besides. The family likes Nick, so much so that they rent him one of the rooms in its London home, making him feel like one of the family. It helps that he can act as a vaguely defined guardian for Toby’s younger 19 year old sister who is clinically depressed and a bit wild besides: keep her from cutting herself, vet her boyfriends, assess and report on her general well-being, all the things a 21 year old is uniquely qualified to do. He is also a gay virgin and desperate to hook-up and indulge in much thought over pleasures.

Not much in the book happens as Hollinghurst covers three years of Guest in the Fedden household. Nick sleeps with some guys, is eternally conflicted about his existence in this upper-class lifestyle, oft disapproving and yet addicted to its sensual gifts and lifetime of ease. He sees through Gerald’s fake politician affability yet takes pride in being connected to Gerald in the first place. He wants to be true to himself and those around him but can’t quite manage it much of the time, probably because he’s not so sure what to make of himself. (I’m guessing my ignorance of all things Henry James is working against me here.) To be fair, the choice of sleeping mates is an essential structural point. At the beginning, in more innocent times (of limited opportunity), he puts aside a long-held crush for Toby and sends out a lonely heart letter to a Jamaican working class man in his late 20s. In the second section he’s made a leap and bags Wani, a beautiful, wealthy Lebanese millionaire (from his Oxford batch), a closeted gay whose debonair, effortless cool demeanour that the world admires is wholly owed to Cocaine Productions. In the third that’s done away with due to ex-lovers left and right succumbing to an “illness” that goes unnamed for most of the story. Each marks an evolution in Nick’s character to an extent.

The story’s historical backdrop colours the story heavily as well, something that only became obvious to me after I pulled myself out of Nick’s constant “OMG I’m so middle class + gay but I love all this sex+drugs+money+class privilege but oooh they can be so callous + self-delusional and I’m totes better than that haha but am I really, I’m so lost? lawks” loop. They’re in Thatcher’s England as the book starts out at around the peak of her popularity and ends after her last Tory win when her prospects begin to dim — all the while England’s unemployment numbers rises in the millions. As an upper-class Tory who treats his rural constituents as if they were extra-terrestrial visitors who must be humoured one realises how effectively Gerald’s status acts as blinkers. So his Thatcher-mania is almost redundant in that regard. There’s a scene near the end where Gerald is over-the-moon to have “The Lady” at his house for his wedding anniversary party — which doesn’t figure much for his poor wife must remind him that they will have the first dance not him and Thatcher — in which Hollinghurst has a jolly, slightly caustic old time describing all the plump, middle-aged Thatcherites following her around reverentially, patting their balding pates while eyeing her bounteous crop enviously, kneeling on the floor by her as she sits on the coach desperate to get in a word. It was too much like those deb balls you read in Regency romances or a parody of a Jane Austen ballroom scene except that our intrepid hero sees through it all and gleefully succumbs to it (even though he’s not a Thatcherite). Story of his life.

Homosexuality figures largely as well and lends the novel a furtive quality. Most of Nick’s upper-class society know that he’s gay they just politely ignore it except the rougher ones who take jibes at him in order to establish some imaginary superiority. It’s a shadow world that, unfortunately, is gaining more public attention because of AIDS. The landscape is trickier because Nick has a penchant for black lovers who aren’t fortunate enough to have millionaire Daddies to smooth over the race issue among his company. Wani has that but is supremely conscious of its less than stellar supermarket origins therefore he’s not going to make things worse by even implicitly acknowledging a relationship with Nick. Add this to Nick’s class issues and although his life seems charmed for most of the novel it’s more like he’s dancing on a precipice held up by sheer luck. And though his richer friends may be more secured Hollinghurst never allows that secure decadence to permeate the entire novel. It has a much more enclosed quality like a snow globe and around them things are harder, more precarious, less glamorous.

Rather, this is how the novel appears to me now as I turn it over. I assure you while reading it it felt more like trying to do the foxtrot hip deep in mud. I know it is a more complex novel that The Swimming-Pool Library , far more intricately built. There are untold things you could pick apart that I’ve not mentioned, including the musical allusions and the architectural references and close attention to buildings in particular, which carries over from TS-PL. No doubt critics would view Hollinghurst’s change in hero an advancement — from the rich, carefree, lusty, outrageous yet often judicious William Beckwith to the anxious, naive, smart but wilfull, middle-class Nick more liable to sink than sail and so therefore a tastier morsel for a good novelist. However, I prefer when Hollinghurst’s caustic humour and abandonment is closer to the surface, when he doesn’t draw the curtain on a sex scene early enough to make it “tasteful” and more palatable (I suppose). That writer appeared in The Line of Beauty but not early enough to save it. My interest in Hollinghurst still remains, though, and I intend to read all of his backlist so that should tell you something.

The Weekly Geek activity

What was your favorite (or least favorite) part of Persuasion? Did you think Captain Wentworth wrote the best, most romantic love letter of all time??? Have you seen any movie versions of Persuasion? Which one is your favorite if you have?Becky

As I look back now I can’t say that I have a particular favourite section. The novel as a whole stands out to me very brightly in being the opposite of what I expected — the boring Austen novel. It’s the last major one I read after contemplating a reread of Pride & Prejudice because I thought it would be slow — everyone mentions it’s about “patience” which is an upstanding theme but doesn’t sound exciting unless you’re going to make it allegorical and over-the-top like Pilgrim’s Progress (as I remember it anyway). Instead it was filled with near unbearable tension and I found myself entirely taken with Anne and her troubles.

I’ve never seen any of the film adaptations and tend to avoid them as a rule. Parts of the film industry appear to see Austen as a dependable money cranker, fans ever ready to take in another run-of-the-mill boots and petticoats in the country romance rather than making much of anything. Three exceptions to his is Ang Lee & Emma Thompson’s “Sense & Sensibility” (which I like more than the book (!)), the BBC’s faithful P&P 1995 tv series and (somewhat controversially) the latest P&P adaptation starring Keira Knightley. It wasn’t the most faithful and there are some corny lines (help us) but it’s the most cinematic one I’ve ever seen over all others (including the BBC).

How would you describe Andre Dubus’ literary style?Bybee

In the school of Hemingway, perhaps? That seems to be a catch-all phrase for male writers who write plain, efficient sentences. He’s very much a realist as it’s generally understood and focused on character. They’re usually working class — the men are often military and the women are their mothers, wives, girlfriends or widows — and troubled. He writes with a singular sympathy — I’m not exaggerating here. I write this about other authors but if I were to name a prototype Dubus’ stories would be it — and a measured perspective to all whether it’s a New England waitress with an abusive boyfriend or a misogynistic Marine for whom women are simply things to stick his willy in. He gives them all some grace.

His stories’ success is wholly based on how compelling they are regardless of how mundane and typical the situations may be. Without that there isn’t really anything else for you to rest your eye on and get much nourishment from. But at his best — watch out! He’s the only writer who has ever made me soak my pillow with tears. (I’m an easy crier and tears can trickle down but at the end of “Rose” which I think is at the end of his The Last Worthless Evening I was sobbing, hiccuping, the works.) For anyone who thinks short stories are lesser than novels, Dubus is the man to read.

The Wide Sargasso Sea questions

Tell me more about Wide Sargasso Sea! Most of the reviews I’ve seen of it have been on the fence. Personally, I didn’t like the way either Rochester and Annette were protrayed. Also, Rhys changed a lot about her main character (including her name), which disturbed me. What do you think of Rhys’s writing style? Do you think she did Jane Eyre a service or disservice by writing a “sequel?”Katherine

I’ve been wanting to read Wide Sargasso Sea for ages. How did you like it in comparison to Jane Eyre?Alessandra

I started Wide Sargasso Sea once… it seemed to weird so I never finished it. Did you like it? Find it weird? Did it mess up the Jane Eyre story for you or add to it?Suey

I wrote a bit on this novel before with a promise to write more, which I fully intended to do, until I lost all my damn notes. *ahem*

I turned the last page, my centre of mass shifted, something that always happens when a work has more than justified its existence — in one sense, it justified and confirmed mine as well. That should have been an euphoric feeling but I was also sorrowful. The best thing happened — I’d read another great, great work that confirms why I read fiction, specifically novels. And the worst thing happened — my perspective on Jane Eyre had changed forever. Each book by a different author inhabits its own world of course. It’s only that I’ll never be able to read about Brontë’s poor, monstrous Bertha Mason without wondering what, to Brontë’s mind, brought her there to that Thornfield attic. Rhys showed one possibility and it moved me, almost unbearably.

No fence sitting here, I’m a full on fan. I’m not the person to go to when assessing a novel’s “weirdness” because I love nothing so much as crazy, over-the-top French authors, heated imagery, spaced out sentences etc. So Rhys’ hot house, Eden-after-the-fall with the off-kilter, slightly menacing characters were a plus for me rather than a minus. It didn’t mess up Jane Eyre for me although it did open me a little wider to Brontë’s stereotypical treatment of Bertha. Funnily enough it’s Vilette that gives my Jane Eyre enthusiasm a more tarnished quality. I suppose it’s because it’s one thing for an author to lay a j’accuse at another but a whole different thing when the original turns the gun on herself, as it were.

I love both Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre in completely different ways. The authors are so different: hailing from different times, countries, class…just such different worlds and produced such different books that, despite the obvious links, I can’t put them side by side and say which one I prefer.

Katherine, your question is trickier. I’m not sure what big changes Rhys made to the Antoinette character besides the name change since Brontë didn’t give much beyond vague details on Bertha’s background as best as I can remember. (But I don’t have the best memory so please expound in comments if you care to!) For a novel to be based on Bertha I’d think a novelist would have to go beyond what Brontë mentioned to get much of a story. Neither did I take issue with how Antoinette and Rochester were portrayed. Especially in Rochester’s case his behaviour was very plausible. In Jane Eyre he was never a saint or even a very good character for much of the story and in light of how English male gentry were raised and Europe’s scientific view of Creoles — where everything from the tropical climate to miscegenation made them suspect — and add that to his young age…I may not have approved of but story-wise it worked.

The name change disturbed me but only in the way I figure Rhys meant it to. Rochester is denying Antoinette her personhood and that plays pretty well as one explanation as to how things played out in Jane Eyre.

I am not one for classic prequels or sequels. It’s why it took me so long to get to Wide Sargasso Sea even though I’d heard of it since I was 12/13; and heard it described as a sort of post-colonial, West Indian answer to the imperial British classic, something which its proponents no doubt expected to appeal to young Jamaican students. Not to me since even then I instinctively disliked that kind of overtly political, messagey stuff when it came to literature. Also it was contradictory since until that point I had learned implicitly that British classics were THE books of the English-speaking world and then all of a sudden I was expected to do a 180 and want to knock it down. (I was a reader before high school and so it may have been easier for those who only read school assigned texts which included West Indian lit. Most bookstores on the island, though, gave a different message.)

I only came to it when I made the decision to read more West Indian literature. I think it’s an excellent novel in which the author didn’t write it as a kind of cheap Jane Eyre vs. Wide Sargasso Sea smack down so I don’t think it besmirches Brontë’s literary legacy.

This won’t be the most edifying post you’ve ever read here but I saw a similar bit at Sterne and decided I’d share some Amazon one/two star reviews on some of the books I read this year. It’s less about the book in question than the reason the book got trashed…

Persuasion by Jane Austen

2.0 out of 5 stars Such a huge disappointment., January 16, 2008

When I saw Masterpiece Theater was doing a series on Jane Austen and her novels, I decided to read them in the order the shows would air–starting with Persuasion. It was the first and last of Austen’s that I will read. She may well have captured the mores and social rules of the time, but she didn’t create characters I could really care about. I stuck with it to the end and found the revelations about Mr. Elliot to come out of nowhere and the ending romance to be something we could see coming from the very start. I’ll take Edith Wharton over Austen any day.

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

1.0 out of 5 stars Superlatives apply., April 10, 2001

What I mean by this is that affixing the title of “Worst book ever” to The Stone Angel is not a stretch. I have read some truly bad novels in my time, but The Stone Angel is simply horrifying. Never has there been a more repulsive character than Hagar, a neurotic, arrogant, despicable old woman. The book is told in a series of intermittent flashbacks that seem pointless in conjunction with Hagar’s current situation (which is that her family wants to put her in a nursing home).At first I was mildly interested by the florid writing style, but the book soon made me numb (it actually caused me physical pain). The reason for this is that the main character of The Stone Angel’s story is the most repulsive fictional creation I’ve ever beheld. Hagar’s bloated idiocy renders her ineffably repellent after just a few chapters. Being 90 years old, her thoughts and dialogue are completely separated from reason, destroying any interest a person could have in the progress of the story. Her flashbacks further reinforce her overweening nature. I suppose this book has merit if you wish to enter the mind of a 90-year old arrogant woman whose logical faculties have been shattered, but who really wants to read about that? Sure it’s believable (for which some reviews have credited it), but why on earth does anyone care about a cantankerous old hag with bowel problems? Talk about the ultimate anti-hero!

[...]

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Lloyd.

2.0 out of 5 stars Very well done … but somehow lacking, September 29, 2005

Let me first say that it’s a well-written, fascinating, literate piece of work. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

Then again, afterwards you’re left with a sort of empty feeling. Because where did those horrors Moore alludes to come from? And the answer is: from the beliefs that Moore espouses!

Yes, ladies and gentlemen. In the scene where he broadcasts a message via a TV station, he plainly states that we are just animals, fresh off the tree. And this was the exact view that Hitler, for one, used to justify his campaign of killing the unwanted: the old, the infirm, the mentally ill, gays, Jews. As Bethell writes:

“During the period of American neutrality in World War I, Kellogg was posted to the headquarters of the German general staff and was shocked to find German military leaders, sometimes with the Kaiser present, supporting the war with an “evolutionary rationale.” They did so with “a particularly crude form of natural selection, defined as inexorable, bloody battle. …
[...]
“You like Darwin?” The German intellectuals were saying. “We’ll give you Darwin.” (end quote)

*I’ve been watching all of Extras these days.


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