Friday, November 5, 2010

The Magus


Do you know the feeling when you’re watching a horror movie, and you know the killer is hiding in a room, and the innocent young girl is naively headed there? How you just want to shout at her not to go in there? Or the feeling when your friend decides to give her loser boyfriend just one more chance?

I had those feelings quite often while reading John Fowles’ The Magus - a novel that at first had me gripped in suspense. But slowly – we’ve got 650 pages here – that suspense turned to absolute frustration, then anger, then indifference. Let me explain.

The Magus begins with Nicholas Urfe in England. He ends up meeting this woman, Alison, and getting into a messy relationship with her. Eventually, she becomes a stewardess and he gets a teaching post at a boys school on a Greek island, both pursuing these paths partly to escape each other. Nicholas had inquired with some of the previous English teachers at this school, and had gotten rather cryptic information revolving around a rich old man (Conchis) who lived part-time in a mansion on the island.

So, Nicholas goes to Greece, and through curiosity he happens upon this mansion, and through a series of what turns out to be set-ups for him, he comes to meet Conchis, who is eccentric to say the least. I could not even fathom trying to explain the rest, but it involves twins Nicholas meets through Conchis. Are they actresses? Are they his prisoners? His lovers? His relatives? Are they on the side of Conchis, or on Nicholas’s side, or both? Then Alison comes back, then she kills herself. Or does she?

The first half or so of the novel was enthralling; or mostly so, and very engaging. I was interested – what was going to happen? Beyond that point, my feelings began to change towards the characters, and the novel in general.

Firstly, there were multiple times in the last 250(!) pages when it felt as if the action were winding down. Fowles was dusting his hands off, ready to wrap up. But then I would look at the vast amount of pages left and wonder how on earth this would drag out that long after the denoument. But then, of course, something else would happen – another crisis, another twist in Conchis’s game, and the process would repeat again over the next 50 or so pages. After this occurred twice, the feelings I described above began to surface. Nicholas would once again fall into their trap, get sucked back into their lies – knowing they were likely lying – and I wanted to scream at him: TELL THEM TO F---OFF AND GO BACK TO YOUR ROOM!

This reaction points to my first personal problem with the novel – a complete failure to understand the motivation behind the actions of any of the characters. I’m the type of person who hates surprises. I hate unnecessary mysteriousness. I am not Nicholas Urfe, and by the time June showed up at the gate with all her nonsense (if not long before), I would have said some nasty words and gone back to grading papers. So why Nicholas keeps falling into it again and again is beyond me. The motivation is presented that he is so head-over-heals in love with Lily or Julia or whatever her name, but I don’t buy it. Seriously – if someone cannot be straight with you about what their name is, what is the point? And why all these actors – or are they psychologists? – are involved is beyond me. Having a little fun is one thing, but to be involved in kidnapping and torturing someone just to show him about freedom, or that he’s a cad, or whatever their final motivation is supposed to be (it’s not clear) – well, I don’t get it. And what Alison does is absolutely beyond my comprehension. I get she was angry at him for dumping her – but to participate in a game by pretending that you’ve killed yourself is a bit overboard. Though it wasn’t the most overboard plot point in this novel, which should tell you something. Conchis – well, I won’t even pretend I understand one iota of motivation.

In the same vein of not understanding the motivations of the characters, I don’t understand Nicholas’s reaction to all the events that occur. After June (or is it Rose?) shows up at the gate, and pretends she doesn’t know about what happened with Alison (Nicholas, at this point, still believes that she killed herself), Nicholas essentially gets himself kidnapped by Conchis. They take him to an unknown location where he is drugged, questioned, and eventually lead through the silliest ceremony of either doctors and psychologists or actors in elaborate costume waxing Freudian about Nicholas, while he is positioned on a throne, half-naked, bound and gagged. They then drug him again and drop him off on some other Greek island, gets back to his school only to find out that he was fired from his position. While waiting to return to England, he glimpses Alison, and realizes that she never did kill herself – all that was part of the game as well. (I feel that I keep saying, “and THEN.”) Through all this, I was so angry for Nicholas. I came to hate all of these jerks. I wanted him to be able to get some kind of revenge on them. But he comes see some better purpose for all of this. The whole, Yes, I was kidnapped but it made me a better person. Well, maybe it did, but I certainly wouldn’t have any positive feelings towards the person that did it, or that participated in it. I was in an abusive relationship once. It made me a different person, not necessarily a better one. And trust me, I don’t have any tender feelings for that person. So Nick continuing to pursue it all, tracking everyone down, and waiting for Alison – not waiting to yell at Alison, but maybe to get back with her – well, I just cannot understand it.

So, I’ve got characters whose motivation and reactions I don’t understand. Plot twists out the wazzoo, to the point where I didn’t care anymore. In the end, I don’t know what the truth was. I don’t understand what the point of the experiment was. I don’t understand why I should believe in any sense such an elaborate expense of money, time and effort on international levels to tell some second-rate English teacher that he’s a cad. And I don’t care. I allowed myself to digest the novel for a few weeks before I finished this review, so that I had time to digest it and really consider my thoughts on it. But I still feel incredibly indifferent to it. Somewhere along the line, The Magus lost me and we weren’t able to get back on track. Overall, I was disappointed. Someday I will be coming back to Fowles, but I won’t likely be coming back to The Magus.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

U.S.A. Trilogy

“I always felt that it might not be any good as a novel, but that it would at least be useful to add to the record. ~John Dos Passos

In 1938, Jean Paul Sartre called John Dos Passos the “greatest living writer of our time.” A contemporary and sometimes frienemy of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, he was an obvious influence on Norman Mailer, E.L. Doctorow, Truman Capote, and Jack Kerouac. Sinclair Lewis said of one of Dos Passos’s first novels (Manhattan Transfer) that he had invented a whole new way of writing.

I had never heard of John Dos Passos, or any of his writings, prior to delving into all of these book lists. And on these lists his name, in connection with the epic U.S.A. Trilogy specifically, keeps popping up again and again. Eventually, I came around to the first book in the trilogy, 42nd Parallel and was completely blown away. (See my review here).

In U.S.A., Dos Passos merged a four unique styles in a manner that (as far as I am aware) had not been attempted before. In addition to the intertwined narratives of a dozen different characters, he incorporated poetic, staccato biographies, culled three decades worth of newspaper headlines and popular songs, and his own autobiographical, Joycean impressions in the section titled “Camera Eye.” All to give us a “picture” of America from the beginning of the 20th century to the stock market crash in ’29. It is truly an impressive undertaking – one that I found amazing in its technical aspect and moving in its emotional impact. My review for 42nd Parallel really could serve as a readers response to the entire novel, so I don’t want to rehash the effusive praise I gave the novel there…so this post is much less of a review than a discussion of additional relevant material.

Influence of Soviet Film

It’s hard now to conceive of what a revolution and revelation the advent of film. I – as I suspect most people reading this blog – have always had movies around. They have always been part of the landscape of my life, and in a set form, or sets of forms, such as documentary or narrative. But at the beginning of film, probably until at least the 1930s, by which time “talkies” had been developed, the medium was an entirely new art, and everybody was trying to figure out how film should “be” or what it should express.

This was also a time of great political and social unrest and experimentation and everybody was trying to find ways that this new medium could be used for their own purposes. One of those groups attempting to use film for societal and political purposes was the socialist and communist movements both in the United States and in Russia. Because of the camera’s ability to objectively capture the economic disparity of the world, the leftist political movements saw the documentary style as being an opportunity to bring their “revolutionary consciousness” to the people. There were things going on in the world that those with all the power (and all the money and the means of distribution) didn’t want the populace to see, but with the availability of the camera, now they could. Two chiefs filmmakers of this tradition are Eisenstein (famous for “The Battleship Potemkin”) and Dziga Vertov, whose Man with a Movie Camera could in some ways be seen as the cinematic precursor to U.S.A.

Dos Passos was directly involved in this cinematic movement. He co-founded in a group called the New Playwrights in the late 1920s which drew upon the ideas set forth by the leftist cinematic faction, specifically a group known as the Workers’ Film and Photo League. The League’s intent was to use the movie camera to document the disparity in the economic conditions of the proletariat versus the, well, Big Money. Vertov’s concept of the Camera Eye (or Kino Eye – here to distinguish it from the U.S.A. section) was very influential on this group. The Kino Eye was an experimental technique of filmmaking that used montage and other methods to explore the visible world.

The Film and Photo League created another organization called Nykino (New York Kino) in 1934. Dos Passos joined forces occasionally with Nykino and a later incarnation called Frontier Films by cowriting subtitles and commentary for their films. He was named as an advisory board member and consultant to Frontier Films in 1937, but shortly thereafter had an ideological falling out of sorts with the “official” left, and this shift in loyalty was a defining factor in Dos Passos’s subsequent falling out with the literary critics of whom he was once a darling.

Dos Passos is one of the first writers (that I know of) to integrate the methods used in filmmaking into literature. The concepts and techniques developed by Vertov and his contemporaries (specifically montage) are most evident in the Newsreel sections, and Dos Passos gives an upside-down nod to this influence in “Camera Eye” section. The interesting part of these “nods” is that neither are true depictions of what the workers’ cinema philosophy intended them for. I said the Camera Eye sections were upside-down since the intent behind the Soviet concept of the Kino Eye was pure documentary, but the Camera Eye in U.S.A. is the only part of the text that is subjective and not objective. (Dos Passos, in an interview with the Paris Review stated that the Camera Eye was the valve for his subjective feelings, allowing the rest of the novel to be approached objectively.) Newsreels in the workers’ cinema were used to show the relationship between the workers economic conditions to an overall worldwide class struggle. Dos Passos uses the newsreels to give public context to the private events in the narrative sections – tying together what is happening in the background – History with a capital H – while the lives of the characters march on (or not). Some have expressed frustration over the occasional puzzling nature of the Newsreels, but I felt they simply gave a general idea of the buzz, like a transcript of flipping through television stations.


The U.S.A. Trilogy is not without its problems. The “Camera Eye” sections were the weakest in execution. A reader needs a good understanding of Dos Passos’s own biography to get anything out of them. Otherwise, it’s as disorienting as being thrown into Joyce’s Ulysses without a road map. The section was included to give the novel a personal perspective to counterbalance the documentary style, but it’s often confusing at best. I can’t say that the novel would be better without it, but I didn’t feel that these portions added something necessary to it.

Richard Gilman in the New York Times wrote, "U.S.A. isn’t tragic, which is precisely why so much of it feels cold and mechanical; tragedy implies personal destiny, moral choice, existential dilemma, and these conditions are almost wholly missing. Instead of fates we have personal disasters arising from involvements or confrontations with the vast, corrupting power of social reality, particularly economic reality… U.S.A. filled a need for a collective novel, whose real protagonist…was the entire nation. And bringing this off – at any level – called less for the talents of a true novelist than for those of a reporter, a sharp observer. This is why his biographies and Newsreels are the best parts of U.S.A. and the Camera Eyes and narratives, demanding invention, are the worst.”

I cannot argue with those criticisms, except that I did found the narratives much more on par with the rest of the novel (minus the Camera Eye) than Gilman gives Dos Passos credit for. But it’s true the narratives are cold – they are objective, and Dos Passos offers no redemption, no real crisis and no sympathy for the characters. Some he clearly views with contempt (Barrow, for instance). The author here simply records their lives, from the enthusiasm and brightsidedness of the dawn of the 20th century through the bitterness that culminated in the crash and the depression –all their triumphs which turn to failures, leading to the great failure, once again the personal reflecting the public and vice versa. There is no plot, really, other than the march of time. In this manner his style is much more journalistic than one might desire in a Great American Novel contender. But it's a condender nonetheless.


There are so many different angles that someone could come to this text from. The influence of the Machine Age; the influence of the documentary movement generally (and not just in film) of the 1930s and its role in Dos Passos’s popularity as a writer of the public/political sphere versus Fitzgerald or Hemingway, who were writing about the private sphere and whose popularity did not gain critical success until decades later; the idea of the reclamation of language for the masses (“USA is the speech of the people”); the influence of Dadaism; the influence of the media, particularly as portrayed in the Newsreels and the life of J. Ward Moorehouse. This novel is ripe for term papers.

Which brings me to my final point. With American English literature courses so heavy on the Lost Generation, why has Dos Passos become, well, lost? Once a contender for the Great American Novel (at least of the 20th century), how has U.S.A. come to be forgotten? To quote the New York Times: “At the time of his death, at 74 (in 1970), some people were surprised to learn that he was still alive. In a literary sense, his death had been decreed by critics during the last two decades of his life. He was considered a museum piece, a totem admired behind glass but not to be touched. Three American writers of his generation – Hemingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck – had received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Dos Passos, once considered their equal, received only diminishing respect.” Dos Passos continued to write well beyond the 1930s, publishing eighteen books after The Big Money appeared in 1936. As mentioned earlier, within a few years of the publication of the final volume in the trilogy, Dos Passos broke with the radical left movement in America, and with that fell out of critical esteem within a decade as his political opinions moved farther and farther to the right. Some critics claimed his shift in political ideology came from a cowardly inability to follow through on his socialistic ideals once he became a literary celebrity, and of course had some money.

In that externally imposed fall from critical grace, he was banished from the canon, but would likely have fallen out of favor anyway along with other more naturalistic writers such as Dreiser and Lewis. Again to quote Gilman in the New York Times, “Dos Passos and the times changed; the communal air darkened and lightened, throwing up new criteria, as it always does…It has a permanent place in our histories, I think, but only a precarious one in our literature.” (As Dos Passos himself stated decades earlier.)

U.S.A. is tricky. It's history driven (as opposed to being plot or character driven). It's unique among its contemporaries. It is decidedly different than the personal narratives put forward by Fitzgerald and Hemingway. It's part modernist and experimental in the style of James Joyce, though not entirely. It has many elements of naturalism in the style of Dreiser, or a Sinclair Lewis - particularly in the journalistic prose, though I felt Dos Passos was a better writer technically - certainly better than Dreiser. It internalizes cinematic devices and philosophies, the aesthetic appreciation of the machine, and melds it into something truly different, truly its own. What results from this amalgam of styles and influences, both literary and non-literary is the cadance of a modern age just dawning upon America.

I truly loved The U.S.A. Trilogy. I not only found it compelling in all aspects, it inspired me to look deeper, to find the story behind. It led me to seek out Vertov and Soviet film theory and all other sorts of obscure topics that I never would have bothered with otherwise. I want to learn more about other events that influenced or passed by the characters in the narratives, such as the workers strikes and Sacco & Vanetti. That said, without a basic understanding of the background – of what Dos Passos was doing with the structure of the trilogy, the average reader would likely be turned off or completely lost. Because what average reader wants to watch Russian montage films from the 1930s as research just to understand a novel? As literature itself, it has its legitimate criticisms. Nonetheless it contributed something very important to the 20th Century novel, and for that alone it deserves its spot among any top list. Personally, I really liked it despite its flaws. It’s experiences such as this that make my whole “reading a list” a worthwhile endeavor.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Kreuzter Sonata

I’m sure that most people come to Tolstoy through one of two novels: Anna Karenina or War and Peace. Though both of these novels are on my TBR list followed by asterisk after asterisk, I haven’t gotten around to them. Nope – my first venture into Tolstoy is the bizarre novella, “The Kreutzer Sonata.”

My reaction to this story is easily summed up in four words: Tolstoy was messed up. It begins innocently enough: a few strangers in a compartment together on a train strike up a conversation that comes around to love and marriage. It quickly becomes obvious that one of the travelers is really odd and begins a diatribe against love and marriage.

His argument goes all over the place. We have set up marriage as an ideal, but really it is virginity and chastity that should the ideal – the ideal advocated in the New Testament – for all one’s life. We are told that men “need” women, which essentially turns all women into whores trained to believe that being the object of men’s desire and fulfilling those desires is the highest ideal. Marriage is legal prostitution. Women are able to rule over their husbands, making them “wear the petticoats” because of this desire to be object within marriage. Men are subject to many more corrupting influences than women, but they then corrupt the women by their own debauchery. The woman is pure when she gets marriage, the husband debased. By engaging with her in “marital relations” she becomes debased as well by drawing her into his own debauchery. Coming into marriage, the pure woman is superior to the man. And then, THEN! She has children! And when that occurs, a woman realizes that her job in rearing children is more important than the jobs in which men engage to earn money. But men think that they are superior, and this contention leads to hostility and hatred, which is exacerbated by the bodily desires for one another. Also, by entering into “relations” with one’s spouse, jealousy naturally arises, which causes further suffering. In summary, every problem within marriage revolves around the fact that they ever consummated the relationship – any relationship – in passion to begin with.

And to make everything worse, doctors give information to women about how to avoid having children. And this makes women like a “horse without a bridle!”

The people in the compartment are wondering, “Who is this guy?” Over the course of the conversation, a certain recent trial is mentioned, in which a husband murdered his wife in a jealous rage. The bizarre dude (Pozdnyshev) speaks up and say, “Oh, I see you have recognized me as the murderer.” Nobody recognized him as the murderer…the case was just mentioned because it was pertinent to the conversation, but that doesn’t matter. Most of the compartment occupants leave eventually (Run Away! Run Away!), leaving the strange man alone with our narrator.

The murderer starts the conversation back up saying, “I’m sure you wonder how I came to murder my wife.” No, we really didn’t, but if the narrator told Pozdnyshev that, we wouldn’t have a story, would we? So, he goes on to tell us what happened.

Of course, Pozdnyshev comes from a decent family. In his youth, like most men, he has his dalliances on the primrose path. Then he fell in love and got married, had children, etc. Then the doctor told his wife how to avoid having children, and this musician starts coming around to “play” with Pozdnyshev’s wife. Pozdnyshev has to go away for a bit to another city. While he is away, the musician comes to visit, and his wife casually tells him of the visit in a letter. Pozdnyshev comes home early and murders his wife in a jealous rage. After she dies, Pozdnyshev is put on trial (and is acquitted because his wife may have really been having an affair with the musician) and over the course of the time between the murder and the train ride he came to realize that the concept of love, and marriage for any reason other than to have children for manual labor was the source of all his problems, including his jealous rage that caused him to murder his wife. The end.

Seriously – that’s where the story ends.

Authorities around the world found “The Kreutzer Sonata” offensive and banned its distribution. (What? Ban Tolstoy? Yes.) It was so maligned that Tolstoy had to write an explanation of its message. Which is that love is bad and we should follow the New Testament in its prescriptions for relations between men and women. Love stands in the way of men attaining the only aim worthy of attaining, which is service to God, because love of a woman is a distraction. “A Christian…cannot view the marriage relation otherwise than as a deviation from the doctrine of Christ, - as a sin. This is clearly laid down in Matt. V. 28…A Christian will never, therefore, desire marriage, but will always avoid it…If the light of truth dawns upon a Christian when he is already married, or if, being a Christian, from weakness he enters into marital relations…he has no other altnerative than to abide with his wife (and the wife with her husband, if it is she who is a Christian) and to aspire together with her to free themselves of their sin.” I’ll let those of you who believe the Bible to be the authoritative word on how we should act in the world duke it out over whether Tolstoy was right.

What gets me about this whole thing is that Tolstoy was married when he wrote “The Kreutzer Sonata.” I don’t know anything of his life, but I know if my husband wrote something like this, I would be very very worried. I might have to start sleeping some place else, armed. Just bizarre.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Age of Innocence

The Age of Innocence is my second – no, third – foray into the world of Edith Wharton. I wasn’t particularly thrilled with either The House of Mirth or Ethan Frome. The Age of Innocence covers much the same ground as those other novels: men and women who are trapped within the conventions of society and who are left unable to pursue the life that would truly make them happy. With The Age of Innocence, however, I immediately felt settled into it, much like I felt with Lord Jim. Just coming out of my year-and-a-half with The Alexandria Quartet and the pseudo-philosophical hilarious poppycock that is Women in Love, and staring in the face of the remaining 10 novels on the Modern Library list, none of which are under 450 pages, perhaps The Age of Innocence was just what I needed: short and light. Not light in terms of subject matter, because I found it to be heart wrenching (more on that below), but because there isn’t any hidden meaning, no subtext. It’s straight-forward, conventional storytelling.

Newland Archer is a smart young lawyer and part of New York’s upper crust society. He has just been promised marriage to May Welland, a smart young lady of the same Old New York hoity-toities, though their engagement hasn’t been officially announced yet. Newland and May are the perfect couple. But a scandal erupts in the family when May’s cousin, Ellen arrives. She had married a European Count and had recently run away from her husband, with the Count’s secretary (as protector? as lover?) under suspicious circumstances. Not only is that the material for 1870s shock-and-awe, the family has dared – DARED, I tell you! – to allow Ellen out into the world of theater, opera, and balls, as if they had no sense of decorum. This requires Newland and May to announce their engagement earlier than anticipated – in order to add “backup” to the public outrage at this break from tradition.

Ellen and Newland were old child playmates, and in light of his connection to May’s family he feels it is his duty to some extent to help Ellen. Slowly they begin to spend a bit more time together than perhaps they should, and it becomes clear that they harbor feelings for each other.
Newland is torn between the life his “people” expect him to live – a life so expected that he probably never wondered if it really was the life that he truly wanted for himself – and the life he has now discovered his heart wants him to pursue. He tries – really he does – to let go of Ellen, but he keeps getting pulled back in. They should have been together – all their life they should have been together, but because of their own limitations and the rules and commitments of their own lives, they simply couldn’t be. The rest of their lives – or at least Newland’s – was going on with the life that was chosen for him, so to speak, by his not questioning it until Ellen came along – and wondering what might have been. And when, in the end, he has the chance to strike it back up again, when they are both older, Newland is a widower, he decides not to try. He has locked that time up in his heart, and to see Ellen again would be to shatter the place she held in his heart. Nothing would be as he had imagined it for decades. And Newland chooses to live with his dreams and illusions locked away rather than pursue a reality that would only be disappointing.
Archer had pictured often enough, in the first impatient years, the scene of his return to Paris; then the personal vision had faded, and he had simply tried to see the city as the setting of Madame Olenska's life. Sitting alone at night in his library, after the household had gone to bed, he had evoked the radiant outbreak of spring down the avenues of horse-chestnuts, the flowers and statues in the public gardens, the whiff of lilacs from the flower-carts, the majestic roll of the river under the great bridges, and the life of art and study and pleasure that filled each mighty artery to bursting. Now the spectacle was before him in its glory, and as he looked out on it he felt shy, old-fashioned, inadequate: a mere grey speck of a man compared with the ruthless magnificent fellow he had dreamed of being....

I can see two factions of people arising over this novel: those who think Newland is scum for pursuing Ellen as much as he does both before and after (but mostly after) his marriage to May, and those who think Newland is a coward for not bucking the hoity-toities and running away with Ellen and living happily ever after, as he had planned to do many times. But I’m not mad at Newland – in fact, I completely understand, because to some extent I’ve been there. More than once, in more ways than one.

Let’s see…there was the time when I was engaged (not to Shawn),set to graduate college, get a job, get married, and live a conventional life. And then, during my final finals week, a German exchange student showed up on my doorstep for a party. In this case, it was the Ellen/Newland situation, and it ended like Ellen and Newland ended. He and I have kept in contact over the 8 years that have intervened since, have both gotten married, had children, etc. Though there have been mention of someday getting together, I don’t want to. I have that memory – of us in our early 20s, trying to navigate through our not-really-a-relationship-but-something, and I know that meeting his wife and his son would not be beneficial. It’s adding an unnecessary epilogue to our long ago completed story. I do hope our children become penpals, though.

"It's more real to me here than if I went up," he suddenly heard himself say; and the fear lest that last shadow of reality should lose its edge kept him rooted to his seat as the minutes succeeded each other.

He sat for a long time on the bench in the thickening dusk, his eyes never turning from the balcony. At length a light shone through the windows, and a moment later a man-servant came out on the balcony, drew up the awnings, and closed the shutters.

At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.

And then there was the time when I was married (not to Shawn), terribly unhappy because the situation was abusive in all ways except physical, and I know that wasn’t far behind, and then someone showed up in my life, well, emerged from the background more than showed up, that showed me that it didn’t have to be that way. It gave me the confidence to resist within my marriage, which lead to a complete breakdown and I got out of that nightmare. And that relationship ended up like Newland and Ellen should have. Well, should have by some people’s romantic notions.

And then there were the multiple times when I projected the Ellen/Newland situation onto various relationships of varying seriousness. Because I’m like that sometimes. I suppose this cynic really does have a romantic streak, but it’s always of the tragic nature.

But really, what Newland does is what most of us would do. Because it takes a lot of effort, courage, and money to go against what is expected of you, and it’s difficult to start your life over from scratch.

"For US? But there's no US in that sense! We're near each other only if we stay far from each other. Then we can be ourselves. Otherwise we're only Newland Archer, the husband of Ellen Olenska's cousin, and Ellen Olenska, the cousin of Newland Archer's wife, trying to be happy behind the backs of the people who trust them."

"Ah, I'm beyond that," he groaned.

"No, you're not! You've never been beyond. And I have," she said, in a strange voice, "and I know what it looks like there."

And let’s face it, if Newland had left pregnant May to run away with Ellen, there would be few who sided with him, not only in the reality of the book, but in the reality of the readers. Here’s a man who did not follow his heart – he stood by his responsibility. Outside of romantic books, isn’t that what we always expect of people? Newland even says so himself:

Yet there was a time when Archer had had definite and rather aggressive opinions on all such problems, and when everything concerning the manners and customs of his little tribe had seemed to him fraught with world-wide significance.

"And all the while, I suppose," he thought, "real people were living somewhere, and real things happening to them ..."

Wharton published The Age of Innocence in 1920 – already at the dawn of the age of Fitzgerald, the roaring 20s, and “new money.” The world of Innocence, set in the 1870s, was long gone – the age of old money, ruled by long-standing Dutch and English families with strict rules of behavior, decorum, and honor. A world in which it was “daring” to live above a certain street. Now there was long-distance telephone, and the Met was no longer an out-of-the-way haunt that he and Ellen could have escaped to unnoticed for their clandestine meeting. Remember, this was only five years before the publication of The Great Gatsby.

Up until around Chapter 22 or 23, I enjoyed The Age of Innocence – much more than I thought that I would. I found the story compelling, captivating, interesting, the writing excellent. But then I got to, like I said, Chapter 22 or 23 and BAM. Wharton turns up the emotion – an emotion that totally hit home – and I was in love. There are certain novels that can just speak to you – it’s as if they know what’s in your heart and just grab it, reflect it back to you. Perhaps –no, probably- in the hands of a lesser wordsmith, I would have found the whole thing would be cheesy and passionless, and this would be a very different review. But The Age of Innocence worked for me – totally, completely. It’s now one of my favorites of all time.

Friday, September 3, 2010

A House for Mr. Biswas

There were times when I felt that I would never finish V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas. It wouldn’t be the worst novel I could imagine getting stuck in. In fact, I kind of liked Mr. Biswas.

The fact that I actually did enjoy it came as a surprise. Three summers ago I read A Bend in the River - also about Indian emigrants – and did not particularly care for it. There wasn’t anything specific that I didn’t like – it just did not resonate at all for me, and there wasn’t anything in particular that stood out. Biswas, however, was a delight - the complete opposite of A Bend in the River. The voice of the novel – distant yet engaged – was unique, the characters unforgettable, the entire 500+ pages – charming.

Poor Mr. Biswas could have been the mantra of this tragicomic clunker. After a sad beginning (his father drowns in a lake while trying to save Biswas – even though Biswas wasn’t in the lake – Biswas gets sucked into marriage to one of the Tulsi clan. And the Tulsi’s are a clan if I ever saw one. All Biswas wants is to get out from under the economic dependence on his in-laws and have a house of his own. And through many trials and tribulations, he finally does. It ends sadly for Mr. Biswas – we know within the first few pages that he does get his house, but dies shortly after – the story is essentially humorous, and only tragic when you are able to sit back and look at the bigger picture. Sort of like a Michael Moore documentary.

Mr. Biswas is sometimes belligerent, sometimes abusive, sometimes silly, a lot ridiculous. The guy writes a column for a newspaper called Deserving Destitutes, for goodness sakes. The give and take between him and his long-suffering wife is hilarious, sad, but they are clearly meant for each other. You are rooting for him against her family, but you have to love Shama despite the fact that she is a Tulsi. Except when she throws out the doll house. That’s when I didn’t love her. But oh well. They got over it, and so did i. There is also genuine affection between Mr. Biswas and his son, though the relationship becomes distant when Anand moves to England. Thinking about this group of characters, I feel genuine affection for them. And it’s rare that I come out of a novel feeling like that. The only other example that pops into my mind is the Finch family, though I’m sure there are others. The Joads as well.

In the end, A House for Mr. Biswas has left me confused about Naipaul. A number of his other novels, including The Enigma of Arrival show up on other lists, and even outside of my OCD-list obsession, I am sure to encounter him again in the coming decades. On one end of the Naipaul spectrum we have one novel considered to be his best, which I enjoyed and wouldn’t mind reading more like it. On the other end, the other contender for Naipaul’s best – a novel that left me lukewarm at best, just one of the crowd of many, many novels I feel indifferent about. So, I don’t know what to think, or what to expect. I suppose we’ll see – and maybe I’ll be surprised again.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Age of Innocence - A Brief Post

There will be so much more to follow regarding Wharton's The Age of Innocence. I just finished it today, and I'm devastated. I just wanted to share that - DEVASTATED. I will need to digest this for a bit before my long post.

It's given me heavy boots.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Conditions under which I would reread The Ambassadors

I had a lengthy discussion the other day about books, and what we read and why we read them. It was a thoroughly frustrating conversation in which the person I was talking to tried to coerce me into both reading the Twilight series and watching The Notebook by telling me that I should be open minded – and in which I actually admitted that I would rather reread Henry James’s The Ambassadors than reread Eat, Pray, Love. Yes, I said it, and yes, it’s true.

I am someone who knows what I like. And I know what I don’t like. My tastes are rather specific. I like classic literature. I like some contemporary literary fiction. I like some of the better written science fiction and a smattering of other genres here and there. There are very few instances in which I am surprised to like something. Maybe this makes me different than the general public. I don’t know. I doubt it though.

Once I attempted to be open minded about what I read. I participated in a book club for a bit, and that’s how I discovered Cormac McCarthy – though he and I were likely to meet at one time or another. I read the memoir The Glass Castle. It wasn’t horrible. It wasn’t boring. But I quickly discarded it after finishing it, and haven’t missed it since. I don’t even remember the author’s last name. It was expendable to me. Other people may like it, and they are free to do so, and I try not to knock them for it. I can understand why someone would enjoy it, but I did not in particular, so let’s stick to our respective niches and respect each other’s boundaries. Eat, Pray, Love was my last attempt at being open minded. Sorry.

I reason this way: I only have so much time in my life to read – both in terms of hours per day and years to live. And there are literally hundreds and hundreds of books I want to read currently in publication, not to mention those that haven’t been published yet. Why would – or should – I spend that precious time on books that I doubt I would enjoy as much as I would, say, read The Age of Innocence, which I’m absolutely loving, or even rereading The Great Gatsby? Why would I put them away and pick up the Twilight books just because someone who doesn’t know anything about me believes that I would just love them?

I tried to explain this in analogy after the straight-forward “I don’t want to read your book” approach didn’t work. I tried the following metaphor: if I had one pass to the movies, and could see a movie I wanted to see, or a movie I didn’t want to see, why would I ever go to see the one I didn’t want to see? If I hate cheesecake (which I do), should I be expected to eat it – to be “open minded” about this particular type of cheesecake - when there are other options – options I know I will enjoy? Like German chocolate cake? Or maybe an apple pie?

I was once accused of only reading depressing books. And that’s probably largely true. Or at least books that aren’t exactly a romp through the giggle forest. Some people read to escape their reality – to go to a world that is better, more ordered than our own. A world in which lovers reunite in the end and live happily ever after. I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and I believe that I also read to escape reality, but I go to a world that is worse – less ordered than our own. Because it makes me feel better about reality. Because, after all, who wants to live in a Kafka novel? The funny things that I enjoy are often intelligent, absurd comedies. I just don’t do low-brow. Not because I’m to uppity, I just don’t like it. Even as a kid, I was disgusted by low-brow. You take your Sweet Valley High and R.L. Stine and Pee Wee’s Playhouse. I’ll be over here with my Jules Verne, thank you very much. One time, in high school, my friends insisted I watch Ace Venture, because it was SOOO FUNNY! I said ok – so long as we could watch Romeo & Juliet afterwards. The 1969 version. Needless to say, there were no more movies they insisted that I watch. Maybe it’s an inborn trait, somehow, what we like.

Typically I don’t recommend books to other people unless I’m pretty sure they will like what I suggest. Because I would be wasting their time otherwise. In a perfect world in which I was queen, maybe everyone would like what I like. But I’m not queen, so I have no right to assume that everyone should read what I like to read simply because, well, I like it. I’m sorry, but your enjoyment of a book is not a sufficient reason for me to want to read something.

It occurred to me later that I could have quickly put a stop to this, as I did back in high school. Instead of insisting for a half hour that I simply am not interested in “sparkling love-muffin vampires in abstinence metaphors” (as it was awesomely put recently in a blog post I read about an entirely different subject, which is why I haven’t linked to the quote), I should have responded, “Sure – I’ll read your Twilight book, if you read a book that I recommend,” and handed her Joyce’s Ulysses. I doubt she would have gotten much past “Stately, plump, Buck Mulligan” before asking for her Stephanie Meyers back.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Women in Love - Final Thoughts!

Sons and Lovers bored me. Well, maybe not bored me exactly, but there is some reason why I cannot remember one – not one – thing about that novel, and the only explanation I can come up with is that it was so boring I slept through the entire book.

The Rainbow bored me. A 400 or 500 page book about egocentric women doing not much of anything except talking and talking and talking does not an exciting read make. And let me be clear – by “talking and talking” I don’t mean dialog. I mean waxing poetic about pseudo-philosophical claptrap for pages at a time.

Being 0/2 with D.H. Lawrence, I was not expecting much from Women in Love. But what I discovered is something entirely different, and probably something that Lawrence did not intend. Humor. Why should I be bored when 90% of the novel is just ridiculous?

Now, in the beginning, it really was tedious, and the entire plot appeared to be strapping, young, self-serving intellectual men and the women who they hung out with (sometimes upper crust, sometimes school teachers like Ursula and Gudrun, and sometimes women like Pussum – yes, there is a character named Pussum) sitting around, talking nonsense about the nature of life in the vein of “give me freedom or give me death” – by freedom here meaning the freedom to do whatever it is you want to do. All the pontificating (paragraph after paragraph after paragraph) is variations on that theme: the freedom to love, or not to love, to die for love, to die for lack of love, to run naked through a forest, for men to wrestle naked with other men. You know, all the important stuff.

Ursula is in love with Birkin. Birkin, at first, isn’t in love with her, but then decides he is and asks her to marry him. Then she isn’t sure she loves him, but decides she does and they get married. In there is Hermione, who unfortunately is only present in about half the novel. It seems that Birkin and Hermione had some form of relationship since childhood – you know the type, in which everyone assumes they will be together one day, but just never are officially. Hermione is unpleasant, and Lawrence knows it, and because of that she feels like one of the truly authentic characters. The only scene between Ursula and Birkin that felt real was when they fight about Hermione. Then they make up, and are ridiculous again.

Gudrun, Ursula’s sister, is in love with Gerald. Or something – maybe not love, but she is very attracted to him. Gerald is the son of the mine owner, and seems a class or two above the Brangwan sisters. Gerald is more in love with himself and his maleness than he is with anyone else. But since Ursula and Birkin are together, it made sense for Gerald and Gudrun to be together too. That doesn’t end well, especially for Gerald.

But the elephant in the room is the relationship between Gerald and Birkin. Birkin is very in love with him. Gerald appears to have some feelings for Birkin in return, though Gerald is really only concerned with himself. Birkin wants to be “blood brothers” with Gerald, and talks and talks and talks about a “different kind of love” that can exist between two men, and isn’t possible to have with a woman (an “eternal conjunction”). It appears, though, that Ursula and Birkin’s marriage is the wedge that drives them apart – they know it will never be the same when there are women involved with claims over them, and they part. Birkin’s reaction to Gerald’s death and final dialog with Ursual in the novel is perhaps the only other scene in which I felt there was genuine emotion involved.
”He should have loved me,” he said. “I offered him.”

“Aren’t I enough for you?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “You are enough for me as far as a woman is concerned…Having you, I can live all my life without anybody else, any other sheer intimacy. But to make it complete, really happy, I wanted eternal union with a man too, another kind of love,” he said.

“I don’t believe it,” she said. “It’s an obstinacy, a theory, a perversity…you can’t have two kinds of love. Why should you!”

It seems as if I can’t,” he said. “Yet I wanted it.”

“You can’t have it, because it’s false, impossible,” she said.

“I don’t believe that,” he answered.
I imagine, if people like Ted Haggard were a bit more honest with themselves (but probably not entirely honest), this is the kind of discussion they would be having with their wives.

With Women in Love, Lawrence has built an entire novel around the celebration of maleness and male physicality, with Gerald as the ideal (Gerald being based on Katherine Mansfield's husband). It contains what might be the most graphic descriptions of the male body – as in “glistening, muscular thighs” – outside of romance novels with Fabio on the cover. It’s RIDICULOUS. Gerald’s blood is constantly being “penetrated.” Women’s passion for their men are always insatiable. Quotes like this illustrate my point:
How perfect and foreign he was—ah how dangerous! Her soul thrilled with complete knowledge. This was the glistening, forbidden apple, this face of a man. She kissed him, putting her fingers over his face, his eyes, his nostrils, over his brows and his ears, to his neck, to know him, to gather him in by touch. He was so firm, and shapely, with such satisfying, inconceivable shapeliness, strange, yet unutterably clear. He was such an unutterable enemy, yet glistening with uncanny white fire. She wanted to touch him and touch him and touch him, till she had him all in her hands, till she had strained him into her knowledge. Ah, if she could have the precious KNOWLEDGE of him, she would be filled, and nothing could deprive her of this.
Seriously – that text is from a novel that is considered one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature. Seriously.

But in the end, I understand the appeal this novel could have for people. I feel as if had read this when I was 12, or 14 years old, and the ideas about freedom that are espoused here was still pertinent to me, I would have enjoyed it more, gotten more out of it. But I’m a cynical-almost-30-year-old, and to me these themes feel run-of-the-mill. His ideas about love and relationships and personal freedoms that his characters pontificate on ad nauseum have been echoed by every writer, filmmaker, and musician throughout the 20th century.

While I don’t believe Lawrence should be considered the best wordsmith, or the best storyteller, or plot maker, he pushed the envelope of acceptability within Edwardian society. It may seem ho-hum today, when it’s no longer (in most instances) shocking to the general public to read about young folks hooking up before they’re married, or two men being in love, but I can see some old woman sitting in her parlor, in a bustle or shirtwaist or whatever it was women wore back then, and “tsk tsking” about Lawrence’s immorality. The 1960s eliminated a lot of what made Lawrence unacceptable.

But something struck me the other day as I was nearing the end of this novel, and thinking about Birkin and Gerald – mostly Birkin, though, since I have no sympathy for Gerald. Had I been a gay youth in Lawrence’s time, I would have felt comforted by Women in Love, knowing that there are others out there “like me.” It’s unfortunate that there are instances in which gay youth still feel ostracized and marginalized in the same way, and for them it’s good that people like Lawrence, and Jeanette Winterson, and Radclyffe Hall, and others are accessible. It’s also unfortunate that today, people still feel the need to deny who they truly are in order to be accepted in their families, their community, their occupation, and in society in general. I thought about Ted Haggard a lot while reading Women in Love.

Women in Love was certainly better than I expected it to be. I get why it should be included on any list of important 20th century novels, not because it’s a better novel than others, but because it matters. I feel like Lawrence and I have made peace, and there is a lot more of him to be read over the next few decades. Moving out of the Modern Library list, I feel 1 for 3 isn’t a bad place from which to move forward.

Monday, July 26, 2010


Clea – the fourth (and final) installment in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet – returns us to the narrative style of Balthazar, and picks up where it left off.

At the conclusion of Balthazar, Darley receives a letter from Clea, though since I read that novel almost a year ago I don’t have any recollection what that letter was about. But anyway, it was enough to prompt Darley, who had been living on an island with Nessim & Melissa’s daughter, to return to Alexandria.

Everything is different in Alexandria. The war is on, and places that used to be apartments are now brothels servicing the various military men that are all over the city. Justine is in exile, under house arrest for her role in the Hosnani Brothers arms smuggling deal. Mountolive has picked up with Pursewarden’s blind sister, Liza. Pombal, Darley’s former roommate, has a pregnant girlfriend whose husband is on the front, and then was taken prisoner (Pombal is not the father – her husband is). Balthazar was beaten up by his younger boyfriend and became a recluse, though he reenters society early in the story. Da Capo really is alive, as I had suspected. Scobie is now an unofficial saint.

Shortly after his return, Darley and Clea begin an affair, though to me, it only seems like a reshuffling. After all, she is the only female left from the core group presented in Justine, and I cannot help but feel that there is a lack of genuine feeling here – or really throughout the entire Quartet. The only real passion anyone appears to have has been for Justine. And perhaps Mountolive for Leila – or Leila for Mountolive.

I’m finding it difficult to summarize Clea, since this novel felt less like its own narrative – by which I mean it did not really contribute much new information to the story – and more like a wrapping up. Here’s all the characters moving on – perhaps symbolized best in the burning of Purswarden’s letters to Liza. The only organizing theme appears to be boat accidents. Pombal’s girlfriend is shot and killed during a disagreement between a naval crew (blockade?) and Pombal. Clea is harpooned while diving when the harpoon gun on board goes off and spears her to a wreck underwater.

I was sitting at my hairdresser’s waiting for my dye job to bake (or whatever it is that hair dye actually does - dry? absorb?) when I read the “Clea gets harpooned” scene. It was then that I suddenly realized how emotionally invested I am with these characters, in the same manner (though to a lesser degree) that I felt connect to Nick Jenkins & Co. from A Dance to the Music of Time. I felt like someone punched me in the chest. There were probably five or six hairdresser’s each working on their clients, and someone had brought in a dog, so there was a lot of commotion, and I almost felt compelled to ask for the proper respect to be paid to Clea – it felt as if I had just received word that someone I actually knew had been harpooned, and might die (she doesn’t). I hadn’t felt that Darley and Clea were going to live happily ever after (“And now this!”), nor did I particularly have any feeling regarding how I wanted any of the characters to end up, but I just felt so terrible. I was awash with relief and hope when they were able to save her. Though I have thoroughly enjoyed these novels, the thought never even crossed my mind that I might actually care about these people to some degree until then.

In the end, Darley leaves (again!) – and everyone knows he won’t be coming back. Amaril (who turns out to be her former lover) has constructed a new hand for her following the accident, and she is able to continue painting. Liza and Mountolive have married. And Justine reemerges. She has made amends with Memlik Pasha by discovering he just wanted an entrance into society. She and Nessim have reconciled (if they could ever have been considered estranged in the first place, given the revelations of Mountolive) and are conspiring to embark on an even bigger scheme in Switzerland. After months back on his island, Darley receives yet another letter from Clea, and we are given to believe that the two of them will meet up again in Paris.

I began the Alexandria Quartet back in December of 2008 or January of 2009 – I don’t
remember which, but I know it feels like a lifetime ago. I am sometimes criticized for being a list person, both online and offline – why do I spend time reading books I don’t expect to like? And even though I complain sometimes, and rage over certain books, selections like Quartet are exactly why I bother in the first place. This series was absolutely wonderful – a meditation on love, on relationships, on fidelity, on perspective – and I likely would never have heard of Durrell in the first place had it not been for the Modern Library list. Justine is clearly the gem of the bunch, and could be read as a stand-alone novel (though the others could not), I found them all worthwhile ways to spend my – now limited – reading time. I know that I will return to Durrell in the future – this may be a series (Justine in particular) that I come back to again and again in my life, and I will likely seek out more of Durrell’s work.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Women in Love - No longer initial thoughts

I thought I might save this gem for my final review, but I can't!

If you are a female, and had the following conversation with your (male) fiance:

“Must one just go as if one were alone in the world—the only creature in the world?'

'You've got me,' she said. 'Why should you NEED others? Why must you force people to agree with you? Why can't you be single by yourself, as you are always saying? You try to bully Gerald—as you tried to bully Hermione. You must learn to be alone. And it's so horrid of you. You've got me. And yet you want to force other people to love you as well. You do try to bully them to love you. And even then, you don't want their love.'

His face was full of real perplexity.

'Don't I?' he said. 'It's the problem I can't solve. I KNOW I want a perfect and complete relationship with you: and we've nearly got it—we really have. But beyond that. DO I want a real, ultimate relationship with Gerald? Do I want a final, almost extra-human relationship with him—a relationship in the ultimate of me and him—or don't I?'

Wouldn't your follow-up to that be something to the tune of, "Did you ever maybe consider that you're gay, and in love with Gerald?"

But of course not! Instead:

She looked at him for a long time, with strange bright eyes, but she did not answer.

What I cannot figure out in this novel is how much of this overtone was intended by Lawrence, and how much is only because I am viewing this through 21st century lenses? Did Lawrence intend that Gerald and Rupert have a "bromance" or did he want me to think that they are clearly bisexual or gay? Also, how much of this am I supposed to believe Ursula and Gundrun suspect or guess at? Am I to assume that Ursula is wondering about the nature of fiance's relationship with his best friend, or am I to assume that Ursula is wondering about the nature of her relationship with Rupert, and how much he is invested in it, if he keeps wondering about other people (male or not)? I'm finding it difficult to understand what Lawrence expects me to read between the lines.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Women in Love - Initial Thoughts Part 4

This should no longer be titled "Initial Thoughts," as I'm almost 40% of the way through WiL already, but why change now, right?

Ursula is in love with Rupert Birkin. It is questionable whether he is in love with her. They are kind of dating, in the way Edwardian English people did that. Ursula (who is not 12 years old, but a grown woman) is sitting by the door waiting for Rupert to come visit her (unannounced, I might add). The day goes by, and he doesn't show up. So Lawrence gives us this straight from Ursula's mind.

She sat crushed and obliterated in a darkness that was the border of death. She realised how all her life she had been drawing nearer and nearer to this brink, where there was no beyond, from which one had to leap like Sappho into the unknown. The knowledge of the imminence of death was like a drug. Darkly, without thinking at all, she knew that she was near to death. She had travelled all her life along the line of fulfilment, and it was nearly concluded. She knew all she had to know, she had experienced all she had to experience, she was fulfilled in a kind of bitter ripeness, there remained only to fall from the tree into death. And one must fulfil one's development to the end, must carry the adventure to its conclusion. And the next step was over the border into death. So it was then! There was a certain peace in the knowledge.

Ursula, YOU ARE NOT 12!

Monday, June 28, 2010


There are spoilers here. Be forewarned. Also forgive me if I get some of the details wrong about the previous novels. But then again, that’s partly what this post is about.

I am notorious for forgetting what happens in novels. I hate this. It is made so much more frustrating when I am reading another part of a series, and have trouble remembering what occurred in the previous novels.

This has been my #1 problem with The Alexandria Quartet. When I picked up Balthazar last year, I kept thinking about Mareotis. What was Mareotis? Oh yes – a lake. Didn’t somebody die there? Who was it? (Capodistra) With Mountolive, the third novel in this series, I kept thinking about the death that occurred at the ball – wasn’t someone (a guy?) mistaken for someone else (I thought Justine? Maybe Clea?) and murdered with a hat pin? Wasn’t it Narouz that murdered him?

This problem is my fault, as months have gone by between novels. I should have read them all in one shot, which was my initial plan. But that just didn’t happen. Someday, when I reread these novels – which I most certainly will – I will read them back to back, and then perhaps they will make more sense.

Mountolive takes an entirely different view from the first two. This is not a continuation of Darley’s tale, but rather told in the third person. It is also a very political novel – everything is through that lens. It is here we learn – I believe, as I don’t think it was mentioned in the other novels, maybe hinted at – that Nessim is smuggling weapons to Palestine for the Jews. (This is pre-WWII. There was no Israel.) As a Coptic Christian, he is mistrusted by the Jewish leaders he is working with: Capodistra, Balthasar, etc. In order to increase his credibility he marries Justine, a Jew.

Someone – was it Scobie, or did Scobie have Darley do it? – in one of the previous novels went to one of their meetings in the desert, and came back saying it’s harmless – just a bunch of Cabalists in the wilderness discussing metaphysics. Was that for the same thing? It must have been. Then Pursewarden investigates for the British and comes to the same conclusion essentially (except he witnesses the “transformation” of Narouz into crazy preacher with a whip). Mountolive also gives us a political motive for Pursewarden’s suicide. Through Melissa (Darley’s girlfriend who is also a dancer and prostitute), Pursewarden comes to learn that he was wrong about Nessim and the others – they really are smuggling weapons. He is so dumbstruck by this revelation, and his conflict between his official duties and his friendships, he kills himself.

The beautiful language of the previous novels is not in the forefront as it is in the other novels, but it would have been out of place in a political novel. The most striking scene here is the reunion between Mountolive and Leila, Nessim’s mother. When Mountolive was younger – I would estimate early 20s, he goes to live with the Hosnanis in Egypt to learn Arabic. There he begins a relationship with Nessim and Narouz’s mother. Mountolive eventually leaves Egypt, yet he and Leila continue a correspondence throughout the rest of their lives, always vaguely planning to reunite someday. Mountolive comes to Egypt as Ambassador, and he and plans are made and canceled at least once. Finally, due to Nessim’s involvement in arms dealing, Leila has to go to Kenya for a while, and she and Mountolive meet one last time. It is decidedly not the reunion that Mountolive had in mind. In his mind, things had largely remained the same – Leila was probably perpetually a good looking and intelligent 40 something. When he gets in the car with her, he doesn’t recognize her at all. There she is, an old Egyptian woman ravaged by smallpox, begging him to spare her son’s life. He never really thought about time passing. All of us, I’m sure, can understand this, and Durrell paints the scene of bitter disappointment with beautiful, evocative prose – as always. I lament with Mountolive the love of his youth, but at the same time, I fear becoming Leila.

The ending of Mountolive confused me. Not in that I didn’t understand what was going on, but I’m still not sure if there was a time shift or not. We have the terribly bitter and sad reunion between Mountolive and Leila, supposedly on the day before the Hosnani annual duck shoot at Mareotis. When we encounter Narouz at home in the next scene, I assume that it is the day of the duck shoot, where Capodistra will be murdered (or not?). But then Narouz is murdered (by order of Memlik Pasha, a very sinister character). What happened to the duck shoot? Perhaps this “next scene” did not occur the day after Mountolive meets with Leila?

When I come to the end of a novel, I like to do research on the internet – see what others are saying about it. When I google this novel, any novel in this series, “Alexandria Quartet,” etc., there is virtually nothing. I know that I had never heard of Durrell or any of his works until I became enmeshed in these lists, and it seems as if many other people haven’t heard of him either. I found, obviously, reviews on amazon, which vary widely: people either love them or they detest them; it’s all 5 stars or 1 star. The top review was titled: "If you like the DaVinci Code, this is NOT for you.,” I love that. Yes, parts of The Alexandria Quartet are over written. Durrell even admitted it. But it’s damn good overwriting. I have loved these three novels so much that I wish I had someone to recommend them to. But I don’t. Except you, perhaps. I will start Clea tonight. I can’t wait to read this conclusion – hopefully it will tie up some of these loose ends.

Women in Love - Initial Thoughts Part 3

Guys - next time you need to get out of a sticky situation with a female, try this one on for size (long quote):

'You mean you don't love me?'

She suffered furiously, saying that.

'Yes, if you like to put it like that. Though perhaps that isn't true. I don't know. At any rate, I don't feel the emotion of love for you—no, and I don't want to. Because it gives out in the last issues.'

'Love gives out in the last issues?' she asked, feeling numb to the lips.

'Yes, it does. At the very last, one is alone, beyond the influence of love. There is a real impersonal me, that is beyond love, beyond any emotional relationship. So it is with you. But we want to delude ourselves that love is the root. It isn't. It is only the branches. The root is beyond love, a naked kind of isolation, an isolated me, that does NOT meet and mingle, and never can.'

...'And you mean you can't love?' she asked, in trepidation.

'Yes, if you like. I have loved. But there is a beyond, where there is not love.'

...'But how do you know—if you have never REALLY loved?' she asked.

'It is true, what I say; there is a beyond, in you, in me, which is further than love, beyond the scope, as stars are beyond the scope of vision, some of them.'

'Then there is no love,' cried Ursula.

'Ultimately, no, there is something else. But, ultimately, there IS no love.'

Ursula was given over to this statement for some moments. Then she half rose from her chair, saying, in a final, repellent voice:

'Then let me go home—what am I doing here?'

'There is the door,' he said. 'You are a free agent.'

...She hung motionless for some seconds, then she sat down again. 'If there is no love, what is there?' she cried, almost jeering.

'Something,' he said, looking at her, battling with his soul, with all his might.


'There is,' he said, in a voice of pure abstraction; 'a final me which is stark and impersonal and beyond responsibility. So there is a final you. And it is there I would want to meet you—not in the emotional, loving plane—but there beyond, where there is no speech and no terms of agreement. There we are two stark, unknown beings, two utterly strange creatures, I would want to approach you, and you me. And there could be no obligation, because there is no standard for action there, because no understanding has been reaped from that plane. It is quite inhuman,—so there can be no calling to book, in any form whatsoever—because one is outside the pale of all that is accepted, and nothing known applies. One can only follow the impulse, taking that which lies in front, and responsible for nothing, asked for nothing, giving nothing, only each taking according to the primal desire.'

Ursula listened to this speech, her mind dumb and almost senseless, what he said was so unexpected and so untoward. 'It is just purely selfish,' she said.

'If it is pure, yes. But it isn't selfish at all. Because I don't KNOW what I want of you. I deliver MYSELF over to the unknown, in coming to you, I am without reserves or defences, stripped entirely, into the unknown. Only there needs the pledge between us, that we will both cast off everything, cast off ourselves even, and cease to be, so that that which is perfectly ourselves can take place in us.'

'But it is because you love me, that you want me?' she persisted.

'No it isn't. It is because I believe in you—if I DO believe in you.'

'Aren't you sure?' she laughed, suddenly hurt.

He was looking at her steadfastly, scarcely heeding what she said.

'Yes, I must believe in you, or else I shouldn't be here saying this,' he replied. 'But that is all the proof I have. I don't feel any very strong belief at this particular moment.'

She disliked him for this sudden relapse into weariness and faithlessness. 'But don't you think me good-looking?' she persisted, in a mocking voice.

He looked at her, to see if he felt that she was good-looking. 'I don't FEEL that you're good-looking,' he said.

'Not even attractive?' she mocked, bitingly.

He knitted his brows in sudden exasperation. 'Don't you see that it's not a question of visual appreciation in the least,' he cried. 'I don't WANT to see you. I've seen plenty of women, I'm sick and weary of seeing them. I want a woman I don't see.'

'I'm sorry I can't oblige you by being invisible,' she laughed.

'Yes,' he said, 'you are invisible to me, if you don't force me to be visually aware of you. But I don't want to see you or hear you.'

'What did you ask me to tea for, then?' she mocked.

'I want to find you, where you don't know your own existence, the you that your common self denies utterly. But I don't want your good looks, and I don't want your womanly feelings, and I don't want your thoughts nor opinions nor your ideas—they are all bagatelles to me.'

'You are very conceited, Monsieur,' she mocked. 'How do you know what my womanly feelings are, or my thoughts or my ideas? You don't even know what I think of you now.'

'Nor do I care in the slightest.'

'I think you are very silly. I think you want to tell me you love me, and you go all this way round to do it.'

'All right,' he said, looking up with sudden exasperation. 'Now go away then, and leave me alone. I don't want any more of your meretricious persiflage.'

'Is it really persiflage?' she mocked, her face really relaxing into laughter. She interpreted it, that he had made a deep confession of love to her. But he was so absurd in his words, also.

And Ursula buys this horse pucky!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Women in Love - Initial Thoughts Part 2

Chapter 7 of Women in Love contains the following:

Hearing voices coming from the sitting-room, Halliday talking to Libidnikov, [Gerald] went to the door and glanced in. He had on a silk wrap of a beautiful bluish colour, with an amethyst hem.

To his surprise he saw the two young men by the fire, stark naked. Halliday looked up, rather pleased.

'Good-morning,' he said. 'Oh—did you want towels?' And stark naked he went out into the hall, striding a strange, white figure between the unliving furniture. He came back with the towels, and took his former position, crouching seated before the fire on the fender.

'Don't you love to feel the fire on your skin?' he said.

'It IS rather pleasant,' said Gerald.

'How perfectly splendid it must be to be in a climate where one could do without clothing altogether,' said Halliday....

And Gerald realised how Halliday's eyes were beautiful too, so blue and warm and confused, broken also in their expression. The fireglow fell on his heavy, rather bowed shoulders, he sat slackly crouched on the fender, his face was uplifted, weak, perhaps slightly disintegrate, and yet with a moving beauty of its own.

'Of course,' said Maxim, 'you've been in hot countries where the people go about naked.'

'Oh really!' exclaimed Halliday. 'Where?'

'South America—Amazon,' said Gerald.

'Oh but how perfectly splendid! It's one of the things I want most to do—to live from day to day without EVER putting on any sort of clothing whatever. If I could do that, I should feel I had lived.'

I feel like Cheever should come in here: "And now we come to the homosexual part." But no - these are straight men. This novel keeps getting better and better.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Women in Love - Initial Thoughts

Women in Love so far:

A small action happens so that the characters can pontificate on bullshit. Example: Birkin and Hermione come into Ursula’s classroom and then they pontificate about education corrupting our animal natures and spontaneity, or some such bullshit. Rupert and Gerald get on a train and pontificate about religion, smashing life, living for something, love etc. Ursula and Gundrun go for a walk and pontificate about, well, I don't remember what about because it was that uninteresting. And that's just the first 50 pages.

Yeah, this is going to be a long one.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Lord Jim

Joseph Conrad and I have always had our ups and downs. Our relationship is not stable. Approaching him, I never know if I’m going to be blown away or left in the dust.

We started to get to know each other when I was 18 years old and I tried to read Heart of Darkness. I say tried because I didn’t understand a word that I read. I see now that I wasn’t ready, but I wanted to be cool and say I read the book that Apocalypse Now was based on. Because at that time, I thought being able to talk about Apocalypse Now was part of the definition of cool. Not so much anymore, though that has nothing to do with Conrad.

After that embarrassment, I didn’t pick up Conrad again for eight years; then in 2007 I read The Secret Agent. Damn that was a good book. If you want to read something by Conrad that isn’t so, well, Conrad-esque, read The Secret Agent. Now that book is cool. So cool, in fact, that Hitchcock made a film version of it. But if you are looking to watch it, don’t watch The Secret Agent, because that’s an entirely different movie. Confusing, I know.

Ok – I thought – Conrad, I’ve got you now! Well, not so much. Nostromo in 2008 was, well, I don’t know. I didn’t have any expectations. I knew that plot was dissimilar enough from The Secret Agent to not hope for a repeat of that novel. It turned out to be 2/3 boring, the rest decent. Not a book I intend to pick up again – or at least for a very long time.

So I came to Lord Jim with mixed feelings. It’s a book I’ve wanted to read since I was in high school, when my A.P. English teacher said she could never get through it. Reading a classic novel that even your teacher couldn’t finish? Very cool. Also, it’s about sailors and islands in the South Pacific. Double cool. But then I have this history with Conrad which made me suspect – maybe I was being set up here.

Well, I wasn’t set up. From the very beginning – from the very first paragraph, I settled into this novel like I haven’t settled into a book in a very long time – perhaps since I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close a year ago. It felt like curling up in bed, with familiar sheets and blankets and soft, soft pillows - being surrounded by comfort. Why certain books make me feel that way I couldn’t say, but this was definitely one of them.

Jim was a first mate on a ship filled with Muslim pilgrims. One night on the journey, while all the passengers are asleep, the boat hits something and springs a leak. The crew are convinced that the ship will sink, and to wake the passengers would cause complete pandemonium and nobody would get off the ship alive. So, they abandon the ship and leave the passengers to drown. At the last minute, Jim, who has always dreamed of being the Big Hero who Saves the Day, abandons the ship with them. He is embarrassed and disgraced. The crew manages to get safely to shore and make up a story about the sinking. Turns out, though, that the ship didn’t sink. It was towed to land and everybody is safe. Big oops. There is an inquest, Jim is left to take the brunt of it all, and is stripped of his seaman’s papers. At the inquest, he meets a man, Marlow, who sees that Jim is “one of us” (a gentleman, not a regular seadog). Marlow goes about helping Jim find various jobs, all of which he leaves once talk of the Patua comes up. He is so thoroughly ruined in his own mind my his cowardice – he just cannot forgive himself for acting in a way that was completely contrary to who imagined himself to be. Marlow finally gets him a job as the manager of a trading post on the island Patusan, replacing the “slinking” manager, Cornelius. Jim arrives there, orchestrates and attack on a local tyrannical lord and is loved by the people of the island. He picks up with Cornelius’s step-daughter and is generally hated by the former manager. Marlow comes to visit and finds Jim about as happy and satisfied as he could possibly be, essentially able to restore his dignity far away from his past. Then, something bad happens – a group of thieves come to Patusan to find some food, and discover an island ripe of the taking. The natives launch an attack, and the thieves – lead by a man named Brown – is stuck in the river. Eventually, Jim and Brown talk, and he decides to let them go back down the river and leave. It was a trick, and on their way out they attack a group of natives further down the river, killing one of Jim’s close friends and the son of the local leader along with many others. This incident completely breaks down Jim’s world. He is no longer the infallible authority – he told the natives to let Brown & company go, and look what happened! Jim knows his time is up – another disgrace, another breaking of trust. His loyal servants and his girlfriend ask if he wants to fight, or to try to escape, but he is resigned to his own fate – tired of running away, but there is nothing to fight for – an honor he never had in the first place. He took full responsibility for everything that happened, went to the local leader’s camp and allowed his friend’s father to shoot him in retaliation for the death of his son. The end.

Conrad could tell this story chronologically, from beginning to end (as I have just done), and have a decent narrative. But he doesn’t do that. He tells the story through Marlow, who hears some of it through Jim, some through Brown, some through Stein, etc. It’s more complicated, and you get the story jumping around. That may annoy some readers, but I don’t mind. Conrad does it seamlessly here, as I don’t feel he did with Nostromo. One original reviewer complained that "[Conrad’s] story is not so much told as seen intermittently through a haze of sentences . . . like a river-mist." I can see this point, and definitely feel there was a haziness about Nostromo, (and The Heart of Darkness, though that might have been my own fog); I felt that Lord Jim was much more straight forward and easy to understand. Or maybe I’m just evolving. But compared to Henry James, Conrad is a sunny, cloudless day.

The blogger at – a newly discovered site for book reviews wrote the following about Lord Jim: “All about how a whiny white man redeems himself by solving all the problems of the “natives” with his wise white wisdom, and sacrificing himself to them. So condescending. And the narrative is this one guy delivering a florid book-length monologue…and pondering the “nobility” problems of the main character. Oh no, a young imperialist failed to be noble when he was supposed to be noble! Thank god he could go tame the natives and reclaim his nobility! I hate Joseph Conrad…My notes in the margins read: ‘Oh quit whining, you giant effing baby’ and ‘Stupidly British imperialist honor nobility bullshit.’ Which makes no sense, but you get the point, I think?”

Ok – yes, Conrad’s writing is colored by the times, but he wasn't a British imperialist. His trip to the Congo (which inspired The Heart of Darkness) allowed him to see firsthand the treatment of “natives” by the imperialist/capitalists, and he recognized the inhumanity of it. The residents of Patusan didn’t follow Jim because he was white, but because he was successful and trustworthy. They did see him and the other whites as “others” and set apart, but I didn’t get the impression they saw them as better, or that Jim felt himself superior to them because he was white and they weren’t. There wasn’t any “taming” involved. Maybe I missed that and am completely interpreting it wrong, but I didn’t feel any of that. Of course in today’s post colonial world it seems racist, but looking at it from a turn-of-the-century perspective, it was much more progressive than other contemporary works. After all, what year did Birth of a Nation come out?

Yes, he was a little whiny about the whole thing. At times you did want to say, get on with this nobility and honor. But it was a big deal. People would have gotten that a hundred years ago in a different way than we get it. Maybe a gang member would understand it. That may be an interesting modern interpretation - what happens when a Blood acts cowardly and has to get away?

I think, too, that a lot of this is addressed by his confrontation with Brown. Jim questions Brown about why he came to their island and started causing trouble. Brown realizes – from his conversations with Cornelius (who snuck to Brown and tried to double cross Jim) – that Jim has something to hide. Why is this brilliant white kid of some class here on this outpost? And Brown ignores Jim’s question and knows how to get to him. He asks, “well why are you here?” Brown tells him he’s on the run too – that they aren’t any different. They’ve both lived their lives and done things that dog them. Brown is the other side of Jim – Jim thought that he had escaped his past, had been able to put it behind him and move on, starting over. But your past always follows you, if no where else but inside you. And Brown shows up, almost like Satan in the desert, to remind Jim. Is Jim any more honorable than Brown? Has he really redeemed himself in any way? Probably not really. In the eyes of other "gentleman," (Marlow) he clearly has somehow.

Conrad definitely isn’t for everyone. He can be boring, tedious, and foggy. But something about his writing continues to attract me back to him again and again. I couldn’t describe it, but its observations like, “the nights descended on her like a benediction” that I just eat up. The beauty of that phrase both crushes me and fills my heart with joy. It’s so beautiful. And Conrad’s language is riddled with that kind of stuff. So if you love just great writing in a style that really is no more, than maybe Conrad is for you. After Lord Jim, I am definitely excited to revisit Heart of Darkness in a year or two. I think that this time, I’ll understand it.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I, Claudius

I’ve been reading I, Claudius since some unknown date in January or February. I know that I was reading it at the beginning of March when I saw Elaine Pagels give a talk on the Book of Revelations. She was showing photos of Roman statues in Aphrodisias, Turkey – including one of Claudius. My instantaneous reaction was, “I know him!”

And after that spontaneous outburst in my mind, I realized that “I know him” is an apt description of how I felt while reading I, Claudius. Robert Graves writes in a very conversational style – at times a little too conversational. Claudius begins telling us something, and then in the middle of the story will say, “I’ll come back to this, let me tell you about this other thing first.” I don’t know how much of Claudius’s writings exist today, and I wonder if Graves at all was attempting to imitate the Emperor’s actual style. At times this casualness was annoying, but overall it lent itself to the feeling that it really was a conversation. I felt like Claudius’s pal, his ally (of which he didn’t have many). It was a personal book - Claudius is put down by everybody except a few who figure out he really did know what was up. And they all die. Who can’t feel for a guy like that?

The main problem with IC is keeping track of all of the relationships. There is so much intermarriage and adoption and people with the same name that I don’t imagine there is anyone who could possibly keep track. I wonder how the Romans themselves kept track of it themselves. I created this chart which was very helpful, but should give you a clear idea of how complicated it was.
There were moments in IC when I was genuinely freaked out, almost afraid to turn out my book light. The downfall of Germanicus, for example – the dead babies under the floor and the mysterious message on the wall. But generally, a feeling of fear pervades the entire novel - for Claudius, members of the imperial family, and the masses. Claudius had a physical ailment of some sort, and was often regarded as an idiot. He is wisely advised early on to keep up the ruse…Graves portrays him as a deeply intelligent man, but must play dumb in order to avoid being murdered. Everyone has to watch out…you could have no friends or confidants, as informers were paid well to make up stories and turn people in to the Emperor, who – whether Tiberius or Caligula – rather enjoyed killing his subjects. This was all complicated by the fact that they all seemed mentally ill to some degree or another, and no one was ever sure what was expected of them. I cannot even imagine living in that environment. Well, to some degree I can, but that’s another story entirely.

I have always loved history – I used to watch the History Channel all the time back when they actually showed real, critical historical programming, not the shit that feeds into the Dan Brown fanatics need for conspiracy. And I really have no interest in Ice Road Truckers. But my knowledge about Ancient Rome (and Greece, and really a lot of the Middle Ages up to the Renaissance) is severely lacking. I recognize this, and have most of Will Durant’s Story of Civilization waiting for the day when I finally get around to cracking them open. I could have probably named a few Roman Emperors, given you some plots from Shakespeare’s (and Hollywood’s) interpretations and told you that “Bread and Circuses” was what lead to Rome’s downfall, but that’s about it. So much of the information in IC was new. I knew Imperial Rome was messed up, but I didn’t know it was that messed up. Graves really wet my appetite to learn more about Rome, so perhaps Caesar and Christ will get opened sooner than I anticipated. (But definitely after I finish this damn Modern Library list!)
I wouldn’t call I, Claudius suspenseful, because it doesn’t take long to figure out what is going to happen to everybody, but it was enthralling. I am looking forward to reading the second part of this “autobiography,” Claudius the God. I don’t see how it made it to #14 on the list, as there are novels far better than this farther down on the list. But there it is. Overall, though, it’s a good book.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Howards End

My first book finished since February. That's quite a dry spell for me, and I'm disappointed in myself for being so lax about my reading goals, as the end of the Modern Library list approaches. But I've honestly had better things to do these last few months. In the meantime I missed the fact that I topped 10,000 hits, which isn't too shabby since I added the counter two years ago. Thanks to all my readers who have stuck with me in spite of my absences!

Now, onto Forster.

In 2007, I was very excited about A Passage to India. I love India, in theory of course since I've never been there. But I was disappointed - I just wasn't able to get into it, and I don't know why. I had a similar problem with Kim - another Indian novel (written, of course, by another Brit) that I looked forward to but was disappointed by.

Last year, I read A Room with a View. I had once attempted to watch this movie, and was so bored by it that I just turned it off. So I wasn't expecting that it would have anything for me, and I was pretty much right. I think in my review I said that if you are a fan of very Edwardian novels, or romantic comedies, than perhaps you would like A Room with a View. In general, it's not my thing - though a few Edwardians are notable exceptions (HG Wells, Hardy, and the wonderful children’s' literature the era produced specifically).

Batting 0-2 for Forster, I came to Howards End without expectations, except perhaps to not like it. But actually, I didn’t think it was too bad. Maybe you don’t think that’s much of a complement, but it’s probably the best Forster will get out of me.

The story centers around two sisters, Margaret and Helen Schlegel. Helen is the beauty, Margaret the brains. Really, the distinction isn’t that blatantly defined, but it’s essentially the division between the two. Their lives intertwine with that of the Wilcox’s, decaying old money. Mrs. Wilcox becomes close with Margaret, and in a letter to her husband right before she died, she leaves her family home, Howard’s End, to Margaret. The Wilcox family is mildly scandalized by this, and after some legal inquiries simply ignore the request. After Mrs. Wilcox’s death, Margaret runs into Mr. Wilcox, and they eventually decide they like each other and will get married. Then some stuff happens and Helen moves to Germany. The Schlegel’s aunt falls ill, and Helen returns to England but doesn’t want anyone to see her. Margaret, believing her sister is mentally ill, stages an intervention with her husband and a doctor. Turns out that Helen doesn’t want anyone to see her because she’s pregnant. Charles Wilcox, Margaret’s step son (who I think is about Margaret’s age) is scandalized by this connection with a fallen woman, and in another series of events accidently kills the man involved while beating him with a sword. Charles goes to jail for a few years, and in the end Helen moves with Margaret and the Wilcoxes to Howard’s End. Henry decides to leave the house to Margaret. And in the end, she gets Howard’s End anyway. Fin.

I have completely ignored the Leonard/Jacky subplot, and how it connects with the Wilcox/Schlegel story, but it’s really not relevant. It adds dimension, but in a summary of a 270 page book it took me two months to read, it really doesn’t matter. The theme, Only Connect, shows the intricacies of our interconnectedness and how someone you knew decades before pops up as the wife of a guy whose umbrella your sister-in-law picked up accidently at a concert. A mini-Dance to the Music of Time, I suppose.

What struck me most about HE is the language. Forster would be going on with typical turn-of-the-century British household chit-chat, and then pull out this elegantly written, descriptive paragraph, and I think, E.M., where did that come from? I don’t remember enjoying the beautiful (and often humorous) language in the other two novels. Maybe I was just so frustrated at the plot to notice the writing.

Doing research for this post, which really didn’t amount to anything, I did learn that Zadie Smith’s On Beauty is a retelling of HE. Smith has been on my list of authors to read for quite some time, and I would love to see what she did with the story.

There’s a lot more here – the difference between classes, sexes, rural/urban, liberal/conservative, etc. Sheila O’Malley has said, “it's almost like he somehow gets the entire history of England and humanity into one book.” Most scholars say Howards End is Forster's masterpiece, which is odd because I thought that I had read that Passage to India was his masterpiece. Whatever. I thought it was the best out of the three I've read. If there was something in Howard’s End for a tired and cynical gal slugging her way through it, it mustn’t be too bad. And again, that's probably the best complement I can give Forster.